Citizen 4038/Hesefolen climbed back on board the ship, the General Designated Ship 504937, and walked his way to the bridge. He had only been in the Hotel a few hours and he was already bored, wanting to go out for the next mission. Why they had handed over a quarter of a day to this stop, he had no idea; he had seen an eighth given to it beforehand. As he passed through the bridge’s restricting field, he noticed the Ship’s Director, 61/Tulanep lounging around in his seat, which provided an excellent opportunity to ask about it.
“I don’t for out there,” the S.D. admitted. “I mean, Hesefolen, you’re a local boy, you should probably be out there.”
“Nah. I think we’ve been here too long already. What’s the hold-up?”
Tulanep shrugged, but then gave the answer anyway. “Apparently the ship was swarming with picobots as we came here. They seem to have buggered off, but we have to check anyway. Ship’s AI is insistent.”
Hesefolen collapsed backwards, and a chair rushed to fill the space, and became somewhat more amorphous as he leaned back further into a lolling weariness. “Actually,” he said slowly, “you haven’t told us what the next mission is. Or who planted the picobots.”
“Well we have no idea about the bots. They were a little crude; we presume some kind of poorly funded faction is to blame, akin to the one that digitally attacked the Qareen ship Damocles recently.”
“What if it was the Damocles itself? It is fairly backward technology, like you say.”
“The Qareen? Nah.”
The S.D. looked to the large and crude-looking screen in front of her, which projected the various results of numerous scans over the GDS 504937.
“They’ve scanned it thousands of times and found nothing,” Hesefolen said, “do we need any more scans on top of that?”
Tulanep sat up and gestured at the screen, which changed the projection to fill the bridge; indeed, in an instant it had seemingly dropped the whole room away, to show the pair of them in hovering a few thousand parsecs over a single, barred spiral galaxy. In the distance, Hesefolen could see the glint of the ship they were on; he could feel the bareness of intergalactic medium on his face and the silence around him was palpable. The only obvious factor that suggested that the scene wasn’t real was the way he was still breathing – a real Dharan would have long since shut down into something beyond a coma, having stopped all bloodflow, and practically all brain activity barring a single cyborg implant that would broadcast a just-strong-enough homing signal into the wider universe.
“This is Dwingeloo 1, a relatively small galaxy that’ll take some days to get to. It’s our next mission.”
“You didn’t answer my last question.”
“I didn’t answer you last two, in fact. I’ve got a backlog and I’m dealing with it.”
“At Dwingeloo 1, this galaxy below you, we will test a new weapon. It’ll be in the Zone of Avoidance, so central government will have full plausible deniability; the fact that they farmed this mission out to us, a relatively small scout and patrol vessel, helps to boost that deniability. They also sent me, and me alone, the instructions on a single corroding message with state-of-the-art encryption.”
“They must really want that deniability.”
“They really do, Hez. You better believe it. Because this shit is powerful, and it’s dangerous, and even the Dharan Republic would use it only as a last resort. They call it Earthshaker, but you will find out in due course that such a name can only be an understatement.”
The ship left the galaxy a couple of hours ahead of schedule; Hesefolen’s resentment at having to hang around there was apparently shared by enough of the rest of the ship’s sixteen-strong crew. That said, he had not anticipated how long the journey would feel; it was a mere couple of weeks, but compared to the two-day hops from galaxy to galaxy in the last few missions, it seemed interminable, something that was only underlined by the crew roping him into one of their strategy games, that required the whole ship to project various components and moves. After three days of distracting aggravation, he moved all of his pieces into his quarters, creating a formation that was poor for the purposes of expansion, but excellently defensively; as a result, he drove practically all pieces out of the room, merely fighting some around the ceiling and doorway for the rest of the journey. Doing that much at least kept him occupied for much of the journey.
Preparing the weapon, though, would also take considerable time, so the game had to be concluded a day beforehand.
“Hez,” Tulanep acknowledged as he arrived at the bridge, “first to arrive, as I expected. Anyway, we picked up the device.”
She pointed to a large matte black cube that was apparently featureless, and seemingly tossed into the rough centre of the room.
“Tula, shouldn’t we have… I don’t know, put that somewhere else. A lab or somewhere?”
“Nah,” she said, “it’ll be fine here. It’s not like it’ll explode in here. It takes setup for that. Setup that’d take quite a few crew members, who are not here, and fucking should be.”
Kejur, presumably one of those called for duty, staggered through the door a few seconds afterwards. “Sorry, Tula. So how do we go about this thing, that we’re doing? Shouldn’t there be instructions?”
“Still not enough people.”
Hez wondered exactly how many people they would need, but the ship’s screen had already thrown up “3 crew members present (5 short)”. After another five minutes, the five crew members in question arrived, and Tula – the only one authorised – opened up the instructions, a vast, four-walled structure that surrounded them and the cube, and was covered in text, which was almost entirely red, with only the thinnest ribbons of green text largely clustered on one wall.
“This will take forever.”
“Not if we get on with it. Now, first thing is to…”
The screen showed the galaxy exactly as Hez remembered it, which was an odd feeling; not deja vu, or a premonition, but it was some eerie feeling of familiarity that only Dharan technology could have provided. The Qareen and the Shango with their mere virtual simulations could never have competed with the Worldmaker-based technology that came out of the Supranational Dharan Republic and could never have prompted such a response – certainly not in him.
The four walls had been knocked down to a cubicle of three walls instead of a prison of four. One wall, that he turned back to, is almost completely red; there were about three instructions on there, but one would have to hang back for a while. The other two had tags that suggested the window for doing them was now open, so he moved over to his side of the cube as Tula stepped away, founds the relevant two parts of the interface, and got the settings to where they should have been. He checked, his mind scanned over his eyes’ separate and collective images millions of times over, and then he stepped away.
“Last one is optional,” Tula said and pushed the wall down, at which point it vanished before it hit the ground, the AI in the assembler grid anticipating such a move as a discarding one. “Actually, I think a lot of these…” she scanned the remaining two walls, “are also optional.”
“Then why are they there?”
“For the most part, safety. But if we’ve done about half of the optional steps, we should be about as safe as we can be. Anything else is redundancy.”
She pushed the remaining walls into oblivion too.
“OK, the weapon. Is it set? Ready?”
“Yep,” came a collective reply from about three of them.
“Aim and engage.”
“The vicinity. It’ll know what to target, we’ve told it to go for maximum capability.”
Kejur stepped forward and tapped the relevant graphics. “It’s on,” she said.
“It takes a brief wait,” Tula muttered, “about a three, maybe five second, no wait, about a-”
She was interrupted by an astonishing flash – one the screen presumably tinted down to its lowest possible brightness, but still close to blinding, filling the room with blank, void-like white light. It collapsed back down again, and the screen initially showed nothing whatsoever.
“Dwingeloo 1?” Hez said, “what the fuck happened?”
“Weapon worked, unless – screen, can you confirm that brightness is normal?”
“Brightness is at normal levels,” the screen flashed up bluntly for a second or so.
“Yep. The Earthshaker worked. Like I said, it is a powerful, dangerous piece of shit, which is why we were testing it on a confirmed, uninhabited galaxy. All Dharan residences and colonies were moved beforehand. But if the worst case scenario happens, then… we have an option. Not one I’d want to take.”
She gazed at the screen for a few moments.
“OK, Kejur, reverse order sequence should put it back.”