Burning Chalice of Deceit (Part Two)

10

“Whoever’s onto you sounds prepared. I would be tempted to suggest that it’s the Qareen government themselves – they are, after all, the only ones that know – but the reason I’d say otherwise is that I am, of course, a biased source. The only other possibility is the Dharans, and with them, anything’s a possibility. But you should be careful.”

Tarko Ilrap had put out whole tabletops of this kind of speculation, and Fetol wondered exactly why this man was so preoccupied with the present when he had so much of the past behind him, and she had explicitly advertised that such history was her focus.

“Maybe so, sir, but I made a commitment.”

“The Dharans wouldn’t care about such things.”

“The Dharans are not my focus, unless they were at the first battle of the First War.”

Ilrap nodded and held his hands up in concession. “Fine. But I think you must split your time. If you can’t find the present interesting then your apparent opponents will utilise ways to make it interesting. And yes, you will say I digress. So, to the battle.”

He got up and walked to a shelf behind him, where he pulled out a small box of small metal discs.

“The old ship logs from the Total Wipeout,” he explained, “every single battle.”

Fetol looked into the box, where the interior was partitioned into six sections, although the discs were randomly scattered inside each one, the only way of distinguishing each one being a mass of jagged markings which, in order to be big enough to read, had to take up almost all of the discs and blend the difference between writing and pattern. After much rattling and reaching, Ilrap pulled out the relevant disc and tossed it onto the table. The mass of Shango text that had already spilt across it flipped 180 degrees, flipped over into Qareen pictograms and wound up being sucked into Fetol’s own disc.

From Ilrap’s disc, the table raised a holographic projection of a mass of stars and cartoonishly large ships. The two sides were gathered in rows and columns, Fetol noticed, facing off, almost as if it was a pitched battle.

“We on the Shango side arranged ourselves into the most conservative position we could; we didn’t know exactly what we were facing, so we went defensive. But as you’ll notice, at the start of the battle, we – both sides – were ready. At this point, this… tableau, that you see here, the declaration of war had not even occurred. But we were lined up all the same, because every captain in every ship in the Shango and no doubt Qareen fleets were ninety-nine per cent sure that they were not about to turn around and go home.”

Again the disc vacuumed up the lines of writing, and again, Fetol noticed that familiar narrative of inevitability, of the weight and momentum of history, bleeding through the old military man’s recollection.

“Both sides had every ship outside of the maximum effective range. Not maximum range, you understand, just outside the range where targeting and diffraction start to become tenuous, where there’s no point in firing. Until-“

He nudged the animation into life. One ship, tan-coloured, began to drift forward.

“The Conformist Rebel,” he needlessly pointed out.

From the other side, three grey ships each fired six pairs of rapid, milky-white bursts of energy beams, and the ship’s bow flashed, shrapnel radially exploding into space, and the rest of the ship broke up as it fell forwards into no-man’s land.

After that, the situation began to deteriorate.

11

The SFS Modern Synthesis swung round in a huge parabola, shot past the local star, beamed its lone occupant and her luggage onto the local Darkworld from a local AU away at the tip of the curve, and then engaged maximum speed and flung itself back to Darkworld Kraken.

The local Darkworld was Darkworld Hamilton, and the lone ex-occupant was of course Fetol1, who was, in any event, glad to be out of that mobile prison. “Be careful what you wish for” was always a very relevant motto in societies where what could be wished for had few limits, and in this event, the wish for something other than a large military escort – which had made her feel over-privileged and more than a little awkward – had backfired.

The Modern Synthesis was a spy ship, and for this reason, Fetol had been denied as much access as was reasonably possible. She had been beamed onto the ship without seeing its exterior, then limited during the journey of several days to what was, to the early 21st century Earth citizen, the equivalent of a medium-sized apartment in New York. Finally, she had been beamed onto Darkworld Hamilton’s Cave 22, i.e. through several opaque spheres and looking the wrong way, as if her eyes were capable of looking through kilometres of solid rock and viewing the intricacies of a ship heading away from said rock at faster-than-light speed.

Well, they had some funny ideas about her kind in that region of space.

She looked around, finding herself in an empty room that she was assured was a “claimable”. Apparently, there were many around any Shango city, which could simply be had by anyone, which struck her as ludicrously inefficient. It gave her time, though, and certainly enough to pull out a small piece of paper with the address: 65/11/13-X, Chowvar, Cave 29.

Thinking about that for a moment told her that the address was some distance from where she was. It was six Spaces down, for one. But apparently, it was a place worth reaching, even if her source for this claim might have been a little dubious.

12

“Kolliq Derro was the best Tracklayer I ever employed,” Ilrap had told Fetol. A lead was welcome, especially given that the rest of the conversation had continued as it had begun, with digressions, superfluous information and a general feeling that she was receiving information but not acquiring much in the way of depth and understanding. The simulation of the first battle of the Intersection Wars had not been insightful beyond its start; that little move forwards on the Conformist Rebel had been an interesting thing. She would have loved to have asked the crew about that, but they were almost certainly dead. The ability to expand consciousness through backups had not been mastered during the wars, and live backups had been unheard of. Those who had backed themselves up would have had the same memories, but not the understanding of why they did what they did.

But that was the natural consequence of technological progress: a regrettably, uncontrollably crap past made worse by hypothetical scenarios the present threw up. She had to settle for the next best thing, and apparently, that was Kolliq Derro.

Derro herself was an eccentric, Fetol realised, even by the alien standards of the Shango. Once she had slowly worked her way over the controls of a teleporter booth, and managed to key in the right address, she had reached Derro’s places of residence, which were on a large complex outside the city of Chowvar. Around a vast square of tarmac broken up by gardens, lakes, sand and other small, natural features were a series of houses: bungalows, town houses, towers, mansions, palaces. Every single one had a different design, and none of them were the same.

“I hear you speak Qareen?” Fetol asked as Kolliq burst into presence in front of her, slipping a mobile teleporter into her pocket.

“I do. But I can’t think it.”

Fetol gave a small laugh. “No offence, but this is an-“

“Odd place, I know. They were going to take it down, you know. Some bunch of concerned citizens called the Coalition of Ordinary Men. Coalition of arseholes, is more like it. This place is history. You don’t desecrate history.”

She indicated the way towards one of the houses, a small log cabin that managed, despite its positioning just a few blocks away from a huge tower, not to be overwhelmed or overshadowed by it, even as the shadows began to lengthen into the central square.

“Thousands of years ago there was one social trend,” Kolliq explained, “amongst certain groups of Shango. It spread across the galaxy. They called themselves Kings, not because they ruled anything – they were not voted for anything – but because they lived as opulently as possible. And this was the residence of Uyeyba Jarradicio, the King of a Million Palaces, as he called himself. Others jumped on the bandwagon when it came. He didn’t, and he didn’t jump off either. Even now, every time a distinct new architectural style appears on this Darkworld, an example has to be added to the Million Palaces. It was in his will.”

They reached the door, and Kolliq let Fetol in. The inside was humbly furnished, although Fetol supposed that gold-lined everything would have been vulgar, not luxurious, in a place like that.

“Tarko told me you were coming. He said you wanted to know the cause of the Wars.”

“That’s true.”

“Well I suspect,” Kolliq began, and gestured Fetol to a seat – “I suspect you are moving away from the trail, for cause. Which is not to say that I did not occasionally have some interesting experiences as a Tracklayer.”

Fetol sat and wondered, “what do you mean?”

“Well, I suspect there were other forces at work than the Shango and Qareen, and that’s long before the Stoppan and Bhoot came into play. Shortly after I got the gig on the Total Wipeout, I kept coming across little issues. Glitches. The craft not turning when I wanted it to. The craft moving too fast to make a turn, or too slow to reach an ideal targeting angle. That little feeling that someone else was on board, nudging my hand.”

Fetol nodded and “hmm”-ed, but suspected that Derro could describe these things in excruciating detail for a significant fraction of a day. She had to cut to the chase.

“The Dharans, the Qareen, or someone else?”

Kolliq shrugged. “You’d never know with the Dharans?”

“What do you know about them?”

It was almost dark, but Derro did not move to switch the lights on. Instead she pulled herself up to sit crossed-legged on the armchair she was sat on, drew herself up, and began to look straight ahead, as if she was sat back in that Tracklayer booth and back in battle.

“It was in the Fifth War. It might have been the start, actually – the Treaty Breaker Battle. I was still in the Total Wipeout, and I was determined to be there for as long as the wars would continue. I’d received plenty of other offers. I wasn’t interested.

“So it was another war, and another battle. Like so many battles, it had all descended into a bit of a clusterfuck. That was always the issue – two smart plans colliding, always resulting in something that made no sense for anybody. But where other crews lost their heads and dived straight in, they paid the price. We kept our cool. We kept every eye on every analytical tool, which you have to do especially when it’s all going wrong, and when things are changing significantly by the millisecond. The chaos benefitted us, actually – by keeping on track, we were able to hover above the big picture and pick off more ships that just about anyone else out there. We weren’t the most powerful ship, we weren’t the best crew on paper, but we were the smartest. And that’s what counts.

“So 1/4 of a Federal day in – I don’t know how long that is in your terms…”

Fetol thought about it, and her superconscious handed down the answer within fractions of a second.

“28.52.31, if we’re being precise.”

Derro grinned and shook her head, although this was only just discernable in the dark. “Maybe I was on the wrong side. So it was a quarter of a day in. 28.50.00 or so. And the battle was approaching something of a Qareen victory. Even we were acknowledging this, and I remember having a little escape route set as a default, ready to bump onto the track; the ship would just swoop straight upwards and outta there. And then it came.”

She paused, and Fetol couldn’t quite figure out if the reason was emotion or drama. Before she could ask or figure it out, Derro continued.

“The first sign was the bridge member – I think it was Rayonos, the man at strategy – who turned around and just yelled ‘captain!’, and just jabbed his hands towards the projection at the bridge centre. One glance at it and I could see what caused alarm. I looked back and found myself just looking – I almost derailed the damn ship. Because there was no way that any ship of ours or yours could be moving in so fast. The projection was zoomed out for thousands of parsecs, and this thing just zipped across it, marked as ‘ship, unknown origin.’

“So I turned back to the tracklaying, because the captain blocked the view. I weaved a basic route that would most likely avoid all other obstacles, then looked back again. And then I saw the new label the captain had put in: ‘unknown ship, Dharan origin.’

“The captain knew?”

“Tarko knew. And once he’d put that label in, he called it, the cease fire. We all thought he was mad, but we stopped firing all the same, we pulled the ship to a stop and waited. It came; you could feel it bang into presence, this army of blade-like things that counted as a ship, but here’s the crazy thing – just as it appeared, dozens of beams and missiles just shot from it, like it was discarding them, and a ripple of flashes lit up the screen. Everyone had stopped firing at that point, and I could see several ships just charging away, like they thought they could outrun it. Turns out they could, momentarily. It just hovered there, as if it was glaring at each and every one of us, condemning our actions. Then a huge shunt went through the ship, and the lights flickered, like we’d all been hit against a table. Then – bang! – it went again. And that was it – the only direct Dharan intervention in the Intersection Wars.”

Fetol nodded, though she was no doubt invisible in the darkness. She wanted to reach for a light, or call the computer, if there was one, for one, but she couldn’t bring herself to. “I heard about that incident. 17 Qareen and 33 Shango ships destroyed in an instant.”

“Yes. But the numbers don’t truly make it real. It’s when your there, and you see it , and you just know that you are witnessing something that is so far above you. I’ve thought about that incident, probably hundreds of times. I always wonder if those Dharans make contact with civilisations that, say, have never gone into space.  They’d probably worship them.”

“Do you think they had any involvement in the war, beyond what you witnessed?”

“I have no doubt. But proof? It’s like those gods the clergy in the Dei system always want us to believe in. You’ll never find proof. Only a glimmer of something that looks like it. And if you find that glimmer, settle for it, because it’ll be all you’re ever getting.”

13

Spaceplane 435,657 looked alien to her, even from space. That transparent sphere, that disc of land, that band of ice around the edge, the spotlights circling in their tracks either side; she had been gone for so long that the construction of the vast thing seemed perverse, the onion-like, concentric spheres of a Darkworld having now formed an orthodoxy in her mind.

She had already become used to the gravity. The Qareen ship Disposable/Self-Destruct in 00.00.50 had adjusted accordingly, and the sensation, light as it originally was, had managed to go within days.

Having slammed into sublight pace, the Disposable snapped into orbit with ease, as if it had simply reached out a hand and grabbed onto the Spaceplane. “State when and where teleportation is desirable,” the screen in front of Fetol stated, and she picked the same A-Port that she had left from five years earlier. She had been told that there were familiar people waiting for her this time. No more endless talking to strangers about events well beyond her expertise.

#I’m going home#, she transmitted to no-one in particular. She’d done that at least once a day for five years, just to remind herself that she could, that she was Qareen, and not a refugee amongst the vast Shango population.

“A-Port now,” she said to the ship, and blinked out of there. The ship would carry on, banking around the Spaceplane scooping up anyone who requested it, which probably wouldn’t be anyone for some time, given its name.

She was met by an audience of three: Retei8, the one friend she knew would’ve been stood there, Semr, the one who had encouraged her to go this far, and… someone she didn’t recognise.

#Fetol. The Girl in the Well climbs out again#, Retei said. That sounded like pride, which was an odd feeling to experience.

#With results, no doubt#, Semr added.

#Well, maybe something approaching results#, Fetol had to admit. She turned to the stranger, who was walking amongst the cases. #Stay away from the black boxes! And, not to be rude, but who are you?#.

#Yes, about that#, Semr said, #I was wondering if you would like an apprentice. This is Lag2. Began investigations four years ago; strong hit rate, but I think she needs your discipline.#

#That can’t be taught. It has to come from within.#

#Yes, but it can always be drawn from example.#

#Maybe. I’ll consider it.#

The four of them stood in silence, amongst two gold-coloured boxcases and, Fetol had this in the back of her mind, seventeen slightly smaller black boxcases. Those seventeen cases were the consequence of five years of work, hundreds of interviews, and collecting thousands of battle simulations; indeed, a “brief” scan through the lot of it, which took half a day and a worryingly large chunk of the assemblers’ matter storage merely to create the for-purpose hardware and software to link it all together, suggested that inside those cases was well over half of, and possibly close to all of, the five Intersection Wars – all forty-five years of it.

And this is what perhaps what made the return home a little muted. She had come home with a war in boxes, but still, it had no on switch, and the only way to figure out where it was would be to pick apart every last detail. An apprentice would help, she thought, but it would be a gruelling task nonetheless.

#It’s good to see you all. I should’ve said that as soon as I arrived, but… it’s been tough.#

#I guess even our faces look a little strange, yes? How are the Shango?#, Retei asked.

#They’re good people. But they aren’t half strange. I think I might have turned into one of them.#

Audible laughter echoed through the port.

14

The glow from the screens and holograms was enough to keep the lights off, and the room was coated in digitised mess. One call for “off” would restore the room back into near-emptiness, but the two occupants were not seeking that.

Five years of gathering information, and just as Fetol predicted, there was still, at the bare minimum, probably a significant chunk of a year to follow. Even if a revelation ensued today, it would still need teasing out, extrapolation, regression analysis, and the elimination of all other possibilities.

Thousands and thousands of simulations played out in front of her, and the random approach she initially took was exhausting. It didn’t help that Lag2 would all too easily give up, or at least, express a desire to, before being yanked back into her chair.

#Sometimes#, Fetol insisted, #your personal whim must be sublimated to the task and its completion. It can be almost masochistic. But we know that there is the tiniest hope of some reward in here. We have all the components. We will find it.#

The day afterwards, she had a revelation that seemed in hindsight so ridiculously obvious: run only simulations involving the Total Wipeout.

#Derro had mentioned derailings, Lag. I can’t believe I’d forgotten it. Let’s run a check on those, and any kind of unusual, illogical activity.#

Lag inputted the specifics and ran them through the simulations. All around the room holographic projections emerged showing the occurrences in slow-motion. After some time, the search finally stopped, the screens displaying a list of specific instances, and the final total: “37 piloting errors ensued on the Total Wipeout. 4 derailings, 13 near-misses, 9 deviant decelerations, 5 deviant accelerations, 6 instances of rail loss. Those attributable to impact, p < 0.001, have been automatically deducted [option: reinsert these].”

#Next we run these against the booth input logs.#

#They gave you those? [alarm, surprise].#

#Sure. We’re talking about obsolete warships here. The Shango know that the QPA and the shipbuilders have, 99.99% likely, either successfully learnt of these designs or copied them through coincidence by now anyway.#

#Fair enough.#

The search brought up each of the thirty-seven cases, lined up ten to a wall barring the exit. In each case, two simulations played side-by-side, the first of the Total Wipeout as it moved through space, gliding on shining rails of light that weren’t really, in a battle or peacetime scenario, externally visible; and the second, an image of a female crew member, moving her hands and looking around the booth, carefully laying down the route that the pair of forcefields would translate into perfectly smooth handling.

After briefly coalescing a brief, unspoken understanding, the two women stood up, back to back, and scanned two walls each, looking for the cases they could discard as basic pilot error. Fetol examined each one, as close as she could, pulled up the text logs and placed them underneath the videos, and felt her superconscious burn with the effort of taking it all in. Again she focused on the first case, which she reached out for, and pulled all four scrolling datasets down from the top-left to the centre of the wall. Still focusing on it, she couldn’t find anything. The ship jolted off its rails; the looping simulation slapped it back on again. It jolted off again, and this time, her focus did too.

#You finding anything? Anything at all?#

She was glad Lag had asked that first.

#No. You?#

#Absolutely nothing. So what do we do now?#

#We’re going to have to be way more thorough. I think we’re zeroing in on something here, but we need to be sure. Or at least, as sure as we can be. It’ll take a full regression analysis – manual input of every conceivable variable and control for each variable, each combination of variables in turn.#

#Sounds lengthy.#

#It is. This time next year we’ll have an answer, and probably a shaky one. We have one now, but- [autocut]#

#We do?#

#Yeah. I reckon I know. But like I said, we have to confirm it.#

She sensed utter despair from Lag, and suspected that this was not the scale of investigation she had dreamed of. Perhaps Semr had pushed her too much. Some investigators, Fetol knew, did not always want to rise to these heights, and to be fair, this kind of investigation could only be found in the rarefied atmosphere of top-secret government work. The best of the best rarely went near this stuff.

#Yeah, it’ll take large chunks of a year to sort it all out. It’s not an issue, though, we just need to take our time over this. If you want, we can break for the day.#

#Yes, let’s please.#

The thirty-seven cases blinked off the walls as Fetol switched everything off, and in the darkness, only the tiniest shard of light was visible from the door. The two of them promptly strode their way towards it and left.

15

Source: CLASSIFIED, to be known only to the recipients.

Recipients: Office of the President of the Qareen Confederation as Bound by the Treaty of Nexus

Multidimensional fractal encoding is in effect, path accepted by this device.

Filed: .712/2611

Sub: <relation> {intersection wars} [ultimate CLASSIFIED]

Further files and data are attached.

A RULING is required on the action to be taken as a consequence of this data. This RULING will be appended to all sections of the report.

Preface

To the new President of the Confederation,

I am writing to inform you that a government-sanctioned investigation that your immediate predecessor initiated has now been completed after six years of research. Naturally, the nature of the investigation means that any result is likely to be fraught with bias, even accepting that the Wars have been over for centuries, and indeed it is only natural that now has been the best time yet in which to conduct such an investigation.

This investigation has been the collective result of sixty-two interviews (subdivided forty-seven Shango, twelve Qareen, two Stoppan and one Bhoot individual), travel to forty-nine Darkworlds, Spaceplanes, Astrostates and planets, and the gathering of extensive data from Shango records and QPA access level 2. Shango access was given on the understanding that all data provided was in the public domain.

Certified Investigator: Fetol1/433,096

In accordance with the rules of the contract [see appended files in regulatory section], I applied for permission to take on secondary personnel during the investigation. Permission was granted on .695/2610, and as such, additional credit goes to Lag2/435,657.

Further thanks are detailed in the Credits section below.

Summary

It should first be stated that, overall, there was never likely to be 100% accuracy in obtaining a definitive cause; nonetheless, it is perhaps surprising to discover the extent to which one could be found. There were no doubt several causes to the Wars, which stretch back to centuries before they took place, but overwhelmingly there is one factor that tipped the balance. It took many years to discover this, but all of my years of experience suggests that this is the case, and that what is presented here would be undeniable to any knowledgeable observer.

We have finally found evidence of a Dharan conspiracy.

How this has come to light so relatively easily is uncertain. It is entirely possible that the Dharan Republic has simply underestimated Qareen capabilities, either during the era of the Wars or in the post-faction era Confederation. It may simply be the case that their plan was insufficiently thought through; whilst this is a rare lapse in the Dharan sphere of operation, it remains a possibility.

What is undeniable, however, is that the Dharans, through a combination of autonomous system hacks, the planting of agents, and the external interference on both macroscopic and microscopic levels, attempted and succeeded during all five wars to create and perpetuate an oppositional atmosphere and a degree of relative stalemate. There is also potential cause to believe that the Qareen’s final victory and dominance of the Intersection Zone was not an accident, and not entirely due to tactical or military superiority. Speculating on motive is perhaps beyond the scope of this report, but it seems reasonable to assume that the Dharans, having witnessed their own technological progress over hundreds of thousands of years as a civilisation, may recognise some similarity or pattern in the Shango – perhaps even the Qareen – that signals the possibility one civilisation or the other one day becoming a relative Dharan equal, perhaps even a superior, in technological terms. It may even be a simpler motive, of basic hegemonic protection, without any rationalisation about the ultimate fate of these two galaxies in particular.

In any event, one incident involving the Conformist Rebel/Unidentical has been proven beyond reasonable doubt, and a further 37 incidents on one Shango ship alone are Dharan-caused, with the proof being beyond the mere balance of probabilities. As such, Qareen autonomy has almost certain been imposed upon. Under Qareen law, the Office of the President of the Confederation will be compelled by law to make, or externally contract the making of, a judgement as to the precise action that is to be taken in the light of these revelations.

Beyond mere Dharan intervention, however, I have spoken extensively to those on both the Shango and Qareen side of the diplomatic teams involved in the follow-up to the war. Even accounting for the interference of Dharan spies and saboteurs, it is clear that grave failings occurred that could well have prevented both all five wars and, in the negotiation of the Mid-Wars Treaty, the Fifth War in particular.

A smaller section of this report is devoted to the apparent willingness of the Stoppan and Bhoot Republics, who rushed to the aid of the powers that surrounded them. There is no particular reason for myself or anyone else to believe, given historical testimony and archival evidence from either civilisation, that there was any reason to believe they were under threat during the wars. There is also little reason to believe that the Dharan intervention on the Shango or Qareen occurred to either of the smaller forces.

Ruling (Summary)

A ruling was made on all sections of the report in turn on .717-.719 of N.A. 2611. The sum of all specific decisions that were made during those deliberative sessions is that NO ACTION will be taken in response to this report. The Dharan Republic has been assessed as too grave a risk to retaliate against with the utilisation of hard power. In addition, questioning the Republic is unlikely to raise any further information that this report does not already contain. The report is to be kept at its current level of secrecy in perpetuity and each successive President of the Confederation shall be made aware of its contents in part or in full.

An option shall be retained for a further ruling if successive Presidents deem it to be necessary.

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