“It’s just me, Pensay, same person I always was… just me… same person, no need to stare…”
Of course, everyone was going to do that anyhow. Explaining her new and different appearance seemed to calm people, but until then it produced alarm. She loomed over her colleagues, often brushing her head against ceilings as she walked through O.C., but contrary to the reactions she provoked, this made her feel awkward, not powerful.
They had stressed beforehand that she could always change back. That, of course, suggested that nothing about the experience was permanent, which clearly wasn’t true. And having changed, she also felt that she was now starting to edge away – in a natural process – from the society of Outergalactic Combat, or even the Damocles; her new form didn’t seem to suit the place, and seemed to belong to that jarring construction in the cargo bay.
The main comfort to her was that it wouldn’t be long before such an idea was tested.
Even so, she often hung around the cargo bay, looked up at the ship, steered her office-tank into its shadow and stayed in its presence like a pet to an owner. Who was the pet and who was the owner was, to her, a worryingly ambiguous thing.
Every day, she told herself that this was a phase, and that this was going to pass, even if it took years to do so.
Still the days ticked by. The Order, having done what it needed to do, reverted back to its usual business, which was, in a nutshell, everything else.
“Still just me, Pensay, no need to worry,” she repeated. She wondered if the ship needed a general notice to go out. Quite why it hadn’t was a mystery. She searched around for a teleport pad – apparently they still worked on her, but the slow blink of a normal teleport was instead replaced with a lengthy build-up as each pad considered the additions and alterations. The wait often gave her time to reconsider her journey, at least, but this time, as soon as she made the decision, the blink cut in and she was in the cargo bay. She could, of course, always have gone back.
She could always have gone back, and that thought carried something of a sonorous quality, ringing harmoniously in her head.
Could. Always. Go. Back.
“Pensay,” Aayen said, “how are things? I don’t think I’ve seen you for quite some time now. I mean, the Order’s been busy, but you’ve been hiding yourself away since, well, since the change.”
“Yeah… I don’t like it.”
She turned to face the Dharan replica ship once again. Her office tank, a grain besides that mound, was parked haphazardly underneath it.
“You can always change back. Sending someone else in your place would delays things by a day, maximum.”
“No, I’d be wasting everyone’s time.”
“They’re happy to waste it on you, Pensay. You’ve given these people hope. The Confederacy might rise to a whole new level of civilisation-”
“And if I fail?”
Pensay frowned at herself; she didn’t quite mean for her scepticism to come across as that cutting, and that jaded.
“If you fail, you’ll still be remembered as the one who pushed further – and encouraged everyone else to push further – than they thought they could. We’re already up on what we had. We spent centuries trying to crack open the Dharans, observing them from afar, trying to fathom their every bizarre and seemingly calculated move, and we made those small gains, but to make a bigger leap, all we needed, it turned out, was someone with the positivity and naivety to make a go of it.”
Pensay nodded, and even allowed herself to, if not exactly smile, at least stop frowning.
“For all Qareen-kind, Aayen, I’m gonna do it.”
For the whole day, no-one could teleport throughout the entire Astrostate. No doubt, millions if not billions of citizens were cursing this sudden loss of services, not to mention the “special Outergalactic Combat project” that prompted it. Worst of all, the cargo bay wasn’t even accessible; those wanting to discover why they couldn’t simply jump their way to work could walk or drive down dozens of decks, only to discover that the reason wasn’t to be divulged to their level of clearance.
The cargo bay itself hence provided a strange view on the day itself. Thousands, maybe millions of those who were allowed in were gathered on those balconies, and generally crammed around the sides of the bay, but this buzz and throng also accentuated the rest of the cargo bay, which, apart from the Dharan replica, was completely empty; the teleporters on the Astrostate Damocles were, naturally, holding onto the data from ships that were previously parked there.
Pensay could see all of this through the bridge’s screen, a screen which was flat, didn’t project at all, but still seemed to encompass the whole of the image. Maybe Pensay’s own mentality factored into this, or maybe there was something non-Euclidean going on; either way, she felt like she could feel everyone watching her.
This didn’t worry her. She wasn’t doing anything terribly important, and at any rate, all she had to do was hit one button; how wrong could that go?
An announcement rumbled around the cargo bay, and a mass of graphics spread across the floor of the bay. As she looked closer, she could see that the graphics were actually a repeating pattern of displays, each one showing a short film out of sync with the others, which demonstrated what was meant to be about to happen.
It was simple enough: the first thing would be that the cargo bay doors would open to the rear.
They did, and slowly, Pensay became aware of darkness and a void behind her, for reasons she couldn’t fathom. She wondered about the surgery, but the brain had been cosmetically tampered with at most. With a final, almost imperceptible bump, the doors were open.
The next thing in the film was of her pushing the button.
She did so, and the ship did the rest in true Dharan style; it first lifted up, pulling away from the ground, which apparently took no intricate folding of landing gear, merely a reshaping of the underside.
The ship was then supposed to decouple itself from the Astrostate’s frame of reference, but not until Pensay gave the go-ahead. She had been invited beforehand to come up with a short speech, but not being a fan of rhetoric, she had decided to put the emphasis on short.
“I will do my utmost, for this Confederacy,” she began tentatively, “and I thank you all for giving me the possibility to do so. I… I just want to say, that, whatever happens, it’s thanks to you that… that we looked at the greatest power in the galaxy, the overwhelming force that could rule us all, and we at least acted to try and make sure that such power couldn’t go unchecked. So thank you. And I’ll try my best.”
A fairly circular speech, she subsequently realised, but with a nod to the screen, it was over, and the ship began to slowly calibrate a pair of differing reference points, which slowly slid away from each other, allowing the ship to slowly fall back from the cargo bay. As the Astrostate itself became visible on the screen, the launch mechanism decoupled completely, and the Damocles itself rapidly vanished into the distance.
The Astrostate Damocles had been travelling at full speed, with its democratic direction overridden by O.C., when the replica Dharan ship and its lone occupant had departed its jurisdiction; thanks to this, it took less than half a day to be well over a hundred parsecs away. The wait was necessary, but at some point she knew that the Damocles would turn, and simply drift casually with affected apathy, with its democratic steering restored once again.
At that point, the next part of the strategy would begin, and this would be the part with greatest risk. Reaching for the button again, she configured it to a certain setting, and then let loose a signal. After waiting for some time, and configuring the settings again, she activated it again, and the metamaterial shielding went up, shrouding the ship in an almost undetectable invisibility – although the Dharans, she felt, would surely see through this ruse.
The Dharan ship she had called out to rushed past, apparently sensing nothing at first glance, and then the delayed orders kicked in; on the bridge, the lighting flickered before switching off, and the rest of the room rumbled and quaked with the suggestion of malfunction. The screen bounced between on and off. In case anyone was watching, Pensay pitched herself off her chair – which took little effort with the ship’s shaking – and landed where the script said she should; on first take, too – the practice had clearly paid off.
In her peripheral vision, she could see the Dharan ship hesitate, and then activate top speed and head away on the path it had been following.
So that much of the plan had worked.
Again, it would take a wait for the next part to arise. With the signal now shut off, it would take some time for the next Dharan ship to arrive. She reached for her pocket; if it failed to do so in a reasonable timespan, she could swallow the pill she had on her, and wait it out in unconsciousness. She wondered about it as she looked at the screen, and watched that strange Dharan time, so illogical to her, and seemingly crude – not even decimalised – tick over.
On the one hand, she would know, on waking, whether or not she had managed a result.
On the other hand, there was the possibility of not waking up. And that was a tough route for her to go down, even as she knew that her fears were irrational – death was a high possibility anyway, on this mission, and dying with this relatively flat scene as her last conscious experience was hardly the worst fate.
Maybe, she thought to herself, it’s because it’s not how I imagined I’d go. But surely also, beggars can’t be choosers, and we are all beggars in situations like this?
She took the pill, and her vision rapidly faded away to darkness.
It was the smell of brine that hit her first. As she slowly opened an eye, she could make out a fuzzy image of wooden planks stretching out of sight.
She could also feel the pain in her head and neck, which had seemingly formed from the awkward way that it had presumably been twisted and craned during her unconsciousness. The overbearing saline smell didn’t help matters.
She wanted to get up, but it felt borderline impossible to do so. Every struggle of her body seemed to produce an opposite force that was more than equal, and that kept her pinned to the deck. Each struggle, though, did seem to gradually wake her, and soon she had both eyes open, albeit in a woozy, unsteady manner.
In front of her, she could see a port city, with a mass of Dharan ships hovering over the waters that extended from the harbour in the distance. To her immediate – it would have been her left, but she could only see it as “up” – to her immediate “up” she could see her own ship, a smaller vessel whose detailing nonetheless seemed to, at least superficially, blend perfectly with the explosion of blades that constituted all the other ships.
She lifted an arm and slapped a palm onto the deck, which caused her to roll forward a little. Pushing as hard as she could with that palm, she hauled herself up to a kneeling position, and then rolled over and sat upright. She was now directly facing the city she had glimpsed beforehand, and could see it in much more detail.
The port was what might once have been described as deceptively primitive, but by now, Pensay knew well that the Dharans often concealed their exact power and ability through outward appearance. She walked along the deck of the pier, walking for what felt like hours but, for all she knew, could’ve been seconds in the “real world”. She suspected that this place was not it, at any rate; then again, she imagined that, for a Dharan, what was and wasn’t real, and what was and wasn’t possible, and all of these seemingly fundamental ontological ideas, were all hybridised, or irrelevant, or borderline non-questions.
She imagined that Dharan universities, if such places existed, had either broom-cupboard-sized or utterly gargantuan philosophy departments.
Finally she reached the streets of the city, where the individuals buzzed and milled about in a strangely orderly manner. Everything looked to be poised towards, but never reaching, the point of collision; motorbikes and cars and phatphats rushed and weaved past each other and the pedestrians around them in a sort of dance – the scene constantly threatened disaster, but never reached it.
Beyond that, the city seemed almost normal, if crude; a Qareen street would never been bare dirt (not without the local’s community’s choice in the matter), and the houses, similarly, would never had been shacks of rattling corrugated iron.
She looked closely and observed what went on at each store, and at the counter of each vendor, and noticed hands passing objects; a monetary system. This can’t be it, she thought, and yet there they were – apparent Dharans exchanging money.
She squatted down to see the front page of a local newspaper (no screen rolled out the news anywhere; no AI or house could be asked, it seemed, and she didn’t dare try), and its headline blared: Central government denies responsibility for scandal: Says issue is a ‘local matter‘. She smiled a cynical grin; even the most advanced of civilisations couldn’t get away from certain constants.
The article went on to mention that the exact nature of the scandal couldn’t be revealed for security reasons, as it was still ongoing. This fascinated her; she read the rest of the article even as her feet began to ache from the squatting.
Right there, before she had meaningfully blended in with these people, she had been informed of a chink in their armour.
The city streets wound upwards it a haphazard, mosaic-like grid towards the peak of a low hill, and upon this higher ground she could see a tower. She reasoned that the tower had to be the government, quite possibly, judging from its size, merely a local government. Then again, if the activity in the port was to be judged accurately, it was most likely not a major place that she was in.
She approached the entrance to the tower, reached the doors, and was stopped by a disembodied voice – presumably a computer, albeit one so inbuilt that it was not obvious where it was.
“4039/Rejudipa,” she replied, remembering the name they had assigned her on the Damocles.
“You may enter.”