There Is Only One

1

Pensay9/112,555*Wanderer watched the bridge screen and took in the sight in front of her. A Shango would have thought nothing of it, probably; their Darkworlds were no doubt far more of an achievement than what she could see. All the same, though: here was a single spaceship, for want of a better word, one squashed disc some five hundred kilometres in diameter and two hundred kilometres thick. With ten billion occupants, that place had a vast army of people to draw on, but they had chosen her.

Well, she had to decided to join those ten billion too. But it was flattering nonetheless.

Her own shuttlecraft pulled upwards, and the screen’s artificially lit view, filled with the ship, revealed its identity from the pictograms crawling over the surface: here it was, the Astrostate Damocles.

Any honest Qareen would have admitted that the ship’s name was less than organic. It was drawn from the human database, from the eponymous Earthling legend, which was then converted into a Qareen fiction – entirely removed from any fact. Perhaps something had been lost in translation; years later, scholars suggested that the ship was not the precise equivalent of the king sitting beneath a sword – indeed, they should have been the sword, and it was the enemies of the Astrostate that should have had the sword above them.

Still, it didn’t work that way. Not that Pensay actually gave a damn; as the shuttlecraft got ever closer, and the cargo bay doors opened, she felt the tension of anticipation. The craft itself did not need her to pilot it into the Damocles, and as such, she found her vision of the cargo bay blinking out of existence just as it loomed almost entirely into her view.

…and so she was there, on Deck ZZZ. It was empty. It was white. It was, she realised, what the capitalist-era Earthlings always seemed to think of when they thought of spaceships, essentially like living in one of their dishwashers or music players writ large.

Hanging around for a while didn’t reveal anyone’s presence, and at the risk of betraying a certain level of Spaceplane-born privilege, she couldn’t help but wonder: where’s my damn welcoming party?

#Anyone? Anyone around here?#

That alone told her – she could sense a faint residual buzz, a fraction of a decibel loud, that was undoubtably from conversation on the decks above.

#Hold on.#

Another pause.

#You are… Pensay9? The newest one to jump on?#

#Yes. I have to admit, I thought someone would be-#

#Waiting. Yes, my apologies. There’s no Qareen Resources department for your organisation. They do, after all, have to focus on the task at hand.#

When it was described like that, Pensay had to admit to herself that the situation wasn’t wholly unreasonable. Before she could say as much, however, she turned to find someone appeared behind her.

#Presumably you’re O.C.?# she asked, #I don’t mean to assume, it’s just that we otherwise don’t normally demand residence out of the other lot.#

#O.C., yes.#

#Well… alright then. We should be able to sort out accommodation later, but first, we’re going to have to move onto training. Because it takes a lot for what you’ll be doing.#

Pensay oscillated between a smile and a frown.

#Not to put you pressure.#

No, of course not, she thought.

2

The decor all over the Damocles was a patchwork of styles, but even so, it was a patch of finite kinds; a keen observer could easily spot recurring patterns in the grand halls, seemingly wide open spaces and jagged, haphazard corridors. Where Pensay was taken, though, was unique, and she could tell as soon as she reached the first corridor. A worldly Earthling might have recognised the architecture of grim determination found in Pyongyang, combined with the aspirational techno-futurism of Silicon Valley, a hint of the warmth of a hippie commune, and an apparent fervent love of mezzanines. To Pensay, who lacked these references, it was utterly alien.

#Outergalactic Combat Unit#, she could only signal.

#The Outergalactic Combat Unit#, her guide said. #There is only one, in the whole galaxy. No-one else is mad enough to even try.#

She had introduced herself as Aayan1/Damocles, before effectively taking her on a somewhat jerky tour through the state, long walks through certain decks being interspersed between teleport hops. Pensay was sure she would never see these decks again, but that probably wasn’t the point; knowing what to expect around the place was sufficient.

#O.C., by the way, takes up about half of these six decks in the exact centre of the ship. There’s parks here, Kaizener courts, all kinds of stuff. You could almost certainly live here and never leave. I’m told some people do exactly that, especially those higher-up.#

#I can’t imagine doing that. I mean, there’s what? Ninety-nine point nine six per cent of the ship outside of here, at least?#

Still, as she wandered past windows that revealed raked banks of screens and vast holograms, she could see the appeal. Certainly she had made the right career choice; her brief spell at the QPA, spent swatting terrorist factions and playing whack-a-separatist, had quickly made her bored, and being a junior member, they had never sent her where a whole Spaceplane, planet or Project was under threat. This was the genuine challenge – the one that not only affected the whole damn galaxy, but that the millions of people gathered here hadn’t solved yet.

“Actually, I should say one thing,” Aayan abruptly told her, “people around here tend to speak a lot. It’s not strictly necessary, but it is the usual thing.”

#Erm…#, “OK?”

They continued down the corridors, which projected pastel-shaded austerity for apparent kilometres, curving away out of sight and branching off inevitably into numerous other corridors. Once past the labs, they moved beyond the storage areas, and finally, the corridors opened up into a wide space, where the sky projection on the ceiling gave the impression that anyone could reach up forever, fly a plane right out into space. Once again, however, a keen observer would have noticed the flaws that would break such suspension of disbelief; then again, the projection was not meant to be keenly observed, merely accepted as a naturalising gesture.

#You can move if you wish, but we’ve assigned this place for home. City doc/nh.#

“You couldn’t have said that?”

#I could’ve done, but I feel like a complete idiot saying the word “slash” aloud like that.#

#Uh-huh.#

3

The next morning, Pensay set the teleport booth in the corner of her living room to deck MZZ, on the outer edge near the front of the ship. Pensay had thought that would be where the bridge was, but questioning revealed that the bridge functions were effectively distributed throughout the ship; defence was heavily decentralised (not what the Confederation approved of, but 114,099 was a long way away and could be placed further away still) and the exact course was effectively a democratic one, an aggregate of suggested inputs from citizens from various sources. Sometimes, as in the last few days, this resulted in a confused path, which meant the ship was effectively drifting slightly upwards and to the galactic north.

The edge of Deck MZZ – and Deck NAA, for that matter – formed one huge ring, nearly sixteen hundred kilometres in circumference, around which was one huge particle accelerator, lined with seemingly endless laboratories, almost none of which seemed to bear the same configuration, although they all bore the same frosted logo on each glass surface, the local Qareen pictograms for K.S.

“The Order of Knight Scientists,” Aayan explained, “it’s amazing how little people know about these guys until they come into contact with them. There are technically billions of these people across the galaxy.”

“Well, that’s still only about a planet’s worth. Or roughly the same as the Damocles.”

“True. But without the Order, the Unit doesn’t work, and if the Unit doesn’t work, the Order is useless. It’s a symbiotic thing; you use our technology to detect the threats, we develop the technology on the basis of where the gaps and failings are.”

The pair of them continued to walk along the long trench that, along with the dampening forcefield, divided the particle accelerator from the labs, whose windows above and below looked onto it and the screen-wall around the outside. “Test in Progress” flashed up in intervals across the wall as it curved out of sight. A long pause later, and the message was wiped, replaced at each iteration with the results, an image of several multi-coloured lines, some interacting, others simply splitting or continuing uninterrupted.

“So what was that about?” Pensay asked, gesturing to one of the images.

“If it’s to do with the particle accelerator, it’ll probably be an attempt to find out what the Dharans know. We already know that what we are to, say…”

“The Bhoot?”

“No, less than that. What we are to… the Earthlings, for instance, the Dharans are to us. The Earthlings, at least by the time they visited us, were only as advanced as their understanding of relativity. The human database doesn’t list anything further. We, of course, have Third Stage Physics, but we know that the Dharans almost certainly have a fourth paradigm that they operate under.”

“Wow. And we’re going for that?”

Aayan frowned and flinched at the idea. “Kinda. Either we equal them in power, or we find that guerilla method that outflanks them. Neither way is the easy way, mind.”

4

“-by analysing the data over the last ten years, going on multiple derivatives, going as deep as we can into the rate of change of frequency, we can eventually find that there is a genuine pattern. It’s not ad hoc.”

Pensay initially felt down about her first genuine day working here – pretty much the first thing to face was a meeting in a windowless conference room. What unfolded, though, was a lucky break – instead of opaque, infra-organisational jargon, she found one guy with a breakthrough, giving a presentation.

“Impressive. So the Dharans keep a schedule,” Haron3, the Section Leader, commended.

“Yes. Well, we always suspected. It seems that digging for long enough always results in some scrap of ancient records detailing their itineraries and minutes of meetings. But-”

He turned to his presentation, and Pensay had to agree to her initial reaction, that he was a better looking guy than she had seen around the place so far. Smart, too. But of course.

#<tightbeam to Jarn8> [uncon.WHITEFLAG].#

Oh shit. She hadn’t planned that, and slumped under the table a little. Fucking embarrassing.

The man himself simply turned back from consulting the figures, flashed a brief smile in her direction, and continued. “But if we take this trend to its logical conclusion, we can calculate that the next Dharan ship should come in around twenty-two days. Give or take a day. After that, the frequency will pick up again, until about a year’s time, when we’ll start feeling like a spaceport with all the damn traffic.”

“Do the Dharans have spaceports?” Pensay wondered aloud.

“Don’t know, to be honest,” Haron said, “if you have a way of finding out, Pensay, it would be much appreciated. All of this information is useful.”

She kept quiet after that. It wasn’t that she was still cringing, but she felt that a newcomer could only make so much of an impact before it all became awkward. The meeting continued, running its way through various section projects, with the inevitable admissions from the relevant people, that no further progress had been made.

She decided to quit at 62.10.00; the Damocles day was a little longer than she was used to, although she was sure she could get the hang of it. The half-length days that the QPA had subjected her to on one of the Projects had no doubt been worse, anyhow.

Heading a few decks downwards, and deciding to drive all the way – there was no substitute for learning the landscape in the shortest possible time – she wound up back at oc/nh, which was already becoming something of a home, rather than a place to be rooted to. Making her way through the city, she met up with a group she had hung around with since she arrived, and together they resumed the Kaizener game they were on. Pensay’s side had a sixty-point deficit, but this was hardly a worry – this was something practically guaranteed to run for tens of days, if need be.

5

Pensay’s office was not even an office, in truth. As part of her liaison role, her workspace actually consisted of a large tank-tracked platform, with a teleporter pad on one end, an assembler at the other, and in the middle, a huge, racked bowl of a screen, which she often divided into multiple ones in order to analyse discrete elements. For privacy, she could put up a Membrane around the edges and top of this thought-tank, which could be customised, resulting in various

For the first eleven days – still a trainee, still taking on board all the various elements – it was good, and it was also challenging; there was, she quickly realised, never a quick, easy route. Those bowl-screen segments could often wind up filled with figures by the end of a day, only for them all to collapse again. Similarly, moving between departments could also prompt a lot of driving, but very little in an end result.

The QPA was nothing compared to this, she thought by the end of those eleven days, and half a day later, the fragility of operations came into play once more.

#Pensay?#

It was Jarn.

#Yes?#

#We’ve got a Dharan ship coming in. No I.D.; we haven’t seen it before. Sending it to your centre screen now.#

She checked one of the centre screens; Jarn hadn’t visited her enough to know her office in detail. Sure enough, it was there: an arrowhead steaming in towards the circle marked Damocles at an astonishing pace, however much the image was zoomed out. She spun round and brought up the tool for universal messaging, and jabbed out the fastest message she could.

WARNING: unidentified Dharan vessel inbound – out of schedule, direct trajectory. Due in 00.10.00.

One more bash at the screen and it was out for everyone’s viewing. She re-examined it. Unidentified, out of schedule, direct course. A trifecta of unknown risk there.

#I’m so sorry for this, Pensay. Just as I felt I was getting to know and like you, this… happens.#

#It’s not your fault.#

She watched the clock tick down – 00.03, 00.02, 00.01-

Across the whole of the Damocles, everything plunging into darkness, and Pensay’s office rolled to a halt. For some time she found herself sitting completely still, unable to move, wondering if she was dead already. Then, just as abruptly as the darkness, a message flashed up onto every screen, all around her, all around the corridors and rooms.

Arrrr!

…and the lights were on again, and the arrowhead shot away from the circle again.

#Jarn, care to visit me in Linguistics?#

#I’ll say. What the fuck was that supposed to mean?#

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