Some had been here for decades, even centuries, although Frallin could barely imagine it. By no means was it a bad environment to be in, but to see that same environment every day was surely too much. Even she had hopped her way around Darkworld Franklin on numerous occasions, living in different cities, different settlements, even occasionally on her own isolated patch of turf, kilometres from anyone. These people could live beyond her means, she thought to herself, and yet they never bothered to, instead simply choosing a humble setting of either a shanty town or a hotel (no, Hotel, with a capital H) near the seaside.
Still, who was she to question the norms of another society? And a Dharan one, at that.
Room 988 was logically enough positioned on the ninth storey of the Hotel. The ninth storey itself seemed to be one long corridor – it never broke off into others, merely turned a corner now and then – consisting purely of rooms and the lift they had left behind. Occasionally a door was open; as the four of them swept past it, Frallin glanced inside each one; as she did so, she found she could see the sea, and the shanty town, every single time. The same view; in other words, even when they turned, they didn’t. But they did.
She decided to push that thought aside.
The driver flung open the door to Room 988 and stood aside, inviting them in. The three Shango walked in, and Frallin saw about ten Dharans gathered around the room, some standing, some sitting, and one standing up to meet them.
The room itself was large, filled with activity, with a genuine buzz even amongst just ten people (and she counted, and she found that yes, her first estimate of ten was right). She could sense information swarming around the room, updates racing one another; yet of course, their technology didn’t call for this to be shown.
“Good evening, as it is here,” the man who had stood said to them, “the Dharan Republic will treat you well. So what brings a thousand or so Shango into Dharan space?”
“We’re-” Harak begun.
“You already know that,” Frallin said.
The Dharan pointed a finger and laughed, and whilst it unnerved her a little, it didn’t sound entirely malicious to her. “That is true, I do. And I should say, although my culture does introductions badly, I can at least try. I am Lanefer, Hotelier of Hotel 547, NGC4038 and 9.”
The three of them nodded. Presumably this meant he was in charge.
“Yes, we are well aware that the Intergalactic Medium is heading towards what you call the legendary planet. If I may say so, this is extremely bold of you. It is bold, indeed, for a traditionally conservative Shango society.”
Lanefer had taken a couple of steps back and to the side, moving towards a central point in the group, as if to address an imaginary audience of thousands.
“You do realise,” he continued, “well, actually, I’m sure you do – that it would take hundreds of years for you to reach Earth. But of course, for us it is mere days…”
He drifted off, like he expected one of the three of them to answer.
“So what are you suggesting, Hotelier?” Harak asked, “are you saying that you can get us there? That we shouldn’t? I’m sure you are, but even the smartest Shango isn’t a mindreader.”
Lanefer spoke briefly with the individuals seated, then walked over to a quartet of staffers who were working on a pitch-black table behind the sofa he had sat on. After some discussion, he turned back.
“Even the best leader has to consult their government and their civil service from time to time. It is quite simple, what we want to offer you, and what we want to do. The first thing is that I am sure you are all aware of the rules surrounding this meeting.”
Frallin, at least, nodded.
“Good. The second thing, is that we want to offer you a choice.”
Outside, it started raining; the silver sheen of sky had switched to an inverted black sea. The rain itself, far from merely starting, or even sweeping in, simply hit the windows with the force of a hose.
“You know,” Lanefer said to no-one in particular, “I’d forgotten we had rain scheduled.”
His colleagues laughed.
“You fool, Lanefer!”
He shook his head at his own idiocy and turned back to his three guests.
“So we offer a choice. It is technically a choice, although I am sure it feel more like an ultimatum. My point is this: you can either return to the galaxy you came from, or… you can go to Earth, explore your legend. But! You cannot do both. You go to Earth, and there is no turning back.”
A long pause followed; the staffers had stopped laughing, but the rain still assaulted the windows and a flanging roll of thunder barrelled over the room.
“You have all the time you wish to take to decide,” the Hotelier said, “and you don’t all have to decide the same way.”
“May I ask,” Harak said, “what exactly is so, so secret and so important about Earth that you and everyone else here have to, absolutely have to, and keep the Federation from knowing?”
“You can ask,” Lanefer pointed out, “but I don’t have to tell you.”
“I decided to focus on weapons, actually, and now I’ve managed to get that whole area sorted, personnel-wise. Two hundred and fifty-six people should sort it. The only thing that bothers me is that I see a lot of the usual down at Fat Vert, with the weapons themselves.”
“Well this project was always going to have its limitations, whatever the timeframe.”
True enough, Frallin thought to herself, but some of those limitations are too big and in the wrong areas. Still, Harak ultimately called the shots, and she was free to jump off the wagon – or more accurately, the half-complete spacecraft – at any time. It was tempting, too; right now, Harak was in one of his neutral modes, but it’d only be so long before he started to doubt the whole project again – probably, given how quickly these swings could sometimes occur, whilst they were still in the reception area.
“The point is, defence is surely the most basic requirement, the first priority. The energy-drawing tech is sorted by now, so it surely falls to this.”
There was a long pause as the two of them made their way into the first corridor, which immediately twisted round into a tunnel passing over the reception floor. This one took her back; decades ago, now, it had been, since she had first been shown here, and taken to Harak’s office, and shown that bizarre, Grab-shifting technology. And with that introduction, she felt she had been shown that up could be down, that left could be right, that all reference points could be switched around and altered, and so much more was possible.
She had seen a steady rise in enthusiasm within herself from then on. Why Harak still wavered, she couldn’t figure out.
The hose was on again; the rain slammed against room 888, the one below the Hotel’s government. It slammed against the others, too; probably every single room, given the weird geometry of the place – Frallin had checked, and her earlier suspicion was true; every room – every empty room, no matter what the route needed to access it was, faced out onto the seafront and the shanty town, not the plains behind the Hotel. The mist had rolled in, leaving nothing visible beyond the port and only an impressionistic feel of anything from further than five blocks away.
“Well I have to hand it to them,” Yutta opened as they sat down, “they have forced us to have the courage of our convictions. Do we want to see Earth or not, you see?”
“Well, it’s a thousand and twenty-four of those questions. No ‘we’ about it,” Frallin pointed out.
“True enough. But my point remains the same – how much do you, or I, or you, Harak, give a damn about this?”
“And what are your thoughts?”
He thought for a while.
“I’m adventurous. I’d say that about myself; but only up to a point. There has to be a limit, and never seeing anyone you know ever again is surely that limit, giving up two galaxies for one damn planet that might not even be what we think it is, that, people, has to be the damn limit.”
Another unnatural roll of thunder struck the Hotel.
“But that’s just me,” Yutta concluded.
Frallin had taken the long perimeter seat that ran around the entire interior of the suite, which happened to a hefty distance, broken up only by membranes. Looking down and to her left, over the back of the sofa, allowed her to watch the town. They keep tens of thousands of robots, she said, just to add to the experience of being Dharan. A bizarre tendency, to her, but even worse was that this, and the Hotel, and the rain that could be switched on and off like a tap or even, more accurately, like a data bit, was that all of it would go. All of it would be erased, either through the giant gagging orders the Republic could slap on the Federation, or else through the technology she reckoned they no doubt had.
“Well I think we are admitting defeat,” Harak argued, and having spotted a better chair, a swivelling armchair, he moved to seize it. “The demystification laws had loopholes. Not many, but they were there. And there’s probably some here; we’ve got to stop assuming that these people are impossible to beat. They’re not gods. They’re just close to being them.”
“Yeah, but…” Yutta struggled to counter.
“Suppose I go to Earth,” Harak suggested, “suppose I go there, and I pledge not to return. And suppose I then embrace Dharan citizenship, Dharan culture, Dharan… Dharan-ness. I’d be a part of the Republic, with the rights and freedoms that a Dharan has. So, it logically follows-”
“It never logically follows, not with the Dharans,” Frallin said.
“It logically follows,” Harak insisted, “that a Dharan can do what a Shango can’t, and that must include travelling wherever in the supercluster and the Republic’s territory they choose.”
The rainfall began to stutter and spray in patterns; the Hotelier was probably showing off.
“Two problems,” Frallin replied, “one, suppose you wind up in too deep. You’re fully assimilated as a Dharan; you never want to return. What then? And – two – what if they’ve got this whole conversation taped upstairs? Because you surely know that they have.”
Harak nodded and swung round a turn. “Well there should be a way,” he muttered.
“And they’ll hear you even if you knock it down to a decibel,” Frallin insisted.
“I wonder what the other lot are doing,” Yutta asked.
The Intergalactic Medium had a large crew for any spaceship, but its sheer size meant that its population density was low. Having lost three of their most important officers, the rest of the crew had decided to move to the ship’s front eighth and seal off the remainder. Letting many of the walls and ceilings fold in further moulded the ship into a closer community.
How long had it even been, now, since they had left? Quite a few days. Naturally, there had been a couple of votes on what to do, whether to break out or stay in the ship, and the more conservative option had won out. Proponents of breaking out had rightly pointed out that the ship was not indestructible, and that even if the Dharans had fiddled with it, somehow, it seemed unlikely that the ship’s weapons, focused inwards, wouldn’t be able to breach the outer hull.
Proponents of staying, however, had argued that even if they broke out, they’d most likely face a town of thousands of Dharans, and that it was possible that just a single one could overpower them. Their brief glimpse of the outside – of what appeared to be a humble port town with a single large high-rise and an immensely long pier decorated with various elaborate structures along its length – was almost certainly a deception of some kind. At the very least, it was hiding much greater power within its seemingly basic presence, and that, they argued, was precisely why it was dangerous; because advanced technology, quite often, doesn’t even look advanced.
And so each and every one of them remained onboard.
Tekkir had promoted himself to captain in the light of Harak, Yutta and Frallin’s disappearance. Technically he was of joint authority with Renzer and Killoa, but he reckoned that those two didn’t have the initiative he had. For one, he’d promoted himself to captain – what showed better initiative than that?
After the two votes, though, even Tekkir had found the Dharans to be forcing his hand. It was, if he remembered rightly, the eleventh day when the crew as a whole first heard something from outside.
He personally had chosen the quarters directly opposite the bridge, in the newly-rearranged ship; it was a room that effectively made him central to those who chose the balconies, as they were regarded, but also in between the villagers – those living at the bottom of the ship’s hull – and the stalactites, those few who had somehow chosen to live on the top deck.
The balconies were also referred to as the balconies, however, because they did indeed possess balconies, and it was his own one that he walked onto on the morning of the incident, and spotted a huge message, in two-line jagged Shango text – “Go to your ship’s bridge: the Dharan Republic offers each of you a choice.”
It struck him as especially odd; he hadn’t seen it whilst walking onto the balcony. He moved a step to his left, and the message disappeared. He stepped back to the right; it appeared; he stepped again to the right; it disappeared.
So the message was definitely for him. Apparently, the Dharans recognised him as acting captain, too.
He headed back inside, turned towards the teleporter pad, and then remembered, before hurrying out of the door.
When he reached the bridge, the main screen spelt out the actual message, and the choice – not offered to him, mind; there would be no executive decision for him to take. It turned out that the individual crew would have to decide, and that his big role would be to relay the message.
Well, he thought, that sucked.
He relayed it anyway. But what a choice – Earth or Darkworld Franklin, but not both. He knew that some people would be torn by that. In a way, he was disappointed too; he had, after all, signed up for the mission decades beforehand, gotten to know a large swathe of the crew, and put in a lot of effort to, well, become acting captain (in order to relay a damn message).
For him, though, the choice was simple enough. Never seeing anyone he knew ever again simply to see this planet wasn’t worth it; at the very least, he needed plenty of others to split off in that direction. He yanked the message back, and appended a line: send votes to bridge.
And then he sat back and waited. It took, judging from the tumbling fractions on that main screen’s clock, about 1/300 for the first result to arrive.
One vote for Darkworld Franklin…
It had been a surprisingly long journey to Darkworld Xenakis, or at least, it had felt like that. It transpired that her destination was one of the floating cities above Cave 18, and that wasn’t fun to figure out the teleport co-ordinates to, either – she’d had to leave it as being very imprecise, to guarantee that she would land amidst all the various reference points. And that imprecision meant another long journey through the city, to the right house on the right street, where finally, she could knock at the door.
“Hi, I’m Frallin Gap. I was a colleague of a Harak Zenter, he told me to tell you the news about him.”
The woman behind the door looked worried. “Well, come in.”
Frallin did so, and took a seat in the main room.
“The good news is that he’s not dead. The bad news…”
“The bad news?”
“He’s not coming back. Most likely.”
The woman opposite her – Harak had given her name as Teyens Parr, but never revealed whether she was a partner, a sister or a mother – seemed a little calmer about that. She was probably aware of the mission.
“We on the Intergalactic Medium – we never reached Earth. The Dharans intercepted us, and from then on, it was them calling the shots. They gave us a choice, and most of us chose to go back home and not talk about the details. I say most of us; we had a crew of a thousand and twenty four, and a thousand and twenty three made the choice to go back to Franklin.”
“Harak made the choice to go to Earth. He was determined, we couldn’t convince him to turn away, and he’s still convinced that he’s come back.”
“And you’re not?”
“No. The Dharans tend to keep their promises.”
She couldn’t argue with that, and Frallin had little else to personally add, so she reached inside her pocket and pulled out a wooden box. Flipping it open, she revealed a huge stack of discs inside.
“He asked me to give you this. Most of it is research, projects and the like. This one on the end, though” – she partially pulled out a disc with red markings – “this one’s for you. I haven’t looked at it, it’s for you alone, and I won’t intrude on that. So… well, that’s it, really.”
They talked for a short while longer, but Frallin said her goodbyes and left, heading out into the city. Kargan Dek, according to the address she was given, and apparently (the ship guide insisted on telling her) the largest city of its kind on Xenakis. Very Harak, that, she thought; a relatively quiet Darkworld, and a setting that usually threw up villages at most, but a busy setting all the same.
She found a teleport booth, and made two hops, first to the Cave mainland and then back to the ship’s observation deck. Through the transparent material, the stars were visible, shifting around her as the ship weaved its way out of the system at sublight speed.
“Computer, how long until we’re back at Franklin?”
“At top speed, approximately ten and 1/7 days. At current speed, four hundred and thirteen thousand, nine hundred and twenty years.”
She grinned at the computer’s literalism.
“Engage top speed?”
She swore she could see something in the distance, of lower magnitude than any star or comet, a presence rushing vaguely in her direction. She pointed to it.
“Computer, identify this.”
“Low-shielded Dharan ship; database suggests NGC 4038 and 9, Designated Ship 101205.”
“OK,” she said, after a long pause. “OK, top speed, Darkworld Franklin.”
The view vanished.
“Goodbye, Harak,” she said quietly in the darkness, “for now.”