“You don’t know what we’re doing next, do you?”
Bayate would have had to admit that he didn’t, but not before he could fire a mass of shots at the robotic tanks moving in from the east. The missiles streaked off in trajectories nowhere near where he had aimed, but his lazy targeting was offset slightly by the missiles’ crude tracking systems, which allowed them to curve round towards the enemy. Most still missed, kicking up useless sprays of sand that, if anything, gave the tanks cover. A few missiles hit the furthest tank, which exploded in a shower of metal plating. He could only frown at this; strategically, it was no good.
“No, I have a plan,” he lied, “sort of. And even if it’s not much of one, we’ll find something. I mean, come on, we could go anywhere; we’ve got the whole supercluster. And once we get there, we can do practically anything.”
I frowned. Maybe I was relying on him too much, I thought. Maybe I, in fact, had just been around for too long; this, the Dharan civilisation, was an empire that had conquered almost everything, which meant there was little left to do. Its work was almost complete.
“You don’t believe me,” Bayate continued, “either that, or you don’t think what I have in mind… is fun.”
I could tell that the little pause had produced the spark of an idea, but I kept quiet.
“I don’t know what to suggest. Maybe you should join the Modulars, that would probably help you. Or perhaps the Hibernation House. Or…”
“Or maybe you could explain what you have in mind,” I interrupted. His ideas weren’t bad ones, but they needed consideration. More consideration than I was willing to give, at any rate. I raised my own missile launcher, squeezed the trigger crudely with a clenched right fist, and let half a dozen missiles angle themselves towards the robot tanks, which were getting ever closer. One exploded; two more slowed and shifted, breaking the formation.
“OK, here’s the plan,” he said. “Have you checked the news lately? Or indeed, any time in the last hundred years?”
“I think so. Not much seems to have changed, really.”
“But you should be aware, right, that on the edge of the Republic there’s a war on. The Shango and the Qareen.”
“Yeah,” he said, and fired the missile launcher again. Those robot tanks, those that hadn’t been bottlenecked by their immobilised colleagues, were getting terribly close; some had started firing. “My point is, we should go and visit. Maybe even join in.”
“No, look – these two civilisations, they’re doing what they’ve chosen to do. If we were to intervene we might even stop it, by sheer virtue of who we are.”
“That’s not our responsibility.”
He sighed and made another half-assed effort at the robot tanks, which shot the pair of us. Our visions (or at least, my vision) went red – game over, and the lot of them would rumble past until we chose to leave.
“OK, so we just observe. It’s a fascinating thing – almost never, Jeniji, do we get to see two civilisations of this calibre confront each other in this way. Actually, the whole place is interesting – there are two other interstellar republics there too.”
“Fine,” I replied. I even forced a weak smile. “Yeah, it might be good.”
And I decided that it could be. If nothing else, I’d have the time to contemplate – Modulars, Hibernation House, or carrying on to the not-so-much-bitter-as-tedious end?
“It’ll be a three week journey if we go.”
“Won’t the war be over by then? Maybe?”
He thought about it briefly. “Nah. It’s been going on for decades and it won’t stop now. The balance of power, last time I checked – which was yesterday – was about equal. They won’t stop until the scales of fate tip one way or the other.”
I nodded and continued to walk with him across the huge stone-built expanse we were on, towards what appeared to be a huge step pyramid about half a kilometre away; naturally, that meant it towered over us. I had never known that this part of the complex even existed, or even that accessing certain areas took some stepping through mirrors, but that was probably why I hung around with 80-Bayate; the guy always seemed to have one last thing that was surprising about him, even after everything else had lost all mystery.
“Anyway, just before you ask about transport,” he said, “I’ve got this.”
He stopped about a hundred metres before the pyramid, which meant that his and my view was of a blank stone wall, unless we craned our necks upwards.
“It’s the largest Globekeeper in the Republic, as far as I know. A family heirloom, in fact, dates back millennia. We’re going retro.”
“Pretty old. Let’s say about the Seventh Iteration.”
That was old. That was now what people would call “the early days” of the Dharan Republic, in fact. And he stepped forward, just one step, shifted a little to the left, and made an opening gesture with his arms, as if casting each half of the Globekeeper aside. That couldn’t be the whole of the gesture, I thought. He was probably sending and receiving all manner of passwords and encryptions, and anyone else attempting what he did would probably look like a complete idiot, instead of dramatic.
For him, though, it worked – of course it did, the huge structure was his. The two halves of that stone pyramid moved aside, first revealing a shadowy darkness and then revealing something, a jagged, geometric something, a classically designed ship, quite small; most likely it was top-of-the-range when produced but by today’s standards it was probably cramped and awkward to use. Yet as the light poured in, glazing an immense shine on the surface of the ship, it was obvious that it was unlike the others of its kind, which were invariably dulled and often decaying. That shine made it look like it had been parked in there a few hours earlier; it made it look completely modern, albeit with a retrofuturistic design. Regardless of its shortcomings, I was startled anyway; that ship was, I dared to think, beautiful. Its difference made it beautiful.
“Like I said,” Bayate continued, “family heirloom. A little slower than your modern spacecraft but, it goes well. And no-one uses it, which I think is a shame, especially when it can always go back in that box afterwards.”
An issue suddenly hit me.
“How do we get this out of here?”
“Simple. The surface over there…,” he gestured to a large region of ground in the distance, where the stone changed to grass and meadow for a few thousand square kilometres, “is designed exactly like outside. All we do is make a big enough mirror – no problem with the ship’s projection systems – and we are out of here.”
“We can’t just stick a large photo of NGCs 4038 and 9 down there?”
“No. Because then you just fly into a photo. Also, remind me to pull up once we’re through the mirror.”
Three weeks on, I had decided; whatever happened after this, I was changing myself. I didn’t quite know how – somehow my decision had been decisive and vague at the same time. But I wasn’t going to live the same damn life that I had then. But I was being promised one last thing that would be quite a send-off to this life, and my initial reservations subsided; having first thought that turning up uninvited to a war, I now wanted in on it. What would we do? I have no idea. But we’d intervene, and we’d try and send some sort of message – that whatever this war was about, there had to be something that could unite them more than divide them.
“We’re entering the galaxy,” Bayate told me as I walked onto the bridge on the big day. “I’ve slowed it down so we can get a good sense of what’s going on. From what the sensors are stating, there seem to be about nine thousand battles afoot.”
“Maybe it’s thinning out.”
“No, this isn’t like the civil wars the Republic used to have. They’re smaller, for one.”
“Let’s choose this one. It’s probably small enough to break up.”
I gestured to the smallest battle I could find, which, with Dharan eyes, was no doubt at least in the top five. Bayate took the ship in. “What are we gonna do when we get there?”
“Leave weapons on automatic, take out a few ships. The rest will hopefully scatter and describe what they’ve seen.”
That’s what we did. To be honest, I was horrified at how easily the aliens’ ships broke, simply breaking apart at a single shot. I just hoped that our contribution had turned both sides against us, not each other.
And whether I could live with it or not, I wasn’t going to have to for long.