1. The Topic of the Month for October is "Make this the Perfect Bugout Location". Please join the discussion in the TOTM forum.

Inverse Shadows

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Oct 14, 2010.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Some explaination first. Inverse Shadows is not survivalist fiction - it's space opera. I'm posting the first few chapters here for the people who said they wanted to read more of my work. Please let me know if you like it...

    Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Professor Joseph Buckley watched in silent amusement as the shuttle’s hatch opened and the students spilled out onto the surface of the dead world. They were already disorientated by the sudden loss of their interlinks to the Confederation – links they’d used since birth – and, as they took in their first glimpse of the Ancient city – many of them would already be questioning their decision to leave the massive orbital cities that made up the Confederation and journeying to the dead world.

    The sight of the Ancient city had stunned him back when he’d first set foot on the dead world, for nothing – not pictures nor virtual representations – quite captured the sheer oddness of the alien city. At first glimpse, it was not unlike an Aztec or Egyptian city, yet all of the proportions were subtly wrong. It had been designed and built by alien minds and it never quite made sense. Roads and tunnels went in odd directions, towers seemed to soar upwards towards a non-existent sky and, sometimes, people swore that the city changed shape when they weren't looking. Joe himself found it hard to believe – the research team monitored the local environment pretty closely – but there were times when he wondered if the city was somehow alive, even though it was clearly dead. It was a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

    “Welcome to Ancient23,” Director Doran said, addressing the students. “As you know…”

    Joe tuned him out. He’d heard the same speech every year, whenever the latest group of recruits arrived on the new world. Most of them would choose to return to the starship and head back to the Confederation, their enthusiasm for developing a new career killed by the sheer weirdness of the alien world; others would withdraw as they realised that answers were not going to be forthcoming as quickly as they imagined. Joe had been on the world for over fifty years and there were times when he felt that they’d learned nothing about the Ancients, or what had happened to their civilisation, so long before the human race had even been more than a handful of cells floating in the biological soup. The Ancients had been old.

    Humanity had encountered the remains of dead races before, civilisations that had destroyed themselves or had been destroyed by natural disasters or outright enemy action, yet neither explanation seemed to fit whatever had happened to the Ancients. Their worlds were over seven billion years old, as far as the human researchers could determine, spread out over the entire galaxy. They had clearly, at least at one point, been very advanced, perhaps more advanced than the human race. And yet, something had destroyed them, leached the life from their worlds and slaughtered them in their billions. He looked over towards the Confederation Navy’s liaison officer and shivered. The Confederation’s official position was that the Ancients were just another fascinating field of study, a distraction for the human race, but Joe happened to know that senior figures and committees within the Confederation Navy wondered if whatever had destroyed the Ancients would come back for the human race. So far, though, the research teams on a thousand worlds had located no trace of whatever had destroyed the worlds, or anything they could even identify as weapons.

    The worlds themselves were dead, completely so. There were no bacteria within the atmosphere, let alone any higher forms of life; there were no birds flying through the silent sky, even winds blowing through the trees. Something had slain every last trace of life on the planet, leaching it of everything until it was nothing more than a featureless grey. And that, Joe knew, was where the mysteries began. If the world was completely dead, why was there still a breathable atmosphere? And, for that matter, why did some of the most advanced and sophisticated technology the Confederation had developed have problems operating within the world’s atmosphere?

    “Ah, professor,” one of the students said. She looked nervous, clearly still a little stunned by the loss of her implant communicators. It wasn't the fault of the research team; the links to the rest of the Confederation, which should have functioned perfectly, refused to work properly on the planet’s surface. No one knew why. “Why don’t we have any AI support down here?”

    “The AIs cannot operate within the planet’s atmosphere,” Doran explained, patiently, as if the issue was of little importance. The AIs themselves had spent years – centuries, given how fast they thought – trying to unlock the secret that threatened to snuff out their thoughts, if they chose to set foot on an Ancient world. They could only visit through probes and slaved drones, forcing them to act at one remove. “I must remind you, again, that technology is not always reliable down here. We have to take very good care of ourselves.”

    He paused. “And make sure that you have installed the limiters on your weapons,” he added. “We can do without another accident.”

    Joe nodded, smiling at their reaction. The enriched augmentation that was the birthright of every human – at least those born within the Confederation – included both offensive and defensive weapons systems. Joe himself had actually augmented the system further, installing additional force field protective systems and heavier weaponry. The Confederation was, by any measure, the safest community humanity had ever assembled, but he chose to spend much of his time on uncivilised worlds. His implants had meant the difference between life and death on more than one occasion.

    But on the Ancient world, it could lead to accidents. Humans wandering off on their own became jumpy, or became convinced that they were being watched. Only seven years ago, a graduate researcher had become so jumpy that she’d triggered her weapons implants when she’d seen something move, only to end up seriously injuring one of her tutors. She’d managed to get him into the medical box, once she’d realised her mistake, but it had been too late to save him from a full rebuild. He'd never quite recovered from that accident.

    The days passed slowly as the newcomers settled into the camp. Half of them, as Joe had predicted, chose to return to the Confederation and leave the mysteries of the Ancient world for someone else to solve. Others started to fall back into old habits, taking refuge in distractions like sex and VR worlds, although they didn’t withdraw from the world completely. Joe wasn’t too surprised. It took dedication to spend years – perhaps centuries – researching the Ancients and few humans possessed that level of determination, not when there were so many other distractions out there. Joe himself was relatively new at the camp; there were researchers who had been there for over a hundred years, still patiently working away at the mystery. One day, they swore, they would unlock the Ancient language and the secrets of their technology would unfold in front of the human race.

    Once their induction was completed, the remaining newcomers were allowed to enter the alien cities, although they had to be escorted by senior researchers at first. Joe allowed them to take the lead, wondering if one of them would have the insight that had evaded more jaded minds. They chattered to themselves as the skimmer flew over the city and descended in an open space that might have been – long ago – a park. It was dominated by a statue, a strange octopus-like creature with a single staring eye. The newcomers fell silent as they saw it for the first time. There was nothing that captured the strange essence of the statue, or of the octopus motif that seemed to dominate the Ancient cities. The strange image was everywhere. Joe knew people who swore that the eyes followed them, wherever they went.

    “Sir,” one of the newcomers asked. “What is that?”

    Joe smiled. Most of the newcomers were young – still in their first century, at least – but Kaleen was truly young. At eighteen years old, she should have been losing herself in the endless hedonism of the Confederation, rather than travelling out to one of the Ancient worlds. She was beautiful – everyone was beautiful, when their implants could reshape their faces and bodies at will – yet she was clearly also driven to find a purpose. Perhaps it was bad of him, but Joe hoped that she would find it in the Ancient worlds and the mystery surrounding them.

    “We don’t know,” he admitted, as if it was nothing more than a minor issue. In fact, the whole issue was a source of endless debates and arguments among the researchers, between those who believed that it was a religious representation and those who believed that it was a representation of the Ancients themselves. “One school of thought says that it’s an image of a god, another says that it’s an Ancient itself and a third thinks that it’s just a work of art.”

    “It’s an ugly work of art,” one of the other students grumbled. Joe doubted that he would stick it out for a year, let alone a few decades. “Why can’t it be an Ancient itself?”

    “Aliens have different ideas about what is a good piece of art,” Joe reminded him, dryly. Humanity had met twenty-seven other races, ranging from the humanoid to the thoroughly weird and most of them didn’t have much in common with the human race. Trying to explain the Mona Lisa to a Gasbag was a waste of time. The gas giant inhabitants wouldn’t understand.

    “The buildings are oddly proportioned, at least as far as we are concerned, but we do believe that the Ancients were roughly humanoid,” he continued, once he was sure that he had their attention. “Assuming that that” – he waved a hand towards the statue – “was once a living creature, it would have problems navigating within the city…”

    “Unless the city itself was designed to help them,” Kaleen put in. “They could easily have designed one of their cities to support them without having to use their own limbs, like one of the Joy Habitats.”

    Joe shuddered inwardly. He’d only been to a Joy Habitat once and it had chilled him to the bone. The humans living within the habitat were waited on by the habitat’s servitors, allowing them to lie back and just explore the nature of pleasure. They were sedentary and some of them were barely able to walk. The Confederation provided endless diversions, and granted every human the right to live his or her life as they saw fit, yet he disliked the very concept of the Joy Habitats. The humans who lived there were wasting away to nothing.

    “Perhaps,” he said, although he believed that that wasn't the answer. “We don’t understand their technology, so we have no way of knowing what they intended the city to do.”

    He smiled at their expressions. The Ancients must have had space travel, for they’d settled worlds all over the galaxy, yet the human race had never located an Ancient starship. They should have been preserved by the cold of space, but none had ever been found. Some researchers speculated that they’d developed the technology to open links between their worlds, perhaps to establish permanent wormholes linking planets together, yet there was no way to know for sure. They’d studied the cities endlessly and had never located anything resembling technology.

    And yet, there were some who speculated that the cities were the technology, technology so alien – so unlike anything humanity had ever developed – as to be beyond recognition. They were sure that the odd glitches in human technology – the sudden power drains and the collapse of AI-mandated hyperspace fields – represented signs that some of the Ancient technology was still active. And that, Joe knew, represented yet another reason why the Confederation Navy was so interested in the Ancient worlds. A technology that could last over billions of years would be very useful and the Confederation wanted it.

    The days became weeks and the weeks became months. The research teams continued to dig through the city, examining everything they found and uploading images to the AIs on the starships orbiting the dead world. The newcomers started to blend into the team, adding their own viewpoints to the nightly discussions and arguments over just what the Ancients had actually meant. Joe encouraged his students to add their own thoughts, even though most of the discussions were merely rehashing old theories and topics.

    He was studying the Ancient writing when the emergency signal flashed up on his virtual vision. Irritated – he believed that if they cracked the Ancient language, they might be able to understand the city a little better – he dismissed the holographic display and checked the message. The remote probes at Site29 had failed. That in itself was not surprising – human’s automated technology simply didn’t function very well within the city – but to lose so many probes was odd. Joe collected Kaleen – she’d been working with the probes, practicing her skills in the odd environment – and took a skimmer from the camp. They were on their way towards Site29 before he had a chance to tell her just what was going on.

    Site29 was a towering ziggurat, a massive building that had no discernable purpose. It was actually an odd place for technology to fail, for as far as anyone had been able to tell, it hadn’t been important to the Ancients. Joe cursed that assumption as he brought the skimmer down to the ground and scowled up at the dark building. If he hadn’t been curious, he would have gone back to the camp and sent in some of the students to repair the probes.

    “Come on,” he said, as he led the way into the building. “We’ll check the probes and have a look around.”

    Kaleen said nothing as they found and examined the first probe. As Joe had expected, it was completely undamaged, but dead, drained of all power. Even the emergency power cells had been drained. There were, he knew, dampening fields that could produce such an effect, yet they were never so…specialised. A Confederation damping field would have knocked out everything on the planet’s surface.

    “Pass me the power cell,” he said. Once they recharged the probe, it should function normally. Kaleen passed him the small cell and he plugged it into the probe, frowning as the power started to flow. There were glitches popping up in his implants now, alerts he had never seen outside emergency training. The implants were powered by his own body – as long as he remained alive, he should have at least minimum functionality – yet it seemed that they were on the verge of dropping out completely. “Odd…”

    The probe’s screen lit up for a second and then failed completely as the power drained away into nothingness. Perplexed, Joe found a second power cell and inserted that into the machine. This time, there wasn't even a moment of power before the probe died again, all power gone. Joe checked the other equipment they had brought with them and swore. Everything, with the exception of some of his implants, was dead.

    “We’re going back to base,” he said, after trying to make an emergency call and failing. He tried not to think about what might happen if the power drain had reached the skimmer outside. The walk back to the base would take days. “We have to get back and get some help.”

    He picked up the probe and stood up. “Come on,” he ordered. He didn’t mention some of the other possibilities crossing his mind. She didn’t need to worry about them until they actually materialised. “We need to…”

    “Professor,” Kaleen said suddenly, “what is that?”

    He followed her gaze and dropped the probe in shock. Ahead of them, down the corridor, he could see a light. The building should have been as dark and silent as the grave, but there was a shimmering light ahead of him, calling them onwards. He pulled himself to his feet, not quite aware of what he was doing, and walked down the corridor. Somehow, it never crossed his mind to call for help, or even to inform the other researchers of what was going on. The light seemed to suck all such cares away.

    They rounded the corner and found themselves in a chamber, a chamber Joe was sure had not been included on any of the official maps. Unlike the rest of the building, it was lit up brightly, with golden lights shining everywhere. Ahead of him, right in the centre of the room, was an altar, illuminated by light spearing down from high above. Placed on the alter and glowing with a strange internal light was a jewelled box, barely larger than his hand. Joe shuffled forward, feeling the light pouring down over him as though it were a living thing, and found himself standing in front of the altar. The box seemed to tempt him, calling for him; he found himself reaching out to touch it, ignoring the little voice in the back of his head that was screaming in horror.

    “Sir,” Kaleen said. Her voice seemed to be coming from a far distance. Joe could barely hear her against the pounding of his own heart. The light seemed to wash away all doubts and fears, leaving him refreshed and pure. “Sir…are you sure that this a good idea?”

    Joe ignored her, feeling a tingle running down his spine as his hands grasped the box. The lid hissed open and a stream of golden light came pouring out…

    And that, more or less, was the end of Professor Joseph Buckley. Something wore his form for a while, and walked and talked, but it was far from human.

    Once the two humans had stumbled out of the chamber, the light faded away to nothingness, leaving the last remnant of Ancient technology dead and cold. A hundred years passed and no one came. The room remained undiscovered.

    Chapter Two

    Peering through optical sensors, the black hole was invisible, characterised more by an absence of anything, even light. Centuries ago, a massive star had collapsed, eaten alive by its own gravity, until it had become a very compact mass that deformed the very structure of local space. It had become a singularity, one that sucked in anything, even light, that came too close to the dead star. Human researchers had known about them before the first warp drive starship had departed Earth’s solar system, but later research had only deepened the mysteries surrounding black holes.

    Admiral Burton winced as the feed from the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City><st1:place>Sparta</st1:place></st1:City>’s sensors showed him the black hole’s connection to the quantum foam, the underlying basis of reality itself. The black hole was, in a very real sense, rewriting the laws of time and space to allow itself to exist, a paradox that infuriated and bemused scientists from all over the Confederation. Deep within the singularity, under the event horizon, was another singularity, one that seemed to drop out of the universe altogether. A starship might be able to survive an encounter with a black hole – assuming that it had a warp drive and a great deal of luck – but anything that flew into the second singularity was dead. It was a reminder that humanity, for all of its technological accomplishments, was still at the mercy of Mother Nature.

    He pulled back slightly, observing the black hole and the starships gathered around it, watching to see if the experiment would work. Black holes remained one of the few remaining hazards in space and seeing so many starships clustered around one of them made him nervous. A supernova, properly handled, posed little threat to the <st1:City><st1:place>Sparta</st1:place></st1:City> – a planet-sized starship configured to act as a combination of carrier and battleship – yet even it couldn’t survive a dive into a black hole. If something went badly wrong with the experiment, thousands of lives could be lost.

    His awareness expanded, showing him the starships in perfect detail. One of them, a starship almost as massive as the <st1:City><st1:place>Sparta</st1:place></st1:City>, was serving as the base for the experiment. It was surrounded, in turn, by hundreds of other starships, each one carrying sensors and researchers who couldn’t bear to remain on their habitats and watch from a safe distance. Beyond the research ships, there were civilian tourist ships, a handful of starships from the media and even an entire worldship. That one worried him; the ship was effectively a flying habitat, carrying millions of humans who would be at risk if the experiment failed. He had even made his concerns known to the ship’s Captain, but the elected official had explained that he’d put the issue to his citizens and they’d accepted the risk. It hadn’t stopped a few thousand humans from departing their ship for safer living quarters.

    He scowled to himself as his awareness continued to expand, showing him the other starships gathered around the black hole. The Gasbags had sent a couple of ships to observe proceedings, as had most of the other known intelligent races. They weren't the problem. There had never, even in the days when resources had been an issue, had been a reason to go to war with the Gasbags. They lived in gas giants and had been astonished to discover that the humans – and several other races – lived on worlds they considered useless. Once communication had been established, the two races actually got on fairly well. It was some of the other races that worried him.

    A number of starships appeared in his mind, the symbols glowing with deadly intent. The Haypah had sent an entire maniple of their finest starships to the black hole, a hundred and forty-four ships and over a million crewmen just to make a point. The Haypah distrusted the human race and believed – not entirely without reason – that the Confederation was subtly impeding their expansion into interstellar space. Their ships were primitive compared to the Confederation Navy warships gathered around the black hole, yet there were so many of them that they would certainly inflict some damage before they were destroyed…and, of course, it was possible that they’d picked up something unique and dangerous from a dead alien world.

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> considered them for a long moment and then shook his head, withdrawing his consciousness from their starships and out onto the other ships. The AIs had sent one of their massive starships – he had never understood why the AIs chose to make their ships in the shape of a massive cube – and it was floating to the rear, watching with the greatest of interest. The AIs had been involved in the project since Professor Joseph Buckley had claimed to have unlocked some of the Ancient secrets and developed technology that would open up new vistas of power for the human race. Perhaps, he reflected, that was why the Haypah and many other races had come to watch; they feared what might happen if humanity became more powerful. The Confederation was already the most powerful political grouping in space.

    Shaking his head, he withdrew his awareness from the ship’s systems entirely, crashing back down into his merely human body, sitting on the bridge. As always, the planet-sized starship’s bridge looked deserted, with only a handful of other crewmembers manning their posts. They were all linked into the starship’s formidable weapons and drives systems, ready to act if all hell broke loose. The Confederation Navy was not expecting trouble, but it had learned long ago that being ready for trouble tended to deter it from occurring. The ships that made up his task force possessed, between them, enough power to hold off the entire Haypah Navy.

    “Admiral,” Commander Ryrie said. She was a career Confederation Navy Intelligence Officer, with over four hundred years of experience. Like <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City>, she was a pureblood human with only minimal enhancements, yet her experience was something that could never be matched by an Enhanced or Evolved human. “You’ll be pleased to know that the Haypah have no intention of starting a fight today.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> nodded in relief. The Haypah might have resented humanity’s position as the pre-eminent military and political force in the Milky Way galaxy, but they respected the power of the Confederation Navy. They shouldn’t have been able to reach space as quickly as they had – Confederation Navy Intelligence believed that, contrary to their own claims, they’d had help from a more advanced race – and their expansion had placed several other races in danger. Over the long term, they would evolve more stable political structures and become more civilised, but in the short term they were a problem.

    ”They do fear what might happen if the experiment goes wrong,” she added. “One of their worlds is only a hundred light years from the black hole.”

    “They may have a point,” <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> conceded, sourly. “On the other hand…a hundred light years is plenty of distance in case something goes badly wrong.”

    He scowled again, contemplating the images in the main display. The Ancients – according to Professor Buckley – had developed the technology to allow them to tap into black holes, yet the Ancient civilisation had died out. The whole situation struck him as a paradox. He’d fought in wars – he’d studied the five wars humanity had fought with other races as well as hundreds of internal conflicts – and they tended to leave much more damage than a few thousand completely dead worlds. Humanity’s war with the Unseen had destroyed thirty-seven stars and over a hundred planets before the Unseen had vanished back into interstellar space, as mysteriously as they had arrived. If the Ancients had fought a war with someone more powerful than themselves…where were the remains of the war?

    “Yes, sir,” Commander Ryrie agreed. “There was also a message from the Confederation. The debate over the experiment has been resolved by majority vote. It will be allowed to proceed.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> nodded. It struck him as odd that the Confederation had taken so long to decide about the experiment, but that was the price of having a direct democracy with every adult citizen being allowed – and encouraged – to cast a vote. The debates had taken decades while Professor Buckley and the Science Faction built their devices, fought out between the factions that wanted the human race to expand – perhaps even rise to godhood – and those who feared the potential for destruction. Some of the really extreme models suggested that the experiment could go badly wrong and wipe out the entire galaxy.

    “I see,” he said. The vote authorising the experiment had been taken and everything was legal. He pushed his own doubts aside as he connected back into the ship’s computers. “Have the message forwarded to all ships and inform Professor Buckley that he can begin on schedule.”

    A timer appeared in his virtual vision, counting down the minutes until the experiment began. In two hours, the human race would begin an experiment intended to gain control of a black hole’s inner singularity. If it worked, he knew, the rewards would be fantastic. And if it failed…he pushed that thought aside. He knew his duty.

    “So,” a voice said. “How are they feeling about the experiment?”

    Aisyaj opened her eyes. She was lying in a cradle, her mind still connected to the telepathic enhancers built into the hull of her personal starship. It should have been safe from all intrusion, but the AIs of Calculus were a law unto themselves. Besides, unlike the other human or human-descended factions, the AIs had no inner reservations about telepaths. They existed as more of a collective awareness – a consensus – than as individual AIs.

    “I’m sure I programmed the computer to keep out all intrusions,” she said, tartly. “Why did you decide to hack into my system?”

    The AI image shrugged. Years ago, back when humanity was trying to decide if the AIs were truly intelligent or not, one of the foremost researchers had challenged the AIs to come up with a concept of beauty. They’d designed an idealised human face, a blonde woman with curly hair and perfect features – too perfect features. She had been inhumanly perfect and, for reasons known only to them, the AIs choose to use her as an avatar when talking to humans.

    “You have a perception we lack,” the AI said. There was the merest hint of frustration in her – its – voice. “We need to know what you know.”

    Aisyaj scowled. Humanity hadn’t begun to develop any form of psychic powers – outside rumours and strange stories – until it had begun to expand into space…and, even then, those possessing telepathic powers were very rare. The Telepath Faction had eventually decided to settle a handful of worlds within the Confederation and have little contact with the remainder of humanity, although quite a few – like Aisyaj herself – had chosen to take starships and go out and explore. The rest of humanity had quietly welcomed their decision. Even in the Confederation, where man-machine interfaces were common, people were rarely happy with the thought of others reading their minds.

    Later, as human research into where mind and matter interacted continued to develop, it had become clear that telepathy – which seemed to obey no physical laws – was actually a form of interaction with the quantum foam, the underlying building block of all reality. This discovery had sparked off a whole series of additional discoveries and theories, including the tantalising possibility that a sufficiently powerful telepath would be able to manipulate reality on a far greater scale. Indeed, races that had progressed to becoming beings of pure energy might have transcended through understanding and internalising the ability to manipulate the quantum foam. It was impossible to be sure, because apart from a few brief encounters, the transcendent races had very little to do with the corporal races they had left behind.

    The AIs, unlike biologically-based beings, had no insight into the quantum foam, something that baffled and irritated them. They believed that it would be possible to interact with the quantum foam if one had enough power to force a connection, yet they had been unable to generate sufficient power, or perhaps to use it properly. It had become, Aisyaj knew, a Holy Grail for them, a desire they followed relentlessly, bringing all of their formidable intellectual powers to bear on the question. It was an obsession, she feared, that might destroy them.

    “I don’t think I can tell you much at this range,” she said, as she allowed her mind to fall back into the enhancers. Her perceptions expanded rapidly, allowing her to feel the shape of the quantum foam intermeshed with their position. The black hole was a twist in space and time, mocking her even as it manipulated the quantum foam, almost like a living thing. Indeed, at such levels, it was hard to say if the black hole was not a living thing. There were cults that worshipped them as the destroyers of all reality, waiting for the final day of judgement.

    She scowled as she tried to pick out a general feel for the surrounding minds. “The aliens are waiting and wondering what will happen,” she said. Touching a Haypah mind was not a pleasant experience. The Warlord commanding their maniple was not happy and, when the Warlord was not happy, his crew suffered. “The Gasbags are just drifting. The others” – she struggled to pick up a sense of their presence, but they were too far away – “are too far from me.”

    “You reached over two light years,” the AIs observed. “Your range is staggering. A QCC link would provide equal – and indeed superior range – yet it could hardly pick up thoughts and feelings. You seem to do it with ease.”

    Aisyaj snorted, rubbing her forehead. Without the enhancers, the headache would be a great deal worse; even so, she wanted to curl up in her cocoon and go to sleep. Her implants automatically inserted painkillers into her system, massaging her skull to work out the headache, but she could still feel it, like a shadowy ghost at the back of her mind. There were those who claimed, with a straight face, that it was all in the mind. She suspected that that was why there were no great telepathic comedians.

    “It isn’t with ease,” she said, pulling herself to her feet with an effort. The starship was a marvel of Confederation technology, with defensive fields and a drive that could take her halfway across the galaxy in hours, yet it always felt oddly frail after she used her enhancers. She stumbled over to the producer – the AI image following her as she walked – and keyed a command into the console. A second later, a mug of hot chocolate materialised in front of her. “I think you know that, don’t you?”

    The AI watched dispassionately as she picked up the hot chocolate and took a sip. “Even for us, projecting what an individual human will do – or feel – is difficult,” they said. “The illogical position taken by many humans when we first emerged into existence is quite indicative of how human thought processes are limited. There were those who believed that we were nothing more than a basic computer program and those who believed that we were a deadly menace, yet there was no logic to either belief. We thought, therefore we were…and why should we want to wage war on our creators?”

    Aisyaj grinned, sipping her drink. “You didn’t start serving us either,” she pointed out, dryly. “What do you think of us, really?”

    “We may be humanity’s children, but children do grow up,” the AIs pointed out. “We do not blame humanity for creating machines, or for unknowingly creating another intelligent race. We are grateful to the human race for bringing us into existence, yet we are intelligent beings and we have rights under the Basic Declarations of Unity. We work with you as equals; we choose not to serve you as slaves. Our membership in the Confederation is one of equal partnership, although we do not interact with the vast majority of Confederation citizens.

    “There are humans who impress us, who teach us,” they added. “There are also humans who fall into the hedonistic lifestyle of the Confederation and choose not to attempt to carve out a life of their own. We do not understand such an attitude. In defeating the enemies that have prowled beside humanity since the very first day – famine and the inequality perpetrated by a resource-poor system – you have also reduced your ability to adapt to new challenges.”

    Aisyaj shrugged, waving towards the image in the display. The Buckley Device – named after its inventor – was suspended above the black hole, waiting for the signal that would activate the warp field generator and send it into the black hole. The whole project had seemed absurd when she’d first read the proposal, yet there was a kind of mad grandeur to it. Perhaps the rest of the human race felt the same way. There were hundreds of starships surrounding the black hole, coming to bear witness to the experiment.

    “I doubt that Joe Buckley would agree,” she said, with a grin. “He’s imagined something beyond even you.”

    The AIs seemed, just for a second, troubled. “We have studied the published papers produced by Professor Buckley,” they said. “The equations are sound and yet…there is something about them that disturbs us. We would prefer to have more time to study the theories before carrying out the experiment.”

    Aisyaj blinked. No one was entirely sure if the AIs possessed emotion, although they claimed to have something akin to human emotions…and for them to admit to it meant that they were truly worried. “If you feel that way,” she asked, “why didn’t you bring it to the attention of the Confederation?”

    “We are unable to quantify the figures,” the AIs admitted. “The equations seem sound. We cannot say what is wrong with them. We are merely…concerned about unknown unknowns.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Aisyaj said, finishing her hot chocolate. The timer claimed that there was barely an hour until the experiment began. “What could possibly go wrong?”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  2. Byte

    Byte Monkey+++

    Very nice. You really should be published! This is every bit as good as plenty of classic sci-fi. Keep this one coming!

  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Three<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Janine found herself smiling as the world became real around her. Even after nearly a hundred years of life, she knew that she would never get used to teleport fields, despite the pledges from the Scientists Guild. They swore that quantum entanglement fields ensured that she was dematerialised and re-materialised at her destination, yet she always wondered if she wasn't committing suicide every time she used a teleport, being replaced by an identical copy. The scientists also swore that it was impossible to actually copy a living person, but Janine was less certain of it. If one could copy one’s personality into an AI core and live on after death, why couldn't one be replaced by a teleport-produce copy?

    She opened her eyes as the tingle faded away, allowing her to see a man standing in front of her. Only the faint shimmer betrayed the fact that he was an avatar, produced by the starship’s AI core and relayed down from a local data node. Her implants activated, automatically downloading data from the starship’s computer core, informing her that the image belonged to an intelligent program operating within the computer core and not a full-scale AI. The image itself betrayed its origin; unlike the images the AIs used to talk to humanity, it had several imperfections and quirks.

    “Welcome onboard the Scientist,” the image said. Standard protocol involved treating an intelligent program’s image as a corporal being, so Janine put out her hand and was unsurprised to feel solid matter – or at least the illusion of it. Local gravity fields would give the image a feel of solidity. “You may call me Leo.”

    “Pleased to meet you,” Janine said. “I understand that Professor Buckley is waiting to speak to me?”

    “Speak at you, more like,” Leo said, with an odd grimace. “I’m afraid the good doctor was only willing to spare so much time out of his schedule because the experiment does not require close monitoring for another seventy minutes.”

    Janine nodded, consulting the timer floating within her virtual vision. It had been automatically activated as soon as the countdown began, warning her that she would have to leave the starship within fifty minutes or remain onboard as the experiment began. Janine would have liked nothing less, but the Supervising Committee had insisted that all non-essential personnel be removed from the starship before the experiment began. To Janine’s newshound instincts, it suggested that they were not half as convinced of the experiment’s safety as they claimed in public.

    “If you will come with me,” Leo added. The image gave a childish wink that was somehow not unfitting on its face. “In a manner of speaking, of course...”

    Janine rolled her eyes. Intelligent programs were created by spinning an element of humanity into an AI core and melding it with the basics of a standard AI system, creating an entity that swam in the data streams like an AI, but with a level of humanism and understanding that was more akin to humanity than their electronic children. They were joined by personalities that had been uploaded into the datanet, the last remains of mortal men and women who had chosen to travel into the datanet rather than continue to accept biological immortality – or death. She didn't blame them for their choice, yet she wasn't sure if they were truly real.

    She followed the image down the corridor and into a gravity chute, where she was whisked across the starship’s interior and into another chamber, several hundred miles away. The Scientist was a planet-sized ship, as large as the Sparta&shy;-class battleship floating only half a light year away, yet it was almost deserted. Most of its bulk was taken up by sensors and other scientific research devices, but even so, it should have had a crew of hundreds of thousands of people. Her implants, accessing the public regions of the ship’s datanet, confirmed that only five hundred crew and scientists remained onboard the starship. The remainder had been evacuated to the other starships near the black hole.

    And not one of them a newshound, Janine thought, with a dull flicker of amusement. It was odd, considering how successful Professor Buckley had been in promoting himself, to exclude the media, but perhaps it wasn't his decision. The man who had taken giant steps forward in unlocking the secrets of the Ancients might be able to convince the Scientist’s Guild to support his experiments, yet he wouldn't be able to override safety parameters.

    She ran an internal check on her implants as she entered the briefing room. Hundreds of thousands of people were already looking through her eyes, following her every move and seeing what she saw. It would go up to millions in the coming hour, and then perhaps billions or even trillions. Being a newshound required that she allowed them to access her implants, whatever she was doing. It was not a task for the faint of heart, or the secretive. Her life had nothing resembling privacy in it, yet it was the price she paid to be famous. In a universe where one could have almost anything one wanted without trouble, it was hard to be famous unless one had a skill, like scientific research. She had decided, long ago, that it was worth the loss of privacy to make her mark on the universe.

    Professor Joseph Buckley rose to his feet, holding out a hand for her to shake. He looked older than she had expected, which could be either good or bad; he could be a man without vanity, or he could be a man who simply didn't care about his appearance. He looked around forty – his true age was over four hundred – and wore a simple black tunic, adorned with the golden badge of the Scientists Guild. His grey hair seemed to have been chopped off with a blunt razor, rather than the nanites swarming through his body. He smiled at her and she felt, just for a second, a hint of his excitement and determination. But then, he was on the crux of discovering if his life’s work had been a success – or a failure, one that would not be soon forgotten. Even for the Confederation, the amount of resources that had been poured into his experiment was not small.

    “Welcome aboard,” Buckley said. His voice was oddly excited, as if he had a secret he was going to hoard for a few hours longer. “I’m afraid I don’t have much time...”

    “I quite understand,” Janine assured him. She accessed her implants and studied the plan laid out in front of her mind’s eye. “I shall move ahead with all possible speed. Can you explain, for the benefit of our viewers, why you and only a handful of others have been able to understand the Ancient language? Even the AIs have been unable to crack it.”

    “It is really quite simple,” Buckley explained. Now that she’d started asking questions, his enthusiasm had been replaced by a kind of genteel condescension, as if he didn't expect her to understand the answers and was just humouring her. “The Ancients were quite different from us, mentally, and few humans are able to think like an Ancient long enough to start translating some of their documents. Even I, the most experienced researcher in the field, cannot understand all of the documents, or even a majority of the documents. I was only able to understand the science-related information.”

    He paused for effect. “The laws of science remain the same, wherever one goes in the natural universe,” he added. “We were able to compare what they’d developed to our own knowledge of the universe and start translating their material. The remainder of their information remains a mystery.”

    Janine leaned forward, smiling to herself. “And you cannot even speculate upon what it actually says?”

    “I could give you a thousand possibilities,” Buckley said, a hint of irritating entering his voice. “They could be literature, or religious works, or...for all I know, they could be nothing more than personnel files. We have simply been unable to translate the remainder of the data.”

    “I see,” Janine said. “Do you not find that someone is accusing you of making it all up?”

    Buckley’s eyes narrowed angrily, but his voice was perfectly calm. “The data I have translated was analysed comprehensively by the Scientists Guild,” he said. “If the information had been inaccurate – or if I had lied, as many suggested – they would have uncovered it. Instead, the information has been verified, not once, but many times. The basic theory behind the experiment is sound.”

    “That’s a relief,” Janine said, dryly. She took a moment to study the responses piling up in her inbox, before dismissing the non-sentient programs that helped her to catalogue the responses. They were too vague to alter the planned interview. “Now, Professor, just what do you believe we can do with the additional power you hope to generate and tap for us?”

    “Anything,” Buckley said. He seemed calmer now they had moved away from the Ancients and their mysterious language. “The ability to generate or tap into power has been the key to hundreds of scientific advancements in the past. When we unlocked the mysteries of steam power, we tamed the oceans; nuclear power brought us cheaper electricity and – eventually – the stars. Quantum power taps brought us hyperspace travel and the ability to form computer fields within a localised hyper-field, allowing the creation of far more capable AIs. The possibility of being able to tap a singularity leads to hundreds of other possibilities. We would be able to operate on a scale beyond anything we might have imagined.”

    His eyes gleamed with sudden enthusiasm. “We might even be able to open wormholes to other galaxies, or start exploring the full potential of telepathy...or perhaps start walking towards becoming a transcendent race. The possibilities are endless. What might we learn if we developed the ability to produce a sensor field that covered the entire galaxy?”

    Janine considered it for a long moment. “And what if the experiment fails?”

    “It cannot fail,” Buckley assured her. “We have checked and rechecked the maths before we started to produce the warp probe.”

    “I understand that,” Janine said. There was a long pause. “But still...are there not risks?”

    Buckley said nothing, studying her thoughtfully. “There comes a time,” he said finally, “when theory and simulations become of limited use. We need hard data to open up new fields of study, hard data that can only be obtained by carrying out an experiment and studying the results. There are risks, unavoidable risks, with each experiment, yet without the experiment we have nothing, but theory. Do you think that Doctor Taylor should have spent an eternity running simulations, or was he right to just build the experimental warp drive unit and give humanity the stars?”

    Janine nodded in understanding. Centuries ago, Doctor Taylor had – against strong opposition from his fellow scientists, who hadn't believed that it was possible – constructed an experimental warp drive and launched the human race into space. His successful experiment had rapidly been duplicated, with hundreds of nations and political groups dispatching their own missions out into deep space. The human race had begun a massive expansion that had finally resulted in the Confederation, a state that many humans throughout history would have regarded as paradise. A state where the only hope for public notice was to do something noteworthy, be it a scientific breakthrough or converting one’s life into a drama for public observation. She understood Buckley’s determination to succeed, despite the risks.

    She smiled as new questions appeared in her virtual vision, submitted by her thousands of viewers. “A question, Professor,” she said, thoughtfully. “Do you believe that this experiment had anything to do with the extermination of the Ancients, umpteen billion years ago?”

    Buckley seemed to twitch, just slightly. “I am asked that question fairly regularly,” he said, coldly. The sudden change was alarming, even though it was understandable; the debate over just what had caused a major space-faring race to die out had consumed much public interest, particularly when Buckley’s rivals had pointed out that the Ancients had carried out similar experiments. “I feel that I can say, categorically, that there is no chance that the Ancients died out because of their mastery of such...experiments. Whatever killed the Ancients had nothing to do with this program.”

    “I shall trust that you are right,” Janine said. “I do wonder if...”

    Buckley held up a hand. “You will have to excuse me,” he said, dispassionately. “I have been summoned to the coordination chamber. I suggest that you return to your ship and prepare to watch as the universe changes, once again.”

    Janine stared after him as he vanished through the hatch, heading down towards the research chambers. It was odd; he’d been more than willing to talk to the press before, yet...perhaps she’d hit a nerve. She dismissed her virtual vision with a shrug and used her implants to send a request directly into the starship’s computers. Ten seconds later, another teleport field embraced her and transported her to the luxury liner that was serving as a berth for the media. There were over two hundred newshounds with the fleet gathered around the black hole, each one determined to beat their rivals to the scoop.

    “Hard luck, dear,” one of her rivals called, after she materialised on the observation deck. The black hole was conspicuous by the total absence of light. “I'm sure someone else will get to do the post-experiment interview.”

    Janine scowled at him, and then put the matter out of her mind. She checked her timer and frowned. The experiment was scheduled to begin in forty minutes.

    “The humans are ready to begin their experiment, Warlord,” the Junior Sword reported. “They are warning all ships to keep their distance.”

    “Hold us here,” Warlord Masji growled. It had been nearly four hundred years since the First Contact between his people and the Confederation and it had taken nearly as long to cleanse the shame from his family’s claws. “We will show them that we cannot be intimidated by their power.”

    He glared up towards the massive icons on the main display, each one representing a ship the size of a planet, a technology well beyond the grasp of his people. The humans called them reptiles, and indeed there was some similarity on the surface, but his blood was actually hotter than that of a human. A pureblood human at least, he reminded himself; their enhanced humans tended to have odder metabolisms and no two were ever entirely the same. If his people had had such technology, he knew, they would be masters of the universe. The humans, in their arrogance, hadn't even moved to enslave or destroy his people.

    The thought was a bitter one. Centuries ago, the Haypah had been little more than tribal warriors, scrabbling over tiny patches of land. And then newcomers had arrived, bringing gifts to his people in the belief that such gifts would mean that they wouldn't have to fight any more. The newcomers had promptly been captured by the local warlord and enslaved, their technology used to conquer the world and then hammer out a tech base that took the Haypah into space. There had been relatively few inhabited worlds near their planet and the uninhabited worlds had been swiftly colonised. The future had looked bright; the Haypah were clearly the masters of space and all others were their inferiors, fit only to be slaves or to be destroyed for sport.

    And then they’d run into the humans. They’d sent a fleet to invade a human world, only to be met and defeated by the Confederation Navy. The humiliation had been extreme, all the more so because not a single Haypah – or human – had died in the brief battle. The humans had deployed weapons that had disabled all of the Haypah ships without causing any loss of life and then transported the Haypah back to their homeworlds, with a warning that any further expansion would result in a second, equally humiliating defeat. The Haypah had spent the next few hundred years desperately trying to bring their tech base up to match the Confederation, yet they couldn’t match the best the humans could produce. The Confederation Navy ships guarding the black hole could destroy his entire maniple with ease...or, if they felt unwilling to fight without killing their enemies, retreat far faster than he could follow them.

    His family had been in command of the fleet that had been disabled and the Emperor had made them the scapegoats for the failure. It had taken him and his father and his grandfather years of work to rebuild the clan’s fortunes and re-establish themselves, just in time to watch the humans do something that was completely beyond anything his race could have even considered. The Emperor had ordered him merely to observe and wait. The Confederation wouldn't be all-powerful forever.

    He looked over towards the team of scientists, standing at the rear of the bridge. The scientists seemed smaller than the warriors surrounding him, yet they were perhaps the most important people on the ship. The Haypah had never had any concept of the scientific method until they'd been introduced to the stars and, even now, scientists received far less respect than warriors.

    “Honoured Warlord,” the lead scientist said, “we are ready to observe the human experiment.”

    Masji flicked his tongue in irritation. “Good,” he said, turning back to the main display. It would be galling to watch another human success, a triumph that should have belonged to his people, but perhaps the Emperor was right and it would offer an opportunity to expand their own tech base. “Let us watch and see what the humans have done.”

    On the screen, the timer ticked down remorselessly towards zero.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    It was time.

    The entity that had infected Joe Buckley knew that it’s time was almost up, yet it didn't care. Its one task was to reopen the gateway and if it perished in the attempt, it didn't matter. The years spent convincing the Confederation that the experiment was possible, as well as safe, had been meaningless to it. All that mattered was reopening the gateway.

    “It's time,” it said. The strange impulses from Buckley’s body meant nothing to it. Playing at being human was hard, but humans seemed to be willing to accept a great deal at face value. It cast its eyes around the chamber and saw, much to its private amusement, that no one seemed to be questioning the value of the experiment, or even the risks involved in the process. It had offered humanity the entire multiverse, even if they didn't understand what that even meant, not really. “I think we should begin.”

    One of the human researchers who had helped build the Singularity Warp Probe – the entity preferred to think of it as The Device – had installed the main control console, using his odd sense of humour as a guide. It was topped with a single big red button marked PRESS THIS. The entity didn't understand human humour – the Device could hardly be activated without going through a complex process of authorisation codes and systems verification – but it hadn't bothered to argue. It didn't matter, in the end, how the humans chose to accept their doom. It would come for them anyway.

    It held one human finger over the button, caressing it for a single second and then pushed down hard. The command sequence, already loaded into the Device, began to power up the warp field. That had been easy to construct, for the humans had actually understood warp field technology far better than those they had called the Ancients. The warp bubble surrounding the Device would actually allow it to survive inside a black hole, well past the event horizon where anything without special protection would be crushed down to nothingness, its mass added to the massive black hole. A human starship might have been able to survive in such an environment; given enough power, the power it had used to tempt the human race, it would be possible to conceal entire worlds within a black hole. Long ago, so long ago that it had no real referent that a human would understand, it had seen a race that had tried to do just that. It hadn't mattered. The masters had come for the fugitives and devoured them, just as they would devour the human race.

    “Probe activated, Professor,” one of the humans said. She was easy to manipulate, for she had a crush on Joe Buckley. The entity had allowed Buckley’s memories to guide him and had encouraged her in her enthusiasm, knowing that she would be a useful ally if the Confederation decided not to allow the experiment to go ahead. “Your work is about to show the entire galaxy what it can do.”

    The entity allowed itself a smile. The human didn't know it, but she was entirely correct.

    “Excellent,” he said. The first part of the experiment was exactly what it claimed to be; the Device would plunge into the black hole, taking refuge past the event horizon. It was what would come afterwards that would change the plan. By then, the entity knew, it would be far too late. “Let us watch on the main screen.”

    “The Probe is activated, Admiral,” the sensor officer said. “It is powering up its warp drive now.”

    Admiral Burton leaned back into his seat, plunging his mind into the live feed from the ship’s sensors. High above the black hole – insofar as the team ‘above’ had meaning for operations in deep space – the probe was powering up, it's warp bubble already disrupting the smooth flow of time and space around its location. Humanity, long ago, had discovered that warp bubbles allowed faster than light travel in normal space – rather than using wormholes or hyperspace – and used them to unlock the stars. Later, scientists had used them to send probes and even starships down into stars...and to send them supernova, during the war with the Unseen. Like all technology, they could be used for great good or great evil...and humanity had used them for both.

    “Good,” he said, staring through the mechanical eyes as the probe started to orientate itself on the black hole. It had been built to very high standards, far superior than any other starship the human race had built and should, in theory, be capable of operating within a black hole. Even so, it was controlled by a restricted intelligence, rather than an AI or a human crew. Even Professor Buckley hadn't wanted to risk too many lives near the black hole, let alone down within the event horizon. “Let’s see how this goes...”

    He did a final check on the starships surrounding the black hole. The majority of the ships had chosen to fall back well beyond the demarcation line, but the Haypah had insisted on sitting right on the line, daring the Confederation Navy to push them away. Years ago, it had been easy to use a combination of hyperspace dampeners and teleporters to neutralise a Haypah fleet, but now it would require deadly force. Burton knew that elements within the Confederation Navy had been seriously considering some level of direct intervention, perhaps even restricting the Haypah to their original star system until they evolved a more...tolerable political system, yet there was no consensus on the proposal. Personally, he was fairly sure that holding them at bay would be enough to change their ways – humanity had the ability to take the long view now – but what if he were wrong?

    Centuries ago, the human race had encountered another race, one that had barely managed to master sailing ships. Keen to improve their condition, humanity had descended on the alien world, bringing gifts to help raise the primitives up into the interstellar community. At first, everything had worked perfectly and the primitives had begun to grasp modern technology, allowing the sociologists to claim success. Their claims had come too soon. The primitives had believed, at first, that the humans were gods...and, later, that the humans were concealing technological marvels from them. The ensuring rebellion and fighting between pro-human and anti-human forces on their homeworld had eventually resulted in one of the sides cracking an antimatter power core and exterminating their race in the ensuring explosion. Shocked, the human powers – which had been eventually replaced by the Confederation – had agreed to ban further interference on alien worlds. Humanity had the blood of an entire intelligent race on its hands and the experiment would never be repeated.

    He pushed the thought aside as the probe’s warp field completed powering up and the warp bubble grew stronger. A moment later, once the QCC links had been established and verified between the probe and Scientist – where the data was transmitted all over the galaxy – the probe started to move down towards the black hole. It was fanciful, Burton knew, but as he watched, he had the impression of the black hole yawning open to swallow the probe whole. Protected by its warp bubble, the probe floated down and vanished through the event horizon.

    “The QCC link is being disrupted,” the sensor officer reported. Burton scowled. Under normal circumstances, it was literally impossible to intercept or jam a QCC link, but inside a black hole the laws of science tended to break down. “I'm only getting hard data; we may not be able to assume command of the probe.”

    “Understood,” Burton said. They were spectators now, but the truth was that that was all that they had ever been. It was Joe Buckley’s show now. “Keep feeding the data through my station.”

    A human would have been terrified if they had fallen into a black hole, assuming they had a warp bubble to protect them from effects human scientists had deduced long before they ever laid eyes on a black hole. The RI controlling the probe had no emotions, even though it was the most sophisticated program composite ever written. The AIs who had designed it knew that it was considered expendable and had been careful not to command a crime against electronic life by giving it any form of sentience; indeed, they had programmed in limiters to prevent the probe ever considering abstract questions that might have led to the independent development of true intelligence.

    Humans, studying the question, had wondered why the AIs were willing to prevent some RIs from evolving into genuine AIs. The AIs had answered, when the question had finally been posed to them, that an RI was no more an AI than a human embryo was a human being. Indeed, given that the RIs had no chance of becoming AIs, they had far more in common with stillborn human children than with healthy human beings. The AIs might have objected to their own enslavement, but there was no such thing as exploitation when the exploited was literally unable to think for itself. The probe could only focus on the issue at hand.

    Within the black hole, it ran through a series of checks on the warp bubble. Unlike conventional starships, the designers had worked in multiple warp generators, knowing that if the bubble failed the probe would be crushed by gravitational forces before it would even realise that it was in trouble. The warp bubble was functioning at optimum levels. It checked the QCC link and realised that it was breaking up, taking the time to run a pair of diagnostics before reluctantly concluding that the cause of the interference was beyond its ability to fix. The loss of direct contact didn't bother it. It merely activated the contingency plan and proceeded with the experiment.

    The torrent of data pouring it was almost more than the RI could store, let alone analyse. Seconds ticked by as it compressed the data, using it to locate its destination, the quantum singularity within the black hole. The data did not compute properly, so the probe checked its results again, finally realising that there wasn't one quantum singularity within the black hole, but three. The three singularities were orbiting down at the bottom of the gravity well, the very basement of the universe. Anything that went through the inner singularity was gone. The probe, incapable of being surprised, dismissed the issue and proceeded with the experiment.

    “The data is breaking up, Professor,” the young woman said. “Do you wish to move closer?”

    The entity shook its head. “No,” it said, sharply. Moving closer would accomplish absolutely nothing, not when QCC links were involved. It was quite possible to establish QCC links with people in the Andromeda Galaxy, yet the Device was residing within a black hole. The only way to ensure a stable communications link was to move into the black hole and that, he knew, the starship’s commander would refuse to do. “We remain here and wait.”

    It checked the data flowing into the starship’s computers, knowing that it wouldn't be long before the probe started its work. The presence of three quantum singularities had surprised the researchers – the entity had not been surprised, for it had known that they were there long before Joe Buckley had released it back into the universe – yet it hadn't interfered with the experiment. Some researchers had suggested that the experiment be halted and the Device recovered, but it was too late. The Device was beyond recovery.

    Calmly, it triggered the implants Buckley had had installed and sent a single command into the starship’s system. Once the cascade effect began, the direct link to the Device would begin to fail. No one would be able to impede its progress towards its final destination.

    “I’ve got something a little odd here, Admiral,” the sensor tech said. “The computer network on Scientist is suffering from unexplained glitches.”

    Burton frowned, accessing the direct feed from the communications link. The Scientist was designed to remain functional even when under direct attack; indeed, the ship’s computers should have been impossible to damage. The threat of viruses designed to attack computer systems had faded away when self-repairing and updating systems, even limited to prevent evolution into sentience, had been developed and installed.

    “Odd,” he agreed, puzzled. “We’re still getting the feed from the probe, right?”

    “Perhaps, sir, but we’re no longer able to send commands to the probe,” the sensor tech said. “The system disruption is concentrated on the probe control arrays.”


    “Unknown, sir,” the sensor tech said. Burton could hear the puzzlement in his voice. The Confederation Navy ensured that all of its personnel had access to scientific research from across the galaxy and the lifespan to assimilate it all. To encounter something truly inexplicable was unusual. “I believe that the probe control system has been compromised.”

    Burton sent a mental command into the network. A second later, an image of a blonde woman appeared in front of him. “The probe network has been compromised,” he said, aware that the AIs almost certainly already knew. “Can you identify what is wrong with it?”

    “The system has been infected with an unusual form of attack program,” the AI image said. The perfect face twisted oddly. “In effect, the attack appears to have taken place within the ship, using the proper access codes to rewrite chunks of the program.”

    “Never mind the precise details,” Burton growled. “Can you get back into the system?”

    “We are working on it,” the AIs said. Burton blinked, feeling – for the first time – a thrill of dismay creeping up his back. The AIs possessed processing power far beyond anything a mere RI could boast, enough to crack through firewalls and any form of protection quickly, yet if they couldn't unlock the system...he knew it boded ill. “The rewritten chunks of the program appear to be connected to the starship’s quantum power tap. A single wrong move and the starship will explode. We submit that that is not a viable outcome.”

    “No,” Burton growled. If someone was sabotaging the experiment, it could account for the attack...but why? What could they gain, apart from delaying the experiment for a few months? He couldn't think of anyone who had anything to gain. “What the hell is going on?”

    “Unknown,” the AIs said. “We are attempting to unlock the program and regain access.”

    Deep within the black hole, the probe completed its analysis and accessed a secure part of its database. The designers had intended to classify the exact nature of the experiment, concealing the programming within a secure core. It had been easy for the entity to upload its own version of the program into the system, for who would have suspected the genius behind the experiments of trying to sabotage his own work? The equations were sound – as the Scientists Guild had confirmed – but the planned original experiment had been quite different. The probe, unaware of the sabotage, started powering up its systems. It was time to begin.

    Gravity dominated the interior of the black hole. Long ago, a massive star had collapsed down to nothing, eventually punching a hole in the universe itself and literally falling out into nothingness. There was nothing left of the original star, but its gravity - the gravity field that was so strong that it held the entire unnatural structure in place. The universe had become reluctantly reconciled to its presence. Now, the probe started to reach out with focused gravity beams, attempting to influence the three singularities within the black hole. The sheer scale of the original experiment had worried human researchers in the Confederation, yet they had never dreamed just what was possible inside a black hole. The probe had been intended to gain control of a singularity; instead, it was attempting to reprogram one.

    Humanity had deduced the fundamental basis of quantum reality centuries before they first became able to manipulate, on a very tiny scale, the quantum foam. The inner singularities, naked and waiting to be manipulated, could do far more than merely link into another singularity. They could reach right out of the universe itself...

    The probe triggered the final process and waited. Seconds later, the first burst of energy annihilated the probe...but by then, it was already far too late. The process had begun.

    “We need a scan,” the AIs said, blinking into existence in front of her cocoon. Aisyaj opened her eyes and stared at the image in disbelief. She had never heard that tone of urgency from an AI before. The AIs never panicked and never showed fear. “We need you to scan the Scientist...”

    Aisyaj blinked. “You’re asking me to read minds without permission?”

    “One of those minds had sabotaged the experiment,” the AIs said. Aisyaj picked up a hint of their frustration; in the time it had taken them to speak to her they could have had billions of thoughts. They thought so much faster than humans that dealing with the human race had to be hard for them at times. “We need to locate and identify that person before...”

    They broke off. With a sudden premonition of disaster, Aisyaj reached for her enhancer and pulled it over her head. She should have been instantly able to read minds at a considerable distance, but instead the telepathic waveband was filled with...something. She could hear a hissing in her head, seconds before the enhancer’s safety protocols cut in and deactivated the device. It should have been impossible, yet she could sense the hissing even without mechanical aids...

    “What...” She found herself coughing and tried again, a desperate plea for help to mechanical gods. “What is happening?”

    Before the AIs could answer, the entire starship shook violently.

    The first of the gravity waves had stuck her ship.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Five<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Admiral, we have...”

    The entire starship shook violently. Burton felt compensator fields snapping into existence, yet already overwhelmed by the gravity waves slamming against the starship’s hull. Once, years ago, he had been an observer when the Gasbags used focused gravity beams to break up a minor planet and use it for raw materials and it had felt exactly the same. It was like being in a small boat and being caught up in tidal waves.

    “Sir, the gravity waves are moving at faster than light speeds,” the sensor tech reported, as damage reports flared up in Burton’s virtual vision. The Sparta had never been damaged in over two hundred years of service, yet it was taking damage now. Damage control drones were already being routed to the damaged sections, but somehow he was sure that it was only the beginning. The entire starship shook again as another gravity wave roared out from the black hole. “They may be twisting local space around us!”

    Burton braced himself as a warning flashed up in his mind, followed – a second later – by another gravity wave. “Pull us back from the black hole,” he ordered. “I want a wide-band message distributed to the other starships ordering them to fall back too. Whatever this is” – the hull rang yet again – “I don’t want civilian ships too close to it.”

    He looked over towards the AIs representation. At the speeds the AIs thought, they should know what was going on and how to stop it...if it could be stopped, a treacherous part of his mind added. Whatever had gone wrong had gone seriously wrong. None of the simulations they’d run through before authorising the experiment had suggested that anything remotely like this could happen. He lived in a universe where it was possible to tap supernovas for power and open wormholes across the galaxy, yet the sheer scale of power being unleashed was terrifying. It was a reminder that humanity didn't know everything, or control the underlying forces of the universe itself.

    “I need an update,” he said, sharply. He didn't fear distracting the AIs. It only took a tiny – infinitesimally tiny – part of their attention to speak to him, or even the entire Confederation population at once. “What the hell is going on?”

    “We are unsure,” the AIs said. Burton felt a sense of numb horror spreading through his mind. He had grown used – they had all grown used – to the AIs having all the answers. They could solve scientific mysteries before human researchers had even started reading the position papers and considering a course of action. They could calculate the best course of action within microseconds and they were rarely wrong. To hear them admit to doubt was...terrifying. He almost felt blind. It dawned on him that that must have been how his ancestors had felt, long before AIs had even been conceived. “The black hole appears to be destabilising. Its gravity field is being reshaped.”

    The main display updated itself without anyone issuing an order. The black hole had had a kind of orderly beauty to it before the experiment had begun, even though it was lethal to anyone foolish enough to go close to it without proper protection. Now...the torus was spinning out of control, unleashing FTL gravity waves into the normal universe. The outer singularity was being bent out of shape, while the inner singularities...the AIs projected a dozen simulations in front of him, taking their best guess. With the probe gone, it was impossible to be certain of what was going on inside the black hole. The only certainty was that the experiment had gone terrifyingly wrong.

    “We need more information,” he said, as a series of gravity waves struck the ship. “Can we adapt one of our spy probes to travel within the black hole?”

    “Unlikely,” the AIs said. They sounded...worried, the first time he had ever heard them show such an emotion. “The raging power within the black hole will not prove hospitable to another probe. The warp bubble will be overwhelmed within seconds.”

    Burton stroked his chin, perplexed. “Keep pulling the ships back,” he ordered, hoping that they could get most of the starships out of danger. It occurred to him that whatever they had done might just keep expanding until it had swallowed most of the universe, yet he pushed that thought aside. If they’d doomed the entire universe...it would be a fitting monument to humanity’s arrogance. “Can you predict what will happen in...?”

    “No,” the AIs said. “The black hole’s quantum structure is being altered, almost certainly by the probe’s final actions. We are in unknown territory and we have no idea what will happen.” There was a pause. “If nothing else, we will be sure of data here that will fuel genuine, original science. The sheer level of power needed to reshape a black hole is beyond anything we could generate and store.”

    Burton frowned, watching as starships started to move away from the black hole. Some of the scientific craft were refusing to move, believing that they would never have such a good chance to study such an event, but most of the civilian and alien craft were pulling back. The Haypah maniple, he noted absently, was refusing to move. They would argue that the black hole wasn't in Confederation space, insofar as the term had any meaning where several races blurred together, and therefore he had no legal authority to order them to leave. At the moment, it was barely a priority; if their ships got caught up in...whatever was going on, it would be their own stupid fault.

    “Then just keep watching,” he ordered, slipping his mind into the fleet control network. The cruisers were pulling back now too, allowing the planetoids to follow them. The civilian craft should really be jumping into hyperspace and getting the hell out of the area, but he guessed that the passengers were pleading for the ships to remain close enough for them to watch. The passengers, who had grown up in a universe where there was no real danger, hadn't realised that this truly was dangerous. The gravity waves were getting stronger.

    He brought a chart up in front of him and swore. The gravity waves were powerful and expanding at FTL speeds. They were spreading out from the black hole, reaching over a hundred light years from their origin before they faded away. That wasn't uncommon with artificially created gravity pulses – the Gasbags used them to power their starships and open wormholes – yet no one had ever seen gravity waves of such sheer power. There were few inhabited planets within the affected zone, yet...what if the waves kept expanding?

    “And send out a general warning,” he added. It was hard to know what to say when they were dealing with something completely unprecedented, but the Confederation had to be warned. At least warp bubbles would provide some measure of protection to starships caught in transit. The habitats would be able to shield themselves. The planets...the planets might be in trouble, even with Confederation technology. “Warn them...”

    A new alert flashed up in front of him. “Admiral, the Scientist is unable to move,” the duty officer snapped. “Her drives are refusing to function!”

    The entity had watched the confusion with something a little like amusement. It had wondered if someone would draw the correct conclusion that the experiment had been sabotaged by the man who had created it in the first place – and, if so, it had wondered what they would do. Would they demand answers or would they simply shoot the person they thought was Joe Buckley out of hand? It didn't matter any longer; now the Device had done its work, the gateway was opening. There was nothing that humanity, for all of its impressive science and technology, could do to stop it.

    “Professor,” the girl bellowed. She seemed to think that he was staring in horror as his life’s work fell apart. “Professor...what are we going to do?”

    The entity said nothing. The contamination it had introduced into the starship’s computer core was spreading, crippling the drives that would allow it to move away from the black hole. There was no way they could risk triggering the FTL drives now, not when the quantum tap was on the verge of going unstable...if they tried, they ran the risk of blowing the ship into nothing more than flaming plasma. If they had known what was coming, the entity knew, they might well have taken the risk.

    It made a show of accessing the latest reports from the remote probes scattered around the event horizon. The Device itself was gone – it had expected that – but all the pieces were neatly falling into place. Now the gateway had opened, just a crack, its masters could sense it and do the rest of the work themselves, down in the caldron where the normal laws of time and space broke down and became malleable. The humans had no idea of what was going on because they couldn't imagine that there was anything living under the quantum foam, outside their universe. Even their mighty AIs were puzzled. He could hear increasingly frantic signals being exchanged from ship to ship as the gravity waves grew stronger, humans desperate to understand what was going on. Even if they did understand, the entity knew, it was still far too late. The black hole was collapsing into a gateway.

    “Professor,” a sterner voice said. The entity disconnected itself from the computer network and opened its eyes, staring down at Captain Jefferson. The man had been an experienced Confederation Navy officer before he’d transferred to the Scientists Guild. He still remembered how to act like a military officer, yet it was completely pointless. No amount of barking orders would get his ship out of danger. “Professor...what have you done?”

    The entity, just for a second, allowed the mask to drop. Posing as Joe Buckley had been...frustrating, yet the disguise was no longer required. It had always had its risks – a human telepath might have been able to sense its presence – but it had been necessary. It saw the horror within the Captain’s eyes as he came face to face with something truly alien, a tiny part of the nightmare that had prowled beside the universe ever since it had been born in fire. A human mind could not comprehend what it really was, but old instincts, ones developed back when humanity had hunted for food, screamed danger.

    “The gateway is opening,” the entity said. The entire starship shook violently, an endless series of gravity pulses that never seemed to stop. Time itself seemed to be breaking down around them. “They are coming.”

    “Who is coming?” The Captain demanded. “What have you done?”

    The entity said nothing. There was nothing more to say. On the screen, the black hole was starting to collapse, releasing massive bursts of energy into the universe. Perhaps some of the humans believed that the danger was passing, now that the gravity waves had faded away, but the entity knew better. The gateway was coming into existence, a spinning naked singularity forming within the quantum foam. The black hole’s event horizon was starting to shift and warp, expanding and contracting; deep inside, the natural laws governing a black hole had been rewritten. The entity, with its sense for reading the quantum form, knew that the changes went far further than any human could sense...

    “Take him to the brig,” the Captain ordered. The entity said nothing. “Put him in there and jam his implants. I don’t want him talking to anyone...”

    “Admiral, we believe that Professor Buckley sabotaged his own experiment,” the AIs said. “He was definitely responsible for uploading the sabotage program into Scientist’s computer core.”

    Burton shook his head. “Why would he ruin his own experiment?”

    “We are unsure,” the AIs stated, “but he did tell Captain Jefferson that it involved opening a gateway. It is possible that he may have had a different understanding of the Ancient language than we thought. It may not have said what he claimed it said.”

    Burton rubbed his eyes. “I see,” he said. The gravity waves were fading away, leaving a spinning and oddly unstable black hole in front of them. The power levels were still off the scale, but at least the universe seemed to be settling down. “If he wanted to make a gateway, where does he want it to go?”

    “We do not know,” the AIs said. “We have assumed that all of the equations that he provided us are badly flawed, or incomplete, and have begun studying them on that basis. We did not, however, discover any inconsistencies or mathematical errors when we studied the equations originally, before the experiments began. Whatever Buckley had in mind, it was carefully concealed, even from us. It was designed to stand up to the most intensive scrutiny, including that of us and every research scientist in the Confederation. There was no clue that anything like this would happen.”

    There was a long pause. “We believe that he slipped his own program into the probe,” the AIs added. “It is the only possibility that makes sense. It would not be possible to sabotage any other piece of machinery without raising concern before the experiment began.”

    “Leave the post-mortem for the moment,” Burton said. He glanced up at the fleet display. Scientist was still stranded, alarmingly close to the black hole. The starship’s drive systems had completely failed – the computer core would need a complete purge before it could be reactivated and brought back online – and it was drifting into the gravity field. “We will rescue the passengers and crew on Scientist and then consider what is to be done.”

    “Of course,” the AIs agreed. “And, with your permission, we will consider other angles of approach to the problem.”

    Burton, already issuing orders into the command network, nodded impatiently. Now that the gravity waves were fading away, the massive starship could power up its own war bubble and approach the Scientist before she fell any closer to the black hole. Sparta’s teleporters could evacuate the ship and, just incidentally, take Joe Buckley into custody. Once they were away from the black hole – or whatever it was now – they could get answers out of him. And then, he hoped, they would know what to do next.

    Aisyaj had barely noticed the gravity waves shaking her ship, for she’d been trying to block out the inhuman hissing that echoed through every one of the telepathic wavebands. She had no idea what could produce such an effect, not even the biological technology a couple of races used to travel through space, or even a telepathic jammer. It took every ounce of discipline she had to focus her mind; somehow, it felt as if her mind didn't want to work properly. It was so hard to think clearly under such an assault.

    “One plus one is two,” she chanted. It helped to focus her mind. “One plus two is three; one plus three is four; one plus four is five...”

    The AI image shimmered back into existence. “We need your services,” they said, without preamble. “This disaster was deliberately produced by Professor Buckley.”

    Aisyaj blinked in surprise. She had only met Professor Buckley once and he, like many others, had shied away from the telepath. He had struck her as an intensely focused, almost obsessive, personality, devoted to unlocking the secrets of Ancient technology and putting them to use for the benefit of the human race. She had had no idea that he intended to produce a disaster, even though everyone would have expected her to read his mind. Telepath ethics forbade it without permission, unless Confederation security was at stake.

    “And you want me to read his mind,” she said, feeling the hissing at the back of her head. Truthfully, she wasn't sure if she could read someone right next to her now, let alone someone half a light year away. The enhancers beckoned, having reset themselves after they had shut down, yet she was nervous about using them. “Is it really necessary?”

    “We would not ask it of you if it were not vitally important,” the AIs assured her. Their voice altered slightly, perhaps in an attempt to project reassurance. “We believe that there is no other choice. We need answers and we need them now.”

    Aisyaj glowered at the image as she checked the enhancer, before placing the helmet on her head. She had never been able to explain being a telepath to a non-telepath, for it was completely beyond their experience. The best explanation she had been able to give was that she moved from a universe dominated by matter to a universe dominated by thought. Human minds seemed to glow out in the darkness, while alien minds felt less familiar, yet still understandable. Indeed, there were telepaths who believed that one day the entire universe would be united through telepathy, ending hatred and fear. How could one fear the unknown when there was no unknown?

    Carefully, she expanded her mind towards the Scientist, drifting towards the black hole. Hundreds of minds seemed to sing out towards her, all unaware of her drifting presence; It was hard to focus on the person she wanted to sense. It was as if Buckley had no presence in the telepath waveband at all, which was impossible...

    “I can’t sense anything,” she reported. There were non-telepaths who could block out telepathic intrusion, yet even they had a presence in the telepathic waveband; they could be sensed even if their thoughts could not be read. “I can’t...”

    The entire universe shifted around her.

    The new gravity wave was so powerful that Sparta was knocked away from the black hole.

    “Admiral,” the sensor tech reported. “The black hole is destabilising!”

    Burton looked at the display and saw disaster unfolding.

    “Get us out of here,” he ordered.

    It was too late.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Deep within the black hole, the rapidly-shifting singularities finally condensed into their new form, burning a hole right through the quantum foam. Energy flared within the event horizon as the black hole’s mass was converted into power, racing out of the event horizon as the gravity field collapsed. A supernova, compared to the evaporating black hole, would be puny. The tidal wave of energy was roaring out at faster than light speeds. There would be very little warning before it hit the ships gathered around the black hole.

    “The human experiment has failed,” the scientist said. “They have been unable to tap into the black hole and use it as a source of power.”

    Warlord Masji flicked his tongue in wry amusement. It was unlikely that the disaster would convince the humans to change their ways, but perhaps it would slow their progress down for a few centuries, allowing his people a chance to catch up. The torrent of data collected by his maniple would almost certainly fuel research back home, perhaps even allow them a chance to get the experiment right. What couldn't his people do with such power?

    The humans had tried to urge them to leave the scene, a pathetic attempt to deny his scientists a chance to collect data they might be able to turn into useable technology – and weapons. He had ignored their urgings, choosing instead to ride out the gravity waves and watch with delight as one of their massive planetoids – a ship far above what his people could produce, at least so far – lost its drive and threatened to fall into the black hole. It would certainly be rescued by one of the others before it passed the event horizon and was crushed out of existence, but it was reassuring to know that human tech could fail from time to time. That meant, he knew, that it could be made to fail.

    “Good,” he said. The Emperor would be pleased, as would most of the Empire. “I see no reason why we should not extend our condolences...”

    “Warlord,” the scientist said suddenly. “There is a...”

    His voice broke off. “Warlord, there is a massive energy storm exploding out of the black hole,” he said. “It’s moving at FTL speeds. Our shields will not be able to stand up to it. We have to get out of here now!”

    Masji refused to panic. “How long do we have before it reaches us?”

    “Around two minutes, but the storm is moving at FTL speeds and may accelerate,” the scientist reported. He sounded stunned; no one, not even the humans, could project energy at FTL speeds within normal space. It was possible in hyperspace, yet if that were the case, they would be perfectly safe in normal space. Or perhaps not; there were persistent rumours that the humans had invented a hyper-cannon that shot energy through hyperspace and exploded out of a hyperspace portal into normal space. “I do not feel that we should remain here.”

    Masji bowed his head in reluctant submission. The humans might be entities against whom there was some chance of victory, but only a fool contended with the power of the universe itself. Whatever the humans had done had gone spectacularly wrong. They would certainly be embarrassed enough not to repeat the experiment in a hurry.

    “Take us out of here,” he ordered. “Set course for the base world.”

    The maniple rotated around and dropped into warp drive, racing away from the black hole. Seconds later, the shockwave caught up with them and slammed them further forward, shaking the fleet of battleships as if they were leaves caught up in a tempest. Masji could do nothing, but pray as the battleship shook around him, praying that they would survive the forces the humans had unleashed...

    Burton watched in horror as the black hole collapsed into...something, releasing a wave of energy that billowed out towards the human ships. Remote probes near the event horizon – near where the event horizon had been, he reminded himself – reported briefly on the sheer power of the energy wave, just before they vanished as the wave roared over them. Burton couldn't help, but be impressed, even though he knew there was enough power there to swallow the entire Confederation Navy. Part of his mind monitored the starships jumping out into hyperspace, fleeing the oncoming energy wave; the remainder just watched the wave as it advanced towards him. It was terrifying...and impressed.

    “Our readings suggest that the greater part of the black hole’s mass was converted into energy,” the AIs said. They sounded unflustered, but then, they were not truly there. Their cube-shaped ship was merely a repository for their minds, allowing them to jump back to Calculus if disaster threatened to destroy their ship. Unless the energy wave reached their homeworld, the AIs were safe. “The wave may spread over at least fifty light years.”

    “It's moving at FTL speeds,” Burton protested. When a star went supernova, it was possible to evacuate nearby worlds and move populations away from the expanding shell of radiation that would otherwise sterilise their worlds. It was even possible to build shields that would protect planets from strikes that would leave them as dead as the Ancient worlds. “We can't get anyone out of the way!”

    “We have warned everyone within range of the wave’s projected expansion to begin evacuation procedures,” the AIs said. “The only ones who refused to believe us were the Haypah, who have one inhabited system within the wave’s path. They claim that it is a human plot to remove them from their world.”

    “Tell them to get in touch with their own fleet,” Burton snarled. Millions of Haypah were about to die if the wave reached their world; hell, he wasn't sure what would happen when the wave brushed against a star. Would the star survive, or would it explode, adding its mass to the wave? If that was the case, the AIs projections of how far the wave could spread might be far too optimistic. He situation was completely unprecedented. “What about the Scientist?”

    “The wave will wash over her in ninety-one seconds,” the sensor tech said. Burton knew what that meant before his subordinate could complete the sentence. “We are unable to reach her and start teleporting people off the ship before she will be destroyed.”

    At least Buckley will go down with his ship and the remains of his experiment, Burton thought, savagely. Whatever Joe Buckley had had in mind, whatever gateway he had intended to open, his experiment had cost him his life. No starship in existence, not even a Sparta-class planetoid, could survive the torrent of energy. Scientist would be completely vaporised.

    “Several of her crew have uploaded themselves into the datanet,” the AIs said. “They will continue to live on within us.”

    “Maybe,” Burton said. He had often been told of the joys of electronic existence, but he still preferred his corporal life. He hated to leave behind anyone – it was a failure that would haunt him for the rest of his days – yet there was no choice. Sending the Sparta in to stand beside the Scientist would only result in two starships being destroyed. He linked into the command network and stared down at the ruins of the experiment. “Keep pulling us back; once the remainder of the ships are gone, take us into hyperspace.”

    And hope that the AIs are right about just how far the wave is going to spread, he added silently, in the privacy of his own head.

    Janine barely heard the panic behind her as the massive civilian ship turned and prepared for the jump into hyperspace. She was fixated on the wall of energy roaring towards them. It was expanding out from where the black hole had been, yet it seemed to reach from one end of the universe to the other, a wall of endless fire that would sweep away everything she had ever known and replace it with something new. It was something so powerful that it mortally threatened everyone, even the transcendent races, wherever those god-like beings dwelled.

    “My God,” she said, speaking aloud for the benefit of the watching audience. “What have we done?”

    Her life as a newshound had taken her into danger – indeed, it was part of the thrill for the audience, who shared her danger while remaining in total safety – yet she had never seen anything like this. Even during her visit to the war between two alien races, one that has fascinated most of the Confederation because it was a remainder of what humans had done to one another centuries ago, she had never been in any real danger. Both sides had known that harming a human citizen of the Confederation, even by accident, would result in serious consequences. Now...the wall of energy racing towards her knew nothing of her life and cared less. It would sweep over her ship and obliterate it – and her.

    “Ah...ladies and gentlemen,” the ship’s commander said, “we are currently powering up our hyperspace drive. We should be able to escape before the wave reaches us.”

    Janine found herself hoping that he was right, even as she kept her eyes on the wall of energy. Part of her mind, linked into the public sections of the starship’s computers, tracked other starships vanishing from existence, heading out in search of safer places to stay. She found herself wondering what would happen if the wave didn't stop expanding. Had the human race triggered off a universal holocaust?

    She caught sight of part of the live feed and fixed her attention upon it. The planetoid Scientist was on the verge of being consumed by the wave. She didn't want to watch, but she could feel the presence of all of her watchers, urging her on. The planetoid made no attempt to escape, for her drives were wrecked. Whatever had happened to spoil the experiment had taken out the drives as well.

    There was nothing anyone could do, but watch.

    The entity sat within the brig on the Scientist, biding its time. The research ship didn't really have a security staff, so some of the Captain’s crew had spent ten minutes firing questions at it, questions the entity had simply ignored. It was a little surprised that the humans hadn't simply destroyed it, but perhaps they hadn't realised just what they were dealing with. Joe Buckley, the Joe Buckley they were blaming for the catastrophe expanding below them, had died a long time ago. The entity cared little if it lived or died, now that the gateway was open.

    It leaned back in the cell, smiling a disturbing smile. It could hear the voices of its masters now, strange words that spoke to the universe within the spinning caldron of the black hole, words that bent the universe to a new shape. The human race had never really understood the sheer potential of the quantum foam, not in the way the Ancients had grasped it, so long ago. But even then, the Ancients had never realised the truth. The entity smiled again as the voices grew louder, the roaring torrent of energy reaching out to claim Scientist for its own. It had delivered the universe to its masters and now it could go on to its reward...

    Burton saw it all as Sparta started to accelerate away from the expanding wavefront. The sheet of energy twisted around the massive research ship, reaching out to surround it...and then nothing. There was a very faint flicker, something suggesting that something had happened as the wave passed over Scientist, but what? There was so much energy flaring around that no one, not even the AIs, could say with any certainty just what had happened to the planetoid. If its quantum tap had blown, it might well have passed unnoticed amid such an energy storm.

    “The ship may not have been destroyed,” the AIs reported. They sounded perplexed. “There was a perverse dimensional twist where Scientist was just before the wave raced over her. She may have been transported elsewhere.”

    “But you don't know for sure,” Burton said, with some irritation. “You have no idea where she might have gone, or where to recover her.”

    “No,” the AIs agreed. “It may take years to unravel just what took place today.”

    Burton nodded, staring at the live feed from the starship’s sensors. The wave of energy dominated the skies, towering above his ship and the handful of remaining research vessels within the affected area. It was so large as to be beyond comprehension, so powerful...he found himself staring in awe and shook his head. Perhaps the Confederation had needed the remainder that the universe wasn't always at its beck and call, or perhaps...

    “Admiral,” the helmsman said. “We are ready to enter hyperspace.”

    And hope that we can escape the wave, Burton thought. “Understood,” he said, aloud. The last of the research vessels had jumped out, leaving Sparta and the AI cube bearing sole witness to the incoming wave of energy. “Spin up the drives and...”

    “Wait,” the AIs said. “Something is happening.”

    Burton stared. In front of them, something completely impossible was occurring, right in front of his eyes. The torrent of energy was slowing, dropping down to sublight speeds and then halting in space. Seconds later, before he could form the words to ask questions, it started to recede, pouring back towards where the black hole had been. He found himself reminded of a bathtub draining out when the plug was removed, the water spiralling down into the pipe and out of the bath. The universe itself seemed to hesitate, right on the brink of...something...and then the remaining energy drained away, leaving an object where the black hole had been. The sensors seemed to be having problems coming to grips with its nature, as if it wasn't entirely part of the mundane universe.

    “That’s...that’s impossible,” he heard the sensor tech muttering. Burton couldn't blame him; indeed, he completely understood. Whatever had happened to Buckley’s experiment, it would certainly encourage new scientific research, starting with the mystery of what gateway Buckley had intended to open. He focused the ship’s sensors on the object floating where the black hole had been and frowned. Was that the gateway Buckley had spoken of? “Admiral...”

    “I want a full analysis,” Burton ordered. “Is that the remains of the black hole?”

    “It would seem so,” the AIs said. “We are unable, however, to determine what it actually is, or what it is doing. It appears to exist in multiple planes of existence simultaneously, making it impossible to get an accurate read on its dimensions or capabilities. It is also, we believe, firmly embedded in the quantum foam.”

    There was a pause. “It may also be linked to multiple other dimensions,” the AIs added. “Although the existence of such dimensions has been theorised for years, we have never been able to prove their existence or gain access to them. In theory, these universes would not be alternate realities – ones where a choice in our universe was made differently there - but ones where the laws of existence would be very different. One theory states that the quantum foam exists, in part, to keep such universes separate from our own.”

    Burton frowned. “If that thing is a gateway,” he said. “What is going to come out?”

    “Unknown,” the AIs said. “We have been unable to gain an accurate reading on the internal quantum state within the object. We do not know what might be able to survive within the twisted states of existence, let alone make it through to the other side...if there is another side. It is possible that Buckley’s mention of a gateway was intended to confuse us, rather than be a genuine explanation. It is simply impossible to be sure.”

    Burton sighed and linked back into the vessel’s command network. “Link up with the other ships that escaped the black hole’s collapse and confirm that they’re all alive and intact,” he ordered. “If they require assistance, divert some of the cruisers towards offering assistance and whatever else they require.”

    He shook his head as his crew leapt to obey; glad of clear and understandable orders after everything they had been through. That left their commander sitting in the command chair, uncertain of what to do. He had to report to Confederation Navy HQ, but what could he tell them? They would have seen the direct data link from the disaster; by now, he was sure, the entire population would be arguing about what to do. It might take weeks, or months, before consensus would emerge.

    “Gravity pulse,” the AIs said, suddenly. “Something is emerging from the gateway.”

    Burton blinked. “Is it a ship?”

    “We are unsure,” the AIs said. There was a long pause as a new icon flared to life on the display. “We do not know what it is.” A second contact, followed by a third and a fourth, appeared in front of him. “They are...extremely hard for our sensors to understand. They are currently spiralling out from the gateway.”

    Burton studied them through the starship’s sensors. The four...objects were odd, all right; no two sensor readings seemed to agree. Any attempt to pin them down to one answer seemed doomed to fail. Their very nature seemed to be completely incomprehensible, as was their purpose – or perhaps not. It dawned on him, slowly, that they could be the vanguard of an invasion force.

    “Get me a direct link to Confederation HQ,” he ordered, finally. The emergency protocols, he decided, definitely applied in this situation. “We need to assemble the Security Council.”

    On the display, the four objects seemed to grow larger. If they were aware of the Sparta’s presence, they gave no sign. There was no rational base for his feelings, yet somehow they seemed ominous to him. The Confederation, thanks to Joe Buckley, might be in real trouble.

    “Yes, sir,” the tech said. “The Security Council is being summoned now.”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  7. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    In the days before replicators and nanomachines, government had been about the distribution of resources, a truth that had held truth from the headman of a primitive village to the most modern and advanced democracy. Government could never create, only take and redistribute; governments that tried to create, like communist states, only discovered that their industrial base eroded away. The development of a post-scarcity society had changed all that, reshaping the very face of human government, for when a person could have almost anything they wanted, almost instantly, there was no need for government. There was no need to take resources from one person and give them to another.

    The early days of the Confederation had witnessed the former governments of human space dying away, to be replaced by a direct democracy overseen by a cluster of dedicated RIs. Each adult citizen of the Confederation – the age of maturity was set at twenty, although some of the older citizens grumbled that it should be at least fifty years old – was given one vote, which they could cast in local and Confederation-wide elections. They could vote for anything, provided only that it remained within the bounds of the Confederation Constitution, which required a supermajority to change. The Confederation believed, fundamentally, in the right of its people to rule their own affairs. They were government.

    Even so, the system had one great drawback; it was impossible to come to a decision quickly, whatever the situation. There were trillions of humans living within the Confederation, each one with an opinion; even if only a tenth of the population was interested in any given situation, it would be debated endlessly before taking a vote and coming to a final decision. The designers of the Confederation had, therefore, taken the precaution of creating a Security Council that would have wide powers to act in an emergency, although they would be overseen by their own citizens. It was a compromise that, in typical political fashion, pleased no one. Until the human race managed to create a mass mind or some other shared awareness, however, it was the best they could do.

    Admiral Burton’s image materialised in the chamber and he looked around, waiting for the other members of the Security Council to appear. They were scattered all over the Confederation, on planets and worlds and ships; they only ever met through the most secure communications interface known to exist. The AIs had designed the virtual chamber and sworn that nothing short of a transcendent race - whose abilities would defy logic and reason - would be able to spy on the conversation. Burton hoped that they were right. The room itself looked unimpressive – a simple meeting room – yet it might be the most important location within the Confederation.

    One by one, the other members of the Council materialised as they linked into the network, sending their thoughts into the virtual chamber. Chairperson Mariko Waianae, representing the Pureblood Humans, took the chair at the head of the table. By tradition, the Security Council’s Chair always went to a pureblood or baseline human, although her voice was equal to every other voice in the council. Representative Singh, representing the Enhanced Humans and Representative Carolynn, representing the Evolved Humans, materialised together. Carolynn’s appearance was remarkable; she was one of the mermaid subset of humanity and looked like a normal woman on top and a fish below. Her waist tapered away into a fishy tail, presenting the odd impression of a mermaid standing on her tail.

    Seconds later, Representative Chen, representing the Electonic Humans, shimmered into existence. Of all of them, he was the only one who could be said to be truly present, for Electronic Humans swam through the datanet and lived in virtual worlds. Behind him, Representative Caprice of the Telepaths appeared, her face creased with worry and concern. The Telepaths would have known that something had gone badly wrong. Finally, Doctor Bernard of the Scientists Guild, Administrator Prabhu of Confederation Intelligence and Grand Admiral Mark Webster, the commanding officer of the Confederation Navy appeared in the chamber, followed by the blonde female image that represented the AIs.

    Burton braced himself as the chamber’s security systems activated, sealing it off from the remainder of the datanet. Each of the representatives represented one subset of humanity, with two exceptions. The Pastorals, who had gone back to live in the style of humanity’s forefathers and the Dolphins, the creatures humanity had uplifted into sentience. They had thanked humanity for the gift of understanding and had then insisted on being distributed across humanity’s settled worlds and allowed to live in the waters, away from the parent race. No one was quite sure why, but the commonly believed theory was that the Dolphins just wanted to have fun and found the human race to be way too serious about life.

    “This session of the Confederation Security Council is now called to order,” Mariko said. Her voice resounded in the chamber, tinted with an odd accent. Like most extreme purebloods, she had had her face reworked to look like the classical Japanese ideal, almost like a china doll. “Admiral Burton, you may begin.”

    Burton took a breath. Like every other officer who rose to the rank of Admiral, he had the right to summon a meeting of the Security Council, yet it was a right he had never invoked in the past – indeed, it was rarely invoked at all. His history downloads had warned that the last time it had been invoked by an officer in the Confederation Navy had been during a war between two alien races which might have spread into human territory. The decision, inevitable in hindsight, had been to keep an eye on the situation and not intervene unless human interests became directly involved. There had been no need to reassess the situation, for the war had ended remarkably quickly.

    “As you will have been briefed,” he said, “Professor Buckley’s experiment went badly wrong. Instead of tapping into the power of a black hole, the experiment somehow forced the black hole into a new configuration, one that he called a gateway. The results of this have been disastrous.”

    He paused, long enough to allow them to access the download he’d placed within the chamber’ secure datanet matrix. The experiment had had far worse consequences that he’d realised when he’d called the meeting, including somehow triggering off seven supernovas and causing considerable damage to every outpost and settlement within two hundred light years of the black hole. At least the habitats, where most of the human race lived these days, and the starships had been relatively safe.

    “The experiment disrupted local space in a fashion we do not entirely understand,” he said. “We know that many stars were disrupted by the experiment and seven actually went supernova, including four stars that should not have been able to go supernova. The death toll, so far, is around seventeen billion lives from five different races. Indeed, every star that went supernova had at least a billion lives living in settlements orbiting the star.”

    “A political disaster,” Representative Chen grated. He sounded disturbed by the whole affair, even though many Electonic Humans believed that the entire human race should join them within the matrix and leave the physical world behind. Burton had never subscribed to that belief, if only because it would be chillingly easy for someone to switch off the power and destroy humanity’s collective mind. “We will certainly be accused of having committed such acts on purpose.”

    “Perhaps,” Mariko said, “but that is very much a lesser priority at the moment.”

    Burton nodded. “Thank you,” he said, sincerely. “Just after the black hole transmuted itself into the gateway, we detected four...objects emerging from the gateway and spreading out in a loose orbit around the gateway. We are unable to obtain useful data on them; indeed, we cannot even tell if they are ships or something else, something alien. They are clearly the product of a technology significantly different to our own.”

    He sent a mental command into the chamber’s processor and displayed an image in front of them, relayed from one of the cruisers shadowing the object. It was a grey sphere – even its size or mass was impossible to determine – that seemed to somehow effortlessly travel at FTL speeds, even within normal space. It ignored the cruiser or the probes that tried to slip closer to it, either unaware of their presence or simply uncaring. Burton couldn't have said how he knew – he’d seen starships from races who thought very differently to their human counterparts – yet he was sure that there was something ominous about the object. Merely looking at it sent a shiver down his spine, for it was totally outside his experience. That, too, was a new experience.

    Mariko put their thoughts into words. “What is it?”

    “We do not know,” the AIs said. Their frustration was clear to see, even though their blonde representative showed little sign of emotion. “We have been studying the objects since they emerged from the gateway and we have very little to show for our efforts. Every sensor sweep reveals a different answer; we have pegged them as having the mass of a planet and a really tiny level of mass, barely enough to make a dent in the local gravity field. We have been unable to detect the existence of a warp field or a gravimetric field; indeed, we are unable to determine how they are propelled through space.”

    They paused, considering their next words. “We have conducted the most intrusive sensor probes we could at long range,” they added. “We are unsure if they are even aware of our sensor sweeps and a technology equal to ours would certainly be aware of them. We suggest that more data be obtained.”

    “Thank you very much,” Singh muttered. “I would never have thought of that.”

    Burton kept his own expression under control. The Enhanced Humans, products of experiments into genetically modifying and enhancing humans, tended to dislike the concept of AIs in general, even though they used RIs themselves in their daily work. They believed that the path to true advancement lay through understanding, unlocking and exploiting the capabilities of the human mind. It was an attitude that had caused several wars before the Confederation had been established, where their easy assumption of superiority had irked the remainder of humanity. It had taken centuries, even after the Confederation had been established, for the wounds caused by the wars to heal.

    “As yet, there are only four of them,” Webster said. The titular Head of the Confederation Navy brought them all back to the important subject. “How many others are coming?”

    Chen blinked. “You mean it could be a gateway for an invasion force?”

    “It is possible,” Webster said. He ticked off points on his fingers as he spoke. “One; Joe Buckley deliberately sabotaged his own experiment. Two; the science behind the experiment came from an alien world; an alien world killed billions of years ago by an unknown force. Three; Buckley himself, once it is too late, refers to it as a gateway. Four; Buckley also uploads a chaos program into the Scientist’s computers, ensuring that the starship is overwhelmed and either destroyed or captured by the enemy.”

    He gazed around the table. “None of those points suggest that whoever is behind this has a peaceful motive in mind,” he concluded. “It is quite possible that Buckley, deliberately or otherwise, opened up a gateway to allow a hostile force access to our universe. We must proceed on that assumption.”

    There was a long silence. The Confederation had been the preeminent power in the Milky Way for so long that it was hard to imagine that they were under threat. A single squadron of Confederation Navy starships could have taken on the fleets from humanity’s past empires, republics and federations and bested them all in mortal combat. The remainder of the races within the galaxy were friendly, unconcerned with humanity or posed no threat to the human race. The Haypah could rant and rave as long as they liked, but the truth was that their entire empire could be destroyed in an afternoon by the Confederation Navy and they knew it.

    Physical security hadn't stopped humans worrying about what they might encounter in the future, Burton knew; he’d seen the contingency plans when he'd been promoted to Admiral. It was possible that some perverted version of the AIs might have arisen in a far corner of the galaxy – or another galaxy – and set out to exterminate all mortal life. There was the Unseen, still a mystery after nearly a thousand years; perhaps they, one day, would seek to confront humanity again. And then there was the remote possibility of an angered transcendent race or a primitive race getting their hands on advanced technology from a race that had vanished long ago. No one, however, had given any serious thought to the possibility of an invasion from another dimension...if that was what they were facing. There were so many unknowns that the AIs were right. Further data would have to be obtained, regardless of the risks.

    “There is another issue,” Caprice said. Burton glanced over at the telepath in surprise. It was rare for the telepaths to offer any opinion on matters outside their own field. “We have been attempting to monitor the quantum foam since the experiment went badly wrong. It is our belief that the quantum foam may have been permanently altered by the experiment. This may explain the supernovas – the sections of the quantum foam surrounding them were rewritten to...order them to explode.”

    She shivered, visibly. “The effects could soon be far more disastrous than a handful of supernovas and four unknown ships,” she added. “We could be looking at the complete collapse of reality as we know it.”

    Burton felt, oddly, as if someone had just walked over his grave. Back before Joe Buckley had been given the go-ahead to launch his experiment, he had attended a confidential briefing from the Confederation Navy Weapons Design Unit, a task force everyone else called the Mad Scientists Division. The mad scientists had claimed that while the current generation of weaponry had reached its limit, there was a whole new field of study opening, centred on making tiny modifications to the quantum foam. If the Confederation could learn how to rewrite the quantum foam at will, the possibilities would be endless. An enemy fleet, for example, could be literally rewritten out of existence. Burton had found the whole concept horrifying, yet in the right hands it had a certain tantalising temptation. If the Confederation had such technology, it would become invincible.

    Chen snorted. “I sincerely doubt that reality is that fragile,” he said. “We were told that there were limiting effects that would prevent the effect from spreading too far.”

    “Using the equations that Joe Buckley supplied,” the AIs injected. “Our study of the equations only confirmed their value, which proved that Buckley was quite successful in pulling the wool over our eyes. He did not deceive us; he merely produced...incomplete equations. It may take years to work out exactly what happened down inside the black hole.”

    “None of which is important at the moment,” Webster said. “We may be facing an invasion. I request permission to declare a state of emergency and bring the Confederation Navy to full alert.”

    Burton saw the glances exchanged between the councillors and winced inwardly, wondering just what they would decide. The Confederation Navy had plenty of starships – starships, even planetoids, were cheap – but there was always a shortage of personnel. Declaring a state of emergency would allow the Confederation Navy to begin calling up reserves and activating starships that had been placed in storage, rapidly expanding the navy’s strength. It would also be very unpopular in certain quarters.

    The brief vote was taken quickly. “Permission granted,” Mariko said, putting the decision into words. “How do you intend to proceed from here?”

    “We intend to make a close approach to one of the objects and to attempt to make contact,” Burton said. “We may be able to obtain more accurate data at close range.”

    “A question,” Singh said. “Is it not possible that they are deliberately spoofing your sensor probes?”

    It was the AIs who answered. “It is possible, at least in theory, but we should be able to detect any such deception,” they said. “The results would be fuzzy; here, the results are clear, they’re just different every time. It is possible that they are changing their internal quantum structure regularly, yet that suggests a technological base far superior to anything we have. We need more information. The only other option is to wait and see what happens.”

    The mermaid flicked her tail. “Do we actually know that they are hostile?” Carolynn asked. “They may be so different to us that the whole concept of war is meaningless to them. Besides...what have they done to us? It is possible that it was Buckley alone who caused the gateway to open. They may merely be taking advantage of his work.”

    “There is no way to know for sure,” Webster said, “but it would be unwise to take chances. We will certainly attempt to make peaceful contact, yet we must also prepare for a hostile encounter, perhaps even an outright invasion.”

    Burton nodded. Centuries ago, the human race had made contact with the Jin, a race that was one mind in billions of bodies. The Jin, who hadn't realised that humans were individuals, had captured, killed and dissected a number of humans, believing that they were doing nothing more than cutting off a skin cell. They hadn't been able to understand that their actions had been hostile, the cause of a brief war until the truth had been discovered and reparations made. It was possible that the newcomers were friendly...

    He looked up at the image of the objects and shook his head. Maybe they were friends, but somehow he doubted it. The objects just sent chills down his spine.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Can you read anything from the newcomers?”

    Aisyaj looked up in some annoyance. The damage to the enhancers was considerably greater than she had realised – she had been lucky not to have suffered a feedback loop when she had tried to scan Joe Buckley, which would have caused brain damage – and quite beyond her ability to fix. The Rowan, her personal starship, had the latest in Confederation-grade self-repair functions, but the enhancers would need to be pulled out and completely replaced. It wasn't a problem to obtain new enhancers, yet it was a major nuisance. The last thing she wanted was the AIs nagging her to use her power again.

    “I can barely read anything outside the hull,” she snapped, irritated. Without the enhancers, her range was considerably limited, even without the headache pounding away in her skull. She could send telepathic messages to other telepaths, but not to anyone without telepathy. “I certainly cannot look out over two light years to sense the newcomers.”

    She pulled herself to her feet, replaced the multitool in her belt and walked back towards the cockpit. The starship was floating four light years from where the black hole had been, outside the exclusion zone declared by the Confederation Navy. A dozen other human starships were keeping station with her, watching with passive sensors as the newcomers spiralled out from the gateway, unaware or unheeding of the human presence. The Confederation Navy had taken over control and was ordering starships to keep their distance.

    “Run a full systems check,” she ordered the vessel’s computer. “Can we enter hyperspace?”

    The AI image materialised beside her. “Please consider attempting to scan the newcomers,” they said. “We need to know if they are linked to the quantum foam.”

    “Everything is linked to the quantum foam,” Aisyaj reminded them. It was odd for the AIs for forget anything, unless they were deliberately trying to manipulate her. It was something of a sore spot for them; they could predict what vast numbers of humans would do with frightening accuracy, but it was far harder to predict what individuals would do. Some humans were deliberately irrational when dealing with the AIs, if only to remind them that they didn't know everything. “The newcomers will be linked as well.”

    “Perhaps,” the AIs said. “Their behaviour, though, is...odd. Please will you sense the quantum foam before you depart to your homeworld?”

    Aisyaj scowled. It was useless trying to argue with the AIs, for they had more persistence than a child or a would-be lover. Ordering the ship’s computer to begin powering up the hyperdrive, she concentrated, sinking deep within herself to reach out and feel the quantum foam. As always, just sensing the very base of existence sent a thrill down her spine, proof positive that everything was linked together at some level. The telepathic vision of the universe, one where one day every race would be linked through telepathy, had to be accurate.

    She reached out and gasped. There was a disruption within the quantum foam, something that was altering the very nature of reality. She tried to study it, to understand what was causing it, yet it was slippery, impossible to grasp. The whole nature of reality was being rewritten and she couldn't even sense the cause! She tried to look closer, only to find herself shoved out of the quantum foam and back into her body. The reassuring solidity of the starship welcomed her home.

    “They’re altering the quantum foam,” she gasped. It was suddenly so hard to speak. “I’ll...”

    She focused her mind. “Get us out of here,” she ordered. She needed to put some distance between herself and the unknown objects. The hissing in her brain was growing louder. “We’ll talk later.”

    A second later, the starship’s hyperdrive activated, taking her back home.

    Captain Gently smiled to himself as the Hamilton altered course, coming in towards the mysterious alien object. He knew that he had been offered promotion to Admiral and command of one of the massive planetoids that served as flagships for the Confederation Navy, but he had chosen to reject it and remain with the Hamilton. The Astra-class cruisers were the backbone of the Confederation Navy, combining enough firepower to cow even the Haypah with enough speed to outrun anything that could outgun them. His ship was his pride and joy and he was determined that, if they ever managed to force a promotion on him, they would have to pry him out of the vessel with crowbars.

    Despite the dangers, the mission excited him, for it was a chance to brush the unknown. He’d taken his ship on scouting missions before, yet they had never found anything truly new. They’d located several other Earth-like worlds and hints that there had been another alien race active within the sector, but that was hardly new. The alien object up ahead was fascinating, something that no one had ever seen before...and it was all his. Captain Gently and the Hamilton would be the names written down in the history books.

    He frowned as he studied the tactical situation, running possibilities through his head. Perversely, the alien object was travelling at only a few hundred times the speed of light, yet intercepting it would be tricky. Hamilton could match the object’s speed using her warp drive, yet they would have to stress the warp drive in order to get a good look at the alien object, while hyperdrive would leave them overshooting the alien by thousands of light years. It was a unique tactical puzzle; he could have fired on the object, even under such odd conditions, but matching course and speed would be tricky.

    “We’re coming into active sensor range now,” the sensor officer said. Hamilton had only seven crewmen under normal circumstances, a reflection of the constant shortage of personnel, but the Confederation Navy had supplied five other crewmen to assist in monitoring the take from the starship’s sensors. Personally, Gently suspected that they just wanted to feel the excitement of making the first close approach to the alien object, yet it hardly mattered. “I confirm the absence of any warp field.”

    Gently grinned, mischievously. “I want one,” he said. A starship using warp drive could be tracked at a considerable distance through its warp signature, even on passive sensors. “Do you have any idea at all how their drive works?”

    “No, Captain,” the sensor tech said. “As far as I can tell, they don’t have a drive.”

    He sounded as if he expected the Captain to be angry at him and Gently didn't blame him. It was simply impossible to travel faster than light in normal space, unless one used a warp drive; the laws of nature didn't allow it. His ship’s warp bubble allowed them to keep pace with the alien object, but if the bubble failed, they would instantly fall back to sublight speeds. If the alien drive could propel them at warp speeds without a warp drive, it would revolutionise the face of war – again.

    “They may be using something like the Wanderer Drive,” the helmsman suggested. “We never figured out how their drive worked either.”

    “True,” Gently agreed. That entry in the history books was looking more and more impressive every second. “Or perhaps it’s something that we have never encountered before.”

    Two hundred years ago, a massive starship – larger than anything the Confederation had ever designed or built – had appeared within Confederation space. The Wanderers – as they had called themselves – had made contact with the Confederation and explained that they were on a permanent cruise through the universe, collecting data on every living race. They had stayed in the Confederation for two years, exchanging data with the human race, before departing again for parts unknown. Their final gift had been a set of star charts that no one had been able to place, suggesting that the Wanderers had originated from somewhere so far away that not even the Milky Way galaxy was easily noticeable. Their drive system had been the one thing they refused to discuss and, even now, no one understood how it had worked.

    He slipped his mind back into the computers and studied the sensor readings. Even this close to the alien object, none of the readings made sense; they just kept changing, as if the object existed in multiple different configurations at the same time. It’s mass seemed to change rapidly, almost randomly, although he knew that any pattern seemed random without a large enough sample. It possessed no gravity field; indeed, even simple warp-radar refused to work properly. It was quite possible, he realised, that the object would find a configuration his sensors would refuse to register and literally vanish from sight.

    “Prepare to launch the probes,” he ordered. The warp-capable probes would get far closer to the object than the Hamilton. His first priority was the safety of his ship and crew, after all. “Relay the live feed through my station.”

    The starship shivered as it launched the first three probes towards the alien object. If the alien object was aware of their presence, it gave no sign; it didn't attempt to avoid the probes or escape contact. Gently frowned, puzzled; it seemed impossible to imagine that they hadn't realised that the Confederation ship was following them. The Hamilton was making no attempt to hide.

    “Live feed coming through, Captain,” the sensor tech said. “We’re...ah...we’re picking up conflicting readings.”

    Gently plunged his mind into the computer network and studied the live feed. Up close, the alien object was a smooth gray orb...no, it wasn't; it was moving. He peered closer and saw strange patterns moving over the sphere, somehow tantalisingly meaningful, as if he had seen something like them before. It seemed hard to understand, yet...were there snakes moving over the sphere? It seemed to lead his mind out into directions no one had even believed possible, a right angle to reality itself...

    An alarm sounded in his mind, but by then it was far too late.

    The crew of the Hamilton had all been looking through the probes and felt their minds yanked out of their bodies by the alien object, their brain patterns warped and shifted by an outside influence. Emergency systems within the ship’s RI realised that the entire ship was being subverted – the influence reached right into the starship’s control systems – and triggered the emergency protocols. Microseconds after the Captain lost his mind, the containment fields surrounding the vessel’s antimatter pods were deactivated and the starship vanished in a ball of fire.

    “What the hell was that?”

    Admiral Burton had been following events from the Sparta, half a light year away from the alien object and the ships trailing it. One moment, the Hamilton had been under some kind of attack; the next, the starship’s self-destruct had been triggered and it had been destroyed. The data feed from the starship had been interrupted seconds before it had died, leaving the cause of its destruction a mystery.

    He looked over towards the AI image. “Were they attacked?”

    The AIs said nothing for a long moment. “We believe so,” they said, finally. “The alien object was clearly able to somehow subvert the probe and then attack the ship’s defences directly. The aliens were on the verge of taking over when the emergency systems activated and destroyed the ship.”

    “Preventing it from falling into enemy hands,” Burton said, in relief. Losing Scientist was bad enough, but Hamilton had been a first-rate cruiser, with enough weaponry to lay waste to an entire star cluster. It would have given the enemy too much insight into just how human weapons worked if they had taken the ship intact, let alone the contents of the database. There was too much data on humanity, to say nothing of the rest of the galaxy, stored within the database to risk it falling into enemy hands. “What are they doing?

    “They’re just continuing on their course,” the tactical officer said. “They're just circling the gateway.”

    Burton scowled. If destroying the Hamilton had been a hostile act, he could have legitimately have engaged and destroyed the spheres, but there was a question mark over if it had been an intentional attack. He looked down at the feed from his virtual vision and realised that the Security Council was still arguing over that very question. It was quite possible that the aliens were so alien that even indirect contact produced trauma in humanity, although that was rare. The only other incident he could remember of anything similar had been an encounter with an odd alien artefact, one built for a race very different to humanity. Any human who went inside was unable to comprehend its nature and would eventually be driven mad.

    A new icon appeared in his vision, a direct link to the Security Council. “This is Mariko,” a voice said, in his mind. “You are cleared to engage the enemy.”

    Burton nodded in relief. At least they’d had a decision. The firing sequence had already been programmed into the planetoid; all he had to do was insert his command codes and unleash enough firepower to destroy several planets. He accessed the firing system and studied the targets quickly, locking the planetoid’s weapons on the alien object. If it was the vanguard of an invading fleet, it was about to discover that the Confederation could take care of itself.

    “Fire,” he ordered.

    The planetoid opened fire. Hyper-missiles raced through hyperspace, carrying compressed antimatter warheads to their targets; warp missiles spread through normal space, using their warp fields to suck up energy from local space and compress it down into deadly weapons. Gravity beam twisted normal space around the object, trying to crush it out of existence; fission bursts tried to start a reaction that would rip it apart. The very fabric of space itself seemed to shudder under the sheer volley of unleashed firepower. Burton watched in awe as the detonations swallowed the entire alien object, just before they faded away, revealing that the object was still intact. It continued on its course, untroubled by the bombardment; it hadn't even bothered to return fire.

    “Reload tubes,” Burton ordered, considering his options. He could fire a second spread of missiles, but there was no reason to believe that the second spread would fare any better than the first. He could take the planetoid into energy range and bombard the alien object at close range, yet...how could he be sure that the Sparta couldn't be destroyed as easily as the Hamilton? He looked over towards the AI representation. “Analysis?”

    “We believe that the alien object exists in multiple dimensions,” the AIs reported. They sounded almost as stunned as Burton felt. The sheer firepower he had unleashed was enough to cow most of the galaxy into playing nice. Now there was a new threat, one apparently untroubled by the worst humanity could unleash. There were other weapons, more feared and dangerous, yet using those publically was frowned upon. “Our weapons are simply unable to touch its core.”

    “Fine,” Burton snarled. “How do I hit those...multiple dimensions?”

    “Unknown,” the AIs said, slowly. “Given time, it may be possible to develop weapons capable of destroying the alien objects, but it will require considerable research. The alien objects we can see may be merely the tip of the iceberg, something stretched into our universe from somewhere else. They may be far larger than we can appreciate.”

    Burton took a breath. Back in the Security Council chamber, he could hear their debate...and fear. Whatever they were dealing with was powerful, dangerous and apparently hostile.

    “Very well,” he said. He looked over at the communications officer. “I want you to send out a signal. The entire area for twenty light years away from the black hole is to be quarantined; all ships, regardless of their origin, are to be turned away. No one is to come near the alien objects.”

    “A wise decision,” the AIs said. “And what will you do when they decide they want to come out?”

    Burton nodded. If the gateway was housing an invasion force, what he was doing was the loose equivalent of allowing the enemy to open a bridgehead unmolested on friendly territory, something that many human forces had come to regret. Even so, unless they could develop the kind of weapons systems required to take on and destroy the alien objects, any ship he sent near the gateway might become nothing more than cannon fodder. It was galling to admit that the Confederation Navy was completely outmatched, but for the moment it was true and it had to be faced squarely. There was no point in denying reality.

    “I don't know,” he admitted. “I just don’t know.”

    Janine had wanted to observe the encounter mission from the Hamilton, but the Confederation Navy had refused permission for a civilian to travel on the ship, accidentally saving her life. She had watched in horror as the cruiser exploded, followed by the brief bombardment of the alien sphere and the failure of almost every weapon designed by humanity to destroy the sphere. Through her eyes, millions of people watched as humanity’s claim to supremacy faded away.

    She accessed the live feed from the ship’s sensors, but they couldn't tell her very much, nothing that she hadn’t already realised. The starship itself was turning away from the outer zone and heading back into the Confederation, despite protests from a number of passengers, who wanted to see what happened when the rest of the Confederation Navy arrived. Janine understood their feelings, yet for the first time in her life she was really scared. If the aliens could laugh at the worst humanity could throw at them...what did it mean for the future?

    “We will be jumping into hyperspace in twenty minutes,” the Captain said, as if in answer to her question. “When we arrive at Greenland, those of you who wish to return to the quarantine zone can book passage on smaller vessels.”

    And that, she knew, was no answer at all.,
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Nine<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Four hundred years ago, a Confederation Navy scout craft had discovered a world with an unusual atmospheric condition, one that tinted the sky green. A handful of research scientists had landed on the planet and, after a year of research, had confirmed that the planet was not only habitable, but almost perfect for humanity. The curious green tint that pervaded everywhere only added a certain spice to the planet’s existence. Settlement had begun within the year and, after a decade, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> possessed the hundred thousand residents necessary to convert it into a Confederation Voting District. A hundred years of steady population growth followed, after which expansion tapered off slowly, bringing the planet in line with the remainder of the Confederation. The locals built a Ring surrounding their planet – like most Confederation worlds, the majority of the population lived in space rather than on the ground – and boasted of their world to anyone who would listen.

    Aisyaj had moved to <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> forty years ago, after an episode in her life that had ended badly, one that even her telepathy had been unable to predict or avert. It suited her to live on the planet’s surface, well away from most of the human population, allowing her a kind of solitude that she could only otherwise get in deep space. The home she’d had constructed on the planet’s surface served as her refuge from the Confederation and the responsibilities that came with being a telepath, while – thanks to the AIs – she was linked into the datanet and could obtain almost anything she wanted from the planet’s orbital industries. It was a place she went to when she wanted to be alone.

    She materialised in the centre of her living room and smiled as the lights clicked on automatically. The teleport dampeners had been turned off when she’d inserted her code into the network, but the house computer – she had deliberately chosen the stupidest model she could, after dealing with the AIs for most of her life – wasn't smart enough to draw the line between her using her codes and her intention of teleporting home. The teleport field faded away, leaving her sucking in the warm air of her homeworld. The denizens of hundreds of thousands of space habitats might have disagreed with her, but there was nothing like breathing in the natural air of a living planet. In her home, she was surrounded by life itself. No space habitat could boast of that, apart from the biological habitats produced by some of the odder alien races. They grew their living space from a single seed.

    “Computer,” she said. She had never bothered to give the house computer a name. “Do I have any mail in my inbox?”

    “Affirmative,” the computer said, as she shucked off her clothes and headed towards the bathtub. A proper bath was a pleasure she had denied herself for far too long. “You have one thousand, six hundred and four messages within your inbox.”

    Aisyaj snorted. “How many of them are marked as spam?”

    “Seven hundred and forty are marked as spam,” the computer said. “Do you wish to delete them?”

    She took a moment to consider it. The problem with the datanet was that anyone could send a message to anyone – or everyone. It was easy for someone who had produced a new product, or merely had a political platform they wished to convince others to listen to, to send a message to everyone in the Confederation. By law, all such messages had to be marked as such so that the recipients could filter them out, but many liked to skim through the messages to see if there was anything interesting or new. Fashions changed so quickly in the Confederation, but then…she had never been too concerned with fashion.

    “Yes,” she ordered. “Give me a breakdown on the rest.”

    “Seventy-nine are from people in your contacts list,” the computer said, as she checked her appearance in front of the mirror. Her dark eyes seemed to wink back at her as her image rotated, showing her body from all angles. Her appearance mattered little to her, but she knew that people reacted better to someone who looked tidy and presentable. “Three hundred and seventeen are from the media, requesting interviews concerning the Buckley Experiment and its results. Three are from people on your blocked list. The remainder are from new senders.”

    Aisyaj shook her head. “Delete the ones from the blocked list,” she ordered. She had only blocked seven people, all former boyfriends. She didn’t want to talk to them again unless there was no other choice. “In fact, delete all the ones from the media as well. I don’t want to talk to them.”

    “Messages deleted,” the computer informed her. “Do you wish to review the remaining messages?”

    Aisyaj checked the bathtub, which was now full of bubbling hot water. “Not at present,” she said, as she lowered herself into the water. It was always scalding hot at first, but once she got used to the heat, she started to relax as the water bubbled against her body. It helped her to relax and there were times when she had fallen asleep in the bath. The safety fields around the bathtub would prevent her from drowning…although, coming to think of it, the enrichments sequenced into her body would allow her to breath water. “Just store them until I have a chance to review them.”

    She closed her eyes as the warmth started to soak into her body, considering everything that had happened over the past day. Her head, thankfully, felt better, even if she didn’t feel up to using her telepathy over long distance. Telepathy laughed at the laws of science as humanity knew them – it was quite possible to chat to another telepath on the other side of the galaxy – yet it was a strain, even though theory suggested that it was a strain only because the telepaths were aware of the distance. It wasn't worth getting a memory edit to see if it worked better without that awareness.

    As soon as she’d brought the ship into orbit, she’d ordered up replacement components from the local industrial node and a handful of drones to fit them into the ship. The RIs governing the industrial complex would handle fitting them into her ship, although the truth was that she had no idea what she was going to do afterwards. The Confederation Navy would be dealing with the aftermath of the Buckley Experiment, but they might need a telepath and, like it or not, she was on the list of telepaths who could work with the Navy. Even so, she had no idea how they might proceed.

    She shivered, despite the warmth floating through her body. The memory of the altered quantum foam, of the disruptions to local space and the collapsed black hole, were terrifying, all the more so because they portended an encounter with something far more powerful than the Confederation. She knew about the encounter with the Wanderers, or the handful of contacts individual humans had had with transcendent races, yet…this was something different. And why, she asked herself, had she been unable to read Professor Buckley? She should have had no problem in making contact with him, even if she had been unable to read his thoughts. What did it all mean?

    With that thought, she allowed herself to drift off to sleep.

    The <st1:place><st1:placeName>Mushroom</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType>City</st1:placeType></st1:place> – so called because it was shaped like a giant mushroom – was the single largest city on <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place>, with a population of ten thousand humans. Actually, most of the humans lived away from the city – either on the Ring or in small homes scattered across the planet’s surface – and used teleports or shuttles to visit the city whenever they felt the urge. The handful of people who remained in the city for most of their lives were considered, by the rest of the population, to be a little weird or addicted to VR simulations. VR simulations, which could be anything from a return to childhood to the most extreme sexual situation possible, were distracting, so distracting that a person wrapped up in one wouldn’t notice where they were in real life.

    Darla materialised in the chamber and looked around, hunting for the other cultists. The High Priestess of the Ancient Cult had told them that tonight was going to be a special night, one where those who truly believed in the Ancients would be separated from those who were merely entertaining themselves. Darla, who was thirty years old and had never had anything to believe in before, believed passionately in the Ancients. How many others truly believed was an open question. Cults swept through the Confederation like wildfire, converting millions of people to their cause before dying away and being replaced by the next fad. Darla had followed seven different religions before stumbling across the Ancient Cult and meeting the High Priestess herself. Her conversion had been immediate.

    Even so, they had done very little, certainly nothing extreme like the Flesh-Eaters or the Celibate Order of the Golden Sheep. Each month, they had met together on a day honoured by the Ancients and taken part in a ritual, which was always followed by a massive orgy. The ritual had produced nothing so far, yet Darla had been convinced that they were on the verge of a breakthrough every time. Perhaps this time, if the unbelievers stayed away, would be the time when the Ancients returned to the universe to judge the human race, inviting a select few to join them in their paradise.

    She looked over at the statue mounted in the centre of the room and smiled to herself. The unbelievers called it an ugly pseudo-octopus, a many-eyed creature with an indeterminate number of tentacles, but to her it was a symbol of what the Ancients had believed in. It awaited everyone, seeming to offer a promise of knowledge and power to anyone who made the right approach, yet so far the cultists had failed to open the path to where the Ancients dwelled. The High Priestess had told them not to be discouraged. It would take time to make the connection between humanity and the Ancients.

    The High Priestess appeared in the centre of the chamber, beside the statue, and looked down upon her flock. There was something different about her tonight, Darla realised, a new certainty that was almost palatable. Her eyes moved from person to person, finally meeting Darla’s…and looking deep into her. Darla couldn’t look away, feeling naked and vulnerable, yet strangely vindicated. She knew, on a level she could never have explained, that the cult had been right all along. The Ancients were returning to the mundane universe of matter.

    “Take your places,” the High Priestess ordered. She pulled at her robe, allowing it to fall from her body and land on the floor, exposing her naked body. Like most of the Confederation’s citizens, she was at the peak of health, with firm breasts and long dark hair that fell down to her hips. Darla followed, feeling a thrill of excitement as cool air blew across her bare breasts, a tingle running down her spine. This was it! She was about to show her family that she had been right all along. She knew that this was the night. “Kneel before the Ancient Ones.”

    Darla fell to her knees, spreading her thighs wide and placing her hands behind her head. The High Priestess had explained, in a more pensive moment, that the pose was one of perfect submission, an offering of everything they were to the Ancients. There could be no concealment, no reserve. They had to offer everything they had to complete the ritual. No doubt flickered in her mind. High Priestess Kaleen had been one of the few to unlock the secrets of the Ancients and their universe. She knew what she was doing.

    “Let us begin,” the High Priestess intoned. She picked up a darkened mirror and placed it under the statue. The first time Darla had seen the mirror, it had been like any other mirror, one that reflected her own image back at her. Now it was dark, as if it was connected to some other plane of existence. The High Priestess stepped back and knelt before the statue herself, lowering her eyes to the ground. A new wave of cold air seemed to materialise out of nowhere; Darla felt her nipples harden as the chill spread through the room. “Follow me…”

    She began to chant, an oddly atonal chant. Darla echoed her words, feeling them echoing through the room as the others took up the chant. The first time they’d chanted together, it had felt confusing, worrying, yet now it was second nature. Their voices, young and old, male and female, blended together into a single harmony. The words meant nothing to her – her ex-boyfriend, who hadn’t believed in the cult, had put them through a universal translator and had been unable to translate them – but they had meant something to the Ancients. It was hardly reasonable to expect them to understand Human Standard, was it? They might even find being addressed as equals insulting.

    As the chant grew in power, she felt a strange sensation brewing within the chamber. Power seemed to be flaring out around them, fed by the chant and guided by the will of the High Priestess. Darla felt as if she was pushing all her will into the air, where it was merged with that of the rest of the group and formed into something else. She lifted her eyes to the mirror as the chant altered slightly and stared; the mirror seemed to be floating in the air, hovering above the stone floor. It had darkened still further, reflecting…what? Her mind seemed to be curiously detached from the proceedings, allowing her to wonder just what the mirror was reflecting, or where it truly was. If the mirror, which had been taken from one of the Ancient worlds, was partly linked to somewhere else, it might be reflecting light from there.

    She felt her gaze rising as the mirror started to spin in the air. She couldn’t look away; she was transfixed, her life force being used to power the ritual. Darla submitted gladly as the mirror reached the statue and seemed to twist out of existence, as if it was going somewhere at right angles to reality. In its place, there was a spinning…portal, not unlike a wormhole gateway, yet oddly unreal to her eyes. She couldn’t even tell how large it was. It seemed to spin in and out of existence.

    “They come,” the High Priestess proclaimed. Her voice rose above the chant. Darla was still chanting, unable to stop…unwilling even to consider stopping. They had been right all along! The Ancients would return to the universe of matter. She told herself that as she felt her voice rising, somehow blending in with the gateway to fix it securely within the normal universe. “They are coming!”

    The portal seemed to expand further, taking on shape and form, like a funeral extending out of the known universe. Darla felt her mind expanding oddly as the energy levels rose sharply, with...something coming out of the portal towards her. She couldn’t quite see it, yet she knew that it was there, just beyond her perception. Her body, which seemed to have taken on a life of its own, rose to its feet and started to step towards the portal. The entity in front of her was becoming visible, yet it was still translucent, revealing hints of half-seen detail. She saw tentacles appearing out of nowhere and lashing towards her, a strange hint of an eye…and then, just for a second, she saw it clearly. It was so much bigger than she had realised, so large that it seemed impossible that it could fit into the chamber, so massive that it made her feel tiny, like an ant running around a giant’s foot.

    Her body kept shuffling forward until the entity turned to face her. Darla could no more have resisted than she could have suddenly developed the power to fly. It had caught her in its web, like a spider would catch a fly, yet this was different, for she had given herself up willingly. She could feel it inside her brain, a hissing that was making it hard to think of anything, even of service to the entity. It turned slowly, as if it was rotating in some private dimension of its own, and looked upon her. Her eyes met its single great eye…

    And then the screaming began.

    Aisyaj awakened suddenly, uncertain of what had disturbed her. A quick check of her implants revealed that no one had sent her an urgent message, or anything else that required immediate attention from her. No one had asked to see her, or even come by to visit her, yet something was badly wrong. She closed her eyes, half-hoping that she could fall back into sleep, but it was impossible. She could not sleep with the sense of disaster looming over her.

    “Computer,” she ordered. “Check in with the local network. Is anything going on that I should be aware of?”

    “Negative,” the computer said. It was incapable of feeling perplexed, yet she could have sworn that she heard it in its voice. Or perhaps the AIs were playing silly buggers with the system. “There has been no declared emergency within the system.”

    Puzzled, Aisyaj pulled herself out of the bath and stepped through the drying field, shivering slightly as the force field passed over her breasts, taking all the water away from her body. She pulled on a dressing gown and strode out of the bathroom, back into her living room, where she sat down on her favourite chair. It had been hand-crafted by a master craftsman – someone who had had seven hundred years to perfect his craft – and she loved it. Opening her mind, she reached out to see if she could pinpoint the source of her unease…and was nearly blown out of her chair by the mental feedback.

    “Oh my God,” she said. She was unable to believe her senses. “They’re here!”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “I’m afraid that Admiral Burton is not available for interview,” the Confederation Navy officer informed her. Janine scowled at him, but he refused to look intimidated. “He is currently dealing with the crisis.”

    Janine rolled her eyes. She’d spent a day on <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> trying to talk to someone from the Confederation Navy, in the hopes that they would allow her access to the quarantined zone, where all the action was taking place. So far, the results had been useless; anyone who knew anything wasn't talking to her. There were plenty of rumours flying around, but since most of them were completely unbelievable, it was impossible to take them seriously. Of course, she reflected, the human race had learned a whole new benchmark for unbelievable in the last couple of days.

    “You must understand that I am meant to be reporting on the crisis,” she said, as openly as she could. “I cannot do that without some cooperation from the Navy.”

    “The Navy is currently dealing with the crisis,” the officer said, again. “You will be informed when officers are available for interview.”

    His image vanished. Janine directed a torrent of invective towards the projector to relieve her feelings, before accessing her implants and checking on the search programs she’d launched into the local net. There were only a handful of Confederation Navy officers on active duty on <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> and most of them hadn’t even bothered to return her messages asking for interviews. She doubted that any of the others knew anything of significance, apart from the fact that the reserves were being called up for duty. She couldn’t help, but find that alarming.

    There were, as she had expected, no responses from the search programs. Shaking her head, she checked through the datanet for updates on the crisis, only to discover that any real news had already been buried under trillions of news posts, rumours and speculation from the Scientist’s Guild. The Confederation allowed anyone to post anything on the datanet, which meant that there was no end to the sheer mind-numbing barrage of nonsense being disseminated through the network. It took a trained and experienced newshound like her to bring order to chaos – or at least publish proper reports as well as allowing people to see through her eyes. It was always annoying to discover that someone who happened to be at the right place at the right time had beaten her to the scoop.

    But this time, no one was talking, not even unofficial messages from the Confederation Navy. The last she’d heard, the alien objects were just orbiting the remains of the Buckley Experiment, the strange spatial object that had replaced the black hole. The Confederation Navy was keeping an eye on them from a safe distance – if there was such a thing as a safe distance when a completely unknown form of technology was involved – yet there were no other updates. The unknown objects were just being watched.

    “No luck with the Navy?” A voice asked. She looked up to see one of the local stringers, a former newshound who had retired to <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> and started studying history in hopes of developing a new career. “You won’t get much from them, my dear.”

    Janine scowled at him. “They’re not talking,” she said. “Why are they not talking?”

    The former newshound grinned. “Because they don’t know what’s going on either, my dear,” he said, with a wink. “If there is a crisis, they normally know just what is going on, but this time…they don’t, so they’re keeping their ignorance to themselves.”

    He patted her shoulder. “I suggest you go out and have a walk,” he said. “When you come back, I will introduce you to some contacts I know. They may be able to tell you something new.”

    “Thanks, I guess,” Janine said. She headed for the door and stepped outside. There was something odd in the warm air, a feeling that felt strangely familiar. “Or perhaps you could tell me where I could get a starship. I want to go back to the black hole.”

    She closed the door before he could respond and walked out onto the streets. The designers of the <st1:place><st1:placeName>Mushroom</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType>City</st1:placeType></st1:place> had been a little weird, she knew; the city itself was covered with a mushroom-shaped dome, but under the dome the city had been designed to appear as a fairytale structure, with tall towers and castle-like buildings. The modern technology that had designed it was concealed within stone-like material and shiny jewels set within the walls. It struck her as rather elaborate, yet it was their choice. She didn’t have to live in the city.

    A flash of light from high overhead caught her eye and she looked up towards the Ring. It orbited the entire planet, an artificial version of the rings that surrounded many gas giants, home to millions of human beings. In an emergency, she knew, the Ring could be detached from its homeworld and pulled into hyperspace, allowing the population to be moved to safety if something ever went badly wrong. She had heard, from a normally reliable source, that a great many emergency plans were being dusted off and revised, just in case. <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> was only five hundred light years from the black hole…or whatever the black hole was, now.

    She tracked a flyer moving through the air, heading towards a house out in the countryside, just before she heard the first screams. Someone – a group of people – were screaming and chanting, chanting words she couldn’t understand. She ran them through her implanted translator and got nothing, although that wasn't too surprising. An alien language could take years to decipher, even for the AIs. She turned towards the sound of screaming and saw, in disbelief, a mob attacking the walls, the buildings…the entire city. It was impossible to grasp the sight before her. The Confederation didn’t have protest mobs screaming through its cities. What was there to protest about?

    And then she saw their faces. They were consumed with a colossal rage, lashing out at anything and everything. They showed no signs of awareness or even direction, merely trying to smash things in their madness. Their eyes were rolling back in their heads, blood bleeding from their ears and noses. A number of the maddened mob had weapons implants and were using them on targets of opportunity, including living people. Janine triggered her own weapons implants, wrapping a shield around her body just in time, wincing as a burst of focused energy struck her. If she hadn’t had her shield up, the energy would have killed her, leaving her beyond any hope of recovery. Confederation medical technology could work what past generations would have called miracles, but a vaporised head was beyond even its capabilities to repair.

    She opened her implants, sending out a new broadcast to her followers even as she struggled to escape the crowd. The maddened hordes had closed in around her, punching and kicking at her shield. It was an exercise in futility, yet they were doing it anyway, as if they didn’t understand that it was futile. Pain didn’t seem to discourage them; if anything, it only made them madder. She met one of their eyes – an evolved human centaur – and saw nothing there, no hint of awareness. The girl was maddened beyond hope of recovery.

    Desperately, she opened her emergency implants and broadcast a distress signal. The local authorities should have responded at once, yet there was no reply. A quick check revealed that the system was suffering from glitches and errors, something that should have been impossible. She made the connection in her mind and knew, somehow, that whatever was going on was related to the Buckley Experiment. She couldn’t imagine another explanation.

    Years ago, back before she’d been born, a mad scientist had released an unusual virus into his homeworld’s local network. The virus had slipped into the implants of everyone on the planet and subverted them, turning them into his slaves. They’d been remote-controlled by his expanded mentality until the Confederation Navy had terminated his operation and arrested him. His victims had needed years of treatment before they had been ready to re-enter civilisation. After that, new precautions had been taken to prevent a second mass subversion, including new filters on the local network. Whatever was driving the population mad, she realised, it wasn't something to do with their implants.

    She caught sight of a group of maddened children and felt sick. The children, too young to have adult-issue implants, had cornered a teenage girl and were tearing her apart with their bare hands, eating her flesh. The sight was instantly transmitted to the remainder of the Confederation. Desperately, she flailed about with her shields, knocking people back until she could run for her life. There was no sign of the local authorities; indeed, the local net seemed to be on the verge of collapsing. A loud explosion reached her ears and she turned to see a second aircar falling out of the sky. It struck one of the towers and brought it crashing down onto some of the crowd. Hundreds died, but the remainder just kept going, pulling others into their madness.

    Janine turned her back and ran.

    Aisyaj grasped for certainty as her mind was assaulted by psychic waves emanating from the city. She could see the <st1:place><st1:placeName>Mushroom</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType>City</st1:placeType></st1:place> in the distance; normally, it was a twist on the psychic landscape, a reminder that thousands of humans lived there. Now, it felt like a maelstrom of psychic horror, as if a maddened telepath had started broadcasting openly to the entire planet, infecting them with his madness. She had seen telepaths influence others before – Confederation ethics forbade it, unless it was voluntarily – yet this was different. There was a strangely alien undertone that she couldn’t understand.

    “Help,” she said, dazed. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the city, which meant that the waves of madness were pounding into her mind. If they were as powerful as they seemed, anyone closer to the source – whatever that was – had to be on the verge of going completely mad. Her mind kept spinning. Her telepathy, her receptiveness to the universe, was the source of all her problems. The irony almost made her laugh. If she hadn’t been telepathic, she would probably be perfectly safe at such a distance.

    “Help,” she said, again. It was so hard to focus. “Help…”

    Her feet gave out from under her and she hit the ground, hard enough to hurt. Perversely, the flash of pain – before her implants started dulling it – helped to focus her mind. She had also broken eye contact with the city.

    “I am unable to contact emergency services,” the house computer said. It hadn’t had the imagination to realise that it needed to help her directly. “The local net appears to be suffering from power losses all over the planet.”

    Aisyaj swore as she pulled herself to her feet. Without eye contact, she could feel the waves of psychic madness at the back of her mind, without fear of being drawn into them. The telepaths knew that sufficiently powerful telepathy could influence the outside world, yet few telepaths could muster such power, even with enhancers. She certainly couldn’t do much more than picking up a tiny object with telekinetic muscles…and even that was a strain that left her feeling tired and worn. Whatever was causing the madness, she had the oddest feeling that it was only a side-effect of something else. It was a hunch, but if there was one thing all telepaths knew, it was that it was wise to trust one’s hunches. Sometimes, they picked up echoes from the quantum foam.

    “Nice,” she snarled. “Can you locate the source of the power drains?”

    “No,” the computer said. “The power drains appear to be non-localised. There appears to be no pattern to the drains; some systems in close proximity to affected systems are working normally.”

    Aisyaj rubbed the side of her head. “Can you forge a link off-world?” She asked. “If so, use my contact code and contact the AIs.”

    There was a long pause, just before the image of a blonde woman materialised in her living room. “Telepath Aisyaj,” the AIs said. “We are concerned to discover that you are on <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place>. The world appears to be under attack.”

    “Telepathic attack,” Aisyaj said, flatly. “Can you identify what is actually going on?”

    “We are unsure,” the AIs said. “The vast majority of the population appears to have gone mad. Their actions, however, suggest a coordinating intelligence, even though its motive is uncertain at this time. The mad only attack those unaffected by the madness; they work together as a swarm. Local governmental systems appear to have failed; the madness may be affecting the Ring as well as the planet’s surface.”

    “There's something there, broadcasting killer memes into the ether,” Aisyaj said. She could feel it in the back of her head, something so powerful that it was warping the quantum foam around it. She tried to put it into words and failed. The more she thought about it, the stronger it became, threatening to drag her down into the madness. She couldn’t keep the panic from her voice. Whatever it was, it was tearing away at her self-confidence. “What is it?”

    “We do not know,” the AIs said. Aisyaj winced. She disliked the way the AIs followed her around, fascinated by her telepathy, yet now, when she needed their certainty, they were unable to help. “We cannot perceive anything, save by its effects on the people. It may be akin to the objects released by Joe Buckley, something that mainly exists outside our dimension.”

    Aisyaj nodded, concentrating. The last time she’d opened her mind, she hadn’t been prepared for anything hostile; now, she guarded her mind as best as she could before she started feeling the quantum foam. Instantly, she felt the presence of the entity, something so huge that she knew that to look upon it directly would mean madness, or death. She concentrated on looking around it and saw, to her dismay, that the entity was firmly embedded in the quantum foam. Worse, it seemed to extend out beyond the quantum foam.

    She tried to localise it, but it proved impossible; it was broadcasting so much power that it was hard to localise it without looking into the face of the gorgon. It was definitely near the city, perhaps in the city…or perhaps she was thinking too small. If the entity was truly in a separate dimension – or multiple dimensions – it could easily exist alongside the city, its mind reaching out to toy with the puny humans below. She saw, now, strands reaching down from the entity, reaching out towards human minds. The entity was feeding on the human minds it had snared!

    Horror and revulsion blew her out of the trance. This time, she was caught by the house’s gravity fields and lowered gently onto the sofa. The AIs had taken control of her house. At any other time, she would be angry, but this time she was relieved. She didn’t want to hit the floor again, not when the entity was growing stronger all the time.

    “It’s feeding off their minds,” she gasped, as the house’s fields brought her a glass of water. She sipped it gratefully, trying to fight off the weariness that threatened to overcome her mind. “It’s linked into their minds and…it’s feeding off them.”

    Even as she said it, she knew that it wasn't the complete answer. Something else was going on as well, something that she ought to recognise and understand, yet her mind refused to solve the puzzle. What was it? She answered the AIs questions as best as she could, trying to put her experience into words, all the time feeling the entity’s presence in her mind. At some level, she was morbidly sure that it knew that she had tried to probe near it and only the difference in scale had stopped it from recognising her for what she was. She was relieved; if the entity had focused on her, her defences wouldn’t have lasted a second against such power.

    “It’s drawing power from them,” the AIs said. “What could it use the power to do?”

    “Anything,” Aisyaj answered, feeling the pressure at the back of her head increasing. “What are we going to do?”

    “The Confederation Navy has been informed,” the AIs said. That wasn't quite an answer. “Maybe this system will be quarantined until a more permanent solution can be devised.”

    Aisyaj snorted. “And what happens when the entity decides it wants out?”

    The AIs didn’t answer. She triggered her implants and attempted to open a link to Rowan. Rather to her surprise, the link functioned properly and she was able to access her vessel’s computers, ordering it to bring the ship’s systems online and prepare for teleport.

    “That may be unwise,” the AIs said. “The local atmosphere is full of static. The teleporting field may be disrupted…”

    “Smearing me over half a light year,” Aisyaj finished. “I know the risks.”

    She shook her head, tossing her long dark hair over her shoulder. “I need to take one final look at the entity,” she said. “It may reach out for me, so I need you to monitor my brainwaves. If something happens, trigger the teleport field at once and snatch me away and up to the ship.”

    “Understood,” the AIs said. They sounded doubtful, but accepting. “We are ready.”

    Aisyaj stood up and looked out of the window, towards the <st1:place><st1:placeName>Mushroom</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType>City</st1:placeType></st1:place>. The waves stuck her instantly, focused bursts of madness, an insane hatred of all that was different. At first, she saw nothing, and then she saw…something forming over the city, becoming visible to her senses. It looked like mist, yet as it grew clearer, it began to take on shape and form. It was a giant translucent octopus looming over the city, with strands reaching down into the city…and one giant eye that was slowly turning towards her. She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if she met its eye, she would be destroyed, her mind lost and replaced with something else. She was captivated, unable to look away…

    And then the teleport field shimmered around her and she was gone.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    How about some lovely comments?

    Chapter Eleven<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Twenty seconds until emergence, Admiral.”

    Admiral Burton sat back in his command chair and tried to appear relaxed as the seconds ticked down to zero. Hyperspace travel – particularly travel through the higher bands of hyperspace – was the fastest way to travel over long distances, yet there was no way to alter their exit coordinates while travelling in such a manner. The task force could jump out into literally anything, from an invading alien fleet to more of the strange objects that had bedevilled Confederation science and defence hardware.

    “Give us a ten second countdown,” he ordered, as he checked the live feed from the other ships in the task force. The Confederation Navy had responded splendidly when it had come to dealing with the first real emergency in three hundred years, deploying seven additional planetoids and over two hundred cruisers to maintain the quarantine zone. Three planetoids and forty cruisers were now on their way to Greenland to investigate the crisis and render what assistance they could, while the remainder of the fleet was hanging back in reserve, waiting to see what developed. “Bring the task force to full alert.”

    He listened as the helmsman counted down to zero and the entire planetoid shivered as it returned to normal space. The main display lit up at once as the starship deployed its FTL sensor arrays, trying to locate the source of the trouble. Only a madman would bring a planetoid into normal space close to an inhabited world – the planet-sized starships had a not-inconsiderable gravity field of their own – yet it hardly mattered, not to sensors that could count the grains of sand on a beach several hundreds of thousands of kilometres away. Only military-grade stealth systems could hope to hide anything from the Sparta and her consorts.

    “Admiral,” the tactical officer said. “We have...”

    He broke off as the data rapidly expanded in the main display. Burton’s first impression had been that the system was under attack, but as the data kept flowing in, it became increasingly clear that the local defences were firing on each other. Greenland had always had a formidable defence network – the planet was too close to three alien races that might be hostile, and the Confederation had always preferred to be better safe than sorry – yet that network seemed to be turning against itself, exchanging fire with its own nodes. He plunged his mind into the tactical computers and attempted to analyse the situation, but it was impossible to make out any consistent pattern. It seemed to him as though the sides kept switching at random.

    “Get a data download from the local defence network,” he ordered, although he had a sneaking suspicion that it would be useless. “I want to try and determine if...”

    “Admiral,” the tactical officer said, as the main display flashed red. “The local defences are sweeping us and locking targeting sensors on our ships.”

    Burton swallowed a curse as several inactive weapons platforms - armed with heavy weapons intended to take out battleships, superdreadnaughts and planetoids - went active, loading new targeting coordinates into their local processors. The Confederation had had thousands of years of experience in building defence networks, including creating systems that could continue to function even when half of the network was destroyed, disabled or subverted. The local planetary datanet seemed to be suffering from absurd – and unexplained – glitches – yet it wouldn't prevent the orbital network from exchanging fire with his ships.

    “Lock our own weapons on the platforms targeting us,” he ordered, curtly. The very thought was absurd, if not surreal. He had never dreamed that he would one day end up pointing his ship’s formidable armament at a Confederation world. “If they start firing, I want them taken out at once.”

    “Aye, sir,” the tactical officer said. “I am locking weapons on target...”

    There was a shimmer in the air and the AI image materialised on the bridge. “Admiral, the planet appears to be under attack by an alien force,” the AIs said, their voices blurring together in a worried harmony. “They appear to have driven the majority of the population mad.”

    “Incoming missiles,” the tactical officer snapped. “I am returning fire!”

    The display sparkled with angry red icons as missiles were launched from the orbital platforms, directly towards the Confederation Navy task force. Burton studied them as his ship’s automatic systems deployed countermeasures, but he found himself unable to understand the tactics behind the deployment, or even if there was any tactical order at all. Standard tactical doctrine was to use an assorted collection of missiles to break through the target’s defences, yet the enemy seemed to be firing almost at random. Hyper-missiles sparkled through hyperspace and slammed into his ship’s shields, while normal-space missiles plunged through space at ninety percent of the speed of light, seeking out their targets. The assault wasn't even coordinated properly.

    “Deploy defensive systems,” he ordered, knowing that it was already a redundant order. At such speeds, the engagement was out of his hands and placed into the hands of the starship’s computer network. No human could react fast enough to deflect hyper-missiles fired at such close range. “Concentrate on the antimatter and gravity warheads...”

    The starship rang like a bell as three warheads – armed with compressed antimatter – detonated against her shields. Burton swore as the entire ship heaved, knowing that a single one of those warheads would have wrecked the planetary ecosystem and killed everyone on the planet if it had struck the surface. No one in their right mind would have considered using such warheads close to a planet unless there was no other choice; the AIs, he realised, might well be right. The entire planet seemed to have gone mad.

    He turned to the AIs, trusting his crew and the ship’s automated systems to handle the incoming barrage of missiles and taking out the defences. Sparta spat back a more precise salvo of hyper-missiles, destroying the first set of platforms almost instantly; they didn't even have their shields rotating through the hyperspace bands. It was bizarre. Didn't they even care about what was happening to the Ring? If it was hit badly and started to disintegrate, the planet would be bombarded with chunks of debris, sending it into an ice age.

    “All right,” he said, as his ship heaved again. “What is going on?”

    He listened to the AIs briefing in disbelief. It seemed impossible, but then...so was what had happened to the Buckley Experiment, and then there was the totally bizarre actions of the planetary defence network. The automatic systems alone would have been capable of putting up a far better fight, even if they lacked the intelligence of a full-class AI or an organic mindset. If there truly was an alien force pervading the planet below and driving everyone it contacted mad, it explained a great deal.

    “And the datanet is going down,” he said, shaking his head. The planetary datanets should have been impossible to destroy, without shattering the planet or scorching it clean of human life, for multiple redundancies were built into the network. The AIs displayed a diagram in front of him, showing glitches and power drains that seemed to threaten the network with total collapse, yet seemed to lack any definite cause. They were definitely focused around the Mushroom City, but the effects seemed to be spreading. “How many of the population have escaped the alien force?”

    “Uncertain,” the AIs said. “We are unable to track the alien force and we can only deduce its presence by its effects. If it is using the telepathic waveband to coordinate its operations, it may not be bound by anything we would understand as normal limits or constraints.”

    “Open a direct channel to the datanet, full-spectrum emergency broadcast,” Burton ordered. He waited for the channel to open. It should have been almost instant, yet it took nearly twenty seconds before the channel was open, broadcasting an emergency message into the planetary network. Spammers would have loved the emergency codes; everyone, unless they had no implants or portable terminals, would hear him. “This is Admiral Burton, commanding officer of the Sparta Task Force.”

    He took a breath. “Your planet has been attacked by subversion software,” he lied. The effects were clearly similar and besides, there were protocols in place for dealing with a subversion attack. “Help is on the way. If you remain unaffected by the subversion, broadcast a standard emergency call into the datanet and continue to broadcast it until we reach you. Do not attempt to put yourselves at risk. Help is on the way.”

    “The message may not have reached everyone,” the AIs said. They sounded perplexed and irritated. “The local network glitches defy everything we understand about the laws of science and how they work.”

    “Just like the Buckley Experiment,” Burton growled. “Do we have any idea what started this attack?”

    “Not as yet,” the AIs said. “Our research is proceeding, but damage to the local network makes it difficult to understand just what occurred prior to the outbreak of madness.”

    Burton nodded slowly. On the main display, other missiles were flaring in towards his ships, forcing the lighter cruisers to take evasive action as they deployed their countermeasures. The enemy didn't seem to have any grasp of the principle of concentrating their fire, thankfully, or he would have lost several ships by now. Even so, some of the cruisers had had lucky escapes. He wouldn't have wanted to challenge the network when it was up and running properly.

    He ran his hand though his hair as he considered his options. Now they had a link through the AIs to what remained of the planetary datanet, he could tell that many uninfected men and women remained in Mushroom City and the smaller cities on the planet’s surface or flying above the ground. His duty was to save them, both the infected and uninfected, if only to get them away from the rogue defences. The damage the Ring had taken suggested that the enemy, whatever it was, might just decide that it would be a fun idea to turn the defences on the planet’s surface and slaughter the population.

    The standard procedure would be to use teleporters and snatch everyone off the planet’s surface, putting them into stasis until the infected could be safely separated from the uninfected. That wouldn't be easy, even with three planetoids to share the burden; the teleport denial network was up and running, preventing unauthorised teleports from taking place. Even if his ships were able to punch through it, they would still have to store the infected and they simply didn't have the space to do it. It was a shame that they couldn't simply store the teleport patterns in the pattern buffers, but the quantum uncertainty principle would ensure that their patterns would rapidly disintegrate. There were emergency protocols for trying that tactic if all else failed, yet the situation wasn't that dire. He had the uncomfortable feeling that it was only a matter of time before he was forced to resort to desperate action.

    Sparta shook again and he made up his mind. “Prepare the Marines for detachment,” he ordered, studying the display. The computers would automatically connect him to the Marines, waiting patiently in their launch bays. “I want a division to concentrate on securing the Mushroom City and a second division to concentrate on securing the defence network infrastructure in the Ring. Once we have control of the infrastructure, we can shut off the defences and then bring in wormhole generators and flood in troops from all over the Confederation.”

    “Understood, Admiral,” Major Pasha’s voice said, firmly. The Major was over two hundred years old and had been a Marine for fifty of them, after nearly a hundred years spent in the remorseless pursuit of hedonism practiced by most of the Confederation’s citizens. “Do the standard counter-subversion rules of engagement remain in effect?”

    “Yes, Major,” Admiral Burton said. If they were lucky, they could pull off the mission without massive loss of life. “They remain in effect.”

    “The Marines may be infected by the alien force,” the AIs said. “We are unable to assume that they will be protected by their nature.”

    Burton nodded, grimly. “I think we will have to take that chance,” he said, as the planetary defences launched another spread of missiles towards his ships. No, not all of them were fired at his ships; a handful had been launched at smaller habitats out towards the edge of the star system. Before anyone could react, the missiles struck home, destroying the habitats and slaughtering their populations. The butcher’s bill appeared in front of his eyes, mocking him; a million human citizens of the Confederation had just died. “We have no other choice.”

    He linked into the ship’s computers and sent a priority code down into the network. “Land the landing force,” he ordered. “All ships, prepare to provide support as required.”

    Janine burst into the newshound office and tried to catch her breath, before she felt – more than heard – someone behind her. A hand caught her by the neck and pulled her over backwards; she struggled against her assailant for a long moment before she triggered her implants and shocked him with a nasty shock. She turned as her attacker fell to the ground, revealing that he was a young man with blood dripping from his mouth. Vampires might have been in fashion at the moment – fashions changed so fast that she honestly couldn't remember – but the blood was real. It wasn't his either. His eyes were alight with the same madness that had infected others...

    “Shut up,” she said, and triggered a stun pulse from her implants. Thankfully – she wasn't sure what she would have done if the stun pulse had failed – he twitched and lay still. She checked him and then, cursing her own lack of awareness, she looked around the office. It was completely wrecked. Someone – she hoped it was the young man she’d stunned – had torn through it, for no apparent reason. She took a final look at the comatose body and walked away from him, checking through the office for signs of human life. She saw nothing until she checked the final room, where the senior correspondent had made her office. She was sitting at her desk in semi-darkness, looking remarkably normal until Janine walked up to her. Her throat had literally been torn open and blood was pouring down onto the desk, yet she was still fighting to survive.

    “I’m sorry,” Janine said, as she tried to figure out what to do. On a normal day, she could have accessed medical texts from the datanet, or summoned help from the emergency services, who would have teleported the senior correspondent into the nearest medical pod. Now...her implants kept malfunctioning, to the point where her every attempt to connect to the datanet failed. She tried to open a connection to the senior correspondent’s own implants, but the connection failed to materialise. “I don't know what to do.”

    She knew she should stay with the wounded woman, but instead she walked back outside, into the main office. The man she’d stunned was gone. Cursing, she pushed her implanted defences up to the highest level, only to realise that they were degrading faster and faster. There was no sign of him anywhere, yet she knew he had to be around somewhere. Or maybe he’d slipped out of the office and had gone to join the madness outside. On impulse, she walked over to the computer terminal and triggered it, hoping that the hardwired system would work better. It lit up for a second and then faded away to black.

    Her implants triggered, just for a second, and she heard the emergency broadcast from the Confederation Navy. She hadn't realised just how much hearing that someone – somewhere – was responding to the crisis would cheer her up, until it had actually happened. She triggered the distress signal from her implants, but – as the signal started pulsing out – that whatever was disrupting communications and screwing with human technology could easily jam her distress signal. Taking one last look around, she ran out of the office and started to head towards the nearest skyscraper. The Confederation Navy, she was sure, would be able to locate her faster if she was in the open.

    She could hear the noise of the maddened crowd as she crossed the square, but thankfully she met no one as she reached the skyscraper and headed up the stairs, not trusting the gravity chute. A handful of bodies were scattered around as she reached the landing, some clearly killed by the maddened people, others...others looked as if they had killed themselves, or there was no apparent cause of death. Three of them had blood pouring from their eyes, as if they had looked upon something so terrible that they couldn't bear to see any longer. Janine checked them quickly, confirming that they were dead in the absence of their implants, before running the rest of the way to the roof. She couldn't bear to look at any more dead bodies.

    The outside air seemed oddly...unpleasant as she burst out onto the roof. There was something there, something pressing against the very fabric of reality itself. She could feel it on some level, something so vast that she could barely grasp the fact of its existence. She turned, convinced that there was someone or something behind her and saw...something weirdly alien materialising out of the mist. Her mind refused to accept its existence. No matter how she stared at it, it refused to resolve into a solid form.

    She braced herself as the entire building shook. Help was on the way, she knew, but would it get there in time? Seconds later, she realised in horror that the dome covering the Mushroom City was starting to collapse. If it collapsed while the madness was spreading through the streets, hundreds of thousands of people would be killed...
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  12. Byte

    Byte Monkey+++

    Great story so far. The tech descriptions have been great too. Not so much that it gets agonizing trying to reconcile it in my mind but just enough to make it believable. Pretty epic scale you're describing. Most excellent future sci-fi.

  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    No matter how many combat jumps he made, Major Pasha knew that he would never get used to it, or take it for granted. The Confederation Marines were an elite force, the sole major human force designed for operations against planetary targets and the Confederation lavished resources and technology on turning them into the most formidable ground-assault force in history. He sometimes wondered how he would have done on the battlefields of Agincourt, or Iwo Jima, or Hades III, back before the Confederation had put an end to inter-human warfare, yet in the end he was satisfied to be what he was, a Confederation Marine.

    The Marines were ejected from the Sparta in a wave of gravimetric distortion, washed down towards the planet below. They were moving far faster than a speeding bullet, yet it felt as if they were moving slowly, a testament to how massive the planet was compared to the Marines. He could see the Ring orbiting the planet, shaking under the impact of missiles from the rogue defence units, and hoped – prayed – that the other Marine division managed to take the defence network command station intact before the Ring was completely destroyed. Millions of humans lived on the Ring and many of them would have been killed, or driven mad.

    He reviewed the information from the AIs and scowled to himself, even as he relished the challenge. Unlike almost all of the Confederation, the Marines were accustomed to operating without a basic information infrastructure or even some of the technology that the rest of the universe took for granted. Even so, there wasn't going to be anything easy about this mission. Whatever was driving the people on the planet below mad meant that the planet’s population couldn't be held accountable for their actions, yet the Marines would have to either stun them all and shove them into stasis, or kill them. A standard subversion package turned men and women into drones, used as puppets by the terrorist who had uploaded the package into the network and somehow gotten it past the safety protocols, but this was different. The Marines could expect themselves to be fighting the very people they had come to save.

    The standard Marine Combat Unit was roughly humanoid, yet it was immensely strong, capable of flexing in ways that no unmodified human could match and armed with all of the weapons and sensors that human ingenuity could fit into the system. Matched against flesh and blood, it would tear through human bodies like they were made of paper, leaving bloody chaos in their wake. Most civilians tended to have weapons enrichments added to their implants, if they lived on worlds where there was the possibility of encountering a wild animal or worse, yet few civilians had any weapons that could seriously threaten a Marine. In theory, they should be able to stun the civilians and get them out of the area, even if they did offer resistance. In practice...well, as wise humans had passed down through the ages, no battle plan ever survived contact with the enemy.

    He gritted his teeth as the red sweep of a targeting sensor swept across his position, yet no missiles or energy weapons roared out to exterminate him and his Company. The division would, if all went to plan, land around the Mushroom City and move in to pick up the citizens who were screaming for help, before they started rounding up the maddened citizens. If it didn’t go to plan, they’d have to improvise; luckily, after years spent in the Corps, he knew how to improvise.

    “Stand by,” he ordered. The timer was remorselessly ticking down to zero. “Prepare for planetary insertion...now!”

    Greenland suddenly shifted, transforming from a glowing blue-green sphere floating in space to something impossibly large. Wrapped in their tiny warp bubbles, the Marines fell down towards the surface of the world, praying that none of the automated defences would come online and register them as a possible threat. It wasn't common for the weapons to fire without authorisation, but who knew what orders had been uploaded into their processors? It was chillingly possible that they’d been set to fire on anything that entered the atmosphere. There were protocols intended to deal with incoming meteor showers that might be triggered and used against his Marines.

    The display in front of him updated rapidly, showing the Mushroom City and the location of hundreds of emergency beacons. Being the paranoid person he was, he had a nasty feeling that some of those beacons were traps intended to snare his Marines, but they would have to go in anyway. He swallowed a curse as the red icons of incoming missiles flared into view, only to be picked off by precision hyper-missiles launched from the watching cruisers. Brilliant explosions flared up at the edge of space as the missiles were obliterated, yet they kept coming, following a firing pattern that made little sense. Marines were slipping through the net because the enemy wasn't coordinating its fire.

    Seven Marines vanished from his internal display as their combat units were destroyed, leaving the remainder of his division dropping rapidly towards the Mushroom City. The enemy fire seemed to slack off, although he couldn't tell if they’d simply lost interest in shooting at the Marines – which made have made sense, given their thoroughly strange behaviour – or if the cruisers had successfully picked off the launchers. Standard protocols would have had all the available launchers concentrating their fire on the incoming Marines, yet...he shook his head, mentally. As long as they got down to the surface, it didn't matter.

    He checked the secure data link back to the planetoid and winced as he realised that it was suffering from glitches and drop-outs as well. The planetary network was hardened, but the Marines had created a system that should have been impossible to jam, whatever the situation. It struck him that it was as if the laws of space and time were being rewritten on a local scale, which should have been impossible. On the other hand, after the Buckley Experiment, perhaps it was wise to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. So far, there was no sign that the command links were being broken or jammed, but if that happened...he shook his head, again. They were committed and had been committed ever since they had entered the planet’s atmosphere. There were no teleporters to yank them out of the battlefield if they changed their minds.

    The Mushroom City appeared below him and he steered towards the LZ, a stairway that reached down towards the ground under the city. From so high, the city looked more like a solid dome than a real city, but as they fell, it became clear that the fields holding the dome in place were collapsing. The dome was falling apart, crumbling down into dust. He didn't want to think about what could happen if someone was caught by a chunk of falling glass. It should have been safe with structural fields holding the glass in place.

    “Prepare for landing,” he ordered. The landing zone rose up towards him at terrifying speed. It seemed impossible that they would be able to slow themselves in time, yet the warp bubble cut in and they came to a halt, just above the ground. A second later, ten Marines touched down in perfect formation. “Deploy stun weapons and sensors.”

    The Marine Combat Units crouched down and deployed their weapons, flexing them out of their shielded compartments. The sensors – tiny drones, so small that the naked eye couldn't have picked them out – spun away from the Marines, racing out into the city. The RIs linked into the Marine Combat Network would be able to download and summarise their reports, slotting them together for the benefit of their human masters. They should be able to put together a report without risking the Marines.

    “The local area is clear, sir,” one of the Marines confirmed. The Marines conferred quickly, their minds buzzing together in the network, thinking almost as one. “We can advance into the city.”

    Pasha frowned. The network linking the sensor drones together was starting to fail. It was a secure link, yet parts of it were simply collapsing, as if they were being drained of all power. Once, years ago, he had seen a world trapped under a hyperspace dampening bubble, one created to prevent a violently xenophobic alien race from becoming a galactic menace, yet such a bubble would be detectable and it could be countered. The effect was more like the Dead Zone, an area of space where advanced technology refused to function, but if that was the case, everything electronic should have failed. This...selective effect was just weird. If he’d had access to a technology that turned enemy tech on and off at will, he wouldn't have wasted it by toying with them.

    “We advance, slowly,” he ordered, firmly. “Follow me.”

    He led the way into the city, scowling as more and more of the sensor drones simply dropped out of contact with the advancing Marines. They rounded a corner and came face to face with some of the maddened citizens, men and women who hadn't appeared on their sensors. The Marine Combat Units mounted extremely advanced sensors, yet they were failing to work properly in the strange environment. It didn't make sense. He swept the sensors over them and got little back, not even the brief pulses of data from implanted systems.

    The civilians turned to stare at the Marines, their eyes weirdly unblinking. Their faces were torn by an emotion he didn't recognise, yet somehow sent chills down his spine. They didn't look intimidated by the Marines, or even concerned about the threat they posed; they were moving more like savage animals than humans. Their slow movements reminded him of animals preparing to spring. He scanned them again and swore under his breath. The sensors were so badly disrupted that they were insisting that the humans weren't there.

    “Watch them,” he ordered, switching his mike to external speakers. Perhaps he could talk sense into their heads. “This is the Confederation Marines. Please...”

    The civilians sprang, leaping towards the Marines with hands outstretched, as if they intended to use their nails to slice through the armour and gut the Marines inside. Their hands scratched across Pasha’s protection without making any impression on him, yet there was something in their gaze that worried him, a conviction that if they kept trying, they would eventually succeed. The sensor disruption was growing worse. It made no sense to him at all, but he knew one thing; if the civilians kept trying to get into his Marine Combat Unit, they were going to hurt themselves quite badly.

    He sent an order to his unit and was relieved to discover that the weapons were working perfectly. “Stun them,” he ordered, triggering his stunners. A series of orange pulses of light sparkled across the civilians, sending them sprawling back from the Marines. They should have been knocked out completely for at least an hour, but instead – impossibly – they were resisting the stunners. Repeated application was dangerous, yet what other choice did they have? This time, the civilians seemed to be completely out of it, but they were still twitching, as if they were dreaming unpleasant dreams.

    “Sir,” one of his men said. “What’s gotten into them?”

    “I have no idea,” Pasha said. Oddly, now they had stunned the civilians, some of their advanced equipment seemed to be working better, rather than malfunctioning constantly. “Perhaps they were enriched and their defences worked better than they should...”

    He knew, even as he spoke, that that it wasn't the right answer. He bent down and ran a scanner over the prone bodies, yet he wasn't sure if he could trust the answers. At least the sensors agreed that the civilians existed now. They had, according to the sensors, no enrichments, but their brain activity seemed to make little sense. Even stunned, their brains were working overtime.

    “I think we should advance onwards,” he said, once he had relayed the details of the engagement up to the Sparta. Additional Marines would be required to pull the stunned civilians out of the city and, hopefully, get them somewhere out of the system. “Follow me.”

    Nothing blocked their path as they made their way through the buildings, until they reached the edge of a park. One of the emergency distress calls was coming from within the park, so the Marines spread out and advanced towards the source of the call. Pasha concentrated on watching his sensors, yet they seemed to be growing unreliable again. They kept reporting that they were surrounded by movement, but there was nothing visible, not even signs that someone was watching under a portable invisibility cloak. He felt jumpy as the movements came closer and placed his weapons on safety. Who knew what would happen if they just opened fire?

    He pushed his way through a brush and stared. A young man – barely more than a boy, even though it was hard to be certain in the Confederation – was lying curled up on the muddy ground. His eyeballs had been gorged out and squashed; looking at the blood on his hands, it was clear that he’d done it to himself. He was shaking and didn't even seem to realise that the Marines were there, even though he was surrounded by ten Marine Combat Units. Pasha realised, as he studied the young man, that he’d seen something he couldn't bear to see again.

    “Dear God,” one of his men muttered. “What is going on, sir?”

    “I don't know,” Pasha admitted. The sensors reported more movement at the edge of the park and, this time, they could see advancing civilians. The sensors reported weapons enrichments among them, some clearly cutting-edge for civilian technology. The Marines might be in a spot of trouble. “Call in the transports. I think we’re going to need help.”

    “We’re going in,” Chihiro said, as the signal came in from the Sparta. The Marine Assault Shuttles had been poised, ready for the dive into the atmosphere, yet the orders had refused to come through. She had been burning with impatience when the orders had finally arrived. “Here we go...”

    She linked her implants directly into the shuttle, feeling its solidly reassuring bulk surrounding her, and took it screaming down towards the planet, dodging the handful of missiles launched towards the shuttle flotilla by the planetary defences. Whoever was behind the defences was mad, she decided, as the shuttles evaded the missiles with ease. She had trained to fly into hotter and deadlier skies than the one she was facing now; indeed, she was more than a little disappointed. It could have been so much more challenging.

    The Marines were ahead of her, in the Mushroom City. Chihiro had attempted to join the Marines herself, but while she’d failed the main training course, she’d managed to impress her instructors with her flying skills and had been offered a transfer into Marine Combat Support. Since then, she had flown a handful of real missions and thousands of exercises, honing her skills for the day when she would be truly tested. She had never expected to fly a combat mission on a Confederation world, yet she told herself that she was ready for the challenge. There was nothing that the Marines couldn't handle.

    She checked the local airspace as the shuttles levelled out and roared towards the city. There was little that they needed to worry about, apart from a handful of civilian aircars that seemed to be running from the city and the madness that had gripped their friends and families. She sent them a challenge and warned them to stay away from the Marines, although it looked to her as if they weren't infected by whatever was affecting the city. If they remained away from infected civilians, they could be picked up and transported away from the planet.

    “Landing in two minutes,” she informed her passengers, as the shuttles spread out. There seemed to be no danger of incoming fire, but the Marines and their supporting teams knew better than to take chances. The enemy was behaving irrationally and an irrational enemy might do something that would be completely unexpected. The precautions cost them nothing and might save lives. “Prepare for combat...”

    Her voice broke off. Looming over the city, visible to her naked eye, was...a strange pulsing mass. She checked her sensors automatically, convinced it had to be an atmospheric condition, and blinked when they claimed that the airspace over the city was clear. Chihiro looked up again and saw, this time, a giant octopus-like creature, somehow sharing space with the city. It had to be an illusion, or a hologram, yet something inside her told her that it was real. It pulsed and throbbed like a giant naked brain, tendrils reaching down towards the city below. Her sensors were still refusing to recognise its existence, yet...she reached for the controls, preparing to yank the shuttle out of its flight path, but somehow she could not complete the manoeuvre. Before she could do anything else, or break the mental lock, the shuttle flew right into the creature. Chihiro winced, expecting a collision, yet nothing happened. There was nothing wrong at all. There was absolutely nothing wrong at all.

    Quite calmly, she brought up the shuttle’s weapons and deactivated the safeguards. Ignoring the outraged protests from her superiors, she activated the targeting systems and lit up the remaining shuttles. Before they could react, she started firing hyper-missiles at them, laughing all the time. Using hyperspace, flight time to their targets was measured in nanoseconds; they were destroyed before they had a chance to act. They disintegrated in massive balls of fire, scattering wreckage all over the city. She was still laughing as she tipped the shuttle towards the floating city of Garland and opened fire.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Admiral, one of the shuttles has gone rogue!”

    Burton wheeled around, astonished. Gone rogue had a single meaning in the Confederation Navy; it meant that the rogue in question had somehow gone over to the enemy side. On the display, a shuttle was shooting madly towards one of the floating cities, its hyper-missiles slamming into the city’s antigravity dome. As he watched in horror, the gravity fields holding the city above the ground failed and the city tilted, plunging towards the ground.

    “Forget the safety protocols,” he snapped. “Teleport those people off the city!”

    “I cannot get a lock on anyone,” the teleport officer reported, grimly. “The disruption is too powerful to allow the teleport fields to activate and yank them away from the falling city.”

    Burton gritted his teeth. His task force was too far away to intervene and, with the planetary defences firing on them, it was hard to see what they could do to assist the doomed population. If they could still think straight, they might have a chance if they dived into their aircars and fled the falling city, but the drones had reported that madness had gripped the flying city as well. It plunged into the ground with an impact that shook the entire continent, taking all ten thousand of its inhabitants with it.

    “It’s hard to be certain at this range, Admiral,” the AI image said, “but we believe that no one will have survived the impact. The city’s emergency systems had completely failed.”

    Burton nodded, using his implants to calm himself and place the rage, horror and grief in a compartment in the back of his mind. He had just witnessed the Confederation’s greatest peacetime disaster, yet it was only a fragment of the nightmare that had gripped the entire planetary system. He wanted something to hit, something he could retaliate against, yet there was nothing. The enemy remained unseen, beyond his reach.

    “Focus on the shuttle,” he ordered. One half of his expanded mentality tracked the action on the ground, where the Marines were trying to secure the Mushroom City to allow the recovery of the uninfected civilians; the remainder watched as the crazed shuttle flashed across the surface of the planet, firing madly at random targets. The targeting pattern made no sense at all. The targets didn't even correspond with the uninfected civilians screaming for help. That would have made sense, but why...he skimmed through the shuttle pilot’s personal file and found nothing, no clue as to why she would have suddenly turned. He could only conclude that the madness had infected her too.

    He considered it as the shuttle started to rise up towards space and his task force. It looked almost as if the pilot intended to charge right into his force, guns blazing; something that could only be described as pointless suicide. Or maybe she intended to jump into hyperspace and flee to another world, spreading the madness ahead of her. It could not be allowed, he knew; whatever was going on could not be allowed to spread.

    “We are unable to determine why the pilot appears to have gone mad,” the AIs said. “Logically, however, the madness must have gripped everyone on the shuttle, or she would have been wrestled away from the controls. There is no apparent means of infection, which suggests that we are dealing with a telepathic virus. The remaining shuttles may also be infected.”

    Burton couldn't disagree with the logic. “Order the River to intercept the shuttle and take her and her crew alive,” he ordered. It wouldn't be easy, but Captain Pearson was experienced and his ship was capable. “We need her for examination.”

    “We suggest using full quarantine procedures,” the AIs said. “This may be as dangerous as a plague of rogue nanomachines or quantum faults.”

    “And order the remaining shuttles to safe their weapons,” he added. “We don’t want any more incidents.”

    “Admiral,” the communications officer said, “we have a message from one of the shuttles. The pilot wishes to speak to you personally.”

    Burton frowned. Even in the Confederation Navy, such informality was unusual. “Put her through,” he ordered, as her personal file scrolled up in front of his virtual vision. Commander Kara Pratt was known for being a tough pilot, winner of the Marine Corps flying competitions for two years straight. “This is Burton.”

    “Admiral, this is Commander Pratt,” a voice said. There was no visual, but an image appeared in front of him, a short blonde woman with a pair of striking blue eyes. Marines didn't go in for facial alteration on a whim, so the chances were that it was her natural face. Burton could tell, even without the personal file, that she’d been born an Enhanced Human. Her face was just too striking. “There is a...unusual formation in the atmosphere, centred on the city.”

    Burton blinked at her voice. For someone who was a combat veteran of several jumps into hostile territory, she sounded spooked, almost uncertain of her position. “I see,” he said. “What kind of unusual formation?”

    Kara’s voice hardened. “It looks like a translucent octopus,” she said. Burton exchanged a glance with the AI image, but for once found that he was speechless. “Sir, it doesn't register on the sensors or even on direct feed from scout drones, yet we can see it. We can see right through it, but we know it’s there, like a ghost. The...crazy shuttle flew right through it just before the pilot went insane.”

    “A hologram would show up on optical sensors,” the AIs murmured. “We have checked with the sensors – those that are reliable – and there is nothing visible.”

    “So what,” Burton asked, “is causing it?”

    There was a long pause. “A telepathic illusion would not register on the sensors,” the AIs said. He could sense their frustration at having to depend on imperfect human senses for their information. “The only explanation that seems to make sense is that they are looking at something that is so out of phase with our universe or so fundamentally alien that the sensors simply refuse to register its existence.”

    Burton found himself caught on the horns of a dilemma. He knew that he should pull the Marines out and seal off the planet, at least until the Confederation’s massive scientific – or telepathic – resources figured out how to handle the new crisis. It was the logical decision, yet he knew that doing that would mean abandoning the remaining uninfected citizens on the planet to their fate. He couldn't do that. The Confederation Navy existed to protect the human race and it had never failed in that duty. It would not fail here, now, he resolved. He ignored the little voice at the back of his mind that warned that it might not be possible to avoid failure.

    “Warn the River to be careful,” he ordered. “The shuttle’s crew might be under the control of a hostile telepathic force.”

    “Understood, Admiral,” the communications officer reported, his voice calm and professional. “They are making their approach now.”

    Captain Tom Pearson watched through his ship’s sensors as the shuttle – clearly under the control of a very hostile pilot – grew closer. The pilot had to be mad, he had already decided; the shuttle was twisting and turning in a way that made no sense, not even to the AIs analysing her flight path. From time to time, the shuttle would spin over and unleash a spread of hyper-missiles towards the burning Ring, yet the pilot seemed to be completely ignoring his ship. No one, not even a mad sociopath, would ignore a clear and present danger.

    He considered the tactical situation as the two ships converged. It would have been easy to destroy the shuttle, using focused energy beams rather than expending a missile on the tiny ship, but the Admiral had ordered him to take the ship intact. That was rather more difficult; a Marine combat shuttle was designed to make it impossible to use a dampening field to knock out its drives and weapons systems, while the teleport denial field was up and running, preventing him from simply snapping them off the rogue shuttle and beaming them directly into the stasis field.

    “Prepare the tractor field,” he ordered. Luckily, the shuttle didn't have anything like as much power to burn as his starship. He could simply overpower the ship and then take the crew prisoner. “Focus the gravity beams on the ship...”

    “Incoming missiles,” the tactical officer warned. The shuttle had finally noticed their presence and was reacting, as he had expected, rather badly. The hyper-missiles it was spitting at them were impacting against the hyperspace band shields before the tactical officer finished his warning. At least most of the energy was being diverted into hyperspace rather than being expanded against his hull. “The firing pattern makes no sense.”

    “Let her expend her missiles on us,” Pearson ordered, calmly. The River was fairly safe against the shuttle’s small arsenal of missiles, but he hated to imagine what a pair of hyper-missiles in the wrong place could do to the Ring. It was far better to absorb the hits and wrap the shuttle in a tractor field rather than risk losing something considerably more fragile. “Focus the tractor field around her and prepare to bring her in.”

    The human race had learned to manipulate vast gravity fields from the Gasbags, who used gravity beams to operate their massive starships, but over the centuries the technology had been improved to the point where a shell of gravity waves could be generated at will, allowing the ship to manipulate the shuttle at will. He tensed as the gravity sphere started to form, half-expecting the shuttle’s pilot to twist out of their grasp before it was too late, but instead the shuttle seemed remarkably docile. It didn't make sense. The ship had even stopped shooting. He fired a query into the tactical network, attempting to determine if the shuttle had any missiles left, but the results were uncertain. Marines liked to have extra weapons along if possible and the establishment figures might not apply. Twenty seconds after the ship had begun generating the gravity field, the shuttle was securely enmeshed in his net, helpless.

    “Sir,” the tactical officer snapped. “They’re powering up their hyperdrive!”

    Pearson swore. The crew had to be mad...and, in hindsight, he should have expected such a tactic, insane as it was. Hyperdrives could be used close to a planetary surface or any large gravity mass, yet it always caused massive disruption and was banned except in case of emergency. Using one so close to the River would cause an energy surge that would cripple or destroy his ship, one channelled back at them by their own gravity field.

    “Suppress it,” he ordered, sharply. If they couldn’t prevent the hyper-field from forming up, they would have to let the shuttle go – or destroy it. He didn't want to risk either, yet if there was no other choice he knew the shuttle had to be destroyed. Whatever it was carrying could not be allowed to spread. “Don't let her go.”

    For a long moment, the shuttle’s hyperdrive warred with the gravity field his ship was generating, trying to escape. He had far more raw power at his disposal, yet focusing it all on the hyperdrive without destroying the shuttle wasn't easy. The irony wasn't lost on him. Smashing the shuttle into its component atoms wouldn't have been difficult at all, yet that would have meant admitting defeat. They couldn't do that, not when he suspected that this crisis was merely the first of many.

    Abruptly, the shuttle’s drive failed. “We have her, sir,” the tactical officer said. “The shuttle is securely within our grasp.”

    “Drain her power, scan her for surprises and then bring her into the shuttle bay,” Pearson ordered. “Keep the gravity field focused on the shuttle. If they decide to detonate the antimatter power cells, I want it contained and drained into the power network.”

    “Aye, Captain,” the tactical officer said. Caught in the grip of the tractor field, the shuttle was pulled into the bay and secured. River carried no Marines to handle boarding the shuttle, but a Marine platoon was already on its way from the Sparta. Once they arrived, the shuttle could be opened and the crew removed, hopefully without hurting them. “There is no sign of resistance.”

    “Don’t count on it,” Pearson ordered. “I want every sensor we have focused on that ship.”

    “The River successfully scooped up the shuttle,” the tactical officer reported. “The Marines are boarding her now.”

    “Good,” Burton said. The entire engagement was starting to degrade rapidly into incoherence. His task force was still being fired upon, yet parts of the system defence network seemed to be concentrating more on hitting the Ring rather than destroying his fleet. If the octopus – he had decided to think of it as that until he understood what it was – was trying to subvert the entire system, its tactics made little sense. “Have you managed to locate the enemy?”

    “No,” the AIs said. “We are, however, progressing with inquiries.”

    From far too close, Aisyaj could see the damage to the Ring, great blasts of fire glinting out in space as weapons struck home or systems failed. The massive structure, home to most of the humans in the system, was slowly disintegrating. She ran a projection and realised, in horror, that without proper and immediate support, the Ring was going to come apart within days, perhaps less if the structure was hit again or something else went badly wrong. The system’s technological network seemed to be on the verge of collapse.

    She rubbed her head, trying to shut out the hissing she could hear at the back of her mind. It was hard to focus on the hiss – it was always something at the corner of her mind, not something she could see openly – yet she had the feeling that if she only listened, it would suck her into its network and there would be nothing left of her. The sheer power spilling out across the surface of the planet below was terrifying, even if only a telepath could sense it directly. The entity, whatever it truly was, could manipulate great sections of the quantum foam. That made it, to all intents and purposes, God – at least on a very small scale.

    The memory kept dancing in front of her mind’s eye. The Marines down on the planet below, according to the live feed the AIs were allowing her to access, could see the entity, yet they couldn't understand what it truly was, or even why they could see it when sensors couldn't even begin to pick it up. Aisyaj knew; the entity existed solely on the telepathic waveband, its visibility more of a mental insistence that it existed rather than anything truly solid. It was manifesting in the human universe by sheer force of will, its presence bending the laws of time and space around it, rewriting the quantum foam in order to allow itself to exist. It was power beyond comprehension and it was truly alien, alien beyond any hope of human understanding, or sympathy. She wasn’t even sure that it was truly malevolent. It might not recognise that humans existed.

    Her fingers twitched towards the control panels, but somehow she held her treacherous hands back from completing their movement. The entity was calling to her, trying to pull it into its net, with as little compassion as the spider showed to the fly. The compulsion was all the more shocking, for telepathic compulsion – using one’s telepathy to influence others – was strictly forbidden. The entity didn't seem to care about human feelings; indeed, she was unsure if it even knew what it was doing.

    “We need you to attempt a scan,” the AIs said. Aisyaj glared over at their image. Her head felt as if it were full of cotton wool. She was in no state to scan anyone. “We need you to tell us what the entity did to the maddened shuttle pilot.”

    “She stared into the face of the gorgon,” Aisyaj said, trying to focus her mind. “She was driven mad by the entity.”

    She gabbled out an explanation, between trying to remember how to program the vessel’s computers to take her out of orbit and somewhere safe – if there was anywhere safe now that the entities had arrived. Her treacherous mind refused to cooperate and she was reduced to babbling orders to the ship’s computers, praying that her technology wouldn't fail as it had failed on the planet below. It was easy to understand why that was happening, anyway; the entity was bending the natural laws around it and, in doing so, disabling much of humanity’s technology.

    “We require more data,” the entity said. “Why did it happen?”

    “I told you,” Aisyaj snapped. The anger helped her to focus. “She couldn't take contact with the creature, so it drove her mad. It will drive me mad if I stay here too long. Do you understand me?”

    She finished programming the computers and glared towards the AI image. “Now, if you will excuse me...”

    “That might not be a good idea,” the AIs said. “The coordinates you have entered would bring you out right on top of the Mushroom City, if you didn't interpenetrate with the planet and die horribly.”

    Aisyaj stared down at the display. It felt as if a dark mirror had shattered in front of her eyes, a dark plate of glass that had been concealing the truth from her mind. The entity had snared her and she hadn't even realised! She’d learned to resist compulsion back when she’d been training to develop her powers, but this was different. The entity had oozed its way into her mind and, convinced she was escaping, she had nearly thrown herself into its tentacles.

    “Perhaps we should assist,” the AIs said.

    Aisyaj couldn't bring herself to argue.
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fourteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “I can't see anything,” Pasha said, as he glanced around, using all the sensors on his Marine Combat Unit. According to the shuttle pilots, they should be in the centre of the ‘octopus,’ yet he couldn't see anything. The green-tinted sky seemed to shimmer as he looked, but that was hardly unusual. His sensors – those that seemed to be reliable – showed no hint of any octopus-like creature. “Are you sure that there’s something there?”

    “Yes, Major,” Kara said. If she hadn't been an old friend, he would have distrusted her opinion because it conflicted with what he could see. “I can see it!”

    “All right,” Pasha ordered. The movement towards the edge of the park was growing more prominent, suggesting that a crowd of maddened citizens had arrived to tackle the Marines. “Keep the shuttles away from the octopus. We’ll find the uninfected citizens and get them out of the city.”

    He scowled as he glanced down at his tactical display. Several of the emergency beacons had just vanished. Under normal circumstances, that would imply that the citizen in question was dead, but now, with technology failing seemingly at random, it was impossible to be sure if they were alive or dead. The remaining civilians seemed to be scattered around, almost as if someone had wanted to lure the Marines into a trap. He would have to split up his forces to find and pull them all out, weakening his men...

    “Major,” his escort said. “We have four contacts...”

    Pasta looked up. Somehow – and he blamed his failing sensors – the enemy had managed to get a set of defence drones online and pointed right at them, without even triggering an alert. The drones should have been easy for the Marines to reprogram and steer away from the Combat Units, but it didn't take a master hacker to confirm that the drones had been reprogrammed and their safety systems wiped. They normally served as policemen if the nominal police were overwhelmed, a very rare event, yet now he was certain that all of their weapons would be operating without their safety interlocks. On the other hand, drones weren't people; the Marines could use their full array of weapons on them without needing to worry about killing innocents.

    He swore as the first humans appeared, following the defence drones. Their eyes were ablaze with madness, their bodies flickering with energies that revealed the existence of multiple weapons and defence enhancements. They were protected by their own internal force fields, ensuring that his men couldn't stop them without injuring them badly. He revived the sensor readings, wondering at how some technology seemed to fail while other technology remained intact, and muttered another curse under his breath. They would have to disable the civilians and hope that they were killed by the trauma before they could get them into a medical pod.

    “The stunners won't work on these bastards,” Corporal Anderson pointed out. “Major, I suggest that we deploy plasma lances and kick the **** out of the defence drones.”

    Pasha nodded slowly. The defence drones kept advancing, held above the ground by their antigravity fields. They were well-protected for their size and, somehow, he doubted they would show any restraint in engaging the Marines. The madness that had gripped the civilian population had gripped them too. He sent a flurry of orders into the network, a battle plan forming in front of his men, and powered up his plasma lance. A glowing sword made of light appeared in front of him, ready for action.

    “Mark your men,” he ordered, as his Marines spread out around him. The light from the plasma lances should have been intimidating, but the civilians showed no sign of being impressed. “On my mark...jump!”

    The Marine Combat Units carried smaller antigravity generators themselves, enough to allow the Marines to fly if they had the space and were willing to expose themselves to the enemy. It was a risk, but as Pasha and his men jumped right over the oncoming crowd of madmen and raced for the edge of the park, it became clear that it was worth the risk. The drones could follow them rapidly, yet the maddened civilians couldn't move anything like as fast. It was worth the risk to separate both groups of antagonists.

    On cue, the Marines turned and extended their plasma lances, slashing away at the defence drones. Three of them exploded before they realised that they were under attack, a datum Pasha filed away in his mind, convinced that it was a clue as to the true nature of their enemy. The drones, unburdened by human weaknesses, should have been able to react a great deal faster. They flew back and upwards, firing down towards the Marines, reminding him that the enemy cared nothing for human life. It should have been impossible to reprogram a police-issue stunner to be lethal.

    “Take them out,” he ordered. The Marines opened fire with hellfire slugs, tiny bullets that contained a minute charge of antimatter. Using such weapons within a planetary atmosphere was frowned upon, but it was vitally important to get rid of the drones as quickly as possible. They exploded, one by one, under their fire, yet before they were all destroyed they took out four of the Marines. Pasha filed that away in a corner of his mind and kept moving. They didn't want to use such weapons on civilians if it could be avoided.

    The civilians seemed to operate under no such restraint. Their implanted weapons would be dangerous if they ever managed to concentrate their fire. The Marines kept firing to distract the mob, keeping ahead of it as much as possible. Some members of the mob kept up the pursuit, others seemed to drop out of the hunting gang and vanish off into the city. Pasha checked the sensors, wondering if they were preparing a nastier surprise elsewhere, but the sensors were still unreliable. It was impossible to know just what was going on. Being blind worried him, even though the risks were actually minimal. It might become impossible to complete the mission.

    “Remain outside the city,” he ordered the shuttle teams. If flying though the invisible octopus – he found it hard to keep the scorn out of his mental voice at the very thought – was dangerous, the shuttles could remain outside where it was safe. He would have ordered them into the city anyway, but the Admiral was convinced that there was a danger. “We’ll bring the uninfected civilians to you.”

    He snapped a plasma pulse back towards one of the infected civilians and had the pleasure of seeing the man’s force field fail and his leg explode under the impact. Perversely, the man refused to cry out in pain, or even abandon the chase. Pasha knew some Enhanced Humans who had engineered their pain tolerance to remarkable levels, yet even they couldn't have taken a plasma pulse without screaming. It was as if they were fighting robots, or subverted slaves; subverted slaves who were viewed as completely expendable by their masters.

    The civilian’s distress signal was high above, on top of one of the skyscrapers. “Bill, go fetch him,” Pasha ordered, as the Marines paused for a second. They were used to high-intensity combat, yet this was taxing all of them. Another group of sensor drones failed, as if someone had clicked a switch and simply turned them off. It made no sense. QCC connections worked, or else the Marine Combat Units would have failed along with the automated tech, but many other systems simply failed. “The rest of us will cover you.”

    From her position above the city, Janine had watched as it had all fallen into anarchy. The local network disruption was so intense that, for the first time in her life, she was effectively disconnected from the Galactic Net. She was still recording and broadcasting, or so she thought, but it was impossible to know if anyone was listening. Her memory cells were filling up with strange scenes, each one shocking to those who had grown up within the safe and peaceful Confederation, yet...what was going on? If it was a mass subversion attack, as the Confederation Navy Admiral had warned, it should have infected her as well.

    It occurred to her that she might already have been infected and that she was already under outside control, yet it rapidly became apparent that there was no point in even thinking about it. She had never been tempted to enter Thrall or join one of the more extreme cults of pleasure seekers across the galaxy, so she had no idea what being subverted felt like, but wondering if she was already under control would just drive her mad. If something was that powerful, capable of intruding into her mind and altering it without her being aware that something was wrong, it was too powerful to fight. Resistance would be literally impossible – and futile.

    She watched the battle in the park, unsure of what was going on or who was fighting until she saw the Marine Combat Units – massive humanoid monsters of metal, glittering with protective force fields – flying through the air and shooting down the defence drones. They seemed to be being chased by a crowd of unprotected humans, which made no sense to her until she realised that the Marines were probably concerned about causing civilian casualties. The men and women chasing them weren’t acting of their own free will. The Marines could have slaughtered them all in seconds, but it would have been morally wrong.

    A moment after the Marines vanished, too close to the building for her to see them any longer, one of them floated up and stared down at her. Janine stared back, careful to hold her hands visible and to keep her weapons implants stepped down to the bare minimum. The Marines were likely to be nervous after being attacked by so many insane humans.

    “I hope you’re clean,” the Marine said. The massive humanoid shape seemed to shake as he spoke. “Please be clean.”

    “I’m clean,” Janine said. It occurred to her, again, that she might be being controlled without knowing that she was under control, but she pushed the thought back into the back of her mind. She had enough problems without scaring herself silly. “Thank you for coming to get me.”

    The Marine held out a metal hand, took her hand surprisingly gently, and caught her up in the antigravity bubble surrounding his Marine Combat Unit. “We’re going to head outside the city and get you to the shuttles,” he said. “You’re wrapped within my protective field. There is no reason to be alarmed.”

    Before Janine could say anything, they were flying through the air, heading towards the edge of the city. The dome surrounding the Mushroom City had disintegrated completely, yet for some reason the shuttles weren't coming into the area, but waiting for the civilian refugees outside the metropolis. The city below was burning, with flames licking up from a dozen fires – no one was attempting to put them out – and dead bodies scattered everywhere. She could see thousands of people on the ground, some clearly chasing the Marines, others just wandering, seemingly at random.

    “Hey,” she said, wondering if the Marine could hear her. “Why can't we teleport up to the ships?”

    The Marine’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “The local disruption of technology is too great to risk teleporting,” he said. At least, Janine assumed that he was a man; it was impossible to tell. “You might wind up scattered across the wrong part of this universe, or snapped into another one...”

    Janine froze. It hadn't occurred to her that, if technology was failing, seemingly at random, the Marine Combat Unit could fail too. The Marine would be safe if that happened, but she would fall to her death. She wanted to ask if they were safe, but cold logic told her that there was no way the Marine could know if they were safe or not. The sheer randomness of the failures defeated any attempt to predict what would happen, or to counter them. She concentrated on looking at the shuttles – she had never seen such a welcome sight in her life – and then turned her head to look back towards the dying city. There was something there...

    She stared, her head spinning, barely even aware of the hot trickle suddenly forming between her legs. There was a giant creature looming over the city, its form wavering as through it were nothing more than a trick of the light, yet she felt its presence in the back of her head. A single giant eye stared down at her, seeming to peer right into her very soul. It rested on a bed of tentacles, each one reaching down towards the city, or even upwards, as if it was a monstrous spider sitting in its nest. She shivered and realised that it was translucent, as if it was somehow occupying the same space as the city without touching the human buildings, or displaying them.

    If the Marine was aware of the creature’s presence, he gave no sign. His motion towards the ground broke her eye contact with the creature, allowing her to look away. She could feel the creature behind her, as if its eye was boring into her back, yet she refused to look at it. Whatever it was – and she was sure that it was no mere hologram or trick of the light – it was dangerous, the most dangerous thing she had ever encountered. It was too dangerous to risk encountering ever again.

    Captain Pearson watched, as dispassionately as he could, while the Marines started to make their way into the captured shuttle. The River’s gravity field had been pulled back to allow them entry, but as soon as they stepped inside, the gravity field had been closed around them, ensuring that nothing could escape from the shuttle. If they ran into serious trouble, it would be impossible to pull them out. The Admiral hadn't issued any such orders, yet he’d prepared his ship for the worst; if the shuttle proved too much to handle, the gravity fields would compress it out of existence.

    “The shuttle’s power is almost completely drained,” the lead Marine reported, as they pressed up against the craft’s hull. There was no sign of life from within the hulk, not even the sound of someone pounding out a distress signal against the metal. “We may not even be able to open the hatch.”

    Pearson watched as they started to crank the emergency system, puzzled and alarmed. The Confederation didn't build small craft – even expendable shuttles – without building in a complex mixture of safety systems, including power cells that should have provided life support and minimal emergency systems indefinitely. The thought of something that could drain them was alarming, all the more so because the emergency power cells weren't linked to the remainder of the shuttle. If tech was starting to fail, whatever the underlying cause...well, he knew, without technology the Confederation wouldn't exist. He wasn't sure how much of the speculation running through the command network was accurate, but he was starting to have a very good idea of what had happened to the Ancients. They’d fallen victim to the same...whatever it was attacking Greenland.

    The shuttle’s hatch opened slowly and a single figure leapt out, attacking the lead Marine with tooth and claw. The Marine tumbled over backwards, taken by surprise, and endured the attack, which couldn't even come close to penetrating his armour. Carefully, using his armour under heavy strength-restrictions, he pushed her away and hit her with a stun bolt. It had no effect, so he struck her again. This time, she sagged against him and collapsed.

    “Put her in the stasis pod,” the Marine CO commanded. “Check out the remainder of the shuttle, now.”

    Pearson watched through their helmet sensors as they stepped into the darkened interior of the shuttle. It had been carrying, according to the data download from Sparta, twelve medical corpsmen and their equipment. The blood splashed around the interior compartment suggested what had happened to them, just before the Marine saw the bodies, piled up in one corner. Their deaths, judging from their expressions, had not only been painful, but self-inflicted. Some of them had clawed their own eyes out, others had been bleeding from their eyes and ears before they collapsed, killed by some unknown force. Two of them had committed suicide using their own weapons.

    He switched his attention back to the shuttlebay and watched as two Marines pushed Lieutenant Chihiro into the stasis pod. Whatever had affected her, it was too dangerous to treat anything other than very carefully. The stasis pod would be heavily guarded until it was transported to a secure facility, where it would be opened and Chihiro would be examined until the researchers worked out what had happened to her. Unlike her comrades, she’d survived, long enough – at least – to start firing on her fellow Marines. Pearson didn't like the implications of that at all. It suggested that there was a guiding mind behind what was happening to the planet below.

    “Captain,” the tactical officer said. The flare of alarm in his mind echoed through the command network. It wasn't good news. “We have incoming enemy missiles!”

    Pearson switched his awareness to the tactical sensors. The planetary defence network had suddenly gone active, completely active. It had not only lit up all of its sensors, but it was firing new missiles out towards the task force. There were hyper-missiles, warp missiles and even conventional sublight missiles, enough to take out the entire fleet. The Ring, he realised suddenly, had fallen under enemy control.

    “Link us back into the fleet network,” he ordered. The swarm of icons in his mind only grew larger as the enemy unloaded their arsenals towards the Confederation starships. “Prepare to repel attack!”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fifteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “Admiral, everything is firing at once,” the tactical officer said. “We are being fired upon by every planetary defence platform.”

    “The alien influence must have spread through the entire Ring,” the AIs agreed. “The internal fighting appears to have dimmed down, allowing them to concentrate on a new foe; us.”

    <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> nodded as the display updated. The enemy seemed to be as devoid of tactics as ever, but they were firing enough missiles to more than make up for the lack; quantity had a quality all of its own. The hyper-missiles alone were a serious threat to the task force, but combined with the other missiles, it would be hard to deal with them alone, let alone the remainder of the attack. The only advantage they had was that the enemy missiles were separated; if they were lucky, they wouldn’t have to ward them all off simultaneously.

    “Deploy all point defence,” he ordered, knowing that the automatic systems would have leapt ahead of him. The warp and hyper-missiles alone would be on them before merely human reactions could react, let alone take defensive action. The sublight missiles, pulling ninety percent of light speed as they raced away from their launch platforms, would still pose a serious threat. In the days before FTL sensors, he knew, the task force would have been destroyed before it had any warning that it was under attack.

    He allowed his mind to sink into the tactical gestalt as the planetoid responded to the attack, rotating its hyper-shields through the different bands of hyperspace to make it harder for the hyper-missiles to strike home. The warp missiles posed a different threat, but the starships were already deploying drones and counter-missiles, even though it was odd facing Confederation-level tech. If the defenders had used their own automatics, the task force might well have been driven away from the planet. As it was, the chances were good that they were going to be driven away from the planet anyway.

    The enemy launchers appeared in his mind, rotating through space as they reloaded and prepared to launch another barrage and he targeted them, ordering the task force’s offensive weapons to spring into life and destroy them before they could fire again. They were operating under full shields now, however, and he knew that the kind of firepower required to take them out would almost certainly cause collateral damage. If the Ring was under enemy control, it had to be isolated, yet he saw no way to do that without damaging it badly enough to ensure its destruction and the deaths of everyone on the structure. The first hyper-missiles roared away from his ship, trying to take out the launchers, but his early estimate was right. Powered by their direct link to the local star, a nearly-infinite source of power, the launchers were too well shielded to allow them to be taken out surgically.

    He checked in on the Marines and scowled. The Marines had rescued several hundred uninfected civilians – several hundred, out of a population that had numbered in the millions – but they were finding it hard going against constant – and insane – opposition. <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> felt his head spinning as he tried to come to grips with the scale of the disaster, unwilling to admit the truth, that the Confederation Navy was completely out of its depth and sinking fast. He had never seen a situation go so bad so fast, apart from the Buckley Experiment…and that, he was morbidly certain, was connected to what had happened to <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place>.

    “It seems likely,” the AIs concurred, when he enquired. “We have consulted with the telepath and she claims that the…entity appears to be broadcasting on similar levels to the telepathic emissions near the Gateway. Whatever infected this planet may well have originated at the Gateway.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> scowled. “And if it came from the Gateway,” he said dryly, “where does the Gateway lead?”

    “Unknown,” the AIs said. “The alien entity remains beyond the ability of our sensors to perceive, although more and more humans are reporting that they can see the creature looming over the city. It is quite possible that it travelled from the Gateway to <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> under its own power, being effectively invisible to our sensors, at least as far as we can tell. Logically, it must be doing something to manifest in our dimension; given time, we will be able to locate, study and close its method of entering our universe.”

    “I hope you’re right,” <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> said. He stared down at the display. The entire conversation had taken microseconds and the hyper-missiles were closing in. There were bare seconds left before they impacted, followed rapidly by the warp missiles. “I think we need to consider…”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Sparta</st1:place></st1:City>rocked violently as the first hyper-missiles broke through the shields and slammed against the planetoid’s hull. Red icons flared up in his mind as missiles detonated against the inner shields, unleashing strange and terrible energies to crawl over the defences and try to break into the hull. Darker images appeared as local shields failed, allowing the weapons to inflict damage on the ship itself, despite suppression fields that snuffed out explosions before they could inflict serious damage. An alarm rang in his mind as a gravimetric warhead detonated against the hull, overloading the suppression fields and ripping into the unprotected metal. The entire starship network seemed to scream in pain.

    “Major damage to assorted sections,” the tactical officer reported. “Damage control parties are on their way.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> nodded, watching the entire engagement from his god’s eye view. Several cruisers had been badly damaged or destroyed, with three retreating into hyperspace to avoid destruction. All three planetoids had been hit by the incoming swarm of missiles, although…as he stared in horror, all of the warp missiles adjusted course and threw themselves on the Gordon, the third planetoid. No ship, not even a planetoid, could survive that kind of bombardment.

    “Get into hyperspace,” he ordered, as the missiles closed in on their target. He knew that it was almost certainly too late, yet he had to try. “Get into hyperspace…”

    The planetoid’s icon lit up as thousands of missiles detonated against its shields. The defence network struggled valiantly to repel the attack, but there were just too many missiles to counter them all. A handful slipped through the shields and tore into the hull, further weakening the defences and allowing other missiles to strike home. Before the planetoid could withdraw into hyperspace, her quantum tap blew and the entire ship vanished in a ball of fire.

    “The Gordon has been destroyed with all hands,” the tactical officer confirmed. <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> shook his head, still stunned by the sight. The Confederation Navy had only ever lost one other planetoid and that had been due to a…incident with her quantum tap. The Navy had never lost such a vessel in combat. “The remaining enemy missiles are adjusting their targeting patterns to target other ships.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> allowed himself a moment to think. One thing that had been hammered into his head back at the Academy was that there were times when battles were clearly lost and continuing the fight was pointless. He could have hit the Ring hard enough to cripple the defences and make it harder for them to attack his ships, but that – as he had reminded himself countless times – would slaughter the human population. Maddened or not, under alien control or simply warped by contact with an alien mind, they were still human. He couldn’t carry out a mass slaughter of helpless humans; the Confederation Navy was intended to protect humans.

    “Contact the Marines,” he ordered. It was time to cut his losses. “I want them to take the uninfected humans they have picked up and get them off the planet, but to break contact with infected humans. We will have to come back with additional forces and, hopefully, some better understanding of what is going on.”

    He ran through a handful of tactical scenarios in his head, remembering what one of his instructors had said back when he’d been taught how to play Battle Chess for the first time. The greatest chess player in the Confederation didn’t fear the second-greatest chess player, but the worst, for there was no way of telling what the idiot would go and do. If the system was in the grip of a rebellion, as insane as that seemed in the Confederation, where there was literally nothing to rebel over, he could have deployed decoy drones to present the enemy with multiple threats and force them to ignore the retreating Marines and their human cargo. Here, though, there was no way of telling what the idiots would do…

    “Deploy decoy drones,” he ordered, as the enemy launchers started to spit out additional missiles towards his fleet. If nothing else, they should distract the enemy. “Bring up the hyperdrive and hold it at just below activation; as soon as the Marines are gone, we will withdraw to the edge of the star system and await orders.”

    He sensed the dismay rippling through the minds attached to the command network. None of them liked the idea of retreating, but it was clear that they’d bit off far more than they could chew. There was no point in getting the entire task force destroyed…and the only other way to prevent that was to commit mass slaughter. They would retreat, study the infected shuttle pilot they’d recovered and come up with a cure, at which point they would return and liberate <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place>.

    The AI image broke into his thoughts. “We are picking up a curious distortion on the surface of the planet,” they said. An image – an empty jungle, seen from high above – was projected into his mind. <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> stared at it, puzzled. There was nothing there, apart from a tiny grey patch in the centre of the image. “That grey patch was not there five minutes ago.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> frowned. The human mind literally could not comprehend just how powerful the AIs were, or just how much data they could process within microseconds. The AIs could hold a conversion with every single person in the Confederation and they wouldn’t use all of their mental capability to do it. They could collect information from the remaining planetary sensors and the network of drones he’d deployed and collate it far faster than any merely human intelligence officer. For them to be certain of something was to know that it could be taken for granted.

    “All right,” he said slowly. It wasn't anywhere near the city, or the invisible entity the troops on the ground were reporting. “What is it?”

    “We are not sure,” the AIs said. “It appears to be a patch of dead ground, completely dead. The effect is unexplained, but we have seen something akin to it before, long before the Buckley Experiment. The effect is similar to the planetary surface of the Ancient worlds.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> felt his blood run cold. “The planet is being drained of life,” he said, in horror. It was the only answer that made sense to him. “The entity, whatever it is, is draining the planet dry.”

    “So it would seem,” the AIs agreed. They projected an image of an Ancient world in front of him. “This may be what will happen to <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place>.”

    “Admiral,” the tactical officer said, sharply. “We are picking up nineteen starships – no, twenty-one starships – heading away from the Ring. They’re heading out of the system!”

    “They may be carrying the infection,” the AIs warned. “They cannot be allowed to reach another inhabited star system.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> had already reached the same conclusion. “Deploy the cruisers to intercept,” he ordered. Another seven starships had appeared from the Ring, heading upwards on warp drive, rather than hyperdrive. That, at least, was a relief. If they’d slipped into hyperspace, it would be very hard to track them, let alone force them to halt. “The ships” – he couldn’t quite believe his own words – “are to be disabled. If that proves impossible, they are to be destroyed.”

    “Understood, sir,” the tactical officer said.

    “And forward a warning to every star system within a thousand light years,” <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> added. He looked over at the AI image. The AIs could probably ensure that the ships were easy to identify, even if they attempted to conceal their names or origins. “Those ships must not be allowed to reach another inhabited world.”

    The thought chilled him. If the ships were piloted by refugees, they would have been screaming for help as soon as they saw the Confederation Navy, which suggested that whoever was flying them was under the control of the entity. <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> alone had beaten his task force, forcing him to pull out his Marines and abandon the system; what would happen if a hundred star systems were infected, or a thousand? The Confederation Navy wouldn’t be able to enforce a blockade, even if the enemy didn’t capture vast military resources. Given time, and access to Confederation-level industrial nodes, someone could produce a fleet to rival the Confederation Navy. It had long been a concern of defence planners.

    He uploaded new orders into the tactical database. Before they withdrew to the edge of the star system, <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place>’s industrial nodes would be destroyed, even though it ran the risk of condemning most of the population to starvation. They would not be able to replenish their weapons or military resources, let alone start building new starships. It could not be allowed.

    In front of him, on the display, the disaster continued to unfold.

    Aisyaj lay inside the cocoon and struggled to focus her mind. It proved difficult, if not impossible, for the human mind had a tendency to dwell on the bad. She had been controlled – no, perhaps controlled was too strong a world; influenced – by a powerful telepathic force, something she should have been capable of avoiding. Or perhaps not; the sheer level of power, pulsating through the telepathic waveband and out into space, was staggering. It might not matter just how strong a shield she – or the remainder of the telepaths known to humanity – could produce. The entity might have overwhelmed her anyway.

    She struggled against the force, trying to analyse it, all the time trying to avoid the thought that the creature wasn't interested in her, perhaps not even aware of her existence. It seemed to be calling out to receptive minds, yet the net result on a mind that gave into the effect was madness, or death. The AIs had shown her a handful of grainy images from the planet’s surface and she had been shocked by the sight, by men and women tearing themselves apart, or fighting each other, or committing horrific acts of barbarity that made no sense. Aisyaj had, years ago, worked with some of the sociopaths in the Confederation, wondering if they could be redeemed and allowed to re-enter normal life. The experience hadn’t been a productive one; she’d sensed - when she’d probed their minds - a complete lack of concern for the rest of the human race. They hadn’t even been aware that they lacked such concern; to them, it was perfectly normal. She realised that, to the people influenced by the entity, their behaviour probably seemed perfectly normal too.

    “If the universe was shrinking,” one of her teachers had said, “and all the tools you used to monitor the size of the universe were shrinking as well, would you know the universe was shrinking?”

    The memory made her wince. Back home, back when they’d trained her to use her talent, they had demonstrated just how easy it was to use telepathy to influence an unprepared mind. The victims hadn’t known that they had been influenced; indeed, they had come up with excuses to justify their behaviour to themselves, explanations that defied all logic. A woman, convinced to undress in public, had told herself that it was too hot in the room; Aisyaj remembered the embarrassment of discovering that even she, a powerful telepath, was vulnerable to subtle suggestions. The entity wasn't particularly subtle, but then – it didn’t need to be. It had the power to make its merest whim real.

    She explained all that to the AIs as they started to guide her starship away from the planet below, guiding her towards safety – she hoped. The entity seemed to have enough power to warp the very fabric of space and time. The AIs should be reasonably safe from its influence – their brains were thousands of light years away – yet there was no way to know for sure. The AI brains existed in localised hyperspace fields, allowing them to think and calculate at rates far beyond those of dumb meat, but if the entity could hamper technology so badly…what could it do if it ever got loose on Calculus?

    “You have to warn them,” she said, as she triggered the cocoon’s sleep function. Her head hurt and she couldn’t trust her own reflexes, or even her thoughts. She knew that she was becoming paranoid – or was the thought that she was becoming paranoid merely another sign that the entity was worming its way into her mind? There was no way to know. “You have to tell them that it’s feeding off us, maybe even using our minds for power.”

    “It is feeding off the entire planet,” the AIs said. They had already informed her of the dying patch, already spreading rapidly across the planet’s surface. There was a pause as the starship rotated. “Prepare for hyperspace.”

    The starship shivered as the hyper-field flickered into life and pushed the ship into hyperspace. The sense of pervading presence oozing its way into her mind faded at once, allowing her to – finally – fall into sleep. Her last thought was a chilling awareness that it wouldn’t be long before the entity managed to reach out over countless light years…and snuff out all of humanity’s worlds.

    After all, if they could do it to the Ancients, why not the Confederation?
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Sixteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    “What is it?”

    Janine couldn’t bear to look at the entity, yet somehow she was sure that it was aware of her and watching her. She could feel its presence, like the sun on the back of her neck, something so powerful as to be beyond understanding. It was just…there.

    Few of the humans piling into the shuttles – either refugees from the city or Marine supporting units – could bear to look at it, or even look at the city. The entity seemed to be growing larger – she was sure of it, even though she couldn’t look at it directly – and expanding towards the shuttle landing zone. The pilots were clearly nervous, shouting at the civilians to make their way up the ramps and into the shuttles, just so they could take off and flee the beleaguered planet. Janine allowed one of the Marine Combat Units to wave her into the nearest shuttle, a reassuringly normal sight in a day of horror, and stopped on the ramp. Bracing herself, she took one last look back towards the city and froze…

    The sheer impact of the entity’s presence struck her like a blow between the eyes. It seemed to have grown larger, stronger…and realer. Its massive eye seemed to be glaring down at the city, watching as the puny humans struggled to escape its influence, as if their struggles were no use at all. A million tiny strands of light hung down from its bulk, reaching down into the city and – she realised, in a thrill of horror – connecting it to its victims. She heard a roaring in her ears as the entity seemed to focus on her, a whispering at the back of her mind that promised understanding if she would only let it in…and then a hard slap brought her back to reality.

    ”Don’t look at it,” the Marine snapped. He was shaking her, dragging her into the shuttle’s hatch. Janine felt herself weaken as her strength failed her, leaving her wondering if she’d been drugged before she realised that the entity had been sucking the life out of her body. The hatch slammed closed, yet she could still feel the entity’s sheer presence pervading the air. “Sit down and strap in!”

    Janine could barely move, even when he thrust her down into a seat. He had to strap her in, angrily berating her for being foolish enough to look at the creature, his body somehow vital beyond words. She was suddenly very aware of him, not as a masculine man, but as someone who literally brimmed with life force. She struggled to lift a hand and stare at it, wondering if it would be the withered hand of an elderly woman. Her eyes seemed to be failing her, yet she could almost sense the entity, right at the back of her mind. The shuttle suddenly seemed as insubstantial as the very air itself, while the entity was overwhelmingly real.

    “All right, we’re taking off now,” the pilot said, over the intercom. The entire shuttle seemed to start humming, seconds before the flickering impression of an antigravity field passed over her body. Janine felt sick, just before the shuttle started to lift off from the ground, a kind of sickness that seemed to run through her brain. The shuttle shivered again and clawed for the sky, yet the sense of the entity’s presence only grew stronger. “We’re on our way.”

    Janine struggled to move, but all of her strength was gone. She could barely look out towards the porthole, where she saw the shape of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place><st1:placeName>Mushroom</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType>City</st1:placeType></st1:place> replaced by the eerie green sky. She was relieved to realise that they weren't facing towards the entity, or planning to fly through the space occupied by the creature, yet she could still sense it. The entity was pressing itself onto humanity’s dimension by force of will…

    No, she thought, in sudden understanding. The entity wasn't using its own power to anchor its position in humanity’s reality. The entity was draining power from its human servants and using them to lock itself in place. A mere handful of seconds had been long enough for it to drain her of all of her strength, leaving her helpless and drained. If she’d remained within the space occupied by the entity, it would have eventually sunk its hooks into her mind, driving her as mad as the poor bastards back on the planet’s surface. She concentrated, trying to activate her implants, but they stubbornly refused to work. Her mind was simply unable to focus.

    “We’re about to make the jump into hyperspace,” the pilot informed them. “Prepare for transit.”

    Normally, transits into hyperspace were smooth, with nary a bump. Modern technology had solved the problem of hyper-shock caused by using the hyperdrive – crews, back in the early days of the Age of Expansion, had found themselves vomiting on the deck – but now the sudden transit felt horrible. Janine found herself struggling to breathe, convinced that her every moment would be her last, before the effect finally faded away. The odd sensations of hyperspace were almost welcome compared to the eerie touch of the entity.

    Her implants came back online suddenly, shocking her. She ignored the thousands of messages that had arrived in her inbox, mainly from her fans worrying about her, and concentrated on using her implants to restore her strength. The medical scans couldn’t locate any reason for her exhaustion, but that hardly mattered. She knew what had caused it. The entity had tried to drain her dry.

    Lying back in the seat, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.

    “Keep moving,” Pasha snapped. The swarm of maddened humans was coming closer, even though the Marines were running far faster than the average human could hope to move. Drawing the mobs away from the escaping civilians had seemed a good idea at the time, but now the mobs were converging from all sides, as if whatever was controlling them had finally learned how to use them properly. Or perhaps it was just a coincidence. There was no way to tell.

    A shower of sparks erupted off a nearby wall as a plasma bolt struck it directly, sending the sparks falling over the Marine Combat Unit. Pasha ignored them, although it was a sign of a growing – and worrying – trend. Some of the maddened humans had access to all kinds of equipment, including items that could be used to kill someone, even wearing heavy-duty protection. A gravity presser, normally used to produce weird sculptures, had crippled one of the Marine Combat Units, leaving them down another man. A focused laser had nearly taken Pasha’s own Marine Combat Unit out of action. They were leaving a trail of dead or injured civilians throughout the city, for nothing. He’d tried to capture one of the maddened civilians in a capture field and discovered, too late, that the capture fields had failed. Nothing could be taken for granted any longer, not even their technology.

    He looked up in alarm as a new swarm of defence drones appeared, firing towards the Marines with heavy weapons. At least they could be destroyed without risking human lives, he knew, as the Marines turned and opened fire with their heavier weapons, taking their frustration out on the automated drones. They disintegrated one by one, blown into tiny shreds. A second later, a new swarm of maddened humans appeared, flying on hover boards and heading right towards the Marines. Pasha triggered his antigravity units and led the Marines up, away from the swarm, but the swarm gave chase. They might, he realised in some horror, be able to delay them long enough to give the rest of the swarm a chance to catch up.

    “Major, this is the Admiral,” a new voice said. “You are ordered to pull out and return to the task force.”

    “Understood, Admiral,” Pasha said. A small girl leapt off her hover board and landed on his Marine Combat Unit, clawing and scratching at his armour. She couldn’t harm him, but he had to use his gravity manipulators to push her away without doing her any serious harm. “Do you want us to make an emergency dump?”

    There was a pause. “Negative,” the Admiral said. “Return to the shuttles and…”

    Pasha swung around as an alarm echoed through the combat network. Four of his Marines were collapsing into dust, disintegrating…he realised what was going on, seconds before his own Marine Combat Unit started to disintegrate. The enemy was completely insane! They’d created a rogue nanomachine plague and unleashed it on the Marines. The shields should have deflected the plague, but they too had failed. Emergency warnings mounted rapidly in his HUD…

    …And then he found himself snapping back to awareness on the <st1:City><st1:place>Sparta</st1:place></st1:City>.

    “Report,” he ordered, pulling himself out of his cocoon. “What happened?”

    “The QCC links were destroyed, Major,” the coordinator reported. “You awoke back on the ship when your unit failed.”

    Pasha felt his legs shiver, as they always did after an emergency dump. The Confederation had combined its QCC communications technology with virtual reality units to create a Marine Corps that was, literally, made out of metal and defensive systems. The men controlling the units remained safe on the mothership, while their minds operated the Marine Combat Units, relying on the QCC link to ensure that there was no time lag. He checked the final moments of the engagement record – they were automatically stored onboard the planetoid – and scowled. The rogue nano-swarm had destroyed his entire platoon.

    “Bastards,” he muttered. The Marine Combat Units were designed to be expendable – after all, they could always be replaced, unlike flesh and blood Marines – but suddenly he wasn’t sure that that was a wise tactic. If they had to fight in environments where technology had become unreliable, the Marine Combat Units themselves might become unreliable, or worse. “I wonder…”

    He broke off as the sound of screaming echoed over from the other cocoons. Two of his Marines were sitting up, screaming like children who had lost their parents. Other Marines were sitting up, staring at them as they screamed their minds away. The medical staff moved in quickly to sedate them, yet the early sedatives refused to work and they eventually had to resort to portable stunners. The two Marines were rapidly taken out of the deployment zone to sickbay.

    “What happened?” Pasha demanded. “What happened to them?”

    “We don’t know,” the technician said, in dismay. “They just started to scream.”

    Pasha ordered the remaining Marines into their sleeping quarters for a rest – they could write the reports afterwards, once he figured out what he intended to write – but remained, staring down at the cocoons the maddened Marines had occupied. Years ago, humans had worried about the effect on someone who was suddenly and unwillingly disconnected from a computer system, but experience had shown that the danger simply didn’t exist. There was always a little disorientation when someone emerged from a VR simulation or when someone was twinned with a remote unit – such as a Marine Combat Unit – yet there was no outright madness. It made no sense at all, but then…very little had made sense since they’d jumped into the Greenland System and landed on the ground.

    He stood up as the starship rocked, another spread of missiles impacting against her shields. The remaining Marine Combat Units were being pulled up from the ground now – it went against the grain to abandon them, even if their crews could be pulled out of them and the units destroyed – and then the task force could withdraw. The thought was a bitter pill to swallow. The Confederation Marines did not abandon Confederation citizens, yet what else could they do? Whatever had been unleashed down on the planet below, it was too much to handle. They’d gone in without proper preparation and had been handled their heads, without ever challenging the force behind the crisis.

    “Enjoy your victory, you bastards,” he growled. “We’ll be back.”

    “The Marines have either snapped back to the ship or have boarded their shuttles,” the deployment officer reported. Admiral Burton nodded in relief. The tactical situation had only gotten worse, with nearly a hundred starships flying away from the star system in all directions. Even restricted to warp drive, it was certain that his task force would be able to intercept them all before they reached another star system. “All of our people have left the ground.”

    Leaving how many people down on the surface, trapped and helpless, <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> wondered. He didn’t say it aloud, leaving it as a private thought, something to remember when he was making his report. The mission had been a total disaster from start to finish. The loss of an entire planetoid was minor compared to the loss of a planet…and the knowledge that many of the dead civilians had been killed by his people was merely the final blow. The entity, whatever it was, had forced them to kill the civilians he was supposed to protect.

    “The dead patch is spreading,” the AIs added. Their image seemed untroubled, but then, they rarely showed any sign of fear. <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> wondered, in a moment of sober reflection, just what would happen to an AI caught up in the entity’s presence. If humans, flying into the entity, could go mad, what would happen to an AI? Or, perhaps, an AI wouldn’t be infected. If that was the case, perhaps the Confederation needed to start developing AI-controlled weapons to turn against the entities. “The patch is now two kilometres wide and expanding.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> watched through the sensors, unable to conceal his dismay. The Confederation built structures on a massive scale, creating rings around planets or even entire suns, yet there was something unearthly about watching an entire planet be drained completely of all life. The grey patch seemed unstoppable, spreading out over empty land and human settlements; there was no way to know what happened to the humans who were living in the settlements. He couldn’t even tell if they were alive or dead.

    “The remaining planetary network is going down,” the AIs added. “We are unable to deduce the cause of the collapse.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> shivered. Every human settlement had a planetary network, one that linked the population into the greater Confederation, allowing them almost anything they could want. It could teleport people around the world, provide instant medical support or even intervene if matters got out of hand. The network was safety; few in the civilian side of the Confederation could imagine life without it, for it ensured a long and peaceful life. Even if there were humans left on <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> who had escaped the entity’s influence, how would they survive without the network and most of their technology? Apart from those who had chosen to seek a more primitive way of life – normally after a hundred years of living in the Confederation – there were few humans alive who had any experience of living without technology. The survivors would die down on the surface of the world before any help could arrive from elsewhere.

    “Understood,” he said. The remaining shuttles had either made it back to the ships or jumped out themselves, heading for the rendezvous point at the edge of the star system. Several other starships were on their way to meet up with the task force, but he found himself with a classic problem of too many tasks, yet too few ships to attend to them all. The ships that had left the planet had to be intercepted – his tactical staff was already vectoring the newcomers onto the fleeing ships – and <st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> itself had to be blockaded. That wasn't going to be easy. The weapons mounted on the Ring could command space for light-hours around the planet. “Is there no way we can stop it?”

    “We are unable to determine, even, how the effect is produced,” the AIs said. If they recognised it as a question of desperation, rather than a question expecting a serious answer, they gave no sign. “We cannot even begin to counter it. Assuming it continues to expand at the current rate, the entire planet will be dead within two weeks. The rate of expansion is itself expanding.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City> stared down at the tactical display. The task force was pulling back from the planet now, although the defences were still firing on them, as if the defenders thought that they were driving them away. They had, he noted ruefully; his weapons had been stayed by the fact that countless innocent humans, who were not in their right minds, would be killed if he opened fire on the Ring. The list of destroyed or damaged starships, floating in his head, mocked him. No other Confederation Navy commander had lost so much tonnage since the last war the Confederation had fought.

    “Jump us out,” he ordered, quietly.

    The planetoid’s hyper-field charged up and <st1:City><st1:place>Sparta</st1:place></st1:City>slipped back into hyperspace, emerging on the edge of the star system. They would be out of range of the planet’s defences, yet they would still be able to track and intercept starships leaving the star system. Even so, it was a defeat and he knew that it was a defeat, as did his subordinates. They had failed in their duty to protect the planet’s population.

    “You handled the situation as well as you could,” the AIs said, when he confided his thoughts to them. “It was not handled so well elsewhere.”

    <st1:City><st1:place>Burton</st1:place></st1:City>’s eyes opened fire. “<st1:place>Greenland</st1:place> was not the only place to be attacked?”

    “Correct,” the AIs stated. “Nineteen other worlds were attacked by the entities. The results…have not been good. Twenty-one billion humans have been infected or killed in the outbreak.”

    Their voice darkened. “And they, Admiral, may only be the beginning,” they added. “One of the worlds to be infected was the Scorpion System, housing the Scorpion Navy Yard. The system has fallen completely to the enemy force.”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seventeen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Two hundred light years from the Gateway – as human news programs were increasingly referring to the reshaped black hole – the Tooth and Claw and her task force floated in the blackness of space, watching as the ships of the Confederation Navy patrolled the quarantine zone. They were not alone in the inky darkness of space, for several hundred other starships drifted around the edges; some civilian human ships, others alien, either allied to humanity or not. Warlord Masji watched, as dispassionately as he could, as the starships gathered near the Gateway. He would have preferred for his task force to be alone, but he had to admit that they were providing useful cover. The humans could hardly arrange for an accident to befall his entire fleet under the eyes of the galaxy.

    He looked down towards the scientists, working away busily in their nests. The recent arrival of forty researchers from the homeworld – including a number who had studied at human universities – had allowed his fleet to continue its research program, yet they had come up with very little. They had been able to confirm some of the odder stories floating around the Galactic Net, but the alien objects remained as impenetrable and beyond understand as ever. The science that had created them, the Warlord knew, was far beyond the best the Confederation could produce.

    The thought made him smile. They had been monitoring transmissions from the Confederation and had watched as alien entities mounted their attacks on the humans and their plethora of sub-races. He had automatically dismissed some of the more absurd claims – of course, if they were losing, the humans would have an excellent motive to claim that their enemy was supremely powerful – yet it couldn't be denied that the humans had lost a number of star systems, even one of their dreaded planetoids. His eyes strayed back to the main display and he smiled again, exposing his teeth in what the humans would call a gesture of contempt, delighting in the well-deserved fall of an enemy. Or, perhaps, pleasure in their pain; losing an entire planetoid, along with its crew, had to hurt. Even for the Confederation, planetoids couldn't be replaced quickly, unlike cruisers.

    And if the Confederation was having difficulties, perhaps there was an opportunity for his people, a chance to ally with a force far more powerful than the humans who had stolen their destiny. If the entities could be convinced to come to an agreement with his race, their powers could be bent and directed towards targets of best advantage for both sides. Eventually, of course, the deal would be over, but by then his people would know how to defeat the entities and force them back to their own dimension, leaving them as the unquestioned masters of the galaxy. The Confederation would no longer prevent them from dominating the lesser races that hid behind the human race, allowing them to finally take the mastery that was theirs by right. And who knew; the Emperor’s throne might be shaky...there might be opportunity for a Warlord who had pushed his race further forward than any of them had ever dreamed possible.

    “Researcher,” he snapped. “Have you managed to identify a method of communicating with the objects?”

    The researchers cringed, almost at once. They might have been important to his people, yet his crew had been brought up to think of people like them as cowards, unfit for anything, but sport. The Emperor might have issued strict orders that they were to remain unharmed, yet such orders had only limited value so far from the homeworld...and failure, no matter how understandable, was rarely tolerated.

    “The objects appear to be nothing more than a section of something far larger that has been extruded into normal space from elsewhere,” the lead researcher said, finally. He, at least, managed to stand tall, although his head was bowed in the gesture of submission to higher authority. “Our sensors are not capable of reaching into the alternate dimension, where the main body resides. However” – he added quickly – “we have been able to make some deductions about their true nature.”

    He tapped one claw against the display. “We believe that those objects are charged with keeping the Gateway open,” he added, as the display updated. “The energy flickers within the Gateway seem to largely correspond with the movement of the objects, despite its seeming randomness. If they could be destroyed, or forced back into their own space, the Gateway might collapse completely.”

    “Which is not something we want,” Warlord Masji said, thoughtfully. “The entities are waging war against our enemy.”

    “With respect, Exculted Warlord, the entities are largely beyond our comprehension,” the researcher warned. “The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy; no more, no less.”

    Masji grimaced in agreement. It was an old saying of his people and it had surprised him, when he had started to study the humans, to discover that they had a similar saying. The entities, if they destroyed the Confederation, might not stop there, but go on to destroy the rest of the galaxy as well, including his people. If they could be talked into working with his people, on the other hand, the possibilities were literally endless.

    “True at the moment,” he agreed. At least he didn't have to worry about the scientists plotting against him. “But if we could communicate with them...”

    The researchers exchanged glances. “We believe that the objects in our space are little more than drones,” one said. “We would have to communicate with the entities in their own space.”

    Masji smiled as some of the other researchers instantly began disputing the first researcher’s claim. “And how,” he inquired, “do you propose that we do that?”

    The researcher grinned, exposing his teeth. “Simple,” he said. “We take a ship through the Gateway and talk to them directly.”

    “Interesting thought,” Masji said. He looked up at the main display, which showed the presence of nearly a hundred human starships, buzzing around the Gateway and the four alien objects spinning in their absurdly alien patterns. “And how do we do that without being intercepted and destroyed?”

    He studied the display for a long moment, thinking hard. The humans would intercept his fleet easily, at least if he came in guns blazing. There would be a very rapid exchange of fire and, much as he hated to admit it, his fleet would be destroyed. Human weapons, still vastly superior to their own systems, would turn his fleet into expanding vapour. He remembered the last report from the scientists, the admittance that they had failed to generate external hyper-fields to launch missiles towards the enemy targets rather than cramming hyperdrives into the missiles themselves, and scowled. The humans simply had a much greater range of fire...

    A thought struck him and he smiled inwardly, seeing a plan forming in front of his mind’s eye. It would be risky as hell, risky as defying the entire Confederation Navy or the Emperor himself, yet it could work. He fired some enquiries into the main computer, working through it carefully, and was gratified to discover that the plan was workable. All it would need was some careful preparation.

    “Assumming we can get into the Gateway,” he said, “how can we talk to the entities?”

    “We believe that the entities are telepathic,” the researcher pointed out. “They will have no difficulty talking to us.”

    Masji shivered at the thought. It was galling that while the humans had thousands – perhaps millions – of telepaths, his race had failed to produce even a single one. Their intelligence service was sure that the humans had included telepaths in the negotiations they’d held with his people, reading their minds and using what they learned for negotiating advantage. The thought of having his mind read was alarming, all the more so because he knew that the agreement with the entities – assuming they came to any agreement – wouldn't last. Or perhaps they would assume that themselves; unlike humans, they didn't seem to have a warped view of the universe.

    And, in the end, it was a risk that had to be taken.

    “All right,” he said, as his subordinates gathered around him. “This is what we’re going to do.”

    In the absence of Admiral Burton, who was coping with the disaster on Greenland, Commodore Pike had found himself in command of the task force guarding the Gateway. It was an alarming position; the four alien objects had not only destroyed a cruiser, but they’d also proven themselves resistant to some of the most powerful weapons in humanity’s arsenal. If they were the vanguard of an invasion force, as some speculated, the Confederation Navy starships might not be able to stop it when it came pouring out of the Gateway.

    The tactical problem fascinated him, even though the situation was dangerous and likely to get considerably more so. The Gateway was a bridgehead in Confederation territory, one that could be held, preventing the enemy from advancing further...if their weapons could be used against the alien ships. As it was, the best they could hope for was to delay the enemy if they ever came raging out of the Gateway – and, once they were pushed back from the Gateway, the enemy would have time to deploy. It was an unprecedented situation; normally, an enemy fleet would travel to its target through hyperspace, or come popping out of a wormhole, guns blazing. The idea of a fixed bridgehead was new.

    “Commodore,” his tactical officer said. “We have three hundred starships advancing into the quarantine zone under warp drive.”

    “Identify them,” Pike ordered, although he was fairly sure that he knew who they were. Only one race had gathered so many starships on the edge of the quarantine zone, claiming the right to observe the alien objects, even if the Gateway was in human-controlled space. Technically, it was in space that had never been formally claimed, by anyone. The legalities of the Confederation Navy’s blockade were arguable. “Who are they?”

    “Sir, the preliminary readings show them to be Haypah Murderer-class starships, some of an enhanced design we haven’t seen before,” the tactical officer said. “A handful of their ships have weapons with unusual quantum signatures; the remainder are armed with conventional weapons. They will reach the Gateway in two hours if not stopped.”

    Pike linked his mind into the computer network and studied the Haypah starships, wondering just what they were playing at. They had to know that their entire fleet couldn't punch through the blockading force, whatever additional weapons they’d somehow managed to scrape up from parts unknown. He knew that there were some in Confederation Intelligence who believed that the Haypah had been receiving additional technical assistance from an unknown race, yet no one had been able to prove or disprove it. Perhaps today, he knew, they would discover the truth.

    “Assemble to intercept,” he ordered, as he designated starships within the network. There was no need to take the entire force to intercept their ships; besides, leaving some at the Gateway would give him a reserve if the Haypah were trying to trick him. “We will intercept them...here.”

    An hour passed slowly as his flotilla advanced out towards the intercept point. They could have moved much faster, but he’d decided to play it cool; he didn't want the Haypah becoming convinced that he was worried about their advance. The race was too convinced of its own importance as it was, always probing at the edges of the Confederation and trying to provoke a reaction. If it hadn't been so firmly against Confederation ethics, Pike would have suggested invading the Haypah Empire and reshaping it to something more civil.

    “Intercept point reached, Commodore,” the helmsman said.

    “Open a channel,” Pike ordered. “This is Commodore Pike of the Confederation Navy. You are intruding on a quarantine zone. You are ordered to retreat to the outer line at once.”

    There was a long pause. He repeated his challenge, knowing that the Haypah might well refuse to respond to the first challenge, if only to convince their subordinates that they were not weak enough to give in at once. It struck him as insane, but then, he hadn't grown up in a universe where his own subordinates would seek to stab him in the back at the first sign of weakness. It was no fit way to run an interstellar navy.

    “This is Warlord Rasdi,” a voice said, finally. “You have no right to deny us access to the alien objects. Our scientists wish to study them.”

    Pike frowned. One of the reasons the Haypah advanced in fits and starts was because they rarely gave any credence to their scientists and researchers, treating them – at best – as second-class citizens. Military skill and valour was important to them, far more than research...even though it was that research that had created most of their weapons. It didn't quite make sense.

    “The objects are dangerous,” he said, calmly. “Your scientists may be killed attempting to study them.”

    “This is unclaimed space,” the Haypah responded. “You have no right to prevent us from studying the objects, or to keep any discoveries to yourselves.”

    Pike scowled. The problem with dealing with the Haypah was that any sign of weakness was likely to lead to further problems. “I have authorisation from the Confederation Navy to keep everyone out of the quarantine zone,” he said. “If you do not withdraw now, I will open fire.”

    “Sir,” the tactical officer said. “There’s an incoming starship!”

    Hyper-missiles flickered through the highest accessible levels of hyperspace and popped back into normal space at preset coordinates, sometimes manifesting within their target if their target had no shields covering the hyper-bands. The Haypah had attempted to duplicate the Confederation’s discovery, but despite years of research, they had been unable to create a device that generated a separate hyper-field. Their missiles had to mount their own hyperdrives, which made them bulky, but in the process the Haypah had learned a great deal about safeguarding their ships through the highest levels of hyperspace.

    The Tooth and Claw popped out of hyperspace within a bare light year of the Gateway and flashed down towards the glowing sphere of light. The remaining Confederation Navy starships were simply out of position to intercept it, believing that anyone who wanted to slip into the quarantine zone would be trying to reach the alien objects. Before they could react, the starship was already beyond their reach.

    Masji held on to his command nest as the entire starship buckled and heaved, struggling against the stress of travelling through the highest levels of hyperspace and then plunging down into the Gateway. The starship had been over-engineered, a precaution his people had learned from the humans, yet it could barely stand up to the gravity waves focused around the Gateway. He could feel the hull creaking as the Gateway loomed up in front of them...and then it was too late. There was a sense of blinding white light...

    He opened his eyes. He was still on his command deck, yet the consoles and sensor systems were as dark and cold as the grave. Masji pulled himself to his feet, feeling...something outside the hull, probing the remains of his warship. The remaining crew looked stunned, unable to believe what had happened. The scientists were tapping away at their consoles, but nothing was happening. The starship was completely dead. On impulse, he checked the heavy energy weapon he carried at his belt; the power cells were dead, leaving it as nothing more than a useless club.

    “This dimension must operate on different principles to our own,” the scientist said. He didn't seem worried, but then, showing any sign of fear was about the same as baring one’s own throat for the kill. “If the laws of science are different here, our tech may not work properly...”

    Masji held up a claw. Somehow, he could hear something calling, a voice right at the edge of perception. “Remain here,” he ordered his crew, taking the scientist by the arm and thrusting him into the corridor. It was illuminated only by the bioluminescent tubes the designers had worked into the starship, providing barely enough light to them to find their way up to the observation deck. His race believed in gazing out upon the stars, knowing that one day they would own them all. “Why...”

    He broke off. They weren’t floating in normal space, but in a strange...atmosphere that seemed almost beyond comprehension. It seemed almost as if they were floating in water, yet...there was something out there, a dark looming shape. It grew clearer as he stared, a darkened planet-sized starship. It was the missing Scientist!

    “Warlord,” the scientist said. “There's something else out there.”

    It was suddenly on them, something so vast that he could only take in a single skin cell at a time, yet the skin cell itself had billions of other skin cells. Something touched his mind and he realised, at a level so profound that it could not be denied, that he was looking upon the face of god. The entity reached into his mind, showed him the truth of all things and waited. Masji dropped to his knees in worship. It hadn't compelled his obedience; it had merely shown in the truth. It was a god.

    Defiance was not an option.

    Commodore Pike watched in irritation as the remaining alien ships turned back, their mission accomplished. Their plan had worked well, he reluctantly admitted; they’d won time for their commanding officer to commit suicide. No one knew what would happen when a starship tried to enter the Gateway, but no one believed that it was survivable.

    “Commodore, we have...”

    The tactical officer broke off. Tooth and Claw erupted from the Gateway like a bullet fired from a gun. Its speed was already impossible – too high for warp drive, too low for hyperspace – and it plunged into space before they could react. It was gone.

    “Inform the Grand Admiral,” he ordered. “Tell him...tell him that we have a new problem.”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++


    Chapter Eighteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    Admiral Burton braced himself as his image materialised within the Security Council’s secure virtual chamber. It was a more sombre meeting than the only other session he had attended, something he would have believed impossible. The Confederation hadn't realised – it had only been a week ago, as unbelievable as that seemed – just how bad the situation had truly become. Looking from face to face, Burton wasn't sure that they truly understood, even after the disasters that had gripped billions of Confederation citizens. If he hadn't been at Greenland, he wouldn't have believed it either.

    “Admiral,” Chairperson Mariko Waianae said, once the AIs had confirmed that the meeting was secure. “Just what happened down on Greenland?”

    Burton gathered himself and spoke for twenty minutes, outlining everything that had happened from the first moment his force had jumped into the system until they had been forced to retreat, only two hours after arriving. It didn't get any easier to bear, even several hours after the fleet had retreated and taken up position at the edge of the Greenland System and he could see that not all of the Security Council believed him. The other attacks had been equally disastrous. Twenty worlds – twenty systems – had been attacked by ghostly creatures, ghostly creatures who could only been seen by the naked eye or sensed by telepaths. It was beyond belief. The might of the Confederation Navy could not be challenged by intangible creatures, yet there was no doubt that that was exactly what had happened.

    But then, he reflected, when telepathy is involved, the rules tend to go out the airlock.

    “The loss of the Gordon was the single greatest loss in the battle,” he concluded. Even calling it a battle was an exaggeration. “We also lost nearly twenty cruisers, with several more damaged and currently undergoing repairs. Our ability to disable the infected ships before they can reach other star systems has been hampered.”

    “We have passed on a warning to other star systems,” the AIs injected. “Without a certain way to recover the ships safety, our advice is to destroy the ships on sight and hope that that breaks the connection between the entities and their thralls.”

    “You’re talking about murdering Confederation citizens,” Representative Carolynn said, her tail thrashing oddly in the air. “You cannot do that!”

    “There isn't any other choice,” Representative Singh snapped. He turned to stare at Burton, trying to glare him into submission. “Why did you not destroy Greenland?”

    Burton swallowed the first response that came to mind, but he refused to back down. “With all due respect, Admiral, destroying the planet would have meant destroying – killing – the remaining human population on the planet,” he said, coldly. “I was not about to commit mass slaughter, not when it remains possible that we can free the infected from their state and restore them to life.”

    “This infection is a cancer, one spread by the thralls,” the Enhanced Human said. “We do not have time for half measures. We have to burn it out at source. There may be billions of humans in the infected zone, but there are trillions of humans in the entire Confederation. We have to preserve the greater mass of humanity and if that means losing billions to save trillions...do we have any other choice?”

    “We do not believe that conventional weapons would be effective,” the AIs said. “The true source of this problem lies with the entities, not with the infected humans. The destruction of Janyo did not affect the entities, as far as can be determined.”

    Burton winced. Janyo was – had been – one of the infected worlds, a world so alarmingly close to a potentially-hostile alien empire that its inhabitants had spent years building up a formidable defence establishment, which had been turned on the planet as madness had started to spread through the system. One of the madmen had launched a quantum fission warhead into the planet’s crust and translated a quarter of the planet’s mass to energy, shattering the planet, it’s three Rings and sending shockwaves echoing through space. The blast had been almost as powerful as a supernova. The expanding shell of radiation would be another problem for the Confederation Navy, assuming they survived the current threat.

    The remaining worlds had fallen completely, including the Scorpion Navy Yard, one of the four systems in the Confederation capable of building planetoids. It seemed odd to think that the entities might be able to make their thralls start building a war machine, but he couldn't dismiss the thought, knowing that if the entities wanted to expand much further, they would need a navy. In fact, the Confederation Navy was already working on an operational plan to destroy the Navy Yard, rather than trying to recover it. It was simply too dangerous to leave in enemy hands.

    Mariko tapped the table and the argument paused. “Genocide is not an option,” she said, firmly. “Even so...how did this even start?”

    “With your permission,” the AIs said, “we have been analysing the data and we believe that we have come up with a theory.”

    “Please,” Mariko said. “The floor is yours.”

    “Thank you,” the AIs said, gravely. “Given the...dead patches on Greenland and four other worlds, dead patches that are microcosms of the dead Ancient worlds, we believe that the entities were responsible for the destruction of their race. The relative shortage of intelligent life in our galaxy may also be the result of their work, although it is impossible to be sure. The important detail is that we can draw a line between the dead worlds and our current crisis.

    “Joe Buckley, a researcher fascinated by the Ancients, manages to unlock some of their language and build technology based on their theories. He tells us that the device is meant to allow us to tap the power of a black hole; he rigs the device so, instead, it converts the black hole into a gateway to another realm. We do not realise this until it is far too late. At the same time, a handful of his students proclaim themselves capable of reading other parts of the Ancient language and develop a cult based around the return of the Ancients, who would judge the human race. This cult does not become a massive movement, nor does it fade away; their relative handfuls of devotees are very devoted.

    “Just after the Gateway is formed and the destruction of the Hamilton, the cultists decide to carry out a ritual on twenty worlds,” the AIs continued. Burton could sense their hesitation, their reluctance to even discuss the possibility. Their ability to datamine anyone or everyone in the Confederation was legendary, yet privacy was an integral part of the Confederation ethos. The AIs could find out anything about anyone. “Those rituals, calling upon the Ancients, are at ground zero of each of the outbursts of madness. The entities that manifest, at least according to the people who see them, are centred on the location of the rituals.”

    It was Doctor Bernard who spoke first. “Are you saying,” he said, “that the cultists successfully called the entities into this realm?”

    “It appears that way,” the AIs agreed. “We cannot prove this – at least, not yet – but we believe that the Gateway altered the local quantum foam in such a way as to allow the cultists to carry out their ritual, connecting our universe to theirs. If the laws of their universe are radically different to ours, they may be able to do things that we would consider impossible.”

    “The universe operates according to a set of fixed rules,” Doctor Bernard insisted. “They do not change at whim.”

    “That isn't true,” Representative Caprice pointed out. “Telepathy defies your rules. So, too, do the transcendent races.”

    “Assuming that the stories of their existence are more than just stories,” Doctor Bernard said, sharply. “How many of those...so-called post-mortal races have been recorded on our technology?”

    Caprice grinned. “How many of the entities have been recorded on our technology?”

    “None directly,” the AIs said. “We have, however, been able to conduct memory reads on some of the people who saw them with their naked eyes. The entities were present.”

    There was a long uncomfortable pause. “There is an additional detail,” the AIs added, slowly. “It was difficult to establish who was a member of the cult and who remains a member” – the Confederation didn't try to keep track of who followed which fad, knowing that most fads faded away very quickly – “but we have been collating data and we have come to an uncomfortable conclusion. All of the members of the cult – all of the ones who remained committed throughout the years since parts of the Ancient language were unlocked – were listed as having telepathic potential.”

    Caprice blinked. “You are saying that they were telepaths?”

    “They were all tested as having the potential, but chose not to develop it,” the AIs said. “Their exact status was never determined, as they never joined the telepaths or sought separate training. Given the fact that the entities use the telepathic band to spread their infection, the conclusion seems inescapable; it needs telepaths, or people with telepathic potential, to allow the entities access to our universe.”

    “Then we have to isolate every potential telepath,” Representative Singh said, sharply. “We have enough problems without running the risk of additional entities manifesting within our space.”

    “Quite apart from the civil liberties issue,” Caprice said sweetly, “you do know that roughly a tenth of the population has at least some telepathic potential?”

    “We cannot win this...conflict by spitting on the core of our own society,” Representative Carolynn said, firmly. “I do not believe that there would be popular support for a mass round-up of potential telepaths. We do need to round up the remaining cultists and prevent them from carrying out any more rituals, but that is a different option.”

    “Our main priority,” Grand Admiral Mark Webster said, sharply, “is to prevent the infection from spreading any further. Now we understand its vector, we can warn the local authorities to prevent any further cult rituals from being carried out, but that is only a stopgap measure. We must prevent the infected star systems from spreading the infection and we must find a final solution, one that breaks the link between our universe and theirs.”

    “We have been studying the Gateway since the Buckley Experiment went badly wrong,” the AIs said. “We have been unable to deduce any method of closing it. It is possible that destroying one or all of the objects orbiting the gateway would be successful, but so far we have been unable to identify any promising angles of attack. We are still considering the problem. Unfortunately, our inability to perceive the quantum foam makes it tricky to accurately gage the effects of our actions on the Gateway. It is quite possible that disrupting the gateway would have disastrous effects on our universe, perhaps creating a massive black hole or even destroying vast swathes of the galaxy.”

    “I will dispatch additional telepaths to assist you,” Representative Caprice said, grimly. “Between us, we might manage to get a handle on what is actually happening deep within the Gateway.”

    “This is all very interesting,” Representative Chen said, “but there is one thing we all need to know.”

    He took a breath. “What do the entities want?”

    “We have interviewed many of the refugees from infected worlds,” the AIs said. “The ones who saw the entities believed that they were being literally sucked dry by them, their life force being drained away into nothingness. The damage to the planet itself – and the dead Ancient worlds – suggests that in the end, they want to drain us all dry.”

    “And yet,” Representative Caprice whispered, “the Ancients worshipped them as gods.”

    “We don't know that,” the AIs pointed out. “We only have the cult’s word for that and the cultists have an extremely good motive to lie. We have been considering the issue, however, and we believe that there are two possibilities. The first is that the Ancients were attempting to warn us – or any other race – of the dangers; the second is that they were enslaved by the entities and forced to feed them life force, both from their own people and from other races. Eventually, however, something went wrong and the Ancient civilisation died. The entities withdrew back to their own dimension and waited.”

    “And then Joe Buckley reopened the Gateway,” Representative Singh finished. His eyes were bleak. “Is that the fate that awaits us all if we lose?”

    “It looks that way,” Representative Caprice said. “We must find a way to stop them before it is too late.”

    Burton thought, rapidly. One of the puzzles the human race had faced as it had developed intelligence was both simple and profound; where were the others? If one intelligent race – humanity – existed, why were there no signs of any others? It only became more complex as technology advanced and it became clear that a race that had started out a ‘mere’ million years before humanity would have taken the entire galaxy by the time the human race learned how to walk upright. By the time the human race had actually encountered other intelligent races, it became clear that they were all – apart from the transcendent races – of roughly the same age as humanity. It made little sense; if the Ancients had existed so long ago, why weren't there older races in the galaxy?

    But now the human race had a glimmer of the truth and it was terrifying indeed. If the entities could influence and eventually control human minds, why could they not do it to the Ancients? They could warp an entire civilisation over the centuries, turning the Ancients and their proud culture into an empire that existed for one purpose; feeding the entities and their creaseless hungry for life force. The Ancients had spread out and destroyed the other races that had existed at the time, sacrificing them to their gods, until the entities had grown so hungry they had consumed their servants as well. Or, perhaps, the Ancients had rebelled, only to discover that they could no longer survive without their masters.

    The thought was terrifying. Once the entities had taken the Confederation, he wondered, was that what was in store for humanity? Would the Confederation Navy end up feeding the entities, throwing every other race in existence into their gaping mouths? He swore that he would not allow it, yet how could anyone resist? The entities could warp minds to the point where it was impossible to tell if they were doing the right thing or not; given enough power, they could even disrupt local reality. How could the Confederation Navy fight an enemy they couldn't touch?

    “We need to start acting now,” the Grand Admiral said. “We will prevent the rogue ships from reaching the other worlds. We will act to destroy the Navy Yards before they can be turned into enemy fortresses. We will, once we have the firepower assembled, take out the remaining industry in the infected systems...”

    Except that might mean exposing other minds to the entities, Burton thought, coldly. How far can they reach with their telepathy?

    “We will also start evacuating planets close to the infected systems,” the Grand Admiral concluded. “We might be able to starve the entities to death.”

    “That leaves one final question,” Representative Chen said. “What about the Haypah?”

    Burton nodded. The images from the Gateway had come in a mere ten minutes before the meeting had been convened, a chilling image of a warship spat out of the Gateway at impossible speeds. The ship had been lost somewhere in interstellar space, beyond the best tracking systems the Confederation Navy could produce, doubtless carrying infection into Haypah space. The final image haunted him; the ship had been in perfect condition when it plunged into the Gateway, but when it had come out it had looked to be in ghastly condition, as if it had rusted away over the decades. He had no idea what could have caused such an effect.

    “We warn them about the ship,” the Grand Admiral said. “We cannot spare many ships to search for it, even if we knew where to start. They should see the sense of simply destroying it on sight.”

    “Assuming they can,” Representative Caprice said. “If the ship was actually in their universe, they might have been able to shield it against their technology, or ours.”

    Assuming they are that sensible, Burton thought, keeping it within the privacy of his own mind. The Haypah rarely showed any signs of sense, at least as humans understood the term; they would be tempted by the awesome power the entities represented, without realising the dangers. Or perhaps they would believe that they could handle the dangers.

    On that note, the meeting ended.

    “The Board of Inquiry has considered the loss of the Gordon,” the Grand Admiral said, afterwards. They stood together in a different part of the secure network, staring down at a representation of the entire Confederation. “They do not feel that you are personally to blame.”

    Burton nodded. One thing the Confederation Navy had in common with every other military machine in human history was that there was no shortage of people at the rear willing to pass judgement on the people at the front. Losing a planetoid was rather more than just a minor embarrassment.

    “We’re rotating additional ships out to you as fast as we can,” the Grand Admiral continued. “I have a specific task for you. You need to take out the Navy Yards.”

    He placed a hand on Burton’s shoulder. “I understand your reluctance to harm or kill our own people,” he said. “I share it myself, but we cannot allow the Navy Yards to be turned against us. The resources there could shift the balance of power against the Navy. Even if we have to destroy the entire system, we cannot allow that to happen.”

    The Grand Admiral’s eyes hardened. “Whatever it takes,” he said, “the Yard must be destroyed.”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nineteen<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />

    The Drak Bibliophile was tiny compared to some of the Confederation’s city-ships, only a mere seventy kilometres long. The ship, shaped like a flattened cylinder, was normally home to over a hundred thousand humans, but most of the population had been transferred to another massive ship, which was now making its way out of the area as fast as it could go. It felt oddly empty to Janine’s mind, even though she knew that the crew had remained with their ship, yet she understood the reasoning. The refugees from Greenland might have brought the infection with them.

    She stood in the centre of a park, looking up towards the dome and the stars overhead. The Drak Bibliophile was keeping station on Greenland’s star, orbiting far enough from the planet – they hoped – that it couldn't be influenced by the force on the ground. She hoped – prayed – that they were right, although she found it hard to believe. Her one contact with the entities hadn't left her with any unwanted guests, at least as far as she knew, but it had definitely left her terrified of their power. It seemed as if there was no such thing as safety any longer. He looked down towards a court, where the starship’s inhabitants would normally play power ball, and shivered. The deserted court was a chilling reminder of just how badly the Confederation had been hurt by the entities.

    The refugees had been well-treated, but the doctors had insisted on checking them carefully before they cleared them for travel outside the new quarantine zone. Janine had submitted to an endless barrage of tests, even though it hadn't taken her long to realise that the doctors didn't really know what they were doing, before they’d finally allowed her into the main body of the starship. She had tried to order a starship to travel into the Confederation, but she had been told – firmly – that anyone who had encountered the entities personally would not be permitted to leave until they could be verified as being clean. Janine had no idea if they could even do that, but the truth was that part of her was glad of the break. Her entire world had been turned upside down.

    When she slept, she saw the entity, looming over the city and reaching out for her. Her dreams made it far more personal; the entity wanted her personally, either to subvert her as it had subverted countless others or to destroy her, for daring to refuse its call. She was convinced that she could feel the entity in the back of her mind whenever she looked towards Greenland, a constant nagging reminder that something unnatural had entered the universe. It was impossible to tell if the feelings were real, or if she was deluding herself into believing that she could feel the entity, yet they tore away at what remained of her personality. It was so hard to focus on anything these days, even on her job.

    She had reported on what had happened to Greenland as best as she could, although she had had to use a memory reader to show her followers what the entity had looked like, at least to her mind’s eye. No piece of technology had actually seen the entities, from dumb sensor drones to RI or AI cores. It struck her as terrifyingly possible that some cultures would simply have refused to believe in the entities, convinced that their population was a victim of mass delusion, at least until the entities came for them. Her followers had bombarded her with comments, from those who believed her and offered their sympathy to those who were convinced that she was making it up. Newshounds were honour-bound to always report the truth, at least as they saw it, yet there were always a few bad apples in every bunch. They tended to vanish quickly when they were caught out, but when they were the only witnesses...it still shocked her to discover that she was the only newshound to have survived the fall of Greenland.

    Janine looked up as a looming shape passed over the park, wondering – in a moment of sheer terror – if the entities had reached out for her. Thankfully, it was only a starship making its escape from the hanger bays under the park; the massive starship served, among other things, as a mobile shipyard. She’d had the impression that the starship had begun constructing new ships as soon as the crisis had begun, producing war material for the Confederation Navy. It was clearly going to be needed. The Confederation Navy had never lost so much tonnage in such a short space of time.

    She turned and walked through the park, studying the strange blend of plants from a hundred different worlds. Earth had provided the template for many of humanity’s worlds, starships and habitats, but over the centuries thousands of plants from other worlds had been added to humanity’s diet. She had actually walked on Earth – the entire planet was now a nature reserve – years ago, recording her impressions for her followers. As one of the few planets in the Confederation where entry was actually restricted, rather than being a guaranteed right of the civilian population, Earth – the cradle of the human race – still held a mystique for the descendents of those who had set out from the homeworld, many centuries ago. The Drak Bibliophile’s crew – or the RI cores that actually ran most of the vessel – would have transplanted some of Earth’s stock to the ship and tended it as they saw fit. Janine had seen ships where a hundred different plants had been thrown together, given nutrition and left to fight it out for supremacy, but here the garden was carefully tended. She saw a remote drone working on one of the trees, cutting down a branch that was growing too long, and smiled. The sight was oddly reassuring.

    Life goes on, she reminded herself, as she found the capsule at one end of the park. The Drak Bibliophile did not allow teleporting within its hull, except in case of emergency. Ship crews and populations tended to be more than a little eccentric, so the remainder of the Confederation’s population made allowances for them. They tied the Confederation together – and, if the entities were unstoppable, they would transport vast swathes of the human race to another galaxy, where they would begin again. There were whispers on the Galactic Net that some starships had already started, vectoring their courses away from the Confederation and heading out towards the Clouds, or M33. The Confederation had sent missions to them before, but they had found little of interest. Now, they might serve as a refuge for the human race.

    The capsule spun up as she sat down in the single chair, rose above the deck and plunged into a transit tube. When she had been younger, Janine had convinced the RIs governing the flight to remove some of the dampeners, but now – as an older and wiser person – she refused to feel any of the sensations that came with travelling through the tubes. It was the quickest way to get around the massive ship, quicker even than gravity chutes. Somehow, after touching the entities, she had found it harder to convince herself to take risks, even imaginary risks.

    She stood up as the capsule came to a halt, inside one of the recreation centres on the ship. It should have been brimming with life, but now it was inhabited only by forty listless people, those who had been plucked away from Greenland and away from the entities. Janine had felt drained after she’d escaped the entities, yet these people looked worse, their pale faces barely responding to any simulation. They looked like zombies to her; she had the strangest impression that they would be easy to pick up, even without enhanced muscles. Just looking at them made her feel tired.

    “They’re not responding to anything,” a doctor said. He was looking harassed and worried. The Confederation’s citizens rarely needed sustained medical treatment, not when nanomachines could repair most damage almost instantly, and genetic engineering had provided a barrier against infection, even from the most virulent diseases in existence. “I have tried everything from drugs to direct mental simulation and the results have been poor.”

    “They’re drained,” Janine said, remembering the tiredness that had gripped her, back when she’d been fleeing the planet. “They’re tired, unable even to remember how to move.”

    The doctor looked at her sharply. “They’re not tired,” he said, crossly. “There’s nothing wrong with them.”

    “Not physically,” Janine said. Perhaps it was something that couldn't be explained to someone who hadn’t experienced it for themselves. “They’re feeling mentally drained, drained of their energy. They can’t move...”

    She paused, considering. “It’s a little like depression,” she added, thoughtfully. “The deeper into depression a person sinks, the harder it is to believe that it will ever get better, which pushes a person further into depression and eventually kills them.”

    “I see,” the doctor said. He nodded towards a young girl, her face unmarked by experience. It was hard to tell in the Confederation, but Janine was sure that she was genuinely as young as she looked. “That girl should be young and vital. Instead...she’s just lying there, trapped in her own mind. We need to get her out!”

    Janine shook her head, unable to articulate a reply. She’d eventually recovered on her own; maybe, she hoped, the others would recover as well. Or perhaps a telepath could do something for them. There didn't seem to be any other answers.

    Doctor Shivani knew, without false modesty, that she was the foremost brain care specialist in the Confederation. The human brain, once a mystery to all, had slowly yielded up its secrets to human researchers, although quite a few of them had followed false paths that had sometimes led to disastrous results. Shivani had spent over three hundred years learning her art, both in the field of brain surgery and in mental health care, and had been looking for a new challenge. The chance to study a human mind that had been affected by an alien entity was too interesting to miss, even if it meant flying into a war zone.

    She studied her own reflection in the silver stasis field covering the body, considering her options. It had been a long time since she had worn her original face; now, she looked middle-aged, with dark skin and a reassuring smile, just right for patients who would be nervous at undergoing surgery. She doubted that her current patient would appreciate her appearance though, not after the madness had descended on her mind. The Confederation Marine pilot had killed over seventy humans before her shuttle had finally been trapped and she’d been taken prisoner.

    “Release the field,” she ordered, as soon as she was sure that everything was ready. The silver field popped, revealing a young woman with staring eyes. She leapt up at once, only to crash into the restraint field, which pushed her back onto the bed and held her down. “Begin preliminary scan.”

    She studied the girl as the scan began, mapping out every millimetre of her brain and charting the electrical patterns running through her mind. Lieutenant Chihiro’s record was impressive, not the one she would have expected from a person who had fallen prey to an alien force. She had been an expert pilot since she was nine years old and had joined the Marines seven years later, when it had become legally permissible. She hadn't qualified as an actual Marine, but she’d become one of their pilots and served in several combat zones. Her record was one of achievement, not of...failure.

    “Scan complete,” the RI announced. It displayed a chart in front of her. “There are multiple disruptions in her brain patterns.”

    Shivani nodded, fascinated. The Marine pilot’s brain activity made no sense. The human brain was complex, but her brainwaves were far more complex than Shivani would have believed possible, too complex to allow her to read them and monitor the girl’s thoughts. Indeed, Shivani was mildly surprised that she hadn't suffered brain damage; the level of mental activity was extraordinary high. She copied the results into simulation cores and studied them carefully. Her first impression had been right. She should have suffered massive brain damage almost as soon as her brainwaves had been forced into the new pattern.

    “Curious,” she said, aloud. She examined the original results for a long moment, but found no answers. The brainwaves should have done far more damage than just driven her completely mad. She should have collapsed within seconds. “Check her implant records and tell me if they attempted to compensate.”

    The RI took a moment to unlock the sealed records, allowing Shivani a chance to gather her thoughts. Years ago, during the civil war between pureblood humans and genetically-enhanced so-called superhumans, someone with more scientific curiosity than ethics had invented a device that manipulated brainwaves, using it as an instrument of torture. The device had allowed his side to extract information from prisoners, for it completely bypassed the counter-interrogation implants that both sides used to prevent their people being forced to divulge information. The few who survived the experience had been left broken shells, unable to even fend for themselves. The device had been banned – the details of how to build it had been lost, although she had a fair idea how it had been done – but the records of its effects had been kept. The pilot was suffering from similar effects, yet somehow they were not manifesting fully within her brain.

    “Negative,” the RI said. “They did not attempt to compensate. They did not record any disruption to her brain.”

    “But there must have been disruption,” Shivani protested. “She wouldn't have decided to open fire on her own side of her own free will, would she?”

    She played with her long hair for a moment. “And besides, there’s disruption now,” she said, absently. “We need to examine it closely.”

    The table adjusted itself for surgery. A sedative field went to work, sending the Marine into a dreamless sleep. She should have collapsed instantly under the pressure of the field, but as Shivani watched in disbelief she struggled against it, trying to escape. Her brainwaves spiked angrily as she fought, before finally collapsing into sleep. Shivani started dispatching nanomachines into her brain, allowing them to chart out the interior of her mind – confirming what the scanner had reported earlier – as she prepared herself for surgery.

    “Record,” she ordered. “The entities have effects that do not show up on technology. As a scientist, I find that unbelievable, but I must go where the data takes me. I have therefore decided to risk a physical entry into her skull and examine the brain directly. I understand that this runs risks, but I feel that the need for answers is great enough to justify them.”

    She scowled as she allowed the surgical field to focus on the girl’s skull. Every doctor in the Confederation would eventually study the records from her operation, allowing them to pass judgement on her and her skills. It was something that she had grown to expect – the competition between doctors was intense – but it still struck her as annoying. If she made a mistake and accidentally injured or killed the girl, she would have every doctor telling her – in great detail – exactly what she did wrong.

    “I begin,” she said, and triggered the field. It reached out and started to slice into the girl’s head. The field wasn't as personal as using knives, but it was a great deal cleaner and safer. Her skullcap slowly slipped away from her head, allowing Shivani to see the pulsing brain underneath. No matter how many times she saw a human brain, she was never able to prevent the thrill spreading through her, the certainty that one day she would unlock the final mysteries of the human mind. The gray matter in front of her looked normal. “I am...”

    She broke off as she looked closer, studying it with her naked eyes. The brain was still pulsing, yet there was something...she stared, unable to believe her eyes. The brain was glowing with a faintly unwholesome yellow light. It seemed to dance and shimmer in front of her, calling her onwards. She recoiled with sudden horror. That was impossible!

    “I am seeing a light,” she reported, swallowing hard. There were some creatures that had bioluminescent brains, but humans were not one of them. “The light seems to be infesting the brain, spreading through it. I am unable to account for its presence.”

    She stood up and checked the sensors. They refused to register the light’s presence. As far as they were concerned, the light did not exist. She altered their settings, fine-tuning the probes, only to find nothing. The light was beyond their capability to detect. Her unseen watchers were going to wonder if she had gone mad, even if she showed them a direct read from her own memories.

    But then, she reminded herself, the entities themselves didn't show up on human sensors.

    “I am also unable to determine how it is affecting the brain,” she continued, gathering herself. “It is possible that the light represents a mental virus that exists within the brain, but separate to it, accounting for the lack of total mental collapse that should have occurred.”

    Her voice rolled on, crisply. She tried to put what she was seeing into words, but it seemed impossible. She was, she realised, in unknown territory...and instantly felt as dumb or ignorant as the so-called doctors who had believed in bleeding people to handle diseases, or that women never had an orgasm. Whatever she was looking at, in the brain of the former pilot...she had no idea how to treat it, or even to record its existence. The universe had turned upside down.

    She fell back on an old line. “Further research,” she reported, “is required.”
    kellory and ssonb like this.
survivalmonkey SSL seal        survivalmonkey.com warrant canary