“Reverse engineering requires some understanding of the intermediate steps. This is the real problem that we face in this mission; even once every component – which we can only build mock-ups of, mind, we don’t even have the real pieces to hand – has been broken down into its constituent components, we face principles and ideas that are only nominally more basic.
“So really, it’s not about merely breaking it down into components, it’s about breaking those components down into constituent materials. And maybe those materials down into constituent elements. There’ll probably be at least three broad layers of depth to the process.”
In her seat in the wings of the stage, Aayen felt the jitters pass through her like a current. The Order’s conference had seen numerous figures from across the galaxy turn up in the Damocles’ cargo bay, and Aayen, having blurted out “what about security?” in one of the meetings in an endless series that she had turned up to, found herself having to consult with these experts and, in a matter of days, work out a proposal – as if a Dharan flyby couldn’t casually pick off any attempt at covert action anyway, she thought.
She got on with it anyway; better, she reasoned, to deliver a thin, shoddy plan, to shrug and say “it’s the best I can do”, than to deliver nothing.
“…so ultimately, there can be no mistaking the challenge we face; but I ask you, conference, to remember what science and technology rest on: precedent. Any notion of scientific and engineering progress is only the result of an evolution, of gradual steps forward, of dead ends, of vestigial theories, of mutating hypotheses. We, the Qareen Confederation, have not reached where we are today by simply proclaiming, ‘let there be machines’; neither have the Dharans, and that, conference, is why, even if it takes a thousand or a million years, Dharan technology can and will eventually become understandable to us.”
A hail-on-tin-roof rush of applause echoed around the hall, but of course, Aayen thought, such a finish was going to get such a reception. The rest of the speech had at best generated a muted hum, having failed to promise any crowd-pleasing easy answers and, worse, often riffed on well-worn themes about the Dharan advantage. She assured herself that, at minimum, her speech was light on those.
She took to the podium, being vaguely aware through her peripheral vision of the tilted screen behind her announcing her name and credentials. The audience in front of her was large, but not huge; she guessed around a thousand, and she spotted splatters of empty seats.
“Conference,” she began, “very recently I was tasked with the challenge of creating specific national security for the Astrostate Damocles. I speak before you today to announce that, as of now, I have a solution – a flimsy solution. As you well know, Dharan technology can break through multiple barriers, even if they are not interlinked, if the barriers in question have a common underlying principle. It can, for example, treat a dozen metamaterial stealth shields as one, and hence twelve such shields are broken in the time of a single breach. Therefore, there is no reason at all to impose multiple barriers, and indeed such an approach would be wasteful and inefficient.
“What if, however, we were to go with just one, but render that one barrier unpredictable, ever-changing, never with the same underlying principle? In my discussions with experts, some of whom are in this room right now-”
She sensed the credits going up onto the screen at that point, and felt a little better about that. At least the blame would be distributed if it was all received badly.
“In my discussions, I found a remarkable consensus. And that consensus forms our proposal, which is this. We aim to erect around whatever needs to be concealed, a single barrier that is integrated fully with our AI network. The integration will be in a membrane format, which will allow the AIs to automatically detach themselves should the barrier be breached. In any event, the AIs will not only rotate the underlying functions of the barriers, but also utilise their own intelligence and initiative to work on newer, different methods of changing the functions. Furthermore, they will be granted access to the picobot data that started this mission, and to the data gathered, where available, on previous interactions with the Dharans. Meagre though such a resource may be, this may well prove to be the crucial intelligence that allows the barrier to function effectively. Thirdly, we will operate the barrier with a data feed from the data emerging from the reverse engineering, which should mean that the more we have to hide, the more effectively it will be hidden…”
“You see this?”
Aayen saw it, and “it” didn’t make any sense to her. On the screen was a pattern that bent in ways that seemed to make no sense.
“Some of these structures just plain aren’t possible within our current understanding of physics. It’s like there’s a whole expansion pack of forces and subatomic interactions that they’ve got and we’re not privy to.”
“So what do we do?”
“We do only what we can do. We’re going to have to compromise, and somehow find a way to justify that.”
Aayen shook her head. “They would know. They would figure it out in less time than we can even fathom, if a single hadron was out of place.”
“So we need a convincing cover story.”
“If we get a convincing cover story, then why even build the ship?”
There was an awkward pause in the lab. The assistant behind the screen strained for a response. “Well… we need something beyond our own bodies that say that we’re Dharan. And there may well be important things to learn in the process. And… it’s not like us two are gonna outvote the Council on this?”
“What if,” the assistant continued, “we started some kind of compromise log? We could at least keep track of-”
“What’ll prove to be an unconvincing fuck-up, sure,” Aayen said, switching on another screen. “You set it up, I’ll get the word out. I should have enough contacts for it to at least be outside the state by the end of the day.”
The Compromise Log, or C.L. as it came to be known, was disseminated across most of the Order within days; during similar time, it quickly filled with entries, ranging from the apparently trivial to severe and fundamental.
“So what do you want me to do?”
“I don’t want you to do anything, Pensay, I just wanted to vent to someone.”
The inactive collider’s interior had the feel of an underground shelter, or a secret government complex; whilst the walls were largely smooth and bare, occasionally a detail would appear that would appear and run along the wall, jumping and jerking up and down in discrete rises and falls.
“Well, they said the picobot mission wouldn’t work, and yet it largely did. It should’ve run for longer, but all the same, you can’t knock a partial success in this game.”
Aayen found herself briefly wondering how they had wandering into this tunnel in the first place, which probably distracted her, when she came to think of it, from Pensay’s response. She was a little defensive – naturally, given that she had, perhaps accidentally, set off this chain of events – but Aayen couldn’t help but assign her at least a little of the blame.
“Be honest with yourself, Aayen. What do you really want? Everyone else I know here has taken on the task and adapted to it. That, or they’ve left, which you are well within your rights to do, if you want to. Yet you don’t. You don’t want in, you don’t want out. You disappear for twenty days and then come back. And you deliver the C.L.”
Aayen said nothing; instead she turned to her right and opened the nearest door, which led to a short tunnel that in turn led to the trench. Pensay left with her, and pulled a similar move, taking them out of the collider chamber altogether.
“Maybe you should just stay. The fact is, this project, and you’ve told me this so you know – this project is all you really have, and unless you’ve got something else lined up, you should stick with it. Unless…”
Aayen said nothing, and the pair of them continued through the corridors, heading vaguely towards exiting the whole of the Order’s area of the ship.
“Alright. Who is he?”
“Who is she?”
“You’re not onto anything. It’s about the project; I want it to succeed but you and I, we’ve both seen the C.L. and we both know it won’t.”
“Then make it better. I know that really, something like this – not exactly this, but something like this – it’s what you truly want to do in life. It’s what you have done. You have to, I don’t know, let this into your heart, let go of all the doubts you have and aim for something big. Because if people like us succeed, Aayen, we could change the universe.”
“Well, it’s a good enough sell job, I guess.”
“How’s that barrier coming along?”
As the Astrostate Damocles’ disc-shaped hull twisted on its forcefield boards and shot through space at three parsecs per 01.00.00, passing within a hundred parsecs of Spaceplane 700,449 from galactic up, Aayen made a brief but nigh-instantaneous leap from the front to the back of the ship – in truth, a jump forward of millions of kilometres, whatever it seemed to be.
Stepping out of the booth, she crossed the corridor and headed into the lab opposite. Inside appeared to be a bare room, stripped of all but the flooring.
“Drawbridge,” she said – an obvious password that, even if coupled to her voice and appearance, could probably be figured out, but it worked. Immediately, appearing with an almost Dharan-like visual bang, the benches, lights and equipment were visible.
“Barrier, how would you describe your progress since my last visit? In general terms, y’know…”
The voice that spoke was disembodied, and difficult to source.
“I have managed to make a series of upgrades in reference to my previous form, Aayen, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a more fundamental, underlying problem.”
“I’ve felt that since day one.”
“I have no outside reference. I remain untested against the types of scenarios I am designed for. I can’t help but feel that this will compromise the project in the longer term if it isn’t addressed at some point.”
Aayen nodded, though to who or what, she wasn’t sure. “Well, I can’t disagree. But you’re doing good work.”
Aayen stopped and wondered if she could hear a noise. She couldn’t, but the silence in the lab – and around it – was a little unsettling.
“Although you say you’ve never been tested, and the problem with that is, we need to know how to test you. It’s not really a simple matter of knocking up a simulator; knowing what we know, that’d be very inadequate.”
“I’ve seen the C.L.-”
“Exactly. But don’t worry. I’ll think of a way, and you just keep on keeping on.”
The barrier put itself up again, and once again the room morphed into bare darkness. Aayen left and shut the door, sighed, then jumped another five hundred apparent kilometres back to more familiar surroundings.
Having caught the ball as it spun and turned through the air, the racquet-bat promptly delivered an unsubtle slam into the wall, forcing a drop shot from the opposing team that in turn was met by a tamer effort.
“Hey! You’re supposed to be working,” a supervisor called.
“Ah c’mon, boss. It’s not like we have some strict deadline.”
“It’s called ‘as soon as possible’. And I can make it strict, too. Plenty more people around here who can do your jobs with a little training.”
The next shot was aimed high, but was also hit forcefully, and subsequently shot over everyone’s heads and bounced off into the darkness. The supervisor looked less than impressed.
“Where did you even get Kaizener equipment from?”
“That… thing over there. The tank with the assembler on it.”
“I can’t believe they’re putting in the first bits of equipment already.”
Whether Aayen believed it or not, it was true. Huge tracked vehicles raised their lifting arms, received huge components within them, and then proceeded to engage in a slow and steady shuffle into the exact position within the huge circle of light that rapidly-attached lighting rigs had provided. Once they were there, a flurry of nanobots, visible by the occasional glint at best, would furiously work to fix the piece in place.
“It’s only a basic assembler bay. It’s just the Council looking like something is being done.”
“If it’s so insignificant, then why are you here?”
“You called me here.”
“Touche. But true. I did.”
“I think I have a challenge that falls within your department’s remit. Of course, I should probably speak to your superiors, but frankly I have had it with all notions of authority. But yeah, I’ll patch you the details at some point.”
Another piece appeared, another slow shuffle began. A low, loud, oscillating rumble belched out across the chamber as a worker accidentally stepped in the way. The worker scurried, looking like an ant from the sheer distance he was away from the pair of them, had his hands raised in apology as he did so.
“Pensay, I need you to find a way to draw in a Dharan ship,” Aayen explained, “find some form of bait.”
“The next Dharan ship is due in ninety-four days. It is a regular schedule, even if it doesn’t look like it.”
The component fitted into place with an echoing boom, and again the nanobots swarmed invisibly over it.
“With ninety-three per cent of the Order – not just the Damocles, Pensay, the whole damn Order – there’s going to be far, far too much progress in ninety-four days, even if it’s not as much as the Council hopes. I could do with one now, before there’s too much to risk exposing.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Aayen nodded; that was as good as she was going to get. Once again, the machines, hundreds of metres away from them, rolled back, appearing to loom over them even given their distance. Another piece, a vertical panel, appeared between two polarity clamps, which promptly jammed against the panel. Again, they crawled forwards, sliding the panel into the overhanging framework, and that faint glint again told everyone that the nanobots were lined up and ready. They did their work as the two tracked machines rolled away; as they did so, it became clear that the whole structure was close to done.
“Well, I guess I’m in it for the long run now.”