“What the fuck do O.C. think they’re doing? I mean, seriously, what is this shit?”
“I’ll be honest, I have no idea. I’ve been operating under the assumption that they’ll come to their senses – I mean, we could use a project like this, but years down the line, not now-”
“It’s just totally fucking ridiculous. Fucking insane. If we were to go to them, and suddenly say that…”
Aayen let her colleague Yanza4 rant onwards, sensing that her words were bouncing off the wall of rage forming a moving border to her left. Although not as angry, Aayen could sympathise. The ‘suggestion’, in truth more of an edict, had come down from Outergalactic Combat and infuriated all in the Order. That edict? Build a Dharan ship, essentially.
“I mean, how are we supposed to even do this? Do they even think it’s possible?”
“I guess we’ve got the information.”
“Well yes. But if a previously ignorant Shango immigrant gets a copy of the rules of Kaizener that hardly makes him galactic fucking champion, does it?”
“I guess not.”
The pair of them headed towards Lecture Hall 125, passing a door marked “107”.
“I just… I just can’t seem to-”
“It’s OK, Yanza. They’ll see sense. That or we’ll pull it off, somehow.”
Yanza laughed cynically, but found herself stopping and leaning against a wall; her laughter transformed itself from cynical to genuinely amused as she did so. “Well, that’d be something. Maybe I’m making too much of this, it’s just that, really, I just think we shouldn’t be wasting resources on this. And time. And the brilliant minds that are permitted into the Order.”
Aayen nodded. The pair of them carried on, briskly moving through the sweep of the corridor, past 110, 112, 114…
“Maybe we don’t have to use those brilliant minds.”
“How do you mean?”
“Even in the Order we tend to underuse AI.”
“Oh yeah, but, y’know, how much would it take? The whole galaxy? Would we have to gut ship systems? Leave ourselves open to a Shango attack or something?”
116, 118, 120…
“Now how likely is that? Really?”
“They lost power and weren’t voted out. They want it back. I’m not saying that they’re preparing for it, but-”
“You’re paranoid. It’s not gonna happen. Another war, even now, would ruin us and them, it’d be stupid, especially if we have a plan to challenge the Dharans – I mean, that’s in their interest too.”
122, 124, and opposite, Lecture Room 125.
“Maybe it is, but it’s like the tale of the fox and the scorpion – you know, in the human database.”
“Sure, whatever. I’ve got a lecture to deliver,” Aayen said, and opened the door slowly.
“Fair enough. But think about – whatever I was originally on about.”
“OK. Will do.”
Lecture Room 125 was a deliberately old room, built by a culture in which nothing needed to be. The lighting was artificially dim, the benches were wooden and creaky before their time, and whilst it was an effect that Aayen could understand, it was not one she preferred. To her, it was irrational, almost as much so as Outergalactic Combat’s new mission, which had seemingly spread beyond its target audience.
#Hey, Professor, you hear about the mission?# came the question from at least half a dozen sources as the students gathered in the room.
“I have. What I want to know is how you did.”
#Word gets around#, one student in the back corner signalled, with a sort of telepathic shrug encoded into the background of the message. #What do you make of it all?#
“Well this does happen to tie into today’s topic,” she said, sensing an opportunity to throw up the title of the lecture – ‘Qareen and Dharan Futures’ – onto the wallscreen. “You see, I can’t help but feel that O.C.’s plan is somewhat ahead of its time. But at some point, both they, and we, are going to have to tackle this issue of technological advancement.”
This prompted some murmuring, some signalled static, and some general low-level fidgeting.
“As you know, third way physics allows for plenty of things that second-way physics does not. Yet even as it does so, it forces us down some awkward avenues. And the biggest of those avenues is energy. Pushing a whole world – like an Astrostate, actually – takes immense amounts of energy.”
#But we’ve got plenty of it. Billions of stars.#
“Indeed. And it won’t be a worry for quite some time. Nonetheless, we are burning out these stars, tearing apart asteroid belts, using up material at a rate that, on the cosmic scale of things, could prove to be quite alarming. Our civilisation is not built to last, and it is quite possible” – she flipped to the next section of the presentation, a huge, extrapolating diagram with available energy on the y-axis and time on the x, and between them a slowly descending line – “that our civilisation will not outlast the Dharans in its current guise.
“So this” – the area below the graph’s line was shaded, and an arrow showing a leap out of the shaded area appeared – “is why fourth-way physics is so crucial. There is arguably no going back for the Qareen Confederation. Quintillions of individuals are more than used to what’s available, which is almost anything except intergalactic travel. Either we take that away, potentially bringing all the risks of a post-scarcity society, or we expand our energy availability. It is this that makes our attempts to understand the Dharans and their technology so important – it’s not mere rivalry, it’s also about securing our society in the long-term.”
Again, the students could only nod and look somewhat numbed by this. Clearly these youngsters had simply believed that they were there for science, for the noble art of unveiling the real. Aayen could only smile at their reaction, and think, oh, for it all to be that simple. Because as she knew so well, having ground this message, and this lecture, into her own mind year after year, it was never that simple.
Having nothing better to do, Aayen inevitably found herself heading the day afterwards to the Order’s Council Chamber, taking what she thought of as “her” place in the public gallery. She had turned up early to watch the debate and the vote, although the drama of the event, she knew beforehand, was going to be minimal at best. Down there in the banked, bowl-shaped chamber, there were some five hundred seats, and very few of them belonged to true rebels of the proposed Shipbuilding Bill.
Indeed, as the holographic display that appeared like a meniscus below her explained, some sixty-seven members of the OCC had already provided some kind of sponsorship on the bill, and of course the golden rule was: for every sponsor, there were four supporters.
So the passage was a foregone conclusion in her mind, and the opening of the debate (greeted with an elegant, mist-like parting of the graphics) seemed to only add to this.
#I would like to suggest to those few in the opposition#, one Councillor began, a large-built but muscular man whose rhetorical tone matched that boxer-like demeanour, #that should the Dharans come knocking with something less than their usual ambiguity, then they might wish to explain to the rest of the Confederation why they turned down the opportunity to meet like with like.#
An opponent of his, a smaller but taller man whose only suggestion of passion was in the blaze of his eyes, rose slowly to counter this.
#Is the Councillor opposite me promising that the implementation of this bill will guarantee, one hundred per cent, no win no pre-war-society-style fee, an exact transition into Dharan-like levels of technology and political hegemony on an intergalactic scale in due course?#
Aayen found herself siding with him; part of it, she knew, was personal bias, but the other part was that, despite his signalling tone of a weary, deep silver-blue cynic, she felt he’d made a genuinely good point.
#Councillor Genjen5 makes an excellent point. That is why I, and I alone, have made provisions for a range of compromise votes. There does not have to be a pure dichotomy and we can come to an averaged compromise that may not satisfy all of us, or even most of us, but should by virtue of aggregate prove to be the best overall decision.#
Another strong argument, Aayen thought, although it simultaneously added in flattery and egotism. She was always amazed at how scientist-turned-politicians, or even working scientist politicians in these minor resolution chambers, managed to have the exact same psychological vices, the same motivations, and the same tendencies as their more professional counterparts on the upper decks. Power, she thought to herself, may well be an aphrodisiac; it may well have a powerful allure. But what it truly is, more than anything, is an overwhelming vector, that only the strongest will can overcome; and that kind of will does not always dwell in the kind of person who wants to overcome.
Below her, five hundred men and women suddenly looked up.
In the end, that average-vote mechanism produced a 91% result. One-eleventh of the labs currently doing their own thing would remain, and the others would be turned over to the main project voted in.
Even knowing the mechanics of it, Aayen still couldn’t quite believe how quickly the process went into place; after a couple of days, experiments began to be wound up, data was stored, equipment was put away, and the architects began to move in. Officially-dressed, with officially-branded everything (computer, projectors, teleporters, assemblers), the whole thing, to her, didn’t so much resemble a hiring as an invasion; this was particularly the case as various working coalitions began to put their logos on the lab doors.
This also meant endless meetings, that Aayen didn’t really want any part in and didn’t really have to be a part of either. She was tempted to use the one room left over to use the particle accelerator and continue work there, but she imagined that she had very little to contribute or reveal. She wondered whether or not to leave Damocles altogether, and perhaps head to one of the Projects – she had seen planets, seen Spaceplanes, but never visited a Project – but also wondered whether she would, if not exactly leave the Order, at least lose sight of it, and let it fall away from her.
She spent the next twenty days moving around the Astrostate, heading away from O.C. or the Order, driving along coastlines, sailing across seas, sometimes throwing away an afternoon on building a house or a folly somewhere remote and apparently unexplored.
Having put up another angular, wonky tree-shaped house amidst a jungle on Deck SZH, she couldn’t help but think back to her time before the Order, living that Idler life. Employment schemes at the time had been lacking; being born on a Spaceplane apparently meant you had the qualities of such storied citizens; the system, in the end, couldn’t quite deal perfectly with procreation. In the end, having pushed education as far as she could, wound up with her own small home, and no reason to justify it – her attempts at writing and painting had stuttered in such a relaxed, conflict-free, rural-like environment – she had decided to leave the Spaceplane altogether. Taking an unusually-named ship, the Walk-In Contradiction, whatever one of those was, she headed off into the unknown, trying to get the on-board AI to be company and, when it failed at that, trying to get it to prod her in some sort of direction, some definitive end point.
She finally wound up, after a year of circling the galaxy, on a planet around a hundred parsecs from the place known as the Bhoot Republic, and an examination of the ship’s automatic flight path revealed that it had literally skirted over the whole of Bhoot territory. No doubt this was all in the name of protecting or respecting their sovereignty, and she thought nothing of it; she especially thought nothing of it another year later; having switched from job to job in the bustling cities of p3,605,988, she eventually came across a bored-looking individual in the street, stood behind a huge circular kiosk that the crowds parted around as if it was a mere distortion in space-time. And maybe it was out of pity more than interest, but Aayen found herself looking into things anyway, and before she knew it, she found herself looking at the Order of Knight Scientists.
She’d never managed to cut it as an artist, or a writer; her ability to comment on the Qareen experience had been limp. This, she suspected, was a whole different path to go down, one she had time to go down, perhaps even the default path to take. It was either this, or more wandering.
It meant a whole load more education, of course; in fact, a whole slagheap of formulae, theories and observed facts was dumped on her. Even so, she moved up the ranks, even becoming close to great at what she did for a time, and when it all cooled off, teaching seemed like a noble enough pursuit; if she couldn’t continue to pull things forward from the front, she could push new generations onwards instead.
That entry into the Order had served her for – how long now? Eighty-eight years, she made it. And it had served her well for that long, but she could only wonder for how much longer it would do so. Had she run out of road, again? She could still teach, although she wondered whether the current term would play out and then the whole department would be snuffed. All for a mad quest as superfluous, in her mind, as the house she and her assembling equipment had knocked up that afternoon.
Regardless, it all entailed more decisions. For now, she figured, she probably had work that people were demanding her to do. From one of the low “branches” on the house, she walked out onto the balcony, then vaulted over it onto her car – more of an open-topped, big-engined wagon – then took the driver’s seat – more of a throne, actually – and roared off along the jungle’s dirt road.
“So we can agree to sites on Deck SDG, but we’ve also assessed CBT and ADD as other potential places.”
“We might also need the cargo bay, too. For final assembly.”
“Well, I would be in favour on that condition. The Council did consider the possibility of cargo bay assembly and we concluded that here, where you’ll see a ‘neutral zone’ of sorts, a band in the dead centre; that’s where the assembly would be best placed. It might be tight, though; it’s a busy place and we’d rather not compromise.”
“But it’s agreed nonetheless. Excellent.”