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The Fighter-Dwellers

Date: 1,989,512 AD (Gregorian), PW 3190 (Shango), NA 321 (Qareen)
Location:
p9,820,711

1

The Census Agency really wanted to know about this place; Central Government on 114,099 couldn’t have gaps in the knowledge of their own jurisdiction, after all. It had nonetheless transpired that, whilst the centre largely held, it didn’t entirely, and someone had to scurry about to pick up the fragments. And in a universe filled with unimaginable dangers, threats that were inconceivable to a lesser civilisation than the Qareen Confederacy, leaving those fragments isolated, alone and, well, fragmented, was not an option. Piecing them back into the Confederacy was a vital task.

Or at least, that’s what Shel2 had been told. What went unspoken gave out an entirely different message – the small and slow saucer-ship, the general lack of information about the mission, other than “get detail”, the fact that no-one else was on board with her. Missions dubbed important, even census missions, had at least four individuals, and there were reasons for that – for one, any split of opinion didn’t inevitably leave one person isolated, and in far-flung parts of the galaxy, that was important.

Well, it wasn’t like there were going to be differences of opinion on this mission.

She had been told to head off from 114,099 and head quite considerably away from the Intersection Zone and significantly down. There, she would find p9,820,711, a planet about which there were no post-war records. She had asked how an entire planet had slipped through the fingers of the government, but naturally, they replied that with ten million of them on the roll, one was bound to. That worried her a little. Perhaps not as much as it would worry the people she was visiting, but nonetheless – it concerned her. A genuine, quite big, administrative error had arisen in Central Government, and there was a remarkable lack of concern.

Perhaps she was overestimating it. She didn’t know whether the population of the planet in question was ten billion or ten, not to mention whether or not they were thriving or completely dead – it had, after all, been years, decades, maybe even centuries. She wondered and worried about that repeatedly over the course of the journey there, but of course, it didn’t matter. If they were thriving, they were fine without her inteference – indeed, her appearance, and sudden news that there was a whole military force in the galaxy that they were affiliated to, could potentially have been hugely disruptive to them. And did they know, she thought, that the Wars were over? Did they know that the Qareen had won? Had any of this reached them?

If they were dead, of course, then all of this was moot.

Yet she still thought about this – what else was she supposed to do? Play Kaizener against herself? Read up on the out-of-date statistics she had to hand about the planet?

“Ship, got any suggestions?” she asked.

“About what? We’re on course.”

“Actually, how long will it be, now?”

“Another day, I’m afraid – we’re around fifty parsecs away.”

Fifty parsecs; the ridiculously slow speed could not help her mood. She sighed loudly.

“Ship?”

“Yes?”

“Promise me that, once we get there, you’ll teleport me off here as quickly as possible.”

“I’ll comply if that’s your wish. But if you’re resentful due to the limitations of the mission, I can’t help you.”

“We can’t board a nearby Astrostate, or even just a ship, or something?”

“Don’t be silly.”

She left the tiny bridge – probably no bigger than the interior of an escape pod – and proceeded to pace around the lone corridor which looped around the rest of the ship, settling herself in for the most boring and tedious day she’d ever experience.

2

“We’re approaching teleport range, Shel. Still want that long-range teleport? I feel obliged to tell you that there is a heightened risk-”

“Nah, it’d only shave off around 00.00.77 of the journey time, maximum.”

The ship’s computer paused. Shel2 was still pacing around the corridor, although she had slept in between.

“How come,” it asked suspiciously, “you know that?”

“It’s a fairly rough calculation,” she said, “but yeah, I spent quite a while last night trying to figure that out. But yeah, it’s not worth it.”

The ship then spent that remaining 00.00.77 – or more accurately, a tiny fraction of it – calculating an appropriate orbit around the planet, assessing its likely population centres (trickier than it seemed), figuring out the best point of the orbit to teleport from, the best place to teleport to, and ran several diagnostics several times over. After all that, and dropping into sublight speed at the last possible moment, locking into orbit was a trivial task.

“OK, teleporting in about half an orbit, unless you object.”

“I don’t.”

“Noted. You will end up in the largest population centre my sensors can locate. I estimate a population of around two hundred, but this is an estimate at best.”

“That’s fine.”

“Best of luck.”

She felt the room disappear, and shortly afterwards, found herself in an underground tunnel, in some kind of protective suit, wondering why it was so damn hot. Nothing in the scant records available had explained that.

3

“We are the only planet in the system, and the only inhabited system for quite a few parsecs around here. Personally, I’m not all that surprised that the Central Government missed us. We missed us.”

#You people don’t signal?#

Her guide apparently hadn’t received her.

“You don’t signal, around here?”

“No, no… a side effect of the Shango occupation. Somehow they learnt to tell when we were doing it, although exactly how I’m not sure. I think it was a technological thing – remote brain scanning. But now it’s a habit, to not bother. I’m not even sure if I remember how to.”

She had been there around 10.00.00, Confederation Time, at the time of that conversation, but the days and nights (she had already been told) were much longer on this planet. It seemed like everything was different; the post-scarcity of the rest of the Confederacy was replaced by a spartan functionality, even if the teleport booths and assemblers were still there. And piece by piece, she learnt exactly what had happened within this society, why an austerity pervaded the place.

Apparently, the planet had been taken by Shango forces during the Fifth War, some three Qareen years after the Treaty Breaker Battle that had started it. The battle had apparently been ferocious (Shel detected elements of hyperbole, but she could forgive that – this story, after all, was their history, their folklore) and the Shango had not won without an immense struggle, or a price to pay. The planet, already largely a desert one, had been tipped out of orbit, headed further towards the nearby star. The Qareen had managed to arrest the collision course and compromise it into a closer orbit, but at the cost of losing the planet anyway.

Once they had taken over, the Shango occupation had been – not exactly brutal, Shel understood, but oppressive in a more psychological way.

“They understood,” her guide said, “that Qareen mentality is about the conscious thought, about complexity, about striving for mental prosperity. So what they wanted to do was force us into a mental poverty. Only children’s games, children’s entertainment, allowed. We could discuss the war, but we’d find the conversations were blocked if they got too deep. It was debilitating. Made us better parents, though.”

The occupation went on, it seemed, for decades. The Shango left – were forced to leave, pretty much – when the war was over, and the Shango had lost. They had not killed a single occupant of the planet die, but their incomplete control nonetheless meant a demographic slide occurred anyway; Qareen ships slipped by on carefully irregular schedules and whisked away people in their hundreds from maximum teleport range. Those that remained, constantly donned in safety gear, braced themselves for centuries of living in unimaginable heat.

4

Night finally came.

The nights were, however, not much of a relief. Freezing temperatures meant that the underground town Shel was in slept with the raging shudder of a blast furnace underpinning their sleep. Somehow, the residents slept through it. Shel, naturally, couldn’t.

When she thought about it, she realised that she had difficulty doing anything in this place. To say that it wasn’t what she was expecting was beyond obvious; a planet of this kind surely needed help, needed not to fall away from the Confederation. These people were fighters, their mere existence a trial. They were arguably war heroes, although naturally the thought squirmed through her mind with some distaste. Even so, surely the isolated planets in the Confederation were – or should have been – the agrarian, ruralised societies, the slightly backward, hermit-like societies, the Earth-like places that didn’t need and most likely didn’t want help. Or even just – well, just anywhere but this planet.

She couldn’t quite believe, in fact, that it had taken right up until her journey to sort this out. Already she was thinking of how easy, with modern technology, it would be to correct the issues with the planet, or the problems the population had; a teleporter ring could push the planet back into its old orbit, or even a more temperate one (although the terraforming process would be a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare). Or even – and here was the really simple solution, now that the ship was starting to report back from its lower orbit – she could have called in a larger ship (or even an Astrostate) and simply teleported the residents out of there.

“We wouldn’t want that,” her guide – who finally mentioned his name as Kan4 – had said in response to this earlier on.

“How come? You live in these unbelievably oppressive conditions, you’re parsecs away from help in the event of the worst-case scenario happening, and-”

“This is where we live, now. And we made a pledge that we would hold on to this planet.”

“But the Shango have gone, and you don’t have to defend it anymore. The Fifth War is over. All the Wars are over. Unless you think the Dharans want a piece of this place.”

“Maybe they do.”

“What if,” she suggested, “what if I could get this moved? If you didn’t have to live with the immense heat and the underground infrastructure? Daylight and decent weather – surely you can’t argue with that?”

Kan seemed unconvinced; he frowned at the idea. “We’ve lived like this for so long…”

“So you struggle to embrace any sort of change…”

“Struggle to embrace it, yes. Dismiss it, no. You seem to think that we suffer here…”

“I think I know that you suffer here. If the temperature were to drop, were to stabilise between the days and nights, then you would see for yourself that you’ve had to go through more than enough pain.”

“I’m not sure about that.”

It was probably that exact moment that prompted her to think that she could never live in such a place. In the darkness, she fumbled for the comm unit on the bedside table, heard it clatter to the ground, and then picked it up.

“Ship?” she whispered.

“Yeah?”

“Should I get out of here?”

“In the middle of the night? Might be a little rude.”

“But it’s cold and my pillow’s lumpy.”

The ship’s AI paused in what Shel knew was the computerised equivalent of an unimpressed stare.

“…and we’ve got the data, right? Quantitative and qualitative.”

Another long pause.

“The night here is ridiculously long. It’ll be at least the equivalent of four days before sunrise.”

“Longer, actually. But I still think you owe it to these people to bid them goodbye.”

Shel sighed loudly into the lumpy pillow. “OK,” she said in a muffled tone, “but straight afterwards I’m leaving.”

“Agreed.”

5

Census Office for the Qareen

Postwar Ruling #1 on p9,820,711

1. The aforementioned planet will be designated Section A [Maximum Priority] for re-integration into the Confederation.

2. A referendum for a) orbit shifting, and/or b) terraforming or c) the status quo shall be held for all citizens on the aforementioned planet.

[postscript: option a approved with 61% of vote]

Vexing

Date: 1,990,714 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 7,002 (Shango), N.A. 703 (Qareen)
Location: Darkworld Vox

1

He was not unduly concerned about the gash to his head, and he was probably not too worried about the bomb that had caused it. From a better perspective, however, he knew what it all meant, and was aggravated about it all the same.

The shrapnel that had rained down on the nearby district had come from the gates to a mansion up on the hill, and as Tacka Qillosa got up from the ground and turned around, he could see the mansion itself in flames. He knew that the poor bastard who owned that mansion was probably not inside at the time, but being targeted in that way was almost certainly an unappealing prospect.

Personnel from the Justice Department snapped onto the scene fairly immediately, as the fire was rapidly neutralised. The perpetrators were most likely long gone, but the search was worth doing anyhow.

“Sir, are you alright?”

A nurse was stood by his shoulder.

“I should be OK.”

“You still need realignment.”

He nodded, and allowed her to place a small pad in front of him, and to nudge him onto it, all the while pointing a device to the back of his head. A slow blink of his vision later, he found himself exactly where he was, but healed, and stepped off the pad.

“Thanks,” he said and walked away from the scene, even as he occasionally glanced back. The place was becoming increasingly filled by medical teams and police, and he would merely be clutter amongst it. He looked around for a teleporter booth, found one, as they usually were, between two buildings along the street, and stepped in, this time specifying his own residence. Then he changed his mind, and decided on the Social Club nearby. Another slow blink, and this time the view changed, to the image of a large, three-storey cube of a building with a rustic, wooden appearance, which of course was all it was: it was no more made from dead trees than he was.

He made his way inside, moving his way past the maze of walls that created de facto rooms where the buzz of conversation occurred. Being programmable matter, they were always capable of shifting about according to the wishes of the clientele, and to Tacka’s annoyance, they did this a lot; a mere toilet visit could result in a new and completely unfamiliar place.

This time, however, he knew to simply search around, and somewhere he would find Nyluk, his partner of around six years, and explain what was going on.

“Tacka. How are you?” she asked.

“Not good. There’s been-”

“Another incident, I know. The news channels are speculating that it might be Cavers.”

“I’m pretty damn sure it was a bunch of Cavers. The question is, why now? It’s not like the Kings haven’t been around for some time.”

Indeed, the Kings were a social class that had emerged over the last two decades, locally, or thirty Shango years. Darkworld Vox had previously been known for its higher-than-average journalistic pretensions, but this trend, ever-present since the Darkworld’s construction, reached the point of what would, in a scarcity society, have been an economic bubble. Eventually, with more journalists than events worth reporting, those who had leapt onto the bandwagon late, such as those on both surfaces of Space 33, had leapt off and formed another one. This time, however, they jumped not to a profession, but a manner of consumption: large houses, elaborate clothing, as many gadgets as possible, however useless. They lived like kings with the burden of power, and hence they became accepted as that social class of Kings.

“There’s a war brewing, isn’t there?”

“Definitely. We should make plans. Apparently Central Government are building spare cities in Spaces 32 and 34.”

“Ah c’mon. We should do something a little special.”

“You think?”

“There’s never been a better excuse to. We should.”

2

“Computer, list house contents.”

Nyluk selected the resulting list filtered for debris (she did not need to know how much dust and fluff was about the place) and cited typical non-essentials. The house responded with 107 essential items.

“Remove all furniture.”

26 items remained, all hand-luggage capable, most of them of sentimental rather than functional value. She checked the Borderline and Eliminated lists for any errors, certified it as error-free and pressed enter. The house dimmed sharply, and besides a blueish glow, only spotlights remained to pick out the items on the list.

“Shit, Nyluk, did you have to?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s OK.” Tacka met her in the hallway. “Are we that desperate to leave? We might have days yet.”

“Perhaps not until you get a shard in your head again.”

“Oh come on. That was a one-off thing.”

Nyluk could just see into the lounge and the kitchen through the walls, rendered temporarily and slightly translucent by the computer, and the spotlights picking out various places in multiple drawers and compartments around the house. She decided that it was all too time-consuming.

“Computer, beam all spotlit items to the hallway.”

It did so, although a tumbling noise suggested that it had done so with less than perfect elegance. On the wall over Tacka’s right shoulder, she saw the multiple jagged lines of a profuse and detailed apology. Tacka took both of her hands in his and looked her in the eye.

“I just wonder why you are so keen to get away. This place… it’s where we grew up. It’s where we met. It’s important to us. And I just want to know why we can’t stay a while and plan what we’ll be doing.”

She shook her head and moved back into the bedroom, sitting down on the bed. Tacka followed her, sat by her side and put an arm around her.

“OK, first question. Where are we actually going? I mean, we discussed ideas, but…”

“I always thought Trevi would be nice,” Nyluk suggested.

“Trevi? But isn’t it a planet?”

Tacka felt the bed rise a little as the house systems realised they weren’t about to sleep.

“Sure, the gravity’s a little weird, but… it is romantic. I heard Romisa went there once.”

Nyluk had indeed heard it once, but Tacka had subsequently heard it a million times. He let out the lightest sigh that a set of Shango vocal cords would allow, which luckily happened to be a very light one.

“OK. You deserve something good.”

Nyluk threw her arms around Tacka’s neck and kissed him. “You,” she said, jabbing playfully at his chest, “are a wonderful being sometimes.”

She pulled herself away and, having half-fallen off the bed, and stood up facing him.

“Next ship’s in 7/90 from surface port 105 West,” he said.

“See,” she beamed. “You wanted to take me.”

Tacka gave a satisfied smile as a set of red jagged lines blinked off the wall in front of him.

They walked to the door together and gathered the items in plain, boxy hovercases, allowed the house to lock itself and headed out towards a nearby teleporter booth, which was just across the road between the two buildings opposite.

“We still didn’t get ours repaired, did we?” Nyluk abruptly said.

“It’s OK. We’ll sort it when we get back.”

The pair of them and the hovercases bundled into the booth as a rocket streaked upwards towards the city lights above. Once they had gone, an observer in the street at that moment would have seen a pinpoint orange glow blossom amidst the white and yellow-specked darkness.

3

“We should leave.”

“Romisa, it’s just the usual thing. It’ll be over in about a quarter-year.”

“And that’s the thing. It shouldn’t be the usual thing. And we shouldn’t have to put up with it. Tacka and Nyluk didn’t, they went to Trevi.”

Petan gave an aggravated sigh. The woman in front of him was still the woman he had first partnered with way back at Academy, but as the years had passed, he had found what he felt to be her diva-ish behaviour to be increasingly less tolerable. He felt he had given her everything. When the whole King fad sprung up on Vex 33, he threw himself right at it, with a whole hundred-storey tower to themselves which rose imperiously above the city, in plain sight above those who chose humbler lifestyles.

“But you, Romisa, you wanted all this. But you, now, don’t want the responsibility for all this. The trouble it might cause. As soon as that responsibility comes, you want to run away.”

As he said this, a missile streaked down and slammed into a shorter building which exploded into a column of flame. The Darkworld’s Grab systems pulled the debris down strangely, the arcs of flying pieces truncated into a vertical drop.

“Bullshit, Petan. Why would I not want to run away from this?”

“Oh, and what are you going to miss? About a day of your life. You’ve got about a hundred backups down at the Server. One of them’s live, for fuck’s sake.”

“You would miss me. Or would you?”

Awkward didn’t begin to describe the silence. Three rockets shot up from the suburbs as another crashed down, hitting the mansion on the hill, which caught fire for the second time in half a local day.

“Sobayyo Tower is yours,” Romisa said, and walked out of the room. Petan chased after her, and he heard more booming thuds outside, followed by the sounds of laser fire. In front of him, Romisa strode onwards, towards the teleporter next to the stairs.

He wanted to tell her to wait, but she already had the location programmed, and one button push saw her zap out of existence, and he found himself stood on the teleporter platform, unsure what to do.

Boom. Thud. Zap.

He headed to the lift, which shot down to the ground floor, and he made his way out through reception.

“Sobayyo, is everything OK?”

He nodded at the receptionist. “War’s underway though. If you want to leave, do. Tell everyone else.”

The receptionist nodded, and she got onto the comms system, typing something quickly that would no doubt prove surplus to requirements. Popping, zapping, thudding polyphony outside should have clued everyone in to what was going on. Petan left through the automatic doors, jumped two at a time down the flight of stairs, and walked into the street. The immediate vicinity was deserted, but as he looked down the street, he could see smoke begin to gather, and a spray of rubble crash outwards from a house about half a mile away.

He felt a tap on his shoulder; it was the receptionist.

“Sobayyo, what exactly is going on?”

“Deposition,” Petan said, “or maybe abdication. I haven’t decided yet.”

4

He flinched instinctively from the shrapnel, even if it was coming from at least a hundred metres away. The Caver tank itself tipped sideways, almost landing on its side, but came slamming down, its tracks twisted slightly. Petan watched, but he almost missed the raised weapons of a squad coming down the street to his left, and ducked right before puffs of dust shot out from the house he had taken cover behind, and the pops of gunfire rang out. They were still using kinetic weapons in these wars, he realised. Powerful ones, for sure – anything that could put a hole in a Shango-built house could do far, far worse to an actual Shango.

“Shit.”

“You’re Paten Sobayyo, aren’t you?” his squadmate Puresna asked behind him.

More dust, more popping. Paten aimed back, and they fired again. He ducked. No response. Mere suppression.

“Now isn’t the time, but yes,” he replied.

He took aim at the tank and fired twice; the alkahest beam hit the tank, now struggling around on one track, right as it unleashed a shot of its own, which sliced through a block of housing on the opposite side of the street.

“Now is the fucking time. Why didn’t you tell the recruiter?”

“Because it’s not relevant.”

Another boom, and a huge chunk of the corner of the house flung over them, and the roof collapsed into the gap. They were losing their cover.

“We’ve got to move,” Paten said, and led by example, heading back down the street. The squad that had shot at him were tied down; having to fend off two Vexer squads emerging from a pincer movement. They ran to a quieter area, although they knew it would not be so quiet soon, and they would have 1/200 at best.

“Where’s the rest of our squad?” Paten asked, having just realised. There should have been at least eight others around them.

“I don’t know. Look, Sobayyo, you can’t fight this.”

“Why not?”

“Because people like you started this.”

“I started nothing. It was bigoted fuckers like you who started this. I’m just defending my right, and it’s your right too, to be a King.”

“It’s not a right, it’s a pretension,” Puresna said, “you live in a big, phallic, hundred-storey tower when everyone else can make do with a three-bedroom detached and then wonder why everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.”

The pair of them were walking past a cul-de-sac that ended in a Social Centre.

“This way,” Paten said, gesturing towards the Centre. They ran towards it, and a missile streaked overhead, cutting diagonally over their shoulders and thudding into a distant, unseen target.

“Fucking move!” Puresna shouted, and Paten shoulder-barged the door – it was unlocked – and then rushed inside, making his way to the centre space. The both of them were safely inside, but could already hear pops and buzzes outside. “So what was your plan?” Puresna asked.

Paten ignored him, and got the computer systems to convert a wall into a screen. The screen switched on, and he switched it to vid-journalism, where the local news channel splayed a mass of information; 3D projections based on real-time data, 2D variations with cruder logos, reporters talking with pundits (from a safe distance several Spaces away, naturally) and further reporters in the field. In order to ensure that even someone of merely human communication faculties could get the picture, however, a headline was jammed into the centre of this.

“Darkworld Vox, 3rd Caver-Vexer War: Leading King Centre of Tau River, Vex 33 Subject to First Assault”.

Above them, the ceiling jarred and rattled, and another missile could be heard streaking past.

5

Olixxi heard a knock at the door and opened it, to find a tall man clad in military uniform stood outside.

“I’m a girl of catholic taste, but this one is… kinda new.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh. Yes. There’s a war on, right?”

A thud and flash in the distance seemed to confirm this. She noted with interest that, in spite of the apparent cause of the current situation, no-one had actually attacked Sobayyo Tower, surely the most visible thing for the Cavers to aim at.

“There is indeed a war on. You’re Olixxi Fenedar, right?”

“Yes. I answered the call for pilots.”

Coincidentally enough, a jet flew overhead.

“Uh huh. The thing is… why?”

“Because,” she said, raising her voice, which was now becoming increasingly necessary, “the idiots on Franklin, or down on the bottom Space, don’t do a damn thing about this sort of shit. They’re more bothered about PESMA phaseout or quasi-implementation of Xeer or some other such trivial bullshit. If I can end this sooner, then I’ll sort it out myself. I mean-”

“OK, just come with me. We can discuss this on the way.”

She followed him to the teleport pad opposite the street, during which he introduced himself only as a Major for the Vexer forces. Her next view was one of an airfield, sparsely populated with jets, with many of the remainder now taking off. She could see in the distance that Sobayyo Tower was still intact; it bothered her, and made her wonder whether she should simply bomb that instead.

“…and the key point is that emaser fire is calibrated with this area of the console, and it’s done by – Olixxi?”

“Yeah, it should all be intuitive enough,” she said, and began to climb up through the hatch. She settled in the seat and hit the activate button, the safety harness dived over her shoulders, and with two manually-confirmed clicks, she was ready to go.

“You’ll owe me a jet,” the major said, pointing an accusing finger, but it and the rest of him vanished out of sight as the jet lifted off the ground. She set the emaser to mid-range, swatted a missile out of her path, and pulled into a climb, bringing the nearby city lights of Cave 33 into view, as well as a jet that was heading her way. Pulling back sharply, she flipped around and streaked back over the city, and the cockpit filled with squares and triangles and lines, along with the mass of laser and alkahest fire she was sure wasn’t there a while ago. She frowned, and took a while to sort out what it all meant, drifting higher above the action as she did so. Maybe it wasn’t so obvious, after all.

And maybe she should have simply left, she thought. Plenty of others no doubt did. Probably others on the other side of the damn Space.

She had made her choice, though, and had to make one now. A quick emaser burst killed another missile that was heading right for her. She throttled upwards again, the squares and triangles mercifully reducing, only picking out those up on Cave 33. When she got out of the Grab zone, some twenty kilometres or so above Vexer ground, she felt the pull on the jet rapidly diminish, and before she knew it, she was, despite heading in the same direction, in a dive, not a climb.

She gripped the controls and readied herself. She was calm. She was confident.

And besides, she had a backup ready to go live in the Server, right?

6

The cornfield stretched on for quite some distance, far more, Olixxi thought, than was reasonable. Then again, being stranded in the middle of it, watching the wreckage of her plane head off towards the glowing embers of the city in the distance, had something to do with it. Another factor was Darkworld Vox’s relatively long day, which meant that sunrise still wasn’t due for some time. How long, she didn’t know, having nothing on her but the clothes she wore.

As she waded through the cornfield, hearing the booms and thuds in the distance, punctuated by flashes in the sky, she couldn’t help but feel that she was now stuck in the middle of what had caused all of this mess. Odds were that this farm kept a hundred people busy, albeit with intellectually undemanding and physically unnecessary work, all in service of some idiot who felt that grown corn was simply so much better than that horrible stuff out of an assembler. The arrogance of it…

She tossed this thought aside and continued on. Finally – and sunrise, she thought, had to be soon, or was she merely getting too tired? – she made it back to the city, or town, or wherever she was. Rubble was strewn across every street she came across; shrapnel was embedded in every wall. She wondered whether getting shot would just make things easier, but decided that if that had to be the way, she’d need a teleporter.

She made her way to a nearby house and tried the door. It was obviously locked. Something flashed at the end of the street.

“House,” she said quietly, “I’m seeking asylum. Permission to enter?”

On the door, the jagged Shango language appeared. “Nearest threat not within protocol range. Permission conditionally granted.”

Spotting a corpse on the floor, she checked for a gun and found one. Kinetic. Not helpful, she thought, but it’d have to do.

“Don’t fire that,” the house warned in writing.

Somewhere in the next street, a building exploded, and debris crashed over into the street. She saw the house door swing open and she rushed in. Pulling open the drawers revealed little; whoever had been here had clearly fled, not fought.

“Computer, is there anything resembling a teleporter in this house?”

The lights dimmed and a spotlight shone on a small metallic disc on the table behind her. “Thanks.”

“Your name,” the writing on the wall said as she reached the table.

“Olixxi Fenedar.”

“Do you have a plan, Olixxi?” it asked. Olixxi paused. She didn’t, truthfully.

“You are from Vex 33,” the text continued, “the region you are from would appear to be less involved, now.”

“The war’s nearly over?”

“In that region. It has been an intense fight. Perhaps not a war so much as a riot.”

“Well, thanks, computer.”

Olixxi picked up the disc, set the location for home, and pressed the button. A slow blink later, she was back in her familiar surroundings. A flash at the window told her that the Cave house’s claims might not have been entirely true, and she went outside to examine things more closely, clutching the disc as she did so, setting it to the hospital Darkmoon. Her house, it seemed, had taken minimal damage, but the street was filled with blackened patches, burnt-out vehicles and pockmarks, and many houses had collapsed or simply been flattened. Fires burnt across the city. She paused outside when a Justice Department squad swept past, but it was too little, too late as far as she was concerned.

In the distance, Sobayyo Tower remained intact.

7

“You just want to squat in this place,” Paten complained. The faint glimmer of sunrise could not quite mask the flashes on the horizon, visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the room they were in. “You just want to be in my place, on the 89th floor where no-one’s going to-”

“No, it makes a whole load of fucking sense. No-one’s attacked this place all night,” Puresna argued. “Basic military strategy says it’s best to find cover.”

As if to completely disprove his squadmate, Puresna ordered a window section open, raised his gun, and shot an alkahest beam into some of the fighting ten blocks away. A pointless move, but important in PR terms. Paten sighed and flopped onto a bed-sized sofa in the centre of the room, conceding defeat.

“Computer, activate screen,” he said. The computer hesitated briefly but noticeable at the half-formulated order, then converted the ceiling into a screen, and duplicated the result on the wall Paten’s feet pointed towards.

“3rd Vexer-Caver War: New Fronts Appear” the headline read, and Paten realised that the war was not about to end, only move somewhere else, where it would cause more carnage. On the video sections he could see personnel from the Ministry of Justice and Defence moving in, attempting to keep the peace.

“Too damn late,” he whispered.

“I’ll say,” Puresna added, still leaning out of the window, gun pointing at nothing in particular. “They’re all over here, it’s like you’ve got your own personal bodyguards. Thing is, no-one’s shooting at this monstrosity.”

“Well you’ve got a gun, how about you have a pop at it?”

Puresna didn’t reply. Paten sat up, and the ceiling-screen disappeared. He rubbed his eyes, which were watering. He realised that he missed Romisa. He had been stupid. Another thing he realised was that, in spite of the years they had been together, he had no idea where she had gone. He could have guessed at Trevi, but if she wasn’t there, he had no leads.

You moron, he thought to himself.

But now she was long gone, and she had been replaced by a terse soldier for whom words spoke louder than actions.

He resisted the urge to defenestrate Puresna, got up, walked to the window and ordered the screen off again. He heard a thud in the distance, but it was low, the flash barely discernable, and it was practically morning now. War damage had smashed so many houses that Shango presence seemed nonexistent; it was as if he was looking at an eerie, naturally-formed landscape on a barren and unpopulated world.

He could do nothing about Romisa, but he could start anew, he thought, and start with the squatter.

“You gonna rejoin the squad?” he asked. Puresna murmured something noncommital. Paten switched the wall-screen back on again, same news channel, same events.

“15 Confirmed Temporary Casualities; 201 Admitted to Darkmoon Ward.”

The ticker on the bottom of the screen spoke of a potential Caver attack on remaining King residences. Paten grinned at the irony of modern Shango media; the element of surprise would be gone from such an attack, so naturally, it wouldn’t happen. The very instance of reporting it barred it from happening; the media, the alleged outsiders merely saying what they saw, effectively causing the events that would make the news.

He turned back to the man at the window.

“Puresna, remember when you said I had my own personal bodyguards?”

“Yes?”

“Well, I do. So piss off, my good man.”

8

Down on the 47th floor of Sobayyo Tower, a whole floor was devoted to 3D projection and information analysis. Such functions were not necessarily Paten Sobayyo’s job, but those hundred floors needed filling with something, and there were only so many variations on bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens – all of which could be changed around anyhow – that could be added to a house.

Nonetheless, the 47th floor was useful, because as midday approached, Paten entered the single room on the floor and switched the wall-screens on, calling up holographic panes to hack up the newstream into discrete sections. The channel in question continued to insist on reporting that the Cavers were coming back to the city, but the lie was there in the real-time tracker, which showed units continuing to slowly move away, and for the battles in no-man’s airspace to become increasingly self-absorbed, caught up in the sixty-kilometre wide region where Grab forces were neglible and, due to the way they worked, ever-shifting and unpredictable.

The initial jab of pain over Romisa had gone, but he wondered exactly what that was about. After that action had come the reaction – he was angry at her, angry at the way she couldn’t support him, and couldn’t at least understand his point of view, especially when it had, thus far, been proven completely right to him. This feeling dragged on over the morning, and by the time he was on the 47th floor, it had either faded or hardened, but he couldn’t quite tell.

He decided to test himself on it. Pushing away the local news – and my, he thought, how magnificently they were capable of recycling the same crap when one story dominated – he flung himself into the social networks. The Friendships section he wasn’t too bothered about. The Anecdotes he could miss too. He clicked intuitively on Connections, and realised that doing so told him exactly where he was emotionally. Fuck it all. And fuck whoever he found on this thing too.

3D holographics threw up a series of almost-indistinguishable-from-real women around the room, their one obvious sign of artificiality the way they stood completely still and did nothing. Paten wished they could at least walk around.

“Network, narrow down to one and unfreeze.”

“Specify algorithm.”

“I don’t know… make it random.”

Almost all of the projected women vanished, and the one remaining walked over to him. She held out a hand. He shook it awkwardly. “Hi.”

“Olixxi Fenedar. Or my simulation, anyway. 87% complete, so what you see is almost what you get.”

Paten nodded appreciately.

“Pause,” he whispered, and the hologram froze. “Computer, something to lean on? Something appropriate?”

An assembler strip rolled out across the ceiling, and a bar materialised across the length of the room, an old-school wooden construct of the kind found in Social Centres on scarcity worlds. Stools also appeared. He grabbed a drink that had appeared on the bar, but knew that handing one to the woman apparently in front of him would have been misguided.

“OK, go.”

She moved back into life again.

“So how come you’re listed?”

She smiled and made a small hand gesture, like she was drawing something.

“It’s this damn war business, Mr. Sobayyo. I want it over with, and I’ll deal with it myself if I have to.”

“So, in short…”

“Petite young lady seeks attractive man with big weapon and a good point to fire it from.”

His drink almost wound up back in the glass. She was a nice one, though. Witty, sparky, a little bit mad. Getting into this after about two Federal days was probably a little insensitive, but he was past caring.

“Send back to your real self that, if she wants it, it’s on the roof of Sobayyo Tower in 1/50 Federal.”

9

Senjen attempted to awkwardly bank the jet round, but instead found it pulling in a staggered arc, meeting an difficult mix of some Grab, some gravity, some air resistance and some centripetal force. Way down – or up – in the Grab zones, things were easier, things were more or less planet-like, but here piloting took on whole new rules.

The other issue, of course, was that the whole conflict had turned into a confused mess. Weaving through a web of alkahest beams and emasers, and through a hail of missile fire, he was relieved to see, as he pulled out of the world’s least elegant banking maneouvere, that the shields were still close to maximum. The computer projections flashed up the optimum window of opportunity and he reached for the top right of the console.

A disc-like wave erupted from all around the jet, a membrane-like forcefield acting as the vanguard for a 360-degree no-escape barrage of layered panspectrum emaser. Senjen watched as three planes exploded, pieces flying in all directions and rushing past the cockpit. Flashes and flares ensued as they struck other fighters and bombers.

This, he thought, was why he’d left space warfare to others. Stuff like this was too good to miss.

He dropped down slightly and closed in on a bomber that was optimistically dropping a bomb upwards into Caver territory. Said bomb lazily floated upwards, oscillating a little, and Senjen jinked under it, giving him a full view of the top of the aircraft. An emaser spread across the wings, engines and tail fin did little. He aimed forward towards the cockpit, but this too had a minimal effect.

He sighed and pulled up, diving back towards Caver territory, twisting around the slow-moving bomb as it wobbled upwards. He checked his altitude: around 46km (Cave)/53km (Vex), the screen claimed. He suspected that this was all a little futile.

He pulled the plan up into what he perceived as a climb, cutting that 53km as much as he could. The amorphous clouds parted way to reveal the more usual, flatter fare; they in turn parted way, revealing a ruined cityscape underneath him.

He continued to rush in, gunning the plane for all its worth, hoping the supersonic boom would flatten what was left, and he caught in his sight a wonderful thing, a target. He recognised it, especially standing there, intact above the ruins – Sobayyo Tower, owned by the King, Paten Sobayyo. This was what the war was about, he realised, not the mire above his head. It was the fact that people like him, a Caver 33, didn’t tolerate this bullshit like the Vexers did. That tower, he silently told himself, would burn to the ground.

The jet continued to rush in, the Tower growing in his vision, and he pointed all weapons, getting the computer to call up every rocket, every bit of power to the alkahest beam and the emasers. He factored in the weak points in the tower’s structure, the suitability of each weapon to each weak point, potential factors in targeting such as wind or diffraction, the closing speed, the acceleration, the foreshortening caused by the angle of approach, gravity, Grab and inertia for the exit path.

What he didn’t calculate, and should have done, was the jet on Sobayyo Tower’s roof, and the lowered shield energy that his assault called for.

10

“Well, Nyluk darling, you were right. That was fantastic.”

“Honestly?”

“Completely honestly. I can’t believe I wanted to stay on Vox, actually.”

The Continuing Course began a steady descent through Darkworld Vox’s upper atmosphere.

“Apparently it’s been chaos for two solid weeks,” Tacka continued, “ended more because the whole fight had burnt itself out.”

“You’ve been checking the news?”

The ship swept over a barren desert landscape, and even at the height it did so, the airflow was enough to whip sand up in vortices. Deccelerating almost as if slamming into a brick wall, it reached the outskirts of a city, swung round and landed on a large patch of paved land.

“Sure. We had to know when we could go back, didn’t we – not that we had to go back, it was just, y’know, one of those things that’s good to know.”

Nyluk nodded slowly, largely accepting this.

“I guess-”

“All passengers, we have landed at Darkworld Vox.”

“I guess you’d be interested anyway.”

The pair of them moved towards the teleporter in the corner of the room, and watched as the boxcases beamed out of the room. A brief darkness and they were back in their own home too.

“Welcome back,” the house wrote on the wall, whilst raising the lights.

“Good to be back, computer. Any damage?” Nyluk said.

“A roof collapse,” it confessed, “but Central Government has tended to almost all war damages fairly swiftly, even if they have received criticism for allowing the situation to spiral out of control. You don’t have to do anything about it; it’s sorted.”

“I guessing,” Tacka said, “that this whole city took quite a hit.”

“There were three major battles here, including the opening night. Most of the damage happened around here. You were probably wise to move, if current self-preservation was the primary motivating factor, and backups in the Server were not to be considered.”

The two of them had moved through the hallway to the lounge, where the computer had laid out a full simulation of what happened. Tacka examined the sight of a city that, barring a few smashed towers, hardly looked like a city. He looked to the window, and the computer brightened the view outside. It looked fine; exactly as he saw it when he left. Jagged red text, along with an arrow, appeared above the simulation when he turned back.

“There is one building that Central Government has refused to repair automatically,” it read, and he could see that the arrow point to-

“Paten and Romisa’s place. Nyluk, come here.”

Sobayyo Tower was still standing, and largely intact, but the simulation zoomed in on it, a large gash was visible near the top of the tower.

“The Sobayyos,” Nyluk said, “did anything happen to them?”

The computer began to speak audially, but nonetheless brought up the writing on the wall, to reinforce what it said.

“Romisa Saarp ex-Sobayyo left Darkworld Vox on the opening night, on a ship bound for Darkworld Scuderia. Paten Yetrias Sobayyo remained on Darkworld Vox. Olixxi Fenedar Sobayyo, originally a pilot on the opening night, was technically responsible for the war fatality, Senjen Toaqem, of Gertsallon, Cave 33, who had no backup in the Server or anywhere else federally. His jet crashed into Sobayyo Tower on the 76th floor. The case has been designed an Occurrence of War and no further action has been taken.”

The two of them could only sit in silence, taking in this immense stream of events, for the longest time.

“Senjen Toaqem’s funeral will be tomorrow, 1/2 local time.”