No doubt, almost every screen, virtually every holographic projector, practically every form of media on Darkworld Frontier was set to a singular image: that of a huge, broadly cuboid machine, the Shango starship Intergalactic Medium Bridge. The ship itself was one of the largest objects the Shango Federation could have designed and constructed, short of anything tethered to a Darkworld; twenty kilometres long, and fifteen high and wide, to human eyes it may well have resembled a modified games console, with its large circular section at the front emitting a soft glow, and rectangular nurnies detailing the faces.
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?”
“It’s fucking ridiculous.”
“Then why are you even coming?”
“I wanted to get away.”
Frallin combined a laugh and a sigh in response. Only Harak Zenter could come up with such a contradiction; only he could make it sound like he was being perfectly reasonable whilst doing so.
“Get away? As in, let’s disappear for a few centuries, just a bit of a holiday, bit of fun, y’know…”
Frallin turned away from him to look at the hordes of media, who had gathered in the conference room in the hope of a pre-launch interview, but their hopes were inevitably dashed by the Membrane that shielded off not just sound but sight and even scent of them. Frallin didn’t care; to see their scrambling and bustling, apparently attempting to judge any (purely imagined) flicker in the Membrane, was amusing to say the least. The two of them, though, had a teleport pad in front of them, and the co-ordinates set for the ship. For the next 1/100, they didn’t need to speak to anyone.
“Harak, how long have we been friends?”
She knew the answer – sixty-four years – but got it anyway.
“I like to think I know you. And these shenanigans aren’t unusual, but… they’re not appropriate. Not for something like this-”
“It’s my choice, and I’m going. Look, I can be a part of something and still be its critic, right?”
“Not if you’re going to be like this all the way. This is easily the biggest expedition in the whole Federation right now, possibly ever. It needs constructive criticism, not bitching.”
“I’m not bitching.”
Well, she had to hand it to him that he wasn’t then.
The clock counted down slowly, flipping and tipping fractions over its digital display with ease. She could almost have been hypnotised by it, but it wasn’t long before the device tipped and flipped its way to 1/300, which jolted her back into reality. That soon?
“Well, I’m sure you’ll change your mind once we’re out of the galaxy. And then again once we’re in the next one.”
“Pinning me down one-dimensionally as indecisive? I’d have thought that’d be the last thing you’d do, Frallin, what with those brains you inherited from your Qareen mother and all.”
“Actually, I’m sure you’ve made up your mind completely. But of course, you’ve been a little cleverer than that and decided to not only decide your opinion, but set it to a pendulum motion, too.”
“That’s more like it.”
Of course, what she really, truly, genuinely wanted was for her best friend (and maybe it was a little unfortunate that such a mercurial guy could wind up with that status in her mind) to simply reset that pendulum to the middle, and at most make it bob back and forth, just like it had at the start of this project. But that was the problem with men like Harak; he was compelling and varied enough to hang around with, but always too passionate, too unrestrained, too Shango not to prompt ire from her.
She looked away from the clock, which now read 4/1500, and moved towards the console in front of the teleport pad, where the co-ordinate settings were helped by the 3D projection of the ship above it. Poking a finger at the bridge, set in an unorthodox manner behind that glowing circular front section, she nodded with satisfaction and stepped back again. Another couple of 1/1500s, and they’d both hop on and get out of there.
Until then, the pair of them would switch between silently laughing at the eager but futile efforts of the press, and checking the clock.
Of course, all this thought of time made her think back over the history of the project, whose lifespan had eerily paralleled hers; and so it had all come together, this coincidence which drew together herself, Harak and the Intergalactic. It all made twisted sense; her life, tied to that ship, and that ship, tied to radical notions, and those kinds of radical notions, those ideas, which could only come from people like Harak.
“What is the next great achievement of the Shango Federation?”
Around the completely matte-black table, the silent buck was passed around, completing the circuit back to the speaker.
“Fair enough, I’ll tell you. The next great achievement for all of Shangokind is for us to reconnect with the great story of our times. The big first contact. The planet where the legends were born.”
“You’re talking about Earth, Mr. Zenter?”
Harak didn’t like the man’s tone, but he was a representative of MEAC and as such, couldn’t really be derided – not if he wanted his commission agreed. For all the supposed lack of scarcity, he thought, there are still times when society forces my hand. Ridiculous.
“Indeed I am. Now, the human database, as well as being useful for other things, gave us a strong idea of where Earth is. If we take a look at this barred spiral galaxy, which is placed to the galactic up, we can find that it is located in what humanity believed to be a sparsely populated star system in one specific arm of the galaxy.
“Now, travelling to get there would take several centuries at the current technological level of the Federation, which is why I have accounted for this with two proposals. The first is that the ship is going to have to be large; very large. Large enough, in fact, to be self-sufficient. Also, and this in comparison is something of an aside, but it’ll need extensive capabilities in order to dock with a ship of a similar size.”
“In case one catches up to it. We should, in circumstances like this, consider the possibility of technological advancement, and what happens if a ship capable of catching the proposed one arises.”
“That is quite some forward thinking, Zenter,” the MEAC man replied, “and nothing beyond the capabilities of my organisation.”
“Fettlebuild can manage this easily, too. Keep us in the frame.”
Harak felt flattered that these shipbuilders were on board. Then again, the ever-humming, ever-working rational side of him surfaced even as he felt that flattery, and explained that of course they were on board. This was no crackpot scheme, here; it had clear merit, on both the scientific and artistic sides, it was feasible, if difficult, and it was unique. What coalition wouldn’t side with such an idea?
He decided to approach some sort of conclusion, and brought up a projection over the table of the proposed ship.
“This is the Intergalactic.”
He got some half-impressed nods.
“I’ll work on the name. But the point is, this is my proposed starting point,” he continued, and slapped a disc down onto the table. “Feel free to grab the data, there’s more than just a design here. Feel free to look it over, and I will consider any offer. Also, I’m opening the floor, any questions, fire away.”
The men and women around the table downloaded the data in seconds. The first one with a question, Harak noted, was the MEAC man.
“What do you know about Earth, anyway?”
“I have acquired the entirety of the human database,” he replied, “or at least, I’m told as much. And of course, I have this…”
He opened up another projection, a blue, green and tan sphere smeared and streaked with white.
“Of course, that was Earth some two million years ago. Who knows what humanity, or anyone else, has done to it since. The point is, we are looking for something broadly like this, as a third planet in the system, with a single moon. Given the time jump, we should also expect it to be a few degrees rotated from where the database’s co-ordinates suggest, but its travel along the arm should be negligible.”
He spied a particularly impressed look from the MEAC man. You’ve got this all assembled, he thought.
“MEAC really went to town on that sketch,” Frallin said, having pulled herself out of the Tracklayer booth. The booth itself was a strange contraption, taking up half a room which in turn seemed to take up half a room. Next to it, beyond the partition, the console in the room’s other half (or quarter) showed the aforementioned sketch, along with several exploded diagrams of the final design.
“Yeah. I mean, they added some nice little features, but shit, they understand Dharan space more than I do.”
“I guess they’ve got a little experience about these sorts of things.”
“Well, maybe. But no, the real brilliance is here – fractal design.”
Frallin looked at each of the diagrams in turn. Indeed, the ship’s cuboid design had lent itself to this – the capacity to make ships inside ships, and then ships inside them, and indeed ships inside them. Certain ships-within-ships-within-the-ship had been left empty, as a way of networking the energy of all the smaller engines together.
“So how are we doing?” Harak asked, seemingly wondering how to clear the diagrams as he hovered over the controls.
“Oh, y’know. Fairly well. 1/3 in, we’ve hit top speed, we should be out of the galaxy in a no-stars-beyond manner in about 3/4.”
He seemed, Frallin noticed, a little distant today, but more positive. The pendulum had started to swing back again.
“You said MEAC understood Dharan space better. How d’you mean?”
He took a step, as if making his way to some sort of whiteboard, but realised that he wasn’t really about to deliver any sort of presentation and moved back again. “Well,” he said, “Dharan space, let’s face it, is anywhere that we are not. And of course, Dharan spaceships are not to be trusted in the slightest. They’ll pot-shot us, they’ll probably fuck with our systems, they’ll buzz around us just to try and psych us, they’ll do all sorts of things. But if they do any of that, we just might have a chance if the ship can break up automatically.”
He took one of the exploded diagrams, wrapped his arms around it, and began to push the holographic pieces in. Frallin watched as he stepped back and, assuming a momentum of their own – despite being mere bits of light – the projected components slowly fell into a gentle implosion, forming the ship they were in.
“Anyway, so what else is there to actually do on this ship?”
Well, no-one knew the answer to that better than Harak, and she had given him a licence to give her the full guided tour.
“Of course, there was one issue of the whole decentralised thing,” Harak admitted, “MEAC worked on it for ages; it took years, in fact. Eventually we had to invent a whole new system of flexibility, from the ground up.”
“Really?” she asked, stepping onto the teleporter pad. A slow blink and both of them had jumped inwards towards the middle of the Intergalactic.
“Yeah. I mean, you think entertainment and leisure isn’t important, but having hundreds of years with nothing to do isn’t viable. Cold storage isn’t, really, either; too many potential system failures are bound up in that. And then of course there are issues of psychology, of providing enough variation… anyway. Here it is.”
“It” was a large, seemingly blank room, the floor of which seemed to be a little disconnected to the walls and ceiling, all of which were coloured a sort of blue-grey.
“We had to computerise a few things. Actually, a lot of things. And with often limited space, we had to VR a lot too. But like I said, we do have this system that we built, got the idea from an old architecture – not exactly company, but you know what I mean-”
“They had this idea for a moving maze. I’m told the building itself didn’t last long, or maybe it was just moved, I can’t quite remember, but it wasn’t an engineering fault. The whole thing worked perfectly.”
A demonstration came as the walls were subducted into the ceiling, and the whole room transformed into a large hall with a mezzanine.
“Yes. But it is a little crude.”
“I remember, you used to talk about this all the time. And now you’ve made it happen.”
She remembered how the corridors were filled with geometric designs, intersecting lines, spikes and stars and points and tines. The whole thing was seemingly designed to incorporate every discovery that the Institute had ever made, and she wouldn’t have been surprised if, somewhere in a back corridor, there was a builder with his nanobots at the ready, scratching his head and wondering what kind of twisted bullshit was being depicted on the pages he had just been handed.
Still, she had only seen the reception area which, not content to be merely a large, open space, was crossed from wall to wall and ceiling to floor with bending, twisting corridors like man-sized ventilation shafts; some opaque, some translucent, some transparent. In amongst this tangle was an oasis of officious calm, a toroid reception desk with an orbit ring of seats, where she was sat.
“Gap? Ms. Frallin Gap?”
“You’ll be glad to know that we will be advancing your application, and that for the next stage, you’ll have to remain in the building. You’ll be seeing a Mr. Zenter.”
She was led into the mouth of a tunnel, which prompted rose up, curved round and became one of those corridors; the translucent, floor-to-ceiling windows outside rendered the reception area an abstract blur. The floor buckled, bent and twisted upwards, downwards, from side to side, but for some reason, it was accompanied by shifts in Grab, making the floor “down” regardless of what went on outside.
“We managed to create a dynamic Grab system last year,” the receptionist explained, “so we added all of these corridors. It makes access easier, for sure, but for the most part, it’s another thing we can show off too.”
Well, Frallin thought, that was one suspicion confirmed.
“So you apply everything you can to the Institute directly?”
“We try. Not everything can be done well – the Exhibition Halls at the back of the building aren’t really ideal, but when you design or conceptualise a starship, what else can you do with it?”
“You could maybe emulate certain designs and integrate them into some of the interiors,” Frallin suggested.
“Ah. That is exactly the kind of ideas that go down well here,” she said, and they continued to walk on. The corridor continued to twist; they had now long since left the reception area, and so an exact point of reference proved increasingly difficult to find. Frallin was reasonably sure that they had been upside-down at least once, but she couldn’t prove it. Either way, another suspicion of hers was seemingly being confirmed – that this Mr. Zenter quite possibly had an office on the other side of Darkworld Franklin’s Space 59.
It turned out not to be the case, as – she checked her wrist unit – 1/390 later, the corridor twisted one more time into what she intuited as upright, and an office door appear that the receptionist moved more definitely in the direction of, and then yanked open.
“Mr. Zenter, the next candidate is here. Frallin Gap.”
Harak Zenter was a man whose movements were precise, whose gaze seemed to phase in and out of focus, whose attention always seemed to be divided in ever-shifting ratios.
“Ms. Gap,” he said as the door clicked shut, “you’re the… third candidate I’ve seen for Head of Personnel on the IGM Project today. So… why are you better than the others, that have been, and that are gonna come through the door?”
“Well, with incomplete information I can’t really say. Only you really know, Harak.”
He squinted a look that suggested affront to this apparent insubordination, but then unexpectedly broke into a laugh and slapped his hands together. “Yes. Not a bullshitter,” he said, and lazily pointed a finger, “that kind of reasoning is what we need.”
When did I become the Tracklayer? Frallin wondered.
The crew of the ship – who turned out to be a one thousand and twenty-four strong mass – were gathered on the bridge, a fact made possible by the walls and ceilings collapsing into a series of platforms, thanks to the flexible architecture. What flurry of slides, clunks, shifts and spins it would take to morph the whole thing back, Frallin could only begin to guess, but for now, there was an anticipatory mood; for the first time in centuries, a Shango ship was deliberately going to leave the galaxy, and indeed it was about to go further than any previous expedition. That latter achievement was still some way off – around fifteen days off, it was calculated – but they were going to celebrate the last stars dropping away anyway.
“How long to go?” Harak asked.
“Hard to judge an exact level on our trajectory, but, it’s probably another 1/790. I’ve also plotted a course that’ll take us in between two pairs of planets in the last system out; we probably won’t see anything meaningful but I decided on it anyway.”
“Well, sometimes you’ve gotta let go, have a bit of fun…”
It was a cramped gathering, but the crew were determined to struggle against such conditions anyway, wavering on platforms and dancing in an awkward, minimalist way to the hard thump and layered distortion of Darkworld Franklin’s indigenous music scenes. The clock on the main screen tumbled down the fractions, until, finally, it flickered 0/1. A cheer went up, but she could tell that it wasn’t the whole crowd.
“Was that it?”
“Can’t believe we had a party for that.”
“Well, it’s the great unknown now. The great beyond. And in fifteen days we’re record breakers.”
This, Frallin had explained to her would-be teammates before the seventh night’s big Fortress Keep game, was the closest any Shango could possibly get to experiencing nothingness. For years onwards, they were most likely to come across decillions of cubic metres of volume that each contained nothing other than about a dozen hydrogen ions. She also explained, however unnecessarily, that such a dry experience was what they wanted, too – the alternative being too uncertain to be worth risking.
Fortress Keep was not a game that Frallin could ever master. Like many Shango games, its setup was immensely complex, but its fundamental aim and its manner of play was thuddingly simple. It reminded her of her mother’s time as a semi-professional (as much as such a term could mean in Qareen society, playing for points rather than money), when she would note to her daughter that the Qareen worked to divorce sport from war, whereas the Shango too often blurred the two. Being older, wiser and more questioning, she now regarded such a statement as being part rooted in prejudice that, despite her father’s presence, her mother couldn’t quite shed; but it wasn’t without some truth, she thought. So it was for that reason that she was inadequate at the game.
What made her completely inept, though, was her lack of one-dimensional thinking. They had designated her as driver, the position every Fortress Keep team seemed to dump on the less talented, despite its apparent importance, yet she couldn’t seem to cope with the way the cabin was secured to its maglev rail, unable to pull forward to pre-emptively strike, or fall back to make up for lost ground.
The first point epitomised the game; as the ball, several metres in diameter, rolled diagonally at speed towards her team’s end, Frallin found herself trying to push diagonally to meet it, making the cabin list slowly in the right direction. Yanking the controls further to the left brought the correct response, but it came just slightly too late, and the cabin thudded hard into the soft, rubber-like buffer on the wall, bouncing the whole team back sharply and flinging them about in the interior.
“What the hell, Gap?”
“I’m trying, damnit.”
They had agreed first to seven for a set, and best of three sets; this game, she thought, was going to be arduous and painful to watch, let alone participate in.
The next point saw their opponents go for a trio of slashing moves that cumulatively (with two passive returns) forced the ball into a lengthy zigzagging path; this, Frallin realised, she could deal with. She could already see, with the opposing team powerless to alter it, exactly where it was going; all it took was the right place at the right time with the right momentum and – bang – the side-to-side roll was obliterated, replaced by a rapid forward smash that the opponents were simply powerful to prevent. With that, the ball careened into the far-side trench, and the scores were level.
It turned out to be the main highlight of the set, though, and arguably the match; losing 7-3 in the first wasn’t great, but 7-6 in the second was agonising.
“Well, Gap, I guess you tried. But seriously, what the hell is it with you and completely straight shots?”
“I don’t know, it just seems to be an aversion. I guess I overthink these things.”
“Here’s something to not overthink,” Harak cut in over the comms, “Dharan ship, gonna intersect within 1/57.”
Naturally, even the best-resolution holographic display could only show two ships, one crawling through nothing and the other sprinting through it. There were few conclusions to be drawn, but three crew members had already jammed themselves into the seats at weapons control, and another had already placed himself behind a console Frallin didn’t recognise the function of.
“We should consider splitting.”
Frallin threw herself into the Tracklayer booth – somehow the one place no-one had thought to bag – and examined the path. There were few options anyhow; a Dharan ship was at least three thousand times faster than even the best Shango ship; to try and dodge it was akin to a slug attempting to dodge a guided missile.
“Have we messaged them yet?” she asked.
“Yes, once,” Harak replied.
“Do it again. They almost never reply to the first one,” she said. A pause followed. “Seriously, do it.”
This probably counted as insubordination, but Harak did it anyway; only she could really get away with it to that extent.
“Done,” he said, “converted to D.I.S. too.”
“Dharan Indigenous Standard? How’d you compress it all down?”
“You just have to think like a child,” he said, “they do. Maybe it’s where we go wrong. Anyway…,” he drifted off, and examined the hologram. “They’re still steaming in.”
Frallin decided to push the rails a little to the ship’s right. She realised that this would do precisely nothing, but she felt like she had to make some kind of move anyway. She looked to her right and saw the Dharan ship adjust its course, and right then, there was no mistaking it-
“They’re heading right for us, Harak. I’d start considering-”
“Yutta, start the early stages for the split.”
The crew member behind the previously unidentified console spun round and started to manically tap and spin various graphics on its screen.
“It’s a complex procedure,” Harak assured her.
The holographic display showed the two ships converge in what felt like an agonising wait. Frallin decided to tip the ship further to the right anyway, facing away from the incoming Dharans, although directly outrunning them was an even more ludicrous proposition than dodging them. They showed no sign of slowing, though; was it possible, Frallin thought, that they actually hadn’t spotted them? That it was all a coincidence?
She turned back to the Tracklayer booth, brought up the screen that showed the intersecting courses, and threw it across to the main screen, to make the numbers more readable. There, in tumbling fractions, was the time remaining until contact.
“They’re not gonna ram us, are they?” Harak wondered aloud.
“That’d break the ship, surely,” Yutta replied.
“Don’t count on it,” Frallin said, “have your hand over that split button, Yutta. Is it ready?”
He nodded. She turned back to the booth’s multitude of screens, where the words “near miss likely” in aggravated spikes dominated all of them. In her peripheral vision, the denominators on the main screen grew alarmingly large under a steady number one.
“Yutta, do it now!”
Yutta only had one button to hit, but the Dharans were within ten parsecs, and their aim became clear soon enough, as the ship suddenly lurched forward with unnatural momentum that its onboard systems couldn’t counter.
“What the fuck?”
“Where are they taking us?”
“Fucked if I know. Maximum alert.”