The noise was deafening, and the fact that it was merely punctuated hardly helped. Blasts of white noise, low hisses, bangs and rumbles coalesced into an arrhythmic, distorted idea of a Futurist symphony. In the rough centre of all this, Tine5 paced around the machine – he liked to think of it as his machine, even if it wasn’t – and watched it twirl and thrash its processes. Oh, and it was still his machine, even if it was utilising techniques he couldn’t begin to understand. All he did was check what the machine was doing against what it was allegedly meant to do. That, and curse the lag on his ocular Membranes. He had complained about that several times already, and got nowhere.
#How’s it going?#
#Fine… I think.#
Somewhere in the distance – quite possibly kilometres away – a low, flatulent blast rolled across the landscape, overloaded the Membranes and hit Tine as a stuttering, tremolo bass blast.
#I just wish I could be doing something more useful. This feels kinda…#
#Ah, I dunno. You need to get into the rhythm of it. The routine. There can be something quite… well, at least time-consuming, about it. And c’mon, it’s quality control, it’s not like it’s unimportant.#
Seg was right, he decided. Tine looked down the line, where he could see flashes of light in the distance, lasers and lights glowing and flickering. The attacks of each noise cut into his Membranes, and it was really starting to annoy. He looked around for Seg, spotted him, and pointed to his ears.
#I should get these changed. Are yours working?#
#Yeah, mine are fine. And seriously, you’re not obliged to work as you are. I’d sort it. Oh, and it’s lower-right hand icon to release the backup.#
Tine jabbed said icon, which prompted a small unit, shaped like a briefcase on its side, to rush out of the machine’s base and settle into a steady orbit around its parent device. He made his way through the mass of other machines, ducking under the bridges that raised the conveyer belts above head level, and then, taking the stairs that led up to an unfixed mezzanine platform, reached the senior supervisors’ area.
#Got terrible lag on the Membranes – can anyone help with that?#
He felt and heard the incessantly loud stutterings and clicks fade as he turned to face the factory floor. Apparently, there were dozens of these places across the Astrostate, hiring thousands of people, and it all had something to do with Outergalactic Combat and the Order of Knight Scientists. That was all the outside nation had been told about this project – oh, that, and the fact that it was important. But what was it? It was it. That was the only answer these supervisors on the mezzanine could give.
So what were they planning, O.C. and the Order? What could possibly, Tine thought, require this many individuals? They had hired before, subcontracted before, outsourced before – but never on this level. It bothered him. He was sure that, if nothing else became clear, everyone in the room was about to have their lives changed in ways they could never figure out. Surely they had a right to know?
#Hey, Tine, I like hard work too – I could watch it all day.#
#Fuck you, douchebag.#
Ah, he thought, the joys of the truly classless society. Except, of course, that class meant power, power meant knowledge that others weren’t privy to, and O.C. had that. Surely, he thought, I have to investigate?
He headed down the stairs and bounced around plans, brainstorming with himself.
att/brane was perhaps the most unconventional city in the Astrostate Damocles – perhaps within the entire Qareen Confederacy, although no such hypothesis would ever be tested; no researcher, how dedicated and resilient, would ever bother to trawl through enough tourist guides and census reports to come close to doing so.
In any event, att/brane was also known as the Ephemeral City; like some sort of cross between a giant magical carpet and a commune, the place had no buildings, only forcefields and Membranes that were frequently thrown up at a moment’s notice, which meant that perfectly clear streets could wind up cluttered or outright blocked, and major routes could end up dissolved over time, and then re-carved out from an entirely different entry route.
In the midst of this city, Yenye found herself surrounded by friends, but not necessarily by allies.
#Seriously, Outergalactic Combat are just a bunch of know-it-all fuckers who don’t give a shit about the rest of this country.#
#Ah, c’mon, Renji-#
#No, really, Yenye. When have you even seen any of those people? Who knows what the fuck they’re even doing?#
#They just put up about three dozen factories, actually. Took about half a million Idlers out of status.#
#Yeah, well… <trailing non-signal>#
She’d faced this kind of thing from seemingly everyone. It was true that people who lived in att/brane tended to think of themselves as radicals, as outre, as something outside the mainstream; even the most conservative types thought that, despite the fact that they were no different from any other citizen in the Astrostate barring their surroundings. Naturally, “being a radical” meant rejecting many of the Astrostate’s big institutions, and steering against the masses both figuratively and literally. Outergalactic Combat had a 14% approval rating, according to the last poll. Idlers, whilst still not especially respected, were above the national average.
In short, she should have known better than to expect support.
#Well, I just wanted you to know that I’m pressing on with the application anyway.#
#Fine, but I can’t support every choice you make and I’m not going to support this one.#
The pair of them viewed the skyline in awkward silence. As they did so, the ‘sun’ – the focal point of the evening light – was eclipsed by a building rising up in the middle of what might’ve been a park; Yenye wasn’t sure. It was a park three days ago, at any rate.
View obscured, she looked down at the table, connected into the relevant network, and looked at where her application was. The diagram that O.C.’s HR showed was that of a huge circle that claimed half of the table, but when examined closely over a long enough period, was actually closing in towards the centre. As she gazed over it, one out of thousands of diamond-shaped points of light that were scattered within the circle came into contact with suddenly blinked out, turned into a grey circle and slowly found itself outside that circle.
Her application, she was delighted to see, was still very much inside, and would most likely remain there for some time. Even so, she was nonetheless off-centre; no-one was on the centre spot, but she wasn’t nearest, either. She’d have to work at that during the next assessment.
#Look, it’s fine if you wanna be a part of O.C., OK? I suppose someone has to be.#
#Just promise me you won’t turn into a stuck-up bitch. Or disappear completely.#
Yenye allowed herself to smile weakly; meanwhile, a couple more of those diamond lights blinked out – another two down, but still thousands to go. When was the next assessment, she asked herself, and she realised that it was tomorrow. Time was certainly catching up with her.
#When does this place close?# Renji asked.
#I think it’s around about now#, Yenye replied.
Sure enough, almost immediately the Membranes collapsed to the ground and the tables dissolved back into the assembler, which the cafe’s runners promptly wheeled away, leaving no trace of its existence.
Fat Spider, on Deck FAT, was a city where every house was interconnected in a vast, sprawling network; corridors led to the front door of the next house along, and hatches in the floor and ceiling could take someone up or down to another neighbour. Those cracking open the windows could find themselves in curious, six-sided gardens that filled the spaces in between.
Such a place was meant to foster a sense of community; by and large, it did, not least because the proximity of houses allowed for easier signalling. There was, however, a flipside to this communal warmth.
#Had a bunch of P.F.s follow me home. It’s about my work in the Order.#
#Yeah, I figured that much. Nothing worse than Peasant Fighters, though. It’s why I left, in the end, because you say to them: seriously, guys, you know fuck all about science, you haven’t the slightest idea, and if you couldn’t hack it back in your academy days, you’re not going to get it now, so fuck off. But they never listen, ever. You’re gonna have to be smart about this.#
#Well, I put a whole load of arguments to them, and they still didn’t budge from me. Surely there’s some sort of law?#
#Maybe. But I think the law around here prefers that you shake them off first; they probably have bigger issues to deal with.#
#Even garden murders are open-and-shut these days. Have been for years; how overstretched can they be?#
The scientist made her way to the door, which projected a view from the ceiling outside. They, the three P.F.s, were still outside.
“For fuck’s sake,” she muttered.
#They’re still there, aren’t they?#
#Yep. You’ve got a plan, though, right?#
#Sure I have. Keep your screen on – I presume it’s on – because this is going to be good. Seriously.#
The scientist smiled. It was times like these that she was especially glad to have a friend some fifty years older than her; the added experience in the Order really came into play, too. She turned back to the screen and watched as four large strips appeared outside, surrounding the three men and covering her door.
#OK, I just want to tell the four of you this. Those four things you see there? Teleport pads, and all four of them are live. So you three are either gonna stop harrasing my friend, or else you’re going to be trapped there forever. Because believe me, she can work around you, but you can’t work around these.#
The three of them hovered, determined to continue their encampment, but realising that their options were extremely limited.
#Yeah, that’s right. At some point, you’re going to have to leave – but not without learning one little thing, guys. The Order of Knight Scientists consists of people smarter than you.#
The scientist couldn’t help but smile from inside the door. The frustration on their three faces was clear to see, Two of them, there and then, decided to drift over the lines, and sure enough they were sucked away to another part of the ship. The remaining one remained for some time, but eventually, even he had to give up and go home.
#Thanks. You’ve really saved my ass there.#
#Not a problem.#
“Well I was thinking about the factory jobs, but then I thought, no let’s not. Apparently it’s got something to do with the collider and the Outergalactic Combat Unit and so on, so I thought, no, stay away from that.”
“Ah, c’mon, people trust you by now.”
“I dunno. I’d have thought that have learnt to trust you by now.”
“Exactly. I don’t want that ruined… and besides, this job is also pretty cool. A bit too much like lazing around, but – oh, that’s gotta be a point.”
The ball had left the wall with an aggressive spin, and bounced in a way that made it veer to the returning player’s right. The player swung at it, a slashing shot that should’ve sent it firmly slamming back into the wall’s centre, but instead she misjudged the spin, clipped the ball and delivered it into the serving player’s catcher’s hands, where it was promptly and deliberately fumbled.
“Yeah, I’ll give it a point.”
“Technically that makes…”
Five judges had agreed to give what weren’t exactly points, but micropoints – which meant-
“Under the rules of the game, a hundred and twenty micropoints.”
“What? That makes no fucking sense.”
“That’s Qareen sense, my friend. He had eight hundred and eight before, so he’s now up to nine hundred and twenty eight. Another one of those and he gets a point.”
“Seems like a lot of effort. Also, what’s the thing with the fumbling about? It was so obviously-”
“Acted? Yeah. Apparently it’s a psychological thing, to tell the other team that they’re ahead, and that they could end it there and then if they wanted.”
The serving coalition’s current pair psyched each other up, before the one holding the racquet-bat began again, with a slow, centrally-pitched serve that was a classic sign of a Rollercoaster Gambit. The returning player wasn’t falling for it, though; he patted it back, drawing his opponent towards the wall. A slow, close rally followed, until the serving player pitched a shot high, the ball almost bouncing at the very top of the wall where it met the ceiling. The returning player, fearing that it would bounce behind him, reached up to hit the ball, and accidentally tipped it backwards. This time, the catcher decided that enough was enough, and caught it solidly.
“So the main game’s over. Score?”
“On the board, it’s 202-137. Off the board it’s 210-153. But there are only 49 subgames to play.”
“So the rest is just a formality?”
“Yeah. But they’re gonna play it anyway.”
“Nah, not really. It’s just Qareen sense.”
“Ah, shut up.”
“Well, we’re done, anyway. You wanna check the big game?”
After tens of thousands of points played, in the end, it was a stumble that ended it. Missing a shot from a NeoFight racquet-bat, the returning player span round, lost balance and hit the Safe Zone with the racquet-bat around half a second after the ball had.
Pensay looked to the wall’s scoreboard, which showed an eleven point difference, but she could feel the buzz of the crowd. Now, of course, was the moment of truth; now the Fazi scores and style points would out – well, maybe – and even if the subgames were tilted against them, the off-board scores, she knew, weren’t.
The screen faded the score, causing the buzz in the crowd to crescendo, but it levelled as the message came through: “Style board scores released; Fazi scores held back.”
Pensay shrugged. That was an option, after all, but it changed little – the gap was reduced to six points. The crowd was less than impressed, but she didn’t mind; her coalition had been behind for the whole damn game, and she could hang on for slightly longer. That said, the judges were almost certainly going to hold back until exactly the right moment, and that was annoying.
#Am I taking the first subgame?#
#If you like. To be completely honest, we weren’t expecting that.#
#I’m thinking of quitting.#
#Funny you should say that. Me too. I don’t feel useful here.#
#I bet we’re missing the big game, too.#