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  • #16
    Nkuti preceded his master into the viewing room, with the three maidens strewing rosepetals in his path. There, he flicked the seat of the couch gently with his anti-static synthesilk whisk, and then stood back.

    CEO Nwabudike Morgan sat down in the chair, folding one leg over the knee of the other and placing a finger along his strong jaw. His features betrayed only a studied indifference.

    The screen when white, then displayed the Hiverian banner. Martial music played in the background as the banner morphed into the globe of Planet and faded. The screen became instead a dark chamber, with a single man's face in the center, staring unfathomably out into the world.

    "Greetings, Chairman Yang," said Morgan. "It is an unexpected delight to speak with you again."

    The Chairman nodded slightly, ignoring the unintentional familiarity. Morgan did not mean offence. "CEO Morgan. I regret that this conversation concerns work, not pleasure. Many great forces are in play, and I aim to ensure that you know the Hiverian stance before you react."

    Morgan stretched. "In that case, you will have to excuse the informality. I had not known the import of this transmission. Plus, I have unchilled a martini for now and it would be a shame to waste it."

    "Of course," said the Chairman tonelessly.

    Morgan retrieved the bottle from the icebucket by his side and crushed a handful of ice, speaking as he did so.

    "I must say I did not expect a call from you so soon. I understood you have something to tell me."

    If the Chairman was surprised, he did not to show it. Morgan wondered if his secret knowledge of the Hiverian military mobilization had somehow been leaked back to Yang.

    "Indeed," said the Chairman. "I have no intention of restricting knowledge of this value from him who would most benefit from it."

    Morgan looked up, and met the Chairman's eyes. He was deadly serious as he spoke the next few words.

    "Hiverian workers, aided by University technicians, have successfully implemented a Fusion Drive for vehicles, machines, and even human biosuits. We believe that this will have considerable repercussions on the global energy situation."

    Morgan had not anticipated this. Mastering his surprise, he set down his drink gently, and threw his head back ponderingly. "Ah, fusion power," he stated airily. "That oft-heralded Grim Reaper of the fossil fuel industry. That trumpeted reformer of our entire energy equations. That invisible spirit of the intellectual wastes, finally bottled and ready for rubbing. And it chooses to reveal itself, in glory effulgent, to the Hive."

    The Chairman paid no heed to the insult inherent in Morgan's words. "The men of the Provost were responsible for this breakthrough - with Hiverian supplies and manpower. The priorities of the Provost care little for the delicate economic balance on Planet. For him, the knowledge is reward enough, whether used to breed supermen, or utilized to destroy the world."

    Morgan swirled the ice in his martini. Of course, this new power could promise to deliver both - the only question was which happened first.

    "So, my good Chairman. What do you intend with this marvellous new technology?"

    The Chairman bowed his head. "I have no intention of remaining its sole custodian forever. The University has no interests in where the knowledge goes after it leaves their cradle, and have entrusted me with its dissemination. I have every hope that it will become a globally available technology before long, with all humankind exploiting its manifold offerings."

    Morgan shifted uncomfortably. Fusion power would mean the death of fossil fuels, and the collapse of a very significant part of Morgan's economic supply structure. The software and microtech industries would have to shoulder the brunt of the recession, a task made more difficult by their luxury nature.

    It didn't matter how much of a monopoly you had with software, or how much more money your sales made - at the end of the day, energy dictated the market of Chiron, and Morgan had made damn sure he supported one with sales of the other. This balance was lost, thanks to the inevitable discovery. Morgan would have to contain the damage and spread the impact out along the whole range of his products.

    Here the Chairman looked directly at Morgan for a few chilling moments. "In accordance with UN regulations, I will make this knowledge available to all factions, after vetting them for suitability and responsible handling. However, I understand that certain metrics may attach considerable importance to the order in which this knowledge is made available."

    Morgan feigned disinterest. This was to be it, then - the start of the mechanics of bargain. The Chairman knew his weakness but, ever the gentleman, was willing to give him a fighting chance. Morgan wondered lazily what Yang wanted in exchange for the privilege.

    "Be that as it may, Chairman. I am sure the knowledge is in good hands for now, and I believe that you will distribute it with every attention to the repercussions."

    The Chairman did not answer for such a significant pause that Morgan wondered if he had been offended. The moment passed.

    "CEO Morgan, I believe we have a common cause. The safeguarding of our peoples' way of life. The desire to implement and sustain a working government. The painful lessons learned from the actions of breakaways and malcontents, who strove only to destroy what was painstakingly built over decades."

    Morgan sipped and wiped his lips, but he could see where this was going. The Holonets had broadcast the diplomatic tension between the Hiverian and DataTech factions. Some confidential channels even asserted that blood had been spilt, in an unofficial capacity, between high ranking operatives of both sides.

    "Are you referring to the Data Angels, by any chance?" asked Morgan.

    The Chairman nodded grimly. "They have disrupted and subverted holdings under my care. They have constantly attempted to acquire classified internal information from my own society and the University of Planet. And yesterday, they were responsible for the murder of a civil servant on University land."

    "How unfortunate. My sympathies."

    The Chairman's face grew stony. "In short, CEO Morgan, their actions leave me with no choice. The toll of their predations are too great for my people to suffer, and thus I ask you - as their official leader - to cease operations at once!"

    Morgan dropped his glass in surprise. An aide swept inocuously by and tidied the slight spill, as Morgan quickly thought a suitable response, ranging from outraged wrath to outright laughter. He, Morgan, the leader of the DataTechs! A preposterous idea!

    Morgan licked his lips and faced the gimlet eyes. "I am afraid you misunderstand, Chairman. I have no dealings with the DataTechs."

    The Chairman's face instantly relaxed into its normal state of dispassion. "My apologies. The UN log lists the DataJack operative known as Sinder Roze as a previous employee of Morgan InfoTech. Do I misunderstand? Have you severed the cord?"

    Morgan nodded. "Yes. The self-proclaimed DataTech 'faction' is neither recognized nor supported by Morgan Industries. A bounty had been offered for Roze, as you might have heard, over the past fifteen years, but was recently rescinded by UN Relations under the Humane Justice Act. At present, the DataJack has been offered a substantial loan by the UN Committee to bootstrap their economy and legalize their actions. The mesaure which may or may not pass to bestow full factionhood upon them lies in the hands of the Commissioner Pravin Lal, and not myself."

    The Chairman's eyes narrowed as he made his kill. "Then you are, indeed, fully dissociated from the DataTech."


    "And our actions towards that splinter do not count towards your faction?"

    "That is correct, Chairman."

    "And were we to offer you the knowledge of Fusion Power for separate issues, it would not find its way to the DataTech without our accordance?"

    Morgan almost laughed out loud. They would sooner see his assets liquidated and his employees recycled to the very last man. "You have my word, Chairman," he said with careful control.

    The Chairman Sheng Ji Yang sat back and spoke now in a voice of firm purpose, announcing the decision with befitting gravitas and ceremony.

    "CEO Morgan, I wish to inform you that my faction maintains no longer a state of Truce with the DataTech society and their leader the DataJack Sinder Roze. May I warn you that, although every effort is being made to preserve the fragile peace, the intervention of military forces may be required to enforce justice and ensure future safety. I would also warn you that any attempt to interfere with the proceedings may implicate and strain relations. This applies towards yourself, and extends towards all other factions... especially those you consider as trade allies."

    Morgan turned his face askance, concealing his secret delight and approval. "By all means, Chairman. I will be careful to observe the proper decorum in this private affair."

    "You do me a courtesy, CEO Morgan, and I am indebted to you. However, it is from the quadrant of the UN Peacekeepers that I most anticipate resistance and interference. The Charter makes no allowance for a myriad situations which we now must face, but which was hitherto unimaginable to the minds of Earth's peoples."

    Morgan coughed and wiped his forehead with his velvet handkerchief. "I agree. The UN code calls for decent lawful treatment concerning clearly indecent unlawful elements." He took the proffered fresh glass of martini from the aide. "The DataTech rebels are one such example."

    "I see we are in accord."

    "Were we ever not, dear Chairman?" Morgan could not resist from saying. He bit his tongue afterwards, pensive lest the Chairman mistake his jest. When the Chairman did not respond, he continued. "I am eager to help you bring stability to your quadrant, Chairman Yang, and I will not interfere in your dealings with the DataTech. Rest assured that peace and prosperity are my favorite living conditions."

    The Chairman nodded, then spoke frankly. "CEO Morgan, I will not move against the DataTech except in conditions of extreme necessity. It is my hope that this will be resolved without loss of life and discord. However - if the situation deteriorates beyond my control, the UN Commission may move mistakenly to condemn and oppose me, and to support the DataTech."

    "Indeed. Distasteful, but true."

    "Morgan," said the Chairman levelly. "Before I clarify my stance, I need to know one thing. Can you oppose the Commissioner in Council?"

    The CEO nearly dropped his glass again, but steadied his hand. "My dear Chairman-" he began.

    "The Commissioner is a good man, with noble intentions, but he lives his life according to a social code equally as dead as that of the intolerant Believers. We both have suffered, and suffered greatly, from the DataJack's continued contempt for order. The Commissioner may try to protect her actions, if he mistakes the libertine for the liberal. It is to prevent the Commissioner from unknowingly harboring a viper in his bosom that we act as we do. I have no voice in the Aquascante Treaty as yet - Lal demands that I answer century-old accusations against my name before I may speak as an equal. You have a voice, and you have an interest."

    Morgan nodded, but there was resignation in his face as he spoke, carefully modulated to clinch this final detail. "Very true, my good Chairman, but I can make no guarantees as yet, especially considering that my own economic status is facing radical changes in the form of this Fusion technology. As you must be aware, my fossil fuel industry will have to undergo considerable streamlining, with a very real initial loss. I am not sure I could divide my efforts between effecting a diplomatic reversal, and salvaging an economic one."

    The Chairman almost smiled at this - whether with admiration or contempt, Morgan could not tell. "In that case, allow me to offer to share some of your burden. CEO Nwabudike Morgan, if you will agree to take no action against my dealings with the DataTech rebels, and if you will act to reduce the amount of Aquascante UN intervention, then I will offer you, gratis, the knowledge and applications of Fusion power. I will also delay any further dissemination of the knowledge until one year after your possession. By this time, Fusion drives will be in great demand amongst the West - a demand neither I nor Provost Zakharov may meet, given the present state of Aquascante trade embargo. Your fossil fuel industries would naturally give way to receive a strong and unopposed Morganite Fusion industry, and my blessing with it."

    Morgan's face quickly slid into reverse and he smiled confidently, savoring a bargain well met. "Chairman Sheng Ji Yang, I believe that your terms are excellently suited to the present situation. May I offer my deepest condolences at your state of conflict with the DataTech, and also my sincerest hopes that the outcome be a constructive one."

    "Agreed. I hope our factions may someday do business and profit mutually, just as their leaders have demonstrated today."

    "A sentiment I wholeheartedly share, dear Chairman. Morgan out."

    * ~ * ~ *

    It is 16.45, Hiverian central time. The Chairman Sheng cuts the transmission to Morgan, and sits down to a relaxing dinner of homemade rice noodles and steamed tiger shrimp, speaking of the recent and remote past with his old friends Erlai and Shimoda. Fifteen hundred miles northeast, Jorenson moans in his hospital recovery gurney and tries to scratch his shoulder - he dreams of Hu's joke about a Gaian diplomat. Further south, a Hiverian female data manipulation technician named Mao is questioned by the Chairman's trusted guards, regarding her missing cell-parent Hu.

    Three thousand miles to the northwest, the DataTech early warning naval emplacements are registering massive numbers of incoming craft which may or may not be the Hiverian Great Northern Fleet preparing a blockade. Joe completes a purchase of a balm for his parched hands and sore forearms, making sure his correct false account is charged to draw away suspicions from his other accounts, then goes back to his noiseless monitoring. A DataTech operative named Huang suddenly sits upright at a computer terminal, cracking his head on the low ceiling, as certain DNA information confirm his wildest hopes. Two thousand miles closer to the Hive capital, Li Min sits at a sheltered cove, awaiting the arrival of a tiny transport to bring him and his precious cargo back to Data DeCentral.

    Not far at all from Li Min, what remains of Agent Hu neither dreams nor awakens, lost halfway between substance and void.
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; May 27, 2001, 02:49.
    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


    • #17
      Part 11 - Keystone

      Any marine retrieval is a difficult and time-consuming affair, when conducted off the northwest coast of the Hive. Apart from the everpresent winds and storms, the Hiverian navy makes life extremely difficult for contraband smugglers and the politically questionable. If, as in the present case, you happened to fall under both categories, the Hiverian navy had no qualms about making life an unpleasant memory.

      Li Min surveyed the coast with apprehension, now that operations were out of his aegis of control. He had secured Hu's head even if he could not secure McClelland's, and his job was now over. From here on in he would have to rely on the best that DataTech Internal could send - cold comfort, when they were already pressed to the limit with the recent attack in DeCentral and the drain of Operation PowerClip. He still had faith that the tiny cutter could take him back into DataTech waters, where he and his precious cargo could be ferried out by chopperlift or needlejet without threat of Hiverian intervention. After the initial three hours of careful navigation and patrol dodging through Hiverian waters, the cutter would be home safe in DataTech zones, and Li would be free to take the week off as the DataTech scientists got underway with the Agent's head.

      The Agent Hu had lost the use of all his body - all organs beneath the cerebellum stem had been lost, along with the majority of the spinal cord and the lower half of the voicebox. However, the zero-Kelvin vacuum of the containment bag would have acted instantly, preserving his flesh intact. Even better, later tests had shown that the brain itself had not expired from the shock of discorporation. The Agent (or what was left of him within his skull) was still alive, and still theoretically capable of conscious thought following reanimation, even if speech would never be restored to him. Interviewing him through coercion would be difficult, owing to the frailty of his physical remains, but Mind/Machine Interfacing would suffice in trawling his mind, provided his mental functions were preserved.

      Li consoled himself with the intricacies of Hu's interrogation, mostly to distract his attention from the overmounting difficulties of his present situation. He would not, in all honesty, have placed any considerable faith in his own success. Survival and deliverance might be accomplished, but would come at the necessary chancing of inestimable risks. However, despite the perceived hurdles, Li still clung to the margin of success as a distinct and happy possible outcome.

      Li Min still believed this, because Huang had not told him of the facts. The Hiverian Fleet had proceeded towards the DataTech continent of Iphiclia a mere three hours before Li's own departure. They advanced into international waters unchallenged, overcoming the small and disorganized patrols with disabling fire, before establishing an advance position to allow the air support time to catch up. They took the Hiverian zone of control with them, extending it by a steady five hundred kilometers further north. The radar systems on the air-to-ground Hive interceptors would have little difficulty in picking out a cutter as it neared the blockade, even one as small as Li's own.

      * ~ * ~ *

      They came to Jorenson twice. The first time, they asked him how he was doing, and whether he needed anything. When he proved that he was able to respond, they had elevated his arm and injected something warm and comforting into his inner elbow. Then followed a dark and dreamless sleep, from which he had awoken with sudden immediacy. They had come to him a second time, bringing some liquid refreshments, and then provided him with a direct link to the Provost.

      "What do you want?" the Provost had demanded. Behind him, the screens indicated that the Provost had been engaged in overseeing yet more projects - Fusion power, evidently, having been a mere distraction for him. Jorenson turned to his doctors, who shrugged and suggested that the Provost might want to know of the attack. Jorenson acquiesced and told the Provost about the death of Agent Hu and the attempted theft of the Fusion drive technology. He did not mention what had happened to McClelland, the Gaian diplomat, as he did not know himself.

      "Did they succeed in taking the information?" asked the Provost indifferently. Jorenson had answered no. The Provost immediately harumphed.

      "Well, I presume you're not in danger of dying, are you?" he had asked distractedly. Jorenson had turned to his doctors again, and then answered no.

      "That's good. I suppose I'll see you when you get back, right?" asked the Provost. Jorenson had concurred.

      "Right," the Provost had said, and then signed off unceremoniously.

      All things considered, Jorenson had weathered the potentially embarrassing unconcern of his faction leader with admirable resolve. He lay back in the bed and allowed them to take his pulse and insert the nanostims into various locations. He filled his conscious hours with recollections of the attack.

      Evidence brought back from the Climatic Research Center indicated that some conflict had occurred between Hu and a captured DataTech agent. The agent had volunteered the information, shortly before she was put into cold storage, that a probe project was underway within University territory; however, this appeared to be solely concerned with assassinating Agent Hu and the interrogation of diplomat McClelland. The question of Fusion Power did not even enter the scene at this early stage.

      Regardless of their aims, the DataTech had been careful, and had struck the magtrain outside of Hiverian territory, thus bypassing the ineluctable power of the Hunter Seeker Algorithm. They had furthermore struck outside the safety of the University bases, wherein University and Hiverian probe teams worked together to safeguard the populace. But what had they hoped to achieve?

      Jorenson knew that Hu was dead, but it took him a while to remember exactly how his friend had been killed. When he did, it elicited such a strong physiological reaction of grief and revulsion that all his diplomatic tact was required to prevent the doctors from imposing a sedative upon him. Hu's head; they had taken Hu's head. Again, Jorenson saw the decapitated body suddenly go limp, collapsing in a sickening attitude, limbs reversing upon themselves amidst the confusion of the fray. And Agent Hu's head kept in the bag for safety.


      What would they have done to McClelland, had they caught him? Would they have taken his head too? What about Jorenson himself?

      Jorenson thought back to Hu's last words, then to the meeting with the Gaian. There, Hu had been in an uncommonly good mood, after cheating the DataTech of their right to arrest him. He had joked that the Gaian had recently had sex. Jorenson wondered, then as now, how Hu had known.

      He would never know the answer, because Hu could never tell him now. His mouth would never speak again, his hands would never make another gesture, and his face would never smile upon the world. His eyes - variously full of emotion, or devoid of it in true inscrutability - would never again widen with joy at a good jest, nor harden in anger at a hated foe.

      Jorenson, in his understandably limited appraisal of his friend's vital status, was correct in each observation but the last.

      * ~ * ~ *

      The prop was sporting a fetching series of bruises on his left cheekbone today. Not only that, but Joe was reliably told that his knuckles had been specially hardened with many hours of striking a synthetic wooden wall. Soon, the prop confided, he would gradate onto using a stone wall, and then finally a polymetal wall in order to render his knuckle bones dense and lethal. Pity the poor policeman who came across the prop on a stormy night. They may have taken up residence in his cafe, but they could never take his freedom etc.

      Joe smiled wanly and nodded. The speech, it would appear, was less for his own education than for the gratification of the three unfriendly-looking police officers watching the entrance and occupants. They appeared young and green - they all sported short, aggressive haircuts, but each had the look of imbecilic confidence that only the harrowings of experience can erase. Joe could see that each man was substantially built under the armor, but it did not lessen his doubts as to their battleworthiness. Joe had seen the Hiverian soldiers, and what they had been capable of.

      There had been widespread panic only a few hours before, when the datanodes relayed the alarming news of the Hiverian move northwards. So far, the fleet had been unchallenged, but any vessels found in international waters had been boarded and their crews detained. Back at home, the domestic riots had been swiftly quelled by General Rowlings, and the curfew even more strictly enforced. Evidently, the investment in tear gas and glue guns had paid off - people could hardly appear to be dignified martyrs when they were immobilized and stacked like kelpfish. Strange how the methods of the police became that much more efficient when the threat of death was removed.

      Joe sat down at the net let and connected using M/MI, aware that the guards were logging this even now, and that his every move online would be tracked by DataKnave technology. He made three minor calls to legitimate loan sharks (legit in the sense that they were real people at least), and one call to place a bet on Guesswork. Then he puttered around the EroSites to further the ruse, even going so far as to try a bumpkin's hack around the welcome node. The hack failed and he soonafter disengaged from the machine with a fittingly disgruntled noise of disgust.

      Then he hazarded a glance at the guards. They had not moved from their earlier indolence. They had bought the cover.

      Joe decided to lounge around and argue over a bulb of AlcoStim with another transient. He would rather have argued with the prop again, knowing that familiarity increased sentiment and therefore believability, but feared that the prop might get them both into trouble with his incitive talk. Joe's altercation with the derelict was brief and mumbled, and utterly without significance.

      Joe remained in the diner of the RapCafé drinking CaffiStims for another metric quarter-hour, and then paid a perfectly feasible visit to the toilets. A quick journey subsequently to his rented room proved that there was a guard at the window at the end of the corridor. Evidently, the police believed they now had eyes at every entrance and exit of the building. Joe believed otherwise, and headed back to the toilets.

      Joe stepped out of the RapCafé through the fire escape, unnoticed by any guard, and shielded his eyes against the setting sun once more. He had never quite become used to the impositions of direct sunlight, and today he couldn't wear his headpiece for the task at hand. He would have to rely on an old model netdiver, untraceable because of its relative worthlessness, and lack of technological finesse.

      He calculated that he had just under an hour to work his magic. He would need two old friends to help.

      * ~ * ~ *

      Li Min, under the soft wood of the cutter, was pensive yet calm. He trusted the men piloting the vehicle implicitly, knowing that he had no choice than to do so. He trusted that their professionalism, and their earlier preparation, would provide all the advantages that could be squeezed from the present situation.

      It was therefore with all the greater alarm that he heard the curses and the commotion updeck.

      He got up from his tiny cot and dropped the silken behind him, pulling on a natural fiber vest as he made his way to the ladder. The entire ship was so tiny it afforded very little in the way of electronics. The only electrical objects on board where the primitive navigational computer systems, the minuscule (and soon to be very redundant) fission drive, and the life support systems for one inmate only, and only his head at that.

      The Hiverian fleet, unlike the fleets of the Spartan Federation of decades past, had been constructed on a come-what-may basis. The end result was that the fleet comprised of anything from ancient laser gunships to the latest in ECM AAA Chaos Cruisers with modernized Silksteel defence systems. With such disparate factors aligned against them, it was a good bet that the ailing DataTech military would be unable to provide naval backup to probe actions in Xing Ya, either in University territory or (less frequently) in Hiverian. This did not mean, however, that all hope was lost.

      Hence, the emphasis on speed and indetectability of the cutter. The transit itself was constructed of low-polymer resins, imitating old world wooden structures. It then covered this with an outer shell of special nonreflective thixotropic gel, a fluid with a very low miscibility index in water. Although this reduced the seaworthiness of the craft by undermining its handling, it did allow for very high speeds to be attained with relatively primitive fuel systems. More importantly, it rendered the craft more likely to be mistaken for floating organic waste or fungal debris by distant radar systems.

      This was important since the larger the reactor was, the more detectable the systems would be. In a further, and sadly very necessary, effort to minimize scrutability, the cutter had no outside netlet contacts onboard. Even if the cutter could not be followed physically, the last thing the crew wanted was for the deadly Hiverian Algorithm to track them down and bywire their systems.

      There had once been a mining laser mounted on the front of the craft, but this had been discarded and modified for a more versatile role, bearing various probe and disguising equipment as necessary. This time, the emplacement bay bore a fragment of Nautilus hull, carefully coated over with the water-repellant gel and seeded with an emulsifier to be activated when necessary. When the signal was given, the emulsion pods would release their chemicals, which would dissolve the gel and allow the debris to become fully detectable to all radar and sounding systems.

      Li Min passed this as he went up to the control bubble of the craft. There, he was immediately motioned into silence and stillness by the pilot. He sat down inobtrusively, and waited, as the two other men watched a display. Their breaths were so shallow as to be silent, in the thickening gloom.

      He had read enough faces to know that this was something unexpectedly bad. He also recognized the presence of hope, desperate though it was, in both mens' faces.

      The pilot cut the engines altogether and waited, perspiration beading his face. Li Min caught the mate's eye and tilted an enquiring eyebrow. In answer, the mate pointed silently at the radar, and then out the window into the starry night.

      Li Min could not see the Hiverian Chaos Destroyer directly, but he could make out its ominous bulk on the radar, bow facing off to the left-forward side. Slowly, he realized the cause of the captain's concern - the destroyer was turning in the waters, slowly bringing its bow around to the direction of the cutter off its port side.

      Li Min also realized that if chase was the destroyer's aim, the cutter and her crew were doomed. There was no way that a fission powered cutter in open sea could escape a destroyer armed with Chaos technology. With a wry thought, he recalled the fake debris they had brought with them. Perhaps it would not be necessary after all.

      Moments of time slipped by, deepening the furrows on the pilot's brow as the water lapped gently against the resin sides of the cutter. The radar showed the thin needle-blade of the destroyer centering and focussing directly upon them, and at this distance both the starboard red and the portside green lights were dimly visible in the night.

      Then, with an audible exhalation, the pilot released his breath as the green light disappeared from view. A few moments later, and the truth was apparent on the radar. The Hiverian Destroyer continued its gentle rotation to port, eventually presenting its starboard side to the cutter. Within a minute, the destroyer had completed its turn and now continued, doubling back along its earlier path.

      Li Min waited anxiously to see if the destroyer would once again turn to give chase, but his fears were groundless. The dull red light, like an unblinking eye, continued to shine, and the Destroyer continued in its patrol, oblivious of the cutter's existence.

      * ~ * ~ *
      "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


      • #18

        Two blocks from the RapCafé Blue, Joe picked up a small, discreet case from behind a community billboard. The present legend on the board was a depiction of Governor Kaufman, engaged in an unfeasibly universal handshake with General Rowlings and three policemen - "Help us to help you" being the actual advice. Whether or not any DataTech had decided to take it was another question altogether.

        Joe crossed the DeltaProm and headed towards Seaband, the affluent upper class sector furthest north, and close to the small DataTech capital airbase. He was aware of the risks involved in setting up ops so close to a military installation, but in this case the danger was a necessary one - he could not succeed unless he worked along military channels.

        He had prepared a small base of operations for himself. Around two months previously, he had seen fit to purchase a basement room in a NetNode maintenance facility. At the moment, the basement space housed broken scraps and pieces of machinery in various states of repair - but he had paid the bills and the owner had not asked questions, evidently happy at having acquired so pliant a tenant. Along the door's edge, Joe had used all the usual electrical locks, but also put his trust in physical precautions: three human hairs were placed around the left edge of the door. Any retraction of the door into the wall, however slight, even if just a few inches to allow a probe-ball to sneak through, would disturb the crude but effective safety seal.

        On this occasion, all three hairs were intact. Joe opened the door and checked the two hidden cameras inside quickly. They registered nothing but empty abandonment. Good. Unfolding his lapnode case, he got ready to set up shop.

        He rummaged around and brought forth a battered but comfortable chair, and sat down. Then he fished out three monitors and plugged them in and switched them on. They registered snow and static. Finally, he brought out an ominous looking helmet, bristling with wires and sensors, and plugged this first into the electrics, and then into his lapnode. The lapnode recognized the M/MI input, and ran through the lengthy diagnostics to insure a smooth transfer of information.

        So much power, he thought to himself. It would all be redundant in a few years, when Fusion power took over. It would be all for the better, of course, but Joe was certain even he would be unused to the changes in store. Perhaps it was best that his crucial moment - his sudden and long awaited command to act - had come through now.

        He left the M/MI helmet to charge up and began manual input.

        * ~ * ~ *

        A mere two buildings away, a regular trafficwave broadcaster began to process strange algorithms and commands. This in turn fell silent, more or less at the same time as a communications tower began the same function. Three more such cross-links, and the rogue activity finally reached a major milestone - a weather device near the Cliffview DataTech airbase.

        The impulse sped and spread, subverting and then abandoning various small appliances and some rather larger ones. Heading southwards at the speed of radio waves, it met with civic sensor systems, sewage management machines, commercial wave broadcasters.

        A mere four metric minutes after beginning its long trawl through this electronic soup, the impulse spurts across the Great Northern Sea, leapfrogging across domestic vessels. It reaches a certain series of feedback, where it hesitates for the briefest of pauses, and then firmly engages itself.

        Its final destination - the UNPS Dauntless.

        * ~ * ~ *

        The cutter that housed the DataTech agent Li Min and the head of Hiverian agent Hu was not nearly so efficient. Having narrowly avoided a singularly distressing confrontation with a destroyer, morale amongst the cutter's crew was split between relief and heightened fear. As time passed, it became increasingly obvious that the latter response was most appropriate.

        Every twenty minutes or so, it seemed, there was a Hiverian sea convoy or patrol. This development had been known to neither the crew nor to Li Min, although whether by intent or inability amongst DataTech Interior was uncertain. What was certain was that, with the cutter using the single best cover against electronic subversion (ie having no communications on board whatsoever), there was no chance of contacting Interior for help.

        This had not improved Li Min's spirits, especially as he now felt, with some justification, that his vaunted enterprise was not receiving quite the assurance of safety that it deserved. The thought crossed his mind that somebody in Interior was trying to do him in, but he suppressed that futile thought with the knowledge that his prize was far more valuable than some mere anonymous rivalry. In any case, if they were trying to dispose of him, they were going about it in quite an efficient way.

        A second patrol had passed them by, detected visually by the first mate with enough distance to allow them to cut fuel and float like so much driftwood. Evidently, the ruse had worked - if the Hiverian patrol had noticed them, it had also immediately discounted them as organic float.

        The third patrol, however, had approached quickly and without warning. In their number was clearly a Hiverian Cruiser, flanked by four smaller ships - a destroyer and three skimships. For a heart-stopping moment, it seemed to the crew of the cutter that they could still brazen it out by playing possum again. Then one Hiverian skimship turned bearing, with the unmistakable intent of investigating them closer.

        It was time to flee.

        The absence of radar onboard the cutter meant that the crew had little hope of advanced warning, as the cutter shot blindly through the waters. All they had to navigate by was the onboard magnetic compass, and the intuition of the captain and mate. As they careened across the dark waves, the entire group of Hiverian ships turned in the waters and engaged thrust to give chase.

        Li Min, unable to aid their navigation, and unable to attempt any probe activities whatsoever, went back downstairs to his prize. He sat like a child on his bunk, holding the freeze-wrapped head of agent Hu to his chest, and rocking back and forth. Had he been a religious man, he would have prayed.

        * ~ * ~ *

        Some fifty klicks north of (and reassuringly separate from) this unfolding drama, Captain Emmet L. Mooney received the alarming notification from his first mate, who had in turn received it from the radar operator. The original report - that a Hiverian foil was patrolling deep in Aquascante waters, where no Hiverian vessel had a right to be - was alarming enough. By the time he reached the radar and saw for himself, the report had assumed even more distressing heights in a nearly comic inflation.

        "What the hell happened to the single foil?" he demanded.

        "It appears it might have had an escort, captain."

        Mooney looked at his screen. What had initially been a single trespassing foil had somehow morphed into an immense flotilla of vessels heading in their direction, filling the forward and forward-left quadrants. Among the radar shadows, he thought he could discern the outlines of ships as large as destroyers. Heading this improbable fleet was a single lone foil, far out in front and approaching. The fleet was picking up speed.

        "Why wasn't I notified?" he asked, perhaps somewhat rhetorically. Then he watched as the empty forward-right quadrant also suddenly filled with ships and vessels, seemingly appearing out of nowhere.

        There was a long silence.

        "Sir?" asked the radar technician. "Would you like a visual on that?"

        The Captain regained his faculties.

        "Yes, bring up a visual. Also sound to engines to cease and halt."

        The visual came up as summoned. The waves were dark, but in the dim light there was nothing to be seen except the foil - and that was already slowing down, seemingly only just noticing Mooney's craft.

        "Uh... visual contact doesn't concur with radar readings, sir," murmured the technician abstractedly.

        The captain glanced down at the radar. The foil had indeed stopped, but the same could not be said for the fleet. If anything, it was now accelerating past the skimship, large vessels ponderously maneuvering around the stopped ship and speeding towards Mooney.

        "One point two klicks, sir."

        Mooney made an effort at composure. "Perhaps it's a radar malfunction."

        "Analysis report: The destroyers are armed with Chaos disruptors," responded the technician tonelessly.

        "One point one klick, sir."

        Mooney tapped the radar glass skeptically and nodded to himself. It had to be a radar malfunction. Whoever heard of a fleet appearing from nowhere? Preposterous.

        "Hail the foil and let's talk," said Mooney.

        "Aye, sir," responded the first mate. He began the protocols.

        "Analysis report: The wingships are using Silksteel alloy defense system and have AAA tracking installations," said the technician.

        Mooney was greeted by the face of the Hiverian captain. The other man was dressed according to Hiverian uniform, and was Asian in features. More than that, Mooney could not say.

        The man looked distinctly unrepentant, if that term could be used for members of the vile atheist police state.

        "Hiverian Captain, I am Emmet Mooney, captain of the U.N. Peacekeeping vessel Dauntless. I demand to know your business in Aquascante northern waters."

        The Hiverian Captain did not immediately understand, and there was a pause as the translators engaged.

        "Oh point nine klicks, sir," muttered the first mate. Consternation furrowed his brow.

        The Hiverian captain spoke. The translators kicked in.

        "Captain Mooney of the Dauntless, I am Officer Le Dhu of the Hiverian Northern Navy. My orders are to maintain a northern perimeter and to neutralize any resistance, and to oppose any aid to the DataTech."

        "Oh point eight," said the first mate, unable to hide his growing panic.

        "...and they're packing gas pods of some sort," muttered the technician tonelessly.

        The Hiverian continued. "Although I may appear to be defenceless, do not presume to invoke the anger of the Hiverian Great Northern Fleet. Our retaliation will be wholesale, as our fleet has been mobilized in these waters."

        "Oh point seven, sir..."

        "...unclear but seem like soporific gas..."

        "Wait -" said Mooney, his composure evaporating suddenly. He stole a glance at the radar, which showed that the fleet was still there and closing fast, with no discernable drop in velocity. The foremost crafts were even now slipping to just within firing distance - and at what appeared to be ramming speed. "Just a moment-"

        "We have been ordered to impound all ships, and to seize and board those which do not submit to the state of emergency..."

        "Oh point six, sir, oh my God..."

        "...possibly nerve, but you never know with these people, wouldn't surprise me to be honest..."

        "But wait..." said Mooney, helplessly. His beleaguered mind struggled with the three conversations at once; from somewhere in his strained consciousness the term 'cloak' suggested itself with ominous insistence.

        On the radar, the ships were heading straight for his own, and the radar suddenly colored red on several foremost craft - indications that weapon systems were being armed and readied. Meanwhile, the first mate was already opening command lines to the ship and waiting for the captain's signal, his hands trembling and his eyes wild. At Mooney's right hand, the technician continued his placid liturgical enumeration of the unevidenced presence of suspected Hiverian weapons of mass destruction, in his low and slightly disapproving monotone.


        Ahead - an immense and despotic fleet, intent on human subjugation and sporting god knew what technology. Beside him, the lives of two trusted men ready to stand by his last command. Behind him, the crew of the best run skimship in the UNP branch of the Aquascante navy.

        So be it. It was time to take action.

        Mooney straightened up in his command chair and delivered his command in a strong, bold, and decisive voice. There was to be no mistaking his resolution nor his resolve. Sometimes, circumstances required a definite stand for your people.

        "Bridge to engines," announced Captain Mooney clearly, "engage port rotation and initiate full withdrawal."

        * ~ * ~ *

        Joe leaned back and carefully initiated the M/MI standby. He rubbed the balls of his eyes and took several deep breaths. It was perilous work - becoming one with the machine-mind and working by its rules. Every session left you exhausted, spent from the sheer struggle of maintaining your own identity amongst the ordered mass of the Machine. Already he felt like he needed a nap, but he knew that was only the organics of his mind protesting. In reality, once he dove back into M/MI, he would be functioning as well as before.

        He watched the three screens carefully now, the better to judge his next move. Across his scalp, the helmet lay dormant and brooding.
        Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; August 2, 2001, 07:57.
        "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


        • #19

          DataTech military precautions were not in the highest class amongst nations. A nation new to the art of warfare was not best equipped to deal with an aggressor who knew the trade somewhat better. Thus it was that the Hiverian Navy, in its initial press northwards, had not encountered any significant DataTech resistance for the first two metric hours. The Hiverian Naval commander had proceeded northwards in a carefully controlled tight formation, before reaching the objective waypoints in mid ocean, whereupon they had fanned out in patrol groups.

          By the time the DataTech navy had mobilized, a successful southern perimeter patrol was impossible to maintain against the Hive. Instead, Rowling decided that a united naval presence in key areas would force a military stalemate, beyond which any further aggression would count as an act of war. He formed a battle group of his small to middling fleet, and sighted the Hiverians at 16.39hrs at a mere 300 klicks out from Iphiclian shores.

          The Hiverian fleet was indeed immense, but it was wildly heterogenous. The DataTech fleet, bolstered perhaps by a consistent economy (or at least source of income), was more evenly comprised, though small. Perhaps this was one reason why the Hiverian naval commander ordered a silent standoff instead of a strong-arm advance. Rowling's relief was evident as he followed suit. Twice he hailed the rival commander, but on both occasions the connection was denied. Rowlings surmised (correctly) that the Hiverian High Command intended no conversation between the two.

          Surveying his fleet, Rowling realized the symbolism of his presence, moreso than the practical deterrent. Amongst his fleet numbered a very few ships registered amongst the Aquascante factions, symbols of their diplomatic support moreso than military. He hoped this would be resolved peaceably - he did not harbor much hope of a naval victory nor even graceful withdrawal.

          Meanwhile, to the west, the sluggish Aquascante treaty factions were just awakening to the fact that the Hive are making good on their declared intent to police the waters. Svensgaard was the first to act - mobilizing a counter force to proceed towards the beseiged Iphiclian continent. He was also the first to authorize full commitment of all Nautilus vessels in DataTech holds to Rowling's command. His ships responded and prepared to alter their control wavelengths, recognizing the numerical superiority in the Hiverian fleet, but also recognizing the importance of immediate and unified repulsion.

          Simultaneously, at Pholus meridian, Commissioner Pravin Lal was interrupted by an aide during a conference on Xenorelations. He excused himself and held a quiet council with the aide, then dissolved the Xenorelation conference without ceremony. He immediately returned to the General Assembly Hall and made contact with his two allies, Svensgaard and Morgan. Svensgaard was the one he reached first.

          "The Hive are sending ships to Iphiclia," stated Svensgaard succinctly. "My ships are standing by, ready to transfer to DataTech commander Rowling."

          The Commissioner played for time, waiting for Morgan to respond. "Wait, good ally. We must consider the situation more carefully. What is the Hive's objective?"

          Svensgaard blinked. "They're sending ships to Iphiclia," he said evenly. "I told you."

          An aide came to the Commissioner's side and shook her head. The Morganites were not responding.

          "I mean to say," responded the Commissioner, waving to the aide to resume her attempt, "are they already engaged with the DataTech? How far offshore are they?"

          Svensgaard smiled broadly with the left side of his mouth - a unique trait of his, which meant that his patience was nearing an end. "They are not yet engaged with the DataTech. I don't know how far away they are. I don't know what their objective is. But I do know we have ships in the Northern ocean. And I do know we may still have time to intervene," he bit out.

          Lal's mind, intelligent and quick, processed the situation clearly. The Morganites were not responding, for reasons best known to themselves. The Nautilus were ready to go and had authority to send their own ships only. And the UN would not move their formidable fleet before a unanimous decision was agreed upon.

          "Ulrich," he said, "you may act as you see fit in this matter, but only with your own fleet, at least until Aquascante reaches a decision. Meanwhile, keep your ships tuned in to Aquascante command. We may be able to bring a unified force once we have finalized our plans."

          Svensgaard held Lal's eyes for a moment, saying nothing. Then, with a bitter gesture of dismissal, he nodded and cut the line.

          Less than five minutes later, a small but elite formation of Nautilus ships, still under the command of Aquascante member Cpt. Ulrich Svensgaard, hailed the flagship of Rowlings' fleet and took up positions in the formation - before them, the motley assortment of the colossal Hiverian Navy.

          This did not have any discernible effect on the Hiverians.

          * ~ * ~ *

          "Concentrate," said Ota Kyi. "Focus on his face."

          The other young woman trembled, her body shivering under the mental pressures of the trance. Ota Kyi checked the acupuncture needles with her delicate fingers, and decided they should remain as they were.

          "Remember his voice," prompted Ota. "The times when he speaks gently. The times when he speaks harshly. Recalls his favorite phrases."

          As she spoke, Ota stood behind Mao and brought her fingers to the other woman's brow, placing her knuckles gently in the center and massaging outwards to her temples.

          "Remember the times when you are closest to each other. Recall what that felt like."

          Mao convulsed in her unconscious spell. Ota murmured soothingly and altered her pattern, bringing her hands to Mao's temples and applying gentle pressure.

          "Remember the times when you are most at one with each other. Remember. Recall. Feel the unity once more."

          Mao suddenly quieted, and Ota stilled her hands. It was time to begin the questions.

          "How do you feel?" She listened intently as Mao whispered.

          "I am aching," she murmured.

          Ota nearly forgot herself and asked her who she was, but remembered just in time that she herself was not allowed to know the true name. She changed the question.

          "Where are you?"

          Mao's lips worked, her eyes flickering quickly beneath her closed lids. "I am on the floor, there is burning in the air, like gunpowder. My back has a pain that I sequester. My chest has a pain that I sequester. My neck has a pain that I sequester."

          Ota repeated the question with emphasis. "Where are you?"

          Mao responded. "It is bright and smoky. I am crouching in smoke. There is a darkness above me. I am beneath something. There are people lying on the floor. There is broken brightness on the floor. I am holding something. Something is holding me."

          Ota Kyi paused, then decided on a question. "What are you holding?"

          Mao frowned, trying to bring the words. "An implement," is the only answer she can make.

          "Describe it," prompted the Psi Weaver.

          "Long - smooth - metal - hard - smoke - safe - weight - loud -"

          Ota Kyi recalled the report given to her by Zhu.

          "Is the implement a weapon?" she hazarded.

          Mao's frown lightened. "Yes," she said tonelessly.

          "Is it a shotgun?" asked Ota.

          "Yes," replied Mao, her frown disappearing entirely.

          Ota Kyi carefully brought her hands away from Mao's temples, suspendsing the trance for the moment. She looked to the observation gallery, where the Second and the Intelligence Head were deep in conversation. As if aware of her gaze, the Second looked up and gestured with his hand, bringing the thumb and forefinger together in a closing motion.

          Ota nodded and turned back to Mao's limp form, continuing only to the end of the first block of questions, concerning the surroundings. As she did so, she was forming a good idea of why the trance is to end this early.

          Meanwhile, behind the glassteel of the window, Zhu He Lai, the Second to Chairman Sheng, was engaged in a discussion with Berzhinev, the spokesman for the Civil Intelligence Bureau. Their talk centered primarily on the Hiverian agent known as Hu.

          "Her account matches the death scene perfectly," said Berzhinev. "Almost too perfectly."

          Zhu was doubtful. "Of course, you must remember she was there, in the train with him when he died."

          Berzhinev nodded. "True, but if you consult the black box evidence, she was in the driver's compartment all throughout the attack. Hu appears to have sent her and McClelland to the front, along with a guard, and then printsealed the doorlock. Jorenson joined them, using his handprint, but this was after the Agent was killed."

          Zhu looked to the holopode to his right, which was playing a 3D reconstruction of the event, building on black box recordings. Over and over the loop played, of Agent Hu felling one DataTech with a blast of his shotgun, then retreating into the second compartment, wherein he is attacked and killed by the others.

          Here came the scene Mao was describing: the sonic disruptor carves through the ceiling - Agent Hu rolling beneath the table and coming into a crouch with his shotgun in his hands. Then - a DataTech jumps through the ceiling onto Hu's back, Jorenson dispatches him with a thrown blade, and the final DataTech lunges forward with the cryofreeze bag, - and now - he thrusts the bag over Hu's head and pulls the vibrostrings closed, decapitating the Agent neatly. Freeze-frame. Hu's headless body is still holding the shotgun.

          Zhu turned wearily back to Berzhinev. "So what do you think happened? I think Mao knows nothing, and she's just revisiting old memories. A sort of expensive psi-hypnotherapy, if you will."

          "No," retorted Berzhinev. "I disagree. She is an engineer, and knows nothing about shotguns or anything else. What she's giving us now is straight from Hu's own mind - right now - this - very - instant." He tapped his fingers on the holopode with each word.

          "Then why is she describing something that happened in the past? Why isn't she telling us the magical location of Hu's head right now?" asked Zhu, his temper fraying.

          Berzhinev smiled and nodded. "That's a problem, but an easily solvable one. The cryofreeze bag most likely functions by ceasing all physiological functions and encasing the specimen in a subzero gaseous nitrogen environment. Ask Shimoda - he agrees with me on this one. Now, if Hu's head is physiologically frozen, who's to say that his brain functions haven't frozen also? Perhaps he is still mentally unaware of all the time that passes since his fight with the DataTech. Maybe even right now he believes he's still there in the train, and all he needs to do is stand up, shoot the 'Tech, and save the girl."

          Zhu made a face.

          "It's possible," affirmed Berzhinev. "And if you ask me, I think it's probable. Plus, it all makes sense from the DataTech viewpoint."

          "So what do we do?" asked the Second.

          "I suggest we wait." Berzhinev began folding up the holopode, talking as he did so. "Hold onto Mao, and have Ota Kyi return to question her from time to time. Say - every two hours or so. The moment that she starts describing a different environment, we know Hu's head is out of the bag, and we can start efforts to pinpoint and retrieve him."

          Zhu crossed over to Berzhinev and placed a hand on the pode, stopping his folding. "Just remember," said Zhu quietly, "we want his head back, and we want him alive. If you have any other resources you could use to track him down, I suggest you utilize them. Just in case your optimistic appraisal happens to overlook anything."

          "Of course," said Berzhinev, hiding his curiosity. "Only, bear in mind that whilst Hu is in the bag, the DataTech clearly have no intention of killing him. And also bear in mind, Second, that as long as his brain functions are atrophied, the HK transmission will not function for him."

          Berzhinev brushed Zhu's unresisting hand from the holopode, and turned to go.

          "All the best, Second," he said. "We'll try our hardest."

          Zhu remained behind, watching through the glassteel as Mao awakened from her trance and blinked innocently in the light. His thoughts now had to include her, as well.

          * ~ * ~ *

          A thousand klicks southeast from this tension point, Li Min's cutter lurches ahead in the dark waters, oblivious to all but the five ships giving chase. The cruiser and destroyer have fallen behind in the pursuit, owing to their hopelessly slow initial rotation, but the skimships are keeping up a good pace. On a straight, the cutter is outmatched, but its captain is confident and the turns are tight and well-managed. The skimships, on the other hand, are less maneuverable in water. One skimship has attempted an anvil motion from the side, but the low radar reflectivity of the cutter saves it - the skimship underestimates its position in the darkness, and veers safely behind the cutter and off to the side.

          The cutter's crew are grimly ecstatic - they have dropped their first pursuer. Now, if they can do likewise to the other two, they can hope for deliverance.

          They continue to weave and to jink, interspersed with stretches of flat out flight across the waters. But their early advantage unexpectedly evaporates, with the sudden trauma of the water to their starboard side.

          Waves crash and a pillar of water rises tens of meters into the air, as spray hits the bridge windows and the captain nearly loses his footing. His first mate is somewhat quicker off the mark.

          "What in blazes was that?" he shouts, as they pass the column at breakneck speed and slow for a sudden turn.

          Li Min has also felt the force of the disturbance. He rushes upstairs, holding the specimen in his arms, as though to draw comfort from it. Behind the cutter, the skimships are pulling further and further away, maintaining a safe distance.

          "What on Planet...?"

          There was silence again.

          Li Min scanned the waves as the captain searched for the source of the attack. There were no other ships around, and as for submarines, well...

          Then he saw it.

          "Three oh clock! In the sky! Incoming!"

          There was just enough time to brace, when the water again spewed forth and the cutter lurched on the agitated waves. Above them roared the engines of a low-flying needlejet, already receding and fading with its speed.

          The captain steadied the cutter - already less than ideally stable in the water owing to its organic composition - and regained maximum velocity.

          "What do we do now?" he asked.

          Li Min pondered. "I don't suppose this ship can submerge, can it?"

          The captain looked at him as though his brain were two dogs fighting. "No," he said, "it can't."


          The needlejet had completed its lazy circling turn and was pounding air to return for another attack.

          "Look," said the captain, "I can't keep doing this. The needlejet's going to get us, or the ship's going to fall apart under the strain. Whatever you do, do it fast."

          Li Min stared out the window. He idly pondered the nature of his death - would he drown in the icy night waters, or would the initial blast kill him first? Of course, that depended on the weapons they were using...

          Inspiration, and cautious hope, hit him.

          "Hey," he said. The captain turned to him. "I want you to lead it on and get it to attack you again. Try to veer away at the last moment - I want to see what it's firing."

          The captain began to argue with this insane proposal, then saw that time and circumstances were quite adequate to the task of quashing sapient rationality. He shrugged and, with a weary sense of dread and surrender, turned the cutter to the straight and narrow, as the Hiverian needlejet closed ranks.

          * ~ * ~ *

          At 16.45 hrs, reports reached Lt. Col. Sun (standard name Carson) of the destruction of a small vessel, thought to be a probe, that had attempted to flee from Naval Patrol Group 113D. The report then went on to say that wreckage of the craft was currently being recovered from the outer fringes of the New Sargasso, where the craft had finally come to rest, and that no survivors were likely.

          At 16.46 hrs, a further report reached Lt. Col. Sun that a Hiverian foil had come across a UN Peacekeeper skimship, and that the UNP had refused compliance in withdrawal or boarding, and fled. The Hiverian foil believed itself to be somewhere in the mideastern outer reaches of the New Sargasso sea fungus expanse. It did not understand why the UNP had immediately turned to flee, but had affirmed that it would continue pursuit, in accordance with its patrol orders, until ordered otherwise.

          The aides who brought him these reports left them with him to read at his own disposal, but Lt. Col. Sun did not choose to peruse them further. He was more than sufficiently busy with the matter of the DataTech blockade.

          It was maddening, to say the least. He had no doubt that his fleet could pass through. They were a mere stone's throw from the DataTech mainland, and a concerted effort would sweep all their opposition away. Now, the order to hold position had come, and with it came increasing reinforcements from the Aquascante Treaty factions. He counted at least seven capital ships of the Nautilus Pirates faction, and more were appearing. He wondered, as he chewed his lip, whether the UN Peacekeepers would send in their military to do battle.

          If so, the outcome would no longer be as clear cut as it had once seemed. The Hive could tackle the DataTech, and perhaps the few ships that the Nautilus Pirates had sent. Let the Peacekeepers and the Morganites enter, however, and all bets were off.

          What were High Command up to? Did they know that victory was just a cakewalk away?

          * ~ * ~ *
          "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


          • #20
            Keystone cont.

            CEO Morgan sat down, straightened his tie, and endeavored to look attentive. His aide brought him a mug of lukewarm coffee to wake him.

            The vidscreen came on, and with it, Commissioner Lal's normally-placid face.

            "CEO Morgan," said Commissioner Lal heatedly. He was far from placid.

            "Yes," Morgan reassured him. He yawned.

            "Why have you not returned my commlink hails?" asked Lal with a trace of sharpness.

            The CEO yawned again. "I have been asleep," he said simply.

            "An emergency has come up," declared the Commissioner. When the CEO did not reply, he continued. "The Hiverian Naval Command has moved their fleet northwards from Harmonia, and to the continent of Iphiclia. Their action is indefensible and by the UN Charter of non-aggression and in the interests of protecting democratic states, we must move to counter them!"

            "No," said Morgan.

            Lal blinked. "Morgan-" he began.

            "I am a businessman," said Morgan pleasantly. "I'm no soldier. I am not about to waste my people in defending against an enemy whose very attack you yourself describe as 'indefensible'."

            Lal blinked again, twice in rapid succession. "But Morgan, together we can present a united front to the aggressor. This must be a symbol of our unity and our commitment to safeguard the interests of each other. If you turn your back on Iphiclia, you turn your back on the Aquascante Treaty!"

            Morgan frowned. "If you wish to make some sort of symbolic gesture, then by all means use every Aquascante ship at your disposal. But consider my viewpoint, Lal."

            Morgan leaned forwards and began speaking with a venom the Commissioner had never suspected of him. "I have worked myself and my people hard to build up my companies and conglomerates. Every hour of work they have put in, every joule of energy they have expended, I have given them their worth in luxuries and goods. This is the money they make for me, and these are the funds that I contribute, gratis, to your Aquascante Treaty Organization scheme - the same scheme that so favors the DataTech faction now, which and bestows such wealth upon their deserving, darling heads. But what do statistics say of the DataTech?"

            Morgan's fist clenched white-knuckled over the mug as his voice rose to a shout. "Piracy! Corporate fraud! Patent and copyright theft!" He enumerated these points with savage shakes of his finger, then put his cup down and turned a baleful eye upon Lal. "Oh, Pravin, I have no doubt that you believe you are doing your best with your humanitarian goals, and your support of the underdog, and your full handed generosity with other people's damn money, but what on Chiron have the DataTech - the DataTech, dammit! - done to deserve such largesse?"

            Lal began to speak, but Morgan cut him off with a brutal flourish of his hand.

            "I am not done!!" he bellowed. Lal was shocked - this was no mere dramatic act of faction grudges; Morgan genuinely was very angry indeed. The veins stood out on his temples and his handsome African face was momentarily fiendlike with rage. The CEO regained himself somewhat and continued. "You will see why it is that I have repeatedly warned you against this wrongheaded guardianship. Ever since you bestowed Aquascante subsidies to install those blasted DataTech NetNodes, OmniNet crime has risen by two hundred forty percent; of which, my people must suffer the vast majority. Every year my faction makes the highest subscription payments to Aquascante, because we cannot afford to spare our limited defence forces in terms of the contract. And every year, my faction loses ever increasing markets in software and technology to cheap imitations done by clever coders, the origins of which nobody seems to know, but which everybody seems to use. My people are making such sacrifices to you, Commissioner, and all for what? So a handful of breakaways and criminals can go online and cause even more chaos than before! Is this what your vaunted Charter is all about?"

            Morgan stopped, breathing heavily, and then picked up his coffee and drained it. He turned back to the vidscreen, regarding Lal with a mixture of bitterness and sorrow. Lal did not, or could not, gainsay him one word.

            "Pravin," he said, spent from his outburst, "I have no quarrel with you. I respect you very much for your commitment, and the sacrifices you will make for your beliefs. I never believed in anything with the same fervor as you, except perhaps money - but that is different because we all understand money, even if we don't believe in it. This... this..." he paused, searching for the correct word with a look of disgust "...this wetnursing of malcontents is something I cannot understand, and I cannot agree to defend because I cannot see any possible good of it."

            Lal nodded. "So, then. You leave me on my own."

            Morgan looked up and suddenly looked very tired and old. "Lal, I cannot afford to go to war on their behalf. I can't do it. I mean, be reasonable: how can I?" A look of the old bitterness returned to his face. "Dammit, I can barely afford to stay at peace with them."

            Lal forced a sympathetic expression, a rueful compression of the lips. "I see," he said. "Very well, Morgan. I am sorry to hear about this. Rest assured that we will reconsider this immediately this crisis has been resolved. There are answers, if only we can find them - although not right now."

            Morgan did not respond. He just shook his head and sat down pensively, averting his gaze until the Commissioner signed out.

            * ~ * ~ *

            It was 16.48 when Svensgaard received the message, and it did not improve his spirits one bit. The Commissioner's message was terse, and informed him that no Morganite forces were in the area - a blatant lie, as Svensgaard knew - and so Aquascante factions would only be represented by the Peacekeepers and the Nautilus factions. The message reminded Svensgaard of the importance of this operation - a reminder which Svensgaard held halfway between amusement and utter comtempt - and informed him that he was to transfer all Aquascante forces temporarily to the command of DataTech head of security, acting Admiral Rowling.

            Svensgaard goggled at the sheer perversity of the demand. Now, with battle likely to break out at any moment, Pravin Lal wished him to give the order to surrender his fleet and engage a lengthy set of protocol overrides to transfer command. Even Aquascante military tactics held that such a process was best practised in dock or safely in clear seas. However, orders were orders, and the Captain sorrowfully gave the order to all of his fleet, to obey.

            Thus, with the Hiverian fleet literally watching from the galleries, the Aquascante ships were instructed to decode their computer discriminators and recode to a secret transmission which Rowling would administer. Despite the tensions and the nervousness and the sheer stupid strategic risk involved, the process went rather well - had the Hiverian fleet been aware of the change, and of half a mind to do so, they could easily have interfered with and prevented the change of command, or even seized control of the ships themselves. So when Rowling sent his order loud and clear to all Nautilus ships to form up, there was an audible sigh of relief from some two thousand crewmen.

            Back at Deadman Tavern seabase, Svensgaard shook his head gloomily and wondered what on Chiron the Commissioner had been thinking. More immediately, he worried about the sheer blasted inefficiency of the Navy Transfer of Command. After all, the process was a crucial one and even most amateurs could get it right. Would he ever live down the shame of this incompetence? Would Admiral Rowling ever forget this first example of inefficient Aquascante military help?

            * ~ * ~ *

            Two thousand klicks away, Acting DataTech Admiral Rowling actually thought quite highly of the display, commenting "What a nifty trick. Honestly, one of these days we really must learn how to do that."

            Sadly, neither Svensgaard, nor his fleet, were ever to know how impressive their blunder had seemed to their DataTech commander-in-chief. No doubt they would have been greatly reassured by his words.
            "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


            • #21

              Joe leaned back and gently eased off the M/MI helmet, resting it upwards on his scalp. He had done the best that he could do, and thank goodness, it had all gone as planned. Now, the rest was up to chance or destiny.

              * ~ * ~ *

              Zhu, the Second, reached the Chairman's sanctum and passed the message through. He waited a few heartbeats, and the door irised open and the Chairman himself stepped out. He was wearing a simple black robe, and the Second correctly guessed that Sheng had adjourned his sleep in order to respond to this latest development.

              "What of the probe?" asked Sheng, no trace of fatigue in his voice.

              Zhu produced his palmtop with a magician's dexterity and cross-linked to the relevant channels. The Chairman read as he proceeded towards the viewing room, eyes moving quick and without lethargy. As he reached the center of his communications with his subordinates, the Chairman's formidable mind had decided on a plan of action.

              Zhu had summoned the leaders and they were onscreen, awaiting their Chairman's command.

              "Lt Col. Sun," said the Chairman without preamble, "are your decoders ready?"

              Sun saluted smartly, and, Zhu thought, somewhat superfluously. "Yes, Chairman. We have been eavesdropping on the enemy transmissions since first sighting."

              The Chairman nodded. "I want you to hold distance and to prevent any exchange of fire whatsoever, until further instruction. Under no circumstances are you to provoke the enemy into firing upon you. If fired upon, retreat but do not fire back. Wait for further instruction. You are also to maintain radio silence with the enemy until further instruction. Understood?"

              Sun's face hardly changed. "Yes, Chairman."

              "Good. Now we know that your 113th Battle Group has downed an unknown craft near the New Sargasso. This wreckage must be examined and any trace of the occupants brought back for analysis. We have reason to suspect that the craft was harboring enemy probe activity, as well as abducting one of our own citizens - a member of the diplomatic corps, no less."

              Sun's face changed this time. Evidently, he too had heard of the mystery surrounding Hu's disappearance. "Yes, Chairman. I will report all findings immediately."

              "Good, responded the Chairman. "In the interim, continue eavesdropping on enemy frequencies, and pay close attention to all transmissions regarding numbers and the proximity of their forces. We have reason to believe that they are still reinforcing over a large area."

              Sun's face changed again, but only to return to its earlier blankness. "Very well, Chairman. I will authorize a direct feed to Central office."

              The Chairman nodded, and Sun's face vanished from the screen. He turned to the face of Berzhinev, head of the Civil Intelligence Bureau.

              "Analyse Sun's transmissions. We want to identify any reports of lost ships by the Aquascante factions. If this craft was official, then we will hear of it through official military lines. However, if it was indeed a probe team, as we suspect, we will not hear anything sent to Rowlings of the DataTech fleet."

              Berzhinev nodded and signed out.

              There was sudden silence in the viewing room. Zhu bowed and departed, proceeding to an appointment with Ota Kyi to continue the interviewing of Mao.

              Alone in the chamber, the Chairman lowered himself onto the draped dias in the center of the room, folding his legs beneath him. His face remained impassive as he began his meditation, the supple flexibility of his aged body belying the stern force behind its every determination.

              * ~ * ~ *

              The choplifter circled once overhead, then stabilized and held position. Quickly, a package was extended on the end of a cable, so quickly in fact that it practically plummetted from the chopper into the cold waters. This was followed by a suited human figure making a more sedate descent, shouldering equipment down the line.

              The initial package unfolded and began recording the underwater depths, heading down to a hundred meters' submersion and everything in between. The human's job was simpler - he began detailed recording of surface debris and environments.

              The surface recording was completed and the human scout retrieved, but the automated scout would continue to probe underwater until recalled. The chopper released the flotational buoy that would serve as lifeline to the robot scout, then returned to the Hiverian Carrier, twenty klicks distant.

              All the while, Hiverian High Command was watching from the capital. The scant metal remnants of a Nautilus ship hull did not escape their attention.

              * ~ * ~ *

              Meanwhile, Captain Svensgaard was puzzled. Since Lal had turned over command of UNPS craft to Rowlings ten minutes previously, Svensgaard had been instated as emergency commander of all UNPS and Nautilus craft on "patrol duty" - that is, too far away from the continental conflict to influence the outcome, and who therefore needn't accept the invitation. He was faced first with the task of locating and communicating with every single one of the remotest lying craft in the vast expanse of the ocean, and secondly with the task of actually telling them to do something meaningful.

              He found the first to be somewhat easier than the second, for which he had been dredging his mind for inspiration. He was far more comfortable with the idea of administration and response than with the idea of subsequent inaction. Fortunately, he did not have to contend with the latter, as an interesting development occurred which made the former far more complicated than it needed to have been.

              Svensgaard had been given a roster of UNPS ships and their likely patrol locations, the better to help him locate them with his hails. For each one, he had experienced no difficulty in location and subsequent communication protocols, with the single exception of a lone skimship foil designated the UNPS Dauntless.

              For a start, finding it was difficult. The roster claimed that the craft had been instructed to patrol just northwest of the New Sargasso, but all attempts to radio-pulse the area had met with silence. Svensgaard had despatched a Nautilus craft to the area for a visual/radar reading, but after five minutes of protracted sensor activity, no response seemed forthcoming. The area was simply deserted.

              Svensgaard's mood deteriorated. It was too bad that the ship was a UNPS. Had it been anybody else, he would have had no compunction about leaving it for later. But Svensgaard knew the Commissioner's frame of mind, and he had no difficulty in imagining Lal's response were he to just overlook their absence.

              Damn the Peacekeeper protocols and their human-rights preciousness, he thought to himself. Of course, if a ship were to go missing in the middle of the ocean on a routine patrol, then questions have to be asked. But here they were bordering on war - a shooting war with two organized (well, sort of) sides meeting and perhaps just moments away from a pitched battle. Anybody except the Commissioner would have seen the difference, and accepted the concessions one must make in wartime. Anybody except the Commissioner would have let pass the disappearance of a single lone foil for the moment, and resumed the search afterwards, when many other such craft would need similar attention.

              Hell, he thought to himself, what if the ship had decided to defect? What then? How could he, who technically had no authority over UNPS craft, then negotiate with the captain? "Come back to the UNP, for my sake"? He pinched the bridge of his nose in confoundment.

              Svensgaard's aide, Jones, knocked on the lintel and entered without waiting for permission. He never needed it, anyway. Svensgaard turned to his friend with a look of quiet anticipation. In response, Jones held out two sheets of paper.

              "Our fleet awaits your command as ever, Captain. And the Peacekeepers are standing by for the transfer."

              Svensgaard stared at the papers without seeing them. "Excellent," he said hollowly. "Any ideas on a patrol route?"

              Jones brought up a map of the sectors. "Well, our ships are doing okay on their own around the New Sargasso. We haven't seen evidence of any further Hive activity, so the situation is normal. It's your call, captain."

              Inspiration hit Svensgaard. "I've got it. Send out a command to the entire UNPS to patrol the New Sargasso in large groups. We'll leave them there and see if they can find their missing friend. If they do, they get the credit - if they don't, we don't get the blame."

              Jones was puzzled. "Sir? But we're already patrolling the New Sargasso ourselves."

              Svensgaard smiled. "No, Jones. I don't mean around the New Sargasso. I mean inside it. The UNPS that's missing has not been seen by any ship for the past half hour. Yet we haven't searched the sea fungus of the New Sargasso."

              "But Captain, only a lunatic would go in there," protested Jones. "I mean, you can't detect anything in there, sensors don't work, and the alien Isles of the Deep are so numerous you'd be lucky to get out vaguely sane."

              Svensgaard nodded and said nothing. Instead, he leaned over to his receiver and pressed a button. A message began to play. Jones jumped suddenly as a ragged, screaming voice filled the room - screeching a transmission that bordered on madness.

              "Hello? Hello?! Can anyone hear this? This is Captain Mooney of the UNPS Dauntless! Oh my god! There's thousands of them! They're appearing out of nowhere, and they're coming! They're coming for us! They're coming for us! Full speed retreat and it's still no good! There's just so many of them!! How did they get so many??! O, so many, many ships!! Hey!!! I can't even begin to count them all!! Let alone even think about fighting them!! Why won't they answer me!! Why are they following me!! Hey!!! Go away!! Go 'way!! Get outta here!! Leave me alo-..."

              Svensgaard flicked the recording off with a grimace.

              Jones stared at him wide eyed. "What the hell was that?"

              Svensgaard shrugged. "All I know is, it fits with the UNPS broadcasting frequencies, and it was decoded with the UNPS algorithm Lal gave me. I have to assume it's genuine. And," he added, "it may be rather instructive concerning their whereabouts."

              Jones shuddered. He had once led a ship's crew through an attack by an Isle of the Deep. The best of the men had been sorely tried by the experience, and survived. The normal recruits, however, had not weathered nearly as well, with terrible paranoia, and hallucinations so intense that one poor recruit had reached up and torn his eyes from their sockets rather than be witness to them. Jones knew first hand the dangers of confronting Planet's psychic beasts.

              And if what Svensgaard said was true, this UNPS foil was headed through the teeming grounds of the Isles. Jones nodded, acknowledging the possibility of this. The voice certainly sounded crazy enough, anyway.

              * ~ * ~ *

              Sun turned and regarded the aide strangely. There was a growing wonder on his face.

              "Nautilus?" he asked incredulously.

              "Yessir," replied the aide. "We retrieved a fragment of hull with clear Nautilus markings. The underwater probe is still searching, but has not reported any findings as yet."

              Sun examined a molar tooth with his tongue as he pondered. "Hmm," he said at length. "Rather unusual, don't you think?"

              The aide looked confused.

              "I mean, why just a fragment of hull? Why not many fragments? Why not larger pieces? Why not human remains? Instead, we just find a piece of hull rather conspicuously pointing us at the Nautilus."

              "There may be more that sank," volunteered the aide helpfully. "The underwater probe should discover them."

              "Yet," said Sun, "the Nautilus internal reports are devoid of all mention of losses."

              There was a silence as Sun lapsed into a brief reverie. "No Nautilus losses at all," he murmured. Then he straightened.

              "Bring me the pilot who sank the boat."

              The aide saluted quickly and left, wondering. Within two minutes, the pilot himself was brought and bowed to the Lieutenant Colonel.

              "Ah, Dillinger, is it? Now you were responsible for sinking the vessel designated Objective Pecadillo, were you not?"

              Dillinger, a young pilot, knew when he was in trouble and when he was not. This time, his brisk response indicated that he considered himself in the latter category. "Yessir."

              Sun crosslinked with his datapad and brought the images onscreen. Dillinger's voice broadcast in a sqawking radio transmission.

              "That's you, right?" asked Sun. Dillinger nodded.

              They watched as the enemy ship neared in the pilot's view, and the water surface was disturbed by the weapons of the needlejet. Then a great banking turn as Dillinger reported his present flight path.

              Sun considered. "What were you firing?" he asked at length.

              "A-37 AtG Flechette missiles, sir."

              "Manual or automatic?" he asked quickly.

              "Automatic," said Dillinger. "I had a hard enough time hitting it as it was, sir."

              Sun nodded, not unsympathetically. Onscreen, the craft was veering around again for another unsuccessful attack run, releasing and then turning as the pilot's voice came again, disbelieving.

              Sun turned back to Dillinger, who was shouldering this potential embarrassment with admirable dignity.

              "Do you consider yourself to be a competent marksman?" asked Sun neutrally.


              "But this recording shows otherwise?"

              "No, sir."

              Sun's eyebrows raised. "No? Interesting. Explain."

              Dillinger wavered the barest moment, then spoke. "I believe the ship itself was using some sort of jamming equipment. My sensors did not lock on and the guidance equipment did not function at fullest capacity, sir."

              Sun nodded. "I agree with you, pilot. Note here, in your fifth attack run, how your missiles fly on the straight and narrow. They do not follow the craft, which has in this case taken evasive action to the starboard side. Each time you miss, your missiles enter the ocean and are detonated by pressure, some ten meters below the surface, causing the waterspouts we see here. It is not until..." Sun advanced the recording until the final shot "...your eighth attack run that you hit something. What did you think happened?"

              Dillinger thought back. "I saw the craft travelling flat out and gaining the periphery of the New Sargasso, sir. I knew it was the last chance I would have of hitting it, and so I fired as soon as I was on the axial."

              They watched the video recording - the ship already disappearing behind nearby fronds of fungal growth, and the missiles flying straight and true... and also hopelessly inaccurate. Then, suddenly, the missiles veering off unanimously and incontrovertibly to the right, following a point in the fungus. A detonation - plumes of smoke rising from the mass.

              Sun pursed his lips. "Well, pilot. We've recovered something from the fungus." The recording terminated and was replaced by the scout's tape of the floating wreckage. "Does this look at all like the craft you tailed?"

              The pilot looked closely at the metal debris, complete with Nautilus logo. "No," he said at length.

              Sun sighed. "All right, pilot. You are dismissed. Return to your quarters and remain there. You are not to go on further flight missions until I personally clear you."

              He sat down after the pilot left, wondering.

              * ~ * ~ *

              "Where the hell are we?" asked the skipper testily.

              Li Min consulted his compass - an antique capsule consisting of nothing more complex than a single needle of iron suspended in oil about a small pin - and sighed. "We're heading northeast," he said. "That's all you need to know."

              "How can you be so sure of yourself when you know sweet f.a. about where we're going? I marvel at you."

              Li Min smiled. "We don't care where we're going. That's the point. Anywhere is fine, as long as it's away from the Hive."

              The light wooden craft sped through the fungus, greatly aided both by its narrow cross section, and by its recent loss of some heavy ballast, near the periphery of the New Sargasso.
              Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; June 27, 2002, 01:04.
              "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


              • #22

                The Chairman allowed that there would be some delay in Sun's findings, and so he spent his time skimming over the latest reports. None of them were in themselves particularly important, but it had always been his custom to regularly look into even trivial matters, and to assure himself that they were running smoothly, or to inquire with the subservients and familiarize himself with the present modus operandi. He read communiques from the Urban Planning Commission that outlined the construction of a new Hologram Theater in Huddling of the People. He analyzed reports of the latest crops grown underground with a complex genetic compositor strain to increase yield and decrease etiolation. He examined a proposal to lay a new magtube across the Uranium flats to what had once been Usurper territories, to allow for an opening up of the War Grounds to convoys and trade. This proposal was particularly important, since the Provost had expressed an interest in harnessing the powers of the elements there for his own scientific research.

                The Chairman subjected each proposal in turn to fair scrutiny and consideration. In each case, he found the arrangements to his liking, and appended the date, time, and his mark of approval. His subordinates would doubtless be surprised and perhaps gratified to read his concern in the coming morning, but the Chairman had always taken pains to exercise his right to supervise. In the Frontier days, when the Hive had faced its earliest threats, the Chairman had been intimately involved in the construction of the bases and the running of the military from the top down in every respect. Now, a century and a half later, he still thought back to those days of unflinching, unrelenting responsibility, and in a very real way, he still held himself ultimately accountable for the wellbeing of every venture carried out on his soil by his citizens.

                Doubtless, there were many who regarded this as dictatorship, and even the Provost himself had referred to Sheng directly as "that devoted imperator of the Hive". There were many who had no concept nor appreciation for the possibilities of such a society, as inaccurate a comparison as it was to his own faction's state. Many allowed their distaste for the failed examples of such a regime to override any provision for a possible success, and in many forwarded examples, the Chairman could not blame them. He found a pleasing geometric analogy (it was in no way an exact and binding symmetry, but it would do) in his games of wei qi with the Provost. Past a certain level of populace, a faction appeared to him to be a color on the chessboard. Each piece of course was essential to the whole, since without the individual, there would be no whole. But the pieces on their own did not influence matters - did not lose positions or win objectives. That was the realm of the player, and the player was an infinitely different creature from the pieces.

                If the player was to be of limited skill, then the color would be weak and the game would be jeopardized. If the player was of great skill, then the color would be strong and the game would be a potential prize. Throughout his reign, the Chairman had tried his utmost and given his every last effort to be the provider and shield for his people. Even the later formation of his interior ministries did not remove his attentive interest from the day-to-day workings of the individuals - they merely diluted the intensities of his actions, and more for practicality's sake than an abdication of power. It was the purpose of the ruler to act for the good of the people, and not for the good of any given individual. Ideally, the ruler would continue to be a benefit to his subjects, and his agenda would never allow personal considerations to betray the faith of the people, nor the powers they allowed him to wield. Once a ruler lost the desire or capability to be a net benefit to his people, he lost the right to rule, and his downfall and replacement would logically be the best action for the people. Socioeconomic metrics arose as a science to examine this, but at their core lay the teachings of a vast an ancient empire that once graced the shores of the faraway dead homeworld - once the Emperor lost the Mandate of Heaven, he could be overthrown legitimately by his subjects, in whose name he must rule.

                However, of equal danger to society were the actions of the people themselves. Situations arose and confounded the people. It was instructive and interesting to witness how mundane accidents could panic and disorder a crowd, when they would have merely given an individual a moment's pause. The desire to lose oneself, to forsake the responsibility of thought and intellect, was made much stronger when one was surrounded by similarly influenced people. Moods and desires unthinkable to the rational mind became grim realities in the frenzy of a mob - for a good example, the Believers would suffice. Around a decade after Planetfall, when the lines of communication had been in their infancy, and the very events themselves were foggy and uncertain, let alone motivations and causes, the Lord's Believers had suddenly and without warning raged forth from their fortresses on the Great Dunes, and repeatedly laid waste to the outlying settlements of their neighbors. The ferocity of their attacks had been legendary - the very people themselves had seemed transformed in their spiritual transports of conviction, until the point where they scarcely seemed human. Mentally, of course, the Chairman had argued, they no longer were. They had surrendered the rational part of their psychology which differentiated their acts from the savagery of beasts, and in relinquishing the responsibility that made them human they also relinquished control and ultimately their own humanity itself.

                No Believing prisoners of war could explain these states of mind, and so it was not possible to find out how they recovered from them, but what was certain was that they were capable of periods of rational thought just as any other human - they merely chose to abandon it selectively. Some later reports showed that their leadership had a great deal of personal involvement in these outbursts of mass rage, incorporating the desire for conquest with the need to convert the unbelievers, in a neat and ritualistic synergy. The social mixture was obviously heady and very seductive - the Believers thronged with their convictions and needed nothing else to be perfectly happy (or 'sated', as their detractors liked to sayh) whilst the glorious pride of war and slaughter and acquisition lasted.

                Not only was this mixture strong, but it was antisocial. Their outlook on other factions was illustrated pointedly by their foreign policy - assimiliation and elimination. Their continued objective, even in the face of a coalition of opposing governments, had made them very unpopular, to the point that the Provost had disseminated the first of his formidable shared sciences amongst the others. Though the technology was feeble by modern comparison, it had been enough to swing a considerable tactical advantage, and a combined force of similarly-minded allies had marched on the Believers and taken every last one of their bases. The same wild abandon that had proven so potent in offence was to be proven next to useless in defence - for defence had required rational precision, coordination of mass troops, and a knowledge of priorities. When the laser-toting rover squads had tilted back towards Believer bases, none of the commanders could instill these values into their fanatical followers. The retreats and surrenders had been wholesale.

                No trace of their leader, Miriam, was ever found, and what primitive seismic equipment was available at the time had registered very little, but romantic thought and tactical theory were surprisingly close in accord as to where she was. The final transmission relayed to her second-in-command (and subsequently uncovered by the University inquisitors) had spoken of an ascension into the heavens, and a later descent to the world, whereupon she would judge the heathens and the faithful with a rod of burnished iron. The literary-minded interpreted this as a euphemistic but highly symbolic suicide, whereas the literally-minded toyed with the idea of an orbital escape - a scenario that would be on the very outer edges of possibility.

                At best, the author of so many drives outwards into the territory, the bases, the lives, and the graveyards of others, was now caught in an ageless, timeless metal womb. She would circle the world in a tight, speeding flight that would take her faster and faster still, never stopping in its ceaseless chase, but with no particular destination. The Chairman wondered what sort of technology they had up there in orbit - with the latest University technological developments, it would take more than a rod of burnished iron to convert today's heretics. In a certain way, he had shared Zakharov's regret at her passing - the Provost and Miriam had exchanged many words on the subject of gods and men, and they had both found the Unity's Psych Chaplain an intelligent and engaging woman. What a shame that her faction had not shown the same control over their shared faith that she had.

                It was this excess, this inability to control oneself, and indeed this willing surrender to internal drives and chaotic thought, that the Chairman found repulsive. Man, as the present and immortalized philosophers both affirmed, is and was a social creature. Additionally, society was defined solely by its adherent men and their achievements. Ergo, when these men ceased to be men - when they chose to become beasts - the society was doomed. Hence the Hiverian philosophy of self-control, selective repression, and conditioning. As a social model, there was no disguising its ugliness to sceptical outsiders, but it assumed responsibility for all of its actions, by fostering a doctrine of loyalty and self-control in each of its citizens from the very beginning. The Believers went to drastic lengths in order to shed their duty and to lay them on the shoulders of other nations. The Hive was prepared to take equally drastic lengths in the opposite direction to contain its structure, to crystallize its own aims, and finally to focus its resources. These extremes had resulted in a steady growth and a ready absorption of whatever enemies destiny had produced (as Believers and Progenitors alike had experienced), but they had also drawn great and sustained protests by outside elements which ran on entirely different values. Outsiders who had responded with understandable cynicism and opposition, and latterly given the Chairman the epithet of Demon - a term which held a wry, rarefied amusement for him.

                So many years of rulership, and he had found friends and capable men to aid him. Men who were trustworthy, who shared the same realization of the curious paradox: that they were vital to the success of the faction, and yet could be replaced at a moment's whim by the people whom they ruled. And that went for the Chairman himself no less than for his lesser compatriots. That fact attended him throughout his endeavors and his life in the Hive; it was a part of his every action. The Chairman liked to think it made him a better ruler. Certainly as the outside forces continued to grow, and as their appreciation of his role decreased in relation, his task would only increase in complexity. Perhaps even someday he would prove to be unequal to the challenge. If that ever occurred, he mused, then whatever fate he encountered would be one which he richly deserved for his failure.

                His eyes moved behind their lids and the Chairman's mouth twitched at the corner.

                Zhu, the Second, came in and bowed at the lintel. He was palpably agitated about something, and Sheng gestured to him easily to proceed.

                "Esteemed master," he said in the darkness, "we have a report from Lt. Col. Sun and a renewed hail from the Peacekeepers."

                Sheng opened his eyes at last and regarded his Second. His meditations had lasted but a few minutes in duration, and he smoothed them away into a corner of his mind, to better focus on the tasks at hand.

                "I will speak to Sun first."

                * ~ * ~ *

                The Nautilus hull fragment hung, as if in reproach, over the side of the ship. Sun paced back and forth on the deck, and his consternation grew. The recent directive on non-aggression had annoyed him, and the subsequent emphasis on the small probe craft had vexed him. This final development, that the probe craft was free and loose and almost definitely outside his pale, chilled him.

                The fact that the Chairman's aide had requested an update on the search had not calmed him. The Second himself seemed in need of sleep, and who knew what calisthenics the Civil Intelligence Bureau were going through if one of their top agents was missing. Sun had waited until the last possible test had been carried out on the hull fragment before making his report, but finally there was nothing left to do.

                He considered the immediate obedience that the pilot, Dillinger, had shown in relaying his version of the events. Dillinger was merely separated from duty - not punished. Sun held this fact close to himself, as though a talisman to ward off his own future culpabilities.

                The aide returned, with a summons for the viewscreen. Sun dutifully squared his shoulders, and turned his kerchief of rank so his badges showed. He went down into the bridge and entered his own quarters.

                There, the Chairman's face awaited him. Sun preserved a careful expression of neutrality as he spoke calmly, making his report as efficiently as he could.

                "The wreckage found indicates that the ship we sank was not a probe vessel," he said. "The markings on the fragments indicate a Nautilus victim, but during all this time no Aquascante or DataTech transmissions report losing such a craft. Furthermore, the wreckage found was insufficient to account for the destruction of any naval craft. We suspect that the wreckage is unrelated to the Objective we pursued earlier."

                The Chairman digested this information and responded. "When did you lose visual contact with the Objective?"

                Sun consulted his datapad and notes. "At 14.50 hrs, Chairman."

                "And when did you know you had hit this ghost Nautilus ship?"

                "Immediately afterwards, Chairman. The pilot discovered that his missiles suddenly regained their ability to home in on a target."

                The Chairman sat a bit closer to the screen and blinked twice in rapid succession. "Lieutenant Colonel," he began, his voice not entirely kind and not entirely patient, "forgive me for the suggestion, but did it never occur to you..."

                At that point an aide rushed in to deliver an emergency message. It was not good timing, and Sun, head bowed in humble acquiescence before his leader, waved the aide away curtly.

                The Chairman stopped in midsentence and looked at the aide, his eyes ponderous from the high viewscreen.

                "Let him speak," suggested the Chairman.

                The aide bowed to the Chairman, swallowed, and gave his report.

                "The eavesdropping wavelengths indicate that the Aquascante factions are sending ships into the New Sargasso fungus, sir!"

                The Chairman turned to Sun, who was attentive. "Very well, Lieutenant Colonel. We have a counter force, moving through the fungus, coincidentally where your force lost sight of the probe Objective. You are free to calculate your own conclusions, and to determine your own course of action from here, but let me stress the importance of impounding that enemy probe. If you fail to catch the probe, you will be left with no other alternative but to declare a state of war with the Aquascante factions!"

                Sun bowed his head. "Sir, with all due respect, I do not believe it is practical to pursue the probe through the New Sargasso. If this leaves us with no choice other than war, I will accept responsibility for my decision today."

                Onscreen, the Chairman closed his eyes for a brief moment or two, then refocussed. "Very well, Lt Col Sun. I will authorize your statement to the opposition commander, Acting Admiral Rowling. You will deliver this statement and await an answer. If no agreement can be reached, you are to arm to full capacity and neutralize all DataTech hostiles."

                Sun's eager delight was kept in check by a nagging and vague reservation. "Yessir."

                "And furthermore, it is vital that you do not destroy any Aquascante vessels. You are authorized to disable them if you must, and board and seize the craft, but we want caution in this endeavor. You must not sink any Peacekeeper or Nautilus craft if you can avoid it. Understood?"

                Sun nodded. "Yessir."

                The Chairman nodded with curt finality. "Good. Now stand by to receive the ultimatum transmission."

                * ~ * ~ *
                "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                • #23
                  Acting Admiral Rowling was startled to be told that the Hiverian commander was hailing him. He approached the comms terminal cautiously, as though it contained something dangerous - which, in a certain light, it probably did - and tried to put on a resolute expression. It worked surprisingly well, he thought, for a man so recently made Admiral of three fleets.

                  He had sat down at the communications terminal when the screen came on of its own accord, but featuring a very different person.

                  "Admiral Rowling," said the DataJack. "It seems we have a situation."

                  Rowling looked around briefly and turned back and nodded dumbly. His leader did not seem impressed.

                  "Rowling, I have received word from Commissioner Lal and Captain Svensgaard that they will support us in the role of repulsing an aggressor. If the Hiverian fleet attack us, even if they destroy our fleet utterly, we can count on their support until the end of time in addition to the Progenitor Caretakers'."

                  Rowling endeavored to look somewhat reassured by this news.

                  "However," continued the DataJack, "we have civilian craft that are returning even now to Iphiclia. We cannot endanger their lives. You must hold off a confrontation for their sakes until they are home safe. Do you understand?"

                  Had Rowling been under less stress or less confident of his abilities, or in fact even a member of the Naval Force, he might have had grave reservations and raised a protest or a query of some sort. Instead, he thought a few moments and then acknowledged the commands of the DataJack.

                  "Good," said the DataJack. "Remember, those civilian lives are even more important than your men. Your men have guns and ships at their disposal. These civilians have nothing except trust in their leaders. Never forget that."

                  "Yes, DataJack," responded Rowling, wondering at the DataJack's sudden compassion. She sounded stagey and unlike the usual indifferent woman he knew - where there others listening?

                  "Good. I will now notify the Aquascante factions about our stance." The DataJack's face disappeared from the vidscreen, and Rowling rose from the seat. He had only gotten halfway out when he remembered the earlier message - the notification light was still flashing, and it was still flashing under the Hiverian frequency on the display.

                  Rowling sat back down and flicked the channel open. A younger man looked back at him, his discreet Hiverian badge of rank barely visible on his uniform breast.

                  "Admiral Rowling, I am Lt Col Sun of the Hiverian Navy's Great Nothern Fleet."

                  "Lt Col Sun, I am Admiral Rowling of the combined Aquascante faction fleet."

                  Preliminaries over, Sun began the discussion.

                  "The purpose of our military presence today is to avert war. A small team of your agents have grievously injured and kidnapped a Hiverian civil servant. We have proof of his passage through these waters, and we demand that you return our citizen and the craft in which he has been abducted."

                  Rowling remained calm. "I have no knowledge of any such activities, Lt Col Sun. I do however know that you have boarded and impounded dozens of merchant vessels and advanced your fleet past the demilitarized boundaries in contravention of all Aquascante faction laws. You must withdraw your fleet from DataTech coastal areas, and allow the Aquascante civilian traffic to return to Iphiclia."

                  Sun shook his head. "I am not authorized to do this, Admiral. I have my orders, and they are to bring back our citizen and his captors, whether by peaceful means or through force. I have many men under my command, and I will spare none of them until our citizen is found."

                  Rowling decided to play for time. "Please excuse me, Lt Col Sun. I would like to liaise with my superiors in order to find the best solution."

                  Sun bowed his head, and his face vanished from the screen.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Four separate governments were, unbeknownst to Rowling, listening in on the transmission. The DataTech leaders had a direct link through Rowling's craft, and the UN Maritime Military Bureau and the Nautilus Command heard a few seconds afterwards. And of course the Hiverian naval intelligence received two versions of the exchange - one from their own leader's transmission, and one from Rowling's internal copy.

                  Their responses were various and legion.

                  The Commissioner of the United Nations Peacekeepers, the eminent Pravin Lal, had applauded the concern of the DataTech Admiral and DataJack for their civilians' lives and human rights, and also their brave stand in the face of the overwhelming might of the Hiverian Navy. He had called it a "grim but decent stance - the only one which a morally conscious person could make".

                  The leader of the Nautilus pirates idly wondered why the Commissioner had omitted to congratulate the Hiverians as well - after all, their stance appeared to be equally as humanitarian as that of the DataTechs. In fact, there was even greater moment behind the Hiverian claim (if it was indeed true) because their loss was to a governmental kidnapping, and not to a mere mercantile board-and-detain. However, the Captain had known the Commissioner for long enough to realize that such a panoramic view of the moralities involved would be very unlikely to surface for a long time. The Commissioner knew how to bend an issue, and by the Deep, he did it well and often. Svensgaard took a swig from a hip flask and switched the transmission lines back on.

                  The DataJack Sinder Roze swore viciously upon hearing the news, but since her curses were geared along the somewhat distant realms of computer viruses and bugs, nobody else understood them within earshot. She had then returned to her data relays and screens and reiterated her request for reinforcements, embarrassing the Commissioner with a deftly worded inquiry as to the whereabouts of the Morganic fleet. This done, and having received no response save an assurance of further Aquascante aid, she made her final decision and relayed her instructions to Admiral Rowling.

                  And last of all, the Hiverian High Command readied their lines of communication and each ship was primed for assault configurations. Two hundred klicks out from the southern DataTech coast, four factions held their breaths.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  As the final electrical switches are primed, and as the final cross link relays are steadied, and barrels aimed into the distance, the air becomes filled with transmissions of shuddering toneless finality from both sides.

                  "Admiral Rowling, we have reason to believe that the abduction suspects will attempt to seek succor in your lands and holdings. Our fleet intends to secure them and our missing official before they reach your mainland."

                  "Lt Col Sun, I regret to inform you that we will resist any further advance of your fleet. If your claims of this abduction are true, then we will solve the matter through diplomatic and police channels."

                  "Admiral Rowling, we have reason to believe that the abduction suspects are working for your government. Thus, we have little faith in your faction's abilities to save our citizen or punish his captors."

                  "Lt Col Sun, I must ask you to practise discretion in your accusations. This conversation may be consulted in future for purposes of tribunal."

                  "Admiral Rowling, I will make my position clearer now. We intend to remain here until the abductee is found. We have proof of his abduction and strenuously advise you against impeding us. So far you have not cooperated, and we have no reason to believe that you will cooperate. But in the interests of all, we will continue to patrol the area until our objective has been completed."

                  "Lt Col Sun, you are now officially in violation of Aquascante international regulations, and unofficially treading a damn fine line."

                  At this juncture, Lt Col Sun inclines his head and receives a discreet transmission from the Hiverian High Command. This in itself is not particularly surprising - he has received many such, and Rowlings has received his fair share of ear-fodder from the DataJack - but its contents are enough to widen his eyes and to set his features even further.

                  He turns back to Rowling after giving the curtest of curt affirmations to High Command.

                  "Admiral Rowling, I regret to inform you that we will now advance our position to the northeast periphery of the New Sargasso. Since you have failed to allow us to pass, and have not indicated your willingness to surrender the suspects on arrival or on demand, we have no choice but to classify your fleet as obstructive agents. We are instructed to allow you two metric minutes to rotate and five to leave the safety envelope of the New Sargasso. And in the name of all that you and I hold dear, I urge you to comply with our measures, or you will face the consequences."

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Li Min, focussed on the navigation, did not hear the first sounds of gunfire, but the captain and first mate certainly did.

                  "What the hell was that?" shouted the captain.

                  "Sounds like a goddam war," hissed the first mate angrily. "What are they up to now?"

                  "Do you think they're after us?"

                  "Shut up, both of you," said Li Min, "I'm trying to listen."

                  There it was - the sound of bursting and roaring in the distance. The fungal fronds muted the sound somewhat, but the dense atmosphere carried it much further for human hearing than their predecessors would have been accustomed to.

                  "Oh," said Li Min at length.

                  If there was fighting, then it was most likely between human combatants - what navy the Progenitor Caretakers once had was at the bottom of the ocean, courtesy of the Hiverian 86th and Dragonfly squadrons. And although Isles of the Deep were common round these environs, you did not fire weapons at the native life forms except in the direst of circumstances. Flamethrowers and electric discharges were highly effective in keeping the worms at bay - firing bullets and laser weapons into their writhing midsts was not.

                  So then - fighting. And between humans. Li Min was tired, but he was still capable of forming a very good idea of who one of the involved sides would be, and he had a one in four chance of guessing who the other side would be. And if he could still hear it, that meant that the Hiverians were much further north than he had thought. He had been travelling flat out in the fungal growth, achieving speeds no naval military vessel could attain in the thick overgrowth, and all the while he had thought his final pursuers were the advance guard. Evidently not.

                  Maybe Huang had been right. Maybe he shouldn't have taken the night off to rest after the hit against Agent Hu. During that time, he had expected the Hiverians to resort to pretty drastic attempts to get the head back, but he hadn't thought they would throw international peace to the winds to blockade him.

                  But what did it matter anyway? After the strike he had been tired - dog tired. Without a good night's sleep, what sort of shape would he be in to run? He'd be unwary and careless, he'd have been caught, the head would have been lost, and all the good work would have been for nothing. And he still probably wouldn't have gotten his good night's sleep either.

                  "All right," he said, pulling out the plastifoil map. "See here, where the fungus ends? There's a good fifty klicks between it and the tidal harnesses to Iphiclia's southwest. I don't think the Hive will be able to progress through the harnesses - it would be too slow. Plus, the home guard is hardly going to let them walk up to the front door. So the plan is, we head up here until we know our position and we proceed until this closest leap. We must make it across here - I don't put much faith on our ability to escape either the Hive fleet in the open seas, or the Isles of the Deep in this benighted fungus. So we make it fast, and we make it as far as the coastal guardline. There should be some ships there to shield us if things get ugly."

                  Neither the captain nor the first mate argued with this. They had narrowly avoided being rammed sideways by such a monster, and the Isle had pursued them through the fungal layers, gaining on them as the fungus itself moved aside to allow its passage. The chase had lasted a good five lip-biting minutes, after which the Isle slowed and stopped to rejuvenate its nitrogen gas chambers.

                  "Right then. Into the lion's den," said Li Min with a cheeriness that only decisive fatalism could bring. "Over the scorpion pit. Through the sea-fungus at noon. Our fate awaits, lads, and I for one am eager to find out what I've let myself in for."

                  Li Min's grim humor had done a little to rouse the spirits of his crew, but in the distance, the boomings intensified as the opposite sides met in earnest.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  All told, the Battle at Deinara Sound (as the Datalink news networks would term it in the following morning) was a naval battle of unusual recounting. For a start, the main components of the battle had been air, not sea units. Secondly, it was over very quickly even though it lasted far longer than most battles. Wing Commander Ma of the Hiverian 54th Tactical wing had coordinated a successful two-wave slash, the first wave of which had engaged and distracted the DataTech air defence systems under Fight Commander Karn, and the second wave of which had bombed each and every DataTech ship in several attack runs, unopposed by DataTech air defence. In this exchange alone half of Rowlings' fleet kissed the seabed, and the other half limped back to the safety of supporting Aquascante ships before the Hiverian ships themselves could close.

                  Here, historians and military tacticians agree that the ideal follow-up would have been to press home the Hiverian advantage and advance through the formation, breaking the Aquascante line in two and broadsiding both halves whilst progressing onwards to the mainland. However, such a procedure was not meant to be - the Hiverian fleet advanced as far as the periphery of the fungal landscape, and then refused to go further, for reasons unknown to anybody but themselves. Some surmised that they were wary of mines, but the Aquascante factions were adamant that the deployment of mines during warfare was inhumane and it later surfaced that no mines were present. Svensgaard forwarded the possibility that the reputation of Nautilus sea experience had preceded them, and hence the Hiverian reluctance to close ranks with their Aquascante member enemies.

                  The battle was strategically over by this time, and both sides knew it, even though the Peacekeepers and Nautilus were sworn to stand ready in their battle lines until the Hive attacked or retreated. Thus, the battle became both the shortest and longest naval battle in recent history, as the Hive refused to budge even by the time of the morning broadcasts. The DataTech fighters, trained to levels of safe mediocrity, ought to have performed better against their Hiverian foes than the records showed (3 DataTech squadrons downed - no survivors - no Hiverian casualties), but another factor made speculation redundant in this matter. The extreme maneuverability with which the Hiverian fighters moved throughout the fray was considerably different to the DataTech aircraft, which had limited initial performance owing to the fuel tanks they carried. From this, conclusions were drawn that would serve to confirm what many had feared and guessed at in whispers for so long - that the Hive had mastered atomic Fusion power. Against such an air force and (presumably) navy, the Aquascante leaders acknowledged that the entire nature of the battle would have been a largely symbolic and unilateral one.

                  Even so, the news networks, mostly owned by the Morganites and Peacekeepers, was able to polish the events with a veneer of moral victory despite the crashing proof of their military unreadiness. One particularly noteworthy item presented itself rather well for cosmetic purposes. Of particular pride, despite the seeming show of Aquascante weakness and incompetence, was the single example of Hiverian inadequacy during the whole sordid affair.

                  In the closing standoff between Aquascante and Hive, during the intense radio silence that ensued after the DataTech's withdrawal, a single, lone schooner - hardly larger than a little pleasure boat, really - had burst from the fungus and beelined for the DataTech continent. Disguised by the fungus, and near invisible in the night-time sky, the schooner had a great advantage in speed and the Hiverian foils had striven in vain to cut it off after their belated realization of its presence. As the Nautilus viewers snorted that the Hive had bitten off more than it could chew against their mighty sailors, the Peacekeeper viewers cheered this suddenly-adopted symbol of freedom and liberty onwards, as it flew unerringly over the black waves and dodged the few Hiverian foils in its path. The news reporters expressed their closing platitudes to the effect that, although the Hive may squeeze its grasp over the brave inhabitants of the free world, it could never completely close off the fire of humanity that burned in the breast of each free man. They closed with a final screenshot of the tiny schooner, and a computerized legend implying that this tiny craft somehow served as a triumph for all Chironian mankind throughout all known history. The brooding background of the night time sea lapped ominously as the broadcast concluded, but the viewers had all forgotten the defeat, so rapt were they in the proprietary glory of the anonymous fleeing cutter.

                  With the irony that often comes with sensationalized or opinionated news, they were in fact very correct in their unsolicited glorification of this vessel. It was very well suited to the present artificial import assigned to it, and its presence at the Hiverian battle was nothing short of divinely ordained symmetry. However, the only man who could appreciate this was too busy gripping the controls through a tight haring turn, worrying about the exploding rounds in the ocean around him, and trying to ignore the sickening spherical cargo piece that rolled and lolloped around on the floor with every jerk of the boat.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Li Min, as mentioned before, did not have a net let on board, and even more fortunately, went more or less straight to sleep upon his arrival home at Iphiclia. He did not read the news of his escape, nor did he read the widespread speculation of the identity of this mysterious patriot who blazed freedom's cockles with an everlasting torch, etc. His sleep was punctuated neither by dreams nor by nightmares - so absolutely drained was he that his sleep was devoid of all sensation.

                  It was to be the last night of sleep he would enjoy for a long, long time.
                  Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; August 19, 2001, 00:38.
                  "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                  • #24
                    Hiverian Coastguard Scores Signal Victory Against Global Terrorism

                    XINYA NEWS, Manufacturing Warrens

                    Reprisals against the rogue state of the DataTech faction began in earnest last night at 17.00hrs (Hive Meridian). The coordinated evening strike utilized the latest in Hiverian-University aerospace technological advances, and enjoyed the full support of the Great Northern Fleet. Despite inclement weather conditions, and greater than usual mindworm activity near the New Sargasso, our fleet distinguished themselves and outperformed the opposing privateers. During the brief conflict, the fleet under command of Lt. Col Sun sustained only minor casualties, clearing their objective with speed and precision. The skirmish also proved to be the first applied test of the new Jiang Pheonix fighter model, and initial indications are "very positive", according to Wing Commander Ma. The performance of the jet is superior to the older Jiang Ying model, as is evidenced by the documented destruction of the opposition air force.

                    This positive outcome comes as a great encouragement to the Hiverian military command, who have outlined their intention to tightly patrol the shores of Iphiclia and to contain any further terrorist activity from the DataTech rogue state. When further questioned on the matter of the alleged abduction of a high-level government agent, cadre spokesperson Kim Long declined to comment, stating merely that "international security and peace are the responsibility of all true governments".

                    Aquascante involvement in this latest campaign has been reported as minimal, although the Diplomatic Corps expressed their great concern for international unanimity in this as with all other Hiverian endeavors. Morganite spokesman Abu Jikenshar confirmed international support for the action by reiterating the global need for "harmony, unity, and prosperity". Nevertheless, the Hiverian military stresses the peacekeeping nature of their exercise, and has confirmed their intent to patrol the neutral waters of the Iphiclian coast and enforce yesterday's shipping embargo.

                    This sanction follows a series of abortive diplomatic talks aimed at resuming normal Hiverian trade relations with Aquascante treaty factions. It is hoped that present economic measures will be sufficient to force a legal reappraisal of the DataTech faction's illicit activities, including industrial espionage, industrial piracy, and energy credit grand fraud.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    The Dragon Rages: Unchecked Hiverian Aggression Claims Hundreds

                    UNINA, UN Education Agency

                    The state of unofficial embargo enforced by the Hive yesterday escalated without warning into a shooting war, as the Hiverian fleet penetrated northwards into Aquascante treaty waters and surprised allied forces (11.00hrs UN Meridian). Already responsible for the unsanctioned seizure of dozens of trade vessels from neighboring factions, the Hive's latest and clearest act of aggression claimed the lives of hundreds of alliance and DataTech citizens. DataTech Acting Admiral Rowling was amongst those fortunate enough to survive the conflict, which has drawn international condemnation as "a brutal and cowardly blow against world peace and safety".

                    Military losses suffered by the DataTech faction are said to be considerable, although a strong UN and allied presence deflected the majority of the Hive's wrath. Captain Svensgaard and the Nautilus Navy have moved to interpose a substantial naval force between the Hive and Aquascante nations, and methods of extending this protection to DataTech shores are currently being mooted. Rumors that the Hive may have perfected and implemented a fusion drive are as yet unsubstantiated, with at least one high-ranking University source anonymously asserting that the University, though working on such a drive, pursue a policy never to negotiate any scientific deals with the Hive. As for the paranoid speculation concerning a "cloaking device", experts from all factions agree that no such technology exists outside of sci-fi nodes. The ruthless efficiency of the Hiverian attacks owes less to ability or technological superiority, and much more to their extreme suddenness and brutality - advantages that they will no longer enjoy in future with the armies of the democratic world levelled against them.

                    Harsh criticism and denunciations have been heard from all factions, including several from within the Hive itself. Certain Hiverian representatives, when questioned under cover of anonymity, have asserted that "peace and not war should be our goal". Further evidence of the crumbling support for the war effort can be seen in the tightening of sanctions against the Hiverian faction, further damaging an already teetering economy. (Vide newsnode Hiveria Inc.: The Money Pit.) These domestic issues, combined with the growing resistance to continuous political oppression (vide My Country, My Prison), serve to undermine the surface bluster and force of Hiverian actions abroad.

                    Commissioner Pravin Lal and Captain Ulrich Svensgaard have immediately announced a unanimous decision to repel this unprovoked act of treachery, regardless of the material cost. During the conference, Morganite vocals also denounced the Hiverian military incursion, demanding "harmony, unity, and prosperity" for the world's peoples. The Commissioner concluded in his keynote speech that in this day and age, global brinksmanship and terror tactics such as those of the Hive must never be allowed to prevail over the rights of the free.

                    More news on this as it breaks.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    Fusion Drive Shines in First Combat Test

                    BNLPress, Otkrieta-Discovery

                    The Balandin-Verniy Fusion Drive (BalVer), completed last year with the support of the Provost's OLM Fund, underwent its first field test yesterday evening. Despite the rapid adoption of fusion-powered vehicles by the transportation and industrial sectors, defence has yet to conduct full-range applications of the new technology. Hence, the data collected from the Hiverian Phoenix model aircraft's first combat engagements has yielded great dividends for science and warfare alike, in the field of future use.

                    Test conditions were, importantly, nonstandardized and actual. Stress thresholds of the new aircraft surpass that of previous models, and maneuverability also shows marked improvement from the lighter reactor. The aspect most aided by the new reactor, however, is the range of the aircraft. Although the material stress on the engines still prevents the aviational dream of limitless range, the lifting of the need to refuel does allow for considerable increases to the period of sustainable flight. One Hiverian wing continued to maintain an airborne patrol for up to ten metric hours after launching, whilst at the same time demonstrating no perceptible decrease in performance.

                    Internal Hiverian military sources confirm that fusion-driven naval vessels were present at the conflict, but data on their wartime performance is scant compared to the aviation engines. An obvious advantage to their performance was the increased security of internal drive operations, although useful findings were collected concerning the Aircraft Tracking algorithms - near 97% to 98% accuracy, surpassing most human performances.

                    The military results of the conflict are also eloquent - the Hiverian navy has reached the Iphiclian land border unopposed, and the DataTech southern air force has suffered drastic losses. The DataTech navy has also suffered casualties ranging anywhere from 15% to 65% from various sources, although Acting Admiral Rowlings has declared a state of war and vowed to repel the invaders with all available weapons and resources.

                    If and when such an event occurs, rest assured that New Scientist will be on hand to report the military performance of BalVer's naval vector.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    Hive Ascendant Rocks Tech Interests

                    SMorgasBord MorganSoft Network

                    Whilst the military outcome of the Hive-DataTech skirmish may as yet be unclear (and doesn't seem to be showing any signs of clearing either), what cannot be denied is the reaction of the civilian investor, writes clear-headed Edmund Morris of SMorgasBord SmartInvestor. The DataTech faction's tentative recovery in the wake of the Alpha-One bombing incident has taken a further blow as investor confidence nosedived for the third time this fiscal month. Analysts and experts predict anything from economic collapse to widespread windfalls.

                    Whither the SmartInvestor in these troubled times?

                    The cautious Morganite will withdraw energy savings from domestic and foreign brands with major holdings on the Iphiclian mainland (including but not restricted to GenSyn, ImmVac, MedCorps, and Apple). This will cage compoundants and freeze all liquidities for the foreseeable future, and stabilize individual spending. As though that were not enough incentive, such a measure might well deal a permanently damaging blow to the DataTech energy macromarket - in other words, the ideal solution. But let us not forget the name of the game here - profit! Remember that in Hiverian, the word for "crisis" shares the same stem as the word for "opportunity". And also that the Hiverian word for "profit" shares the same stem as the phrase for "pull your finger out, slowpoke". (NB: Probably.)

                    The clever Morganite will judiciously buy probe calls throughout the market and steer clear of all DataTech state-owned or -subsidised entities, bearing in mind that a decent return even in the event of a military triumph would be overshadowed by the social rebuilding process. The notable exception to this remains the everpresent engineering and agricultural industries, both of which tend to remain strong before and after hostilities. As yet, diplomatic relations with the Hive continue to legally debar Morganite investment in Hiverian or Hiverian-allied territories. It is important for the investor to bear this in mind, as energy trapped on the wrong side of the market cannot be regained through normal channels if the Hive is involved! Future amendations to the Peacekeeper Maude-Harley Constraint may relax trade relations with the University, but as of this writing no official progress has been announced. The clever Morganite will eye the University industries with interest, being the only way of tapping the economic returns of the apparently strong Hiverian production machine.

                    And of course, the wise Morganite will watch and learn from the mistakes of his peers.

                    Edmund Morris is the co-author of Other Peoples' Money and The Glimmer Flows, and contributes to MorganSoft on a freelance basis. He is currently visiting lecturer at the Nikhel River School of Economics at Morgan Industrial Base.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    Encoded message from HA8f/t385-bv

                    Decrypted using algorithm XXX-093gn/hs88

                    Message reads as follows:


                    To send a reply please press Star button now.


                    No new messages.
                    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; February 5, 2002, 20:13.
                    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                    • #25
                      The atmosphere was tense in the underground bunker at Ferretslair - pulses were high and expressions were strained. The sharp smell of fear was well within human sensitivity, fairly oozing from the pores of each present. The DataJack Roze, chairing the meeting with her aloof dispassion, seemed the only exception - but then again she had good reason for confidence. Namely, nobody knew where she was.

                      The holopode flickered, and Roze's immaterial features reformed once more after a brief spell of nonexistence. The energy crisis was showing its effects even in the furthest corners of the nation. She spoke, her voice beamed into the room from some unknown origin point.

                      "I trust no elaboration is required for the events of yesterday evening," she said. The gathered DataKnaves responded with nods as well as shakes of the head, but in each case their meaning was clear.

                      "The Hive are now officially at war with our nation, and we have suffered great losses from their acts. Nonetheless, we have also enjoyed some unique benefits from this. These bear close examination."

                      The face of the DataJack shrank and to its side appeared a text transmission, scrolling upwards across the holopode.

                      "Minutes ago, we received a message from the Commissioner Pravin Lal that he would suspend our Pending status, and grant us full Treaty nation status, to enjoy a level alongside the Aquascante factions. This will last as long as the hostilities against the Hive endure." The DataJack's phantom lips curled upwards in a quirk of a smile. "He states that human lives are more important than international red tape. Fortunately for us. He also assures us that a similar affirmation of support will arrive very shortly from the Nautilus faction."

                      Morganghast, his forehead gleaming with well-deserved sweat, was less than patient.

                      "All very well, DataJack, but what does this mean in practice?"

                      The DataJack raised an eyebrow towards Fusili, the money man. "As our friend here might appreciate, it means quite a bit. Lal has stipulated an immediate 50% relaxation in our energy credit loan limitations, and has given us his word that no inspections will be taken until after the conflict is over."

                      The others were silent while they digested this piece of news. Grysel picked up the ball.

                      "So," she mooted, carefully, "our economic loan problems are solved. For the time being."

                      "Only as far as the Peacekeepers are concerned," snapped back Fusili. "My question is, what do we do about the Morganites? It won't be long before they're in here and over us like bailiffs unless we act to isolate the market."

                      "Then do so," said Roze without batting an eyelid. "Block off the Morganites if you must. After all, how much of our income is actually generated through legitimate trade with them? Let them make all the legalistic killings they want - in the end, it hardly changes the way we make our energy. With the Commissioner behind us economically, and the Pirates offering their military services, we can afford to sit and play the part of the helpless victim awhile longer."

                      Fusili was silent. The DataJack had a point. Rowlings, however, was less than satisfied.

                      "That's convenient for those civilians amongst us," he replied, voice slurred from the medical treatment. "But what about our soldiers? It surely cannot have escaped your notice that our fleet was reduced by half in the battle and our air force entirely destroyed."

                      Roze turned to him with a look of pained objectivity.

                      "Yes, General. We are also aware of the price we have paid. None of us wished this to occur, and now that it has, the only pragmatic solution is to exploit its possible benefits. Had this plan come from any Hiverian intermediary, we would have received earlier warning, but this had no middleman vector. This particular command could only have come straight from the top."

                      Rowlings snorted. "These humanity histrionics are for Lal. What bothers me is that the whole world was watching as we got our tails kicked. And-" he shot Grysel a marked stare "-the whole world, myself included, is afraid that the Hive might truly be invincible."

                      Judging from the bewildered faces at the table, Rowling knew something that some others didn't. Faces turned to the DataJack, expectantly. When she shook her head, tight-lipped, they turned to Grysel instead.

                      "The Hive have Fusion power," she said simply.

                      "Are you sure?" queried Morganghast. "We eavesdropped on a top-secret transmission between the Morganites and the UNP stating explicitly that no Hiverian exchange took place."

                      "Perhaps they were just being economical with the truth," suggested Whisperlisp, recently reinstated to his Psyche Minister post. He had survived his stomach cancer operation well, although to judge from the sound of his voice he was rather longing for the relative peace and quiet of his sickroom ward.

                      "Or perhaps," continued Grysel flatly, "the Hive never needed to ask the University. If the University just unilaterally forked over the knowledge, then no 'exchange' of anything has taken place."

                      "We're wasting time." All heads turned back to the DataJack, who had spoken. "We know the Hive have Fusion power, and we know from University sources that they're using them against us. Thus, any failure we have on the battlefield can be attributed to lesser technology."

                      "Meaning?" asked Rowlings testily. "I could have told you that much."

                      "Meaning that your fears and my fears are the rule and not the exception. If we can play this angle right, who's to say what support we'll be able to generate? Helpless faction, valiantly attempting to disseminate information, comes up against a very good example of that information being used by the 'wrong people'. With the diplomatic situation as it stands, we have the aid of the Peacekeepers and Pirates to repel any military incursion. The economic situation is somewhat stronger than earlier, though we have lost some ground to the Morganites. But our major potential - the one aspect where we can prove ourselves indispensible to the western powers - comes in the form of science."

                      Judging from the faces around, the others did not see.

                      "The Hive have intended this display to indicate their willingness to use force," explained Grysel. "They succeeded - their ships were in fact so effective that the UNP and Pirates did not fire upon them. Even now, both navies are engaged in some maritime foxtrot, each unwilling to strike and unwilling to back down. But the important fact is that this technology is being used right off our shores - within grabbing distance. If we can somehow retrieve a specimen of this technology in action, then our place as Aquascante equal will be justified entirely."

                      Fusili smiled. "Information freeflow."

                      "Exactly. And this time, given to a globally vocal ally, to be used directly against their hated foe."

                      There was a slight leavening in the bunker's atmosphere, as the others digested this latest piece of news.

                      "So first: we must strive to obtain a working specimen of Hiverian Fusion-powered war vehicles. Secondly: all efforts towards PowerClip continue. Remember: we cannot advance without Fusion power, granted. But we cannot survive without Project PowerClip."

                      Berele, the industry monitor, raised a tenuous hand. "PowerClip has suffered setbacks..." he began.

                      "I know," responded the DataJack with a touch of impatience. "But you will finish it as soon as possible. Now is the ideal time to reap its morally dubious benefits, whilst our aegis of international victimhood is still strong, and the Peacekeepers are publicly harping our virtues. Once this golden status wears off, we may never have another such consequence-free chance."

                      If Berele had any objections, he wisely kept them to himself.

                      "One last thing," mentioned the DataJack, her voice tired with the effort. "I have noticed a worrying deficiency in your curiosity. This is dangerous, and I want you all to know I am rather disappointed. We all know we've been through a lot, but this only explains your diffidence - it does not excuse it."

                      The DataKnaves looked at each other. Of them, only young Haken had the temerity to ask "What do you mean?"

                      The DataJack smiled indulgently. "The Hive send their entire northern fleet up to our border, after a very public speech of announcement in Council. They sink our ships, and they blast our aircraft out of the sky. Yet once the battle is won, they hold a constant position offshore, neither retreating nor advancing. They obviously have enough air power to break our coastal bases, and enough manpower to occupy them, but they do neither. Is it likely that they have gone through all this trouble just to recover one single diplomat? Why did they publicize their actions so broadly? These are all questions you have not asked."

                      Grysel - the only person who could have gotten away with it at this tense juncture - asked. "Why?"

                      The DataJack closed her eyes and sighed. The light contempt of her cool composure was worse than any shouted reprimand. "Because," she continued smoothly, "this latest Hiverian action is merely for show. They're distracting attention, and what's more, to judge from world response as well as our own, they've succeeded entirely."

                      She opened both her eyes and her face grew stony.

                      "Topmost echelons of my foreign sources all indicate one overwhelming initiative. The Hive now have counter probes at work, even as we speak. What is more, they have gained the mainland under cover of darkness and yesterday's warfare, landing at various waypoints on the northeastern coast."

                      There were gasps and muted questions all round at this. Undaunted, the DataJack pressed on.

                      "All our future meetings and protocols must undergo Seraph-level screening, and I urge you against meeting in person until further notice. There is now a very real probability that Hiverian high command has seeded us with probes. Future operations on our territory have been confirmed, and it is now only a matter of when, not if."

                      Morganghast raised a questioning hand, his face pale and his earlier confidence in his monitoring abilities somewhat shaken. His voice had the sound of a man backpedalling. "DataJack, how sure are you?"

                      Roze's eyes glimmered. "Sure enough. DataKnave, when you take your first countermeasures against these Hiverians, I want you to be very careful. They come from a faction about which we know very little, and we cannot afford to show them any true weaknesses. Furthermore, it is imperative that they are not allowed to suspect that we know of their plans - we must continue to feign ignorance." Her lips twitched once more as she delivered her valediction and signed off: "Indeed, our apparent impotence may well be our only strength."

                      * ~ * ~ *
                      Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; February 5, 2002, 20:24.
                      "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                      • #26
                        Zhu's face was taut with apprehension. His lips were pursed, and the fingers of his left hand worked spasmodically at the prickly flesh of his chin. He had not slept properly for the previous few cycles, and this evinced itself in a sporadic tic in the corner of his eyes.

                        A similar sort of weariness seemed to have set in amongst the other faces, too. Zhu turned to each one and considered them for a good while before speaking. His voice, naturally rasping at the best of times, sounded halfway between a dessiccated croak and an animal growl.

                        "We have not succeeded," he said simply. "Or, more precisely, you have failed."

                        The humble bows and averted eyes showed the fundamental acceptance of his words.

                        "Agent Hu's head is still unrecovered, despite our best efforts - psychic and otherwise - to locate him. Furthermore, wherever he is being held, he evidently does not receive the HK Transmission, so we can't ever be sure of destroying him. Without him, any attempt to regrow him will lose his most recent memories, and given the diplomatic work we have assigned him, this is a price that we are not willing to pay. Additionally, through analyzing the information he knows, the DataTech can and will acquire considerable insight into the workings of Hiverian High Command. With the DataTech drifting ever closer to the Aquascante factions, we cannot allow this to happen."

                        He stopped and took a glance around.

                        "The Provost's Chief of Security, Miri Korenchkin, asserted that an unmarked vessel was observed leaving the University port city of New Arzamas. It had avoided inspection and was able to shake off anti-smuggling coastguards. Korenchkin mentioned this because he suggested that we try to underwire the ship, using crosslink through the University craft. The attempt failed, as the ship apparently possesses no networked components for the Algorithm to exploit. This matches our profile of the DataTech escape vessel perfectly."

                        Zhu stopped in his pacing and turned to face the Naval Commander.

                        "Lt. Col. Sun, I understand that a patrol group under your command made sight contact with an unmarked vessel, designated Objective Peccadillo. This Peccadillo very closely matched the description of the vessel seen leaving the University port earlier, and therefore a strong candidate for the vessel carrying Agent Hu's head. I also understand that, despite superior numbers and armaments, your patrol group was unable to neutralize and impound the vessel. Correct?"

                        Sun, his expression stoic, acknowledged this with a stiff nod.

                        "Thereafter, a flight vector under your command acknowledged the destruction of the Objective at the periphery of the New Sargasso. However, to judge from your report, the debris found at the site was entirely different from the construction of the Objective vessel. It was clearly marked as Nautilus property, and furthermore appeared to be of a different material. All indications show that the Objective escaped into the New Sargasso fungal forest, and that you did not follow. Please clarify this decision before the assembly."

                        Sun nodded again and swallowed.

                        "The Chairman himself was on hand when I made the decision, and I said then as I say now that I accept full responsibility for my actions," he stated clearly. "During my conversation with Chairman Sheng, I received a report from our naval eavesdroppers that the Aquascante factions had, contrary to all probability, sent forces into the New Sargasso on patrol exercises. As we were fast approaching direct conflict with the DataTech Navy, I was unwilling to surrender my first call of duty and split my fleet. I am aware that I have failed in my secondary objective, but I believe that I have discharged my primary to the best of my ability."

                        There were a few nods around the room; evidently, the thorough destruction of the DataTech defence forces had not disappointed the other Hiverian ministers. If Zhu was amongst them, however, he did not show it.

                        "That remains to be seen. All we do know is that your forces had already advanced much further north of the vessel's entry point, and that you may have had a decent chance of intercepting it if you had entered the Sargasso with your northernmost line. However, back to Peccadillo itself. We see this same vessel appear one more time, do not forget. It is whole and sound, and very evidently not destroyed by your pilot Dillinger. Do you remember it?"

                        Evidently, some of the watchers did not. Zhu reminded them.

                        "Near the close of the Battle at Deinara Sound, this same vessel emerged from the New Sargasso, far to the West. It evaded whatever scant flanking vessels Lt Col Sun had, and by the time our major craft noticed it, Peccadillo was well behind Aquascante's line of protection."

                        Sun raised his head with a trace of injured pride. "Second, I was prepared to attack the Aquascante forces and deprive the craft of this line of defence. In fact, it was you who stayed my hand."

                        Zhu nodded. "You should by now have realized that our primary aim was to secure the ship, and your military success against the DataTech was only of secondary importance to us. In future we will see to it that such confusion no longer occurs between ministries, with or without the continuation of present ministers' management."

                        Sun cast his eyes downwards once more, saying nothing. Zhu relented.

                        "Meanwhile, Colonel, we hold you in the indisputable position of being the last witness of the Objective. For purposes of future reference, you are a key player." Here, Zhu cleared his throat and turned to the other Hiverian heads. "So much for summary. Now take heed - this is something entirely new. Our eavesdropping on UNP source ELINT-37 reveals a surprising new development on the Aquascante side. Comrade Berzhinev tracked transmissions from HFV Talon-3 well into Aquascante territorial waters. Would you care to explain this phenomenon, Comrade?"

                        Berzhinev's bland face broke into a thin and somewhat facetious smile. "Certainly. As Lt. Col. Sun informed our Chairman earlier, Hiverian Foil Vessel Talon-3 encountered a UNP foil Dauntless whilst on routine lone patrol. After initial hails, the UNP foil turned full energy to aft and fled. We picked up extreme SOS calls from the Dauntless as they were fleeing, all of which are highest priority, and which point to a single indication: they deduced, from technological readings, that we had sent an entire warfleet that way. Sun denies this vehemently-"

                        "I do," reaffirmed Sun quickly.

                        "-thank you - and all official records point that no fleet was present. Our first theory was that they had mass hallucinations, of the sort caused by psychic contact with the Worms. However, the data sent back to the Nautilus commander included genuine readings from sonar devices and other sensors, and they confirm that the UNPS was indeed surrounded by a Hiverian fleet. And although the Worms can influence human thought, we've yet to find a specimen capable of mind-controlling a computer terminal."

                        There was silence, as the others digested this bizarre occurrence.

                        "So," he continued, "the only other explanation is that another party was responsible for manipulating the UNPS into believing it was surrounded. Now, all of our ministries have the technology to do so, in a rudimentary fashion at least, but I am surprised that any of us have the range." Berzhinev stopped smiling and looked around. "Anybody care to confess to this?"

                        Zhu spoke first, as befitted his status. "I deny it."

                        "I deny it," repeated Sun.

                        "I deny it," said Berzhinev.

                        "I deny it," said Ma.

                        The same three words, either in Standard or in Hiverian, were repeated around the room by each and every minister present, as part of the ritual. As they were spoken, the minutest quivers and sonic deviations in the voices were recorded and processed and sent to the Algorithm for analysis.

                        At the end of the round of exchanges, Zhu discreetly consulted his palmtop readout. All readings for everybody present were still in the green. Nobody was lying, according to the Algorithm.

                        Zhu sighed. "Well, now we know who didn't do it. Now we have to find out who did. What we know from the UN Peacekeepers themselves shows they know even less than we do - in fact, their Internal Ministry is at present spouting some rubbish about some 'cloaking device' that they think we're using."

                        There were a few smiles all round at this admittedly ridiculous concept. Not from Shimoda, though. The Hiverian chief scientist glanced around quizzically, with his mouth screwed up into an almost pained grimace. "But Second," he asked, looking for all the world like a wizened spider monkey, "why is this important to us?"

                        Zhu looked up and saw the faces echoing Shimoda's bewilderment. He took a breath and massaged the bridge of his nose.

                        "I confess, I was very irritated with all of you when I called this meeting. I thought it might have been the work of somebody inside the Hive. Somebody eager for promotion, or intent on playing a joke on the Peacekeepers. In fact, we had even drafted a list of potential suspects, of which your name was highest, Dr Shimoda."

                        The good doctor smiled wanly. "I am honored," he replied softly.

                        Zhu waved this aside. "But it is quite clearly not an internal affair. We must find out who was responsible for tampering with that UNPS foil, and we have to find out quickly. It is not just a question of injured pride or anger, gentlemen. This whole business has the markings of something far more sinister."

                        "But why?" persisted Shimoda. "What's so important about the hallucinations of an enemy?"

                        "The 'hallucinations', as you term them, happened a mere ten metric minutes before the first shots were fired in the Battle. They led the UNPS Dauntless to retreat at full speed. Our vessel Talon-3 pursued, but the 'hallucinations' were strong enough to coerce the UNPS into entering the New Sargasso Sea of its own volition."

                        There were a few grunts of surprise at this - and rightly so, given the apparent suicidal nature of such an act.

                        Zhu looked around, his eyebrows raised. "Have you made the connection yet?" he asked testily.

                        Shakes of the head all round. Zhu sipped from a glass of water and continued.

                        "The UNPS transmitted constant updates to their commanding installation, in this case, a Nautilus base. So, the base knew what they were up against, and they also know where the Dauntless was going. We eavesdropped on the base's transmissions, and overheard a direct directive from Captain Svensgaard himself, ordering all UNP craft under his command to patrol inside the New Sargasso."

                        At this juncture, there were a few expressions of growing comprehension. Zhu pressed on, adamant that the point be made.

                        "This directive was immediately followed by all UNP craft within range. This directive was also made known to Lt Col Sun. And most importantly, this directive was the overriding reason why our Colonel Sun decided against sending any of his craft into the New Sargasso after Peccadillo. Sun deduced, perhaps rightly, perhaps wrongly, that an increased UNP presence in the fungal seaweed could pose a threat to any search team he could spare. He also deduced that he could not spare any ships at all in preparation for the oncoming conflict."

                        "That's right," said Sun, a trifle defensively. "Battles have been lost or won on the strength of just one ship, you know."

                        Zhu waved him down. "I am not criticizing you... yet. What we now know is that, because of the movements of the UNP patrols, we lost our best chance of catching Agent Hu's kidnapper. And we now know that the movements of the UNP patrol were largely dependant on the movements of this single lone UNPS foil, the wretched Dauntless. So now you see?"

                        Shimoda nodded. "Whoever - or whatever - manipulated the Dauntless wanted to deliver Agent Hu," he said.

                        Zhu shook his head. "We do not know any motives for sure yet - we can only talk about results. All we do know is that, thanks to the actions of this mysterious meddler, we have indeed lost our best lead on Hu. Now you understand why it is imperative that we comb our internal ranks for any evidence of tampering with the UNPS."

                        "So, what do we do now?" asked Shimoda.

                        Zhu nodded. "Conduct two internal scans on all your personnel - one quick, using the Algorithm. One slow, using conventional screening methods. Report back to me once you have at least one set of results, and then forward the other set when you acquire them. I will compare findings and decide on a punishment for those involved."

                        "..and if it's not somebody inside the Hive?" asked Sun.

                        Zhu stopped his pacing and turned to face Berzhinev. The other holographic faces did the same.

                        "In that case," he said, "our Intelligence Bureau has an extremely large amount of work ahead of them. In addition to our present overseas situations, Berzhinev will have to find out just who it was who tampered with that ship."

                        A pause.

                        "Well, if there are no further questions, I believe we all have enough work to do for now. I expect your preliminary reports in within 6 hours."

                        The meeting concluded, the various Hiverian ministers took their leave and signed out, save one. Berzhinev remained behind, and Zhu noted that his face was an eloquent mask of misery. Even in the midst of his own consternation and exhaustion, the observation filled Zhu Helai a secret inner glee.

                        "Second," said the Intelligence Head, "why are you doing this?"

                        "The Chairman has ordered it," responded Zhu honestly. "We have our reasons, and they should be easy for you to understand."

                        Berzhinev nodded quickly, all contrition and meek acceptance. "True, true, but I cannot spare much manpower at the present. We should choose an initiative and pursue it to completion before introducing new considerations. Not all of us are as capable as you, Second."

                        Zhu brushed the compliment aside with typical oriental insistence. "Nali, nali. I just know how to prioritize. I am but a humble extension of the Chairman's will."

                        Berzhinev tried not to give away his annoyance or his amusement at this obviously facetious display. "Zhu," he said, in a conciliatory tone, "we can't focus on three major tasks at once. First it was the Cyborg Factory. Then it was Agent Hu. Most of my headhunters are overseas on Iphiclia, following these two earlier objectives - in many cases, with minimal backup and support. Now you want me to scan all my personnel abroad and at home, and if that doesn't work, you want me to scour the face of Planet looking for the cause of a Peacekeeper's hallucination."

                        Zhu examined his glass of water and sipped delicately. This done, he turned back to Berzhinev. "Very well, you speak reason. As far as the Intelligence Bureau is concerned, finding Agent Hu should be a top priority. If the DataTech gain his information, everybody in your bureau and those whom Hu has ever met will be compromised. Clearly a scenario worth avoiding."

                        "Clearly," murmured Berzhinev, who had turned slightly waxy at the prospect.

                        "Second in importance, though not by much, the Cyborg Factory - Project 'Powerclip' - must be derailed. This has been our goal for some time now, and the Chairman is bound to ask questions if you do not deliver somewhat more substantial results."

                        This prospect did not improve Berzhinev's appearance, either.

                        "So," concluded Zhu, "we can deduce from mathematics that the search for the Meddler is third most important. So far, he or she has only worked against one target, and it may be that he or she is ineffective against the Algorithm... but as we have already seen, the hacker did not need to influence us directly in order to thwart us. So you understand that, although this matter may not be urgent like the rest, it is still just as potentially destructive if left unchecked. I'll leave you to sort out the details, but if there are any new findings from my side, I shall transmit them to you without delay."

                        Berzhinev, his face still glum, nodded mutely and cut the line.

                        Zhu sat down and passed a hand over his damp forehead. At times like these, he had to suffer far greater responsibility than any other person inside the Hive, with the possible exception of the Chairman. During the times that Sheng Ji Yang delegated such burdens to Zhu, the Second wondered what vast projects the Hiverian leader could be undertaking. Now wondering the same, Zhu thought back to the last injunction that the Chairman had delivered to him - that the Gaian diplomat, Prentice McClelland, was free to leave at his convenience.

                        * ~ * ~ *
                        "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                        • #27
                          "Mr McClelland, you have a call from Lady Skye."

                          McClelland looked up from his desk. The speaker was another one of the apparently limitless Hiverians who all looked indistinguishable from each other. Another thing he had to get used to - he had never seen so many people in such a small space, and to see them living in such cleanliness was another point of wonder.

                          He set aside his notes and the recordings he had made - of his life in the Hive, of the Fusion-powered formers, of the University technologies apparent in each structure - and turned back to the screen. In the days following his recovery, he had been so immersed in the Hive that his life back home had seemed like a distant dream to him. Only now, with the summons from his leader, did he remember the concerns of faraway Phoenica.

                          He activated the screen and met the soft gaze of Lady Deirdre Skye.

                          "Milady, I am pleased to see you again."

                          Lady Skye was courteous, as ever, but her tone of voice made it clear that matters of urgency were at hand.

                          "Prentice, how is your health?"

                          "Very well, milady. The Hive have taken good care of me."

                          Skye consulted something offscreen and came back to him.

                          "Do you have a copy of your Ten Points with you?" she asked.

                          McClelland briefly wondered what the Ten Points were, then suddenly remembered. The UN's list of Council issues. All to be addressed before the election. He had completed them and submitted his vote just prior to his departure from Gaian lands.

                          "Yes," he confirmed, with a quick sort through his datapad. "Version 2.01."

                          Skye nodded. "Good - I'm up to date. Do you have any changes to make to your votes?"

                          "No," McClelland began to say, then stopped and thought. He scanned the page again, as if revisiting a distant memory and judging them in a later light.

                          Lady Skye, despite her evident urgency, laughed - a light, lilting sound. "What's the matter, Prentice? Have you changed your mind?"

                          Prentice returned to the present. "I... I am changing my responses," he stated, carefully. "Insofar as I now recognize that my previous responses were inadequately researched."

                          Skye's smile faded slowly, and her face took on a wistful aspect. "Well, how long do you think it will take you to reach a considered decision?" she asked.

                          "How long have I got?" asked McClelland, wary now. Something was afoot.

                          "The UN Commission are waiting on the vote of the Gaian Senate. The Commissioner is trying to tie up all loose ends and get the election underway."

                          McClelland nodded - he had forgotten all about the Governor elections. Most likely, everybody else had too, to judge from the reams of nodespace devoted to the Hiverian military actions. It was typical of the UNP to press for this species of bureaucracy during a time of global uncertainty.

                          "What does milady wish me to do?" asked McClelland.

                          Lady Skye's eyes widened. "Do?" she echoed. "I expect you to do as you always have done - you act in your own best judgement and you serve the Gaian Senate. This includes responsible decision-making, and if you feel you need more time to arrive at an accurate conclusion, to let me know."

                          McClelland thought of the Commissioner, Pravin Lal. For the past few years, the Peacekeepers had turned their attentions towards full-time wooing of the Gaians, citing various feasible and less feasible reasons for the safety of the Aquascante Treaty Organization. Now, with the Hiverian military suddenly turning towards a human faction after untold decades of Progenitor wars, McClelland could see the difficult but large potential returns of a diplomatic coup for the Peacekeepers. Never mind the DataTech's imminent culpability for gross fraud and international treaty-breaking, there would be all too many who would denounce the move as a simple act of unprovoked aggression, and rush to oppose the Hive without thought. The worst part was that many such individuals would be very intelligent, many such would be very capable, and many such would in all likelihood do so with the desire to do what is morally right.

                          McClelland remembered his thoughts on the eve of his departure, when his faithful wife Joely had embraced him and smoothed his brow and begged him to share his concerns. He had half-lied to her then, allowing her to believe that he was going to a meeting with the Peacekeepers, when in fact he was entering far more murky waters with the Hive and University. Why had he done that? The answer was simple - to spare her the panic of watching her loved one go into the jaws of an evil alliance, under whose shadow the free world had trembled for decades.

                          Now, speaking from the heart of that same evil alliance, McClelland was no longer so sure. It took a positive effort to remember that, just a few weeks before, he himself had also been amongst those who, despite their intelligence, education, and genuine desire for moral good, knew next to nothing about the Hive, and who had therefore condemned it as a matter of fact. That was the greatest pity - that mortals who wished to do good could nevertheless do so great an injustice to so many people, through the regrettable disabilities of distance and ignorance.

                          Lady Skye was waiting for his answer, her entire attitude typically impersonal and unhurried.

                          "Milady," asked McClelland, "is everything waiting on our ratification?"

                          Skye blinked, startled. "Everything, Prentice?" she asked with a hint of arch amusement. "Not at all. Merely the UN Peacekeepers. Remember that your mission abroad is quite a separate matter."

                          McClelland nodded. One the one hand, the demon Sheng and the genius Zakharov, committing to war with the DataTech. On the other hand, the criminals and spies of the Data Angels, and their unwitting shield and ally, the Peacekeepers. And once he bade these shores farewell, would he return?

                          "Milady," said McClelland, in a tone of decisive finality, "I hereby request leave to continue my stay in Hiverian territory. I also request leave to withhold my Senatorial vote until such time as my deliberations are complete. At the very soonest, this will be after the completion of my state visit."

                          Skye nodded, satisfied. "Granted on all counts, councilman. Keep in touch, and walk with Gaia's blessing."

                          "Walk with Gaia's blessing."

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          Bent Jorenson set up and blinked, then remembered where he was. The closeness of the walls, the tightness of the air, and the all-pervading sense of darkness even in light, were enough to reassure him that he was in the Hive. Just as molluscs in barrels know to open their shells to a lost tide, so too can men sense the lack of nearby sunlight, and the lonely distance from the surface.

                          The Hiverian orderlies around him did not seem to notice. Jorenson barely gave this a thought as he slipped down from his bed and touched upon the floor. As he went about his morning ablutions, several matters occupied his thoughts. The first was the happy news of the Balandin-Verniy Fusion Drive - although he had known it would prove itself well in combat situations, he had nevertheless been cheered by the astounding effectiveness of the device. This had also brought a warm leap of triumph to his heart, as the signal victory was scored against the despicable DataTech faction. So good of the Hive to provide a fitting punishment for all those years of DataTech probe activity, and for the brutal death of his friend Hu.

                          Jorenson frowned at this recollection, and closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them again, his breathing was steady once again.

                          As he stepped into the immersion cleanser, his thoughts turned to water. The warm liquid filled up quickly, sluicing down from apertures just below his neck and pooling briefly about his feet before draining. He thought of the stretch of seas between the Hive and Iphiclia, the expanse of waves upon waves that the Hiverian ships had forded. It had only taken them a matter of hours, departing from the northernmost coast of University territory.

                          He reached up and switched the cleanser to air dry, and considered his face in the mirror. There was still a faint nick over his temple, but he had healed well and quickly. Apart from a slight stiffness in his joints from the recovery bed, he was back to normal - physically prime, as the Hiverian doctors had pronounced. He wondered about the pain behind his eyes. Perhaps his dreams were to blame for this; he never felt fully rested beyond a general dizziness. Or perhaps he was due for an appointment with the Holovid Farsight chamber. Yes, he decided, that has to be it. Here, in the cramped confines of the Hiverian tunnels and corridors, it was all too easy for one's long-range eyesight to deteriorate. He would have to book himself a session after breakfast.

                          As he stepped out and began dressing, he thought of the day ahead of him. The Provost had made contact very tersely the night before, asking him about the Gaian diplomat, McClelland. Jorenson had suddenly realized that he knew nothing about McClelland since the last time they had met - namely, in the engine room of that fateful magtrain. The Provost had raised his formidable eyebrows and then told Jorenson to sort out the rest of the Gaian tour on his own. He was to remain in the Hive for now. Jorenson thought he could guess another reason behind this caution - the Provost didn't want to risk losing him to further DataTech acts of terror. Better for him to stay under the umbrella of the Algorithm.

                          Fortunately, McClelland - the Gaian - had been eager to see more of the Hive. In fact, he had been quite adamant about staying when the Second had asked him. Possibly, the Hiverian media coverage had helped to maintain his enthusiasm, but the man seemed only vaguely concerned by the recent hostilities between Hive and Aquascante. Jorenson pondered this now, as he stepped into his fashionable black formal boiler suit and engaged the seals. He could think of a few reasons for the Gaian's seeming indifference - perhaps the DataTech had enraged the Gaians just as much as they had the Hive and University, or perhaps the Aquascante had failed to woo the Gaians with their bureaucracy. Alternatively, he mused, perhaps the Gaian interest owed more to the latent promise of Fusion power, and the example of its successful military applications.

                          He faced himself in the mirror and tutted. He would need a cap to cover the unruly growth of hair in the interim. He also thought of Zhu's memorandum: Berzhinev, the charge d'affaires and head of the diplomatic corps, was unable to provide another agent as well-versed in the current affairs as Hu. In the absence of Agent Hu, Jorenson had been selected as the de facto diplomatic authority to represent joint Hiverian and University affairs.

                          He was to take over where Hu had left off.

                          Jorenson was unsure whether to be flattered or unsettled by this. It was of course an honor to be so trusted by one's allies that they allowed you to represent them. But it was quite another thing to function as a stopgap because all available manpower was somewhere else. Behind the careful prose of Zhu's memorandum, Jorenson thought he sensed a darker, unmentioned concern: something was afoot, secret enough so that he couldn't be told about it, and drastic enough to tie up the entire resources of the Hiverian secret service.

                          A final tie, a final knot, and a backwards glance in the mirror. Jorenson straightened up and cleared his thoughts. It was time to forget all else apart from his present duty - to escort the Gaian through the Hiverian way of life.

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          The head rested, without dignity, on the makeshift worktop. Beside it lay assorted drivers, microcontacts, rerouters, and powerfeeds - all the rudimentary and jerry-built components of a basic Mind/Machine Interface. Beneath the desk sat a creaking chair and a large stack of electrical maintenance equipment, including a small fission power generator coated in dust. Before the desk stood Huang, and opposite him stood Li Min.

                          "What's the rush?" asked Li Min. His voice was steady - he was well rested and calm.

                          "Hive," snarled Huang, taking off his fieldsuit. He was neither rested nor calm. "They've sent nigh-on eight bloody shiploads of probes. Interior reckon they landed on the eastern seaboard last night."

                          Li Min shook his head. "And you think they can use our nodes against us?"

                          Huang threw his wet fieldsuit over the cot and wagged a wavering finger. "Don't be so skeptical. We still don't know who was responsible for Alpha-One. Did you hear about the latest finds?"

                          Li Min handed him a mug of Gaian herbal tea and sat down, throwing his legs over the desk. "What about?" he said.

                          "Interior analysis says the buggers found some way of using our node systems to exchange messages. Hacked into credit accounts for their transactions. It's a mess - there's even talk from on high that the DJ herself is considering encryption blocks on all civilian transactions. We're still trying to find out whether they penetrated anything essential, although God alone knows what'll happen if they did."

                          Li Min whistled. Huang was not finished.

                          "But this is the best part - we tracked all the transmissions of the diplomat Hu when he was here. We also eavesdropped on a few Hiverian transmissions on University territory. It looks like neither Hu nor the Hiverians in the University know what the cause of Alpha-One is. Looks like our objective and Alpha One were completely unconnected."

                          Li Min thought about this. If this was true, then his greatest bargaining chip - that Agent Hu was somehow the mastermind of the Alpha-One bombing - was gone. In actuality, there was no denying that Hu was still a major player in the Hiverian probe structure, but without solid evidence linking Hu to the attack, his subsequent capture would not been seen as just revenge, it would be seen even by sympathetic eyes as opportunistic sniping. Given that his abduction was almost certainly responsible in part for the Hiverian counteroffensive, this action had more than its fair share of unsympathetic viewers.

                          "Aw, heck," said Li Min, suddenly disgusted with the whole thing. "Look, you want to interrogate this guy or not? All I know is that we received orders to take out Agent Hu and maybe the University guy - what's-his-name... Jorenson. We completed our primary objective, and I risked my life getting back here. This whole link with Alpha-One wasn't my idea. Nor was starting the war. I just did what Interior wanted me to do, and call me biased but I think I did a pretty damn good job. So now what do you want to do? Send him back?"

                          Huang held up two palms, outwards. "No! No! I didn't say that! I didn't say that at all! It's just that Interior can't be contacted anymore, because there isn't any Interior to speak of. The DJ dissolved the cabinet and each minister is working in a vertical chain now."

                          Li Min balanced his chin on his knuckles, his brows knitting angrily. "I repeat: so what do you want to do?"

                          Huang shrugged. "I guess we're on our own. Whatever we do, we can't risk using the nets. And we sure as hell can't contact Interior anymore. Officially, we're supposed to be waiting for countermeasure orders."

                          Li Min brightened. "Oh, really? Who's our directive source?"

                          "I don't know."

                          "Where's the nearest DataKnave?"

                          "In Ferretslair... no, wait - that was before. I don't know."

                          "I see."

                          In the darkened and smoky room, three pairs of eyes stared, unfocussed. The silence lengthened.

                          "Okay," snapped Li Min, putting a hand on the frozen head. "I say we open him up and see what we can find out. We've got the best equipment we're likely to find, and we've got the best cover we could hope for. Any objections?"

                          "What about afterwards?" asked Huang.

                          "Screw 'afterwards'. I'm sitting on my butt doing nothing at the here-and-present."

                          Huang sighed and got up to sterilize his fingers. "Fair enough. Shall I make the incisions, or will you?"

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          At 07.22hrs Hive meridian, Jorenson and McClelland visit the Children's Creches at the Leader's Horde as a prelude to the Tree Farms. McClelland is impressed, although he tries not to show it, and Jorenson is secretly pleased by his companion's reaction as he guides the tour of the facilities. In their impromptu capacities, first as host in a foreign land, and secondly as guest of accident, it is easy to forget the turbulent matters elsewhere in the world.

                          In the Hive headquarters base, Chairman Sheng has yet to come out of seclusion, much to the consternation of his Second, Zhu He Lai, who knows only that his master is personally researching some issue of great importance and considerable age. Lt Col Sun has returned to command the Hiverian Great Northern Fleet, with added instructions not to fire upon Aquascante ships unless fired upon first. He has received a slight admonition, but by and large all has tacitly been acknowledged as forgiven.

                          The same cannot be said of General Rowlings, the DataTech military head, who is still in recovery. He has been inconvenienced twice during the night, when news reached the hospital of the Hiverian probe threat. Relocated twice between hospitals, he settles down to a dreary day of trying to sleep. Meanwhile, his subordinate, Tryskel Carpenter, steps up uneasily to the podium at an airbase five hundred kilometers away, nervous in her first day as the new Wing Commander of Cuckoo squadron.

                          Across the broad back of the DataTech continent, Hiverian and DataTech probes meet in earnest, clashing in deadly contests of feint and counter-feint, with each such meeting fought in complete silence; the soundless dancing of flames, seen through a darkened glass. Least dramatic - but most important - of these is the still struggle along wires and pins and axions, between three wills, each imposing themself across the electric impluses of nerves and steel of M/MI.

                          Finally, somewhere in the depths of the Hive, a young woman suddenly tenses her body and her unseeing eyes open wide, as her lips suddenly pronounce words of the struggle, a thousand leagues northwards. Within minutes, her voice, ringing clearly through the veils of her psychic trance is heard by every member of the Hiverian High Command. Every member, save one.
                          "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                          • #28


                            The western slopes of Mount Planet were beautiful at this time of year. The warm summer breezes blew soft at sea level, and progressively faster with elevation, such that the highest altitudes of the windswept lofty peak were visible for hundreds of kilometers around.

                            The many factories and plants set into the mountainside glittered like jewels in the expanse of rocky hide, and their heavy emissions were carried safely and tracelessly away in the strong winds at two thousand meters' elevation. Most of these plants were automated, with what little workforce they employed living in shifts at the miniature villages carved into the slopes - tiers upon tiers of houses and buildings under oxygen domes, winking in the sunlight.

                            Outsiders did not often come, save for the usual stream of tourists and sightseers. For them there was a three-day round trip on railift, stopping at each of the twenty-so waystations and five citadels built on the slopes. Though passable in quality to their constructors, these citadels were barely up to their hostelry purpose when appraised by the discerning eye of a Morganite traveller. The interior decorations were few, the architecture ruthlessly functional, and the amenities were decidedly spartan.

                            The choice of adjective is hardly accidental. But then again, in all its long years, the Spartan Federation had never relied on tourism to fulfil its economic and trade needs.

                            Major Pietr Hommel ruminated as the railift hummed upwards. There were upwards of six thousand tourists on the slopes of the Mount every given month. The vast majority of these were Morganites, eager to show that the past was forgotten and the future was harmonious, etcetera. Some Peacekeeper citizens had turned up from time to time, doubtless influenced by the glowing (and to be honest, rather generous) reports on UNP news broadcasts. Occasionally, Gaians would turn up and shake their heads at the factories, and Nautilus folk would yawn with boredom. Altogether, the income from the tourist trade had justified the maintenance of the citadels and the installing of the railift.

                            However, Hommel had assigned one of his departments the task of carrying out a separate, independent investigation into the economic implications of the tourist trade. He had a nagging doubt that somewhere in the center of the Economic Ministry, entries were being juggled and books were being cooked. It had happened before - nobody could forget the infamous debacle of the CleanPlanet ecological organization, wherein governmental levels of energy credits had been siphoned, laundered, or just plain wasted. Hommel, in his twin pledge towards efficiency and organization, had decided to trust no ministry outside of what his own eyes and ears within them evidenced.

                            Fortunately, EconoMin had proven to be somewhat more honest than PlanetMin had been. Whilst it was true that their books had been fiddled, the exaggeration was minor and the tourism scheme was indeed bringing in profits that more than covered the expenses. Hommel had dared a quick calculation with the assessors bureaux, and discovered that EconoMin could stand to earn the Federation a tidy little sum of energy per annum, even including the ghost "safety margin" of nonexistent profits.

                            By comparison, the annual profits of the Mount Planet industrial conglomeration shored up the whole of Spartan economy. By even the most generous of estimations, the economic contribution of the tourists and their precious superciliousness was less than one percent that of the factories set into the mountainside.

                            Hommel yawned, more to release the air pressure building behind his ear drums than out of any true fatigue. He squinted out the window - they were really getting quite high now. The factories were now at their maximum production thresholds, turning out their top-quality equipment and vehicles for the nations of Aquascante to purchase rather than go through the tedium of making for themselves. Thus it had been for over fifty years, ever since the Treaty with the Morganites and the end of the Oceanridge Campaigns. Though there had been a few grumbles about the risks involved in selling weapons to former enemies, no Spartan officer of political standing seriously suspected the Morganites or Nautilus of any treachery.

                            Certainly nobody thought the two would ever dare attack - diplomatic considerations aside, it was a well known fact that the Spartan army would soundly trounce any given opposing force of comparable size and composition.

                            The Peacekeepers had kicked up the usual fuss and endeavored to make life difficult for the exporters, but EconoMin had proven itself again and found a way of circumventing the half-hearted tariffs. The Morganites or Nautilus traders purchased the vehicle parts piecemeal and under the aegis of domestic trade. The vehicle weapon systems were stripped down and only the magazines and ammunition themselves were taxed as per military. The Morganites were especially to thank for expediting the situation - the Peacekeeper inspectors lately turned blind eyes to super-quota shipments, doubtless pressured or bribed into silence.

                            Word had also reached Hommel by way of Morganite sources that the UNP themselves were tacitly purchasing the vehicles from the Morganites. The rumors went on to assert that the Morganites assembled the vehicles before selling them onwards to their Peacekeeper friends, and in so doing commanded an exceptional surcharge and service fee. Yet the UNP willingly paid up, rather than be seen to publicly endorse the Spartan weapons industry.

                            All the important personages in the Federation: Hommel, Veki, Bonaventura - even the mighty Colonel Corazon Santiago herself - had been stymied by this apparently rootless hypocrisy. It was not until Hommel's visit to the U.N. High Commission that the truth of the matter sank in. Much as the Believers had once adhered inflexibly to the doctrines of religion, so too did the UN Peacekeepers adhere to their precious UN charter. As the precepts of a given religion often forwarded theories and explanations contrary to facts and findings, so too did the UNP cling to their UN charter in defiance of the new and alien situations around them.

                            Hommel had remembered those who had, in the Federation's early days, held onto the the mantra "the right to bear arms" with equal mania. However, after the first postulations of Intellectual Integrity, the Colonel had allowed a reeducation scheme to develop, weaning the citizenry away from these, the assertions of a bygone Constitution from a dead country on a scorched planet. Instead, the precepts of armed citizenship were reinforced by the control and guidance of effective training, and the clamping down (without exception) on any lawbreakers who perverted or misused their right. Whilst this had led to some opposition in the more militant sectors, the majority of people had shouldered the charge responsibly, and fulfilled the ancient and elusive condition: "a well-governed militia".

                            That had also resulted in the most efficient fighting force on the face of Planet, at least as far as ground forces were concerned. No Nautilus, Morganite, nor Peacekeeping army could hope to match the stringent standards of the Spartanite military, and Aquascante all knew it - hence the respectful distance on matters military, and the generally reliable energy payments for Spartanite equipment.

                            Hommel shook his head, suddenly remembering. Representative Navaede Sidhu of the Peacekeepers had just left Spartanite territory, and if the holovid he brought was reliable, then there was a drastic shift underway in the present balance of power. The details had been grainy and unclear, but from what the green-saturated nighttime holo had shown, the Battle of Deinara Sound was something quite extraordinary.

                            UNP officials had reassured the general public that the Hive had not mastered Fusion power and that all reports to the contrary had little to no supporting evidence. In the private halls of Sparta Command, however, the UNP had confided that preliminary reports allowed for the plausibility of just such an event.

                            Hommel had watched the impressive footage of the Hiverian Navy, snapped by a UNP reporter whose sole talent lay in shouting out superlatives and generalizations in a HoloPode-broadcast voice. Hommel had watched the holovid by himself several times with the sound down, freezing the motion occasionally to track out the movements of his real interest: the Hiverian aircraft.

                            The UNP had left, after applying their usual pressure on the Spartans to join the Aquascante and to repulse the Hiverian threat. Hommel had left during the tedious exchange - Colonel Santiago was so much better at diplomatic dogfighting than he was. Afterwards, he heard without surprise that she had once again declined to consider the Peacekeeper's offer. They had had enough to think about without wasting time on the Commissioner's vexing Ten Points.

                            Hommel allowed himself a quick smile. Diplomat Sidhu of the UNP had meant well, but it was clear that even he was conscious of the massive incongruity of UNP policy. On the one side, the UNP was purchasing the weapons necessary to stave off the Hiverian attack (although of course the purchases were carried out through the face-saving proxy of the Morganites) and urging the Spartans to join them against the Hive before it was too late. On the other hand, the UNP was still public proponents of the idea of international disarmament (as listed in their Ten Points) and still technically at a state of embargo with the Spartanites for violation of this disarmament clause. He wondered whether the multivocal nature of the UNP was partially at fault for this - in a system where everybody had their own say, what prevented a nightmarish Babel of voices from emerging?

                            Hommel sighed. One thing was for sure, though, the Hive was dangerous. In the decades of probe silence that had followed the completion of the Algorithm, whispered tales abounded of the militaristic developments of its demon dictator Yang and his police state. Whilst Hommel had maintained a carefully sceptical attitude towards the undoubtedly biased news reports, he had wondered what such an empire could develop if left to itself and the resources of the University of Planet.

                            Now, it appeared, the Demon had awakened, and Hommel found some central part of himself (much to his distaste) agreeing with the news reports. Although their prejudice was beyond doubt, what if, unbeknownst to them or him or the millions of viewers, their sensationalistic rantings actually contained a figment of truth?

                            That thought had troubled him no end lately.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            Li Min followed the data loop with the meticulous patience that comes with a fraying temper. It was hard work, threading in and out of the insane corridors of a Hiverian mind, but there had to be a weakness somewhere, and he was damned well going to be there when it showed itself.

                            Hu's psyche had retreated into a well constructed fortress of half-lies, convincing innuendoes, cunning misdirections, and deepseated convictions that even the brightest of probes would be hard pressed to penetrate. Li Min, however, had the benefit of time and of support - with Huang outside of the netlet ready to pick up his loose ends, he could fling himself at will into the twisting paths of Hu's psyche, confident that an accomplice could fish him out should things go awry.

                            Twice already he had gone down incorrect pathways - one leading to a simple but deceptively worded conversation with the Hiverian Head of Diplomacy Berzhinev, and one leading to a detailed but ultimately irrelevant description of the production process of Hiverian nutrition sticks.

                            Both times, Hu's psyche had shut and scrambled every node behind Li Min, and without the help of Huang, Li Min would have had to terminate the dive and start again anew from the surface of Hu's mind. As it was, he was at present running after a faint impression of a woman's face, imperfectly erased by the passage of Hu.

                            He thought he recognized the face, but he had no time to waste in recollection. Another lobe closed nearby of its own volition, and Li Min hesitated. Was the Agent merely toying with him to throw him off the scent? He ignored the incident and continued onwards, pursuing the face as he dodged around a stream of letters flowing past the aperture.

                            He found himself in another junction, this time with no trace of the girl. He looked around at the tunnels, and noted with disgust that they were constructed out of some obscenely organic material. Cysts and glands pulsed in the oozing walls around him, as the nearest orifice opened with a slurping sound and glistened wetly in the dim light. He wondered, not for the first time, what madness this was and what Agent Hu had been through to conjure up such a portion of his psyche.

                            Li Min peered into the dripping folds of the nearest aperture and made out a tiny brass plaque near the entrance. Ducking beneath the bulbous ceiling protruberance, he squinted at the metal, hastily covered with a flesh film by the Agent Hu as he fled. Li Min stuck his fingers through the membrane and brushed it aside, making out a string of letters. It was probably a code of some sort... maybe of use. Li Min tilted his head to one side and allowed the analyzers to kick into action.

                            DNA. The letters were a string of genome information. But whose?

                            Once again the girl's face appeared, and Li Min followed it into the depths. The smooth, wet, and horribly pink walls of flesh closed in on him tightly, but he focussed, and the pressure waned as Hu's psyche give more ground. He made out a metal grille at the end of the passage, and let himself down onto cool, reflective metal.

                            He looked around. It was still dark, but he could make out several smooth shapes on the room, raised to waist height and lying horizontally. Dim luminescence poured from each, and Li Min saw the still forms of the sleepers within. Three faces he did not recognize - they were all male - but the fourth was female and resembled the face he had followed thus far.

                            He was startled by the appearance of a ghostly hand upon the casket, and looked up. Floating above the metal floor was a specter of Agent Hu, a faint proprietary smile upon his lips, and a bandage wrapped around its left hand, near the fingers. Li Min looked back down into the casket and saw that the girl's left hand fingers were different to the rest of her body - they were aged and creased, like those of an older person.

                            The specter pushed away from the casket and drifted calmly out through a windowed door. Li Min lunged after it, but it had shut before he reached it, and the specter smiled triumphantly before disappearing.

                            Beyond, Li Min made out the gentle glow of a study lamp, and the cramped quarters of the Hive's communal halls. The little girl sat, her hair cropped short and wearing a severe uniform, reading a book. Agent Hu, younger, appeared by her side and placed a nutrient stick by her hand. After she noticed, she turned her face up to the Agent and spoke, her lips moving soundlessly. The Agent smiled and held her head close to his chest, his fingers stroking her hair fondly. They stayed in this attitude for a while, after which Hu checked his timepiece and patted the girl's cheek before leaving.

                            The girl returned almost immediately to her study. Li Min could make out technical diagrams and schematics from a quick glimpse of the book.

                            He broke away from the door as the vision faded, and found that the rest of the room was empty. He looked back to the windowed door again, but it had also disappeared in the interim. He went across the walls closely, checking for weak points, but in vain - Agent Hu had caught him again, and there was nothing left to do but to notify Huang.

                            Li Min sent the transmission and waited for the portal to appear. A few moments later, he was sitting at the chipped desk in front of the motley equipment and the ominous array of the M/MI machine.

                            Beside him stood Huang, ready with a small paper towel and a tumbler of water. Li Min did not speak - he was too exhausted, but Huang had something of import to relate.

                            "I dug out the files. Her name's Mao Zhun," he said. "That girl you saw was his cell-daughter, now twenty four years of age. Works as a design engineer in The Laborer's Throng. She was incidentally on the magtrain when we took her cell-father's head - hiding in the engine room with Jorenson and McClelland."

                            Li Min blinked owlishly in the light.

                            "Hu thought she was important," he said. "I made actual contact with him and he divulged this. I don't think he was lying."

                            Huang shook his head. "He never does. The only problem is that he never tells us what we want to know."

                            Li Min pondered. "What importance is she? I mean, it was obvious the two of them are close, but there must be something to her appearance."

                            "Don't know. Shall we reword the search criteria?"

                            "I don't think it will work," said Li Min tonelessly. He was red-eyed and blinking with the exertion of the mental struggle, whereas the disembodied head of Agent Hu, mounted in its M/MI tripod, had hardly changed. Li Min didn't know what rigors of mental conditioning the agent had been through in the Hive, but he did know that all the agent's mental systems had ceased during the period of deepfreeze. That meant only one thing - that the head had only had a few minutes' worth of consciousness after thawing and before M/MI interrogation, in which to construct the mental defences it had clearly emplaced. In that short time, it had somehow realized its present situation, and erected the thorough layers upon layers of psychic barricades to thwart Li Min's passage.

                            The Agent's eyes were slightly open, though crusted with frost, and there was a slight compression of the blue-tinged lips that might have been a mocking smile. One thing was beyond doubt - he was awake again, and fully conscious of his surroundings.

                            Li Min closed his eyes for a long moment and exhaled, shaking the M/MI immersion from his frame. "Okay. How long do we have before the head needs to go back into deep freeze?"

                            Huang checked his timer. "A half a metric hour more."

                            "Okay," said Li Min, and straightened up once more. "You do the programming and I'll get prepped again. We'll go in at the last junction."

                            "Very well," said Huang, and began the keywork.

                            * ~ * ~ *
                            "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                            • #29
                              The prop was in high spirits. His face had healed over the bruises quite well, and his stories were coming thick and fast. Certainly, they did not want for subject matter. The vicarious interest that the DataTech had held in outside matters was now forever changed, now that the outside world had decided to rudely impose itself upon the island faction.

                              The prop was presently speaking to the three green recruits at his RapCafe. All three were now listening intently with the avid air of disciples to a great master. It seemed such a long time previously that the proprietor had been talking of cabbages, not of kings. Such a long time ago that the only newsworthy war was the Species War on Harmonia. In reality, the night of the mysterious, motiveless Alpha-One bombings had been a mere month beforehand, though it seemed lifetimes ago.

                              "They caught two more on the magtubes," said the prop. "They were carrying papers and everything but they evidently didn't hear of Clause 208."

                              This clause was familiar to the soldiers, if their nonchalant nods and airy gestures of dismissal were anything to go by. Nonetheless, the prop decided to explain, more perhaps for his own gratification than for instructive purposes.

                              "208 - DataTech citizens will be required to present, in addition to their Citizen's ID, a valid proof of birth and a document proving their residence." The prop smiled - the measure had been passed by DataKnave Silverback two days beforehand, and the intruders would have been hard pressed to secure the necessary documents in that time.

                              "Who are they, anyway?" asked a young policeman, too inexperienced to hide his ignorance. This elicited an affronted snort from the tallest soldier.

                              "Take a wild guess, doughboy. What I want to know is what they're coming here for."

                              "Do you think they were behind Line Eight?"

                              All eyes turned to the prop. Line Eight had been the major thoroughfare of magtrain traffic from Moonshadow to Data DeCentral. An unprecedented rail collapse, crossing the Trammelwise Gorge, had led to the deaths of several dozen line workers, but (more importantly) hundreds of tons of construction materials bound for the capital. If this was indeed a premeditated attack and not an act of God, then what purpose could it serve?

                              "If they were," he said slowly and with saturnine patience, "they would have been aiming to cripple our industry. Which isn't happening." He blew a tuft of hair from his eyes with an expression of infinite wisdom, and deigned to further illumine his poised students. "Repairs have begun already and the traffic is meanwhile being rerouted through Ergonomia. My contacts told me that they were mingling freight and passenger runs, but they were definitely getting through, even if they had to rover part of the way in between."

                              "Those goddamn Hiverians won't get us that easily!" spat one of the guards savagely. "We'll fight to the last man if we have to before we give in to their brainless servitude."

                              "Tell me about it," said his bull-headed compatriot. "Heard they even kill their own agents after they finish a mission."

                              There was, understandably, some considerable surprise and commentary on this assertion.

                              "No, really," persisted Bull-Head. "They've got a secret code they transmit to an agent when he's through with his mission, and-" he clicked his fingers "-*pop!*- it kills him dead. And you what's the really screwy thing about it?"

                              The others did not.

                              "The really screwy thing," emphasized Bull-Head, "is that they feel rewarded by this. It's like, their way of saying thank you for serving the people and all that Commie crap."

                              "This is true," stated the prop in a voice that brooked no argument. "Theirs is a culture wherein the individual has no rights, and is utterly subservient to the state. The glorious irony of their situation is that the state claims to be serving the people."

                              Most if not all of his eager disciples did not understand what he was talking about. This, however, did not prevent them from nodding sagaciously with grimaces of world-weary cynicism on their young faces.

                              "We'll lick 'em," asserted Doughboy, the palest of the three. "Doesn't matter where their worm-ridden probes try to hit us, we'll see 'em coming and we'll lick 'em before they get there. Fusili'll see to that."

                              There was an uncomfortable silence. Doughboy became aware of his faux pas by delicate degrees. "What?" he asked suddenly, looking around.

                              "Fusili," announced the prop solemnly, "was found dead last night. Somebody had followed him to Governor Halls and shot him through the left eye with a ballistic pistol. No witnesses, although electronic surveillance is still being analyzed."

                              Doughboy cupped his drink even closer and gawked with wide eyes. "Really?!"

                              Bull-Head slapped him on the chest with an open palm. "Say, last night - wasn't that your shift at Beta-Three?"

                              "Yeah, but I got called out halfway through. We got a bomb call."

                              Bull-Head stopped in mid-jest and it was his turn to gawk. "What was that about then?"

                              "Somebody saw a case at the Caretaker embassy. We got to hold cordon for half an hour while they found an expert to defuse the darn thing. Turned out it was armed and primed, but was safe for another hour. Good thing we got it, though - it would have gone off as everybody was coming home from work."

                              "Anyway," said the prop testily, annoyed by this challenger to the newsworthy gossip throne, "Fusili's death has a great deal of ramifications for us. Firstly, who will our economics representative be? Just because we are at war does not mean that we can neglect our economy," he pronounced, a tad officiously.

                              The others nodded again, then returned to the topic of probes in the mainland.

                              "Looks like they're putting everything they've got."

                              "Yeah, well looks like everything they've got just won't be enough."

                              "There's no blow they can land that our shield of justice cannot avert."

                              "Those goddam Hiverian hyenas and their damnable tyrant leader!"

                              These epithets carried across the crowded room, where various people huddled or lay prostrate. It carried over to the battered netlet in the corner of the room, where a nondescript man sat hunched over the node, his eyes creased in a frown of concentration. His eyes are blue, and his hair is a muddy brown. He is logged on at the node as a certain "Dritnam", and he has just followed a trace search on a single, telling string: MAO ZHUN. A slight smile plays across his face, as his lips murmur a victorious "There you are..."

                              * ~ * ~ *

                              Zhu stood before the viewbay and look down upon Mao Zhun, noting the froth on her lips and the tortured roll of her eyes. Behind the young woman, Ota Kyi stood, her hands on Mao's temples, her expression blank.

                              Mao's limbs shivered in her trance and meaningless half-syllables poured from her lips. A screen patiently scrolled a partial translation by thought-association of her speech.

                              Zhu turned back to Berzhinev.

                              "So. They've taken Hu out of the bag."

                              Berzhinev nodded cautiously. "It would be reasonable to assume so. At the very least, if Mao's testimony is true, then Hu's cerebral functions are active once again."

                              Zhu pondered this. "What are they doing to him?" he calmly asked at length.

                              "From what Mao describes, something using M/MI. She describes a sensation unique to M/MI coercion, namely spontaneous universal stimulus. They have applied universal stimulus to Hu's brain in order to confuse and distract him while they search his psyche for relevant answers. In this case, the stimulus is quite clearly pain. The pain masks the point of entry of the M/MI prober, and also serves to keep the mental functions bound up and therefore less able to organize a counter defense."

                              Zhu nodded. "Do we know where he is?"

                              Berzhinev shook his head mournfully. "We can't know unless he himself knows, and something tells me they weren't exactly forthcoming about this when they took him out of the bag."

                              "How long has he been like this?"

                              Berzhinev consulted a watch. "Just under four minutes since Mao's first reaction in trance."

                              Zhu chewed a lip. "Four minutes... that's a long time to undergo M/MI coercion. Do you think he'll be able to last it out?"

                              Berzhinev shrugged. "That depends. M/MI isn't like normal torture. Your innermost thoughts are there, waiting to be found by whoever knows where to look. There's no way you can give an ambiguous answer and have it hold for long. Likewise, the speed of optical computers is so great that as long as they apply the coercion in long enough stints, even the most thorough of assertions will break down and the truth will be perceived."

                              Zhu nodded grimly, and a pause lulled as he reflected. "Do you remember," he said suddenly, with an air of confession, "when he was back at Governor's Halls, and we ended up getting him out? The others had suggested sending the HK transmission to kill him then and there. I opposed the idea, and said we shouldn't consider the HK transmission until every other avenue has been exhausted. The Chairman humored me then." Zhu paused, lost in thought, and then continued. "Well, be that as it may. Can you think of anything else we haven't tried?"

                              Berzhinev smiled bitterly. "Well, we could designate Hu as top priority and reallocate our probes to finding him. That would necessitate some neglecting of Operation Powerclip, though."

                              Zhu shook his head. "No. Even if we did that, there's no way we could find a single head in a continent." He was silent again, looking out at the form of Mao through the glass windows.

                              Berzhinev waited until the silence grew uncomfortable. "Second?" he asked.

                              Zhu obliged him by clicking back into the present.

                              "All right," he said, tonelessly. "Now we know he's awake, but we can't rescue him. The safety of the many demands the sacrifice of the one. I shall authorize the HK transmission - send at your discretion."

                              Berzhinev bowed silently and left. Zhu remained alone in the gallery, watching Mao's suffering, and he thought of the many deeds that Hu had performed in his service to the Hive. He thought of the people who had come to know him in his final days, and the small legacy that he had left behind for future Hiverian-Gaian relations. Already, the Gaian Prentice McClelland was halfway through his tour of the Hive's major cities, and had responded with eagerness to the introductions made by the University man, Jorenson. He remembered the clear holovid recording of Hu's masterful deception in his chopperlift from the DataTech, during his supposed abduction by the Hive recovery team. He remembered the scratchy, low-end vid of Hu's final battle in the magtrain, and the grisly results of that struggle.

                              Zhu thought of these, but caught himself, and stopped with a conscious effort. He banished all thoughts of Hu from his mind, and turned away from the distant agonies of Mao, to face the computer screen. As he keyed in his authorization code for the HK transmission, the words of the inhuman came back to him from across the gulf of ages: Lost in time - as tears, in rain.

                              * ~ * ~ *

                              In his safehouse, surrounded by his equipment, Joe sits up straight at the bank of screens, receiving the news from his partner Dritnam. Within seconds an impulse speeds along numerous weather relays and terminates in a computer recently used by a deceased DataKnave. Although the Knave's body is dead, his encryption is not, and a few nanoseconds' work proves fruitful. The impulse returns to a waystation and leaps, effortlessly, through the public net and into the second circle - the hub of transmissions used by the DataTech industries and other private clients. From there, it is a matter of simple cross-routings and throughfeeds, searching for a node that will accept DataKnave Fusili's dead passwords.

                              Within moments, Joe is through into the third circle, searching for the node from which Dritnam traced the search string MAO ZHUN. Extending a careful feeler variable, he senses the data shadows of three users in close proximity, two of whom are locked in the frenetic parry-and-thrust of an M/MI interrogation. The third merely observes, perhaps as backup for one of the two combatants in the interrogation.

                              Joe does not pause, but leaps into the M/MI unit and terminates the connection unceremoniously with a single cutting procedure that forces both combatants back into reality. As they are still disengaging, Joe picks one at random and probes it, feeling for the familiar nodes and structures. He searches for no longer than is necessary - a few precious seconds flit by, and he has determined that this is not the one. He lets the limp psyche fall back into its daze, and consults the other.

                              Immediately, Joe recognizes the overall structure of the mind - only the Hiverian mindset is so thorough and objective. However, mere recognition is not his goal. Joe knows he is racing against time, and also against another impulse that even now might be speeding across empty space and reflecting off Hiverian satellites to destroy this valuable mind. With a concerted effort, he searches through the organic structure of the mind, seeking to locate the mechanical modules located near the cerebellum base.

                              The Hiverian Agent is equally startled by this new development, but Joe notes with a grudging admiration that he is even now still erecting more mental fortifications against what he presumes to be another interrogator. However, Joe knows what he is looking for, and it is not an abstract thought or a memory - it's a physical lump of nanotreated metal and plastic that can activate to devastating effect when stimulated by the correct coded frequencies of radio waves.

                              He finds it, nestled cozily between the cervical bone and the cerebellal brain stem.

                              And with the ease of a young child flicking a spider away, he disarms the HK port's receiver unit and detonation mechanism.

                              * ~ * ~ *
                              "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                              • #30

                                Commissioner Pravin Lal sat back in his chair and opened the meeting with a flourish. "I trust that no explanation is required for this convening," he began, "but for the benefit of clarity, and that we may not in any way be misunderstood by all parties, I shall summarize."

                                Behind him, the holopode hummed with images.

                                "Planet's history has been one of fragmentation and disunity. The struggles of mankind, divided against itself and against the world it lives on. From our earliest Planetfall, to the present day. From our dealings with the Progenitors, and to our dealings with each other."

                                Lal turned to face the numerous diplomats seated before him - representatives of factions holding treaties or truce with the Peacekeepers.

                                "The time has come," he said, "to ask of our race: What have we accomplished in our disunity? What fruits of humanity's labor have we willfully deprived our fellow men, in the mutual fear and distrust of our own brothers and sisters? What future can we promise our children, when we have taught them to mistrust their own neighbors through our own poor example?"

                                The holopode went blank, then showed the symbol of the United Nations Peacekeepers - a polar projection of a planetary globe, but instead of continents, featuring two stars and a planet in the coordinates.

                                "Our homeworld destroyed itself through the conflicts of mankind. Tyranny, fear, and hatred drove our race - capable of such divine achievements - to create our own torture and to effect our own destruction. Fellow humans, we were blessed with the chance to make a new start on this pristine planet, and to forget the emnities of the past. What have we made of this new chance?"

                                Lal stopped and the slideshow continued.

                                The holopode showed images, a month or two old, from the Species War. Hiverian craft deploying their deadly payloads of nerve gas as the Caretaker forces perish below. Switch. Hiverian vehicles chasing down and annihilating the escape convoys of the Caretaker citizens. Switch. A black-and-white playback of the demonic Hiverian leader, Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang, speaking of the necessity of maintaining the offensive.

                                "Our first contact," stated Lal, "with the Progenitors. Sadly, our representative was to be the University faction, and our executor was to be the Hive. As you know, the Usurper variant has been exterminated, and the Caretaker variant faces the same stark fate if we do not intervene."

                                The holopode changed to show the DataTech leader, Sinder Roze.

                                "An emerging ally," said Lal carefully, "in our eastern hemisphere. The DataTech have evinced an aversion to conformity, and have refused to submit to the heel of the Hive. Witness now the punishment for their bravery."

                                The holopode now showed the famous footage of the Battle of Deinara Sound. After a few clips, it projected a map of DataTech territories and the surrounding waters. A wave of red, indicating the Hive, swept upwards from the Xing Ya continent in an ominous bloody arc, stopping just short of the shores of Iphiclia.

                                Lal cleared his throat. "Few of us can forget the debates that took place during our meeting twenty years ago, when our prime question was whether the Hiverian actions against the Progenitors constituted a breach of UN policy. It is not my intention to renew these debates; what we decided in the end must always stand as our precedent - but it is also not my intention to preside over any debates about the legitimacy of the Hive's present actions." Lal's voice hardened and he emphasized his words with a gesture of the hand. "Make no mistake - we cannot condone unprovoked violence as an acceptable means of international resolution. The cowardly attack upon the peaceful DataTech faction demands the supported opposition of all free nations on Planet. Only with a strong community of allies, pledged to repel all acts of aggression, can our nations truly work together and flourish in peace. Take away this assurance, and our strength is divided - our peoples will forever be vulnerable to the depredations of such an aggressor."

                                On the holopode, the transmission of Agent Hu in the chopperlift. A bloody lip and a cut eyelid looked out with haunting hopelessness upon the world - a salient reminder, thought Lal, of the misery that the Hiverian people themselves suffered at the hands of their rulers.

                                "Therefore, every faction that recognizes the UN Charter, and the basic, inalienable rights of mankind, must consider the actions of the Hive leadership, and choose between condonement, and opposition. Make no mistake - the Hive will be opposed, and contained, to the fullest measure of our power. The only question that remains is who amongst us will stand against them, and who will stand to condone them."

                                Lal's eyes burned brightly, both with the strength of his conviction and the intelligence that lay behind them. "We shall adjourn here and await our decisions on this matter. Though it is against our policy to apply any coercion to the voting process, I do remind you once again that human lives are in the balance. Each life lost by our hesitation is a victory for our foe."

                                * ~ * ~ *

                                "Commissioner Lal," said the hologram. "What a pleasure."

                                Lal nodded slightly and returned the appellation. "Colonel Santiago. Your representative was not present at the start of our Extraordinary Meeting."

                                Santiago's lips compressed briefly. "But of course - I did not send him. He will not be present for the rest of it either."

                                Lal adopted an expression of genuine concern. "What a pity. We have much to discuss today. I will be happy to forward you a copy of the transcript so your records will be full."

                                Onscreen, the Colonel shrugged - a curiously lopsided gesture, involving only one of her formidable shoulders. Apart from this, she said nothing.

                                "Of course," said Lal, "the declaration of war will have some important factors for everybody concerned, but that is to be expected. For you, Colonel Santiago, the possible implications are most unusual."

                                The Colonel was piqued - her eyes narrowed slightly and her aquiline features became even more pronounced. "War," she said tonelessly.

                                "Yes, against the Hive. For this, many factions will need weapons and equipment. However, the Hive's present technological advances are daunting, and I have heard it said by many today that we cannot risk using anything but the best." Lal chanced a slight smile and raised a friendly palm. "Your faction was mentioned more than once in this respect."

                                Santiago's earlier affected disinterest was gone now, and she leant forwards, her hawklike ebon eyes focussed. "What are you saying, Commissioner?"

                                Lal shrugged. "I say nothing that has not already been said by the members today in Council. You are very popular just as yet, Colonel."

                                The flattery fell short with Santiago. "There are certain words I want to hear from you, Commissioner, before I even send a representative to your precious Council. You know what they are. I am waiting."

                                Lal took a purposeful, hearty swig from his glass of water. Then he turned back to Santiago's hologram.

                                "Consider this," he began conjectively. "Say, a lifting of all Aquascante trade embargoes and a lowering of trade tariffs on military equipment. Plus an advance order of military equipment from Spartanite providers to all Aquascante factions and selected affiliates. This to last during the period of hostilities against the Hive."

                                If Santiago was pleased, she did not show it. "And once the war is over?" she asked.

                                Lal laughed lightly. "Oh, Colonel, this is merely guesswork on my part. All I can do is promise you I will try my best to find the most suitable answer for everybody. Council hasn't said anything definite about this yet."

                                "...and nor have you," said the Colonel in a voice of stone. "Commissioner, I have no time for politics and distant wars. Your tariffs and embargoes are your own devising, not mine. Either you tell me straight, and you leave out your verbal acrobatics, or Council goes without me until you do."

                                Lal nodded and smiled, with a slight tilt of the head that suggested an indulgent and somewhat strained patience. "Very well - I believe the Council may accept a halving of original tariffs after the war is over. I will push for this outcome, and I will also stipulate it as suspended, pending review. After all, wars are bad for trade, and we may need a period of tax-free rebuilding - yourself included."

                                Santiago lifted her eyebrows, but otherwise her face remained the same. "If you can indeed bring this about in Council, then we have a business understanding. But it will not bring us into Aquascante on its own."

                                Lal smiled and laid his palms face up. "Well, one lives and hopes."

                                "Meanwhile," she continued, "if Aquascante could obtain a better idea of what the Hive are using, then it would aid our endeavors greatly in coming up with an effective counter."


                                Santiago turned her face slightly askance and asked "Have they voted yet?"

                                "We are in recess right at this moment," said Lal honestly. "I expect the vote results soon."

                                "Do you think they can hold up the vote for my representative to make it?"

                                Lal checked his timepiece. "Yes, so long as you can send him within an hour."

                                Santiago nodded. "He'll be there. And while I must thank you for an illuminating chat, dear Commissioner, I have a few urgent matters to attend to."

                                "Certainly, Colonel," said Pravin Lal - and bowed low.

                                * ~ * ~ *
                                "lol internet" ~ AAHZ