Even now, after years of experience, Aayen still found it a little bit incredible that, amongst all the equipment, all the computers, and all the devices in the possession of the Order of Knight Scientists, all it took to begin the process of grabbing a stream of particles, magnetically shoving them round a circular path of some fifteen hundred kilometres until they were nanometres per second away from the speed of light, and then slam them into one another, was one tap of a screen.
To be completely accurate, there were access codes, and passwords; most often ones that related to science, and quite often ones that related to recent discoveries. No mere prole could get their hands on the Astrostate’s most resource and energy-intensive machine.
Of course, as the machine kicked up one more time – registered as Run No. 2232-3 – there was always the possibility of outside interference.
#What do we do about it? Throwing this out to anyone, particularly the one daft enough to throw the switch#, said Lekra7/Damocles, jolting Aayen’s train of thought.
#There isn’t a switch, it’s a console#, said the one apparently daft enough, Uttran3/Damocles.
#Not my point. The Dharans are coming and you switched the machine on. We’ll never get an accurate reading in such circumstances.#
#Lekra, you are taking this far too seriously#, Aayen replied, #if it’s a waste, we clear the board and try another run. It’s no big deal.#
She could tell that Lekra was about to erupt into a rant, but she held up a hand and waved her complaints away. Aayen wasn’t exactly her superior – indeed, the Order had very little in the way of established hierarchy – but her experience meant that she could often seize the role of an ad hoc manager if it was necessary.
In any event, the run was done; the collision had occurred, and the results were coalescing. Aayen grabbed a seat next to Uttran and brought up the relevant program on the console. “OK, this is Damocles Accelerator Run 2232-3, computer, please confirm successful run and validate results.”
“Run was successful. Results are as follows.”
A bare set of minimalist graphics appeared as a 3D projection above the console. Outside, through the windows, a 2D copy was also visible, a similar tangle of multicoloured lines, albeit without the added context a third dimension provided.
#So there you go, folks#, Uttran said a short moment afterwards, #it’s a waste. My apologies.#
The mangled results, impossible on a natural level, bore the classic symptoms of a Dharan prank. The odds were, too, that the Dharans hadn’t actually hacked the computer, but fiddled inside the collider itself.
#Actually, Uttran, you just did us a favour.#
#Lekra, calm down. We got the news through, everyone. Jarn and Pensay are returning to the Damocles in about three hours. The picobots are on board.#
#Yeah. The Dharans were so busy pranking us that O.C. have sneaked their spies on board. What a bunch of complacent idiots.#
#Who? Us or them?#
#Them… I hope.#
The lecture hall was half-empty, as it often was for POP105, the Politics of Physics course. Aayen always sighed at this; it was not exactly a crucial course – indeed, no-one was required to attend, but it helped for those entering the Order to understand exactly why they were going about their business, as well as how they stood. All too often, neophytes would enter the Order and be stunned by Dharan capability, or by the sheer shortcomings of Qareen technology, and they would essentially spend at least a year finding out the hard way.
“OK,” she said aloud. Somehow, delivering lectures aloud made the lecture feel more active to her, and also kept her more alert than the lazy flow of signalling. “OK, so welcome to POP105. In this course, you should get some kind of understanding about how the science we conduct at the Order fits into the wider galactic political scene. Of course, the first step towards doing this… is to figure out the rough lie of the land, regarding both physics and politics.”
She brought up a diagram of what appeared to be the first three parts of a step pyramid.
“So we all know about the first to third ways of physics, which run from the relative mundanities that occur in this room, to the degree of faster-than-light travel that we are currently capable of. We also all know that the likes of the Stoppan and Bhoot have also found the third way. What you don’t know-”
She cut herself off and added a fourth step to the pyramid.
“What you don’t know is that the Dharans most likely employ a fourth kind of physics. Although the technology they employ is difficult to discern in operation, it is known that much of it simply cannot be explained using third way physics.”
This got the students paying attention, signalling abstractions that were partly fascination, but overwhelmingly a combination of shock and nervousness. She received that tense buzzing every year. They always turn out fine, anyway, so long as they got that slap in the face out of the way; with that, she revealed the top step of the pyramid.
“What minimal diplomatic relations the Confederacy has had with the Dharans has revealed an interesting thing. They have spoken of things that are beyond their current technology, but that they know to be possible, which suggests a fifth way.”
This news was less of a shock.
#Time travel#, one student said.
“Indeed. Multidimensional space and time travel has remained a mystery to all but, for some reason, the least technologically advanced civilisation us Qareen have ever encountered. And the suggestion is that, amongst them, it remained confined to a very small elite.”
#Do you think they’ll ever return and tell us the secret?#
“No. The last contact with members of the Earth civilisation was over a thousand years ago now, and their visits are clustered in a way to suggest that they’re not coming back. Frustrating, I know, but it looks like we’re on our own, figuring that out. OK…”
The lecture ran as Aayen reckoned it would, and so she left at the end, heading along the corridors curving in parallel with the collider, and towards a huge room, with a relatively low ceiling (at least, compared to the lecture hall) filled with people. The Hypothesis Room was not entirely well-named – it was also good for Theories, Methodologies and Analysis too, and it was not so much a room as a huge conference hall, where various stands and marquees loomed over huge banks of computers and holographic projections. Actually, “Hypothesis Room” was terrible name – it was more of a cutting-edge science conference, albeit one that never ended. Aayen wasn’t strictly working on the project, but she found herself heading towards one particular quarter of the room anyway, a quarter that would no doubt, in due course, expand into the whole room in due course – picobot data reception.
#We “got anything?”#, she managed to signal and say simultaneously.
#You want to be here. Stand 137.#
Aayen found Stand 137 to be about four turns away, and it was a small platform, one desk, two people at either end.
“So what have we got?” Aayen asked. She was vaguely aware that a crowd was starting to cluster around the desk.
“Picobots on the outer hull have managed to report something,” the researcher, a young woman, said aloud, inadvertently copying Aayen despite the noise. “This came in just before the ship shot away from us, so it’s very vague, and it’s incomplete, and we’ll have to wait for more. But…”
She brought up a projection in the centre of the desk, revealing a cross-section of an ambiguous component.
“So it seems like,” the researcher said in a raised voice, and the crowd noise dropped. She looked around in mild confusion.
#I put a membrane up#, Aayen explained, #sound only#.
“What we’ve got is this small piece of plating on the outside of the Dharan ship. Now, the weird thing here is that, firstly, it seems to be of an ultra-dense material – not in the usual sense, but – I don’t quite know how to put this, but it’s like lanthanide contraction, only in the inter-atomic space, and on the quantum level.”
“So it’s like some sort of black-hole material?”
“No, no,” the researcher said. She fumbled for the right words. “This will sound absurd, but… it’s like they’ve found a way to squeeze more stuff into reality itself.”
“That’s insane,” a bystander said.
“It gets better,” the researcher continued, “this piece of plating seems to be shifting, changing itself about. Some of the picobots have actually been assimilated into the material. It’s like the hull thinks the picobots are part of itself, bits of it that have broken off, and it’s self-repairing. Now there’s no way that it could know they were there, because the whole piece is homogenous, or seems to be, so there must be an intrinsic artificial intelligence in the hull plating itself.”
“Holy shit,” was all Aayen could say.
Of course, that was the limit to the data coming through for some time. Given that a Dharan ship could travel two-and-a-half times faster than a Qareen ansible signal, sending any consistent stream of data required the ship to either slow down to at least a third of its top speed, or else travel in a direction that wasn’t directly away from the Astrostate. Surprisingly, more data came through some five hours later.
Aayen was wandering through the corridors, somewhat out of duties for the day, but feeling like she shouldn’t give up searching for some. Above her, the lights flickered at intervals, as if the power grid was suffering. Yet there was no sign of an attack.
#What’s going on?#
#Come in. Lab behind you – M317. It’s OK, it’s just…#
She spun round and flung open the door to Lab M317. Like the 316 other laboratories prefixed with an “M” that preceded it on a clockwise walk through the Astrostate from the centre of its bow, it was a large, perfectly square room filled with objects, and those that weren’t white were transparent. She often wondered how someone could spend so much of their life in such a place, when the Hypothesis Room was so much less sterile, so much less austere. Of course, someone had to, and in this case, one person did.
The lone occupant was behind an extremely wide screen on a desk that almost ran the complete length of the back of the lab.
“It’s the picobots.”
“They’re sending? Why would that break the lights?”
“Because they’re sending insane amounts of stuff,” he said, and gestured to the screen. Aayen took the long walk around the desk. “They’re trying to send as much stuff as possible, as if they know they’re going to disappear soon or something.”
“Well, earlier today someone found out that the hull plating tried to assimilate the bots. Automatically.”
The man nodded, and she finally reached him and the focal point of the screen, where raw data spilt across several columns and flowed almost continuously upwards.
“If that’s true, it’s quite something. But no, they’re still there, most of ’em. It’s more that they’re in some sort of panic. The ship itself has slowed down and, well, something is happening.”
She looked to the screen and found that, indeed, the data seemed to flow in an odd, awkward rhythm, not entirely regular but not random either-
“Some sort of multilayered phase,” she muttered, “like the ship’s leaving this reality, or mutating, or something.”
The data juddered its strange pattern for what Aayen guessed was one more cycle, and then it stopped.
“Whatever that ship was doing,” the scientist said, “it’s stopped doing it. It’s gone. And there’s no lag, look – no data dripping through. It just stopped. That ship’s gone somewhere, or changed into something; it hasn’t just accelerated away.”
Another day, another large room. It had been about one and a half days, to be precise – it was close to the Qareen equivalent of midnight; “tickover”, in most languages. And the large room served little scientific purpose; instead, it served as a convenient space for large-scale projections, including the one that dominated the room now – a reconstruction of a Dharan vessel, in greater detail than the Qareen Confederacy had ever achieved.
“This is history. We’ve done it,” Aayen said, “unless they’ve fed us false results.”
#Aayen, you seem to be constantly paranoid about this#, one of her colleagues, Iyet6, pointed out.
#Well, if it isn’t constant, it isn’t paranoia, is it?#, she countered.
#Very witty. But we have to run with the best theory at any given time, and the best theory right now, where most of the pieces fit together, is that the Dharans, despite everything, are flawed beings. And like flawed beings, they have gifted us all this data.#
#And if it’s wrong?#
#I can’t imagine they’d start a war over such things. They’ll probably just mock us, the Shango Federation will probably chastise us as fools, we’re shamefaced for a little while, et cetera. It’s no big deal.#
#You’d better be right about that.#
The three of them, in the room, decided to examine what they had anyway. Certainly the ship was of a standard Dharan design, that splintering, fractal design of spikes erupting three-quarters of the way back from a central, blade-like hull. Switching to an interior view revealed that the ship was much barer than might have been assumed.
#Five kilometres long, dozens of times bigger overall than anything the Confederacy would have fielded in the Intersection Wars, and yet there’s a crew of about…#
#Sixteen, I make it. They probably all live like a Shango with his own Darkworld in there.#
#I’ll say, Lerron.#
The projection switch to an interior view, where it first displayed the bridge, or at least what the three of them had assumed was the bridge.
#This isn’t some kind of lounge, is it? Where’s the fucking bridge?#
“Now you see what I mean?” Aayen said, “stupid. We’ve been fucking duped.”
#Not necessarily. This is a static image – if we go through each frame of the five hours we might find something that confirms what we’re wanting to see.#
#That’s gonna be arduous#, Lerron said.
#Well, that’s what AI’s for#, Iyet countered, “computer, transfer this specific data to the AI unit in Lab X511, and get it to first look for proof of this space’s function, on a frame-by-frame basis if necessary, and secondly, to store such proof and recall it on request.”
An acknowledging beep informed her that the task was done.
“You see, Aayen? We’ll soon have something. And once we do, we’ll have the Dharans cracked.”
And with that, Iyet and Lerron left the room, leaving Aayen to gaze at that static, lounge-like bridge.
What game are you people playing, she wondered, and what will it cost us?