Cover Taken

1

It was a funny feeling, shutting a seemingly dark and empty room, only to freeze as the empty but bright corridor suddenly flickered into darkness. Cutting the lights was a fairly standard action for the Dharans, and her experience of various passovers had made her more than used to it happening. Indeed, the Dharans seemingly regarded it as mandatory, a requirement in order to put the Qareen in their place, et cetera.

This didn’t necessarily make stumbling around in the dark any easier, though; just about the only thing that did was the fact that the corridor consisted of little but doors, a ceiling, a floor and walls. And lights. Hard to forget about the lights.

Around the corridor, she could hear a creaking and groaning; again, most likely Dharan, along with the shifts in AG that tilted the corridor from side to side. She could cope with this. If the Dharans were too busy pissing about with what were surely, to them, basic party tricks, manipulating the Astrostate’s systems with ease, then they were probably entirely unaware of the isolated system of cloaking that was, right now, cloaking the important R&D. She tried to stop thinking about this, but then again, it wasn’t like they could snatch the thoughts out of her head, or at least, there was no evidence she had come across that suggested as much.

She decided to lie down, which would minimise the likelihood of her getting thrown into a wall, as she had been a couple of times up to that point. From there, she found the experience strangely relaxing, as if it was the galaxy’s lightest amusement park ride. The tilt and roll of it seemed to slide her back over the smooth floor, working out the stresses…

OK, she thought, this is getting ridiculous.

She could bear it, but it needed to stop at some point.

And just at the exact point when the whirling, tilting action had swirled the blood right around each quadrant and layer of her brain, and induced a sort of woozy, trance-like state, it stopped. The problem was over, but she couldn’t get up.

“You OK, Aayen?” a member of staff asked.

“I’m fine, just give me a while,” she said, #another… anoj – sep – ayr – sayaround 01.203.04-#

“You’re not thinking straight, are you sure you don’t need-”

She staggered to her feet, bounced off each wall once, and then steadied herself.

#Testing, testing, motherfucking testing. Yeah, I’m fine.#

She headed for the door she had previously exited, and bashed a hand against the handle, crudely opening it. She looked into the room, and its darkness proved to be a violent contrast to the light of the corridor, and her still-off-kilter head span a little.

She got her head together – and on an abstract, processing level, beyond the material, that was an almost literal task.

“Ship, how far away is the nearest Dharan vessel?”

“The best estimate is around 3,500 parsecs and climbing, given apparent incoming speed.”

That should’ve been enough, she thought. Now she thought about it, she had indeed spent some time staggering around in the corridor out there; it was definitely time to see if the plan had worked.

“OK, computer, are you ready for the password?”

The relevant machine beeped. It was ready. She wasn’t, entirely, but she had this committed to memory, this improved, longer password, this piece of text that surely no Dharan would think to state. Even for a humanoid tongue it seemed odd, stilted, as if there had been some attempt to cram Qareen complexity into such a basic language. The human database had assured her, however, that despite this, the text still had its shortcomings – it had caused immense debate over the years, seemingly endless arguments spanning across centuries.

Whatever. It wasn’t her job to know the rights and wrongs of the content, only what it said. She checked that her throat was clear, that her head had recovered sufficiently, and pressed on.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed…”

2

She was tempted to just ask the computer, but she couldn’t trust it, not immediately after a passover. The alternative was what she did, opening every cupboard and door by hand in order to discover the mundane truth that pretty much everything in storage beforehand was still there. She spotted the assistant in the door behind her.

“Everything OK?” Aayen asked.

“Yeah, I just realised… this is the shield project, isn’t it? Has it worked?”

“It seems to have. We’ve only had one run, and it’d be nice to get repeat tests, but we can’t afford to; we don’t want to draw too much attention, we’ve done enough as it is.”

“Didn’t you say that the shield-”

“It’s a cloak actually.”

“Fair enough. But didn’t you say, a while back, that the cloak would have an AI integrated into it?”

That was true, and she had half-forgotten. “Yes,” she said, pretending otherwise, “so it might have feedback for us, assuming that the Dharans did anything at all.”

She looked around the lab, and found the console at the back, which, like in so many of the Order’s labs, was shaped to a default of around half a metre wide and almost the whole length of the back wall. She made her way behind it, drummed her fingers over the screen looking for the right icon, found it on the far left, and hauled it across several metres towards the screen’s centre. Tapping it open, she tapped on “open report”, the option that had glared red when the options screen appeared.

There she looked at the feedback.

“It’s pretty long,” the assistant remarked as she joined Aayen.

Aayen opened it up in full; the text shot out in a 3D projection, filling the lab.

“Yeah, it’s lengthy,” she replied. “I don’t suppose you care to read through all of this?”

“Well…”

“I don’t expect you to, it’s fine. But I might have to.”

She continued to look at the text, walking around the lab as she did so to scan over its form. Clauses and sub-clauses, clarifications and details branched off a core of text which presented a filmy, insubstantial metre-high band of pictograms that spanned from one wall to another. More of these bands, thinner but from floor to ceiling and corner to corner, were also visible, prompted sometimes by single lines of text.

“No, I don’t have to,” she eventually concluded, and then cut off the obvious question. “It’s just a matter of the right parameters.”

Which wasn’t to say that it didn’t take some time to figure out those parameters.

“Computer, can we get a summary of the key suggestions?” the assistant asked.

“Not my jurisdiction – ask cloak,” flashed up in gold text over the main band.

“OK, cloak, can we get a summary, your key suggestions, and so on?”

The cloak AI complied, but it was little use; instead of a lab full of text, a list cascaded from floor to ceiling in multiple columns. Apparently, the device had endless ideas for self-improvement.

“Cloak, how many of these do you have around a 97% confidence rating in, give or take 3%?” Aayen asked.

The AI showed the first column in six. “This is assuming some lax assumptions,” a synthesised voice cut in, “but outside of those assumptions, which pretty much have to be made, I’d go with these.”

“Feel free to implement them immediately or, failing that, a more appropriate time,” Aayen instructed.

“You don’t want to read them.”

“I am not in the mental state to read them. I’m trusting you, cloak. And seeing as you’ve roughly proven your effectiveness, your primary mission and rollout starts as soon as I leave this room, OK?”

“Acknowledged.”

She headed out of the lab, and the assistant followed. The assistant left before her, and she turned back to watch as the room emptied itself and wound up in darkness, before shutting the door behind her.

“It’s a botch job anyway,” she muttered to herself.

3

This is probably Pensay’s job, she thought, but fuck it. If they wanted me not to do what I’m doing, they should’ve written a proper job description.

It seemed like the factory issue had been resolved; each of them was, if not complete, at least close to it. Deck SDG’s plant was now complete, that vast open space now filled with ungainly towers bristling with details, their crude technology reverse-engineered to produce facsimiles of copies of interpretations of emulations of simulacra, at best.

Qareen society had heard of the concept of the zany scheme, but Aayen was fairly certain that it had never been attempted on this sort of scale.

She walked around the space, heading in amongst the inactive machines, which rose up like a small city around her. It was a city of stark design, though, one of no civic pride; there couldn’t afford to be such a thing around here. The “streets” were either conveyer belts or concrete strips marked with endless pictograms cautioning safety, recommending safe distances, and safe operation practices, and safe equipment to use, and safe protection to wear. It all seemed to meet the agreed regulations, as far as she knew; no doubt somewhere. hundreds of decks above her, Pensay was berating the hired organisers (she couldn’t think of them as managers; they weren’t truly in charge) for going overboard.

She had gone to the Deck SDG factory because it was evidence of progress. And every time there was evidence of progress, it always forced her to think, if not exactly critically, then at least pessimistically, and cynically.

Someone had to. It was the sheer amount of progress in the whole project that made her suspicious; they had definitely managed more with this project than almost any other, ever. Possibly more than any other one combined. And that should’ve struck people as odd; it should’ve smashed down their starry-eyed optimism, and made them look to the (purely figurative on a spaceship, however large) burning heavens and wonder whether this was one of those signs of providence mentioned in human folklore, or religion, or whatever it was.

She, at least, was sure that this was a Dharan trap of some kind.

Was Pensay the perp? Probably not; that would be too obvious, and it wasn’t how the Dharans ever worked. She probably was, in fact, the biggest sucker of them all, actually, the one who believed she was doing the bidding of herself and herself alone. But then again, to point the finger at anyone else was even more tenuous – and that was definitely how they worked.

She ran down the more optimistic reasons through her mind. Maybe Pensay had simply encouraged her section, which then encouraged the Unit as a whole, so the whole damn idea had proven to be infectious, and yet also just happened by sheer coincidence to be the one that would make progress. Maybe the fact that the idea was producing results this time simply corroded the conservatism and wariness that had dominated before. Maybe, just maybe, it was luck alone; but of course, the true scientist, she thought, does not accept “luck” – a level of probability, a permutation in a chaotic system, but not luck. Something creates luck, something drives it.

But she couldn’t fathom it. Like so much of the work she was involved in, it seemed improbable that she ever would. And as she made her way back past those towering machines again, machines whose multiple limbs sprung out from their contorted bodies in the twilight – monsters waiting for their time to strike, she realised that she would have to tread carefully, whatever her methods.

Their time came soon enough. From the end of the expanse, a shaft of light shot in, the three machines between Aayen and the opening forming stark silhouettes. She hurried onwards as the entrance widened, revealing the emergency teleport pads scattered about the place, forming polka dots in greyscale. Finding one of them, she stooped to the floor, selected the exact location she was at, only for the deck above, and vanished as the main factory lights abruptly switched on, matching the hum that started to create a buzzing echo off the walls.

4

“Do you ever feel, I don’t know, superfluous? Or even just like you’re some sort of cog in a very large machine, one that’s far bigger than you could ever be-”

“It’s called society, Aayen.”

“Not society. Maybe an organisation, maybe like the Order, or the Unit, but – I’m not entirely sure what I’m driving at. But it’s like you’re useless, or maybe the opposite; you’re a pawn of someone.”

Pensay clearly wasn’t getting this, and Aayen was starting to wonder if hitching a lift on the office-tank was wise at all. Of course, that was only half down to the conversation; the other half of the regret was triggered by Pensay’s unerring and unnerving ability to powerslide a tracked vehicle, which often meant that the back end came within millimetres of slamming into a corridor wall. Nothing would happen if it did, apart from Aayen being thrown into the shield, but the experience remained less than passenger-friendly.

“Well I wouldn’t exactly claim that I and I alone control my own destiny…” Pensay began, and threw the office into another slide. This time it fishtailed out of the exit, sliding to the other side where the wall rushed in quickly. “Shit, this is all getting a bit philosophical, isn’t it? But no, I feel like I’m largely in control.”

The office-tank swept round a right-hand curve, bounced across a hairpin and jolted straight for the final run down to the section’s main room; as the space opened up, Pensay ramped up the braking, throwing Aayen into the back of her seat.

“Sorry.”

Only one apology?, Aayen thought, but pushed that aside as the room’s space opened out to her. Pensay delivered a final, unnecessary slide sideways to place the office-tank in front of the centre of the back wall, where it stood face-to-face with the room’s newest presence – a huge holographic projection of a Dharan ship, which perhaps took up a third of the space.

The pair of them jumped off the tank and walked towards the projection. Almost invisible, almost completely transparent apart from the faint vestiges of outlines marking each component, it was utterly ghost-like, except for one glaring exception to the rear of the ship. There, a tiny part – perhaps no larger than a couple of metres across – was opaque, had all the shadings and colourings of a real spaceship component.

“So it’s begun.”

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