“I can’t believe you said yes without asking me.”
“I can’t believe you took me here.”
The mood on the balcony was a sour one for both parties. Across the cargo bay, ships still entered and left, but the traffic was much less, and the buzz had gone. Masses of ships had attempted to enter over the last few days, only to be turned back; the bay had to be clear for the big day, which loomed ever closer even if it was still tens of days away.
It was at the back of the bay, though, where the big draw was lying. A hulk of structure had slowly emerged, built from the ground up, by a slow-moving cloud of construction bots. Indeed, each and every one of those bots had found itself to be dialled down on this project, and its programming filled with instructions far beyond the norm. Being T.I.s, they literally couldn’t begin to conceive of the significance of their work, but there it was, its progress gathering pace as the bots learnt how to make each new part faster and faster. At this stage, an outline was becoming visible; an expert would’ve recognised it as part of a Dharan ship, with its central blade exposed as hollow, and its jabbing fractal counterparts still too spindly to properly stab.
“Look, if it helps at all, I’m sorry. But I can’t go back on it.”
“You can always go back on it. Surely you have the right to withdraw?”
Pensay tilted her head from side to side in ambivalence. “I’d piss a lot of people off. I mean, I know I’m pissing you off, and I’m sorry about that, but… I’ve got myself into this now, and there isn’t much wriggle room, in practical terms.”
A silence followed. To the side of the two of them, a bot spiralled awkwardly upwards, as a bug in the system prompted it to whizz away from the building site like a hyperactive fly.
“Look, there are plenty of individuals in the military, in the diplomatic corps, and so on, and they all go for months and years without seeing their partners. It’s not like this is unprecedented.”
“You’re going to change into an entirely different fucking person, Pensay,” Jarn yelled, and thumped the table, half-standing to do so. He seemed to shock even himself at his anger, and after hovering for a short while, sat down again. “I can’t take this. I just can’t.”
“I can change back.”
“What if you don’t?”
Another pause followed.
“I don’t know what you mean. What are you suggesting?”
She looked over the balcony, after a bot had rushed to the ground and clanged against the railings as it did so.
“I just worry that you’ll never come back, and that you’ll lose yourself, and forget where you came from, and why you’re doing all of this. More determined minds than ours have done so. I just want sanity from you, Pensay. Nothing more.”
Pensay thought that what she was going to receive, when she heard about what was referred to as a ‘script’, was a general outline of what had to happen come the big day; an idea of what would occur, a sketch of it. Instead, what she got was, well, a script.
“So we’ve planned it down to the word?” she asked her apparent acting coach, Teryis6.
“No,” Teryis replied, “but we think that what we’ve got down here is a pretty good starting point. We wouldn’t expect you to recite it, word-for-word, in the heat of the moment, it’s just the general area we want to aim for.”
It had already been bewildering enough for her when she had been advised to head through Outergalactic Combat’s many pastel-coloured corridors to a point far from her section, where, driving the office-tank up to a mezzanine, she parked it perilously close to the edge (for some reason, there were few railings around the whole department, although crash-mat safety measures were always present, as if they wanted to cause the maximum number of completely safe accidents possible).
She then walked through the relevant door and stopped dead. In front of her had been a complete replica of that Dharan bridge they had captured in picobot data. She should have expected it – indeed she did – but to be in the midst of this environment, and its weird anti-technological technology, proved to be a shock.
“OK,” Teryis continued, “so obviously, you have to assume that you’ll have undergone all the changes, all the surgery. We can always do a full dress rehearsal afterwards, if need be, but I don’t think this is too complex anyhow; we’ve probably overthought it, to be honest.”
She looked down at it anyway. The generally agreed script contained few surprises, anyhow; she would claim that the ship had been sprung upon by Dharan pirates, and as a result, something had happened. It had all apparently happened quickly, so it was borderline impossible for her to ‘remember’. Furthermore, they had stripped the ship of value, to the point where it was practically impossible for her to figure out what the ship was meant to contain, and erased the databanks. For good measure, they had done something to her, too, but ascertaining what exactly was impossible, given how she was the only one around to witness it and hardly reliable. In essence, the idea was to be as vague as possible, as confused as possible, and as uncertain as possible – in other words, as unlike a Qareen as possible, when it came to the objective facts.
She sat down in the chair, at which point the lights suddenly dimmed to a flickering lightshow. Naturally, this meant that she could read what was in front of her, so she threw it aside. The comms opened up.
“This is Designated Ship number of address. What’s your status?”
“I, erm, something happened here. I can’t quite remember, but they came in, and they took almost everything. And, they – everyone else is gone. I don’t know why, I just don’t know what’s happened.”
The lights went up.
“You might want to be a little more confused. And distressed.”
“This shit is hard. Anyone care to whack me about the head a little before take-off?”
Startling things can happen in a Kaizener match, Pensay thought.
For example, the team that fought off a lead for day after day, could so easily, it turned out, collapse utterly during the crucial final stages. Even during the early subgames, the first hundred or so, that narrowing lead was still there, still steadfastly present, and Pensay wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if the final scores had come through and revealed a NeoFight loss of one point.
There seemed to be little chance of that later on, though.
With both teams broadly aware that the match as a whole had to end soon, subgames were being played night and day. Pensay took part in them where possible, and when she did, she discovered the remarkable collapse first-hand; serves were awkward and often faulted, drop shots hit the carpet before the wall, and her rolling serves weren’t ever even stopped, let alone returned. When rallies worked themselves up into a decent momentum, Pensay found that a simple addition or reduction of speed could completely befuddle her opponent, and quite often, the sheer number of edges that allowed the ball to fly through to catchers that weren’t there. If only this had been the main game – the opportunities to end it would have been immense.
Instead, she and her teammates had to deal with a team that had seemingly given up, conceded all but formally. The gap climbed up to a hundred, two hundred, three hundred points, and with a thousand subgames to go, it shot up even higher, well beyond reach. The only hope of victory for them was in the hidden scores, but it simply seemed increasingly unlikely; odds were, some sort of record would have to be broken, and they had simply not been on record-breaking form, even in the main game.
Even if the challenge had suddenly gone, though, she was still lucky enough; the agreed rota – for the game had become so routine by that point – put her in charge for the last thirty subgames, and so she could finish it once and for all.
The final subgame came around, and once again, it was her serve. She raised her racquet-bat slightly, thought for a moment, and decided that she would serve low and fast, aiming to maximise bounce and height. Throwing the ball upwards, she served; the ball rushed down, hit the wooden board along the bottom of the wall, and rolled rapidly along the ground. Her beleaguered opponent stumbled an attempt to intercept it, but it bobbled past and hit the far wall.
Only one more point was needed.
She served again, this time slower, but incredibly her opponent rushed in too quickly, staggered back and flailed the racquet-bat at the ball as it approached the second bounce. Hitting it weakly, he got the ball to roll slowly towards the wall, but it was too little; and with that, the game was calmly won – and as the hidden scores were outed, the margin only widened further.
“Well, erm, what happened – what… what happened was that they came in-”
“I, I can’t remember, they were, erm, these people-”
“OK, what did they do?”
“They, ah, er, they, they did something. I can’t remember. They, er, they took things. Took everything. And, er, they, tried to… tried to… they managed to – managed to do something and now, now I can’t seem to, remember all that much about it.”
“OK, so how about you guess who did it?”
“Can’t have been the Qareen. I remember… aaaah, I can’t remember! No, wait – I do, there were… pirates, a whole load of them who were near one of those Qareen ships a while back, causing trouble. Who were they?”
“Are you sure it’d be the same people?”
“No… can’t be sure at all.”
The lights raised again.
“Well,” Teryis began, “you’ve mastered the language pretty quickly.”
“It’s pretty simple stuff, I should be able to, especially given the script,” Pensay pointed out, “I think that effort was a little better, but I might be wrong.”
“It was better,” Teryis agreed, “you might actually be starting to err on the side of too much hesitation. But that’s not too much of a worry, it’s just that you’ve reached that level, and now you should stay there.”
She walked over, sat down and thought for a while.
“Do you feel prepared?” she asked.
“Not really,” Pensay said.
“Good. That means you aren’t getting complacent. Of course, at some point the run-throughs must end…”
She didn’t finish the thought; instead, she pulled herself into a more upright position and continued her assessment.
“Another thing – and I think it’s just starting to come through, a little, with a few more runs it might all come together – is that you are now figuring out how to deviate from the script. That’s good. That’s very good. We’ll need you to be able to do that, because this will almost certainly go off-script.”
“The Dharans probably know the script.”
“Ah, c’mon, that’s a little pessimistic. They might not know a damn thing for all we know. We seem to have gotten a lot of crap under their radar.”
“We only seem to.”
Pensay got up and began to pace around the simulated bridge. It was a small place, and very, very bare, which was no surprise. Around the walls, ceiling and even on the floor, patches had been made in order to fake the impression of a raid. She was convinced; but then again, she knew that higher-thinking individuals could no doubt spot the flaws that others couldn’t.
After all, it took a nation of millions just to convince a ship of Dharans.
The night-cycle was close to its midpoint; by then, the cargo bay had largely emptied. A select few milled about across the vast expanse; together, they probably numbered in the tens at most. Almost no ships had glided in over the course of a tenth. Pensay had long since realised the limits of observing from the balconies, and chose instead to move amongst the various ships parked in the bay, and observe their varying sizes, from the small shuttlecrafts that were designed for short bursts down to a nearby planet when the Astrostate was within a system, to the larger military craft that were the size of office buildings and that, when parked in parallel, produced their own small mutating towns.
Even whilst moving amongst these, though, there was always one presence that was permanently there. She swore that she could see it out of the corner of her eye, even when she had her back to it; it seemed to be immense beyond its mere presence, as if its scale had a psychological dimension.
So she turned around and faced it. The Dharan ship – or more accurately, the simulacra of a Dharan ship – was a strange object whose shape and appearance played on her socialisation. From one angle (mentally), it looked spindly, and weak, like a simple laser blast would send at least one of those fractal branches would wind up flung off the hull, and spinning through space, thrashing off splinters as it turned for aeons through the intergalactic void. Yet even whilst an observer reached that conclusion, they – and indeed Pensay – couldn’t help but know that this flimsiness was a psychological ploy. That she knew it was a psychological ploy was, in itself, also a psychological ploy – something else that she also knew. And with that, the logic could cascade upwards in an infinite, and never wholly knowable, regress.
She moved closer to it; at first, she walked, but after a while decided to cut to the chase and hop across some of the bay floor’s teleport pads until the ship loomed over her.
She was supposed to pilot that thing. The thought of that alone was a little terrifying. It led on in an irrefutable chain towards everything else to be afraid of – the contact with the Dharans themselves, being taken aboard their ship, being outed as an infiltrator, the sheer number of unknown, and quite possibly unknowable, factors, losing Jarn…
Although, that said, she wondered if that one had happened already. Her conscious mind assessed it; she could feel the front quarters tingle, and they reached a conclusion that she found pretty obvious – that the feeling would be terrible when it dawned on her, but not terrible in the long run, although she suspected a vestige of regret would run and run.
She checked the time; she had been wandered aimlessly about the cargo bay for around five hundredths. She checked the date.
The operation would be possible in three days.