Take Cover

1

Around the bowl-screen, a thin white line, just enough pixels in thickness for a Qareen eye to see, ran in a full circle along the screen’s exact centre. Above and below it ran graphics depicting a continuous spectrum of transverse waves, whilst a white band from the top to the bottom of the screen raced around around it, passing through each frequency, broadening and thickening.

It can only be in this range, Pensay thought, only this.

That wasn’t strictly true, she quickly realised after thinking it; she only needed it to be true. The universe’s setup from the basic fundamentals upwards could be entirely different to what she had on the screen, for all it cared; the point was, the logic so far, after all the years that the Outergalactic Combat Unit had been running, told her that the possibilities onscreen had to be the possibilities that were out there.

Otherwise it was back to the very start, for the trillionth time. And she wasn’t having that.

Not after the path had wound on for this long.

In any event, the band passed over the spectrum, relatively slowly (slow enough for the Qareen eye to see; but then, what the Qareen eye couldn’t see on that screen was defeating the purpose, or a Dharan prank), but naturally, each time it did so it eliminated several thousand more coding permuatations from the billions (or was it trillions? Quadrillions?) possible.

#<tightbeam to Jarn8> Found nothing so far. Don’t tell anyone, but I’m getting a bad feeling about this.#

#<tightbeam to Pensay9> You’re definitely trying combinations, aren’t you?#

#Yes. But there has to be one combination that falls first, surely?#

#That is quite an assumption.#

#Damn.#

She dipped her head back down to the screen, where the white band still circled round. It suddenly slowed over one section, as if it had suddenly entered a viscous fluid; a symbol appeared over it, a pictogram reading “rechecking”, but then it moved on again.

She sighed.

#So I guess you’re free tonight?#

#Jarn, I will make myself free. Or at least try, I mean, it seems like everyone wants my attention, work, the Kaizener game, you…#

#Ah, but which is most important? You have to prioritise, you know.#

#You’re not getting that information out of me?#

#Aw, Pensay, I thought we trusted each other…#

She turned back to the screen again, where once again, the band had slowed, percolating over that “rechecking” pictogram again. This time it was constantly slowing, too, as if the viscous liquid was finally proving too much. It almost reached a stop, reaching a plateau at a pace where it juddered along intervals of hair-widths, and then, finally, just as she’d come within said hair-width of quitting for the day-

“First section suspected complete”.

#OK, so I guess I’m gonna prioritise.#

#And?#

#I think what I’ll do is…#

#False drama, Pensay.#

#But you know you love it. OK, you today. Kaizener tomorrow.#

#What about Kaizener with me today?#

#You know how our Kaizener games always end.#

#Yes…#

She laughed to herself about that, and then focused on the screen again.

“Error. Second section blocked; no DISI possible.”

She thumped the bowl screen, watched it ripple the impact (having set it to maximum flex), but admittedly only felt a mild cartharsis.

2

The rally ran and ran, getting quicker with each hit, the ball’s path working itself into a quickening cycle of wall, bounce, racquet-bat, wall, bounce, racquet-bat. Pensay met each one, barely having to move to do so, but hoping to hit each return harder than the last, hoping each one was roughly on target – the ball’s impacts were slowly edged up the wall towards her team’s Favoured Zone – and figure out a plan.

And then she mishit; with the right amount of force, but the wrong angle, the ball shot downwards, hit the wall much lower, the floor much sooner, reared up at her startled opponent, and shot past her equally suprised catcher, then finally hit the back wall with a loud thud. The crowd groaned as the evidence on the front wall emerged, revealing that yes, her opponent had managed an edge – the tiniest of edges, but a valid one nonetheless – and that the best chance of the day had been missed.

Pensay dropped to her knees. The scores on both sides had long since run into five figures, although they were still some way from the upper six figures of the record books. The number on chances, on both sides, were about double those seen in a typical Kaizener game – but of course, the number of points were now around ten times that of a typical game, rendering those that did appear particularly rare.

That still didn’t hide the fact that the game should have ended some time ago. The gap between the two teams – Pensay’s own coalition, the NeoFights, had been behind during the whoole match, and were around sixty points (fifty-nine, to be precise) down at the time – was now pretty much irrelevant, no doubt dwarfed by the collected tallies of Fazi Scores, Style Board point allocations and the potential ones to be scored from subgames; all of these were currently concealed, and amusingly, all of the seveteen individuals who had taken to manually tracking this game (all part of the devotion of the true Kaizener fan) had actually lost track, adding margins of errors to the scores they claimed. No two figures were identical, either.

Well, at least she had the next serve.

She decided to go with what had just worked, and started with a slightly quicker serve. Her opponent hit back a faster return, and she struck again, faster still. She was dictating the game. That suited her. She hit back again, and again, and it was all going exactly as it did last time, until, again, the ball hit low and reared up – to her this time. She was prepared, though, and raised her racquet-bat, slamming it down on the ball in a serve-like manner. Sure enough, the ball went even lower, hit the wall-board, made that distinctive bang as it hit exactly the right place, and then rolled rapidly back along the floor. Her opponent lunged, jabbed his racquet-bat to the floor, flailed as it fell out of his hand, and staggered into the far wall. The ball itself bumply gently against the back wall.

The gap was down to fifty-seven points, for what that was worth.

She was sure there were about three Fazi hits in that rally too.

Even so, a bang shot was not a jump shot, and it had not produced the desired result. She still had the serve, but she would have to try again; and this time… well, no, she couldn’t promise anything. There seemed to be no formula, not certain way of skimming that ball past a racquet-bat’s edge.

Maybe, she thought, I’ll have to do this myself. Take the game into my own hands.

She served again, and her opponent, who had been haemorrhaging subgames throughout his turn, conceded another, and decided to come off. The game was still not over.

But surely it had to end soon.

3

“You need these sorts of people.”

So Pensay had been told. Of course, these people weren’t needed at all; they were hired because they’d allegedly do the job quicker, but she couldn’t see how that was true at all. These people were here because they wanted to be here, and they wanted to ‘help’. And bugger all use they were too.

There were now about three dozen of these factories, making the finest technology in the Qareen Confederacy – that is, cheap knockoffs of basic Dharan parts. She had increasingly had doubts about this, but it was too late now; the whole thing had spread, well beyond her control, and O.C. and the Order were consumed by this quest. She had made her Dharan starship, and soon she would have to pilot it, to coin a perverse variation of what she found to be an old Earth phrase.

She could cope with that. It was this layer of management, these people who had no idea what was going on or why, and who weren’t privy to knowing, but inexplicably wound up with jobs anyhow; they were the most vexing thing.

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient to simply place all of the factories around a central complex?” was one inane question.

“No. We have to decentralise in order for the Dharans to be presented with the maximum number of – never mind. Just don’t do it.”

But of course, she got those kind of questions anyway. The upside to this, of course, was that she didn’t have to move these annoyances away from her office; a simple case of heavy accelerator hand would do the trick. And she did that trick often.

She thought about this often, though. She couldn’t let it go, even as she visited the factories themselves, and saw the progress – in some, there appeared to be merely a few components missing – materials were already being formulated on the first stages of the production line, and in others, construction of the machines had barely started.

“How long, do you reckon?” she asked one construction manager at the Penn A site.

“It might be another fifty, hundred days maybe. Something in between those two extremes. The problem, you see, is what the Order have designed in the third quarter of the line, it’s these components from C154 to C171, which seem to be inherently reliant on the products generated from B102 through to B111, and quite possibly, although we don’t have it confirmed, C174. Which might mean that we need a later stage in order to make an earlier one, but we can’t be sure until the later stage is ready and working, or until things grind to a halt at C154. So you can see how a problem might arise.”

Quite.

4

#Are you sure we’re supposed to be doing this?#

#Doing what?#

#Duh. Racing in the collider trench.#

Pensay pulled a move around the outside anyway, squeezing Aayen towards the inside wall before making the pass and defending it.

#Sure. Look, is there a bigger issue? Because you can tell me. I’ve relied on you before now.#

#I’m just annoyed. At everything.#

She tried to pull out a lead, but the cars were evenly matched, and her slipstream was always going to be available to Aayen. She dodged from side to side, but the two cars were virtually tied together.

#So where are we going with this?#

#I thought we agreed to one lap.#

#No, I mean with the bitching about the consultants.#

#Ah, right.#

Pensay thought back to construction manager’s comments.

#There seems to be an issue with all the factories. Something kinda ontological, I guess.#

#Ah. It’s one of those fuck-ups. I think I heard about that.#

She swung to the left, and the car bounced off the far wall, slowing down before collecting Aayen’s vehicle; the pair of them spun and ricocheted in a waltzing crash, and finally skidded to a stop roughly facing one another.

#Yeah, that didn’t work as I’d planned.#

#I’ll say. Maybe you should stick to Kaizener.#

#Don’t remind me.#

Pensay got out of the car and looked at the site. An abstract series of curving squiggles marked the track for a several hundred metres. The cars themselves were both facing the wrong direction, more or less, and jammed together in a v-shape. To both get back in their cars and attempt to resume the race was to somehow wind up with gridlock, despite the presence of just two vehicles. She saw Aayen get out, examine the scene, and silently reach the same conclusion.

“You think we can just call it a draw?” she offered.

“I’ll take it,” Pensay replied, “Ship, you mind getting both of these things out of here?”

The ship obliged, and the two cars vanished, most likely placed back into their garages on the upper decks.

“No result,” Pensay said, “seems kinda appropriate, given things lately.”

5

The bowl-screen continued to throw that white vertical band around, but had started toying with amplitudes too, causing an off-white band to pulse over the screen in cyclic conquest and retreat. Later on it decided to push further into questions of signal strength, and incorporate the three dimensions into a single scanner. The end result was that of a grey cube continuously warping shape and rising in and out of the screen, something that Pensay simply found downright weird to deal with. Why AIs had to think in such terms, she couldn’t imagine, but then again, such thinking fell into a classic case of what was sometimes dubbed the Asymmetric Norm principle, or the Only Pretty Face in the Cultural Mirror – the idea that only you, your ideas and your culture made sense and was surrounded by a sea of eccentricity and collective lunacy.

Still, she had long since ceased to concern herself with that. Having collectively come up with the common-sense response to the factory issue with her colleagues – build just enough of the machine to operate it, hack-job the rest of the parts with existing technology, and then, having wrangled the product, use it to build the rest of the machine – she had now effectively shown how useless the management brought in were. That suited her. Actually, it more than suited her – it was victory, it was success, and it was worth a celebration of the sort that made work the day after highly undesirable indeed.

Despite that, there was still something to cheer about, sat on that office. Extra sections were starting to fall into place, and the outline of the signal was becoming distinct.

#I think I’ll have it soon, guys. 22 out of 37.#

That was still tens of days after she had started, but things were accelerating, and eventually, it was down to the last section. As she sent that report out, the team gathered around.

#OK, so we extrapolate the pattern on the fourth differential, we find something that would be linear were it not for these anomalies, which we then factor in-#

“Signal complete,” the bowl-screen stated. A cheer went up; a congratulatory buzz circulated around the room, and messages poured in from other teams; but she wasn’t about to read them.

“Do I-”

“Yes,” Haron urged.

She activated the signal, sending it through the Astrostate’s main transmitter; the complex layer of frequencies, amplitudes and signal strengths formed a rich layer of waves, and immediately it seemed to get results. Pensay hit the comms.

“Aayen, activate the cloak on everything. All of it.”

It was definitely a Dharan ship, moving in; nothing else could possibly move that fast. As it closed in, coming within 00.01.00 of arrival, her desk suddenly appeared to vanish, showing no trace of having ever been there; instead, she was simply stood on the floor with her team gathered around her.

That 00.01.00 later, the lights flicked off.

“Hey, has it worked?”

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