Mass Times Acceleration

Date:1,991,972 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 10,991 (Shango), N.A. 1104 (Qareen)
Location:
from Spaceplane 106 to the edge of the Qareen-controlled galaxy

1

“Keo3. You are awarded Educational Attainment Section 17. With this knowledge, go forth, and may you do your people proud.”

Spaceplane 106 was one of the oldest constructions of its kind in the galaxy. Built thousands of years previously, it had been upgraded with the Qareen Confederacy’s technological improvements on occasions, but it nonetheless bore the hallmarks of its age; sometimes, the transparent dome could catch the nearby sun’s light in an odd way, betraying its presence, which it was not really supposed to do. The flat disc of land often got more than its fair share of visitors, too, because places like Spaceplane 106 got more than its fair share of history.

Yet there were benefits, too: being one of the oldest Spaceplanes gave 106 some of the oldest, and hence frequently most experienced, best and most prestigious establishments. The 5 Academy, one of the best of the best, had been good to Keo3, and it had allowed him to study at his leisure, but he had eventually chosen to leave; academia was not truly what he was cut out for, or so he felt. From here, though, came a problem every Qareen faced at the end of education: what to do in a society where no-one truly needed to work. A year on, he had fallen into the most regrettable life a Qareen could have: an idler. Someone who, far from doing nothing in particular, as many Qareen did, just did nothing.

He had spent half a local year as one, and too many days had involved him simply lying around, or even walking around, with a sense of emptiness. When he looked up at the slightly stretched night sky each night, it got a little too much, and he wondered whether anyone would miss him if he disappeared. The nearby lake on the edge of a3t5, his hometown, was bordered on one side by a steep and high cliff; to jump from there would finish it all on impact. Or maybe, he thought – but only slightly more hopefully – maybe he could disappear less permanently, to the more cosmopolitan areas of the Intersection Zone, where the galaxy the Qareen dominated overlapped with that of the Shango Federation. Of course, if another war happened, he would be at the vanguard, and he didn’t particularly want that; then again, a basic check of the calendar told him it was N.A. 1104; peace with the Federation had been managed for eleven centuries – it was, or should have been, a minor concern.

Eventually, his house spoke up.

“Keo3, we should discuss a certain matter regarding your routine.”

“Hmm?”

“I have noticed,” it observed, voice slightly too pitched to be Qareen, “that you have spent a high number of hours inside this residence. Your lifestyle in this respect is at least three standard deviations from the mean. Are you struggling for something to do?”

“I suppose I am.”

“I can help,” it said simply, and activating the holographic function of the living space floor, projected a mass of labelled graphics up to waist height as Keo3 stood at the door.

“Look, I don’t want to bother-”

“It is not a problem. I merely wish to offer advice and guidance.”

“Fair enough.”

He walked around the room, amidst the forest of options. Amongst them he saw a series at the back, above which gleamed the word “Exploration”. A series of sub-options were visible; exploring the local region, exploring the whole Spaceplane, exploring the whole damn galaxy; and it was that, quite remarkably, that made him realise something.

“I’ve never left 106.”

“As far as I’m aware, Keo, you indeed haven’t.”

“Maybe I should,” he continued. He thought about it, and when he did, he realised the idea was exactly what he needed. “Yes, I definitely should. How do I get a ship?”

“It’s not too hard. You just have to ask at the local access point.”

The projections were wiped away, to be replaced with a new one showing directions. The local access point, it transpired, was two miles away.

“Access depends on what kind of ship you’re looking for,” the house continued, “a slower vehicle, you might get immediately. A top-range ship might be a day or two away. A Shango commissioned one might take some time longer.”

Keo3 was already preparing to leave. He opened the door and checked the weather; it was a little cold.

“Assembler, one coat for current conditions.”

The assembler between the kitchen and living space flared and let out a low buzz, but inside a second of the command leaving his mouth a coat slumped to the floor of the cubicle.

“You’re not teleporting to there?” the house asked. A holographic arrow pointed to the teleport booth, a cubicle opposite the assembler.

“Nah. Sometimes the exercise is good.”

“And the cold?”

“It’s bracing. Character-forming. Or whatever other crap my parents always told me. But house… thanks.”

The house’s AI was not necessarily sentient enough to appreciate that last sentence, but it chalked up another recorded instance and noted the effectiveness of the job it was doing. Seconds afterwards, Keo left.

2

#Bafed7 > Keo3: What’d you get?#

#Keo3 > All Closed Reception: A6U9 Construction Type A1-1103. The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light. {schematic patched} Looks like this.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: Good choice. Even M.E.A.C. would struggle to better that.#

#Keo3 > Uliska1: Similar waiting time, though.#

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate] I can imagine. [Bafed7] So they’re entrusting you with that?#

#Keo3 > Bafed7: Piss off…#

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I’m just kidding.#

#Uliska1 > Keo3: So can we come?#

#Keo3 > All CR: If you want. I’m gonna need crew for things, I suppose. Boardlayer to steer the damn thing, seeing as I probably can’t do it, and – are there any weapons on that? {schematic open, weapon search: positive} So someone needs to use that if we’re in trouble, which I might manage. But there’ll be other stuff, maybe. Everyone could pitch in. Bring friends. Bring friends of friends.#

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate] Sure. Bring the whole damn Spaceplane.#

#Keo3 > All CR: Sure. Why not?#

The three of them sat back in silence for a while. The view from Keo’s house, now that he looked at it knowing he would leave, had perhaps contributed to his sense of inertia; a flat plain that stretched forever onwards, viewed positively it was a symbol of limitless promise, but in his pessimism he had viewed it as the dull monotony his life had been. But he had purpose now. He understood exactly what he wanted to do; perhaps not in physical specifics, but in terms of mood – he wanted to go forth and construct an immense presence in space, reach out there across the parsecs and achieve something immense, so that no-one across the Qareen Confederacy could forget the name of Keo3/106.

#All CR > Keo3: [aggregate]: Wow, we just thought this would be some kind of trip to somewhere.#

He realised that he had accidentally broadcast all of the previous thoughts to the other two, and made a conscious mental note not to lose control of his superconscious to that degree again. Bafed was the one who spoke next, and he transmitted his thought slowly, speaking as if trying to solve a crime or fit together a complex puzzle.

#Bafed7 > Keo3: I might be wrong, here, but… I think… if I recall correctly – what you said sounds like a – what is it? – a – Uliska, help me out?#

#I don’t know#, she said simply.

#An Astrostate! That’s it! You’re maybe looking to build an Astrostate, and possibly lead it.#

Keo wasn’t so sure about that. #First#, he told them both, #first we get the Kingdom Gone. An Astrostate would take years. It’s just that I wanted a purpose.#

3

The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light was not necessarily a large ship – at around three hundred metres long, and with around sixteen decks, it was at least half the size in all dimensions of a full-blown military vessel. What it lacked in size, however, it made up for in comfort, being a place where even the walls and ceilings were densely, softly and intricately carpeted. When Keo3 beamed onto the ship and walked around its corridors, he wondered if it was even faintly possible to injure himself on the ship. He tested this when he reached the engine room, and leapt off a balcony that was one deck up from the floor below; when he did, the Grab field weakened instantly, and he found himself floating down to the floor as if he had walked down an escalator instead of attempted free fall.

In the end, his encouragement to bring “friends of friends” hadn’t quite been taken up on, which was probably just as well, he thought. Even so, he found ten people aboard; himself, Uliska, Bafed, a couple of other friends he had invited, and five others he found himself not knowing too well.

Ten people across a sixteen-deck ship made it a little empty, but it also gave them a free run across the place. The sense of a small community helped him, as well. And slowly, as he got into the activities on the ship: observing the bright, star-forming regions near the Intersection Zone on the observation deck; forming an impregnable coalition in Kaizener Court Three, with a game that simply would not end, and checking the news feeds, which tracked various elections that were afoot, the incidents caused by various separatist factions across various planets, and some trade deal the Confederate government agreed with a small Republic known as the Bhoot.

#You’re going to need to keep tabs on these things, future President#, Uliska teased, although ten days in he was still insisting that he would not be forming an Astrostate. The idea was absurd, he thought, and as a man whose main focus in his academy studies had been history, he felt completely unsuited to running something as big as a whole nation. Still the notion kept coming up.

4

He finally gave in three days later.

The Kaizener game on Court Three had run since the beginning of the journey, and the scores were now over three thousand points apiece in the main game. Bafed’s coalition, of himself and four of the people who were new to Keo – the Rainfire – had an edge of about twelve points over the Pioneer coalition, which Keo played in. Of course, the AIs monitoring and refereeing the game were holding back other scores, which rendered the whole thing slightly illusory; for all they knew, that twelve-point lead was immensely deceiving.

Keo found himself as main player at the moment it happened, playing against Bafed, and Bafed’s serve at the time was a low shot that bouncing one-two against wall and floor before rising up again. Keo charged in, swung his racquet-bat in a messy, poorly timed effort, got a thick edge on the ball, and somehow managed to get it to move in a looping return, arcing several metres into the air before dropping and skimming the wall. Bafed was forced to charge in, and Keo simply tapped a drop shot that bobbed along the floor into a roll, another point easily won.

And bizarrely, it was at that moment, on that brief high (given that this completed a trio of brutally efficient plays across the last four points played), that the idea rose from the depths of his subconscious into a conscious thought.

#Let’s go for it#, he announced to everyone, on the court and on the balcony behind.

#Go for what?# Uliska asked.

#The Astrostate. Let’s make one. However you do it, exactly.#

A murmur of voices filed up in his superconscious; the game was half-thrown away as Bafed stopped to register his own opinion. #You’re mad – we weren’t really saying you should go for one now#. he argued.

#Well, let’s go for it and see how far we get. Worst case scenario is that we get in serious trouble and start appealing to the Confeds for help. And if we’re not stable, then maybe we can pitch ourselves close to Spaceplane 114,099 and that help arrives in minutes. {distribute: galaxy map – route to confeds}.#

The buzz of voices continued, a mass of thoughts moving through his superconscious as he reached for the ball that had rolled to a stop in front of him. He took his place behind the serve line and readied himself for the next point.

#I’m not ready#, Teru2, his catcher, told him, hurrying back behind the serve line.

#What about, we have a vote?# Uliska asked. #It’s what any sensible group of people would do over something like this, right?#

They agreed, and the votes were rapidly pooled together. Such a process was a slightly odd feeling, beyond conversation; there was a sort of qualitative focus in the room, and Keo could feel it, just there, suspended at head height right behind and equidistant from himself and Bafed. When the vote crystallised into detail, the spread was broadly seven to two in his favour, with one uncertain, and the two against prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. He had won that. The Kaizener game, however, would continue.

He lifted his racquet-bat, swung it down to meet the ball in a serve, and watched it bounce short of the wall.

“Fault, 1 of 2 permitted,” the wall-screen stated.

He was still eleven points down.

5

In a way, he could not quite believe that he had gone ahead with the Astrostate plan, but before long, Keo3 was in for a penny, in for the proverbial pound that the Qareen Confederacy had long since lost the use for, by and large. For days he paced about his room – which was now six former rooms he had collapsed the walls of, forming one huge suite in which he could arrange a mass of holograms within the space. Whenever he walked into the room, he was greeted by a labyrinth of diagrams springing from the floor and walls, showing typical Qareen state functions in splayed branches from the centre, summarising the conclusions of various political philosophers and scholars on how each department could be arranged, how the state as a whole could function, and so forth; their bullet points sprang forth from yet more diagrams plotting these views on various spectra according to their extremities.

In many ways, it started to become overwhelmingly, especially as, as far as he could see, overbearing, especially given that a Qareen state was by and large a minimal one anyway, whatever happened. The President’s Office, an intelligence agency, a department for foreign diplomacy, a justice department, the military, and two very minimal departments for education and health, which generally acted to ban quack medicine and false theories, were all that were really there on Spaceplane 114,099, and Keo reckoned that he would not even need at least two, perhaps even three of those.

So he gathered Uliska, Bafed, Teru and Kogr8 on the bridge, and together they focused on inviting ships into the brave new, if somewhat lightly sketched, venture.

#OK. We want to suggest that our place is more interesting than others#, Uliska established. #We need an angle. Something we can… sell this place on.#

#Sell?# Bafed questioned.

#None of us seem to be skilled at that#, Keo agreed. “Ship,” he asked, calling for all systems, “where is the nearest Astrostate to here?”

The Navigator’s holographic display, tucked away in the front right corner of the bridge, brought up a diagram, whilst large text flashed up on the wall directly ahead. “Nearest Astrostate: Republic of Valistan. 3.22 parsecs 063 Galactic west and 007 Galactic down. Estimated journey time 01.19.35.”

“Remarkably close,” Uliska said aloud. Indeed it was; the journey amounted to some twenty Earth minutes or so. The ship’s computer proceeded to dump information onto the same screen it had recently informed them with.

“The Republic of Valistan was formed in N.A. 1097. It is often a common feature of recently formed Astrostates to anchor themselves to relatively nearby Spaceplanes or Qareen-dominated planets; in this case, Spaceplane 113,764, which Valistan has been within five parsecs of for six of its seven years of formal existence.”

#That’s it! No need to go there at all#, Uliska suddenly cried. The rest of them were silent at this.

#What we do#, she continued, #is not anchor ourselves. Or maybe we give ourselves a sort of semi-anchor plan, to never be more than 03.00.00 away from a Spaceplane. But that’s our angle – we’re adventurous, we’re bold, we’re going were nobody else goes, and we’re having as much fun as we can along the way.#

#Sounds like a plan#, Kogr8 agreed.

6

The first ship to join them came two days after they put out the word. The Shovel-Ready/Clemency/Reducible Core swept in from the Galactic north and down, joining them as they headed inwards towards the Intersection Zone. With ninety-six civilians on board, the original group found themselves quickly outnumbered, having to introduce themselves to a large number of unknowns. A day afterwards, the Renaissance Fare/Rainstorm in Space joined them, with another sixty-seven people.

#It might take a bigger ship#, Oyret0, the apparent leader of the Shovel-Ready, told Keo. #That previous state you mentioned? The Republic of Valistan? I visited once. That’s what they were planning at the time. I doubt it’s being constructed now, but it will be in due course, and they’ll probably all move there, just one massive ship. It’s safer than smaller ships that can be picked off.#

#Where were these things during the Intersection Wars?# he asked.

#That’s a little before my time. But I understand that this strategy came about because of the Wars.#

#Shit.#

#Exactly.#

Keo wondered what Oyret’s agenda was, but she was advising him well, and he could not complain too much. The three ships flew on, approaching the edge of the stand-alone part of the galaxy, right before that ambiguous point where the collision began. The Kaizener game finally ended when Bafed missed a return and stumbled on his way to his Safe Zone. Another couple of days of subgames, and the Pioneers had won out. Keo hoped the victory would be symbolic of his future. He felt engaged, he thought; the previous fiftieth of a year had at times been exhausting, a rush of events compared to his previously inert lifestyle, and he had wondered what he was getting himself into. Even so, he mostly felt hesitancy; never fear.

7

#The 5 Academy? Quite a prestigious place. I heard it’s one of the top 20 such places in the whole Confederacy>>>#

Keo phased out Oyret’s seemingly constant stream of conversation. His superconscious memory would, in any event, log it all anyhow, should a question need answering. She had been doing this for quite some time, constantly asking questions, almost as if he was being interviewed for the job of President.

Ships continued to join. The Triage/Infinite Set and the Prototypical Design/Sui Generis/Autumnal both swooped into the previously three-strong group of ships, and as they reached the edge of the Intersection Zone, they were joined by the Half a Fighter/Score Draw/Level Six. This put them one-off the minimum for Confederate recognition, or so Keo had read from various sources. The Kingdom Gone, for its part, had begun to project a faint sphere around itself and all six ships, around fifty thousand kilometres in radius and with a magnitude of around zero from the outside. Maybe I haven’t studied politics, Keo thought, but surely the obvious thing to do is to claim territory.

At that point, however, he was moving through the third deck down, heading towards the bridge area, namely a room branching off it, which functioned, in effect, as a conference room. When he walked in, he spotted Uliska and Bafed, and only them. Fair enough, he thought; they were everyone he needed to speak to.

“Afternoon.”

“Same to you,” Uliska said.

“We’ve got news,” Bafed added, “good news. A seventh ship is arriving. As soon as it’s within the sphere we’ll be sending off recognition.”

“When will that be?”

“In around 42.11.33,” he replied, looking down at a ticking graphic flitting across the table. “First we need a name.”

“Can’t we put that to a vote?”

“We did, behind your back,” Bafed said. He moved his hands across the table, where about a dozen strands of text floated towards Keo. “Those we asked were having none of it. They want something to rally round, just like you didn’t ask for a vote before you put all this together.”

“Well I don’t quite get that. But let’s do it. Any ideas?”

“You go first.”

“Venturia? Voyagia? Something along those lines, I think. Slightly cheesy, but it’s a decent description.”

8

The Intersection Zone was fairly densely packed with Spaceplanes and Qareen-resident planets, relatively speaking, as if the victory in the Wars had given the Qareen an absolute right to dominate it. Even so, surprisingly few ships joined, even if a steady number continued to do so. So the ships plunged on through the galaxies, under the now-official banner of the Republic of Venturia, Keo did begin to wonder when he exactly decided to rush towards largely Shango space, which they were to reach within a few days.

It was when they reached the heart of the Intersection Zone, which, given their relatively slow speed and eccentric path, had taken around forty days instead of the twenty or so that they should’ve done, when it happened.

It was night, for one, so Keo had to wake up to the sound – no, the feel – of something huge knocking the ship sideways. Grab systems, operated by the weakest AI necessary, struggled the figure out which way was down, and so he flew across the room, skipped like a stone across a table and slammed back-first into the far wall before normality resumed. It transpired that those wall-carpets had their limits.

“Ship, what the fuck was that?”

“The Shovel-Ready/Clemency/Reducible Core has collided with this ship. Evading tactics were utilised, but anticipation of the action was low and hence their effectiveness was limited.”

He got up from the floor, rubbed his back and quickly got dressed, pulling a t-shirt-like garment over his head as he reached the corridor. He got to the bridge shortly afterwards.

#What happened?# he asked, although opening up to the rest of the ship revealed a lot of the same coming back to him.

#I’m getting a cognitive upload from the ship. I’ll be on the bridge shortly#, Uliska explained. #OK, here it is. {collision doc}.#

Keo examined it. The Shovel-Ready had very suddenly yawed into the Kingdom Gone‘s path, and whilst minimal damage had occurred to the Kingdom, the Shovel-Ready had suffered immensely, having moved to pass under the Kingdom and smashed the top half of itself to pieces. He wondered how it had collapsed so easily; it struck him as very suspicious, but what also struck him as odd was the damage that the Kingdom did take – as he examined the holographic overview, he saw the steering strangely jammed in place.

#Something is going on#, he told Uliska, #and I don’t like it.#

The Kingdom Gone/Ninth Light continued to spear onwards, passing through the Intersection Zone in a matter of days. Keo sent out the call for help, but only the ships following could help.

The real problem, really, was one of cosmology. The galaxies’ collision formed a warped curvature, which meant that at some point, the ship’s inability to turn would make it simply leave the galaxy, and head off into intergalactic space. The only hope then would be for the Dharans, intergalactic demigods that they were, to take pity. It was not, however, something to be assumed.

Firing the engines asymmetrically did nothing for direction; sitting in the Boardlayer’s booth and laying down those forcefield boards had similarly little effect, although slamming into one head-on managed to slow the ship by an imperceptible amount.

Eventually, Keo admitted that the other ships would have to drop back; the one that didn’t was the Renaissance Fare/Rainstorm in Space. Loyal from the beginning, it decided to move in closer in a bid to beam people between the ships – a complex, awkward operation that was not helped by the speed of both ships.

Keo was the last to stay, and as a reminder, the ship kept warning him that it would soon been clocking up ever more parsecs of distance away from anything recognisably Qareen. At first, he was tempted to go down with the ship, as it were, until he realised that, firstly, this was a moronic romantic notion he had read somewhere, and two, the ship wasn’t about to go down anyway, merely onwards, relentlessly, until it crashed into something, a prospect that would become increasingly unlikely as it drifted into ever-less dense space.

Then he realised that the real reason was that he somehow felt responsible. The ship could easily be replaced; the Confederacy wouldn’t miss it. But he would – it was the first ship he had, for want of a better phrase, been in charge of, and that it was gone inside of a year felt terrible. He wanted to stand on the observation deck, gazing out at the stars as they thinned out into a void, but of course, the ship’s computer was having none of it, instead displaying a huge, ominous countdown to it passing the last star over the view.

#You have to get out of there#, Uliska told him on the last evening in the galaxy, as he wandered the corridors on the fourth deck. She was very forceful about it, he noted.

#Why?#

He wasn’t about to give up without a good reason.

#Just trust me, you’ve got about 22.00.00 left. The ship’s gonna hit something. We think.#

#You think.#

#We think. And we’re not taking the risk.#

He moved to the nearest teleport pad and stepped in, figuring that, really, he had found no solution on the ship anyhow. Perhaps, he thought, it could be salvaged remotely. Transmitting his location, he felt that sudden plunge into darkness, and then the burst back into light and the unfamiliar vision of another ship, along with a queasiness in his organs that was stronger than the slight shiver that beaming usually caused.

#We had to move you#, Uliska said. #Come to the observation deck and you’ll see. It’s moving in so damn fast.#

#Dharan.#

#Most definitely.#

He reached the observation deck and, sure enough, the long-range display had the vessel rushing in, travelling in a second what the best Qareen ships took an hour over. On the direct visual, which was tracking the ship, he saw nothing but the Kingdom Gone moving onwards for several minutes, until quite suddenly, with a visual bang, the Dharan vessel appeared: like a monstrous, vicious, angular explosion of blades and bayonets, the perimeter of its shielding simply treating the relatively tiny Kingdom like a particularly useless shot. With a flash and a splash of debris, the Kingdom had gone. After a few seconds of imposing stillness, the Dharan ship also vanished, instant acceleration so fast that Keo could almost imagine hearing the whoosh through a vacuum.

#It’s OK. We still have a nation to build.#

9

He checked and found Uliska on the bridge, sitting inert in the Boardlayer’s booth. No boards needed laying; the ship itself had wound down to a sub-lightspeed crawl, shuffling towards planet 3,092,100, some two thousand parsecs from the Intersection Zone, and would reach it in about a week at the current pace.

#Hey.#

#A ‘hey’ to you too.#

“What’s up?”

Her voice startled him slightly. He hadn’t heard her speak aloud in some time. He was quite sure that the previous contexts were conspirational, the passing of secrets without interception.

“The election?” she asked. “The project?”

#How is the project going?# he asked. No need to cover that up.

#It’s OK#, she continued. “Don’t avoid the real question.”

He sighed, and took the captain’s seat, span it round ninety degrees to face her. She got out of the booth – the chair didn’t turn – and sat on the armrest nearest him. “The investigation,” he admitted.

“It’s been five years.”

“I don’t care. I want answers.”

Uliska nodded. “You’re one determined bastard. Like I’ve been telling you, don’t push it too far.”

She paused, but noticed he wasn’t going to give in.

“Computer, screen please. Standalone.”

A large transparent pane assembled in front of the captain’s chair, and Keo span round to face it.

“Yitre9 has found very little in the past half a year or so. Right now, it’s all only speculation.”

The screen displayed a diagram filled with lines branching off from one another.

“The basic picture remains the same,” Uliska explained, “there’s thirty-seven possible explanations about Oyret, which form into eleven different self-consistent narratives. Only one can be true. Depending on which one, she was either an innocent person who made a terrible mistake, a Shango operative for any one of four organisations, a Qareen operative for either a terrorist faction or the Confeds in one of two capacities, a Stoppan operative, or a Dharan operative in one of two capacities. But it’s been five years, Keo. The trail is cold, and your guess is as good as mine. She’s dead, anyhow. All I’m saying is, perhaps the truth will never out, and it’s worth dropping.”

Keo was only prepared to put the issue on the back-burner. This was, after all, important: here he was, heading towards one of the biggest manufacturers in the galaxy, who would in part help create one ship for one, unified Astrostate. What would the Dharans, the Shango or anyone else do to that?

“The thing is,” Uliska said quietly, “sometimes, the truth isn’t out there. You just have to plunge onwards into the unknown.”

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Vexing

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

1

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

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

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

“Sir, are you alright?”

A nurse was stood by his shoulder.

“I should be OK.”

“You still need realignment.”

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

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

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

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

“Tacka. How are you?” she asked.

“Not good. There’s been-”

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

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

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

“There’s a war brewing, isn’t there?”

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

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

“You think?”

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

2

“Computer, list house contents.”

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

“Remove all furniture.”

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

“Shit, Nyluk, did you have to?”

“Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trevi? But isn’t it a planet?”

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

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

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

“OK. You deserve something good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

“We should leave.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You would miss me. Or would you?”

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

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

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

Boom. Thud. Zap.

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

“Sobayyo, is everything OK?”

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

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

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

“Sobayyo, what exactly is going on?”

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

4

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

“Shit.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Because it’s not relevant.”

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

“Because people like you started this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

“Excuse me?”

“Oh. Yes. There’s a war on, right?”

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

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

“Yes. I answered the call for pilots.”

Coincidentally enough, a jet flew overhead.

“Uh huh. The thing is… why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Olixxi Fenedar.”

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

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

“The war’s nearly over?”

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

“Well, thanks, computer.”

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

In the distance, Sobayyo Tower remained intact.

7

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

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

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

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

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

“Too damn late,” he whispered.

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

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

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

You moron, he thought to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned back to the man at the window.

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

“Yes?”

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

8

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

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

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

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

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

“Network, narrow down to one and unfreeze.”

“Specify algorithm.”

“I don’t know… make it random.”

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

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

Paten nodded appreciately.

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

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

“OK, go.”

She moved back into life again.

“So how come you’re listed?”

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

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

“So, in short…”

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

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

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

9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10

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

“Honestly?”

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

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

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

“You’ve been checking the news?”

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

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

Nyluk nodded slowly, largely accepting this.

“I guess-”

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

“I guess you’d be interested anyway.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack

Date: 1,995,200 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,227 (Shango),  N.A .2132 (Qareen)
Location: RPDSCR of the Bhoot People

1

#I can’t believe Weczer7/11,191 was right. About everything.#

#Right down to the decor.#

The two men who made up Team 7 looked around their bleak hotel room – a room full of peeling walls and bare furniture that did not even pretend to have an air of comfort, let alone luxury – and at that point, both of them might have wondered why they had volunteered for such a grim task, although neither of them signalled as much to each other. Weczer had dived into the unknown, but these men had received some inkling of what they faced. Yet this atmosphere wasn’t wholly unusual for what they had seen over the past tenth of a year, moving about the world, and the living standards were similarly expected. Planet Glory was badly named, for the most part.

#I wonder#, said the commenter on decor – Retef6/575,997 – #I wonder how they cope. Unless they’re just that used to it. But surely someone wants things to change.#

#You don’t know how these people are, Retef#, his colleague, Serta1/575,996 replied, #because all you do is monitor the media and look at the government. Which is what team 9 should be doing anyway. You should be looking at how these people think, and <the sheer [x 2 with pause]> way that they choose what they see and believe. Random example, here, from the last couple of days we’ve been here, in this city. You see that place over there?#

Serta had gestured to a large complex visible from the hotel window, although Retef guessed that it was probably around a mile away, crammed in amongst the high-density low-storey housing that comprised that particular district of the city; if anything, he had a better view of it than the people living nearby.

#Yes. Some kind of factory?#

#Maybe, but it doesn’t make anything. I spoke to a man in the street about it, the other day. He said he lived next door to it. He said he always saw plenty of people go in there, but only the people with uniforms ever leave.#

Retef looked at the clump of buildings again, and saw smoke slowly drifting out of its towers, up into the clouds where it dispersed above the whole city.

#And when I asked him what kind of stuff goes on in there, he said it was no business of his.#

2

Sometimes, Kojen2/788,601 wondered if these people had only colonised four planets because the government would otherwise have run out of self-serving names. Planet Destiny itself was ostensibly that fourth planet, although it was not exactly fully inhabited as many Confederate planets were, the population probably around a hundred million, rather than the billions it took to fill a planet this size.

Still, as he waited for Alar9, the other member of Team 3, he couldn’t help but feel that he had grabbed quite a good role. Destiny seemed to be somewhat less in the tight grip of this regime, although perhaps, as a kind of outpost colony compared to the others, this was understandable. This lowered weight on his shoulders, however, combined with the fact that none of his people had explored this place before.

Of course, it wasn’t all that simple. Even as he looked out of the window, he could see the police drones hovering over the skies, no doubt scanning dozens of streets at a time. He watched as one of them shot right past the window, heading downwards in a perfect arc towards someone, or some people, who had no doubt transgressed in some unacceptable way. He hoped Alar9 wasn’t one of them; she would doubtless be fine whatever happened, but the inconvenience of another panopticon incident would have ruined the whole mission, as far as he was concerned.

In the early days here, he had studiously engaged his superconscious, recording almost everything he could see, but lately he had realised that there was a remarkable uniformity about the place, and as he ran through these thoughts in his mind, he added them to the record. In the end, it was almost all he could notice; the crazed street patterns and awkward civic design, the crumbling architecture that populated it, and the physically stunted, weary-looking populace – they were always there, and moving from city to city changed the specifics but never the broad generalisations that could be made about them. Whether the planet’s capital, or a minor backwater, it seemed to be the largely the same everywhere.

He reckoned he knew what was going on, anyhow. It was all fear, he decided; the populace feared their rulers, but the rulers feared losing grip, felt like they had too much to lose by sharing power and wealth in any way. It didn’t take a genius to know that. As he looked to the bed, he saw the election poster on it, it slogan not a promise, but a threat.

3

Being appointed to Team 1 seemed like the QPA had handed down a massive honour to Prolo3, but it turned out the honour was less than expected. Team 1 suggested that he and his fellow agent Aliv8 would be right on the cusp of discovery, prising open the exact areas of these planets that had not been previously uncovered, but as it turned out, they were merely tracing over the steps that Weczer had previously taken, over the same preposterously named planet she had wound up on, Planet Power. Apparently the capital, there was little suggestion that it carried any prestige, any improved living standards or any added urban buzz and activity. That law about no more than two people ever meeting was true, it seemed, along with all the other ones restricting various technologies. As a result, teams 2 and 9 vanished from the pair of them easily.
Aliv8 returned shortly before sunset. There was no moon around Power, and so the only light available to the city around them after sundown was what it could generate, which made her first statement as she approached the door a worrying one.

#I’ve heard there’s about to be a power dip#, she announced, and came through the door.

Of course, a “power dip” meant a complete blackout, possibly for the whole night.

Prolo consoled himself slightly, even as he sighed at the news. They had peered around the edges of Team 9’s remit, stumbling across one factory that manufactured the transportation that only business leaders and high-ranking politicians could afford to buy. He was reminded of M.E.A.C. and the occasional appearance of their ships in the galaxy, and the way that both the starship builder and the car manufacturer here on Power both had products that were ridiculously carefully styled and custom-built for every last conceivable idea that the client had. And this was perhaps the small ray of light amidst the sheer mess he felt he was witnessing here; those car-builders could have worked for several lifetimes to buy the things they made, and several lifetimes more to run them, but they took immense pride in what they did, which few others in this world could. Even so…

#We’ve seen enough. I think we should leave#, he told Aliv.

4

Zikk8 and Ewol3, of Team 5, had landed on Planet Glory along with the other teams there, but their real plan had been to secure a ship to take them to Strength.

Of course, they had assumed that Weczer’s account was an exaggerated one. It rapidly transpired that it wasn’t.

Once every form – quite possibly, they both thought, every conceivable form that the local language would allow – had been filled out, they managed to get onto the ship – the Joy of the Common Man.

#Wow#, was Zikk’s immediate reaction as he got inside. Of course, it was not what he was used to from spaceships – but that wasn’t the point. Perfectly clean, blemish-free walls and actual screens and some semblance of technology seemed amazing after the weeks of sparse, bare emptiness. Soft lighting, as opposed to the loudness of daylight, the glare of unshaded bulbs and the absolute darkness of the nights was a welcome touch of moderation.

#Wow indeed. Although it is a government ship. Apparently, this is the minimum you’d ever deal with, if you were in that power.#

As Zikk looked around the room, he wondered how anyone could possibly be so sheltered. Then again, the spaceport itself had been similar to this, but practically windowless, and certainly without any windows that didn’t point to the spacecraft themselves.

Still, even as the pair of them were on their way to join Team 6, on a planet that was previously unexplored by the Confederacy, they couldn’t help but wonder whether the state they were in was merely a different kind of suffering. The journey dragged on, for weeks and weeks, and as they watched their slow progress on inflexible screens they were reminded that they could have been at their destination long, long beforehand.

#Another thing Weczer was right on.#

#It’s OK. Soon we’ll be on a planet even she didn’t see.#

#True. But it’ll be the same shitty mess.#

It must have been a sixth of a year, Zikk realised, by the time they reached Planet Strength, the place they were originally supposed to be. Yet as the pair of them left the spaceport, parted with the diplomats and bureaucrats they had shared the journey with, and looked out across another grey industrial cityscape that managed in its haphazard asymmetry to still look homogenous, Zikk knew that the whole damn thing was probably about to be a waste of time.

5

Gold-lined walls, carpet made, probably, from the fur of something (probably several somethings) endangered, everything else made from the compounds of several elements at the far end of the Periodic Table; there was no doubt here. These were the halls of power, on a planet named Power, no less.

Team 9 were the ones who had managed to get in. Their methods had been complex and far from legal under local jurisdiction, although the QPA had more than authorised them. Thus far, their progress had been surprising to them, and the security had been apparently lax, although in truth it consisted of individuals, easily hacked surveillance and easily stumped AI drones.

#They’ll get us sooner or later#, Sadre5, one half of the team argued, #we’ll get complacent#.

#Oh sure, we’re panopticon bound, but I’ll have a message for them before we get there#, Pixa4 argued. She smiled in weird acceptance at this.

#Well they’d better be words to break chains with#.

If the two of them had calculated the whole mission well – and Sadre reckoned that they had – then today would be the last day anyhow. This was the awkward stage, however: recall. Reeling in the mass of surveillance, AI and loggers that they themselves had put in place, without tripping the surveillance and AI of the locals? A tough job, but it had to be done.

The two of them were located in a back office, a small room that the government did not truly consider worth monitoring, and so in the empty space they had various screens unfolded, various calculations running, various graphics showing independent units moving through shaded areas to avoid the glare of overlapping cameras and motion sensors.

Sure enough, the prophecy came true: one AI drifted into a motion sensor’s region that it had not accounted for, and from there, they would be traced.
All of that equipment had just about folded away when two guards burst through the office door, with guns raised. Behind his back, Sadre pushed two small buttons on the unit’s side, one to boost an ansible signal, another to send.
“What are you doing?” one of the guards demanded, “you are not authorised here. The Republic destroys all saboteurs and dissidents.”

“Maybe so,” Pixa4 replied, “but if you do, you should bear this in mind: the Qareen Confederacy is watching.”

Overcome with a nervous feeling, the guards lowered their weapons.

Search

Date: 1,993,085 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 14,520 (Shango), N.A. 1458 (Qareen)
Location: Oxide system

1

The ship sped past various stars and planets, pausing to note that most of the systems they formed were uninhabited; nothing unusual about that, and there was little else of real interest among them either. None of the hundred-strong crew were going to hang around. They had almost unanimously voted for the ship to be named Seven Seminal Discoveries (92), and they meant it. The ship itself was new enough to have not even made one such discovery, let alone seven, but this crew was confident; as the daring pioneers of a race who were often almost resigned to their second-degree power in the galaxy, they wanted to show their more conservative peers that they were wrong, and that the Cosmic Charter Republic of Stoppan had plenty of prestige to claim. Their time would come, and people like this ship’s crew were convinced that they could make it come sooner.

They had become even more convinced once their journey had taken them outside of the reaches of Stoppan space, several hundred parsecs past Res 116, the last Stoppan-inhabited planet in the direction they were heading in, and the long-range sensors had picked up, beyond the relatively bare region of space, one particularly bright, star-forming region of space, where interstellar gas grew in density and supernovae flung heavier elements into the mix. There was more than mere astronomical curios, however; close analysis, one that involved pushing the sensors to the limit and then teasing out the data, zooming in on specific areas until they underwent the mathematical equivalent of pixellation, revealed that there were odd spikes and jumps in the density that were either unnatural, or an entirely new discovery altogether.

The Shango’s database, which they had syndicated with the Stoppan even since first contact with the Dharans, suggested that they knew nothing about these strange spikes, but then the database was not necessarily a complete one as they received it. Even so, the captain, Zshann of Manres 2, felt that slight tingle of hope as he moved about the bridge. Hope that, eventually, they would find out something that the Shango did not, something genuinely important, rather than the small discoveries of uninhabited star systems that the Federation could not be made to give a damn about.

Zshann had occasionally wondered if this attitude, especially across hundreds of worlds, was exactly healthy, but then again, it was no doubt just competitiveness, the desire of a relatively young, upstart nation.

Still the Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) plunged on, and the captain looked to the main screen at the front, purporting to show some kind of view ahead, as if travelling faster than light could still show a perfectly clear view anyway, and as if having a window on the ship would in any way prove practical. The screen did at least tell the captain, however, that he was less than one Earth day away from reaching the anomalies. And this time, he thought, a sliver of ignorance from the Federation just might out…

2

The Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) was six short of its eponymous promise one Earth day later, when it came across the anomalies. Of course, this was only in one sense; as Zshann suspected, it transpired that the Shango almost certainly knew about this place.

The place itself was around one-tenth of a parsec from a star that the Shango had apparently not named, the database merely granting it an automatic register number. The light from the screen’s “true view” only gave hints and outlines, but the lightened holographic display, with the lights on the bridge dimmed for contrast and the light of the image boosted, revealed the true horror of what they saw; an immense cloud of floating debris. Through the rain of metal, gradually floating in all directions, there slowly emerged vast, charred hulks of recognisable metal, long, aesthetically brutal, box-like hulls mixed with similarly twisted, broken and charred discs.

“Captain?” a minor bridge officer prompted as a holographic wreck headed towards his head.

“A battle. A battle we were never told about,” the captain said.

“Impossible,” replied Piret of Res 19, his second-in-command, moving through a mass of shards in his area, “we had an alliance with the Shango. One of necessity, for sure, but they trusted us. We were updated on everything.”

“Perhaps not this,” the captain said, “and besides, sometimes you can’t trust a member of your own species. Why think that you can always trust another?”

Piret was stumped, and he remained silent. All the captain and most of the bridge crew could do was look at the mass of debris and wonder why they had not been entrusted with what they were seeing.

The pilot, Keyisij of Res 56, had the task of trying to pull the ship through the mess. There were shields, sure, but they were not for situations like this. There was route plotters on the computer screens, too, but they had their limits.

Along with him, three others over the captain’s left shoulder worked quickly to filter and examine the data bursting in from the sensors, but they were perhaps the one real contrast on the bridge to the otherwise universal numb confusion.

Zshann thought as he scanned over the scene, down one avenue of logic, which transpired to be a cul-de-sac, turning back, and repeating the process. A Shango ship, spinning in a strange, widthwise manner, distracted him, but also churned up an idea.

“Can we get any magnification on a Shango ship? Preferably an intact one,” he requested as he stood up and shoved his head through the simulacra of an ideal example and a shower of pieces bouncing off it.

Someone at holographics set to work on it.

“Good plan, captain,” Piret agreed, “although, are you expecting to send a team out?”

“Maybe.”

“They wouldn’t like that back at Res 33,” he said much more quietly.

“They wouldn’t like this back at Res 33,” the captain retorted, “it’s good of you to quote protocol, Piret. I mean that. But we’ve got a political situation here. The truth has to out.”

3

It took several minutes to transmit the data completely from the ship, and it would take quite possibly days, perhaps in Earth terms weeks, in order for it to reach Res 33 and the relevant high offices there. Still, it was all Zshann could do, as well as signal an omnidirectional broadcast at Shango frequencies.

“Either explain,” he had told them, “or we’ll find an explanation.”

Of course, if that was in any way a truthful offer, then it was an invitation for them to lie, so the captain made an each-way bet and sent out a team to find out the unvarnished truth on a relatively intact ship. They found one, albeit one that had no life support systems and most likely, they surmised, no Grab systems at all.

As it transpired, the three-person team that had found their way onto the ship – which was intact enough to be identified as the SFS Surgical Strike – found that the Grab systems fluctuating wildly instead; in one corner of a room, normal, Shango, lighter-than-Stoppan-average artificial gravity ensued; in another, it could be jittery, its hold on the person’s body tenuous, and in another, it could be non-existent, and so the person stood there would float in zero gravity, until they arced downwards into a Grab-affected area again.

After some time of this, they reached the bridge, and from there, they reckoned that the central systems, if they were still there, would yield exactly what happened, at least in part. There was no reason to suggest that they wouldn’t, in the team’s eyes – the ship had taken a few hull breaches, after a complete externally induced shield failure, and the crew no doubt suffered the fate of exposure whilst the ship merely drifted through the carnage, for years bumping into other ships that came off worse in such collisions.

They reached the bridge, the three of them, and spotted the collapsed roof centre. From there they could see into the space beyond, although a dull glint from one piece of debris as it span past, most likely kilometres away, was all they could really see. Holographics had explained what was going on outside so much better than mere sight.

Around the banks, computers lay dormant. Strapping the large crate they had to the floor – the bridge seemed to have no Grab at all – they held onto railings and attempted to figure out the layout of the ship.

“Let’s hope there’s reserve power,” Likea of Banres began. She pointed to the Tracklayer’s booth. “That might be most useful for data. Possibly also First Pivot.”

The other two, Fetric of Res 202 and Miye of Res 97, began to move in those two directions. Likea bumped along to where she hoped some sort of power switch could be found; she found a switch, flicked it in hope, and the bridge lighting flickered into life, although it continued to flicker afterwards.

“No power in the booth,” Fetric explained.

Likea tried another switch.

“First Pivot power,” Miye said.

She tried another next to it.

“Booth online,” Fetric said, and he strapped himself, cumbersome suit and all, into the chair.

4

Zshann,

I am writing to you with the need to press several understandings into the minds of you and your crew. The first of these understandings is that what you have stumbled upon is quite literally secret and restricted information that, across the Shango Federation, is privy to just three individuals at any one time, myself included. It is for these reasons that I have been reluctant to reply to your message, but given that you have no doubt relayed data to Res 33, I will nonetheless give all the details I deem necessary.

What you have come across is the site, broadly speaking, of the Battle of the Oxide System, so named for the oxygen deposits emanating from the nearby star. The battle took place in W.Y. 433, towards the end of the Fifth Intersection War. At the time, Qareen forces had moved deep into our galaxy, and were threatening not only to take the Intersection Zone but a substantial part of what was undeniably our galaxy. The Oxide System was the furthest the Qareen got, as we committed high numbers of ships towards defending it; however, as we did so, similarly high numbers of ships arrived to attack. The fighting was intense, the situation grew desperate and shots were fired at incredibly close quarters, sometimes a mere few kilometres – hence the reason, as you can see, why the debris is still only spread across half a parsec in all directions after thousands of years.

The end result was effectively a draw, a result not good enough for the Qareen, who withdrew from the area and were subsequently pushed back to the Intersection Zone. However, the sheer size of losses on the Federation side were unacceptably high by any military standard – over 5,000 Shango ships were destroyed, and one went missing, never to return – and in the midst of a war effort, to announce the result, even if it was effective victory, would have been highly destructive in terms of propaganda; knowing that the Qareen could come so close to claiming both galaxies would have ruined the Federation. And so, for security reasons, we have suppressed this knowledge ever since.

We imagine at this point that your entire people are now privy to this state secret. We have passed on a form of this message to Res 33. The Federation will come down hard on anyone who disseminates this information in the CCR. We hope you understand and heed this message.

The Office of the President of the Shango Federation.

“Piret, what do you notice about this message?”

The second-in-command studied the text carefully.

“There’s a ship out there and the Shango can’t find it.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

5

On the second through fourth decks of the Seven Seminal Discoveries (92) was a series of large laboratories, and the second one of these was devoted to informational analysis. In a table at the centre of the lab was a small gold cube, and from its contact through the table, computers throughout the lab were able to pick up raw data, and holographic projectors were able to transmit an extrapolation of what the data meant.

“The information is very much incomplete,” one of the lab staff admitted, “the fact that some ships being fired at are damaged by other ships, that they fly in from certain angles – this gives us clues, but we’ll never have the full picture from this one ship.”

Zshann was still prepared to admit that the view ahead of him, which had been playing in real-time, was an impressive one nonetheless. The Surgical Strike had managed to get far enough into the action to come into contact with hundreds of ships, and it was clear to Zshann, who had previously undertaken a brief military career beforehand, that the battle had been strategically disastrous for both sides.

Both sides had, so far as he could tell, undertaken a strategy that almost perfectly anticipated what the other side would do, and the result was a deadlock that forced each side into desperation. With half an hour, he could see signs of tactics being thrown aside utterly, swept under a cosmic carpet as ships simply charged into the fray and opened fire. After a couple of hours, the original plans had fallen apart utterly, and the Surgical Strike and others were simply rushing around at random, firing at anything that was the enemy – he watched in particular as the Strike fired repeatedly at a ship that was already clearly critically damaged, flying as it was on an awkward, linear path and firing at no-one, debris trailing from it as it tumbled through the battle space.

“Well, the President’s story checks out,” the captain said to no-one in particular.

“It’s the folly of war with none of the bravery, virtue or wit,” one of the lab staff said.

The captain couldn’t argue much with that. He continued to watch as the Surgical Strike threaded itself upwards through a ridiculously close bunch of ships, levelled out and then looped round in a sort of half-hearted spiral, apropos of nothing, all the while managing to take out one ship when it should have clocked up at least three. Pure tragedy on so many levels.

6

“Captain, we’ve found that missing ship.”

Zshann could barely believe he was hearing those words, but he heard them, and as he reached the bridge, and witnessed the holographic image himself, he could hardly believe the sight of it, either. There in the centre, a dark, sinister presence, completely black and spherical, simulated jets of radiation streaming out of opposite ends, and an accretion disc in slow orbit around the middle. In among the gathered gas, dust and other assorted pieces was indeed the ship they had been seeking.

The captain moved into the hologram, wading out into the accretion disc and looking at the ship, small in comparison with the event horizon it was so close to, On the side on the artificially brightened ship he could see that it was the SFS Elimination Sought and Achieved.

“The time dilation must be… immense,” he said to no-one.

“They probably still think the war is on, unless they’re aware of it,” Piret agreed.

“Thousands of years and they all flash past like that.”

The captain continued to gaze at the ship and its apparently motionless appearance.

“It’s barely moving,” he observed, “they might well have fallen in already.”

“Routing the ansibles through the sensors suggests otherwise,” Miye said, and she pulled up a screen that demonstrated why. “There’s ample evidence to suggest that the ship is in very close but very fast orbit around the event horizon. Probably mere kilometres away at most and less than a tiny fraction of a per cent below lightspeed velocity. There’s no doubt intense levels of time dilation of both kinds.”

“Fair enough,” the captain said. He wasn’t prepared to argue with better-informed experts, even if he knew something of what he was talking about. “So they can’t get out?”

“Presumably the superlight drive is damaged,” Miye suggested, “or the time dilation is so intense that it’s been mere seconds on there. But I doubt it.”
The captain was still looking at the projection all the while, and noticing that the ship still hadn’t moved, so far as he could see. It moved like a tectonic plate over a planet’s surface; so imperceptibly that he doubted he would even know if it had made significant progress a year later.

“Shouldn’t the accretion disc provide drag? Are you sure they’re not slowly falling in anyway?”

“I can’t see any evidence that such a scenario would happen. The sublight engine would have systems to compensate.”

Of course they would, the captain thought. No Stoppan ship would have such systems, because of the complexity of the calculations, but the Shango would. Even when trapped they showed an edge over his people.

“And there’s no way they could get out? On their own?”

Miye hesitated. “Well…”

“Anything. I’m all ears.”

“It is possible that the black hole will die before they do. But at that point, the Shango, us, the galaxy might have collapsed into subatomic particles. There’d be nothing waiting for them.”

“What can we do?”

Miye seemed uncertain, and the rest of the bridge crew frowned at their screens. Finally, one of them volunteered a solution.

“We could donate our own power to push them into escape velocity. But it would take a lot of power, and we’d have to get it back, probably through stellar capture, which would mean a much longer route home.”

The captain nodded and slowly considered this.

“Fuck it. Gather data, and let’s head back.”

Gathering Apart

Date: 1,994,355 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 18,548 (Shango), N.A. 1863 (Qareen)
Location: planet Trevi, Darkworlds Heath and Franklin

1

“But why here?”

The man who was stood sighed in undisguised aggravation.

“Two reasons, Getriq. One, to show that no-one is safe, which is the key message to send out when fighting a war of resistance. The second is that this is, very relatively speaking, a low-population area. There should be minimal loss of life. Which some of you, for some reason, care about deeply. As if shaving off a few million will make the difference.”

He leaned forward to the table and jabbed the right button for his purpose, which yanked up a holographic projection of the location being talked about. An orb appeared, rotating slowly, revealing its surface to every user: a curiously ordered one, in which a labyrinth of too-straight mountain ranges presented a patchwork pattern of alternating deserts and jungles or, at the poles, tundra and icy wastelands.

“Darkworld Heath,” the man standing explained, “6,000km radius, natural gravity fairly low. 57 Spaces and 115 surfaces. 766 billion inhabitants.”

“I still say this is a bad plan,” the man next to Getriq stated. “It is guaranteed to cause loss of life, which will-”

“It will cause an impact.”

“The wrong impact.”

“You’re too compassionate.”

“It’s not compassion, it’s a matter of damn strategy and you should get your fucking house in order!”

Out of the five people gathered in the room – four nominally sat on chairs, backs facing each corner, and the one meant to be a leader stood in the centre at the desk – four tensed at the crescendo of rage from the fifth. He had stood to confront the leader, looking eye to eye. For a long time, no-one spoke.

“Well you can count me out.”

“Out of the movement, or out of the cell?” one of the seated men asked.

“Out of the cell. I’ll go where the movement has brains.”

He slammed the door behind him.

“We carry on,” the leader insisted. “OK. Darkworld Heath has the same kind of security as any other in its infrastructure department.”

The holographic image shifted into a cutaway diagram. A central sphere acquired a highlighting glow.

“The infrastructure department hides its information initially via fractal encryption. Once that is broken, there is then a physical encryption in which the data is part of the simulation.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, we would typically enter a virtual simulation of the whole of Darkworld Heath, and then we would have to search for the data, which might be encrypted as a grain of sand on a beach on one of the surfaces.”

“Shit. Sounds complicated.”

“It is, if you don’t know which grain of sand to look for. Which is why, people, we must know. And once we do know, that is it for Darkworld Heath: the Grab Management Systems will be switched off, we will be out in the time we give ourselves, and then natural gravity will do its work.”

The hologram animated, and slowly, the sphere began to collapse in on itself, crushing itself into a small, rocky sphere as debris shot out into space.
Outside the window, a small but bright dot appeared in the sky, and quickly shifted across it. The leader peered out and looked closely.

“It’s time. The details I can explain along the way.”

2

Inside Central Government, the faux-street layout that attempted to disguise, as much as possible, the obvious fact that the whole giant sphere was simply a maze of offices and corridors. Yet roads and staircases and, if inside one of the “buildings”, lifts and telporters, managed to lead in almost all directions, making access far less complicated than the jagged and jaunty street layout would have implied.

Yet all roads led decidedly away from one place, which was buried, door-less and window-less, between six other buildings on each side. There were no logos for the department, and no clear evidence of who the people in the building worked for.

In an area marked Section J, a tall, suited man charged through the openly corridor-like corridors, arriving at a room dominated by one huge circular desk around which large, radial spines filled with panes of glass displaying animated graphics. There, he made his way through the office to a large alcove at the head of it, passed through the Membrane that invisibly covered the alcove and blocked out sound and unwanted visitors, and placed several sheets of paper on the desk. The woman behind it wordlessly picked them up and began reading.

“Dead drop on Space 31,” he explained, “we might have hours at most, it depends on how they’re organised.”

“Source?”

“One of our assets on Trevi. We can’t vouch for the accuracy of the names, they might be pseudonyms. Certainly the database we have hasn’t turned up anything yet.”

“Yet?”

The man nodded. “We might need the whole Federal register. It’s possible that the cell has been recruited from other planets. Possibly Darkworlds.”

The woman looked puzzled, and re-examined the first page. “Zafz, why would the ADG recruit from the very things they’re protesting against?”

“I know. I suspect it’s all part of the ploy to cover themselves. Thing is, Tyos, I suspect the hypocrisy will not bother them if it contributes to the cause.”

Tyos sighed and slapped the document down onto the desk. “OK, the plan is thus.”

She reached for a graphic on the glass panel in front of her, and almost imperceptibly, the Membrane dissolved. Another graphic tap alerted the whole office; another displayed the case so far, as receptors in the paper beamed it onto a holographic projection.

“First of all, we call for Federal help,” she announced, “they might not arrive or reply in time, but it’s worth doing. Second, we track down those names, however long it takes. Thirdly, we need a plan on defending the encryption. If we can get any upgrade at all, let’s do it.”

“Full section meeting?” Zafz asked.

“Full agency meeting, if Kejaj allows. This one’s slipped through the net and it’ll take us all out.”

At this point, someone came running round the desk, weaving past the spines.

“I’ve got all the details beamed to Franklin,” he announced, “but it will take around 71/100 to get there.”

Tyos had risen from the desk, and she grabbed the document as she began to move across the room.

“Fucking hell, we might as well have dispatched a spaceship. Thanks anyway.”

3

“Got a message from Darkworld Heath, and the LCTA there. They say there may be another incident, category zero, but they suspect the ADG this time.”

Panz Hertriss leaned back on his chair at the news. “Darkworld Heath?” he asked. “Did they state a timeframe.”

“They said a minimum of hours, but no upper limit.”

“You see, Itris, if I remember rightly – actually, I’m not sure if I do.”

He leaned over to the glass panel, worked the graphics on the screen, and a huge, holographic image of the two galaxies  appeared. Two shining purple lights indicated Darkworlds Heath and Franklin.

“If I and my convenient computerised calculations are correct, then it’ll take two-thirds of a day to send a message back. We may have to consider the possibility that the incident has been averted or that it has passed.” He checked the screen again. “766 billion citizens. I would’ve thought even the ADG would have its limits. Apparently not.”

Itris could only nod at this. He was already nervous at having to bring such news, and being relatively new to the job, this was more than he needed to be dealing with.

“Itris, don’t worry about it. I understand you have a smaller case to be dealing with.”

“Sure thing, Panz.”

With that, he left. Panz re-examined the document. He would suggest a number of things; deploying a military force, simply sending over advice. The problem, of course, was that window of uncertainty; he had no idea if the event had already happened or not. The Heath LCTA wouldn’t be able to deliver such news until the day afterwards, at best.

Think, he thought to himself. Think think think.

He tapped the glass screen one more time.

“Go ahead, Panz.”

“Mr. President, we might need your decision on something.”

4

The central office of the President was humming with activity. In the room, a long rectangular one of around three metres wide and twelve metres long, advisors examined screens and passed reports. At one end of the office, a third of the floor was raised by a short staircase, and the table at the top was surrounded by Utren Allix the Shango Chief of Armed Forces; Dekrip Iyet, the Head of the Shango Federal Covert Defence Agency, or FCDA; and most critically of all, the most powerful man across eleven million or so worlds, the President of the Shango Federation.

“Mr. President, a contingency plan might be a waste of time. If the whole Darkworld is going under-”

“Utren, in a situation like this, we are operating under an extremely tight window.”

The President looked around suddenly.

“Is the Membrane switched on?” he asked.

Dekrip nodded. “Right up to visual on all six sides.”

Indeed, the staffers that the three men could see mere metres from them would only see a black haze if they were to look back.

“The fact is,” the President continued, “there are over seven hundred billion people who might be affected by this incident. This incident may or may not have already happened either some time ago, or very recently. It might be imminent. We might just be able to intervene at the right time. But until we do, we have no idea how we can. We’re in a strange scenario here on Franklin, where the action we take won’t be useful unless we know the outcome of the action we take.”

He paused briefly, during that time wondering why he couldn’t switch off from autocue mode.

“And that is why we assume all eventualities, including the possibility that Darkworld Heath is gone.”

The President tapped a screen behind him, and the tabletop shifted into a screen. On it, Darkworld Heath’s image appeared, its synthetic outer patchwork of jungles, mountains and deserts surrounded by various blocks of text and graded colour patterns.

“It may take time to implement them all,” Utren countered.

“Good point,” Dekrip added, “we’ll have to prioritise.”

2/97 later, they had agreed a plan.

5

“It’s out of our hands, now.”
“I suspect it always was, Itris. The case?”
“Averted. Although it was unusual.”
“Go on.”
“Stoppan spies on Franklin, Panz. A rare occurrence, unless I’m mistaken.”
“You are not. We do seem to be entering a troubled and troubling phase around now. Here we are in – what year is it? P.W. 18,548, and still these same issues crop up. Intensify, even. It is worrying, looking to the long term.”

6

The LCTA’s Planning Room was packed but relatively quiet; around the table, with some of them sat at it, were a sizeable proportion of the agency’s workers. At one end of the table, a holographic projection of the whole of Darkworld Heath hung in mid-air. At the other end, Darkworld Franklin hovered, and in the middle, a series of lines and arrows stretched across virtual kiloparsecs, labelled with various graded time estimates.

“The ship from Trevi has doubtless landed,” Zafz announced near the Heath end of the table, “but we still have potentially as much as another 1/39 until they’re working at the system from the optimum place. From there, we reckon the Grab management systems would be reached anywhere between 1/39 and 4/39, depending on their capabilities, and from there, the whole Darkworld is under immediate threat.”

“How long,” Tyos asked, “do we need for a full evacuation?”

“I have contacted every Darkworld and every newsband possible,” Koitra, a woman at the Franklin end, said, “we won’t achieve a full evacuation barring Dharan intervention.”

A buzz erupted around the table. “You can’t consider it, Tyos,” one voice managed to say, cutting through the mass of other voices.

“I can and I will,” Tyos said calmly once quiet had been achieved, which did not take long. “I won’t let billions die because of mere principle. We will beg to the Dharans if need be. It’s rare that I pull rank, people, but on this I will. Contact the Dharans.”

“Moving on,” she added after the pause.

Zafz moved his hands across the table, and the holographics shifted to a three-dimensional sprawl of Darkworlds, all differing slightly, branching out into fractal patterns that disappeared, presumably, through the walls.

“This is the system at present, for those who don’t usually go about tinkering with the Grab” Zafz explained. “As you can see, Darkworld Taal is the default encoding simulation for our Grab management. They have to guess this. If they fail, they will have to search across six Darkworlds for the data, and should they fail there, thirty-six. If they fail at eight guesses, they will be searching across the whole galaxy.”

“What are the odds that they fail?” Koitra asked.

“Ordinarily, the odds of making the guess on the first level are a million to one, and on the second level, one point four times ten to the power of thirty-three to one. That’s the beauty of the system; it’s almost impossibly hard to make the first guess, and after that, you truly have to know. After eight failed guesses, you get to search the whole galaxy’s Darkworlds, and you’re looking across them for ten grains of sand, or ten bits of grit, or ten particles of mixed composition. Even across one Darkworld, it’s immensely difficult, and not even we are privy to the information. But I suspect they would not attempt this if they did not have a way around it.”

“What do you suggest?”

“It’s tough to call. We could wait until they make the first guess, and then follow them in.”

“We don’t know their physical location.”

Tyos waved that away. There were tracker bots, after all; if they could be apprehended in virtual space, they would have all the time they needed.

7

Perceld felt ridiculous, and he wasn’t wrong to do so; the headgear he wore was heavy, cumbersome and large enough to make him look like a possible Qareen underneath. Even so, he would have been prepared to wear it if he hadn’t felt that the project was becoming ever more futile.

The headgear, of course, was important due to the lack of information the team had. They had been given an anonymous tip on the fractal system, which would otherwise have turned into a nightmare scenario of impossibly long odds. It was a risk to rely on such a tip, but it had worked, and all ten of the team recruited – two separate cells – had found themselves on Darkworld Taal, or a virtual version of it, scouring the place visually in an agonisingly long analysis. The headgear, naturally, was the only thing that stopped this from lasting billions of years too; its scanner swept over everything it was pointed at, analysing everything with a (fake) self-contained molecular structure, every small component, and tossing it aside as a negative within picoseconds.

Where he stood, the headgear was especially useful, as millions of items – blades of grass across a vast field – were practically identical in their coding.

He had walked for what had felt like miles across the Protest Fields when he stopped, not because of anything he saw or heard, but what he realised.

He hadn’t heard anything from the team in quite some time now. Not a single word. The comms had been full of chatter initially, people reporting nothing for at least 1/39, but another 1/39 on, only three of the pieces had been found, and the chatter was beginning to thin; to the point where each member of the team was able to use most, if not all, six voices that expanded the Shango language to its full potential, rather than the thin, Qareen-like single voice, unable to carry as much context and detail.

It was another 1/39 on from that scenario when he had stopped and realised that the voices in his ears had diminished to far below six, and right down to zero. Had these others left? Was he being framed? Or were the authorities onto them already?

He got his answer shortly; the lighting above suddenly shifted westwards, and in a matter of moments, he found himself looking at a sunset that was not due for another 4/39, at least. The shadows around the place had lengthened considerably, and the buildings in the distance were shrouded in twilight.
It was getting cold, he realised, and he swore he could see movement. He carried on, through the maze of tents he had reached, but felt that something really wasn’t right.

“Unit 1?” he asked into the comms. One voice, no elaboration. No reply.

“Unit 4? Unit 8? Unit 3?”

No replies from them, either. He would have reached for a weapon, but he had none. The plan had looked flawed before, he know, but it had looked about as sound as it could be made to be; now all its horrifying issues seemed to be laid bare. He knew what was going on, now – the darkness was closing in, literally and metaphorically. Yet it had now, surely, been around 1/780 at least. What were they taking their time over?

“Where are you?” he whispered to no-one in particular.

He carried on, through the maze of tents, and in his peripheral vision spotted a flicker. They were to his right; he turned left, but subtly, hoping he could make it look like a voluntary, free deviation. If he could reach the other side of the tents, he thought, then he could probably find a unit in order to-

He suddenly felt a gun jab into his helmet and an arm seizing him at the neck.

“Good effort. But better luck next time.”

P.L.C.

Date: 1,995,260 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 21,417 (Shango), N.A. 2151 (Qareen)
Location: several

>GCNT
.547/2145
Pretence to Revolution?
As a new political movement arises in the quieter quarters of the galaxy, Peri6/946,788 investigates and gives his opinion on the new movement.

My invitation was a somewhat cryptic one; sent out on uniband, it asked all who could to either tune into or turn up in person to what was being described as “the creation of a new platform and a new politics.” And as it turned out, it was quite exciting: if this movement succeeds, the Qareen Confederacy will bear witness to its first economic reforms in centuries.

As we all know, the Confederacy all agreed to a complete post-scarcity settlement in the Treaty of the Confederacy in DNA 46, around one year before the Intersection Wars. Knowing that the Wars would soon occur, it was a necessary step at the time – the capability was there, and there was no need to mess around when the galaxy’s biggest conflict in thousands of years, and possibly ever, was on the verge of erupting.

Yet now, on p334,102, those measures enacted all that time ago are being questioned. Ios8/p102,355, leader of the Pangalactic Limits Campaign, argues that the time has come for the Confederacy to look backwards in order to advance.

“The problem with all Qareen, right now,” Ios8 argued as I spoke with him, “is that they live too easily. Where’s the struggle, we might ask, where is the aspiration?”

He may well have a point. Technological progress, new political ideas, the vitality of an ever-advancing civilisation, seem stagnant in the Confederacy, which arguably seems content right now to sit in its current, sub-Dharan semi-hegemony over one of this galactic pair we reside in.

Before our brief talk, Ios8’s public meeting to convene the first followers among the P.L.C. – an impressive gathering of some two hundred, more of whom have signed up since – went smoothly. With an impassioned argument, Ios8 did not shy away from criticising the status quo, and calling attention to historical fact. His audience was enthusiastic, and the word is spreading; apparently, within 0.01 of a year, some five hundred followers on p334,102 have signed up to the movement.

Five hundred may seem to be a tiny number amidst a civilisation of millions of trillions across Spaceplanes, planets and ships galore, but it is a start, and the movement already has its first off-planet follower.

The P.L.C. might well be dismissed as a reactionary group bent on taking the Qareen as a whole back into an undesired past, but this seems not to be the case. At the same meeting, Ios8 and his followers debated extensively a Charter of Beliefs, some of which included a desire to wind down the increased centralisation that has indeed been the norm since the Intersection Wars. “We’re pretty much a Federation, if not a completely unified state,” one follower told me, although I suspect this might be going too far.

Even so, their arguments have weight. Critics have been dismissive to the P.L.C., but their arguments have thus far been weak. Pinne7 of the 123,456 Network accuses the movement of “regressive, backward thinking”, which any decent analysis should refute. “An ignorant but thankfully tiny force, thinking back to an imaginary time that doubtless never existed,” argues Alak1 of Network Zenana.

This knee-jerk reaction is common amongst many pundits, but the P.L.C. are unfazed. “We won’t necessarily achieve all we aim to, possibly ever,” Ios8 admitted, “but all we’ve got to do is get enough followers, into the thousands or even the millions. Once we’re big enough, we’ll be sending a message to those at the heart of the Confederacy, that it’s time for change. That this whole galaxy needs to be shaken out of its complacency.”

And with the P.L.C. Charter, a sure method has arrived. With some ninety articles, it’s an extensive piece – this movement has emerged fully-formed. It is, quite simply, disappointing to see a new movement, the most radical in centuries, dismissed by journalists who often themselves pose as outside the establishment or mainstream. The P.L.C. are not yet a revolution, but they could easily become one. The P.L.C. isn’t about ignorance; it’s about rationality and aspiration, about driving not just their society, but all Qareen towards an even better future.

It seems remarkable that, in today’s society, trillions have accepted the by-and-large stasis that occurs on the grounds that things are ‘good enough’.  To which it must be asked: is the Confederacy, across millions of Spaceplanes and planets, merely settling? Isn’t there more, beyond this? Don’t we have a Dharan hegemony to confront, and their technology to emulate?

So, for the P.L.C., I wish them the best of luck. There’s a whole galaxy of inertia to overcome, out there, but if they can, the result will be spectacular.

>123,456 Text and Statics Network
.711/2151
In Defence of Reverse Gear
Karank9/p334,102, the second-in-command of the Pangalactic Limits Campaign, argues his case, on why the P.L.C. represent the future, not the past, and why reports of fascist tendencies have been greatly exaggerated.

“The rise of a New Galactic Order,” trumpeted the GCNT recently, snidely dismissing a movement that they had previously supported. It seems especially odd that they would abandon the movement now, as it stands to gain its billionth member, and now has some 1,000 Spaceplanes and 50,000 planets with openly declared followers. But it should not be a surprise; having, in some quarters, embraced the P.L.C., the mainstream media coalitions have decided, seemingly unanimously, to back down to the face of easy slurs on the Campaign.
It’s not clear when this unjustified backlash started. Certain critics – highly conservative-minded ones at that – have always criticised the movement’s radical nature. And of course, radicalism – however benign – is always the enemy of those too insulated by current society to see its failings.

Certainly, the backlash has emerged in the past couple of years. On .743/2149, the riots on Spaceplane 544 were attributed to the P.L.C.’s demonstration, even though a mere 44 protestors showed up and 51 restraints were imposed. Logically, for at least 7 of the restraints the P.L.C. not to blame, and given that most of them returned from the demo, almost certainly more were the responsibility of local Qareen counter-protests.

The second piece of alleged ‘evidence’ lies in supposed rhetoric spoken during 2150. One thing should be made clear: the P.L.C. is not a racist or xenophobic organisation. What we do oppose, however, is the continued welcoming into our society of members of the Shango Federation. It cannot be stressed enough that the allegedly peaceful Federation were once the organisation that caused unimaginable death and destruction during the Intersection Wars; entire Spaceplanes were destroyed and entire planets, even star systems, were in ruins. Smaller conflicts ever since should have given some clue that the Federation, as a whole, is not interested in truly lasting peace.

No, the P.L.C. is not racist; this is the easy slur thrown at us by pundits pulling dubious quotes from the media networks, as they buzz halfway around the galaxy before the P.L.C. can even respond. What we object to is the degradation of our culture and the abandoning of values that served the Confederacy for thousands of years before the Intersection Wars. We object to the flimsiness of our politicians in acting on this, and their unwillingness to talk, let alone deal, with the problem.

Perhaps the real reason for the fear of a P.L.C. galaxy is that a bold new agenda is being adopted by millions of people each day. Nearly one billion people have listened to and agreed with us over the last six  years, and therefore, come the next election in 2155, we will make an impact. Our voice is growing ever louder, and all across the galaxy, people are realising that what we speak of is not reactionary nonsense but the genuine thoughts and feelings that ordinary people – and most critically for the political class, ordinary voters – are thinking.

It’s a smart, intelligent agenda, and the mainstream media find themselves on the wrong side of the argument. For the likes of the GCNT, perhaps oppositional rhetoric isn’t the key; perhaps mere pity is more appropriate.

>Network Zenana
.713/2151
Knowing No Fear, Knowing No Sanity, and Knowing Nothing
Having argued against the P.L.C. since its inception, Alak1/976,501 argues that the P.L.C. is as misguided and repugnant today as it was six years ago.

Six years ago, I wrote an article that, to be frank, was damning of the P.L.C. and their aims. At the time, they were a miniscule organisation, but I wrote that article in a bid to argue against such ideas and in a bid to warn against the rise of such movements. I stand by that article, even now, and as I look on the last six years, I see no reason to change my mind.

The P.L.C. are a different movement, now, in some ways. Numbering a billion or so members, whose distribution is now measured in parsecs instead of kilometres, and as a result, the nature of such an organisation changes; informal discussions become formal conferences, and home-made mailshots become slick marketing and promotional operations. But just because the money for public relations is there, it does not mean that the politics and policies underneath have changed.

There are very few, if any, individuals in the galaxy nowadays who have lived under the age of scarcity, which means that such a time is now being reduced to a folk memory across large swathes of our civilisation. With this, however, comes a romanticisation of that time, and a deluge of misconceptions, of which there are regrettably also no scarcity of.

“Scarcity”, as we well know, has a mass of negative connotations, and for good reason. Starvation, poverty and a fight for resources will not create a “dynamic society”, and it is insulting and unqareen to suggest as much. Ridiculous notions such as these should be shot down with ease in our society; with the information we have in easily-accessible networks, there should be no excuse for such ignorance. Yet somehow, it persists, it thrives, it grows. It should be worrying, but indeed, plenty of those within our media accuse us, the journalists, politicians and campaigners already in the inner circle, of a sneering superiority, or worse, of outright demeaning ordinary Qareen citizens who have taken to the movement.

Yet it is arguably the P.L.C. itself that demeans. When they claim our society to be “technologically stagnant” – their words, not mine – they implicitly insult billions of scientists who, in dedicated facilities across the galaxy (or even on dedicated planets and Spaceplanes) endeavour to push for ever more understanding, and make those incremental breakthroughs that will one day produce the Dharan level of technological sophistication that the P.L.C. claim to be aiming for. Today’s scientists can devote themselves to nothing but the quest for more knowledge, free from almost all other considerations; apparently, this is not enough.

But this would be nothing if the movement did not engage in some of the lowest rhetoric any party has engaged in for the last two thousand years. The P.L.C. are keen to claim that they are not racist, that no xenophobia is afoot, but it is clear where they stand on the Shango and Bhoot diasporas. “You have to ask if these people are polluting the system with the values of their home society, or diluting our own values by adding theirs”, one member asked recently, and not any standard member of the public, but Ios8 himself, when talking about Bhoot refugees, who number in the hundreds and have worked hard to escape oppression.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not the time before the Wars that the P.L.C. wish to return to; perhaps it’s the Wars themselves.

So The Gods Must Be X

Date: 1,989,107 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 1909 (Shango), N.A. 192 (Qareen)
Location: Darkworld Jeremiah, Dei system

1

He woke up and looked at the grey stone ceiling. This morning, like any other, he blindly slapped an arm down onto the bedside table, and then remember that the UID would be no help here; it was just a ceiling. The peeling and faded metal door in his peripheral vision was just a door, and the desk to the right was just a desk. The only thing that wasn’t what it claimed to be was an apparent alcove in the wall above the desk, which was a universal assembler. That said, it was the size and approximately shape – albeit more rigidly angular and cuboid – of what a citizen of Earth’s Western society would recognise as an ATM, so Goiqa Federoi would have needed to think creatively in order to conjure up something resembling the screen that the ceiling and walls, in almost any other part of the Federation, would convert to.

This did not happen on Darkworld Jeremiah, and he was starting to regret it. He got up – he didn’t need to for another 11/100, but as he washed, got dressed and ate, he felt good about having the extra 7/100 – and decided to make his way out of his room and away from the complex.

It had been three months since he had decided to join the priesthood, and having decided that he was going to do so at the very top, in the most important place of all, it had been two months since he had arrived at Darkworld Jeremiah. His family had hardly objected strongly, but they had advised against it. It was perhaps no wonder; piety had especially not been considered a virtue in the Federation in the previous years, with numerous incidences of religiously-inspired violence hinting at a troubling tendency within it.

Goiqa would have been the first to admit that his conversion three years ago had initially prompted an arrogance, a superiority, perhaps even something with the potential of hubris. The revelation had been an overwhelming one, one that seemingly had to be spread, but in three years he had travelled a long way, and those initial binary thoughts about errant Shango and godless heathen Qareen and the Need to Spread the Word had blurred significantly. Initially he had wondered if such blurring was a more sophisticated outlook, but the longer he stayed here, the more he suspected a crisis of faith, a stretch of doubt or even just a feeling that he was in too deep.

Darkworld Jeremiah was a strangely homogenised place for a Darkworld. Residential Darkworlds usually broke up their vast smears of cityscapes with jungles, forests, woods, mountain ranges, plains, prairies, steppes and rivers, and sometimes the distinction between artificial and natural was blurred, in urban jungles that befitted the name, cities that bore the tabular, blunt beauty of icebergs as they floated across undersurface seas, and mountain ranges that rose up in surreal, ordered columns like cities built by ghostly alien predecessors. Military Darkworlds had their masses of barracks, for sure, but also their mock-up cities and their range of environments, and whilst they rarely employed the same kind of artistic intent as their civilian counterparts, they made up for it in diversity; deserts, cities, jungles and even tundra were present time and time again in finely graded varieties, the Darkworlds as a whole acting like the geological equivalents of paint colour charts.

He had come from Darkworld Gauss, a place that could implant all manner of inspiration in the mind of someone sufficiently alive and world-embracing. Darkworld Jeremiah, however, had the austerity of a church. Which was fair enough, because it was, but even as he left the village complex, he could not see anything much beyond the same regular paved surface, needless columns that reached down to the Vexers below, and the odd, heavily sculpted garden. It all bothered him, he thought; it did not glory the gods, and passing away the 7/100 walking around the village did not change his thoughts.

2

Goiqa found himself where he was meant to be, at the Academy Section Point nearest the village. Its appearance, a mass of nonlinear form combined with more traditional (to Earth eyes) features comparable, broadly, to flying butresses and gothic arches, was a familiar one on Jeremiah. Inside, through a labyrinth of corridors and chambers, he found Space D-101, where the Holiness of the Lower Third (or H.L.T.) Abrax Pretere waited for his students to arrive. Despite everything, he was the first.

“Goiqa. Always eager, it seems.”

“Indeed, sir. Although I also happen to rise early.”

The H.L.T. nodded from across the table. “Although we don’t exactly punish opulence among our students. We know what lives they’ve come from, and I’ve have thought that 42/85 would be a perfectly reasonable-”

He stopped as three other students came through the door, making his class just two short. Another followed shortly afterwards, muttering a hasty, half-sincere apology as he did so.

“One late,” Pretere persisted.

“Krastep, sir, he says he’s ill.”

“I will grant him the benefit of the doubt, as I suspect I have too many times before. Then again, what is faith, beyond granting the benefit of the doubt to the feelings we have, those feelings that we cannot brush aside? But I imagine this is another debate. What we ask today is not the definition of our faith, but the epistemology of it. What can we know about that which is beyond mere science? Where is the line between knowledge and faith? And what about that which lies in between?”

Goiqa wondered if it was things like that which caused him to doubt. There was too much of an attempt to reason that which he had assumed was beyond reason; how could religion wind up in hard calculus? It unsettled him. He assumed that this, the priesthood on Darkworld Jeremiah, would be primarily about guiding those on pilgrimage, given that the place was, so transgalactic sources alleged, the largest holy site for a hundred million light years in all directions.

3

At 76/100 the interior lightband on Space 33 began its fadeout, slowly sapping the area of its grey and beige duochrome and bathing it instead in a weak orange-and-shadow two-tone. Goiqa found himself some two Earth miles away, across the surface of the sphere at any rate; in truth, he also found himself some ten miles high, too, close to the summit of one of the highest towers in the Space. Isiah Tower was an unusual indulgence for Darkworld Jeremiah, although this simply meant there were hundreds instead of thousands of such projects. From the balcony railing, though, he could see all manner of things; the lights flickering on above and below; the small clouds that occasionally drifted past; the columns that connected Cavers and Vexers in the most superficial way, and – he could just about see this in the dimming light – the way they flexed, bulged and thinned in the middle, ripples of stone mass acting like water and shifted in fickle rotating alleigance to the various, weak and tangential Grab forces on either surface in the absence of any truly effective gravity, adding a touch of surrealism to the solemnity of Jeremiah’s architecture.

He watched for some time, idly wondering how he was going to get back on foot in the darkness, but couldn’t bring himself to feel urgency amidst the stillness. Eventually he had this and many other issues answered.

“Goiqa. Goiqa Federoi.”

He turned around and spotted Ipnar Sewt, a man who he had only met on a few occasions. He, during those times, had only had to remember one name; how Ipnar had managed to recall his among hundreds, he could not work out.

“Yes. How-”

“You should probably be leaving. Don’t worry. We’ve all been in these situations. We find ourselves in an equilibrium with our surroundings, and we just can’t break free, however temporary we know it to be. It becomes the softest obsession.”

Goiqa nodded and tried to lean slightly more softly on the railing, if only in a bid to make the most symbolic move of getting away.

“Like I said, don’t worry. I could beam you back in an instant.”

“There are teleports in this tower?”

“Thousands. You didn’t know?”

In retrospect, it should have been obvious.

“You seem bothered, Goiqa. I would say troubled, but that might be
overreaching. It doesn’t elude my essential point, though – something is wrong, isn’t it?”

Goiqa thought it through. His problem, really, wasn’t one of a straightforward, mundane issue.

“Ipnar, is it just me, or is there something off-key about the Church today?”

“I suppose, Goiqa, that depends on what you want from it.”

“I’ve tried as an apprentice. Tried my hardest. The problem I have, though, is all this endless philosophy, methodology, all this rigid study. Shouldn’t faith transcend reason? Shouldn’t it be… well, maybe this is simplistic, but shouldn’t it be the primacy of feeling over thought, or feeling beyond thought?”

Ipnar gave the smile of a man who knew the exact answer.

“I guess you’ve forgotten the history of the Church. It seems incredible, when you look around you at all of this, an entire artificial planet designated to our cause, but it’s true nonetheless, that for a long time, our Church has been in decline. A long, slow decline too. Millions, possibly billions intone their last prayer every year. In a galaxy of trillions this is not an immense problem, but if ignored, this place becomes not a church, but a museum.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting anything.”

Goiqa realised that it was getting dark, now; a breeze picked up, and the last of the sunset could barely show the horizon.

“But I am stating,” Ipnar continued, “that the establishment here want to, I paraphrase, modernise. Demonstrate their relevance. Move with the times. The unchanging faith is not always all that unchanging. When public opinion, on hundreds of tiny issues, starts to shift, the effects are seismic. And so the Church shifts to justify its presence.”

Goiqa frowned. “So what you’re saying is, it’s all a lie.”

“Well, that’s highly reductive.”

He supposed so.

“What I’m saying is, you don’t have to turn your back on it. There’s always an alternative. Reconsider, not the destination, but the path to it.”

It was now completely dark on the balcony, barring a small spotlight whose edge of influence just touched the railings.

“You see, the Church doesn’t approve, for example, of us in the Plasma Community. We’re not heretics to them, but… something about us doesn’t sit right with them. But aren’t we disrespecting the gods if we blithely – indeed, blindly – accept assumptions about their nature, about their whims and requirements, from a group of demonstrably flawed mortal beings?

“I won’t pressure you, Goiqa. It is always your choice, but the important thing is that you have a choice. You can leave, become a lay follower. You can push yourself to the fringes, become a missionary. You can weave in and out of official doctrine and dogma, become part of the Plasma Community. It’s all there for you.”

Ipnar began to back away, off the balcony and into the room inside.

“The only thing you must do,” he called from the shadows, “is beam yourself back.” He flicked a light on. “Over here.”

With that, Goiqa did so, and having stepped into the unit, he found with a brief flash of light that he was back in his sparse room, ten miles down and two miles away.

4

“Ipnar. I imagine you would have nothing to do with Federoi’s disappearance?”

“Disappearance?”

“Yes. He has not been seen by anyone at the complex for the last five days.”

“Well, that is somewhat odd. I would have hoped that he would have informed his superiors and gone through the proper procedure before vanishing. Do you suspect a more tragic occurrence?”

“On Jeremiah? People come here to be buried, Ipnar, but they don’t die here.”

“True enough.”

“He was a gifted student, the likes of whom we can’t afford to lose.”

“Correction – you can’t afford to lose. The likes of me will survive just fine.”