Field of Blades (Part Two)

III

Truly symbiotic design. The process whereby one half of the plan fed, inevitably, into the other, which in turn fed back into the original. And the truly symbiotic design did this completely, unalterably; in fact, such a design probably didn’t exist in real life, and was most likely a mere model, like a set of Penrose stairs. But the closest thing to that model could nonetheless remain excellent, visionary and, well, symbiotic.

Frallin had spent two years with this Zenter guy, and faced, no doubt, an aggregate of about sixteen days’ worth of talk about truly symbiotic designs. The man was seemingly obsessed, even if he was a decent enough individual. Yet that laser-sharp focus was getting her down, as he cycled through three, and pretty much only three, subjects – truly symbiotic design, whatever that was, dynamic architecture, whatever that was (although this was at least concrete enough a subject for her to get some idea) and whether the project was rooted in a good idea. It had taken very little time at all – a few days at most – for her to realise that she was dealing with a man who was so full of bravado, of ideas so big that anyone else would dismiss them as infeasible or downright stupid, and at the same time, a man of immense insecurity. She was tempted to wonder how these two sides squared, but equally quickly realised that they didn’t; he was just a very divided man, psychologically.

She didn’t really know what to make of that, but if she knew that if she didn’t get a handle on it soon enough, it would bother her for the rest of the project. And that meant years…

6

There hadn’t been the slightest pause, Frallin realised; they had just grabbed the ship, like an eagle grabbing a rodent.

“Can we still split?”

“The mechanism’s not responding. They’ve probably overridden it.”

“They probably did it from a hundred parsecs out.”

“Gap, you’re the psychologist. Theorise.”

The booth didn’t allow her to spin her chair round, which made her move to face the rest of them much less smooth than she had hoped. “Hard to say,” she said, truthfully, “although you mention the social sciences. We might well have made ourselves a self-selecting sample.”

Harak didn’t seem to buy this. The others, she felt, were only half-in, too.

“We threw ourselves into what they would regard as Dharan space. Any replies, Yutta?”

“Nothing. Not a fucking thing. We’ll be speculating until we get to where they’re taking us.”

“Where are they taking us?”

“Don’t know,” Harak replied, “but we know that they can get us there before the day’s out.” He sighed, and Frallin heard a muttered “shit” under his breath. “I just can’t believe that the separation didn’t work.”

“We underestimated them, Harak, it’s hardly a crime,” Frallin replied, “we’re probably not the first lot to do so, anyhow.”

“That doesn’t make it any easier. And doesn’t mean it won’t cost us.”

After that, the six of them struggled to find anything to say. The holographic display flicked back on; the Intergalactic Medium was shown, physically attached to the Dharan ship above it with some giant, claw-like device; an image that seemed akin to a mouse with an eagle in its paws. Clearly, to Frallin, the display was being externally manipulated, and she found her proof when it panned out, suddenly revealing the wider context; the dot-like pair of ships were rapidly moving towards another… thing, that she couldn’t identify.

“Gap?”

“It’s either another ship or a place of residence. Something like a Darkworld. The fact that they won’t tell us, though, is kinda revealing.”

She checked the time; around 1/146, she figured, had passed since the incident. Further mental arithmetic suggested that by the time they reached the dot, the thing, the not-a-Darkworld, they would have broken the record. Somehow, this seemed like a weak consolation for the situation at hand. It almost certainly was to the other five, too; the three at weapons control, having turned to face the captain, seemed to be collectively looking to the exits too. Yutta was simply inert, and no doubt, in Harak’s mind, that pendulum swing had suddenly and against the laws of cognitive physics managed to slow.

“I just don’t know what to do,” he said.

“There’s nothing you can do, Harak. Just sit back and wait to see what the Dharans think and do.”

“And suppose they think to, and do, take us to this Darkworld-equivalent you suggested? What about the demystification laws?”

Those laws had called on six years of her time, during which she had been required to single-handedly brief one thousand and twenty-three others on everything she knew about the given subject, the ambiguities, and indeed things there were outright unknown; the history, the justifications and the structuring. But despite this, she had, in the panic and confusion of these developments, forgotten about them.

“Damn.”

IIII

Fat Vert was the opposite of the Institute of Sciences and Social Development. The ISSD was a precisely-designed organisation, right down to the logos and nondescript acronym which didn’t attempt anything clever.  Fat Vert, naturally, had that ugly, unsubtle name, but also a certain lack of subtlety in its location and design, which were, respectively, on the Institute’s relative antipode in Space 1, and two walls that were wedged in between Vex 1 and Cave 1.

However ugly and unsubtle it was, though, Fat Vert was the one place where a big enough space could be partitioned for the construction of the Intergalactic Medium, whilst still being tethered to the space within the Darkworld. The location and design were the result of a hundred little compromises.

Frallin’s job shouldn’t really have required her to be within a thousand kilometres of Fat Vert, ever, but naturally this job was different, and truly symbiotic design overruled traditional division of labour. She entered Fat Vert via West Entrance 137, emerging from a brief tunnel to see the interior space that dominated the building. Hung above the screen, suspended by immense scaffolding structures and forcefields, was the outer structure of the ship, still being carefully worked over. Around the edge, lifts slid up, across and down for access to the outer offices and halls; as she looked up, she realised that the storeys stretching up into the sky weren’t especially visible from ground level.

She took the lift anyhow, and as it shot upwards, felt the Grab slowly lose its effect on her. Eventually, she had the feeling that only inertia was pushing her into the lift’s floor, but by then, she had reached the floor she had been looking for.

It opened out into a large room, enough to seat a sizeable audience, but the twist was that whilst the lift used the Darkworld’s Grab system, the room used the Institute’s localised system. She awkwardly made the transition, dragging herself out of the lift on her back.

Still, it could have been much worse. Those who chose to teleport found themselves collapsing into a heap of bodies at the other end of the room.

“I recommend the lift,” she said, probably unnecessarily given that they had already arrived. Still, next time they’d know.

The group got their bearings, and took up the seats that were laid out in blocks of a hundred, in two columns stretching right to the back of the room. The people seemed to fill almost all of those seats, and seemed so anonymous as a unified mass, too; Frallin had actually picked all of these people by hand, and even knew a decent proportion of them personally, but a thousand people blurred too easily into one.

“OK,” she began, “this is the first in what, I’m afraid, will have to be several lectures, tutorials and work sessions; this is, after all, a complex subject.”

She backed herself up by showing the first projection, several panes of overlaid text, which form a set of ghostly walls between herself and the audience. She stepped through them and moved in front of the desk.

“Dharan Demystification Law will be critical on this mission. We will, after all, be heading into Dharan space, and so we need to understand these laws. We also need to understand why those laws came about, and their exact nature.

“The first thing to understand is that, strictly speaking, they are not laws. We are not required to obey them by the Shango Federation, only by the Dharan Republic, a political body that has no jurisdiction over us. However – as you are all, no doubt, aware, the Dharans are something of a powerful lot. These non-laws probably have more coercive weight than the actual laws we all live by.

“Demystification Law has its origins during a time before the Intersection Wars. The Shango Federation, as you should know by now, had its first contact with the Dharans before the Qareen, a strange fact made possible only by technological disparity. But here’s the thing – whilst first contact was a reasonable and diplomatic affair, the third mission for Dharan contact, led by the SFS Rendition Expedition and Maybe Sedition, was marked by a kidnap and hostage crisis.”

She let that sink in amongst the audience. Murmurs circled the room.

“During the hostage crisis, Darkworld Franklin contacted the Dharans several times. The hostages themselves were also given quite a bit of access to the wider Dharan society. As a consequence, the Federation, or at least, members of it, wound up learning considerably more about the Dharans than our hostage-takers considered… desirable. As a consequence, they agreed to the release of the hostages in return for a set of conditions; it is these conditions that we now refer to as the Demystification Laws.”

She switched to the second projection, a graph showing data over time. The trend was initially up, but irregular, spiking at the hostage crisis; from then on, the data still increased, but at a slower and considerably flatter rate.

“As you can see, the laws were fairly restrictive. Our best lawyers and politicians have looked for loopholes, but naturally, the Dharans have largely had this covered. Indeed, they have even provided the occasional additional article. Currently, the Demystification Laws run to some ninety-seven sections, typically of around four paragraphs each.”

And of course, every one of them had to be known by every one of them.

7

The Dharan ship suddenly slowed as it reached the not-a-Darkworld, and the engines of the grappling ship, having previously been shooting them forwards at immense speed, was now moving in a different direction; not up, or forward, or sideways, but in a way unlike those or their opposites. Frallin sensed a process at work, a very abstract one – entry into this place was clearly not akin to simply entering orbit, but the main screen showed nothing, and as such she couldn’t find out the details.

Once it had finished the transition, it continued onwards, although the holographic projector was less than illuminating about what was going on. The ship was now suspended in a black void, but allegedly not moving at all; Harak altered the zoom to coax some suggestion, but the projector apparently had none of it, and the ship remained static.

“That can’t be right,” Harak insisted.

Eventually the ship came to a stop, indicated by a light inertial push forwards.

“What happens now?”

“I guess we get out.”

The six of them lined up for the teleporter pad between the exits; Harak stepped onto it first. He keyed in a location just outside and in front of the ship.

“Ship, feel free to add protection for any hostile external atmosphere.”

He waited for an affirmative sound, then pushed the button, at which point he disappeared briefly, before reappearing, exactly where he had been stood.

“What the fuck?”

“Agreed, Frallin.”

“You sure you didn’t put in the co-ordinates wrong?”

“No, Yutta, I was very careful about this. There’s some sort of teleport blocking going on.”

They headed down to the main entrance; no doubt, Frallin thought, they would be greeted there anyway. The journey was long, helped only by the speed of the backup lifts, rushing them across and down to the centre of the ship’s lower face. The lower hatch opened, dropping down as a sort of platform adjacent to a wooden pier.

“Really? An actual port?” Yutta asked, as the rest of the crew began to gather behind them.

“It’s probably more advanced than you think,” Frallin said, “probably some kind of unbreakable wood, or something. You can’t assume that it’s just a wooden pier, and even if it is, it’s in this place, which is no doubt not just a port.”

Yutta nodded as Harak led the way off the platform. Frallin and Yutta followed, but a fourth crew member found himself stopped short – a Membrane, no doubt, Frallin realised. She made a move back towards the platform, but she found herself blocked.

“Well,” she shrugged, “their intentions are clear.”

The remaining crew shut the hatch – it was, after all, the only thing they could do – and the three senior crew members found themselves stood on the end of the pier. Frallin looked out over the dock; whilst it was dominated by the Intergalactic Medium to their right, there were plenty of Dharan ships seemingly “moored” to her left. In the far, far distance – the pier did, after all, extend for tens of kilometres – a city was visible, but it weirdly resembled something humble and medieval, with houses and buildings built of wood and covered in thatched roofs.

“Seriously, what the fuck is this place?” Yutta asked.

Good question, Frallin thought, but she chose not to answer. Still looking round, turning to what had been behind her shoulder, she could see a large pagoda-like construction, about three storeys high (she assumed it was more complex than that, but this whole place had defied expectations). Beyond that, the pier stretched onwards, and eventually a mist on the horizon swallowed it into infinity.

She looked up and saw a bright sky, of a silvery sheen – no clouds – but couldn’t find a sun.

“The whole place makes no sense,” she thought aloud.

“Frallin, we’ve got incoming.”

“What kind?”

“A car.”

“Just a car?”

“Just a car.”

She turned to it, and, speeding up the pier at ridiculous speed was indeed a car, a hatchback-like vehicle that was travelling far faster than its design suggested. And indeed, those wooden boards barely seemed to creak under such apparently reckless driving.

Definitely not wood, she agreed with herself.

The car continued to zigzag along the pier, from railing to railing, and then braked sharply, making the tyres smoke and the brakes squeal. Over several hundred metres it skidded, skewing away from the three of them, but coming within metres of crashing into the pagoda. Almost as soon as it stopped, its occupant got out.

“You are needed down at the main building,” he explained simply, and the other three doors on the vehicle opened automatically.

“What do we do?” Yutta whispered to the other two.

“We get in,” Harak said, “unless you have some fantastic plan of resistance.”

They got in.

The driver himself spun the car around, and started driving back the way he came, in the exact same manner.

“They want to meet you, up in the main building,” the man explained, having still not introduced himself.

“Why?”

“You can’t just enter Dharan space, Harak. Or expect that we won’t notice.”

Frallin gave her captain her best ‘I told you so’ look, although, as a bigger supporter of the mission at launch, she immediately afterwards realised that there was no ‘I told you so’ about the situation.

“Of course,” the driver continued, “I say ‘we’… it’s them, really. All the likes of me do is man the port. Anyway, once you reach the Hotel-”

“Dharans have hotels?”

“Hotels. Capital ‘H’. And that’s all they have, all they need.”

“This is falling under demystification law,” Frallin warned.

“I know,” the driver replied, “you’re all screwed in that respect. You’re going to have to explain yourselves, anyhow.”

“We’re just explorers-”

“Well you tell them that when you get there. And ‘there’, is at the Hotel, that main building at the top of the rise, and you want Room 988. They don’t want a no-show.”

V

Harak was moving down the corridor at considerable pace; any quicker, in fact, and he’d have been sprinting. As such, Frallin could only try to keep in his slipstream, and in doing so, find herself rushing through the Ship Wing, through the tight confines of the SFS No Retreat and the slightly wider corridors of the SFS Trench Terrible, and onto the slightly more sterile but wider expanses of the Corruption of Consumerism.

“Harak, please, slow down.”

He ignored her.

“Harak…”

Still nothing.

“Harak!”

He almost collapsed to the floor, instead spasming his surprise into a sort of dancing turn. Frallin smiled to herself briefly; a shout touching a hundred decibels could usually do the trick.

“We need to talk,” she insisted.

“I’ve over last night.”

“Would be glad to hear it, but you’re lying-”

“Fuck off.”

“No need to get that defensive if you’re honest about it, is there? Look, look… listen to me. I’m talking about before that. You sent me a message about the project’s scope.”

They turned right into the kitchen area of the SFS Mortal Combat, which Frallin recognised as the penultimate corridor before Harak’s office. “Scope?”

“Yeah. You were wondering whether we shouldn’t simply go to the next galaxy, given the risks of Dharan capture, journey time and so forth. And I think I agree, it opens up the mission and means we’re not just searching for one planet, we’re looking for all kinds of things to add to the knowledge that we have.”

Harak turned to the final corridor, the westernmost route to the bridge of the SFS Pyrrhic Triumph, and made a dart for his office, which opened as the door recognised his hand on the handle. Frallin pushed inside behind him.

“My point is, we don’t have to go gunning after Earth. We should probably prove ourselves on an intergalactic level first.”

Harak nodded in the semi-darkness; one of the curious things that Frallin had noticed about his office was that he had very few automatic settings, and had sometimes removed those that took quite a relative amount of effort to remove. He kept the lights off and the door open, instead.

“I had a change of heart, Frallin. You know me, back and forth, and so on. And maybe you’d like to hop to the next galaxy, but right now, my destination is Earth.”

He moved to the table, fished a disc out of his pocket, and dropped it onto the table, where it rattled like a penny. File routes juddered out of it anyhow, and he immediately picked one, throwing up the projection, which darted out of the way of the shaft of light the door allowed in.

From there she could see it, a large, 3D and utterly solid version of an image iconic amongst both Shango and Qareen societies. From her viewpoint she could see a huge landmass that pushed the sea to the edges, and in south-eastern area, she could see islands punctuate the eastern sea, or trail off towards another, much smaller southern continent. It was not an angle she had traditionally seen, and it intrigued her once again in that place.

“Earth,” Harak unnecessarily introduced, “it’s a planet of legend, Frallin. A planet that our society simultaneously pities and envies. For these people, so many of whom lived in squalor, mastered the handling of an art that we can barely get a gentle grip on-”

“To say they mastered it would be a little revisionist,” Frallin cut in. She had, after all, studied this sort of thing, and Earth’s legend was often exaggerated.

“They managed time travel, Frallin. A race of people who thought mixing the fried meat of a pig with an oil-water hybrid was a sensible idea came up with time travel. We should meet these people-”

“They’ll have evolved by now. They might be apes again, by now.”

“But who knows what their wonderful machines might turn into?”

Frallin sighed. Harak always reminded himself of this periodically, at which point she would find her role to be one of slowly deconstructing his optimism. Then he would rediscover his enthusiasm, and the whole sawtooth-shaped cycle would repeat once again. Mentally shrugging at this – there must have been hundreds of these cycles already – she got on with the task at hand.

“Harak, really, listen. First of all, they hardly perfected the technology, they mentioned a lot of problems. Secondly, when it was perfected, there were differences of opinion about how it should be used, about whether time should ever be changed or not. We might well create time travel, use it, and then realise that it’s a terrible idea, and then it’ll be too late to change everything back. Or too early, I’m not entirely sure…”

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