Parts

1

Another day, another twentieth of it off the office-tank and in a meeting. The whole of Outergalactic Combat had expected the Dharan ship to react, to perhaps fire on them as a warning or even as a suppression, but they had apparently breezed past without any kind of intervention at all; the lack of real explosions were hence compensated for by an explosion of meetings instead. Not to mention panels – every aspect of the data was discretely shaved off into a discussion for a panel. Pensay had no idea how many panels made up the ship whose essentials they had hopefully learnt about (and that was discussion for the Hull Construction Panel, anyway) but she was now sure there were fewer on that hull than there were within O.C.

This one was the Clarity and Validity Panel – in other words, the one that looked at whether other panels were looking at the right data, and whether the data was right. To be fair, she had actually called for the existence of this panel, and having dragged Jarn into it to boot, it was probably only fair that she attend.

So she did, grudgingly.

She wasn’t going to do so without making at least a silent protest about the management of this, though, and so she stuffed the office-tank into the wall opposite the meeting room before going in. The meeting was apparently already in progress, but she was briefly assured by someone she knew by sight but not name (Erdren4, her superconscious helpfully prodded) that she’d missed about a minute of it.

“OK, so that’s the agenda, so to the first issue, which is related to the interior systems, on what we are apparently designating the bridge.”

A holographic projection was thrown up over the table of that improbable bridge.

“Now,” said the person who had been speaking, and was apparently chairing – she didn’t remember him last time, but then, he was an anonymous man with an anonymous voice, not even monotone; indeed, it possessed just enough variation in pitch and tempo to not have any distinguishing features at all. “Now this is perhaps the most important piece…”

He didn’t make it sound important at all, actually.

“…because what we have here has all the appearances of a red herring. We cannot afford to second-guess this.”

“Or even third-guess it,” Jarn added.

“Presumably you have gone over this, Jarn.”

Jarn himself replied by throwing up projections of his own. He did not remove the prior one, which resulted in an ungainly graphic pile-up all over the table. He spent some time pulling tables, graphs and blocks of text into open spaces and around clusters of chairs.

“This will have to be corroborated, either by anything anyone else here has, or by later research, but a look into what we have gleaned about Dharan culture suggests that the bridge layout is consistent. The Dharan language, for instance, is one designed for a kind of leisurely gentleness, I guess.”

“How do you mean?” Pensay asked, although it was hardly a tough question to grasp. He smiled.

“Well, it’s like their word for ‘happy’,” he explained, and pulled up said relevant word, made of curving and crude symbols. “It doesn’t, by the looks of things, mean ‘happy’, it more means ‘yay’ or ‘up’ in an emotional sense. Happy is seemingly too strong an emotion for them to say.”

He stopped again to pull another table over the table.

“So there’s that casual nature to the culture that we have to account for. Indeed, I would suggest that our real problem, once we examine the data, is that it’s all too convincing.”

“Surely the problem we’re facing, in total,” Pensay said, “is that we’ve established Dharan technology to be so advanced that we’re left in this… state where we cannot know what’s real about them and what they’re covering up. Or even what they’re not deliberately hiding but merely have a defence mechanism on. And we know enough about their technology to know how little we know about it, because – it’s like this: we know they can cross this galaxy in less than a day, where we would take thirty. But who’s to say what else this fourth way of physics does and doesn’t do? Who says that the people we’ve met and communicated with are Dharans at all? Perhaps they’re highly advanced organic AIs that outsmart and outsense us. Perhaps the ships are not peopled at all, and the population is merely illusory, designed to fool the picobots. You could go mad considering all of this.”

After that, the conversation veered off into highly abstract territory, and she chipped in with occasional remarks and clarifications. After all, she had started the debate; it was only fair that she participated.

So she did, grudgingly.

2

“Hey Pensay, did you hear?”

It was Zellia who had caught her entering the city, but apparently she was not present to chase her up on playing the game.

“I can only assume I haven’t,” she replied.

“Apparently some kids decided to have a race on some track on the upper decks. You know the Damocles Peak?”

She had, vaguely. “I thought that was for the Shango immigrants.”

“Well, it’s not exclusively. Anyway, these Qareen kids try and take on that last bend, the one that curves right around until it’s the right way up again and forms a sort-of ledge. One kid gets on the ledge, and then tries the jump.”

“Fucking hell, what an idiot.”

“I’ll say. The circuit banned him for a month.”

Pensay turned right instead of left, anticipating that the game was on. Zellia said nothing about this. “Seems harsh,” she said, “although I guess they have to set an example.”

The Kaizener court loomed into view, being somewhat taller than the buildings surrounding it; not that the court itself was necessarily that tall, but the stands inside consumed altitude voraciously.

Once inside, Zellia demonstrated what she’d been doing all day. “I’ve been practising,” she had explained, “and I might just be the best damn catcher in Outergalactic Combat. Maybe the whole Astrostate.”

On the court, this translated into a ball being fired at a completely unconscious, non-sentient AI, what those in the Confederation named a Tunnel Intellect or T.I. for its narrow-focused function. With perfect precision, it edged every ball, some skimming the top edge, others clipping the racquet-bat at various angles. And Zellia, Pensay found, had not been exaggerating too much; catching every last ball, including ones she had to dive and leap for, she truly had mastered that aspect of the game.

The only problem was that being the best catcher in the Astrostate mattered little, if at all, if there were no catching opportunities. And this game – which kept on and on, piling up subgames despite a couple of days devoted to whittling them down being played – saw players who were constantly near their Safe Zones and never came close to edging the ball back towards Zellia. The pair of them, along with the rest of the coalition, played effectively, their repeated roll serves often scuttling past the opposing main player for two points an effort. The deficit was moving ever closer down to double figures.

Pensay had the serve again when she looked up to see the main game’s gap down to 112. Having added just a point to the coalition’s total with the last three roll serves – one was stopped and two were returned – she figured the strategy was losing its effectiveness. Perhaps building up the Fazi Score – she knew it was higher than her opponents’ one – was the way forward. The problem, of course, was that it would not appear on the board until the end of the main game. She paused before serving, looking at the blank spaces on the scoreboard underneath the Fazi and Style Board sections.

What secrets, she thought, were hiding under there? And was this leisure echoing work, where nothing could be assumed or taken as a given, not even the objective facts in front of her eyes? That such an alignment of uncertainty would occur spooked her.

“You serving, Pensay?”

She nodded, raised the ball and hit squarely and certainly into the middle of the Favoured Zone. That was worth one-tenth of a point; that much was known, certain, unshakeable, whatever the case was with everything else.

3

#All science is provisional [-sional-sional-sional]#. “That’s how I do it. You just have to embrace that uncertainty, and accept that you are chipping away at the coal face of ignorance.”

She had known on some level that she could turn to Aayen about this. Sat on the partition wall between the collider and the trench was a perverse place to do so, but it had been Aayen’s suggestion anyway, and it was safe anyhow, or so she had been assured.

“At least you’re investigating,” Aayen continued, “I don’t even do that much science these days. But it’s probably best to leave it to the young ones anyway. I hadn’t been competitive for some time. I hadn’t been nominated for the Lux Award for twenty years, prior to taking on this new role. A ten-year dry run usually says that the jig is up. I hung around to be completely sure, but I was replicating the results of others more than testing my own theories, and in an organisation that prides itself on pushing things forward, that isn’t good enough.”

Pensay nodded.

“I guess I’ve been selfish, unconsciously.”

“How do you mean?”

She looked up to the lab window, slightly above her eye-line, where workers had entered the room.

“Well… am I troubled because the universe should make sense, and it doesn’t? Or am I troubled because reality won’t work the way I want to it? You know? Because who says that any of it has to make sense, or have some deep inner meaning? Why should I be the one that determines these things? And let’s face it, does a meaningless, eternally abstract universe have to be a troubling thing because I say it is? We’re on a quest, Aayen, and we don’t get to shape the territory, just map it, but I’ll tell you one thing – I’ll be the best fucking cartographer this place has ever seen. And when that happens, you’re getting a share of that glory. Thanks. For everything.”

She slapped Aayen’s shoulder, jumped off the wall and headed for one of the exit doors, leaving Aayen bemused but smiling nonetheless.

4

After the Panels had spent day after continuous and lengthy day discussing things, the Reports came in – reports important enough, apparently, to merit capital letters, or the Qareen equivalent. Several sections of Outergalactic Combat had the task of piecing together the conclusions of each into a full Dharan vessel, albeit one denoted by probabilities rather than certain components.

“OK, well, this is what we seem to have,” Haron began tentatively at the next meeting. With the whole hull seemingly being an integrated piece, it was rendered translucent to show stats about the inside. That bridge, Pensay noted, was still a relatively ambiguous point – in fact, the most ambiguous point, almost a nexus of uncertainty, as areas surrounding it were also unclear, and were ever less so as they got away from the bridge.

“We still can’t figure out that bridge, right?” Kaja5 said, and she unnecessarily made a circling gesture around the relevant area of the projection.

“No. Which means that on reconstruction our replica is likely to be bare,” Haron replied.

“That’d be tough to explain,” Jarn said, “unless there was some sort of break-in and amnesia gambit, but how many Dharans are likely to believe that?”

“Depends. How many Dharans,” Pensay added, “are likely to believe our designs anyway? We could well have missed all manner of details that should throw up a fake. All this, what we’ve got here? We can never be sure. Not completely. And of course, we’ve got to make these things.”

“Not us, personally.”

“But I get what you mean,” Haron said, “it’ll take endless machines just to fashion these parts.”

“I’m wondering whether we should have even come up with this plan,” Kaja said, “Dharan technology takes Dharan technology to make. How did we not spot this?”

“We’re only Qareen, in the end.”

After the meeting, Pensay pulled the office-tank out of the wall and pushed it to top speed. As the bowl-screen reminded her, she had a seemingly endless list of people to consult with.

5

Pensay ran the mathematics through her superconscious again, but it kept working out every time as about right. Placing about ten people to a square kilometre, on average no less – the cities, and doc/nh was no exception, could pack a hundred into such a space – and cramming a similar amount of space with recreational and functional facilities, meant that a large part of the ship was actually empty.

She found proof for herself on Deck SDG, where the outskirts of dsdg/jj led to a pleasant multi-deck expanse of meadow, which in turn led to a wall; this, in turn, led to a bare, empty space. As she drove the office-tank through the door, she was suddenly plunged into total darkness. The ship switched on a thin strip of dim lights, which confirmed what her research said, that for several kilometres in any direction the place was just empty.

A hundred metres or so in, the door closed behind her. Fair enough, she thought. She pulled up, causing the tank to slide on the dusty surface.

She called for a set of floodlights from the assembler, and sure enough, individual units spilt out, but she had to attach them to their stands and place them. A centralised prompt from the bowl-screen switched them all on, and Pensay was rewarded with one of the dullest sights in her life – endless nothing, sandwiched between a grey, flat floor and a grey, flat ceiling running in parallel beyond the reach of the lights.

She had achieved what she had turned up to achieve, anyhow: this was indeed a highly useful space, and she noted its co-ordinates as such. It wasn’t good for final assembly, but smaller internal components would work well there.

This only reminded her of final assembly. Increasingly, it looked like it’d have to be the main cargo bay for that, which was much, much less than ideal.

But then, what was ideal about this, anyway?

She sat back down and called up the holographic projection of the Dharan bridge. It jumped up around her, putting her in what was presumably the captain’s chair, assuming that the Dharans had captains on their ships. The place was luxurious, if in some respects oddly designed, and not always looking as technologically advanced as it clearly was. Of course, this was occasionally true of Qareen ships too. She was still sure, though, that something was wrong about what she saw.

“What secrets are you hiding?” she whispered into the darkness.

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