This story can also be seen at the Alpha Centauri website, and the Apolyton Civilization website. It's more likely to be updated at those sites, as well.
(not bloody likely now, since I've given up on it)
All of the below is Copyright 1999 Adrian Hon.
‘What do you think our chances are?’ his aide asked.
‘The same as usual,’ he replied wryly. ‘I doubt you’d be able to get these seven people to agree on anything at all, even if their lives depended on it. Pride goeth before the fall.’
He around to see a dark skinned man striding towards him up the corridor, followed by several underlings scurrying in order to keep up.
‘Ah, Morgan -’ He was cut off with an angry swipe of Nwabudike’s hand.
‘This situation is intolerable, Lal! I am a key member of the global council, and I demand action now,’ said Morgan. His underlings nodded furiously to themselves.
‘Morgan, you know perfectly well that we are doing everything we can,’ replied Lal, quietly.
‘Everything you can? Pah! Perhaps then this council is useless? I will tell you now that the ramifications of this fungal attack are of a global scale. Countless amounts of energy lost, a knock-on effect to the economy and years, years of work destroyed. Do you understand how important that organochemicals plant was?’
Evidently it was very important, thought Lal, but what about the workers who were killed? Does Morgan even care about their deaths?
‘Of course I do, Morgan. Now, if you would just let me -’
‘I expect your full co-operation in this matter, Lal. Your vote must be behind me.’
‘If you would let me finish, Morgan, the council meeting is just about to start. You will be able to talk to all the factions then. It will save you repeating what you just said to me six times, after all,’ smiled Lal.
Morgan’s brow furrowed in anger. ‘Very amusing, Lal, very amusing.’ He abruptly walked back down the corridor towards the council chambers.
Some said that it was an autonomic reaction to the various nitrates and phosphates from the Morganochem Industrial plants, others claimed that it was instead due to a rudimentary threat-detection by the fungus neural net to the toxic chemicals that came with the plants’ emissions. A derided minority maintained that it was part of the Planet-wide neural net’s ‘greater plan’.
Whatever it was, the fungus had appeared the night before on the horizon. In the morning, a swarm of worms had burrowed through the soil under the perimeter defence and killed the Morganochem workers. Immediately afterwards, they retreated back to the fungus and simply stopped.
Deirdre gazed at the occupants of the room in silent contempt. She quickly chided herself for this thinking. Everything will be made good in the end, she reassured herself. Although it was hard to believe, what with the scene unfolding at the moment.
‘Anyone with the monumental gall to name all of their cities after himself deserves such misfortune,’ shouted the Spartan delegate.
"Affairs of the council do not warrant the attention of Colonel Santiago, although she will be happy to send one of her assistants who is not currently involved with our on-going military exercises," read Deirdre off her palmtop. Santiago’s sneering message belied her concern in this council meeting - almost certainly she was being updated of the situation continuously.
‘Corporate identity, you musclebound fool. But I wouldn’t expect one of Santiago’s bloodhounds to understand anything other than fighting,’ rejoined Morgan.
Sheng-Ji Yang, seated beside Deirdre, cleared his throat. The attention gained by this small action was greater than could be gained by shouting, after all, the scarcity of Yang’s contributions to any discussion meant that anything he said was listened to by all.
‘Whatever you say, it seems clear to me that we are all under threat from the fungus. I have received reports that fungal blooms are occurring in close proximity to all our bases. Even Lady Deirdre’s,’ he said, glancing to his right. Deirdre inclined her head in acknowledgement.
All the factions leaders knew this, but none of them had been prepared to disclose what they knew in front of the other council members. Typical, thought Deirdre.
‘They, however, are only attacking the bases which are the source of significant industrial pollution,’ continued Yang.
‘That’s not true - all Morganochem factories stay below the stipulated pollution limit as agreed by this council. To say otherwise is simply ridic…’ said one of Morgan’s assistants, trailing off after a level stare from all the faction leaders.
‘There is no need to pretend otherwise - we all know that Morgan factories routinely exceed pollution levels. That’s a moot point, though. What I want to know is what we’re going to do about the fungus,’ thundered Zakharov. ‘Simply flaming the fungus does no good - it regrows in a matter of days and the worms only attack harder. Perhaps our only option is to cut down on industrial pollution - install new filters and desulphurisation units,’ he finished.
‘No!’ Morgan stood up. ‘I will not be dictated to by non-sentient worms! We have to do something about this.’
‘I agree with you, Morgan, but you must, for now, see that all you can do is to cut down on emissions. Our Lord willing, we will be able to discover a solution soon enough,’ said Sister Miriam calmly. Miriam was wearing a simple jumper, as were the rest of the Believers contingent. They presented a united front, but Deirdre had heard from her sources that there was rising dissent within her faction. Anyone who spoke out against the Believer’s doctrine was nerve-jammed. A simpler solution, in Deirdre’s eyes, would be to simply kick them out, but Miriam was always claiming that all the Believers in Christ were joined together in harmony, and booting out hundreds of protestors would hardly reinforce that line. A flawed policy created by a flawed personality. But one thing you couldn’t accuse Miriam of was of not believing - Miriam had an intense faith that she was always right. As a result, she exuded a certain amount of charisma, incredible though it may be.
‘For Christ’s sake, woman, open your eyes. These damn worms are destroying my bases, and yours will be next. Don’t think that you’re somehow immune to this plague,’ said Morgan, ignoring Miriam’s glare. ‘This council has the power to wipe out these worms permanently - if we pooled our military resources -’
The whole room erupted in uproar, as it normally did when the word ‘military’ or ‘resources’ was mentioned. Morgan had to know that would happen, pondered Deirdre. Maybe he wants to split the council - he could join the side willing to attack the worms and clean up his problem, while it would give his allies the excuse to rove around Planet through factional borders, claiming they were part of a ‘humanitarian force’ trying to stop worms from killing ‘innocent’ civilians. Morgan’s plan was neither particularly clever nor opaque, but he’d probably succeed.
Deirdre sighed, and concentrated her mind, sending out a… confirmation.
~We are ready~
Intercepted communication - Division 3, Section 7
It was incredible, a rush of biomass, a wave of angry, blindly determined invertebrate arthropods. The Mindworms, we called them. Why? The sheer terror that we felt, watching them is indescribable. But every single person who watched the massacre remembered their name, the Mindworms. I read about the first attack on the Morganochem Plant 1 two days ago, but I was pretty sure that nothing like that would happen here - we’d always had fungus near the Plant, and we weren’t emitting anywhere near as much pollution as Plant 1 had been. But orders from above and my own paranoia made me step up the defence net to ready status one.
I was watching a report of the ongoing faction council meetings when we saw them approach on the unmanned air vehicles from five klicks away, emerging out of the fungus. The perimeter defences were activated, but they’d already been literally undermined. One klick away, and the outside wall of the Morganochem plant collapsed. The Morgan Defence vehicles didn’t last much longer - true, they did kill hundreds, probably thousands of the worms using chemical sprays and flamers, but they were eventually swamped. They came right up to the gates, only a few hundred metres away from where I was in the town control centre.
That was when the whispering started, inside my head. Cries of pain, of anguish echoed through all of our heads. We looked at each other, wide-eyed, knowing that we all were experiencing the same torture. A shiver ran through my body, and I slumped in my chair, conscious but shattered.
You may have heard of mindworm attacks secondhand or thirdhand. People probably told you that the victims ran around, screaming, clawing at themselves. It’s simply not true. All you feel is despair and a conviction that there is no protection, no way out. No surrender to the mindworms.
Which was why the people on the ground, just inside the perimeter, didn’t run or hide. They just curled up, or lay down on the floor. I don’t know whether they even felt the mindworms burrowing into their skulls. I don’t want to know.
Then everything stopped. The mindworms, having slaughtered everyone within a hundred metres of the perimeter froze for a few seconds, and then plunged back towards the fungus. The entire incident lasted less than half an hour. Looking down at the ground, you wouldn’t think that there had been tens of thousands of mindworms there before; it just looked like the aftermath of some neurotoxin attack, you know, like the one in Edinburgh back on Earth. There wasn’t much blood - the mindworms were very efficient, and dug straight in and out of their victim’s skulls without much difficulty. No other parts of the body were harmed at all. A mercy, I suppose. Just hundreds of bodies, lying on the floor, silently, while alarms blared and strobe lights flickered.
You could say that I survived the attack, but then you’d be a fool. There’s no escape from the mindworms, no defence. Maybe the Gaians know something, maybe they don’t. But for the rest of us on Chiron, we’re already dead.
Comments: Removal of above document was confirmed +20 minutes of writing. Suggest AI nets step up automatic search for all primary source entries referring to ‘mindworms.’ Suggest dissemination of counter-information. Informal - close call, this one. We can’t afford anything else like this to get out into the public net, we aren’t prepared yet. I don’t think anyone else is aware of what we know, but it’s only a matter of time.
Gaia’s High Garden was boasted to be the most beautiful city on Chiron, the capital of the Gaian faction. While it was only Gaia’s second city, the breathing space given by the establishment of Gaia’s Landing allowed the colonists to create a staggeringly elegant living environment. The hollowed kilometre high plant trunks proved to be excellent for occupation, and sturdy enough to support more specialised disc-habitats. All the disc-habitats were fitted with viewing windows around their circumferences - it was said that approaching vehicles were first greeted by the people in the observation lounges waving before the High Garden ground controllers.
Biologically adapted solar panels based upon reliable chlorophyll-analogues powered the habitat, along with auxiliary fusion generators buried underground. Solar energy wasn’t the most efficient method of electricity generation on Chiron, but then energy was cheap these days and it didn’t particularly matter how it was gathered. The vast green farms of solar panels were contrasted with the brilliance of the concave solar reflectors, constantly pivoting to concentrate as much sunlight onto the farms as possible.
In fact, the solar reflectors were almost blinding, Deirdre noted as she looked down on them from her flyer. Almost as if they were supposed to do that. But the Gaians didn’t depend much on technology for defence, rather they used more subtle biological mechanisms.
As the flyer touched down on a landing pad on top of one of the Trunks, Deirdre slipped a pair of sunglasses and earphone on. She didn’t need the sunglasses to enhance her image; even the most Gaian-opposed man would admit that she would be beautiful wearing anything, or preferably nothing. Seconds after she unfolded the sunglasses, a transparent projected screen appeared to float in front of her eyes. Her Gaian techs confidently predicted that they’d be able to manufacture efficient retinal projectors within five years, but her sources hinted that Zakharov’s ‘Yoopers’ had already begun prototype testing.
A video window opened in front of her at her request.
‘Stephen. What can you tell me about the Morganochem attack?’
‘Not much that you don’t already know. We’ve gathered that five different Morganochem Plants were attacked simultaneously - obviously some sort of neural net co-ordination there, but we can talk about that later.’ Deirdre smiled; Stephen was always going on about trying to contact the Planet’s fungus neural net.
Stephen continued, ‘All the faction leaders immediately left the council meeting to return to their own bases, probably to ensure they were safe themselves. A few have offered assistance, the usual - the UN, Believers and Zakharov, although we all know that he only wants to get his hands on more data about the mindworms. We have a number of scout rovers in the area, and a substantial supply convoy along with military escort. I’ve already re-routed them to assist with the evacuation. The mindworms could attack at any time.’
‘Good. Were all the attacks similar to the one at Plant 2? I accessed the attack on my glasses,’ asked Deirdre, taking a lift down to the main High Garden control centre.
‘Pretty much. Ground attack only, minimal infrastructure damage. Apart from defences, of course. The population of the Plants are holed up at the moment, but if the mindworms return, as we think they will, they’ll all be killed. Nearly ten thousand workers and civilians in total at each of the five Plants, and 90% of their own transport vehicles have been disabled.’
‘I’m going to take the hypersonic to rendezvous with the supply convoy -’ said Deirdre, before she was cut off.
‘You can’t - it’s not safe on the ground with the mindworms active. You can supervise the operation via your glasses, or I could go. There is no need for you to go, it’s a needless risk,’ protested Stephen.
Stephen Winn was one of the senior Gaian officials in the High Garden. In his sixties now, he possessed a great deal of diplomatic experience with the European State embassy which was invaluable to her. He tended to be overly protective of her, but this time his warning was perfectly legitimate.
‘It’s time for me to make a more visible appearance, Stephen. A great opportunity, and I’d like to supervise the operation myself. It’s safe. Don’t worry about it, Stephen, I’ll be fine. We’ll get those Morgan workers out in less than an hour, and we’re the faction with the most vehicles closest to the Morganochem Plants. My flyer’s taking off in ten minutes - I’ll stay in contact with you on my glasses, OK?’
Stephen sighed, barely hiding a grin. ‘Have it your way. You just want to go to try out the new flyer.’
The hypersonic flyer rose up from a Trunk alcove on hover jets, then activated its ramjet engine and raced off at Mach 10. One of the flyer’s main features was an advanced linear aerospike generator - it created a cone of air in front of its nose so that air simply flowed over its body, undisturbed. A metallic exterior and completely silent engines made for a remarkable combination as the people in the observation lounges watched the silver dart disappear over the horizon.
Lal disactivated the image enhancers on his glasses, and slipped them off. Deirdre’s hypersonic flyer had touched down fifteen kilometres away at Plant 3 to meet up with the Gaian’s supply rovers. Admirable behaviour for a faction head to come into the middle of what was arguably a war zone, and extremely risky. In fact, it was surprising - other than possibly the Hive and the Spartans, Morgan Industries was the antithesis of the Gaian’s philosophy, so Deirdre was the last person he expected to see.
That wasn’t quite true - he’d heard from the UN embassy in Gaia’s High Garden that Deirdre would be coming herself, but he hadn’t really believed it. Perhaps his job as peacekeeper on Planet wouldn’t be as difficult as he hoped, seeing that deadly enemies were coming to each other’s aid.
Commissioner Pravin Lal of the United Nations (Planet) was not, he thought to himself, a naïve man. No-one who worked in the UN could afford to make that mistake, least of all someone in his standing. But the one thing that he did retain after years in office was hope, and faith. Not faith in the religious sense; he’d given that up long ago. Faith in human spirit. Just as humans could commit devastating atrocities - ethnic cleansing, nuclear bombs, retroviral attacks and nerve stapling - they could also carry out acts of incredible selflessness. The good and evil balanced each other out, but he sincerely believed that no-one was intrinsically evil, that in the right kind of world, those sorts of atrocities would never be committed. Earth was not that world, but there are plenty others out there. All we have to do is to get it right once.
He picked up his glasses again, and watched Deirdre’s rovers trundle slowly towards Plant 3’s wrecked perimeter defence, then turned to check the progress of the UN’s own rover transports, still several kilometres away from him. Lal had been taken to scout ahead in a modified Unity chopper from the Morgan UN embassy. While swinging his vision back to Plant 2, the UN’s evacuation duty, his glasses emitted a warning beep - the proximity detectors had picked up a man running towards him.
‘Sir. News from Morgan embassy. Apparently the mindworms attacked when Morgan’s Biochemical Industry Director made a snap visit to Plant 3. Morgan Head Office didn’t find out themselves until now,’ said the rating, slightly breathless.
Biochemical Industry Director? Who was that? That’s it… Morgan’s second son, trapped in Plant 3, to be rescued by the Gaians. Incredible. Lal glanced at the rating’s name tag - Ng.
‘Ng - can I reach Lady Deirdre through the Datalinks?’ he asked.
‘Shouldn’t be any problem, sir, we were told that all Gaian citizens in this area would be available through their glasses.’
Lal unfolded a wire microphone and headset, then patched through to Lady Deirdre.
‘Greetings, Lady Deirdre. Some news from the Morgan Embassy - there’s one person who you’ll have to be on the lookout for in Plant 3. Alexander Morgan, the second son of Nwabudike Morgan.’
Deirdre was completely unfazed. ‘I know.’
‘…of Nwabudike Morgan.’
Deirdre smiled inwardly at Lal’s supposedly shock-inducing statement. ‘I know.’
Lal wouldn’t be so impolite to ask exactly how she knew, and there were many others ways in which he would undoubtedly try to find out. None of them would be successful, but what mattered was that Lal was thrown off balance for a few seconds.
‘We will be seeking him out, but we don’t see his life to be any more sacred than anyone else’s. My rovers are closing in on Plant 3, and others should be arriving shortly for Plants 6 and 5. I trust you have co-ordinated evacuation plans for Plants 4 and 2?’ asked Deirdre.
She already knew that a joint UN-Morgan Industries evacuation was underway at those Plants, but it was a mere professional courtesy to acknowledge his involvement, and competence. A formality.
‘Yes, thank you. I must credit you for your appearance here, Lady Deirdre. It’s not often that I see a fellow faction head out in the field.’ In the video window, Deirdre could see troop carriers pass behind the Commissioner, accompanied by several hover flyers keeping a close watch on the fungus. That was the only ‘real’ image that was transmitted through the Datalinks; Lal’s actual face and lighting on it were a computer generated composite made up from various sensors on his glasses. The rest was picked up by micro-CCDs dotted on the glasses frame. After all, you didn’t really want to be holding a camera to your face all the time you were Glassing someone.
Which meant that for all she knew, Lal could be openly laughing at her. But that was unlikely. Lal was, she admitted, one of the few faction heads that she listened to.
‘I felt it was necessary. Our experience with the Planet life forms could prove to be a vital asset here. I’ll have to sign off here, Commissioner Lal - we’re entering Plant 3.’
The first thing that hit Deirdre as she walked into the main Plant 3 square was the smell. Dozens of charred bodies lay sprawled on the ground, each with a head puncture wound. Evidently the Morganites had turned the flame-throwers on the mindworms’ victims as soon as it was safe. A sensible precaution, since they wouldn’t want mindworm larvae crawling around the place. Shame they didn’t tidy up their handiwork though.
Around her Gaian soldiers ran off to the different wings of Plant 3, gathering up Plant workers holed up across the complex. Deirdre herself walked slowly up to the main Perimeter Control Centre, carefully inputting the access codes to the secure door. It slid open silently. Deirdre stood where she was, and said quietly, ‘You can put down that gun if you want to get out of here.’
‘How did you get in here? Are you part of the evacuation team?’ The man stepped out of an alcove, visibly tensed. Deirdre was a little put off that he didn’t recognise her, but she put it down to shock.
‘Yes. Gather everyone in here, and proceed to the main square. You have -’ she subvocalised a command to her glasses, ‘three minutes to get your people out. Any later than that, and I cannot guarantee your safety.’
He had already turned away, tapping on a wristpad, presumably to inform the others of what she had just said. It was a little strange that a Director of Morgan Biochemical didn’t have a pair of glasses, but then their cost was, for most, prohibitively expensive.
Alexander Morgan paused from his wristpad and began to look sick. ‘Lady Deirdre, are you aware that our perimeter sensors have picked up movement within the fungus? They’ll be here in less than six minutes.’
Obviously young Alex wasn’t that shocked, reflected Deirdre. A sharp lad, like his father, to know that she had access to their Plant datalinks.
‘Just get your men to the main square,’ she repeated.
‘Are you crazy? You should get your rovers to intercept the mindworms on autopilot, that’d buy us some time, at least.’
‘Don’t worry about the mindworms, worry about getting your men out. You have two minutes.’
In Plant 2, chaos ensued. Women darted about with children trailing behind, excited or crying. Or both, in turns. Men hastily flung possessions into rovers, against the explicit instructions of the UN team. Matters weren’t helped by the destruction of the Plant’s administrative centre; the local Plant datalinks had crashed as a result, and people could only be contacted through physical means.
The UN peacekeepers had set up a command post alongside the main habitation module to co-ordinate activities. So far, most of the Plant workers and citizens had been accounted for and bundled into the rovers, but a small percentage were still missing. While striding towards the command post, Lal gave a cursory look at his surroundings. Even in an industrial works, the Morganites managed to exhibit their usual display of utter capitalism and a service-orientated society. Shopping malls and hologram theatres were crammed together along the main boulevard opposite the habitation module, with mini-skyscrapers cutting the horizon. Completely different, yet at once completely familiar to every single other Morgan city.
A little like the UN command post - it was based on a standard design of a fifteen metre diameter translucent dome, self-inflatable within two minutes. Constructed from modified aerogel, it was relatively easy to produce and ideal for emergency situations. It wasn’t even particular advanced, although the newer models could turn opaque at the flick of a switch, and ‘bond’ to adjacent domes automatically. Nodding to the guards outside the dome, Lal walked inside. Small portable holoprojectors had been set up inside, along with wide-bandwidth satcom equipment. He sat himself down at the central table, where two men were studying a projection of the local area.
‘Give me a status report on the fungus activity,’ he said, while looking at the projection. Lal didn’t want to take any chances - he’d just heard from the Gaians that the mindworms were moving at Plant 3, twenty kilometres away and the likelihood was that they’d be approaching Plant 2 very soon.
Lieutenant-Commander Muscatello replied. ‘No activity as yet, sir. Should I send the HV-44s in for a closer look?’ he asked.
At a glance from Lal, Admiral Solanki shook his head. ‘Not a good idea, sir. We don’t want to stir the mindworms up, and we’ll be able to see them just as quickly whenever they choose to come out.’
‘And when they do?’ said Lal, turning to face Solanki.
The man blinked, looking at his Glasses. Admiral Solanki had been appointed to his position five years ago, in MY2186. One of the few Founders left who had come from Earth, Edward Solanki had served as a commander of the UN’s peacekeeping forces in the food riots at Selene, the Luna capital, and was responsible for the rearguard operation prior to the launch of the Unity. Solanki was a highly competent commander, and had no compunctions about doing what he felt was right, no matter how many people he upset in the process. Other than those few incidents, he acted strictly by the book. Lal remembered Edward telling him his favourite quote - "Never let your sense of morals stop you from doing what is right." He wasn’t sure whether he should have laughed or been very worried.
‘When they do, we’ll have under ten minutes to get the hell out of here.’ Gesturing towards the projection, he switched the view towards the fungus at the north of the Plant. ‘Not to mention the fact that their friends at Plant 3 might decide to make a detour to go here, but they wouldn’t get here for a while. We have three HV-44s positioned over the fungus, capable of an immediate strike on any mindworms. On the ground we’ve set up automated turrets - no chance of human failure, right? These two measures will only serve to slow them down, though.’
The view on the projection zoomed in, showing the intervening space between the fungus and the Plant perimeter. ‘Further back we have rovers with impact and missile weaponry, then ground troops. Hopefully we won’t have to use them, but they’ll act as buffers to prevent the mindworms from reaching the evacuation carriers. I have to tell you now, Lal, we can’t stop the mindworms. We can only slow their advance.’
‘How is the evacuation proceeding, Lieutenant?’ said Lal.
‘95% of Plant 2 citizens accounted for. 60% are already on rovers, and the rest should be out in a little over seven minutes.’
‘And the missing five percent?’
Muscatello looked away, uneasily. ‘Like you say, sir, they’re missing. We have a number of soldiers out searching for them, and with the admin centre offline we just don’t know where they are. Combined with the number of people dead from the initial mindworm attack, there are a lot of unknowns in the equation. We think some, maybe two percent, are outside the complex on scouts.’
‘We’ve got an HV-20 out looking for those lot,’ Admiral Solanki interjected.
They knew what he meant; how long until they could be certain they had everyone.
‘Commissioner, never. We won’t be able to evacuate everyone - frankly, I’m surprised we’ve got so many already. If you pressed me -’ answered Solanki frustratedly, until he was interrupted.
Holding a hand to his headset earphone, Lieutenant-Commander Muscatello said, ‘We’ve just received word from the HV-44s. The mindworms have started moving.’
‘Say again, base control?’
‘Can you give us an estimate of the numbers of the mindworms out there?’
Flight-Lieutenant Johnson took another short look at his external camera video windows on his glasses. Then he frowned, and subvoc’d a command for the camera to zoom in.
‘Uh, base control, you won’t believe this, but they’re still coming out - I can’t see individual mindworms, just a mass. I’m relying my video feed to you now,’ he said.
There was a slight murmuring through his earpiece - he had no video from base control, just audio - as if there was an argument going on. He caught a few words, ‘…pointless… serious damage… all the time… can get.’ He heard a clear click as the base control comm system introduced a different individual into the encrypted band.
‘Johnson, this is Admiral Solanki here. Commissioner Lal and myself are giving you full authorisation for use of tactical weapons on the mindworms. Maximum damage, do as much as you can to slow them down. Try and hit the front runners - don’t bother with attacking the main mass.’
‘Affirmative, base control.’ Johnson switched bands on his comm system. ‘Did you get all that, guys? Labowitz and Anders, take their left and right flanks. I’ll go centre. Switch to wide-dispersion cluster bombs and take your impact beams offline - they’re useless against mindworms and we could do with the extra energy for the engines.’
Johnson’s HV-44 banked sharply to begin a run over the southernmost mindworms launching two shrapnel bombs, and watched them descend.
The bombs were designed specifically for use on biomass, not solid structures. When they reached an altitude of five metres above their target, they detonated, releasing thousands of sharp metal fragments which tore through flesh, reducing anything below to a pulpy mess. He’d seen them used before on humans in training videos from Earth back at the UN Headquarters in Unity’s Hope. He vowed never to use them, even under orders, but mindworms were different. The enemy.
Taking a cursory look as he brought his flyer around for another run, Johnson nodded satisfactorily to himself at the wide swathe he’d created among the mindworms. The other HV-44s were experiencing similar success when he switched his attention to see Anders’ hover flyer take a daring low level run across the mindworms’ eastern flank, chaingun blazing and dozens of small cluster bombs ejecting from its payload bays.
Johnson activated a comm link to Anders in alarm. ‘Anders, pull up. You shouldn’t be flying so close to the mindworms, they might be able to induce psych…’ He stopped, seeing the flyer pull up and drunkenly roll over, turning towards him.
His ECM system emitted a shrill series of beeps - Anders had targeted him. ‘What the hell are you doing, Anders? Break off, NOW!’ Two missiles streaked out from Anders’ HV-44, aimed at both his own and Labowitz’s flyers. ‘Shit,’ screamed Johnson on the comm system, ‘the mindworms must have induced psychosis in Anders. He’s gone haywire, attacking both of us. Labowitz, reactivate your impact beam interceptor system.’
He subvoc’d the initiation code for his impact beam to warm up, and bulled his flyer into a high-gee turn to target it at the approaching missile. Seconds before the missile reached him, the impact beam finished its ignition and locked on, causing a pulse of high energy particles to burn through the missile casing into the explosive. Through the falling wreckage of the missile, he stared impotently at Labowitz’s flyer trying to wheel towards its own missile, in a desperate attempt to bring his own impact beam to bear. He wasn’t quick enough. Labowitz managed to eject just before the missile slammed into the flyer’s wing, sending it spinning down into the fungus. Hopefully Labowitz would be able to bring himself down in Plant 2 so he could get away. No such hope for himself.
‘Base control to Johnson. We’ve been monitoring the situation. We suspect the mindworms have some sort of mental control over Anders, or at least induced some emotional pattern on him.’ No shit, thought Johnson savagely. ‘He may try to attack you again, or our other defences. Eliminate him.’
Johnson throttled his flyer up to maximum velocity, arms straining against the intense gee-forces. I can’t believe this is even happening, he thought to himself. He was aiming to swoop underneath Anders’ flyer, pinpoint his engines and then get the hell out of there to escape the blast. Flying at such a low altitude would put him at risk of the mindworms induced-psychosis, but at his speed the exposure should be minimal. With luck, Anders wouldn’t have thought to restart his impact beam so Johnson would be safe. An awfully risky manoeuvre, he knew, but there weren’t any other options available.
Anders’ flyer was flying southward towards Plant 2, so he had to intercept him at an oblique angle. At the last moment, Anders banked around towards him on a collision course, missiles locking on - Johnson coolly ducked down, activated his impact beam to ignite the ‘enemy’ HV-44’s fuel reserve, and pulled up. For a fleeting moment, he felt the thousands of mindworms whispering in anger at him, his hands trembling uncontrollably, then it was gone. Circling over the mass of mindworms at a safe distance, he awaited further orders when he saw Anders’ burning flyer drop in a controlled descent towards the automated turret defences.
‘Oh shit.’ There might not be anyone left to give him orders in a few minutes time.
The UN command staff inside the dome watched the scene unfold in horror. Admiral Solanki barked an order into his headset microphone, ‘Are those turrets online?’
‘Aye, sir,’ came the answer from a technician seated across the dome at another console.
‘Target that flyer, and destroy it now!’ he shouted.
As soon as the UN evac team had reached Plant 2 less than an hour ago, they’d set up a number of high-spec GTS-7R gatling laser turrets, the standard UN stationary armaments. These gatling lasers were excellent multi-role weapons; they could be set to continuous wide beam, enough to contend with large numbers of mindworms, or narrow pulsed mode, drilling in enough energy in one burst to disable an armoured rover. Five of the closest turrets rotated and pivoted smoothly to track the flyer’s path, and simultaneously unleashed a garish pulse of coherent light, all impacting on the fuselage. That still didn’t stop shrapnel from the flyer cannoning into a turret, which exploded violently. Lal winced, even though he knew the outcome could have been much worse.
‘How does this change our situation?’ asked Lal.
Solanki answered, ‘It’s not too good, but it’s not too bad. We’d expected the HV-44s to slow the mindworms’ advance more than this, obviously, but at least we’ve still got the turrets. We’re just going to have to speed up the evacuation process a little.’
Lieutenant-Commander Muscatello decided to pre-empt Lal’s next question. ‘The last of the Plant 2 workers are being loaded onto the evacuation carriers. Still no sign of over four percent, sir.’
There was a pause in the conversation. Lal hardened his gaze at the projection, looking away from the others.
‘I see. Unavoidable casualties.’ Solanki made a motion as if to speak, but Lal cut him off with a wave of his hand.
‘I don’t want to hear it - you’re going to say it’s not my fault.’ Another pause. ‘How are the evacuations proceeding at the other Plants?’
Muscatello looked around nervously. He didn’t particularly enjoy this situation, and motioned for a newcomer to the table to speak up.
‘Sir. They’ve all experienced pretty much the same as we have - mindworms are approaching all five Plants now. No significant developments, and about 90% of the total workers and citizens have been evacuated. We estimate that a further five percent will be evacuated before the mindworms arrive,’ he stated boldly.
‘And you are…?’ asked Lal mildly.
‘Lieutenant Maxwell, UN Intelligence, sir.’
‘Good work, Lieutenant. Commissioner, I suggest that we get you back in the chopper and out of here - the mindworms are on their way, and this entire command post has to be evacuated as well,’ said the Admiral.
‘Very well. I want to be updated on the situation constantly, remember, Solanki. Maxwell, you’re with me.’ They all rose from the table, and Lal walked out of the command post through a path that had suddenly materialised through the organised chaos of dozens of workers dismantling projection surfaces and comms equipment.
As Lieutenant Philip Maxwell walked alongside Lal, he felt a surge of pride - this is what he joined the UN Intelligence for. Not a desk job, reading innumerable reports of insignificant incidents occurring across Planet, but action in the field. Doing something that mattered.
‘If you don’t mind my asking, sir, what do we know about the Gaian’s flight technology? I saw that hypersonic flyer, and -’ he ventured.
A faint vestige of a smile appeared on Lal’s lips. Without turning towards Maxwell, he replied. ‘I see you noticed the flyer as well. Officially, we’re fully aware of the Gaian’s technological development, as per the UN Weapons Treaty. Unofficially, we don’t know how it works, we don’t know how they managed to research it and we certainly don’t know how they made it without us seeing it. The hypersonic flyer, I mean.’
‘How is that possible? The Gaians couldn’t have just made it out of thin air. Sir. They don’t have the industrial capacity.’ Maxwell’s step faltered for a second, then recovered. ‘But we did have hypersonics back on Earth. At least, that’s what the training vids back at Unity’s Hope say. Maybe some kind of alliance with the Yoopers. But what could the Gaians give in return…’
Lal looked sideways at Maxwell. Still a new recruit to UN Intelligence, Maxwell exuded the stereotypical squeaky-clean naïve operative who didn’t know anything of the outside world. But… but he had confidence in himself, and had quick reasoning. Someone useful. And expendable, he thought to himself grimly. We do what we must.
‘Lieutenant.’ Maxwell stopped his musings, and looked up at Lal. ‘Tell me, the evacuation handled by the Gaians, how well did it proceed?’
Maxwell was caught unawares. Why on Earth was Lal talking about the Gaian’s evacuation now? ‘Uhm, I think that it’s going fine. They should get out before the mindworms arrive, providing that… Sir, did you say "how well did it proceed?"’
‘But it’s still going on,’ he protested, confused.
‘No, it isn’t. Review your files. Read between the lines. The Gaians knew the access codes for all the buildings in Plant 3. They knew all the points of egress, they knew the exact locations of the people hiding inside. They knew when the mindworms were arriving, and they knew exactly how much time they had before they had to get out. What does that tell you?’
Maxwell’s eyes narrowed as he frowned. ‘The Gaians control the mindworms?’
‘No!’ Lal spun around, halting. ‘Occam’s razor, ever heard of it?’ Maxwell shook his head. ‘I suppose not. We continue to use their so-called affinity, their bond, with Planet as an excuse for whenever they do something better than we could have. Surely it’d make more sense for the Gaians to have improved radar technology and undercover operatives within Morgan Industries - after all, it is in their interests as Morgan’s main rival. Why can’t they have expert datalinkers? Why can’t they have researched mindworm pheromone control?’
Lal didn’t wait for Maxwell’s answer. ‘Because that’s what people think, isn’t it? When you think of the Gaians, you think of some tree-hugging, peace-loving, pacifistic green weaklings?’
‘Well, not as such, but -’ said Maxwell.
Lal began to start walking again, talking animatedly. ‘It’s an excellent PR campaign. No-one suspects the Gaians, and so they simply ignore them. Which is why we, or rather, you, have to keep an eye on them.’
‘I’m sorry?’ said Maxwell, completely flustered.
‘After you reach the UN embassy back in Morgan Capital, you’re taking a flyer to Gaia’s High Garden. You’re a member of the UN Intelligence. It’s about time you started to gather some,’ said Lal, smiling widely as he stepped into his helicopter. Maxwell attempted to step inside, but Lal turned him around, nodding towards another helicopter. ‘I have important matters to resolve, Lieutenant, and believe me, you don’t want to know what they are. I’ll see you when I see you,’ he shouted above the thundering of the rotor blades.
Admiral Solanki watched Lal climb into the helicopter, his face showing concern. Solanki had heard many people say that Lal wasn’t cut out for the job of Commissioner, that Lal couldn’t take decisive action or that he always became personally involved with whatever he was dealing with. The truth was, Lal cared too much - he cared about every single person who came to harm, or died, under his jurisdiction. Which was the whole of Planet, if not the whole of humanity. But Solanki had a feeling that the two were the same, this long after Touchdown. In any case, Lal’s care was both his failing and his strength.
Solanki felt real compassion with Lal, who wore a contorted, tortured expression.
‘You know he’s probably going to die? An accident involving mindworms, or a malfunctioning transport tube, or a mis-aligned solar reflector?’ Lal wasn’t really talking to Solanki, he was talking to himself. None the less, Solanki nodded his head gravely.
‘We need the information, that’s all. He might die, but we need to know what the Gaians are up to. We do what we must,’ Lal whispered.
Solanki coughed. ‘Look, Pravin, stop tearing yourself up. You’re right, we did have to do this. It’s better that one person dies now than thousands die in a war against the Gaians. You know this as much as I do.’
‘Of course I do! I don’t have to feel happy about it, though, do I? And how many more people are going to die now, in this ‘evacuation’?’ he said, laughing. ‘We could have brought in enough flyers and rovers to evacuate all of the Plants in time. But no, we had to see the disposition of the Gaian forces. We had to see what they were going to do. Was it even worth it? Damnit, Solanki, they probably knew that we set them up.’
‘They did know. We still managed to force their hand. There’s that. Lal. Stop this. In the history of the UN, there has never been a Commissioner better than you, there’s never been one who cared so much. Come on.’
Lal sat silently opposite Solanki, staring at the wall blankly. He abruptly tensed his muscles, and sat up, giving a small laugh. ‘Thanks, Solanki. It’s just not every day that I think I’m responsible for the world.’
No, Solanki thought, you think you’re responsible every second of every day.
Stephen twirled a pen around his fingers unconsciously as he pored over reports from the ‘battlefield’ as the Gaian techs were wont to call it. As expected, the Gaian operation was proceeding smoothly, as it should do when there are several hundred Gaian operatives in the field gathering information about all the factions, thought Stephen proudly.
Since Glasses were rare among Gaians, the preferred medium for information exchange were still the Scrolls. Flexible polychromatic sheets slightly thicker than normal paper, they could display any static information, and had at last removed the need for archaic wood-pulp paper. Still, thought Stephen unhappily, they weren’t perfect. They couldn’t display video, and they had a tendency to get lost easily. Reports indicated that Scrolls were being phased out in Yooper - University of Planet, corrected Stephen unconsciously - territory in favour of Glasses. He sighed, tiredly.
He’d been talking to Deirdre about half an hour ago, just as she was boarding the hypersonic. Typically, it was only at the end of the operation when Deirdre actually remembered to Glass Stephen, although admittedly she had been somewhat busy. He thought back to their conversation. She’d seemed a little distracted at the time, strange considering how she was normally so focused. Probably the stress of the evacuation.
‘Stephen. Give me a sit-rep,’ she’d said, as the hypersonic hovered into view.
‘UN and Morgan operations are proceeding fine. Minimal loss of life, although there was some altercation at Plant 2. Fireflies are still reporting back, and it seems that the mindworms are inside all of the Plants.’
‘You could say that. They’re tearing them to bits, and it seems as if there’s some kind of controlling intelligence over them. You wouldn’t expect mindworms to know that burrowing under their Morganochem gas pipelines would save them the trouble of bringing down all the buildings.’
‘Surely that’s just a coincidence?’
‘It looks like a coincidence, and that’s what everyone else will say. But I say it’s predetermined.’
Deirdre smiled for the first time after they’d linked. ‘Of course you would, Stephen. It’s always predetemined with the mindworms.’ Stephen could see Gaian soldiers usher her up the ramp into the hypersonic, which appeared to be warming up again.
‘Very funny. I’ve had lines in from the Colours about their take on our appearance at the evacuation.’
‘Well, remember that we had to assist because we were the only people with rovers in the area? It seems that the UN had intell that there was a mindworm build-up from their wide-spectrum satellites several hours before their first attack. Now, there is no way we can substantiate this, but it makes sense. Lal knew that almost everyone would get out anyway, and he’s been wanting a look at our forces for a while. That’s why he didn’t alert the Morgans and waited for our rovers to come within range. You’ve got to admit, though, it’s a bit out of Lal’s character to sacrifice civilians, which is why I’m not sure whether this hypothesis is the case.’
A frown appeared on Deirdre’s face for a split-second. Stephen wondered whether that was some glitch in the Glasses face-sensors, but he quickly forgot about it.
‘Seems awfully tenuous, don’t you think?’ Deirdre had to shout over the roar of the hover engines for a second before the ramjet kicked in. He’d always thought that the silence of the hypersonic was eerie - it just didn’t seem right for something that fast not to make any noise. Then again, with the sound nullifiers they had these days, anything was possible, Stephen mused.
‘Well, yes, I suppose so. I’ll have the Colours look into it.’
‘Good idea. Look , Stephen, I want to find out exactly how well the mindworm control measures we implemented have worked, and our other field techs we tested. I’ll be taking an informal tour of the science facilities when I get back.’
‘I’ll get it arranged. Is that all?’
‘Just about. See you later.’ The background sky behind Deirdre was gradually darkening as the hypersonic rose to the edge of space.
Stephen broke off from his pen-twirling as he pushed aside his Scroll to stretch his body. He’d have to get some rest soon, he’d been up for far too long without sleep. Not that he was being overworked, he thought to himself hastily. No-one forced him to work so late.
That, he reflected, was one of the benefits of Gaian society, a wonderfully egalitarian bunch. Not too egalitarian, like the UN, who seemed to get their citizens to vote on every insignificant measure, but the Gaian society was flexible enough to accommodate nearly everyone’s opinions easily and still take care of their essential needs. You could argue that the Hive and Spartans, and Believers all do the same, but they trade off their apparent stability by suppressing independent thought. Not that they see it that way, of course, but there you go. The Yoopers, well, they certainly didn’t suppress independent thought, which meant that they had a rather anarchic society. Ironic, considering that the Yoopers dedicated themselves to studying the regimented rules of the universe. Morgan Industries? Don’t get me started. If you wanted to show someone what Earth was like, just take them to Morgan Capital. Brash, superficial, capitalistic and wasteful. They got what they deserved when their Plants were destroyed.
Stephen laughed at himself softly as he realised how subjective his thoughts were of the other factions. No, Gaia is the place for me. Weak tree-huggers, the lot of us. But us tree-huggers have a hell of a lot of tricks up our sleeve that none of you other factions know about.
He stretched again, and shook his head. Back to work. Deirdre would be arriving in an hour, he’d better inform the science labs.
"HORTA ALTUS GAIAE. Founded in 2106. "We come for redemption for our sins against Earth. Never again shall we allow this to happen." - Legatus Deirdre Skye."
Deirdre pulled her gaze away from the plaque sitting under the sole tree on Planet that had once grown on Earth soil, and contemplated the city of Gaia’s High Garden. She could see her aides standing off to one side, shifting about impatiently. They knew that she would be some time there; she always was whenever she was up here. There had been some fierce argument about the words on that plaque. Many had wanted it to give a message of optimism, of humanity’s joy at reaching Planet. All of them had been Founders back when Gaia’s High Garden had been constructed, but they had forgotten a lot in the six years after Landing. Including the worst of Earth. A few, like her, had been adamant. If there was one thing they would do with their time on Planet, it would be to make sure that humanity did not make the same mistakes as they had on Earth. And so, they prevailed.
She’d been alive for the best part of two hundred years now, one of the older Founders. Maybe one of the oldest human beings still alive, if they could take Earth’s silence as death. Two hundred years of memories. The doctors and neurologists had said that there was no way that the human mind could survive for that long, longevity vaccine or not. It just wouldn’t be able to store enough information.
They were right, in a way. Deirdre could remember less and less of the past centuries. Major events she knew about, and she still retained her mid-short term memory. But some things had dropped out completely. Lately, technology had come as a saviour. The Glasses could record pretty much everything you saw, and play it back on request. It wasn’t much of a substitute for experience, though.
Not everything had dropped out. Her time on Earth and the landing on Planet still remained vivid. Deirdre’s mouth turned up in a sad half-smile as she looked down. Hardly surprising, considering what had happened back then. Since then, the numerous wars, conflicts, advances and discoveries made didn’t really mean much to her. What mattered was now. She had a responsibility to her people, the Gaians, which she had to uphold.
All the faction leaders on Planet were Founders, all of them alive for over two centuries. There weren’t many things that would keep someone going for that long, under such circumstances. They required a special driving force. A burning desire for knowledge, for belief, for peace and for redemption.
She knew that a time would come when the Founders would have to depart. The leaders of humanity’s new world should not be relics from the past, only alive because they had some score to settle, either with themselves or others. Planet needed change.
How that would happen, Deirdre did not know. It would take something drastic, something that would awaken them. Something that she would have to think about another time, she thought with a mental sigh.
She peered over the edge of the railings set at the edge of the landing pad. The entire city seemed to be wreathed in silence, and a pale glow of the mingled light from both of Planet’s suns highlighted one of the disc habitats below her. The Gaians hadn’t released any lifeforms outside of their cities yet, and wouldn’t do for some time, giving the land of Planet a feeling of peaceful permanence. The solar farms stood off to one side, ordered arrays of green circles surrounded by the reflectors, whose forms were stretching to receive more light. One of the suns emerged from behind a cloud momentarily, creating a dazzling reflection of the sky against the crystal canopy covering a disc-habitat. They’d worked hard to make Gaia’s High Garden what it was, the most beautiful city on Planet, but to Deirdre, it symbolised a past that never existed. It gave the Founders a memory of what Earth could have been.
There was the sound of someone approaching behind her, but she didn’t turn around.
‘Thinking about Earth?’
‘As ever. It’s great to see you again, Selene.’
‘You still remember my name? What did I do to earn this distinction in the memories of a Founder?’ asked the woman impishly, emphasising the word ‘Founder’.
Deirdre grunted a noncommittal reply trying to hide a grin, and turned around to look at Selene.
Selene was quite a tall woman, when you took Planet’s increased gravity into account, about 1.6m high. She was continually being mistaken for some burnt out Founder who’d hit the longevity vaccines too often and too early. That fact wasn’t particularly surprising considering very few people possessed the same physical attributes as she did. Somehow, Selene had mastered the art of walking around wearing a faint smile on her lips and an amused expression on her eyes, as if she’d seen everything she encountered many times before. Deirdre knew for a fact that this was very unlikely, as Selene was only 27.
Wearing a light pullover and mid-length skirt, with a sophisticated wristpad shining dully on her left arm, she certainly caught the attention of two of Deirdre’s aides. As usual, Selene had glanced in their direction for a second, and dismissed their presence with an imperious flick of her hair.
‘I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking - when is that irresponsible Selene going to grow up and stop pretending to be a Founder. And you probably know the answer yourself anyway.’
‘Unfortunately, Selene, you are yet again absolutely correct.’
Deirdre stepped forward to hug her, then jerked a thumb in the direction of her aides.
‘We’d better get a move on. I think one of these days they’re going lock me up here in revenge for keeping them so long.’
Selene laughed, looking at the plaque below the Earth tree briefly. She’d never noticed that before. It didn’t seem like something Deirdre would say, but then again, you changed a lot in two centuries. There was a lot Deirdre didn’t tell her about her past.
They entered a small train carriage sitting in an alcove to one side of the Trunk top quickly, and Deirdre closed the train doors before any of her aides could get in. They looked at each other, and sighed wearily. Obviously they’d have to get the next train, again.
‘Your destination?’ asked a computer generated voice.
‘Science labs 13C, thank you,’ answered Selene.
‘So, what’ve you been getting up to recently?’ inquired Deirdre.
Selene crossed her legs, making a show of her apparent annoyance at the question Deirdre always asked. ‘Usual stuff. Various semi-sentient AI algorithms, bottom-up molecular cell simulations and an updated version of the Firefly. We were also thinking of taking a look inside of that hypersonic toy you flew in on.’
It never ceased to amaze Deirdre the amount of disregard Selene held for anyone else. Deirdre wasn’t sure whether anyone had bothered teaching her the meaning of the word respect, or deference. She’d managed to irritate a fair number of Founders, which was the reason why she’d been brought to Deirdre’s attention in the first place.
‘And tell me, when will any of this render anything useful? Might we expect some usable products from your research?’
‘Usable products?’ choked Selene, stifling a laugh. ‘You are joking, right? You must remember, Legatus Deirdre, that our research here at 13C is for the pure joy of learning. What we do here is science for the sake of understanding our universe.’
‘Yes, I have heard the Yoopers’ spiel quite enough. But seriously…?’
Selene looked around the carriage, gesturing with her hands. ‘What do you notice about this carriage that seems different?’
Structurally, the carriage was as it had been for the last ten years. A composite graphite-buckytube polymer, the carriage operated on a system of superconducting electromagnets that encircled the various Trunks that made up Gaia’s High Garden. The carriages could take up to fifteen people to within five minutes walking distance of anywhere in the city, providing they had enough travel credits left in their wallet. Their interior seemed unchanged as well - sturdy seats with cushioned covering and poster sized Scrolls adorning the walls, informing the occupants of the latest news and their location.
Each of the carriages within Gaia’s High Garden, however, had different ‘characters’ based upon the people who travelled on them most frequently. Designs ranged from early Victorian opulence to functional 21st century plast-tech. In this case, the carriage’s ‘owners’ had settled on a late 20th century design, with a redundant driver’s seat at one end and stuffed toy sticking to one of the windows. A pair of dice hung forlornly from a small mirror above the driver’s seat. Apart from that, and the small sign declaring ‘My other train is a hypersonic,’ hung next to a Scroll, Deirdre couldn’t see much out of the usual.
‘Enlighten me, why don’t you?’ said Deirdre, waiting for the punchline.
Fortunately, Selene did not disappoint her.
‘What, you didn’t notice? This train arrived a whole five seconds earlier than normal, and is currently eight seconds ahead of schedule compared to before. And all thanks to the traffic-tracking AI software that we finished testing yesterday,’ cried Selene in full flow, gesticulating madly.
And I wondered why she never goes out, thought Deirdre.
‘No, don’t thank me, Legatus. Thank the hard working scientists of 13C who slaved day and night, day and night I tell you, getting this ready. Don’t say that you don’t get your energy’s worth from us,’ finished Selene.
‘As a matter of fact, I was going to say that we didn’t get our energ -,’
A soft ringing came from the carriage, accompanied by a flashing message on one of the Scrolls. The carriage sunk into an alcove beside a set of doors.
‘Ah, how convenient, Legatus. We appear to have arrived.’ Selene bounded up onto her feet, carrying off an excellent bow towards the labs, while Deirdre shook her head ruefully. One of the scientists on the opposite side of the carriage doors mouthed to her that Selene was having one of ‘those’ days again.
The carriage doors slid open quietly at a wave of Selene’s hand as she led the way for Deirdre. Deirdre, drawing herself erect in an almost regal manner, gave a brief nod and a severe glance to her. Suitably cowed, Selene traced a path among the various work surfaces and holoprojections towards a bank of computers fitted into a wall. They were cycling through animations of what seemed like DNA strands twisting about each other. In the corner of the projection, a series of numbers blurred together, rising at thousands per second. Occasionally, glowing sections of the DNA would spin down towards the bottom of the projection, fitting into an intricate sequence that began to fill in some kind of Cartesian geometry system. It was all highly impressive, and completely incomprehensible. A stressed looking technician hurried over the to holoprojector and transferred the data over to another across the room. Deirdre watched him walk away, trying to balance a pile of Scrolls in one hand and some data crystals in another. It seemed as if practically all the workers in the lab were trying studiously to pretend that she wasn’t there.
Selene coughed politely. ‘We’ve assembled an brief overview of what the various departments of section C are researching at the moment - that’s non-miltech. At least, none of it is directly related to miltech.’
She tapped a few times on her wristpad, and the holoprojector flared back into life again. 3D models of the Firefly technology appeared, with specifications and modifications scrolling down alongside it.
‘As you can see, the basic structure has remained the same. However, we have made several adjustments to the sensory systems here and here, updating them with the new wide spectrum equipment section B developed…’
Deirdre looked back towards the carriage platform. The one in which she had arrived had since disappeared, and a different carriage was slowly moving off, after its passenger had presumably disembarked.
‘…also used the neural net technology to ensure that each Firefly moves into the optimum position for high fidelity holoproj recordings. This, as we found, also resulted in a corresponding loss in operational life, so we introduced algorithms to take account of predicted future positions…’
A man wearing an official UN observer’s uniform caught her eye, the drab blue-grey uniform standing out incongruously among the clean lab coats. He stood chatting amiably to the lab scientist whom had signalled to her earlier. The scientist laughed loudly at a comment made by the observer while gesturing around the labs, and then introduced another member of the staff to him. Pulling a tissue out of his pocket, the UN observer listened to the scientist attentively and quickly took a glance around the labs. He met Deirdre’s eyes briefly, then looked back towards the scientist, who ushered him out of sight.
‘…considering their small size, we believe that they are not only excellent general-purpose media recording tools, but they could also be used for espionage. I’ve recommended that we transfer the project over to section A now. With their expertise in EMP shielding and stealthing, the Fireflies could be used anywhere indefinitely without being detected.’
Deirdre brought her attention back to Selene, and tried to recall exactly what she was talking about. She discreetly called up a report on the Fireflies on her Glasses. The Fireflies were one of section C’s recent and more useful developments. Less than five millimetres in length, they were small nuclear powered ‘insects’ made from ultralight materials such as buckytubes and foamed metals. On their own, their visual recording and transmission abilities were poor, but in practice they were released in swarms which would take up inconspicuous positions around whatever was being filmed, providing a multi-angle high bandwidth recording, which could either be transmitted on the fly, or stored for later access. It was strange, Deirdre thought, that section C had actually stuck at the idea for such a long time to make it this viable for use.
Deirdre gave the holoprojection an appraising stare, then nodded. ‘Good work, Selene. Have the relevant data sent over to section A, and I’ll have it cleared.’ Selene beamed.
‘Uh, well, thank you, Legatus. Our medical researchers have come up with something since last time you were here.’ Selene called up a new projection while consulting her wristpad for details.
‘They were studying the effects of various neurological diseases in the brain, and how they either killed off brain cells or cut off their connections between neurones. By determining the structure of the enzymes involved, and the resulting damage, they found that they could actually reconstruct the broken neural connections.’
A series of amino acids filled the projection screen, then zoomed out to unveil a complex enzyme’s tertiary structure in 3D space. The reaction pathway flowed seamlessly along as the enzymes catalysed the destruction of numerous fragile neural connections.
‘Very pretty,’ said Deirdre, drolly. ‘I hope you’ve spent as much time on the research as you did on the computer graphics.’
Selene blushed, as a nearby technician struggled vainly to conceal a grin.
Deirdre pretended not to have noticed, turning towards the holoprojection, which was beginning to repeat the animation. ‘So is this just a cure for Alzheimer’s and diseases like it, or is it also some sort of memory reinforcer?’
Selene was momentarily impressed at Deirdre’s deduction, until she remembered that she had been an expert in biology and genetics. Selene paused the animation, stopping an enzyme in the process of folding itself together from its fractional charges and disulphide bonding sites.
‘Both. The former is obvious, but the latter should have some serious implications for those of us who are, um, older than others. Studies have shown that the brain is a remarkably versatile processing and storage unit, capable of operating even if half is removed. Certainly we expect that the application of this reverse memory fragmentation drug, or RMF, should restore the major memories of individuals with few side-effects.’
Just as Selene finished speaking, a small text message scrolled across Deirdre’s Glasses. ‘Nostra uniform amica sub control, nil dis turbare’ She smiled, and said ‘This sounds interesting. Keep me informed, Selene, I’m sure you understand the potential this drug has, so I’ll leave it up to you to assign resources to it. Unfortunately, I have a meeting to attend in a few minutes, so I must depart now.’
She made her way back towards the carriage platform, and saw the uniformed man peering into a dark computer screen, nodding along to another scientist’s commentary. His coat lay folded neatly on another chair, along with his wristpad. Stepping into the awaiting carriage, Deirdre shook her head to herself. Turning around, she saw the man stand up to crane his head towards some object the scientist was pointing at in the window. For a moment, she watched him looking through the window, then sat down as the carriage accelerated. Still gazing in the same direction, she scrutinised her reflection in the carriage window, wondering how long it had been since she’d had such a challenge as the approaching one. And wondering whether she was ready for it.
The carriage whistled quietly along, suspended a few inches above its tracks. A screen panel switched on, showing a view of Planet from space, as a voiceover described the upcoming weather.
The Alatesian forests bordered the great Northern ocean, close to the western edge of Believer territory. In a stroke of foresight (or of luck, as historians from other factions took it), the land had been seeded by air with ‘pioneer’ species, shortly after Landing. After decades of being left alone, the pioneer species of lichens and mosses colonised the alien land, wearing down rocks and producing small quantities of soil and humus. Hardy grasses and weeds took their place, extending roots deep into the rock, dying, reproducing and dying again, slowly increasing the amount of soil that was accumulating.
Around this point, three decades after Landing, the Believer colonists from the nearby city of Far Jericho began to take notice. The process of the ecological succession was sped up artificially using the introduction of genetically altered plants and other natural species whose seeds had been stored in the Unity. Eventually, shrubs and bushes dotted the landscape, as Believer biologists tried repeatedly to introduce trees. Another two decades saw the first proper group of trees, called optimistically a wood. Now, almost a century after Landing, the wood had grown into the Alatesian forests. Careful tending by the citizens of Far Jericho and the newly established city of Alatesia had produced an admirable result. The rest of Planet marvelled at the vast expanse of greenness and even the Gaians were rumoured to have said it was a ‘pretty good effort, for the Believers.’
It was also a suitable location for any complexes that the Believers would, if pressed, admit the presence of, but nevertheless didn’t want to attract any attention to themselves.
Sina Demri walked contentedly out of her house, casually slinging a rucksack over her shoulder containing her Scrolls and data crystals. The sun had seemed to have risen earlier this morning, casting rapidly shortening shadows against the trees. Still, it wasn’t much of a disturbance to her regular routine. All Believer citizens were encouraged to take up some kind of routine, keep in a closely knit community where they could share their joys and sorrows. So, for six days of the week, she rose early, prayed outside behind the house with her husband, walked the same path to the same building, ate at the same restaurant and worshipped God with the same people at the same chapel in the evening. Sina didn’t have to do this, but there wasn’t much point in doing anything else. She was far too happy with the life she had now. It was a perfect, idyllic life where her devotion to her religion gave her strength and confidence.
When the UN commissioned an investigation into the allegation that the Believers were denying their citizens access to the planetary datalinks, they were dismayed to find that almost complete access to the planetary datalinks was afforded to citizens, including the popular Morgan Data Networks. The vast proportion of the Believers simply ignored them though, preferring to watch the Believer news networks. The UN investigators noted that a common pastime of the Believers was expressing their sorrow to each other at the unfortunate situation of all their fellow humans on Planet who continuously immersed themselves in sin and lies via the media. Sermons often pointed out civil unrest in the cities of other factions (invariably those of the Morgan Conglomerate), urging the congregation to treat those lost souls with compassion. After all, not everyone on Planet could be expected to stay away from uncaring, uncharitable and most damnable of all, ungodly ways.
The Believers even had proper democratic elections, although some had suggested phasing them out since Sister Miriam Godwinson was always voted in unanimously. Her intense charisma and frequent tours of the Believer cities ensured it. Other faction leaders looked on enviously. In the past, entire countries had been indoctrinated into a particular line of thought, but their citizens had never enjoyed it this much. In any case, the system of government usually ended up collapsing in on itself after a short while. Sister Miriam, however, had managed to maintain the Believers’ position as a major power on Planet for over ninety years, and it didn’t seem as if it would be ending any time soon. Religion was one of the most powerful forces in history, and Miriam appreciated its capabilities in controlling individuals.
So Sina Demri whistled a hymn as she adjusted the position of her rucksack, ignorant to the way in which her religion was twisted to control and predict her behaviour, and ignorant to that fact that she had already been wrenched out of her routine.
Sina settled back into her chair, gazing at the holoprojection in something that almost seemed like awe. She’d finally found it. Lord, I am thankful that you have chosen to give me this honour, this singular gift. Surely you are unsurpassed in your wisdom and charity.
She still couldn’t believe it, so she initiated an error-checking software agent to see if she wasn’t receiving incorrect data, and the short wait would give her the opportunity to have a break. Dimming the holoprojection, she decided to take a walk around. Emerging from her small cubicle, identical to a dozen others in the same room, she stood up and slipped some shoes on.
The other workers remained crouched over their computers, whispering quiet commands to their microphones. Tying her shoelaces, she bent slightly to try to look in to the cubicle opposite hers, but could only catch a fleeting glimpse of some spectrographic analysis program. They weren’t encouraged to talk to each other about their work, and the high walled alcoves ensured privacy. Sina wasn’t quite sure why this was necessary; it wasn’t as if her work was particularly significant or secret. Strange, but it she didn’t worry about it.
One of the advantages of the location of Alatesia was that it had an abundant supply of wood, giving the city a unique character. Unlike the computing and projection equipment present in the spacious room, the furnishings and decorations were distinctly old-fashioned, with wood partitions and subdued paintings adorning the walls. Soft full-spectrum lights gave the impression of proper sunlight, and wide corridors between the cubicles guaranteed a minimum of inter-staff chatting. A wide spiral staircase led from the end of the room to the main reception area above. The weather must have deteriorated since the morning. Normally on a sunny day the curved wall of the staircase would be lit up brightly.
‘You are privileged to have been chosen to work here at the Alatesia branch of the central government monitoring organisation. Here, you have access to the most up to date technology the Lord’s Believers can offer, as well as a perfect working environment.’ That was what she had been told, when she had arrived here to work over two years ago. Not only did she feel privileged, but also daunted. The feeling dissipated, however, when she became engrossed in the complexity of her work.
At the end of the room hung a painting of the Believer’s Cathedral in New Jerusalem. Facing it, she gave a silent prayer of thanks, and then walked between the rows of cubicles, padding on the deep carpet, to the adjoining Relaxation Area. A few workers from various different rooms of the organisation sat there, reading Scrolls or watching a news holoprojection. The silence of the work room permeated this area as well - everyone inside simply had the sound broadcast to their earpiece headsets. She recognised most of the people there, but only personally knew two of them, both from the local chapel she visited. Both were also watching the holoprojection with stricken faces. Some sort of accident, it seemed, the anchorman’s lips moving noiselessly alongside a picture of something burning. While tapping an instruction into her wristpad to activate sound transmission from the projector to her earpiece, Bralt, her supervisor appeared in the entrance which she had just passed through, signalling towards her.
Maybe he’d found about the results of the work she’d been carrying out, except his expression seemed far from joyful. Bralt didn’t seem angry, just simply resigned. Sina approached him with some consternation.
‘Sina, I need to have a word with you in my office. Come this way,’ he said, softly. They walked together out of the Relaxation Area, through another corridor into his office. In keeping with the rest of the building, it contained a mixture of low and high tech. A screen panel displayed a panorama of Mount Planet on one side of the oblong office, with a large bookcase on the other side. Most of the books sitting on the bookshelf were Alatesian-made in a small printing press across the city, but it was rumoured that Bralt, a Founder, had brought a few leather-bound books from Earth itself. Even when presented with an increasingly worrying looking situation, she still flicked her eyes across towards the bookshelf while Bralt sat down behind his table.
‘Please, sit down, Sina,’ waving towards a padded chair to her left. This was very worrying. Bralt did not ask people to sit down. They always stood up in his presence. Nervously, she sat down, becoming increasingly irrational, even though he’d said less than two dozen words to her so far. There was only one chair in his office for visitors, she noticed. What would happen if he had two visitors? She didn’t see any other matching chairs on the way there, did he carry it all the way up from the stores?
Sina blinked rapidly to try and clear her head. Bralt looked down at a Scroll sitting on his desk, completely uncovered except for a statue of the Mother Mary. Please Mary, what is wrong? Forgive me for whatever I have done. Please let it not be Ersal, please not him.
‘Sina, I received some saddening news several minutes ago from New Jerusalem. Under normal circumstances, I would wait to gather more information, but I felt you would want to know immediately.’ The Founder slid the Scroll to the side, clasping his hands together on top of the desk.
‘While your husband Ersal was working in the aerospace research centre in Far Jericho, an accident occurred with one of the prototype craft they were testing. It seems that Ersal and the rest of his team were onboard the craft when a power failure caused a massive systems malfunction. The craft lost propulsion, and crashed shortly afterwards.’
Sina gripped the arms of her chair tightly, licking her lips. This couldn’t have happened, not now.
Bralt carried on. ‘I’m sorry, Sina. When the recovery crews reached the craft, they found no survivors. Your husband was killed in the accident.’
A look of disbelief spread across her face as she shook her head unconsciously. An accident? Ersal wouldn’t have gone up in the craft like that, not when there was a power failure. Bralt’s words still had not registered in her mind.
‘Sina.’ She tried to focus, and concentrated on his face, radiating compassion. ‘I know that this is hard for you to accept, but we must stress that it was an accident.’
She bowed her head, resting her hand against her forehead, sobbing quietly.
‘God moves in strange ways that are beyond the comprehension of men, Sina. Please, Sina, take solace in the fact that this was a part in His greater plan. Remember that Ersal has risen to the heavens, as he always wished to on this Planet. Remember that, Sina.’
Sina cried out loudly, curling up and panting heavily. Why did it have to happen to her? Why now? Why so early? It wasn’t fair! What did she do to have been punished so harshly by the Lord?
Bralt rose from his chair and crouched in front of her, handing her a handkerchief he handily had ready in his pocket. She took the handkerchief with a shaking hand, and slowly wiped her eyes.
‘All of us here, we are all here for you, Sina. The Lord’s Believers are never alone in their sorrow. We feel your sorrow. We understand,’ he said, taking her hands.
She wanted to shout out that no-one understood, no-one could feel the pain she felt now. How could he pretend to know how much she had just lost in the past minute?
Apart from the gentle sounds from Sina, muffled by the carpet, the room lay silent, the panorama of Mount Planet fading away to reveal an image of a night sky strewn with countless stars. The statue of the Mother Mary sat on the desk, looking sadly towards the star of Earth, as Sina sat curled up in the chair, crying softly.
A week later, Sina was reclining on a deckchair in her back garden, watching the sun disappear below the canopy of tree tops. In her left hand was cradled a glass of orange juice, with ice cubes. No alcohol for the Believers. It was a beautiful sunset, the clouds above illuminated by warm orange light. Must be a lot of particulate matter up in the airstream for effects like that, she thought dully.
Just as Bralt had promised, all her friends and colleagues had been immensely supportive, smothering her in love and sympathy. It hadn’t really helped to ease the pain, though. Of course, she’d been given a few weeks off to grieve, as it was proper and right to do. One thing that constantly irritated her was that she was never left alone. Always there were friends in the house, helping out with cleaning or cooking. Whenever she went for a walk, the local chaplain would volunteer to accompany her. Or the neighbours, or someone from work, or her relatives. Or anyone. Perhaps they thought she was going to kill herself. It wasn’t unknown of, in the Believer society, but Sina had always felt that suicide was a futile way of retreating, giving up. No matter how bad it was, there must be something better than that.
If she was in any other faction, she could have sought oblivion in alcohol, artificial stimulants, drugs, or VR sensoriums. No such respite in the Believer society.
Matters hadn’t been helped by the fact that she lived in a small bungalow, which was just enough for two people, and crowded by any more than three. Between herself and Ersal, they could have afforded a much larger house, but there didn’t seem much point. They weren’t planning to have children for at least another decade or so, and if they bought a smaller house they could give more to charity. The bungalow had been assembled in a matter of days by automated robot crews and a foreman. With the increasing numbers of people migrating out of the cities into the ‘suburbs’ in Alatesia, the houses had to be semi-modular, by necessity. There wasn’t much to complain about, though. The modular house blended into the forest quite well, with a nice rustic feel to it. Even the timbers used to construct it had been taken from Alatesian trees.
Sina took a sip from her glass, idly tracing out lines in the dirt with her big toe. It was strange, how they managed to keep someone by her side without fail. Lately, they’d been people she hadn’t even heard of. Males, mostly. Under any other circumstances, she would have been attracted to them. Not now.
In seven days, she had not had any more than a few minutes to herself. So, earlier in the day, when she was sure that everyone was listening, she’d spewed out a diatribe of broiling frustration and anger, culminated in the screamed order to Leave Her Alone. Sina had been quite impressed with herself, she hadn’t had to make any of it up. She wasn’t surprised that no-one had initially followed this order, instead trying to find out What Was Wrong, How Can We Help? A few more shouting matches, a few more burned bridges that wouldn’t be rebuilt for some time (no matter the Believers famous forgiving spirit), and finally she had cleared the house out.
Still, she’d had more than a few calls on the wristpad from Concerned Friends. She turned the wristpad off.
At first, she had tried to pick up her reading on a book, but found she couldn’t concentrate. She’d wound up where she was now, looking at nothing in particular, thinking nothing in particular and just trying to calm down. Lethargically, she moved her head to look at the deckchair beside hers, trying to picture Ersal lying in it, wearing his ridiculous sunglasses even though it was far too dark to see with them. She smiled at the memory, but found she couldn’t remember exactly what he looked like, slouching back. Soon, she wouldn’t remember many details of him at all, but she would still feel as if there was something missing. The worst of both worlds. His death would lend the rest of her life with a bittersweet quality.
That was another thing. The Believers prohibited the use of the Amnase treatment, which had been ‘rediscovered’ only two decades ago. For religious reasons.
Sina hadn’t lost her faith in God. She didn’t want to know why her husband’s life had been taken, she just wanted to know what it was meant to achieve.
It was just as well, she thought, since she knew she wasn’t going to be told the circumstances of his death. The Founder had showed her blurred pictures of some kind of thin disc-like craft, taken at a distance, and then talked about impact velocities and the omission of parachutes or other safety equipment. Of course, Bralt had said, parachutes wouldn’t have helped at all. The descent was too quick, and the craft was at too low an altitude.
The sun was now fully below the tree tops now, the sky darkening rapidly. In response, the automatic lights, sensing that someone was still outside, glowed into life. Sina judged that it was probably a good time to get back inside. Nights in Alatesia were cold, summer or not.
Stepping carefully through the patio door, which closed itself quietly behind her, she heard a soft chiming from her wristpad. She had turned that off, hadn’t she? Padding over towards it, just before she reached automatically to silence the offending machine, she read the name of the caller. Now that was a surprise. He couldn’t have heard about the accident yet, seeing as he lived outside Believer territory. Feeling moderately happier, she tapped the playback button on the wristpad screen.
‘Hello, Sina. It’s Lalver here. I’m just calling to tell you that I’ll be passing through Alatesia tomorrow, so I was wondering if we might be able to meet up for a coffee or something in the city. Usual place? Give me a call if you can’t make it. Oh, and is anything up? You normally have your wristpad on all the time. Anyway, got to go now. See you tomorrow.’
Her brother appeared to be calling from an airport terminal in Unity’s Hope using his wristpad camera. Lalver had always struck Sina as someone different. She hadn’t really seen much of him while she was growing up, him being fourteen years older than her. After he finished the compulsory Believer schooling, he had promptly disappeared off to study in the University of Unity’s Hope, gaining a degree in theology and philosophy. The Believers didn’t particularly encourage their citizens to travel in case they picked up ‘foreign’ ways, but they knew that there would always be a small number who would do so anyway. Lalver was one of these unavoidable losses.
The last time Sina had heard from him, four months ago, he’d been staying in a residential area outside Serendipity, one of the smaller cities in UN territory, as a lecturer in the local university. Two years back, he’d finally won his appeal for full UN membership. She hadn’t known what to think of that at the time, but she took solace in the fact that he retained his faith, in some form or other.
For a minute, Sina had completely forgotten about the death of her husband. Her smile faded as she switched off the wristpad, wondering how she’d be able to manage telling Lalver the news.
The next day, the friends that had visited her had been more than willing to forgive her outburst. Strange, that, when most of them hadn’t even been present at the time. But they were delighted to see her happy, and felt that this visit from her brother would be an excellent way of cheering her up. For once, Sina didn’t even have to ask them to go away; they respected the fact that she would want to tell him the bad news on her own.
On her way to the restaurant, Sina found herself walking on autopilot. It was a shock to be in the city again, surrounded by so many people, the towering office blocks and cathedrals in direct contrast to her existence in the forest. And there was another thing. All the people walking by her seemed so happy, so unconcerned of any accident that might befall them. Had she really been like that before Ersal’s death?
She stopped to look at one of Alatesia’s older cathedrals, built in the same style used in the Renaissance. Children and tourists mingled around outside, talking loudly and laughing. Everyone was with friends, or in a group. There weren’t, she noted, any loners. By surrounding you with a protective cushion for your entire life, Believer society wasn’t much use when you suddenly became alone. It wasn’t the same when you knew your husband was going to die - when he had some sort of fatal disease, or was dying of old age. Sina could have accepted that, but she couldn’t accept having her husband ripped away.
She realised she had been standing there for some minutes when a little boy pointed her out to his mother. Hurriedly, Sina snatched her vacant gaze away from the cathedral, and forced herself to start moving to the meeting place again. She knew that if she had stood there, that mother would have come over and asked her what was wrong, how could she help. Sina couldn’t take any more of that.
The grand plazas and cathedrals gradually made way to smaller, two storey buildings. This was really the tourist district, but Lalver had always preferred it to central Alatesia. ‘More intimate,’ he had laughed, ‘if you can believe that.’
It was quite amazing, the way that a city as large Alatesia had grown up in less than a century. She had been told by a visiting Founder that it wasn’t much compared to the cities of Earth like Paris or New York, but it seemed fairly imposing to her. True, neither of the Earth cities had the benefit of automated construction vehicles or semi-sentient AI robotics, but nevertheless, it was an achievement. Labour intensive jobs such as infrastructure construction, road surfacing and paving could all be trusted to a group of robots under the supervision of a foreman, and the results would contain far fewer mistakes than if it were left to humans.
The Founder had assured her, though, that it was much cleaner and picturesque than any Earth city he had seen.
Sina arrived at the restaurant slightly earlier than the time they had arranged. It was a small restaurant, serving ‘French cuisine.’ She wasn’t sure exactly where France had been on Earth, a small country among hundreds crammed into Eurasia, but the food was reasonable, as were the prices. She spotted him behind a stone pillar sitting in the open-air section. He was studying a menu while talking to some friend he hadn’t told her about. Typical of Lalver, she thought.
She looked at him closely, trying to see if he had changed since the last time she had seen her. Lalver Fredrickson was stocky man, with perpetually uncombed brown hair. His bright squinting blue eyes, hiding behind some glasses appeared to be darting from object to object, to check if it held anything of interest. Wearing a pale blue T-shirt and light trousers, he appeared to be alert and enjoying the company of his friend. Lalver looked as if he’d just had a treatment of the longevity drug - his appearance was at odds with a person in their physical forties.
The man sitting next to him looked the same age as Lalver, but she had a feeling that he hadn’t taken the longevity drug, putting his age at around the late twenties, about as old as her. Unlike Lalver, this man was leaning back in his chair, utterly relaxed. His face seemed to contain a well-hidden contempt for his surroundings, as if he treated his surroundings with condescension. There was nothing this person was afraid of that was currently anywhere near him. Probably an overconfident UN security agent, Sina thought dismissively. Lalver had certainly made some strange friends in Serendipity.
Lalver’s friend looked up, probably for a waiter, and spotted her. He quietly nudged Lalver, whispering something. Lalver’s head snapped around, staring at her, and a wide smile broke out on his face.
‘Ah Sina, over here! Come and join us.’ Lalver whispered something back to his friend, and took off his glasses, polishing them with a napkin. Sina navigated her way amid the tables and sat herself down opposite Lalver.
‘Let me introduce my friend, Philip Maxwell. I met him at Serendipity University, he’s part of UN observation,’ said Lalver enthusiastically. UN observation, thought Sina flatly, giving the mental equivalent of a sigh. That meant UN intelligence.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said, the words forming without engaging her brain.
Maxwell nodded. ‘Likewise. I was just telling your brother how much I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.’
Sina gave Maxwell a long steady stare. Without taking her eyes off him, she said ‘Okay Lalver. What’s going on here. I don’t think you’re just ‘passing through’ Alatesia, so soon after Ersal’s death.’
Lalver drummed his fingers on the table nervously. A passing waiter decided on a whim to see whether they were ready to order, but seeing the tense scene, he glided smoothly away. Lalver glanced at Maxwell.
‘Miss Demri, we have reason to believe that your husband’s death was not accidental. As you can imagine, I cannot talk about it here, but -’
‘Who is we, Mr Maxwell? The United Nations?’ asked Sina, angrily.
‘Yes, the United Nations. Look, let me finish. All I want to do is to talk to you for half an hour - just half an hour - and then it’s up to you to decide what you want to do. If you want, we’ll leave you alone. But this is for your good,’ said Maxwell, frowning.
Sina sat there, muscles constricted, watching the other diners at the restaurant and the passers-by on the road for a few moments. She took a menu, and carefully unfolded it in front of her.
‘You can have your half hour, Mr Maxwell. But tell me, what do the United Nations get from this? Am I to believe that you are talking to me out of the goodness of your hearts?’
Maxwell smiled mirthlessly. ‘No. What we get out of this, is being able to talk to you.’
Lalver looked at each of them in turn, judging their conversation to be over. He turned in his chair, trying to catch the attention of a waiter, while Maxwell and Sina studied their menus intently. He entertained the notion that it had been a mistake to listen to Maxwell, then decided it was, as he had said, for the best.
They ate their meals, Sina and Lalver talking about inconsequentials. Maxwell watched them wordlessly, later switching on his wristpad to read the news.
The craft was clearly a prototype, by the look of its interior. Miltech hardware lined the walls, with small holoprojectors placed at strategic points. Completely circular in shape, the bridge of the craft had a slightly arched ceiling, and a concave depression in the middle of the floor, filled by a floating globe detailing their exact location and systems status.
Spaced equidistantly around the floor were organic-looking acceleration couches, all twelve of which were occupied by suited and helmeted cosmonauts, wearing the shining cross of the Believers Emblem on their shoulder patches. The couches appeared to have curved walls that could enclose the cosmonaut completely, although it was not apparent what purpose they served.
Sina stood, leaning against a wall, watching the holoprojection closely. Flashing words appeared at the bottom of the screen, reading, ‘Encrypted voice transmission intercepted. Decryption commencing… Relaying…’ Sounds were added to the projection.
Ersal’s voice came first, ‘…check out fine. Our velocity?’ Ersal’s couch was highlighted by the projection, captioned by the words ‘Ersal Demri, Shining Star (Lightcraft) Project Supervisor’
The cosmonaut opposite him spoke. ‘One-twenty klicks. Solar cells operating at 90% capacity, ionizing electrostatic engines working within parameters.’ The projection identified him as Paul Newall, Propulsion Engineer.
‘Sounds good. We may just get out of this one, if we can -‘
‘Sir, base control is hacking through the blocks we placed on the ground-based laser. We don’t have much time.’ Andrew Renoir, Interface Specialist.
Ersal looked pained, then glanced down at his wristpad. ‘Paul, how much time before we can switch over to the MHD?’
‘Should be soon… OK, the microwave transmitter has powered up and locked on. Fifteen seconds until ignition.’
‘Initiating g-dampening submersion fluid. Standby,’ intoned a synthetic voice.
The walls of the couches sealed up, and began to fill with some kind of transparent fluid. The image inside the craft filled with static, and was replaced by an outside view.
The lightcraft had been flying with its edge as its leading surface, but now it tilted so the disc was flying straight into the air, flat side first. More flashing words appeared on the projection. ‘Shining Star switching to MHD propulsion. False-colour representation of microwave radiation applied to image.’ A velocity counter appeared at the top right, labelling the speed as 50 m/s. Abruptly, a wide blue beam stabbed down from the sky, hitting the entire diameter of the craft. The blue light was focused down to a blinding point just below the underside of the craft, and the velocity counter rocketed up by 600 m/s every second. After three seconds, the lightcraft was at Mach 5, and still accelerating.
‘Ground-based laser online… Locking on… Tracking… Firing.’ A searing red beam erupted from somewhere on the surface of Planet below the lightcraft. In a second, a hole was punched through the disc, and the entire craft exploded.
Lalver turned the lights back on as the projection finished. Maxwell looked at her expectantly.
‘And that is supposed to impress me? Everyone knows that it’s easy to fake projections now, with the optical and DNA computers you have. I couldn’t even see their faces!’
‘It’s not supposed to impress you. I’d better tell you what it’s all about. Your husband was involved in constructing the Shining Star lightcraft prototype. Basically, it uses power in the form of microwaves beamed down from an orbiting solar power station to accelerate it into orbit. Very advanced, and very efficient. It was also highly classified.’
‘In such a high profile project, it is standard procedure for Believer Internal Security to monitor each member of the project, especially the supervisor. It turns out that your husband’s team were part of a… group within the Believers who did not agree with the way your society is run. His team were very talented, and managed to hide what they were planning from the BIS for some time. Unfortunately, they weren’t talented enough. BIS caught up with them as they were leaving for the New Babylon station, and you’ve just seen what happened,’ said Maxwell.
Sina considered this for a moment, then looked down at the dormant holoprojector.
‘How did you get all of this information?’
‘We have our informants within the Believer society. We are the United Nations, after all.’
It made sense. The United Nations were renowned to have an extensive network of observers across Planet, both official and unofficial. They would have the resources to pick up something like this. But something didn’t feel correct.
Shaking her head, Sina said ‘It doesn’t make sense. Ersal wouldn’t have just left like that. He would have told me.’
Maxwell gave Lalver a pointed glance. Evidently Maxwell didn’t want to do this all on his own. Lalver sighed, then said ‘Sina, the BIS intercepted all his communications to you, and used computer-generated imagery to impersonate you for your replies. That was one of the ways they figured out what was going on. Ersal certainly didn’t spell out his plan, but he made clear that he would be involved in some kind of operation with the Shining Star, and would be away for some time.’
‘I think he, and everyone in the Believer society, underestimate how extensive the BIS’ communications monitoring system is,’ interjected Maxwell.
Sina decided to let that one pass, for now. ‘So what do you want with me?’
‘You aren’t aware of the exact nature of your work, are you, Miss Demri?’ Maxwell didn’t bother to check if she felt this was the case, but carried on. ‘Communications analysis, radio telescope information feeds. Software agents looking for fractal patterns. The signals that you monitor are signals from Sol.’
‘For the past few years, we have had nothing from Sol. Just radio noise. The BIS has reason to believe that you discovered evidence for a coherent signal from Earth, and they want to know what it is.’
‘Why don’t they just search my computer records, then?’ asked Sina, who felt she knew where this line of conversation was heading.
‘Because you hadn’t actually located the signal. You were close to finding it, but not yet there. Only you know where it is.’
‘Right. And then, what a shame, my husband died just as I was going to find it,’ rejoined Sina sarcastically.
‘Sina,’ said Lalver quietly, ‘that recording we showed you was made over a week before you were informed of Ersal’s death. They knew that you were on the right track, but they didn’t want to upset you.’
Sina stumbled from her pacing, and sat down heavily on a chair in the hotel room they’d walked to after their meal. Over a week? That couldn’t be possible, they’d never do anything like that.
‘So why did they tell me at all?’
‘They had to tell you sometime, they couldn’t keep it covered up forever. I suppose it was just bad luck that they told you just when you’d practically cracked the signal location,’ said Lalver.
‘You’ve seen what your society does now. It drove your husband to extreme measures to try and escape, and then they killed him. It covered up your husband’s death for a week, just to get you to solve a problem. It lied about how he died. It impersonated you. It robbed you of your right to speak with him. Do you want this society to be the one that contacts Earth? The one that receives all their secrets, all their technology, all their knowledge to create weapons?’ asked Maxwell, harshly.
What did she have to lose? Sina knew that she didn’t have to tell the UN anything about the signal. She had the feeling that she was just rebounding from her husband’s death, but what Maxwell had just said made her uncomfortable. But she wasn’t sure. How could Sina know exactly what was going on? And to make such a decision, the decision that would determine the faction that would contact Earth and undoubtedly gain superiority on Plant, it just wasn’t fair that it had to be her.
Lalver looked at Sina’s face with searching eyes. Sina tried to avoid his gaze. Lalver wouldn’t have agreed to go along with this unless he felt it was right. Sina didn’t know him that well, but she had a feeling that, right or wrong, Lalver believed he was doing that right thing. The thing is, Sina asked herself, do I have faith in his belief?
She made her decision.