Category Archives: Time: Post-War

Enmity

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

1

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

Tynar3,

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

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

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

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

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

 

Credits

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

Nonstandard

A – Cheltrak8/p45

Investigation Initiator and Supervisor

Myself, Yetza6/p57

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

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

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

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

2

#Sedrain? Where are you?#

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

#What are you doing?#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Don’t bother, I’ll come to you.#

#No, it’s fine, I’ll just-#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Computer, activate audio.”

A beep sounded in the room.

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

#Another woman?#

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

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

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

Still she was neutral.

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

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

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

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

He had to admit that he hadn’t.

#Did you think of

ANYTHING?#

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

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

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

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

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

“What do they want?”

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

#…#

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

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

“Wh-”

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

4

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Is the man next to you Sedrain7?”

She sighed. “He is.”

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

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

“You actually got an order?”

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

Sedrain,

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

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

Do not forget.

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

#You don’t have to.#

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

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

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

#It’s going well#, Sedrain said.

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

#Uh-huh. But it buys time.#

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#So explain the idea of this again.#

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

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

#Oh, sure.#

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

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

“Chairs?” it asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#You must have seriously pissed them off.#

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

He stopped at the mezzanine as Kalio joined him.

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

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

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

#You want me to look up ‘Yakuza’?#

#No. I want you to look up ‘Masada’.#

7

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

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

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

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

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

8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Enter.#

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

#Your news, Yeyen?#

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

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

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

The Shogun stood up and gestured vaguely towards the tower.

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

Yeyen frowned at this; it sounded uncharacteristic of her.

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

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

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

#I cannot thank you enough, Shogun.#

#Not a problem.#

Yeyen gave a quick bow and turned to leave.

#Yeyen?#

She froze.

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

Yeyen found herself unable to move from where she stood.

#It’s OK, it’s just water.#

9

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

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

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

#I concur.#

10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#When is this lighting rig going to-#

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

#Holy shit.#

#Holy shit indeed, Seddek.#

#You’re seeing this right?#

#Sure am. This makes all the difference.#

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

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

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

#And you’re thinking…?#

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Zeje?#

#Yes?#

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

Zeje didn’t need long to think about it.

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

#Oh, now I’ve found them.#

#Both of them?#

#Yep.#

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

#Do I want to look at this?#

#You don’t want to look at this.#

#Fair enough. I won’t.#

Moveworld

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

Kitchen Sinkhole

She was a collector, and if there was one thing that drove her, it was the need to be comprehensive about it. Naturally, the nature of collecting anything in a region as vast as the Qareen Confederacy demanded the introduction of limits. Indeed, even on Moveworld 1, as it was needlessly called (there was no Moveworld 2, after all), the vastness of the land meant that to be comprehensive across that was probably asking for too much.

Luckily, those on Moveworld 1 were divided into KInetic Grid Sections, or KIGS, and KIGS 102392107 was a fine plot of land to hunt for things within. As a consequence, she could stand back, as she did that morning, and examine the house she had built as the artificial sun rose in the background. To be fair, calling it a “house” was a cheat; the house was actually a village of sorts, often consisting of two and three-storey town houses, with the spaces between them filled with criss-crossing ribbon-like contrivances of driveways, and each component connected into a singular whole with bridges that led from roof to roof. The resulting hatchways in the roof could often detract from the historical accuracy, but that was something she could live with, so long as the generalities were right.

Besides, most of these houses weren’t even for living in. As she entered one, a classic example of an immediate pre-war residence (around fifty years beforehand to about ten years in) – a sort of curving, complex mass that seemed to be leaning over some undefined finish line, she found herself (entirely expectedly) entering a short hallway, leading into a large chamber that was the bulk of the house. And there, lining the walls around the vast empty space, was every single example she could find – she needed to be comprehensive about it, after all – of an assembler. She had pride in this collection, and rightly so, she reckoned, because there were rare ones here, old ones, and highly specialised ones, from the days when specialisation was deemed a necessity.

The old ones, she felt, were the best. There was history bound up in each of those machines, like the one close to the door that could only make drinks. She often wondered what it was about early Confederate Qareen civilisation that made drinking such a priority. Apparently, medical implements were a specialisation that came later.

Speaking of which, that was the one machine that was missing. Well, it wasn’t the only one. It was just the one that irked her most, like a drill bit working into the base of her skull.

She often thought about how she’d kill for such a machine, but of course, her conscience would force her to use the machine and revive the victim anyway.

 

Crime and Avoiding Punishment

Staying on the right side of the law is so easy in a world, in a galaxy, in fact, where property laws are non-existent. After all, you take from the citizen of a post-scarcity society, and they can always replace what they have without even a call to the insurers. In such a world, stealing is in fact pointless, when the object can always be acquired legally. With so many possibilities off the table, and so many motivations eliminated, to stay on the right side of the law should have been simple, an act as natural as breathing.

How, then, had he managed to fuck that one up?

That was the question at the back of his mind. It was good for future reference, but right now, there was a better question, at the front of his mind, so to speak: how could he get away from such a mess?

He decided that an actual vehicle, a car of sorts, would be best. Not merely because teleporters could be traced (technically, cars could be traced too) but because jumped from A to B to C to D was pointless if his pursuers could simply go from A to D. What he needed was to present not merely a moving target, but a dynamic one.

Finding the desired vehicle – a sort of grand tourer that could give the impression of luxury and finesse but also kick up into a ridiculous speed – he got in, started the car, and breezed through town, taking care to stay under the advised speed limit. There was no need to draw attention to himself. So he threaded his way through town, made his way to the outskirts, passing that weird mini-village of a house where that slightly odd young woman apparently collected bits of technology, and then waited until exactly the point where the rear wheels crossed the line and the advised limit came off.

The recommended top speed was unlimited, quite simply because there were no settlements for another hundred kilometres, at least. Taking the minor roads, he realised, meant being tens of kilometres from any teleporter pad. That suited him well.

Of course, the rest of the situation didn’t. He had no fixed abode now, a ridiculous situation particularly for a Qareen. He had given up a proper life, too – the idea of a stable routine, of a fixed purpose (beyond anything as low as “staying away from the authorities”), of having someone to love. He couldn’t have done with those things.

He thumped the steering wheel with frustration when he realised that he could also have done with an off-roader.

 

Romance

He liked her hair, but he figured that the real deal-makers were her eyes. Maybe he was just getting old – or at least older – and hence soft. If true, that saddened him; did it always have to be that way? A kind of emotional entropy where every resolve and every solid principle buckled into compromise? And if he thought that wasn’t quite as tragic a thing as previously assumed, then was that such a bad thing?

Even so, it wasn’t all bad. Yes, they were gazing into each other’s eyes, yes, they were idling about, lying down on the bench in the town’s public square, where the tower blocks rose up around them in an imperfect quadrangle of three sides, but he still maintained that keen eye. For one, he saw some guy leaning forward over his steering wheel as crawled past in a car, carefully obeyed every rule of the road as he came down to the junction and turned meticulously onto the main road that bordered the fourth side of the square. Obviously a guilty man-

#The police will be after him. Maybe the Confeds.#

#Mmm. Should we say something?#

#To him?#

#Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure… what we would say, but we could… I don’t know.#

He didn’t know either, but he didn’t care. Sunset was approaching; he could see the artificial sun’s slow descent coming into view, where it was about to arc fully down into the huge tunnel (sunset was hence unlike that on a planet; long into the night, a mysterious glow would emanate from the horizon) and where, on the other side of Moveworld 1, it would emerge after some time as a sunrise.

#Beautiful.#

#Yes.#

#What are you talking about?#

#You, of course.#

#<gentle arm punch>#.

He examined her smile; he liked it, but he still decided that her eyes were her best feature. Physically, that was; he also loved the way she could be so languid, such a calming influence, and yet she glowed with a youthful energy too, something he couldn’t define.

The bright light in the sky, moving quickly overhead and contrasting against the darkening sky, seemed like an apt image, he thought.

 

Over the Face of the Waters

The Terroriser/Punisher/Tickler was a strangely sphere-like ship that was unorthodox by Qareen standards; indeed, its slightly blocky additions to its hull made it look like the mixed-race offspring of Qareen and Shango ships. Even so, Lubno4 was satisfied enough with it as a ship, despite its strange history and its relatively slow top speed. It was a historical cul-de-sac, one of a class of ships that was meant to utilise radical new technology just after the Intersection Wars. Said radical new technology was meant to produce a FTL drive that was far in excess of the kind of ships used in the Wars, but instead, it improved top speeds by a mere three per cent; when a later technology, utilising much simpler processes (although still horrendously complex to the lay mind), appeared and boosted speeds by a similar amount, it was clear that the Qareen Confederacy had come across the same strange speed limit which held back Shango ships from the kind of epic yet effortless journeys the Dharans were capable of.

One advantage that the Terroriser did have, however, was that it had the ability to also work as a low-orbit vehicle, to a far greater extent than the specialised kinds of spaceships that had appeared after it. All he had to do was find enough friends, and that was it – he’d use the machine as an exploration vehicle, exploring that great unknown: not the stars out in the wider galaxy, which the Confederacy as a whole knew pretty well, and where they had millions of ships combing through the remaining regions of ignorance, but down on Moveworld 1, where people had been given centuries to move around, to form themselves into societies which in turn bent themselves into the weirdest shapes to cope with the surroundings.

Moveworld, after all, was far from uniform, as became obvious from lift-off. Having tilted upwards, the Terroriser blasted off from the surface with a plume of steam tracing its arc through the sky – completely unnecessary, but spectacular enough to warrant the compressed tank attached to it, which detached over a safe area. As it levelled out, the main screen on the screen expanded its view to a sort of quasi-3D projection, lowering the bridge lights to sharpen the contrast, and there, he and the rest of the crew could see a vast swathe of Moveworld in all its glory, stretching out for millions of kilometres around. As it did so, artificial suns rose, fell, circled in lengthy arcs, cycled up and down, and spiralled through eccentric, oblique or generally unconventional flight paths. Around the resulting patchwork of night and day, they could see the scattered dustings of city lights or synthetic swathes of benign urban sprawl.

He wondered what was down there. No doubt the mundane and quotidian were superabundant – the usual things, like idle car journeys, or social visits, or teenagers kissing on town square benches. But Moveworld was vast; he had heard about a report from the government some time ago, which suggested that possibly as much as a fifth of Moveworld’s population didn’t come under the government’s jurisdiction in any meaningful sense.

Naturally, the government didn’t mention who those people were. He was going to find some of them anyway, though, and he could just imagine their surprise as a huge, official-looking spaceship came down in their midst, and a stranger stepped out to investigate their unusual society.

He also wondered what kind of society would form outside of the Qareen pale – an anarchist collective? A dictatorship? Some kind of monarchist throwback?

 

A Tale of Kings of Queens

The residents of the village looked up and felt the usual feeling of suspicion and weariness. Yet another visitor would appear, marvel at them as if they were gravity-defying sculptures, and then leave again, presumably to tell someone else who would turn up, and repeat the process.

They weren’t exactly asking for normal lives – such things were now impossible, given that dozens of people had landed amongst them and explained that no, they weren’t normal. What they wanted was – well, it was to not be patronised, not have each and every damn visitor marvel at their “mythical” system.

The Queen walked out onto her balcony and examined the ship descending. Judging from the shape of it – highly unconventional, not like the others, anyhow – there was a possibility that this one was government, or at least, the people who claimed to be the government of this land. She had heard about them, and she had known that one day, those people would surely come. She was sure that, when the time came, her subjects would be loyal to her. The Kingdom of Seren Falj had been going for centuries, and had always been Serenian – what this talk of “Qareen” was about, she had no idea.

The ship landed, and she realised that some kind of snap decision had to be made. She backed away from the balcony. She figured that the best approach would be to head into the main court, take the throne, and expect the visitor to come to her. That was power, after all – when things had to be done your way, not theirs.

She instructed her advisors appropriately, and in return got the usual sycophancy and one of them hurrying out of the door. After a short while – the ship had, after all, landed almost next to the palace – he returned.

#Your Majesty, he claims to be representing the government of this land. Naturally, I am sceptical.#

#As am I, Rinsad5. But send him in anyhow.#

#As you wish, ma’am.#

The visitor came in, trailed by a short train of other individuals. He delivered, unprompted, some kind of awkward bow.

#Truly, this is quite something…. yourmajesty.#

She’d heard that before.

#It’s like a piece of folklore come to life. It’s marvellous, it’s fantastic. And how wondrous that you’ve built a prosperous kingdom here.#

She’d heard that before, too.

#It makes me wonder what other mysteries abound – whether there are fantastical creatures in the forests, in these hills…#

He wasn’t from the government, she decided. The guy had no clue about statecraft, and no clue about the region. Another joker. With a snap of her fingers, the advisors bundled the group out of the room.

 

A Disco with Dragons

Above him, he could see a spaceship in low orbit – his shades hooked up to the relevant database and pulled out the name Terroriser/Punisher/Tickler – and listened as it idly lurched over the sound barrier, causing the boom to echo across the valley to the east. The animals wouldn’t like that, he thought, and as soon as he did, he heard howls, barks and saw flames of outrage from all around.

They settled down soon enough, though, barring the early creations, which he knew would continue for some time, until the boom’s last echo had dulled to a fraction of a single decibel. He was never keen on those; he had tried too hard, too early, on the first result in the subset of the human database on which he worked. That first entry had been Manticore, and he had definitely regretted that one.

Since then, he had gotten better, so much so that he now had virtually a whole park full of creatures, albeit ones that needed strong ringfencing and shielding. The health and safety required around the area was a nightmare, even as he assured central government, truthfully as well, that he had managed to breed all but necessary aggression out of these creatures. The entry marked Dragon had proved easiest; even as these strange, lizard-like beings possessed clawed feet and crazed faces, in the true tradition of the Eastern civilisations of Earth, they were more docile than the typical Qareen household pet. He had also explained very carefully that the other kind listed in the entry, the alleged fire-breathers, were creatures that he had conjured up the theory of, but never made. Apparently, that didn’t satisfy them.

Really, he thought, I should have simply done something less contentious. I should have become a writer – everyone is, he thought, but all the same, it’s obvious and safe work. Or maybe, he thought, I should have become a programmer. It’s the same principle, after all. Wasn’t it?

The manticores were still making noise. Sat on his platform, with concentric bands of computer screens ranged around him in a barrier between him and the forest, he sighed loudly.

 

The Story Factory

Some people, she knew, reckoned the best philosophy was one of quality over quantity. She disagreed – sort of. Her methods were quality through quantity; the ability to turn out a hundred ideas quickly, and see how many stuck.

Some of them had stuck very well indeed; her best story, a novel-length adventure that she had drawn out from a novella-length idea, had received half a trillion full reads. That was easily enough for “bestseller” status, even if it hadn’t quite landed her amongst the “best-selling” of all time.

She turned to the machine again, the Story Factory. She was so impressed with this, her finest creation – having invented it some years ago, she was now able to fully put her philosophy into practice, and turn herself from writer to publisher and editor. The downside, of course, was that instant ideas meant an instant slushpile. She had learnt that the hard way, when her exuberance had encouraged her to go for a thousand-strong random-length run; she wouldn’t do that sort of thing ever again, she had vowed, even if it had produced the half-trillion-read novel.

She set the machine to produce seven stories, roughly averaging but not exacting a length of around four hundred words. Naturally, the machine took longer to print the stories out than to think them up; the whole process took about half a second.

She checked the top of the printout, and read off the first sentence of the first story: “She was a collector, and if there was one thing that drove her, it was the need to be comprehensive about it.”

She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story: “She turned to the bottom, and checked the last sentence of the last story”…”

Heads, Tails or Edge

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

 

5

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

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

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

6

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

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

7

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

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

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

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

8

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

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

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

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

9

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

#Murder?# I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although, I still wonder sometimes.

So The Gods Must Be X

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

“Goiqa. Always eager, it seems.”

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

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

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

“One late,” Pretere persisted.

“Krastep, sir, he says he’s ill.”

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

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

3

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

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

“Goiqa. Goiqa Federoi.”

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

“Yes. How-”

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

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

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

“There are teleports in this tower?”

“Thousands. You didn’t know?”

In retrospect, it should have been obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting anything.”

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

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

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

“Well, that’s highly reductive.”

He supposed so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

“Disappearance?”

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

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

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

“True enough.”

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

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

The Malevolent Laughter of Hegemony by Magnitudes

Date: 1,988,612 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 337 (Shango), N.A. 34 (Qareen)
Location: outer edges of NGC4038

1

Skirting around the outer edges of the galaxy, the Stoppan ship Vehicular Array for a Spring Day (39) had a crew who were, collectively, in a buoyant mood. It was only too justifiable, too; this was the furthest in the galaxy that the Stoppan race as a whole had ever reached, and it was the perhaps the most detailed self-survey of the area they had. Of course, the Shango Federation had been most generous with their own data, with all the confidence of a civilisation that knew it wouldn’t be surpassed soon, but the Stoppan were not ones to take such information for granted, however benignly it was offered. As such, the Vehicular Array was one of those particular designated ships dispatched with an almost completely open mission: go forth, and discover whatever needs discovering, and take years to do so if necessary.

The journey had already thrown up plenty. Amongst dozens of planets, they had found the ruins of dead civilisations, and struck a particular hit as they found one that the Shango didn’t know about; on the northern hemisphere of an uninhabited planet five hundred parsecs out and twenty down from the safety zone of Stoppan space. Of course, transgalactic diplomacy was not a competition, but to score a point against the Federation was something to celebrate nonetheless; having met only one alien race in their lifetime, and never fought a war with them, this was the closest to any sort of glorious victory-in-battle that they were going to receive.

Yet the journey took a turn for the stranger five years in. On that day, the ship had already reached one planet, and made another discovery, albeit one the Shango quickly confirmed their awareness of. This always blunted the joy of discovery a little, but it was no matter; the ship left orbit again, and headed along its planned route near the galactic edge, hoping to sweep in increments back into the ‘thick’ of the galaxy, away from the dusty domain they found themselves in. It was then that the ship flashed in with almost cartoon-like speed, slamming to a rapid stop and hanging ominously in their path. It was alien, for sure. It was beyond anything they had seen. Was it Shango? Was it hostile?

2

The captain examined the ship, and its sharp, jagged contours. Certainly it looked hostile, but then again, the Shango’s bluff, brutal designs were similarly aggressive to the uninformed. Aesthetics were no guide to potential action. Still, the colour and that exploded, shattered shape combined to form an uneasy image; the detailing that a zoomed picture revealed suggested a ship designed with immense but casual complexity out of possibility rather than necessity.

Then again, who was he to judge an alien race?

“Working on a message, captain,” the comms and data officer said, “standard greeting?”

“Standard greeting.”

On the ship’s holographic 3D view in the centre of the bridge, itself in the centre of the ship, the mysterious vessel hung motionless in the centre of all centres, poised as if a weapon held in the invisible hand of a cosmic hunter. For several minutes it stayed, and finally, a message returned.

“Congratulations,” the data officer read out, “if we have judged correctly, you must be a Stoppan vessel located outside of normal space. Indeed, if we have judged correctly, you should be able to read this message. You have come into contact with representatives from the Dharan Republic, whose jurisdiction extends across this galaxy and others. We have suspected the existence of the Stoppan people for some time, due to our contact with the Shango Federation, but it is a pleasure to receive potential confirmation, and we are happy to open diplomatic relations, if you care to respond.”

“Captain, your thoughts?”

There was a lengthy pause, during which the captain pushed buttons on a nearby console, relaying the message across the ship. As he did so, he thought carefully. Such a ship could potentially eliminate theirs with ease, Sensor data revealed that the ship had crossed through a distance in space in one second that the Vehicular Array on a Spring Day (39) typically managed in a day and a half. They were like ants bowing down to giants, and he wondered if such a thing could ever amount to diplomacy.

“They would appear to be friendly. Their technology is far more advanced, judging from the ship, and it would be unwise to brush them aside if they ask for an audience. Official diplomacy, though? We cannot take on that capacity. Not for all of Stoppan civilisation. Send a message to state as such.”

The crew murmured their agreement. There was tension on that bridge, but the captain knew what the rest of them surely did: maybe the second biggest ever moment of Stoppan history was approaching.

3

The Dharans beamed onto the Stoppan ship, apparently wishing to maintain secrecy over their technology. It was perhaps understandable; for all their relative primitivism, the Stoppans could almost certainly scan and extract data from much of the ship, although an attempt to do this externally failed. The captain reckoned that no Shango had ever seen the inside of a Dharan ship either.

The Dharans themselves, a relatively tall race of people, at least to Stoppan eyes, twice the height of them, with five fingers to a hand, two eyes to a face. The captain welcomed them warmly, and they were similarly polite, although he inevitably noticed their subconcious expressions of mild shock and distaste. They knew they were in a less advanced environment, and despite everything, struggled to conceal it. As they toured the ship, they feigned interest in technology they doubtless regarded as archaic, and the captain couldn’t help but feel that if only they had, for example, brought some damn musicians or artists on board, they would have something to show.

“We must nonetheless meet some of your leaders. Your higher-ups,” the lead Dharan explained.

The captain explained that the ship had taken years to reach the place it had, and would potentially take months to get back.

“It’s no problem. We can tractor beam it, if you give us the co-ordinates.”

4

“Report.”

“The Shango have finally got back to us, captain, from Darkworld Franklin itself. They seem legit, everything we’ve sent is confirmed and corroborated.”

Of course, the captain had that brief flash of thought in the back of his mind, sensing conspiracy. Even if it was true, though, how was he to know? He reasoned that he could not, and to blame him for unwittingly bringing about a Stoppan downfall, just as the Republic approached greatness, would have been harsh in the extreme.

Still, as he sat at his chair, behind the ring shaped table skirting around the whole bridge, looking to the holographic projection in the centre of the room, he couldn’t help but notice how the dot of the Dharan ship, with the Vehicular Array (39) in tow, was visibly moving across a screen that was showing the whole of the galaxy. Officers around the perimeter could only scan the ship in puzzlement; the spatial-temporal forces on it had to be immense, unbearable, by rights smashing the ship into subatomic splinters with an instantaneous reaction to make the Planck era an apparent eternity.

Whatever was protecting it, however, was nonetheless keeping it completely intact.

There was little to really do now. The mission had started as an open one, and only the vaguest of plans were to be set up, but now that the ship was clearly heading back to Stoppan space, the captain felt a slight sense of hopelessness – or was it just a feeling of restriction? Either way, there was a determinism afoot that he wasn’t sure he liked.

He decided to stop staring at the projection, which stated that the journey would take three more minutes, and head towards the ship’s exit teleporters, positioned towards the rear of the ship. Down the corridors, making his way past scurrying members of his own crew and occasionally around hunched Dharans attempting to cope with the low ceilings, he reached the sparsely-furnished teleporter rooms, with its two crew members on opposite consoles on the other side of the circular room.

“Sir, we’ll be arriving shortly,” the one nearest the door said.

“I know. I’ve informed the government on Res 33 already.”

The thirty-third planet of the Stoppan Republic was the one that nominally controlled the others, although in truth, it only really served as a site for a representative government in times like this; it was also chosen for being the centre, or the closest planet to the centre, of the subsequent Republic that spanned some three hundred planets across two hundred systems.

“Do they know all about the situation we have?”

“They should do, although my message was vague. If nothing else, they will soon. How long until we reach 33?”

“Seconds, sir. We’re practically there.”

The captain nodded. “Beam me directly to Central Government Headquarters. I’ve got important news to deliver.”

Aftermath

Date: 1,988,511 A.D. (Earth, Gregorian); P.W. 16 (Shango Federal Calendar); N.A. 2 (Qareen Confederacy Standard Agreed Calendar)
Location:
Darkworld Taal
____________________________________________________________

“Ladies, gentleman, others: thank you for choosing Flash Coalition for your journey. Just a short announcement to say that we are now within five light-years of Darkworld Taal, and hence will be arrived very shortly. On Federal Time it is 1/3 cycle, but once we reach Taal, a happy evening to you: we estimate we’ll be there at 71/100. Thank you.”

On Deck 3, Darak Loq sat patiently in his room, gazing at the screen in front of him. Of course, truthfully, it wasn’t a screen; it was the whole wall optioned as one. He could in fact have chosen all the walls, the ceiling and the floor, but he had decided against it. In any event, what was onscreen was Darkworld Taal itself; a round, largely brown-blue planet, apparently natural but anything but. Rivers and lakes dotted the surface, as well as large oceans, but a careful observer would see that it was all perhaps a little too planned for nature to have brought such things about.

“Ship now in teleportation range” the screen flashed up. Anyone who wished to leave now could, but Darak preferred to sit and wait until the ship stopped. He checked his watch; it was 283/400 as he did so. In Earth terms, a few minutes to go. As they passed, he saw the planet loom larger, until it seemed impossibly big against the screen. “Computer, eliminate zoom,” he said, and sure enough, the planet shrunk to a dot.
In truth, it was inaccurate to call Taal a planet. Even though it was orbiting a star, and of sufficient size for Earth-based astronomers to categorise it as such, it was in fact a Darkworld, the primary form of residence for those within the galaxy-spanning civilisation of the Shango Federation. Taal was fairly typical in this regard; it consisted of a central sphere some 1,000km across, which in turn was surrounded by a further sixty-five concentric hollow spheres. Thanks to the materials they were constructed from, and the immense forces generated artificial systems, no pillars were needed for these spheres to remain stable. On each of these spheres, Shango citizens lived on the inside and outside, the concave and convex spheres, earning them the names of either Cavers or Vexers, and it was the immense surface area that resulted that allowed for some two trillion citizens to reside in a space about the size of Earth.

As the ship stopped, Darak set his ideal co-ordinates – his own residence on Vexer 2, the first ‘outside’ surface after the one visible from space. He watched as his possessions vanished around him, then felt the sudden lurch of his surroundings vanish too.
____________________________________________________________

The feeling of being back on Taal was still strange the day afterwards.

The strangest thing was the artificial gravity, which of course, was not gravity. Darak had experienced gravity – the actual, pulling sensation that drew mass together. What Darkworlds possessed instead was a force the Shango termed Grab, which was like gravity in many ways, but like an edited photo, not the real thing, and the subtle differences could be very obvious to those transitioning between a planet, the slightly less noticeable differences of a ship’s Grab systems (which were updated more often, and hence more accurate in their simulation), and a Darkworld.

Nonetheless, he was now back home. He informed the house systems of this news, and the computers themselves spread this news across the networks to relevant people. The house itself was relatively bare; it consisted almost purely of what he had brought from the ship, although he had even got rid of some of those, feeding them back into the assembler. What was important was meeting back with those he left, which started to do when they arrived at 27/50.

The two who arrived at his open house – to be fair, it was very short notice – were Salan Fuig and Tretmor Nai. Salan, a woman some two local years his junior, had been a vague acquaintance from school who had somehow turned into a genuine friend once he left. Tretmor, he had known from his first chosen role in news.

“Any news?” he asked.

“You really have just got back, haven’t you?” Tretmor asked. “It’s pretty big.”

He didn’t seem hugely pleased about it, but then he was never the most emotionally open of people, Darak thought.

“Central government are thinking of moving the Darkworld,” Salan replied, “not sure what to think of it, really.”

“It’s ridiculous,” Darak replied, “the Intersection Wars ended years ago. There’s been no breach of the treaty since. And we’re still retreating and falling back.”
____________________________________________________________

Central Government, on a Darkworld, meant just that; in a giant, solid sphere in the exact centre, government offices operated. On the surface of said sphere, there were many associated areas; Darkworld-based and galactic media often clustered about it; public arenas were often built on it, and in particular, there were frequently on many Darkworlds – and this included Taal – a series of Protest Fields, large areas purely for the visible and open exercise of free speech.

The Protest Fields, Darak always thought, were the classic case of how far the Shango Federation had come since its first movement into space, which was now thousands of years ago. Now, with a post-scarcity society, it was possible for someone to sit on the surface of Central Government, complaining about every action it did in the galactic, diasporic interest, with no need to get a job. And indeed, there were plenty of individuals who seemingly did just that. Some protested the very notion of government; a galactic entity, they said, should be able to govern itself, by and large, managing their own defence, their own justice system, and so forth.

Darak didn’t really go that far in his views, and he suspected Salan and Tretmor were similarly moderate. The three of them looked out across the plain they found themselves on – a huge space of around ten square kilometres, which was strewn with people, tents, even actual, prefabricated houses. In the sky – a large structure over part of the field, erected by some of the more permanent attendants, tinted the sky for greater contrast – there were huge holographic signs, some animated, graphically depicting the source of grievance. The three of them passed one group which held up placards, protesting against the technology that the Shango Federation used. Of course, they were happy to use said technology upon returning home, and such groups were often viewed as hypocritical, or at least clueless. They passed another which made some vague, incoherent protest about the recent Caver/Vexer civil war just below the surface – the reason, in fact, why Darak had left Darkworld Taal at all. The war had in fact cost no lives; all civilians had teleported out of harm’s way beforehand, and those determined to instigate it had protected themselves immensely, so the year-long fight had proven pointless and ended in a draw.

“Vote No to Propositions 1-7 in 3 days’ time,” most of these holosigns read, and some of them shifted once again to reveal depictions of the Intersection Wars and the argument that Darak found familiar. “We have conceded defeat – let’s not continue retreating.”

~

The vote passed with a vote of 52.5% to 47.5%, with a turnout of 78%.
“Well,” Salam said as the vote was announced, “thirty-nine billion votes would have swung it our way.”
“Quite a close one,” Tretmor agreed, “apparently it was the swing communities on the surface and the outer Spaces. Cavers and Vexers 2 and 3, and so on, and…”
He went on analysing the results, which had turned up as a large holographic projection in the centre of the Community Centre where they had heard the news.
Darak initially said nothing. Having coming some three hundred parsecs to get home, his home was now moving, most likely some three hundred parsecs out of the Intersection Zone. Of course, he – in fact, the three of them – were all free to move, but of course, the number of Darkworlds in the Zone was dwindling all the time. The government had announced some of the Darkworlds that were staying indefinitely: Komodo, Kraken, Calibre, Panzer, Legion… all military outposts. But how long, Darak thought, before outsiders saw weakness in these withdrawals, and decided to strike?

Well, it was going to happen. Those not gathered on the surface of Darkworld Taal as the portal ring expanded from and moved away from the sphere were doubtless watching it on screens, in holorooms or otherwise tracking events. The moving of a Darkworld from one orbit to another was a rare occurrence, locally; the less explorative among the population would speak of this event for generations.

Darak had made it to the surface very early, at 1/100, to witness what was occurring. The whole thing actually began at 35/100, and as the ring headed away into space he finally worked out why he had returned. Despite everything, a planet never offered this; the feeling of a shared cultural event, a spectacle, and mass gathering. It had all felt too ruralised, even in a city; too low-key. Planet-dwelling Shango did not live on a technological marvel, and they knew it. Even as he opposed what was happening, he could not deny the magnificence of it all the same.

The ring was visible in the blue sky, primarily as a massive black band, blocking out light as it passed through the sun. By 37/100, it had reached the place it needed to be. As a Darkworld without Darkmoons, that place was just beyond the equator, so that the ring was next to, not enveloping, the Darkworld.

The next stage was to generate the portal, which – and bionic enhancements already had this covered – involved to the observer a huge flash of light, the power of a sun but mere hundreds of kilometres away. Those on the equator, Darak realised, would feel almost close enough to touch said light, to attempt the leap through already. Having started at 379/1000, though, it was over by 38/100, and faded to reveal – from the cameras relaying inner and outer-ring footage – a starscape not unlike the one previously, visible through the ring. As if by verification, however, another body – a Darkworld, no less – appeared in view, half the sphere visible on one side of the ring, but not the other.

Then came that odd feeling – not Grab, although the way it gripped his feet as it happened compounded the feeling – but the feeling of a planet shifting away from the regular orbit rapidly. The ring shifted out of sight, disappearing to the other side of the Darkworld surface, passing over the poles as it did so.

Finally the whole Darkworld emerged on the other side, steadily in orbit around a new star, two trillion individuals transported in just 5/100 of a day; and that, in fact, was a leisurely, careful pass, too. Darak, young though he was, knew that his great-grandparents would never have witnessed such an event.

“Makes you proud to be Shango,” a man behind him observed.

He wasn’t sure if that was quite the phrase, although he suspected that the pair of them had voted differently on proposition 6, the ballot measure which won out. Even so, he thought, the Qareen they had fought in the Intersection Wars could surely look at such technology and marvel. If need be, in less than a day, the Shango Federation could have thousands of worlds inside the Intersection Zone, ready to strike once more. He was proud of that.

He went home and, that evening, wondered whether he should join the military. Later, he concluded it was a whim, and decided against it.