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Unavoidable Casualties

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  • Jasonian
    replied
    Hey! Thanks for bumping this up! I haven't seen this one in who knows how long...


    Yeah, I don't like it when stories get left behind too. This is probably multi-part story I read when I came to Apolyton. It's a shame to let is just die.

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  • SixArmedMan
    replied
    I know it's wrong in every possible way for me to post in someone's story thread but I get the feeling it's not gonna' really matter.

    Nothing frustrates me more than an author not finishing a really good story. I always thought this story and the offical SMAC story brought the characters to life like no other story did. I just wish the author would have finished. Oh well...

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  • Elemental
    replied
    The office was one of the more prestigious in the university – it commanded a large space and a scenic view of the landscaped gardens. Lal had been given the choice, when he was appointed to his Chair at Oxford, to reside in any number of rooms within the ‘old’ campus, but he’d turned them down. Doubtless there was an undeniable charm in working in the ancient buildings around quadrangles, but the students tended to disturb him and his work required the most up to date computing and scientific resources.

    So, instead he relocated to one of the out of campus sites, in a small science park owned by the university on the outskirts of the city. Some of his colleagues regarded this as something of a Siberian assignment, being relegated away from where the ‘action’ took place. They were right. Most of the important decisions and politics were made at the old campus.

    And that turned out to be the deciding factor that made him move.

    One of the hidden advantages of working at the science park, Lal had found, was that the most cutting-edge technology was constantly being tested out. After a brief discussion with the director of the rather grandly named Next-Generation Technology Integration Institute, he’d joined the ongoing ‘test-scheme’ to evaluate all their new hardware. His room was crammed with various gadgets – microcameras, DNA samplers, EM cut-off fields, uplinks to personal nanosats. All contested for space on a long ten foot table placed at the side of the room.

    The desk at which he actually worked had none of this – Lal preferred to use the old style Scrolls. There was one device he did use, though – a pseudo 3D holoprojector that created a 2D screen that simply floated in space.

    After making a few finishing comments on a paper he was reviewing, Lal looked down at the gardens. Three small and flat solar powered robots were laboriously picking up leaves that had fallen onto the grass. Lal resisted the urge to rush down and help them out. Turning away, he said ‘Give me the SSN feed on the Brunei situation.’

    A large LCD panel attached to the wall sprung into life. Lal clicked his tongue unconsciously as he watched the SSN video feed, fingers twitching over an untidy spread of Scrolls.

    ‘…bringing the latest news from Brunei. Red Cross officials are trying to restores lines of communication to determine exactly what the scale of damage was – they’ve had access to satellite videos of the event, but the true human cost is unknown.’

    Lal exhaled air from his nose irritably. He could have told the UN that that was going to happen sooner or later.

    ‘…haven’t experienced an earthquake in this area for, well, a very long time. The EPC is claiming that they hadn’t had the relevant information from the seismographs around Brunei, but to most victims, they’re the obvious scapegoat.’

    Blaming the Earthquake Prediction Centre wouldn’t help anyone. They never should have been mandated the responsibility for global earthquake prediction – the only reason they’d been given it was based upon a few lucky guesses and a generous helping of political manoeuvring. Lal had a contact within the EPC who’d confessed several times that they simply hadn’t got a rock-solid method of linking seismograph results with location and time of earthquakes – rather ironic, really.

    Lal chastised himself for thinking this as the Solar Space News network switched to one of their roving helicopter feeds, showing the destruction and wreckage caused.

    His computer beeped an incoming call message. Lal nodded sharply, not turning to look at the computer video camera.

    ‘Ah, Lal. Hannah Redbridge here. I had a call from Bill Hau just a few minutes ago – he wanted me to check whether you were going to the UNISPACE 12 conference.’

    Lal caught a reflection of the image of her face on his computer screen on his window. She seemed happy.

    ‘Hannah. Who the hell is Bill Hau, and why on earth would I want to go to the UNISPACE conference. You know that I’m not interested in solar matters.’

    ‘Sorry. Bill’s the guy had the idea for the new UN Human Genetics taskforce. Officially, he wants you to attend one of the seminars relating to human immune system stability in sub-Earth G environments. Something to do with T-cell counts. Unofficially,’ she stressed the word, ‘unofficially, he wants to appoint you as head of the UNHG – that’s the Human –’

    ‘Genetics taskforce, yes, you just said that. Why me?’

    Hannah paused for a moment. Lal spun in his chair to face the computer screen.

    ‘He seems to think you’re a capable person. He didn’t say this, but I get the feeling he likes your ideals, and he’ll need someone to replace Alex Barclay in a few years time. You might well be the Commissioner for Health, Earth Division, before the end of the decade.’

    Lal gritted his teeth. Damned politics. How can people be talking about damn politics when thousands are dead in Brunei and ten times, a hundred times that, would be dead within the week?

    ‘Okay, I’ll come along to this UNISPACE thing. Who else do I know that’s going there?’

    ‘Apart from me? The usual bunch – Simmons, Takayuki, Hiromi, Matzdorf. By the way, I’m emailing you the travel arrangements and conference details. You should feel privileged that the UN is paying for your hop.’

    ‘I’m sure,’ he replied, sardonically. Lal had never been keen on these sub-orbital spaceplane hops. Zero-G didn’t agree with him, even if it meant he could travel a few thousand miles in less than an hour.

    ‘Oh, and Deirdre Skye coming as well,’ added Hannah.

    ‘Hmm,’ said Lal, watching as someone placed a glass of water down beside Hannah, just outside the view of her computer camera. She was just about to say something – no doubt formulating some humorously cutting remark concerning his brief acquaintance with Deirdre the last year – when he spoke suddenly.

    ‘This Brunei disaster. What do you think about it?’

    Hannah pursed her lips in the video window. She worked at the US Centre for Disease Control, based in Fort Collins, currently helping out with Asian countries curb the rash of new viral strains popping up.

    ‘It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. They were just recovering from their economic collapse when – bam! – they get a collapse of a different kind. They’re an unlucky people. It was a terrible tragedy,’ she said, shaking her head.

    A terrible tragedy, thought Lal. That’s what they all say.

    ‘I don’t know about unlucky. At the risk of sounding unkind, the economic collapse was only their own fault.’ Lal watched carefully for her reaction.

    ‘That was unkind, except it is true. Yeah, if they’d bothered to plan ahead they’d have figured out that the automobile industry would be switching to hydrogen/fuel cell energy instead of petroleum. Maybe if they’d ploughed all the cash they got from oil sales back into upgrading their tech and their education system, they wouldn’t be in this situation,’ she said. ‘Then again, none of the other Middle Eastern countries worked it out either. In a way, you can’t blame them,’ she continued, upturning her palms in a sign of resignation.

    ‘Well, whose fault was it then?’ said Lal roughly, glaring out of his window where a small robotic grass trimmer was busily navigating its way around the flowerbeds facing his office. ‘All of ours, I suppose. Their government, for not listening to us or their scientific advisors. Their citizens, because they didn’t press the issue to their government. The UN, because they left it to the individual governments to work out. Us, because we talked about it, but we never did anything about it!’

    Hannah looked at him sympathetically. ‘It’s not your fault – how could it be? Look, I’m going to be in Geneva before the conference starts. How about we get a drink together, or something? Talk it over.’ She smiled, jokingly. ‘If you do join the UN, maybe you could do something about all of this. Change the world. You always did say that we could change the world.’

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  • Elemental
    replied
    Sina stood outside the monorail tube, clutching her arms together. She was shivering slightly, and looking nervously towards the opening of the service station, fifty metres away. I’m in well over my head here, she thought. The UN can’t be taking me seriously, not if they send me a half-trained intelligence agent. Intelligence, hah!

    She wasn’t sure what would happen now. Whatever Maxwell had said, the UN would never send a transport into Believer territory – not only would that be an act of war, but even worse, in the UN’s eyes, that is, they’d be seen as complete hypocrites, advocating peace while practising conflict. And Maxwell couldn’t win against the half dozen or so BIS agents inside the train. Maybe the BIS would be sympathetic towards her.

    She ****ed her head to one side, trying to strain her hearing, unconsciously triangulating the source. Turning around, through the grey scratched plastic of the monorail tube, she could just make out the train silently departing. Sina touched her brother’s arm. Lalver silently looked over towards the monorail, almost reeling back in surprise.

    There was a sound of someone shouting. Seconds later, Maxwell tumbled out of the open service station door onto the bare ground outside as a blue beam stabbed past him. He responded by firing another few rounds at the agent, then pulled himself up onto his feet.

    Sina remained frozen to the spot, her shivering forgotten. Going up to the service station door, Maxwell tapped the keypad a few times, then banged it with his fist. Nothing happened. Stepping back, he fired three rounds into the electronic lock mechanism. With startling speed, the door slammed into place.

    Maxwell trotted over towards them, shouting at first.

    ‘They won’t be able to cut themselves out before our transport gets here, and there’s only two left, the rest were still on the monorail.’ He looked up to the darkening horizon, where a bright point of light was rising slowly. ‘That’s our transport.’

    Lalver looked towards where Maxwell was pointing, and squinted. ‘How long will it take for it to get here? Won’t it get shot down?’

    Maxwell smiled inscrutably. ‘I doubt it,’ he said, remarkably self-assured, thought Sina.

    The point grew into a sleek and thin disc, its searchlight creating lengthening shadows behind the three. Small rotors extruded themselves out of the top surface of the craft while a bulky undercarriage unfolded itself. Lalver frowned, and said ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen that design of craft before.’

    Sina looked closely, and a shiver ran the entire length of her body. ‘I have. In a Believer military installation.’ Maxwell said nothing when she looked at him questioning, the contours of his face lost in the shadows.

    ‘I don’t suppose there’s much we can do except to wait. They’ll probably pick us up, since they haven’t killed us already,’ stated Lalver in a flat voice.

    With a final sweep of its searchlight, the craft touched down almost gingerly onto the ground, the undercarriage compressing to absorb the impact. The rotors shut off, and the brilliant searchlight flickered out. Sina blinked her eyes, trying to adjust to the sudden darkness. A ramp banged down onto the ground in front of her, and men rushed out. Maxwell still didn’t move. One of the men detached himself from the main group, who were encircling the three, to walk up to the lieutenant. He saluted.

    ‘Sergeant Takayuki Sato, sir. Received your call.’ The sergeant stared impassively to the right of Lieutenant Maxwell.

    Maxwell nodded. ‘Very good, sergeant. We’d better get going now. You can give me a sit-rep on the way back.’

    The sergeant saluted again, and barked a series of unintelligible orders into a wire-mike. The craft rotors started up again, and the intelligence officer, scholar and defector were ushered inside. Within a minute, the craft had taken off again, heading towards UN territory. The dim light of the sun’s refracted rays coming over the horizon bathed the scene and craft with a dull red glow.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    The interior of the craft was filled with low tech polymer display panels and bulky hardware. Light from the computer displays played over the faces of their operators, who whispered commands and typed away with an unconscious ease that Sina recognised well. The head of the craft held two pilots, keeping an eye on display panels overlaying the protective canopy shielding.

    Maxwell headed over to a console with the sergeant, jerking his head at a row of small seats to them. Sina and Lalver sat themselves down, looking around. She wasn’t sure what to believe now – the whole experience of the monorail and now the rescue by this strange helicopter aircraft was so confusing that she’d given up trying to understand. She glanced over to the console Maxwell was bent over, talking in low tones to the sergeant.

    ‘Are UN troops always that formal? And what’s up with Maxwell?’ she asked.

    ‘He messed the mission up, and both he and the sergeant know it.’ Sina didn’t reply, although it was clear she didn’t understand.

    Minutes passed. Sina tried to relax and get some sleep - the motion of the craft was smooth and quiet enough to allow it – but she couldn’t manage it. Maxwell straightened up slowly, and walked over towards the two.

    ‘We’ll be landing in UN military outpost in a few minutes, then we’ll take a ground transport to Serendipity.’ He looked down for a second, his jaw muscles bunching for a second. ‘I bungled the mission. I shouldn’t have allowed you to go on the monorail, it was too unsafe. I knew we couldn’t trust the BIS informants.’

    ‘You got us out, though,’ said Sina in what she hoped was a reassuring tone.

    ‘Yes, I did. There is that, at least.’

    Sina spoke to fill in an uncomfortable silence, since Lalver didn’t seem to have anything to say, his eyes staring up at the ****pit. ‘So would you like to explain what the hell went on back then?’ The casual profanity didn’t faze her as much as it would have done back in Alatesia, but she still found she had to make an effort to swear. Maybe it’d put Maxwell at ease.

    ‘The UN end of the monorail plugged in a backup nuke powerplant and basically jump-started the monorail. Then they sent over this craft – it’s a retrofitted Believer military transport one of their defectors came over in. All this armour and low tech is because it’s been reinforced to be EMP proof.’ He snorted. ‘The damn thing’s even got a manual flight control system, for God’s sake.’

    Maxwell either didn’t notice Sina’s flinch at the blasphemy, or chose to ignore it. ‘There’s nothing better than a couple of inches of lead to stop an EMP blast, even if it means this thing can only fly for a few hours.’

    Sina pondered this. ‘Why didn’t the Believers do anything? They’ve got interceptors, they could’ve shot us down.’

    ‘The Believers didn’t have a clue of what was going on. We planned this so that their spy satellite was over the horizon at the time, and the EMP the BIS agents used also had the convenient effect of shutting down all their airborne communications.’

    ‘So how did you manage to contact the UN if the EMP knocked out all the communications?’

    ‘The comms console in the service station was shielded from the blast by all the other computer around it, and it had a ground-line to the UN communications network,’ answered Maxwell.

    Sina could feel the craft descending slowly, the undercarriage folding out underneath the floor. ‘What happens now?’ she asked herself.

    ‘I don’t know,’ said Maxwell, his eyes closed, concealed by a hand rubbing his brow.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Author's note: Turns out that I got this done earlier than I expected. I'm probably going to finish this story, although it'll take a while because I'm starting another. Thanks for all your comments, everyone.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    ‘No, don’t be silly. I was just saying to my friend how your work in investigating the way the so-called junk DNA helps in retaining the structural integrity and correct coding of the entire DNA strand. Almost as if there was a self-correcting mechanism there, with some kind of negative feedback loop concerning the production of variable efficiency enzymes depending on the number of errors in the nucleotide sequence for specific DNA repair genes.’ The words flowed out of Deirdre’s mouth as if they were completely natural to her. True enough, her own work concerning plant DNA did involve some of the same mechanisms, but world-class scientist or not, it was startling for Lal to actually experience this 31 year old rattle off a string of words that summed up one of the major avenues of his research.

    Lal opened his mouth, then closed it, trying to compose his words in his mind. ‘It’s interesting you say that. We’ve been considering that possibility for some time. Up to now, we’ve only concerned ourselves with the actual proteins and enzymes which are directly involved in DNA repair, but the Hughes and Britton study did suggest that the junk DNA is more than it seems.’

    Lal quickly became too absorbed in the conversation to remember that he was supposed to be self-conscious.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Sina jumped up, muscles tensed. ‘An EMP blast? What can we do, then? The BIS must already be on the monorail now.’

    Maxwell struggled with the straps on his bag feverishly, ripping the velcro seals apart. ‘I know! That’s why we have to get out. They’ll be counting on us to stay where we are. We might be able to buy some time by running, but I don’t know whether it’ll be enough.’

    ‘Enough? If they’ve got any intelligence, they’ll have sealed off all the exits, and they’ll have beam weapons!’

    ‘Do you think I haven’t thought of that? Hopefully they don’t have that much intelligence, because I’m counting on them to think that their EMP wiped out all our weapons.’ Maxwell removed a bundle from his bag, unrolling it and slotting various parts together.

    ‘Is that another beam weapon? Because you know that it won’t work, the EMP will have wiped out everything.’

    The lieutenant finished assembling the small handgun and started shoving magazines into his coat pockets. ‘Yes, everything that uses electricity. This doesn’t. It’s a projectile weapon.’

    ‘A what?’ exclaimed Sina, trying to look around the corner of the open cabin door. They went quiet, listening to the sound of someone hammering on a cabin door further down the corridor. ‘They’re coming,’ whispered Sina furiously.

    ‘OK. You two, run down the corridor and get out through the monorail door. Just twist the red handle – that’s the failsafe way of opening it. Once you’re out, try to get into the service station, there must be one nearby. I’ll cover you. Go now!’ he shouted, hustling them out of the door behind him.

    Maxwell wasn’t quite sure what he was doing. All officers in the UN Intelligence Agency had mandatory training in projectile weapons, but he was a new officer and hadn’t had much time on the shooting range. He couldn’t even remember if the gun he held was an automatic or not, or how many rounds the magazines contained. A routine assignment, he’d thought a few days ago, and while he’d packed his handgun, he hadn’t expected to have to use it.

    But he reminded himself harshly that he had a responsibility for these people, no matter how irritating they were becoming, and a second after Sina and her brother started sprinting down the corridor, he spun around the doorway, pumping the trigger at an indistinct shape further down. The shape let out a cry as it was spun around by the force of the bullet striking its arm. The BIS agent was completely shocked. Projectile weapons weren’t in use on Planet at all – EMP hardened beam weapons were far more efficient. The sudden crack of sound, and the bloody, ragged wound in its arm was far from the usual quiet fizz and cauterised wounds of normal beam weaponry.

    This was fortunate for Maxwell, who had only hit the agent’s arm through complete luck, the recoil of the handgun throwing off his aim. Momentarily stunned, the United Nations Intelligence officer began to run down the corridor backwards, firing off more rounds. The agent, leaning against a wall, swung its gun in a limp gloved hand. The blue beam shot down the entire length of the corridor, over Maxwell’s shoulder, easily cutting through the carriage windows. Maxwell crouched down to present a smaller target to the agent, shooting him in the hip. The agent collapsed, dropping its rifle. Sounds from behind the agent indicated that more agents were about to enter the carriage, and he gave up all hope of disabling the BIS agents, instead running down the corridor and flinging himself out of the monorail as a bundle of dazzlingly bright blue beams flashed behind him.

    Landing on the curved surface of the tube hard, and twisting his knee, Maxwell quickly looked around, seeing a service station towards the end of the monorail train. While running as fast as he could with his limp, he transferred his handgun to his left hand, wiping his right on his coat and pulling out another magazine. Thoughts raced through his mind – how many agents on board the train, were there any other UN security agents nearby, whether his charges had made it to the service station, how many shots he had left. He blinked, trying to get sweat that had dripped down from his hair out of his eyes, and tried to concentrate on getting to the station.

    Inside, Sina was standing up in front of an ageing comms console, trying to contact the UN embassy in Alatesia.

    ‘Move,’ said Maxwell, pushing her out of the way. Have to get us out of here quickly, he thought. But will there be anyone close enough to get here in time? After a moment’s hesitation, he tapped in a few commands to the console, opening a channel to a UN satellite in orbit. ‘This is Alpha 7, code 3957ST. Request immediate air retrieval, three individuals. Priority one.’ A second passed, and he repeated himself. A faint noise of static came through. ‘Acknowledged, Alpha 7. Air retrieval ETA four minutes. Stay low.’

    Stay low, thought Maxwell, shaking his head in amazement. What other gems of wisdom do they have for me. At least it was only four minutes. It was doable. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of beam appearing through the open door.

    ‘You heard them. There’s an exit to outside the monorail tube further back. Take it now, I’ll try to hold them off until we get retrieved.’ Sina looked as if to argue, but Lalver pushed her along.

    Searching in his coat’s inside pockets, he found a small sonar earpiece. Placing it in a magnetic induction recharger on the console, he pulled out his handgun, sliding around the concrete doorway to randomly fire in the general direction of the beam. Hearing the full capacitance triple-beep of the earpiece, he stuffed it into his left ear, diving out of the service station to execute a short roll on the tube floor.

    Nothing happened. His sonar earpiece didn’t register any movement at all, and he couldn’t see anything either way down the monorail tube. Puzzled for a split second, he became horrified and half-ran, half-stumbled along the tube. An explosion from a micro-grenade sitting just where he’d been a moment ago smashed him back against the curved tube wall. Hundreds of small fragments of plastic fountained up into the air, clattering against the sleek bulk of the monorail carriage.

    The scene remained strangely silent after the explosion, and there was still no sound from his earpiece. He waited, and a quiet series of clicks and whistles impinged on his hearing. Looking up, he saw a something taking aim at him with a beam rifle, standing on the monorail tube gantry above him. Quickly rolling to his right, the beam scorched his upper left arm, and Maxwell fought desperately to keep both his hands on the handgun, his entire left arm trembling in pain. Taking careful aim, he hit the sniper on its leg. The sniper fell to its knees, and with underwater slowness, flipped over the gantry railing to land heavily on top of a monorail carriage. Staring at its body, he saw the colour of its coverall suit slowly change from grey into black, matching the shade of the monorail roof. A Fader suit.

    Flicking his eyes from side to side, he saw two sets of doors simultaneously open from opposite ends of the monorail. It better have been four minutes by now, because there’s no way in hell I’m staying out here any longer, he thought savagely. Firing off the rest of his magazine at the nearest set, he ran back towards the service station, narrowly ducking a crossfire of two blue beams, and getting clipped on the calf by another.

    Author's note: Going away next week to London, so no updates for a while. But I'll be thinking up cunning new plot twists and details, so Unavoidable Casualties will be that much better when I get back.
    [This message has been edited by Elemental (edited July 25, 1999).]

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  • Elemental
    replied
    An hour later, he sat in a corner of the reception hall alone, a glass of champagne by his side, watching the hundreds of attendees. He sighed, holding up his champagne to a light, looking through it. One of the surgeons he’d met from working with the Red Cross in Syria began to approach him. Lal nodded his head slightly to him. Geoff Simmons, a cardiologist from England. Geoff was a tall, wiry man – the long hours and bad diet of his stay in Syria obviously hadn’t fully disappeared from him.

    ‘So how did it go?’

    ‘I’m sitting here, on my own, in a corner of this hall, feeling sorry for myself, and you ask me how it went?’ said Lal, smiling, looking down at his hands.

    The surgeon laughed, and said, ‘Oh, I know you got shot down. But how did you get shot down?’

    ‘Shot down, eh? I suppose most of the people here noticed?’

    ‘Well, it didn’t escape the attention of many, if that’s what you wanted to know.’

    Lal theatrically took a deep breath, pulling out a chair from under the table next to him. His friend sat down on it, brushing away a few crumbs first.

    ‘Okay. So I spot Dr. Skye talking to a few people in the UN I’ve seen before, and I think it’s a perfect opportunity, right?’ The surgeon nodded in agreement. ‘Right. I go up to the edge of their group, and I’m waiting for an opening in the conversation. Just when one comes along, I open my mouth, and –’

    ‘And what?’ asked the surgeon, amused.

    ‘And she says “Look, doctor, I already said I didn’t want to talk to you. Don’t you understand?”’

    The surgeon, Geoff, tipped his chair back, bursting out in laughter. A few dinner-jacketed men nearby turned around to give him strange looks, which he promptly ignored.

    ‘Are you quite finished?’ asked Lal, shaking his head at Geoff, who was silently quaking.

    ‘Oh, yes, quite finished. Why on earth did she say that? I take it you haven’t actually talked to her before?’

    ‘No, not at all! That’s the strange thing. I mean, she wouldn’t say something like that unless she just didn’t want to talk to me in the first place, and, well, I don’t see why.’

    ‘’course you wouldn’t. Lal, she’s probably been talking to a few people who don’t think so highly of you as most of us do, and she’s probably been told a few horror stories. I’m sure it’s not because she has any especial hatred of you. I mean, I do, but I still talk to you,’ said Geoff, first reassuring, then joking.

    ‘Yeah, more’s the pity. But, still, I don’t get it. Maybe I’m just too old for her, or something. Then again, nineteen years, well, with the new longevity treatments we’ve got these days, it’s not so much. And I was just going up to talk to her, not propose or anything. After all, what would you have done, hmm? Hey. What’re you looking at?’ Geoff seemed to be staring over Lal’s shoulder, wide eyed.

    Lal irritably twisted his neck around, annoyed that his flow of words had been cut off. ‘If you’d just have the courtesy to listen to…’ He looked straight into the face of Dr. Skye.

    ‘Ah, Dr. Lal. I’m sorry for snapping at you earlier, I mistook you for someone else. My sincerest apologies.’

    Lal hadn’t appeared to have moved for several seconds, twisted around in his chair. He did however note the alacrity with which Geoff had stood up from his chair, grabbed his glass of champagne, and disappeared, mumbling something about drinks.

    ‘Wh- Uh, it was my fault entirely, Dr. Skye, I should have introduced myself in the first place. You would – would you like to sit down?’ he asked, gesturing to the empty seat beside him. Deirdre carefully bunched up her long ball gown to place herself down. Lal took the occasion to take a closer look at her. Deirdre was about 31, very young for someone of her learning and responsibility, but Lal had no complaints. Her ball gown was slightly off white, hugging her figure while still looking perfectly respectable. Unlike many of the other female attendees to the ceremony, she didn’t need to wear dark colours to disguise any weight she’d put on, simply because she hadn’t.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    The globe rotated slowly amid the background of stars, occasionally casting off a brilliant glare as the sunlight struck through the clouds to reach the ocean below. White clouds covered most of the surface, and strings of lights dotted the dark side of the crescent planet.

    Lal leaned back in his chair, watching the holoprojection. He found it very calming, and used it to remind himself of the fragility of life. And how he must safeguard that life, to save it from destroying itself, as it had patently been trying to during the Global Council session he’d chaired a few hours back. Even though the recent spate of mindworm attacks had eased somewhat, every faction was on a state of heightened military alert – more heightened than normal, in fact. Morgan Industries were claiming that pollution obviously had no effect on mindworm activity, since there hadn’t been any attacks. The Gaian delegate, along with the Believers and University had agreed. The Spartans remained neutral, as did the Hive.

    There were, however, some encouraging sounds about the work on the inter-factional New Babylon station in orbit. Sounding displeased, the Believer delegate conceded that all the factions seemed to be getting along quite well, and construction of the solar powered microwave stations was ahead of schedule. The attempted defection of the Shining Star team had evidently not endeared them to the orbiting space station. Unsurprisingly, the Believers had not volunteered any information on the Shining Star project, even after the smugly smiling University delegate had inquired about the progress of their space research. Instead, the Believer delegate had stoically stated that ‘research was continuing as predicted.’

    It probably wasn’t a good idea for the University to alienate the Believers in any way, although they could afford to be smug, considering their Shining Star-analogue lightcraft was fully functional and in production. The Believers’ military force was second only to the Spartan’s small yet expert army, and some of the analysts within the UN contested even that. Believer Exterior Security, as their army was known officially, had not been seen in action for some years, and the religious fervour they commanded lent them a superiority that only boosted their advantage of numbers.

    Interesting, though, that the University had managed to hear news about the Shining Star. Perhaps they were finally improving their much-ridiculed probe teams.

    Luckily, it didn’t seem as if anyone had caught wind of the Believer’s location of the Earth signal. It went without saying that no-one would admit to knowing if they did, but Lal could always pick up on the subtle signs. And if he didn’t, his network of agents usually found out anyway, as they had found out about this Sina Demri.

    Looking at a small clock he’d brought with him from Earth, he adjusted its position minutely. Maxwell should have communicated him some minutes ago from Serendipity. It was strange that he would be late for such a communication, but the lieutenant seemed to live an interesting life. Undoubtedly he was having some kind of troubles, but Lal was sure that there wasn’t anything that could not be handled.

    Quite surprising, that. Against all his expectations, Maxwell had returned from his visit to Gaia’s High Garden completely unscathed. Of course, as a result Maxwell hadn’t learned anything of substance, but Lal was pleased that nothing untoward had occurred. The lieutenant hadn’t in the strictest sense succeeded in his mission, but he had allowed others to have a greater probability of success. Contingencies upon contingencies, Lal ruminated.

    He had decided to send Maxwell off immediately to the city of Alatesia, to retrieve the Demri woman. An unfortunate business, the Shining Star incident. Lal had sincerely hoped that Ersal and his team would have been able to make it to New Babylon; not just for the information they would have brought with them, but for the chance it would have offered them, to leave the Believer society. Then again, if Ersal hadn’t been killed, he wasn’t convinced that they would have been to get the woman to come to Serendipity. Perhaps the death of the Shining Star team was not in vain.

    Lal didn’t envisage Maxwell having any problems with his assignment – he wasn’t on his own, after all, and he doubted that the BIS would be able to mobilise quick enough to intercept them, as long as Maxwell didn’t act too slowly. His other assets in the Believers were trying to unearth all the information they could about Demri’s supposed Earth signal location, but it was rapidly becoming classified and encrypted. Already, one of his undercover agents had had to have been whisked away into the UN embassy from the BIS. No, the Demri woman was the only practical way of contacting Earth.

    Lal rested his gaze on the globe. So fragile. He’d never appreciated it from this view.

    Unlike other Founders he knew, Lal found it easy to remember the past. He felt that he had a duty to, because if no-one else did, what had happened centuries ago, light-years away may as well have not happened. He couldn’t let that become true. Lal leant forward, an elbow resting on his desk and his forehead resting on his hand.

    The small holoprojection of Earth continued to rotate, unheeded.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Lal stared glumly at the UN emblem adorning the huge cloth behind the speaker, who was the current UN High Commissioner. The ceremony was already twenty minutes behind schedule, and that would probably end up being an hour by the end of the evening.

    ‘Two years ago, our news headlines have been taken up by the terrible conflict in Syria. While it may have been trivialised as the ‘Twelve Minute War’ by media services, the death toll from this localised nuclear war rises into the hundreds of thousands. We may ask ourselves whether there is any hope for the human race, if terrorists can commit such atrocities as feeding two countries with misinformation, knowing full well the consequences. As we have seen tonight, there is hope. In the aftermath of this conflict, countless individuals have shown their selflessness and charity by devoting themselves to the cause of the victims of the tragic mistake behind the nuclear missile launch.’

    And that’s my cue, thought Lal, as he set his glass down on his table.

    ‘First, we have Dr. Pravin Lal from Oxford University. Dr. Lal devoted himself to treating the radiation poisoned in Syria using his revolutionary approach to gene therapy. Not only that, but Dr. Lal also joined the Red Cross surgery corps to travel into the dangerously radioactive areas close to the blast zone to provide help to those who were unable to find transport out, with no thought for his own safety. We have decided to honour his contribution towards alleviating the suffering this conflict has caused by awarding him the Silver Olive of Peace.’

    In a second, dozens of cameras swooped from around the auditorium to focus on him. Lal obligingly looked around, beaming.

    ‘The repercussions of the Syrian conflict were not only confined to the victims harmed in the initial blast. Many of the areas affected by the radiation were fertile farmlands providing food to innumerable citizens. Previously, this land would have remained barren and unfit for crops, causing the loss of employment for many agricultural workers and best, huge debt to Syria, and at worst, a famine. However, Dr. Deirdre Skye from Cornell University has been heading our Disaster Relief Fund to revitalise those radiation contaminated areas. Recent reports have shown that the highly specialised and radiation resistant crop strains have had excellent yields, and that the farmlands are well on the road to recovery. Dr. Skye, like Dr. Lal, has also been awarded the Silver Olive.’

    Camera images of the Dr. Skye appeared on the video projection to the side of the High Commissioner. Lal found himself nodding in admiration, then stopped himself as the other diners at his table smiled at each other knowingly.

    ‘What’re you all grinning about?’ he demanded, only half joking.

    ‘Oh, well, it’s nothing really. Hannah here was just saying to me that you might want to collaborate on medical research work with the esteemed Dr. Skye,’ said a friend to his right, cracking up. The aforementioned Hannah, between laughs, protested her innocence.

    Lal muttered sourly about the amount of wine they’d consumed, while trying to keep the smile off his face. He sat through the rest of the ceremony impatiently, waiting for the reception. While his friends’ conversation gradually drifted onto other topics than Dr. Deirdre Skye, he started to eat from a bowl of peanuts, wondering whether anyone would notice if he tried to look at the table she was sitting at.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    Author's note: Sorry about the lack of updates recently. I had a bit of writer's block and decided to build a website in the meantime. I also added some stuff to the plan of Unavoidable Casualties, including a pretty cool set-piece involving another lightcraft.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Lalver turned the lights back on as the projection finished. Maxwell looked at her expectantly.

    ‘And that is supposed to impress me? Everyone knows that it’s easy to fake projections now, with the optical and DNA computers you have. I couldn’t even see their faces!’

    ‘It’s not supposed to impress you. I’d better tell you what it’s all about. Your husband was involved in constructing the Shining Star lightcraft prototype. Basically, it uses power in the form of microwaves beamed down from an orbiting solar power station to accelerate it into orbit. Very advanced, and very efficient. It was also highly classified.’

    ‘In such a high profile project, it is standard procedure for Believer Internal Security to monitor each member of the project, especially the supervisor. It turns out that your husband’s team were part of a… group within the Believers who did not agree with the way your society is run. His team were very talented, and managed to hide what they were planning from the BIS for some time. Unfortunately, they weren’t talented enough. BIS caught up with them as they were leaving for the New Babylon station, and you’ve just seen what happened,’ said Maxwell.

    Sina considered this for a moment, then looked down at the dormant holoprojector.

    ‘How did you get all of this information?’

    ‘We have our informants within the Believer society. We are the United Nations, after all.’

    It made sense. The United Nations were renowned to have an extensive network of observers across Planet, both official and unofficial. They would have the resources to pick up something like this. But something didn’t feel correct.

    Shaking her head, Sina said ‘It doesn’t make sense. Ersal wouldn’t have just left like that. He would have told me.’

    Maxwell gave Lalver a pointed glance. Evidently Maxwell didn’t want to do this all on his own. Lalver sighed, then said ‘Sina, the BIS intercepted all his communications to you, and used computer-generated imagery to impersonate you for your replies. That was one of the ways they figured out what was going on. Ersal certainly didn’t spell out his plan, but he made clear that he would be involved in some kind of operation with the Shining Star, and would be away for some time.’

    ‘I think he, and everyone in the Believer society, underestimate how extensive the BIS’ communications monitoring system is,’ interjected Maxwell.

    Sina decided to let that one pass, for now. ‘So what do you want with me?’

    ‘You aren’t aware of the exact nature of your work, are you, Miss Demri?’ Maxwell didn’t bother to check if she felt this was the case, but carried on. ‘Communications analysis, radio telescope information feeds. Software agents looking for fractal patterns. The signals that you monitor are signals from Sol.’

    ‘For the past few years, we have had nothing from Sol. Just radio noise. The BIS has reason to believe that you discovered evidence for a coherent signal from Earth, and they want to know what it is.’

    ‘Why don’t they just search my computer records, then?’ asked Sina, who felt she knew where this line of conversation was heading.

    ‘Because you hadn’t actually located the signal. You were close to finding it, but not yet there. Only you know where it is.’

    ‘Right. And then, what a shame, my husband died just as I was going to find it,’ rejoined Sina sarcastically.

    ‘Sina,’ said Lalver quietly, ‘that recording we showed you was made over a week before you were informed of Ersal’s death. They knew that you were on the right track, but they didn’t want to upset you.’

    Sina stumbled from her pacing, and sat down heavily on a chair in the hotel room they’d walked to after their meal. Over a week? That couldn’t be possible, they’d never do anything like that.

    ‘So why did they tell me at all?’

    ‘They had to tell you sometime, they couldn’t keep it covered up forever. I suppose it was just bad luck that they told you just when you’d practically cracked the signal location,’ said Lalver.

    ‘You’ve seen what your society does now. It drove your husband to extreme measures to try and escape, and then they killed him. It covered up your husband’s death for a week, just to get you to solve a problem. It lied about how he died. It impersonated you. It robbed you of your right to speak with him. Do you want this society to be the one that contacts Earth? The one that receives all their secrets, all their technology, all their knowledge to create weapons?’ asked Maxwell, harshly.

    What did she have to lose? Sina knew that she didn’t have to tell the UN anything about the signal. She had the feeling that she was just rebounding from her husband’s death, but what Maxwell had just said made her uncomfortable. But she wasn’t sure. How could Sina know exactly what was going on? And to make such a decision, the decision that would determine the faction that would contact Earth and undoubtedly gain superiority on Plant, it just wasn’t fair that it had to be her.

    Lalver looked at Sina’s face with searching eyes. Sina tried to avoid his gaze. Lalver wouldn’t have agreed to go along with this unless he felt it was right. Sina didn’t know him that well, but she had a feeling that, right or wrong, Lalver believed he was doing that right thing. The thing is, Sina asked herself, do I have faith in his belief?

    She made her decision.

    It’d just give her a bit of thinking time, to work out what had happened, and to figure out what she wanted to do next, she told herself.

    ‘I’ll go with you to UN territory, if that’s what you want. Tell me, who are you really?’ she said.

    ‘Lieutenant Philip Maxwell, UN Intelligence. I was under orders from Commissioner Lal himself for this operation,’ he said. There was a note of pride in his voice.

    ‘What an honour.’

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Classical music echoed softly through their cabin. Danse Macabre, she thought. She turned to look outside the cabin through its tinted window, at the blurred landscape racing away. The blurring wasn’t just due to the speed of the monorail she was on – the transparent tube in which the monorail travelled was in need for cleaning.

    Maxwell had left their cabin a few minutes earlier, muttering something about getting food. Lalver, sitting opposite her across the table, gently laid down a Scroll he was reading, to look at her.

    ‘What do you think of all of this?’ he asked.

    Sina contracted her jaw muscles angrily. What did she think of this?

    ‘I’m thinking that if the BIS did intercept Ersal’s messages to me, I’m sure he would have told me. He must have been planning escape on the Shining Star for weeks, months. Why didn’t he tell me?’ she said, perplexed and irritated.

    ‘Ersal knew that he couldn’t tell you anything. God knows that he must have wanted to, but he knew that the more he said, the greater the chance of him getting caught. Being the project supervisor, he must have realised that your house was bugged. Look, Sina. Ersal did love you, if that’s what you’re asking. He didn’t want to leave you behind and in the dark, and he didn’t.’

    ‘But how do you know? All I have is the word of some so-called Intelligence officer from the United Nations! I don’t know what to believe now. They could have just made all of this up,’ she complained.

    Lalver expression softened. ‘There’s nothing I or anyone else can say that will –’

    Sina frowned, and looked outside the window, squinting slightly. The monorail was slowing down.

    ‘We aren’t at Serendipity yet, are we?’ she asked, surprised. Monorails weren’t this fast, were they?

    Lalver looked at his ridiculously antiquated clockwork watch. ‘No, don’t think so. Shouldn’t be arriving for another hour.’

    ‘So why are slowing down?’

    The door to their cabin slid open at that moment, and Sina flinched slightly. Maxwell stood in the doorway, holding a brown bag and cup of coffee.

    ‘Probably just a power failure. The monorail system’s just been overhauled, we have to expect these things. Happened a fortnight ago to myself, as a matter of fact,’ said Maxwell completely unconcerned, as he manoeuvred himself into his seat behind the table. Sina sat there, expectantly waiting for the door to close, when she realised that the power failure would mean the automatics were down. That was another thing. The music had stopped.

    ‘You don’t think it’s not just a coincidence that we’ve stopped, do you?’ asked Sina hesitantly, watching Maxwell lean back in his seat, studying a news Scroll.

    ‘Don’t be ridiculous. The Believers might not be the most rational of factions, but even they wouldn’t attempt to hijack a United Nations monorail train, with United Nations passengers, on the way to United Nations territory,’ he replied, distractedly. Lalver laughed quietly.

    Sina tried to concentrate on her Scroll, but couldn’t help feeling that something was wrong. Shouldn’t someone have told them about the power failure by now, or at least restored power to the intercom?

    She opened her mouth again, and said ‘I think that we should –’

    ‘I think you’re paranoid,’ said Maxwell flatly. ‘There’s nothing to be worried about. It’s a power failure. It’s not uncommon, it’s just a coincidence. We’ll be in Serendipity in an hour’s time, I can guarantee it.’

    Sina looked outside of the window again, seeing no activity. She drummed her fingers on the table nervously, and said, ‘Maybe it’s not a power failure. Maybe it was an EMP blast, or something.’ Maxwell looked up from his Scroll with a very wearisome expression.

    ‘You’re joking, right?’

    ‘I’m not. It could be an EMP blast,’ she said, defensively.

    ‘It’s not. If it was, then the Scrolls would be offline, wouldn’t they?’ said Lalver, helpfully.

    ‘Ah, but that’s not true. The Scrolls work by using metal pigments to produce the text and pictures. The electricity is only used to switch the polarity of the magnetic fields, so technically the Scrolls don’t really need electricity. It shouldn’t matter that they aren’t receiving any through the induction coils in the table,’ said Sina.

    ‘No, I don’t think so. The pigments would immediately return to a homogenised state so we wouldn’t see anything when the magnetic field is turned off,’ countered Lalver, enjoying the argument.

    ‘I don’t know. I remember reading somewhere that the magnetic charge is retained for a number of hours, to save electricity or something. Anyway, the metal pigments are small enough…’

    Maxwell continued to read his Scroll, letting their voices drone on in argument. Sina was paranoid. That was all, he reassured himself. EMP blast, he thought, well, at least she’s got an imagination. Hopefully he could be back at Unity’s Hope soon, and offload this pair. This assignment wasn’t what he thought it was going to be cracked up to be. After a minute, he glanced at his wristpad. The flexible polymer screen was dark. Maxwell hadn’t remembered turning it off, but shrugged and then pressed the power button.

    Nothing happened. He pressed it again. Still nothing. Feeling slightly worried, he reached inside his jacket to retrieve his FEM gun, and looked at its power gauge. Focused ElectroMagnetic radiation required a fair amount of stored electricity, and it had been designed to retain that electricity, EMP blast or not, unlike the relatively weak protection of his wristpad. He squeezed the handle, which should have activated it. The gun failed to power up.

    Maxwell stared thoughtfully at it for a second. The FEM-3 was one of the top-grade restricted weapons in the UN armoury. It was supposed to be able to resist anything short of the EMP produced by a direct nuclear blast. He panicked, standing up to retrieve his bag from the carrying rack above his head.

    ‘What’s wrong?’ asked Sina, frightened.

    ‘You were right. It was an EMP blast. We have to get out, now.’

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  • Elemental
    replied
    Lalver’s friend looked up, probably for a waiter, and spotted her. He quietly nudged Lalver, whispering something. Lalver’s head snapped around, staring at her, and a wide smile broke out on his face.

    ‘Ah Sina, over here! Come and join us.’ Lalver whispered something back to his friend, and took off his glasses, polishing them with a napkin. Sina navigated her way amid the tables and sat herself down opposite Lalver.

    ‘Let me introduce my friend, Philip Maxwell. I met him at Serendipity University, he’s part of UN observation,’ said Lalver enthusiastically. UN observation, thought Sina flatly, giving the mental equivalent of a sigh. That meant UN intelligence.

    ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said, the words forming without engaging her brain.

    Maxwell nodded. ‘Likewise. I was just telling your brother how much I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.’

    Sina gave Maxwell a long steady stare. Without taking her eyes off him, she said ‘Okay Lalver. What’s going on here. I don’t think you’re just ‘passing through’ Alatesia, so soon after Ersal’s death.’

    Lalver drummed his fingers on the table nervously. A passing waiter decided on a whim to see whether they were ready to order, but seeing the tense scene, he glided smoothly away. Lalver glanced at Maxwell.

    ‘Miss Demri, we have reason to believe that your husband’s death was not accidental. As you can imagine, I cannot talk about it here, but –’

    ‘Who is we, Mr Maxwell? The United Nations?’ asked Sina, angrily.

    ‘Yes, the United Nations. Look, let me finish. All I want to do is to talk to you for half an hour – just half an hour – and then it’s up to you to decide what you want to do. If you want, we’ll leave you alone. But this is for your good,’ said Maxwell, frowning.

    Sina sat there, muscles constricted, watching the other diners at the restaurant and the passers-by on the road for a few moments. She took a menu, and carefully unfolded it in front of her.

    ‘You can have your half hour, Mr Maxwell. But tell me, what do the United Nations get from this? Am I to believe that you are talking to me out of the goodness of your hearts?’

    Maxwell smiled mirthlessly. ‘No. What we get out of this, is being able to talk to you.’

    Lalver looked at each of them in turn, judging their conversation to be over. He turned in his chair, trying to catch the attention of a waiter, while Maxwell and Sina studied their menus intently. He entertained the notion that it had been a mistake to listen to Maxwell, then decided it was, as he had said, for the best.

    They ate their meals, Sina and Lalver talking about inconsequentials. Maxwell watched them wordlessly, later switching on his wristpad to read the news.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    The craft was clearly a prototype, by the look of its interior. Miltech hardware lined the walls, with small holoprojectors placed at strategic points. Completely circular in shape, the bridge of the craft had a slightly arched ceiling, and a concave depression in the middle of the floor, filled by a floating globe detailing their exact location and systems status.

    Spaced equidistantly around the floor were organic-looking acceleration couches, all twelve of which were occupied by suited and helmeted cosmonauts, wearing the shining cross of the Believers Emblem on their shoulder patches. The couches appeared to have curved walls that could enclose the cosmonaut completely, although it was not apparent what purpose they served.

    Sina stood, leaning against a wall, watching the holoprojection closely. Flashing words appeared at the bottom of the screen, reading, ‘Encrypted voice transmission intercepted. Decryption commencing… Relaying…’ Sounds were added to the projection.

    Ersal’s voice came first, ‘…check out fine. Our velocity?’ Ersal’s couch was highlighted by the projection, captioned by the words ‘Ersal Demri, Shining Star (Lightcraft) Project Supervisor’

    The cosmonaut opposite him spoke. ‘One-twenty klicks. Solar cells operating at 90% capacity, ionizing electrostatic engines working within parameters.’ The projection identified him as Paul Newall, Propulsion Engineer.

    ‘Sounds good. We may just get out of this one, if we can –‘

    ‘Sir, base control is hacking through the blocks we placed on the ground-based laser. We don’t have much time.’ Andrew Renoir, Interface Specialist.

    Ersal looked pained, then glanced down at his wristpad. ‘Paul, how much time before we can switch over to the MHD?’

    ‘Should be soon… OK, the microwave transmitter has powered up and locked on. Fifteen seconds until ignition.’

    ‘Initiating g-dampening submersion fluid. Standby,’ intoned a synthetic voice.

    The walls of the couches sealed up, and began to fill with some kind of transparent fluid. The image inside the craft filled with static, and was replaced by an outside view.

    The lightcraft had been flying with its edge as its leading surface, but now it tilted so the disc was flying straight into the air, flat side first. More flashing words appeared on the projection. ‘Shining Star switching to MHD propulsion. False-colour representation of microwave radiation applied to image.’ A velocity counter appeared at the top right, labelling the speed as 50 m/s. Abruptly, a wide blue beam stabbed down from the sky, hitting the entire diameter of the craft. The blue light was focused down to a blinding point just below the underside of the craft, and the velocity counter rocketed up by 600 m/s every second. After three seconds, the lightcraft was at Mach 5, and still accelerating.

    ‘Ground-based laser online… Locking on… Tracking… Firing.’ A searing red beam erupted from somewhere on the surface of Planet below the lightcraft. In a second, a hole was punched through the disc, and the entire craft exploded.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    ‘Hello, Sina. It’s Lalver here. I’m just calling to tell you that I’ll be passing through Alatesia tomorrow, so I was wondering if we might be able to meet up for a coffee or something in the city. Usual place? Give me a call if you can’t make it. Oh, and is anything up? You normally have your wristpad on all the time. Anyway, got to go now. See you tomorrow.’

    Her brother appeared to be calling from an airport terminal in Unity’s Hope using his wristpad camera. Lalver had always struck Sina as someone different. She hadn’t really seen much of him while she was growing up, him being fourteen years older than her. After he finished the compulsory Believer schooling, he had promptly disappeared off to study in the University of Unity’s Hope, gaining a degree in theology and philosophy. The Believers didn’t particularly encourage their citizens to travel in case they picked up ‘foreign’ ways, but they knew that there would always be a small number who would do so anyway. Lalver was one of these unavoidable losses.

    The last time Sina had heard from him, four months ago, he’d been staying in a residential area outside Serendipity, one of the smaller cities in UN territory, as a lecturer in the local university. Two years back, he’d finally won his appeal for full UN membership. She hadn’t known what to think of that at the time, but she took solace in the fact that he retained his faith, in some form or other.

    For a minute, Sina had completely forgotten about the death of her husband. Her smile faded as she switched off the wristpad, wondering how she’d be able to manage telling Lalver the news.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    The next day, the friends that had visited her had been more than willing to forgive her outburst. Strange, that, when most of them hadn’t even been present at the time. But they were delighted to see her happy, and felt that this visit from her brother would be an excellent way of cheering her up. For once, Sina didn’t even have to ask them to go away; they respected the fact that she would want to tell him the bad news on her own.

    On her way to the restaurant, Sina found herself walking on autopilot. It was a shock to be in the city again, surrounded by so many people, the towering office blocks and cathedrals in direct contrast to her existence in the forest. And there was another thing. All the people walking by her seemed so happy, so unconcerned of any accident that might befall them. Had she really been like that before Ersal’s death?

    She stopped to look at one of Alatesia’s older cathedrals, built in the same style used in the Renaissance. Children and tourists mingled around outside, talking loudly and laughing. Everyone was with friends, or in a group. There weren’t, she noted, any loners. By surrounding you with a protective cushion for your entire life, Believer society wasn’t much use when you suddenly became alone. It wasn’t the same when you knew your husband was going to die – when he had some sort of fatal disease, or was dying of old age. Sina could have accepted that, but she couldn’t accept having her husband ripped away.

    She realised she had been standing there for some minutes when a little boy pointed her out to his mother. Hurriedly, Sina snatched her vacant gaze away from the cathedral, and forced herself to start moving to the meeting place again. She knew that if she had stood there, that mother would have come over and asked her what was wrong, how could she help. Sina couldn’t take any more of that.

    The grand plazas and cathedrals gradually made way to smaller, two storey buildings. This was really the tourist district, but Lalver had always preferred it to central Alatesia. ‘More intimate,’ he had laughed, ‘if you can believe that.’

    It was quite amazing, the way that a city as large Alatesia had grown up in less than a century. She had been told by a visiting Founder that it wasn’t much compared to the cities of Earth like Paris or New York, but it seemed fairly imposing to her. True, neither of the Earth cities had the benefit of automated construction vehicles or semi-sentient AI robotics, but nevertheless, it was an achievement. Labour intensive jobs such as infrastructure construction, road surfacing and paving could all be trusted to a group of robots under the supervision of a foreman, and the results would contain far fewer mistakes than if it were left to humans.

    The Founder had assured her, though, that it was much cleaner and picturesque than any Earth city he had seen.

    Sina arrived at the restaurant slightly earlier than the time they had arranged. It was a small restaurant, serving ‘French cuisine.’ She wasn’t sure exactly where France had been on Earth, a small country among hundreds crammed into Eurasia, but the food was reasonable, as were the prices. She spotted him behind a stone pillar sitting in the open-air section. He was studying a menu while talking to some friend he hadn’t told her about. Typical of Lalver, she thought.

    She looked at him closely, trying to see if he had changed since the last time she had seen her. Lalver Fredrickson was stocky man, with perpetually uncombed brown hair. His bright squinting blue eyes, hiding behind some glasses appeared to be darting from object to object, to check if it held anything of interest. Wearing a pale blue T-shirt and light trousers, he appeared to be alert and enjoying the company of his friend. Lalver looked as if he’d just had a treatment of the longevity drug – his appearance was at odds with a person in their physical forties.

    The man sitting next to him looked the same age as Lalver, but she had a feeling that he hadn’t taken the longevity drug, putting his age at around the late twenties, about as old as her. Unlike Lalver, this man was leaning back in his chair, utterly relaxed. His face seemed to contain a well-hidden contempt for his surroundings, as if he treated his surroundings with condescension. There was nothing this person was afraid of that was currently anywhere near him. Probably an overconfident UN security agent, Sina thought dismissively. Lalver had certainly made some strange friends in Serendipity.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    A week later, Sina was reclining on a deckchair in her back garden, watching the sun disappear below the canopy of tree tops. In her left hand was cradled a glass of orange juice, with ice cubes. No alcohol for the Believers. It was a beautiful sunset, the clouds above illuminated by warm orange light. Must be a lot of particulate matter up in the airstream for effects like that, she thought dully.

    Just as Bralt had promised, all her friends and colleagues had been immensely supportive, smothering her in love and sympathy. It hadn’t really helped to ease the pain, though. Of course, she’d been given a few weeks off to grieve, as it was proper and right to do. One thing that constantly irritated her was that she was never left alone. Always there were friends in the house, helping out with cleaning or cooking. Whenever she went for a walk, the local chaplain would volunteer to accompany her. Or the neighbours, or someone from work, or her relatives. Or anyone. Perhaps they thought she was going to kill herself. It wasn’t unknown of, in the Believer society, but Sina had always felt that suicide was a futile way of retreating, giving up. No matter how bad it was, there must be something better than that.

    If she was in any other faction, she could have sought oblivion in alcohol, artificial stimulants, drugs, or VR sensoriums. No such respite in the Believer society.

    Matters hadn’t been helped by the fact that she lived in a small bungalow, which was just enough for two people, and crowded by any more than three. Between herself and Ersal, they could have afforded a much larger house, but there didn’t seem much point. They weren’t planning to have children for at least another decade or so, and if they bought a smaller house they could give more to charity. The bungalow had been assembled in a matter of days by automated robot crews and a foreman. With the increasing numbers of people migrating out of the cities into the ‘suburbs’ in Alatesia, the houses had to be semi-modular, by necessity. There wasn’t much to complain about, though. The modular house blended into the forest quite well, with a nice rustic feel to it. Even the timbers used to construct it had been taken from Alatesian trees.

    Sina took a sip from her glass, idly tracing out lines in the dirt with her big toe. It was strange, how they managed to keep someone by her side without fail. Lately, they’d been people she hadn’t even heard of. Males, mostly. Under any other circumstances, she would have been attracted to them. Not now.

    In seven days, she had not had any more than a few minutes to herself. So, earlier in the day, when she was sure that everyone was listening, she’d spewed out a diatribe of broiling frustration and anger, culminated in the screamed order to Leave Her Alone. Sina had been quite impressed with herself, she hadn’t had to make any of it up. She wasn’t surprised that no-one had initially followed this order, instead trying to find out What Was Wrong, How Can We Help? A few more shouting matches, a few more burned bridges that wouldn’t be rebuilt for some time (no matter the Believers famous forgiving spirit), and finally she had cleared the house out.

    Still, she’d had more than a few calls on the wristpad from Concerned Friends. She turned the wristpad off.

    At first, she had tried to pick up her reading on a book, but found she couldn’t concentrate. She’d wound up where she was now, looking at nothing in particular, thinking nothing in particular and just trying to calm down. Lethargically, she moved her head to look at the deckchair beside hers, trying to picture Ersal lying in it, wearing his ridiculous sunglasses even though it was far too dark to see with them. She smiled at the memory, but found she couldn’t remember exactly what he looked like, slouching back. Soon, she wouldn’t remember many details of him at all, but she would still feel as if there was something missing. The worst of both worlds. His death would lend the rest of her life with a bittersweet quality.

    That was another thing. The Believers prohibited the use of the Amnase treatment, which had been ‘rediscovered’ only two decades ago. For religious reasons.

    Sina hadn’t lost her faith in God. She didn’t want to know why her husband’s life had been taken, she just wanted to know what it was meant to achieve.

    It was just as well, she thought, since she knew she wasn’t going to be told the circumstances of his death. The Founder had showed her blurred pictures of some kind of thin disc-like craft, taken at a distance, and then talked about impact velocities and the omission of parachutes or other safety equipment. Of course, Bralt had said, parachutes wouldn’t have helped at all. The descent was too quick, and the craft was at too low an altitude.

    The sun was now fully below the tree tops now, the sky darkening rapidly. In response, the automatic lights, sensing that someone was still outside, glowed into life. Sina judged that it was probably a good time to get back inside. Nights in Alatesia were cold, summer or not.

    Stepping carefully through the patio door, which closed itself quietly behind her, she heard a soft chiming from her wristpad. She had turned that off, hadn’t she? Padding over towards it, just before she reached automatically to silence the offending machine, she read the name of the caller. Now that was a surprise. He couldn’t have heard about the accident yet, seeing as he lived outside Believer territory. Feeling moderately happier, she tapped the playback button on the wristpad screen.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    Sina settled back into her chair, gazing at the holoprojection in something that almost seemed like awe. She’d finally found it. Lord, I am thankful that you have chosen to give me this honour, this singular gift. Surely you are unsurpassed in your wisdom and charity.

    She still couldn’t believe it, so she initiated an error-checking software agent to see if she wasn’t receiving incorrect data, and the short wait would give her the opportunity to have a break. Dimming the holoprojection, she decided to take a walk around. Emerging from her small cubicle, identical to a dozen others in the same room, she stood up and slipped some shoes on.

    The other workers remained crouched over their computers, whispering quiet commands to their microphones. Tying her shoelaces, she bent slightly to try to look in to the cubicle opposite hers, but could only catch a fleeting glimpse of some spectrographic analysis program. They weren’t encouraged to talk to each other about their work, and the high walled alcoves ensured privacy. Sina wasn’t quite sure why this was necessary; it wasn’t as if her work was particularly significant or secret. Strange, but it she didn’t worry about it.

    One of the advantages of the location of Alatesia was that it had an abundant supply of wood, giving the city a unique character. Unlike the computing and projection equipment present in the spacious room, the furnishings and decorations were distinctly old-fashioned, with wood partitions and subdued paintings adorning the walls. Soft full-spectrum lights gave the impression of proper sunlight, and wide corridors between the cubicles guaranteed a minimum of inter-staff chatting. A wide spiral staircase led from the end of the room to the main reception area above. The weather must have deteriorated since the morning. Normally on a sunny day the curved wall of the staircase would be lit up brightly.

    ‘You are privileged to have been chosen to work here at the Alatesia branch of the central government monitoring organisation. Here, you have access to the most up to date technology the Lord’s Believers can offer, as well as a perfect working environment.’ That was what she had been told, when she had arrived here to work over two years ago. Not only did she feel privileged, but also daunted. The feeling dissipated, however, when she became engrossed in the complexity of her work.

    At the end of the room hung a painting of the Believer’s Cathedral in New Jerusalem. Facing it, she gave a silent prayer of thanks, and then walked between the rows of cubicles, padding on the deep carpet, to the adjoining Relaxation Area. A few workers from various different rooms of the organisation sat there, reading Scrolls or watching a news holoprojection. The silence of the work room permeated this area as well – everyone inside simply had the sound broadcast to their earpiece headsets. She recognised most of the people there, but only personally knew two of them, both from the local chapel she visited. Both were also watching the holoprojection with stricken faces. Some sort of accident, it seemed, as the anchorman’s lips moved noiselessly. While tapping an instruction into her wristpad to activate sound transmission from the projector to her earpiece, Bralt, her supervisor appeared in the entrance which she had just passed through, signalling towards her.

    Maybe he’d found about the results of the work she’d been carrying out, except his expression seemed far from joyful. Bralt didn’t seem angry, just simply resigned. Sina approached him with some consternation.

    ‘Sina, I need to have a word with you in my office. Come this way,’ he said, softly. They walked together out of the Relaxation Area, through another corridor into his office. In keeping with the rest of the building, it contained a mixture of low and high tech. A screen panel displayed a panorama of Mount Planet on one side of the oblong office, with a large bookcase on the other side. Most of the books sitting on the bookshelf were Alatesian-made in a small printing press across the city, but it was rumoured that Bralt, a Founder, had brought a few leather-bound books from Earth itself. Even when presented with an increasingly worrying looking situation, she still flicked her eyes across towards the bookshelf while Bralt sat down behind his table.

    ‘Please, sit down, Sina,’ waving towards a padded chair to her left. This was very worrying. Bralt did not ask people to sit down. They always stood up in his presence. Nervously, she sat down, becoming increasingly irrational, even though he’d said less than two dozen words to her so far. There was only one chair in his office for visitors, she noticed. What would happen if he had two visitors? She didn’t see any other matching chairs on the way there, did he carry it all the way up from the stores?

    Sina blinked rapidly to try and clear her head. Bralt looked down at a Scroll sitting on his desk, completely uncovered except for a statue of the Mother Mary. Please Mary, what is wrong? Forgive me for whatever I have done. Please let it not be Ersal, please not him.

    ‘Sina, I received some saddening news several minutes ago from New Jerusalem. Under normal circumstances, I would wait to gather more information, but I felt you would want to know immediately.’ The Founder slid the Scroll to the side, clasping his hands together on top of the desk.

    ‘While your husband Ersal was working in the aerospace research centre in Far Jericho, an accident occurred with one of the prototype craft they were testing. It seems that Ersal and the rest of his team were onboard the craft when a power failure caused a massive systems malfunction. The craft lost propulsion, and crashed shortly afterwards.’

    Sina gripped the arms of her chair tightly, licking her lips. This couldn’t have happened, not now.

    Bralt carried on. ‘I’m sorry, Sina. When the recovery crews reached the craft, they found no survivors. Your husband was killed in the accident.’

    A look of disbelief spread across her face as she shook her head unconsciously. An accident? Ersal wouldn’t have gone up in the craft like that, not when there was a power failure. Bralt’s words still had not registered in her mind.

    ‘Sina.’ She tried to focus, and concentrated on his face, radiating compassion. ‘I know that this is hard for you to accept, but we must stress that it was an accident.’

    She bowed her head, resting her hand against her forehead, sobbing quietly.

    ‘God moves in strange ways that are beyond the comprehension of men, Sina. Please, Sina, take solace in the fact that this was a part in His greater plan. Remember that Ersal has risen to the heavens, as he always wished to on this Planet. Remember that, Sina.’

    Sina cried out loudly, curling up and panting heavily. Why did it have to happen to her? Why now? Why so early? It wasn’t fair! What did she do to have been punished so harshly by the Lord?

    Bralt rose from his chair and crouched in front of her, handing her a handkerchief he handily had ready in his pocket. She took the handkerchief with a shaking hand, and slowly wiped her eyes.

    ‘All of us here, we are all here for you, Sina. The Lord’s Believers are never alone in their sorrow. We feel your sorrow. We understand,’ he said, taking her hands.

    She wanted to shout out that no-one understood, no-one could feel the pain she felt now. How could he pretend to know how much she had just lost in the past minute?

    Apart from the gentle sounds from Sina, muffled by the carpet, the room lay silent, the panorama of Mount Planet fading away to reveal an image of a night sky strewn with countless stars. The statue of the Mother Mary sat on the desk, looking sadly towards the star of Earth, as Sina sat curled up in the chair, crying softly.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    ‘Very pretty,’ said Deirdre, drolly. ‘I hope you’ve spent as much time on the research as you did on the computer graphics.’

    Selene blushed, as a nearby technician struggled vainly to conceal a grin.

    Deirdre pretended not to have noticed, turning towards the holoprojection, which was beginning to repeat the animation. ‘So is this just a cure for Alzheimer’s and diseases like it, or is it also some sort of memory reinforcer?’

    Selene was momentarily impressed at Deirdre’s deduction, until she remembered that she had been an expert in biology and genetics. Selene paused the animation, stopping an enzyme in the process of folding itself together from its fractional charges and disulphide bonding sites.

    ‘Both. The former is obvious, but the latter should have some serious implications for those of us who are, um, older than others. Studies have shown that the brain is a remarkably versatile processing and storage unit, capable of operating even if half is removed. Certainly we expect that the application of this reverse memory fragmentation drug, or RMF, should restore the major memories of individuals with few side-effects.’

    Just as Selene finished speaking, a small text message scrolled across Deirdre’s Glasses. ‘Nostra uniform amica sub control, nil dis turbare’ She smiled, and said ‘This sounds interesting. Keep me informed, Selene, I’m sure you understand the potential this drug has, so I’ll leave it up to you to assign resources to it. Unfortunately, I have a meeting to attend in a few minutes, so I must depart now.’

    She made her way back towards the carriage platform, and saw the uniformed man peering into a dark computer screen, nodding along to another scientist’s commentary. His coat lay folded neatly on another chair, along with his wristpad. Stepping into the awaiting carriage, Deirdre shook her head to herself. Turning around, she saw the man stand up to crane his head towards some object the scientist was pointing at in the window. For a moment, she watched him looking through the window, then sat down as the carriage accelerated. Still gazing in the same direction, she scrutinised her reflection in the carriage window, wondering how long it had been since she’d had such a challenge as the approaching one. And wondering whether she was ready for it.

    The carriage whistled quietly along, suspended a few inches above its tracks. A screen panel switched on, showing a view of Planet from space, as a voice over described the upcoming weather.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    The Alatesian forests bordered the great Northern ocean, close to the western edge of Believer territory. In a stroke of foresight (or of luck, as historians from other factions took it), the land had been seeded by air with ‘pioneer’ species, shortly after Landing. After decades of being left alone, the pioneer species of lichens and mosses colonised the alien land, wearing down rocks and producing small quantities of soil and humus. Hardy grasses and weeds took their place, extending roots deep into the rock, dying, reproducing and dying again, slowly increasing the amount of soil that was accumulating.

    Around this point, three decades after Landing, the Believer colonists from the nearby city of Far Jericho began to take notice. The process of the ecological succession was sped up artificially using the introduction of genetically altered plants and other natural species whose seeds had been stored in the Unity. Eventually, shrubs and bushes dotted the landscape, as Believer biologists tried repeatedly to introduce trees. Another two decades saw the first proper group of trees, called optimistically a wood. Now, almost a century after Landing, the wood had grown into the Alatesian forests. Careful tending by the citizens of Far Jericho and the newly established city of Alatesia had produced an admirable result. The rest of Planet marvelled at the vast expanse of greenness and even the Gaians were rumoured to have said it was a ‘pretty good effort, for the Believers.’

    It was also a suitable location for any complexes that the Believers would, if pressed, admit the presence of, but nevertheless didn’t want to attract any attention to themselves.

    =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=

    Sina Demri walked contentedly out of her house, casually slinging a rucksack over her shoulder containing her Scrolls and data crystals. The sun had seemed to have risen earlier this morning, casting rapidly shortening shadows against the trees. Still, it wasn’t much of a disturbance to her regular routine. All Believer citizens were encouraged to take up some kind of routine, keep in a closely knit community where they could share their joys and sorrows. So, for six days of the week, she rose early, prayed outside behind the house with her husband, walked the same path to the same building, ate at the same restaurant and worshipped God with the same people at the same chapel in the evening. Sina didn’t have to do this, but there wasn’t much point in doing anything else. She was far too happy with the life she had now. It was a perfect, idyllic life where her devotion to her religion gave her strength and confidence.

    When the UN commissioned an investigation into the allegation that the Believers were denying their citizens access to the planetary datalinks, they were dismayed to find that almost complete access to the planetary datalinks was afforded to citizens, including the popular Morgan Data Networks. The vast proportion of the Believers simply ignored them though, preferring to watch the Believer news networks. The UN investigators noted that a common pastime of the Believers was expressing their sorrow to each other at the unfortunate situation of all their fellow humans on Planet who continuously immersed themselves in sin and lies via the media. Sermons often pointed out civil unrest in the cities of other factions (invariably those of the Morgan Conglomerate), urging the congregation to treat those lost souls with compassion. After all, not everyone on Planet could be expected to stay away from uncaring, uncharitable and most damnable of all, ungodly ways.

    The Believers even had proper democratic elections, although some had suggested phasing them out since Sister Miriam Godwinson was always voted in unanimously. Her intense charisma and frequent tours of the Believer cities ensured it. Other faction leaders looked on enviously. In the past, entire countries had been indoctrinated into a particular line of thought, but their citizens had never enjoyed it this much. In any case, the system of government usually ended up collapsing in on itself after a short while. Sister Miriam, however, had managed to maintain the Believers’ position as a major power on Planet for over ninety years, and it didn’t seem as if it would be ending any time soon. Religion was one of the most powerful forces in history, and Miriam appreciated its capabilities in controlling individuals.

    So Sina Demri whistled a hymn as she adjusted the position of her rucksack, ignorant to the way in which her religion was twisted to control and predict her behaviour, and ignorant to that fact that she had already been wrenched out of her routine.

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  • Elemental
    replied
    The carriage doors slid open quietly at a wave of Selene’s hand as she led the way for Deirdre. Deirdre, drawing herself erect in an almost regal manner, gave a brief nod and a severe glance to her. Suitably cowed, Selene traced a path among the various work surfaces and holoprojections towards a bank of computers fitted into a wall. They were cycling through animations of what seemed like DNA strands twisting about each other. In the corner of the projection, a series of numbers blurred together, rising at thousands per second. Occasionally, glowing sections of the DNA would spin down towards the bottom of the projection, fitting into an intricate sequence that began to fill in some kind of Cartesian geometry system. It was all highly impressive, and completely incomprehensible. A stressed looking technician hurried over the to holoprojector and transferred the data over to another across the room. Deirdre watched him walk away, trying to balance a pile of Scrolls in one hand and some data crystals in another. It seemed as if practically all the workers in the lab were trying studiously to pretend that she wasn’t there.

    Selene coughed politely. ‘We’ve assembled an brief overview of what the various departments of section C are researching at the moment – that’s non-miltech. At least, none of it is directly related to miltech.’

    She tapped a few times on her wristpad, and the holoprojector flared back into life again. 3D models of the Firefly technology appeared, with specifications and modifications scrolling down alongside it.

    ‘As you can see, the basic structure has remained the same. However, we have made several adjustments to the sensory systems here and here, updating them with the new wide spectrum equipment section B developed…’

    Deirdre looked back towards the carriage platform. The one in which she had arrived had since disappeared, and a different carriage was slowly moving off, after its passenger had presumably disembarked.

    ‘…also used the neural net technology to ensure that each Firefly moves into the optimum position for high fidelity holoproj recordings. This, as we found, also resulted in a corresponding loss in operational life, so we introduced algorithms to take account of predicted future positions…’

    A man wearing an official UN observer’s uniform caught her eye, the drab blue-grey uniform standing out incongruously among the clean lab coats. He stood chatting amiably to the lab scientist whom had signalled to her earlier. The scientist laughed loudly at a comment made by the observer while gesturing around the labs, and then introduced another member of the staff to him. Pulling a tissue out of his pocket, the UN observer listened to the scientist attentively and quickly took a glance around the labs. He met Deirdre’s eyes briefly, then looked back towards the scientist, who ushered him out of sight.

    ‘…considering their small size, we believe that they are not only excellent general-purpose media recording tools, but they could also be used for espionage. I’ve recommended that we transfer the project over to section A now. With their expertise in EMP shielding and stealthing, the Fireflies could be used anywhere indefinitely without being detected.’

    Deirdre brought her attention back to Selene, and tried to recall exactly what she was talking about. She discreetly called up a report on the Fireflies on her Glasses. The Fireflies were one of section C’s recent and more useful developments. Less than five millimetres in length, they were small nuclear powered ‘insects’ made from ultralight materials such as buckytubes and foamed metals. On their own, their visual recording and transmission abilities were poor, but in practice they were released in swarms which would take up inconspicuous positions around whatever was being filmed, providing a multi-angle high bandwidth recording, which could either be transmitted on the fly, or stored for later access. It was strange, Deirdre thought, that section C had actually stuck at the idea for such a long time to make it this viable for use.

    Deirdre gave the holoprojection an appraising stare, then nodded. ‘Good work, Selene. Have the relevant data sent over to section A, and I’ll have it cleared.’ Selene beamed.

    ‘Uh, well, thank you, Legatus. Our medical researchers have come up with something since last time you were here.’ Selene called up a new projection while consulting her wristpad for details.

    ‘They were studying the effects of various neurological diseases in the brain, and how they either killed off brain cells or cut off their connections between neurones. By determining the structure of the enzymes involved, and the resulting damage, they found that they could actually reconstruct the broken neural connections.’

    A series of amino acids filled the projection screen, then zoomed out to unveil a complex enzyme’s tertiary structure in 3D space. The reaction pathway flowed seamlessly along as the enzymes catalysed the destruction of numerous fragile neural connections.
    [This message has been edited by Elemental (edited July 14, 1999).]

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  • Elemental
    replied
    There was the sound of someone approaching behind her, but she didn’t turn around.

    ‘Thinking about Earth?’

    ‘As ever. It’s great to see you again, Selene.’

    ‘You still remember my name? What did I do to earn this distinction in the memories of a Founder?’ asked the woman impishly, emphasising the word ‘Founder’.

    Deirdre grunted a noncommittal reply trying to hide a grin, and turned around to look at Selene.

    Selene was quite a tall woman, when you took Planet’s increased gravity into account, about 1.6m high. She was continually being mistaken for some burnt out Founder who’d hit the longevity vaccines too often and too early. That fact wasn’t particularly surprising considering very few people possessed the same physical attributes as she did. Somehow, Selene had mastered the art of walking around wearing a faint smile on her lips and an amused expression on her eyes, as if she’d seen everything she encountered many times before. Deirdre knew for a fact that this was very unlikely, as Selene was only 27.

    Wearing a light pullover and mid-length skirt, with a sophisticated wristpad shining dully on her left arm, she certainly caught the attention of two of Deirdre’s aides. As usual, Selene had glanced in their direction for a second, and dismissed their presence with an imperious flick of her hair.

    ‘I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking – when is that irresponsible Selene going to grow up and stop pretending to be a Founder. And you probably know the answer yourself anyway.’

    ‘Unfortunately, Selene, you are yet again absolutely correct.’

    Deirdre stepped forward to hug her, then jerked a thumb in the direction of her aides.

    ‘We’d better get a move on. I think one of these days they’re going lock me up here in revenge for keeping them so long.’

    Selene laughed, looking at the plaque below the Earth tree briefly. She’d never noticed that before. It didn’t seem like something Deirdre would say, but then again, you changed a lot in two centuries. There was a lot Deirdre didn’t tell her about her past.

    They entered a small train carriage sitting in an alcove to one side of the Trunk top quickly, and Deirdre closed the train doors before any of her aides could get in. They looked at each other, and sighed wearily. Obviously they’d have to get the next train, again.

    ‘Your destination?’ asked a computer generated voice.

    ‘Science labs 13C, thank you,’ answered Selene.

    ‘So, what’ve you been getting up to recently?’ inquired Deirdre.

    Selene crossed her legs, making a show of her apparent annoyance at the question Deirdre always asked. ‘Usual stuff. Various semi-sentient AI algorithms, bottom-up molecular cell simulations and an updated version of the Firefly. We were also thinking of taking a look inside of that hypersonic toy you flew in on.’

    It never ceased to amaze Deirdre the amount of disregard Selene held for anyone else. Deirdre wasn’t sure whether anyone had bothered teaching her the meaning of the word respect, or deference. She’d managed to irritate a fair number of Founders, which was the reason why she’d been brought to Deirdre’s attention in the first place.

    ‘And tell me, when will any of this render anything useful? Might we expect some usable products from your research?’

    ‘Usable products?’ choked Selene, stifling a laugh. ‘You are joking, right? You must remember, Legatus Deirdre, that our research here at 13C is for the pure joy of learning. What we do here is science for the sake of understanding our universe.’

    ‘Yes, I have heard the Yoopers’ spiel quite enough. But seriously…?’

    Selene looked around the carriage, gesturing with her hands. ‘What do you notice about this carriage that seems different?’

    Structurally, the carriage was as it had been for the last ten years. A composite graphite-buckytube polymer, the carriage operated on a system of superconducting electromagnets that encircled the various Trunks that made up Gaia’s High Garden. The carriages could take up to fifteen people to within five minutes walking distance of anywhere in the city, providing they had enough travel credits left in their wallet. Their interior seemed unchanged as well – sturdy seats with cushioned covering and poster sized Scrolls adorning the walls, informing the occupants of the latest news and their location.

    Each of the carriages within Gaia’s High Garden, however, had different ‘characters’ based upon the people who travelled on them most frequently. Designs ranged from early Victorian opulence to functional 21st century plast-tech. In this case, the carriage’s ‘owners’ had settled on a late 20th century design, with a redundant driver’s seat at one end and stuffed toy sticking to one of the windows. A pair of dice hung forlornly from a small mirror above the driver’s seat. Apart from that, and the small sign declaring ‘My other train is a hypersonic,’ hung next to a Scroll, Deirdre couldn’t see much out of the usual.

    ‘Enlighten me, why don’t you?’ said Deirdre, waiting for the punchline.

    Fortunately, Selene did not disappoint her.

    ‘What, you didn’t notice? This train arrived a whole five seconds earlier than normal, and is currently eight seconds ahead of schedule compared to before. And all thanks to the traffic-tracking AI software that we finished testing yesterday,’ cried Selene, gesticulating madly.

    And I wondered why she never goes out, thought Deirdre.

    ‘No, don’t thank me, Legatus. Thank the hard working scientists of 13C who slaved day and night, day and night I tell you, getting this ready. Don’t say that you don’t get your energy’s worth from us,’ finished Selene.

    ‘As a matter of fact, I was going to say that we didn’t get our energ -,’

    A soft ringing came from the carriage, accompanied by a flashing message on one of the Scrolls. The carriage sunk into an alcove beside a set of doors.

    ‘Ah, how convenient, Legatus. We appear to have arrived.’ Selene bounded up onto her feets, carrying off an excellent bow towards the labs, while Deirdre shook her head ruefully. One of the scientists on the opposite side of the carriage doors mouthed to her that Selene was having one of ‘those’ days again.

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