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  • #31

    There was no denying that the attack had been skillfully coordinated. Sealing the four exits was accomplished by a double override of the door locks, and then a shorting of all the control mechanisms. In order for the doors to open again, the lab techicians would have had to get a man through the crawlspace above the corridors and then replace the circuitboards manually. This was a time consuming and difficult job at the best of times. In the midst of the probe attack, it was nell-nigh impossible.

    The corridors had then been flooded to a depth of roughly an inch with coolant fluid, caused by an extensive rupture in the pipelines. This not only rendered the corridors corrosive to human flesh and electrically charged, it also meant that the computer systems had shorted as their coolant supply vanished. All in all, the civilian casualties had been high, and what few survivors there were were hiding out in the retrieval sections, waiting for the emergency to pass or for the police to respond to their doomed netbeacon requests.

    For them, the outlook was surprisingly good. The leader of the attacking probe team had served on Iphiclia before, and had enough experience to know that the faster the objective was achieved, the better one's chances of getting away alive. Aurum-4 saw no profit in wasting valuable time eliminating harmless civilian scientists. He had proceeded almost in a straight line from the western breach to the headquarters at the center of the sensor complex, disposing of the interposing enemy agents with a ruthless and quick efficiency.

    A quick bypass at the corner turret, and the path was secured - any following intruders would have to deal with a suddenly-traitorous shredder cannon. Aurum-4 waited for just under fifteen seconds to be sure of his comrades' positioning, then opened the door with his free hand.

    That done, he shifted position slightly for better leverage, and hefted the corpse of the DataTech probe member into the room. As the sound of gunfire broke out, he primed a flashpack and threw it in, high. The dull burst of the pack announced that it had discharged its energy in a blinding flash of light, and Aurum-4 was through the door and rolling low.

    He sensed a reeling figure behind the nearest computer banks, and downed it with a single shot. His eyes were scanning even before the victim collapsed, noting the others behind their protective screens. He dropped to his knees and scrabbled across to a less exposed area behind some terrain array maps, mentally willing his backup to note the remaining foes.

    As he drew his second sidearm from his vest, he heard the swoosh of another door breach, and lay low. Friendly fire - best to stay out of harm's way. Whilst huddled, he noted the moderate damage done to one of the computer terminals beside him: the enemy agents had already begun to destroy their own hardware rather than let the Hive access them. He thanked his foresight in maintaining the momentum and speed of the attack.

    A few quick bursts of gunfire, and all was silent in the smoke. There was the crunch of glass under boots, and the slight clink of metal links and synthleather equipment straps, as the survivors searched cautiously.

    Aurum readied his pistol and called out slowly: "Pineapple throne."

    A whistle, and a relieved sigh. "Jacksberry stage," came the reply.

    Anhalt Reinhardt stood up slowly and saw his two fellow team members, Murath and Farnham, peering around in the wreckage. He sheathed his two pistols and came over to where they were.

    "Last stand," said Murath, turning the dead Angel over with the toe of his boot.

    Reinhardt waved him on to the terminals. "We got here just in time," he said. "They've already started to derail their own equipment. We need to work fast while the nets are still stored in memory."

    Farnham sat down with his portable node and jacked into the central MilMat, substituting a slowdown algorithm to defeat internal security. Murath did the same with the sensor base security, reactivating all dormant cannon and sealing all doors.

    The whole of the transfer and analysis took less than two metric minutes, but this owed more to the sparseness of valuable information than to Hiverian efficiency. Folder after folder of node space was ominously empty. This meant only one thing - that the DataTech had decided to purge their records entirely rather than let their secrets fall into Hiverian hands.

    Murath disengaged with a disgusted intake of breath, and Reinhardt did not have to ask to know the results. He felt a leaden sinking in him as he pondered the hard work that had gone into this raid. Two days earlier the strike against the skyrail had been aborted at the last moment after a dramatic discovery - that the DataTech had mobilized against the other Hiverian teams and had eliminated or diverted a vast percentage of total Hiverian probe power.

    Reinhardt had discreetly plumbed the fragmented DataTech reports to determine how many of his colleagues exactly had been caught or killed. The end result lay somewhere between sixty and eighty percent. Either the DataTech were preternaturally good at this work (and of course there was every reason to expect such), or somebody had tipped them off beforehand.

    "Aurum-4," called Farnham suddenly. "You might want to look at this."

    Reinhardt's musings dissipated instantly as he stepped over to the portable node. In it, he saw the usual ominous expanse of empty folders and blank records. Blank, however, save for one single lone file - a message file, much as those sent from commercial nodes in interpersonal communications.

    What on earth was one of these civilian broadcasts doing here?

    Aurum-4 looked at the title.

    **60!d3n |304 r!p 2 D P0\\/4(lip!**

    He looked at his compatriots, then opened the file and glanced at the short message therein.

    Looking for a special friend? Get ahead! Meet me at the RafeCafe Blue at GammaProm in DeCentral. I'll be waiting for your call, quasi golden boy.

    Reinhardt sat back, pensive. The others took their turn to read the mysterious epistle.

    "What's all that about?" asked Murath. "Looks like spam to me."

    "Forget what it's about," said Farnham. "I'm more worried about how it got here."

    "Well, if you're worried then just delete it and let's go. We don't have much time before Interior sends a clean-up squad."

    Reinhardt spoke up. "Wait a second," he said. "The message is for real. I don't know who it is, or how they found out about me, but they know enough for us to take them seriously."

    "What?" said Murath. "But it's just spam, isn't it?"

    Reinhardt glanced again at the title. "Golden Boy Rip to the Powerclip," he read. "How many other people know of the codename of the DataTech project?"

    "Probably all the big DataTech cheeses," said Murath. "Especially the ones who'd love to catch you for your little stunt at Governor Halls with Agent Hu. It's just spam, Aurum-4."

    "Perhaps," said Reinhardt. "However, do they know we're looking to sabotage the Secret Project? Do they even know that we know about their Secret Project? Look here - Looking for a special friend? Get ahead! See? How many DataTech interior know we're after the Secret Project as well as Agent Hu?"

    Murath shook his head. "I don't believe you're actually entertaining thoughts of changing a probe mission to accommodate spam suggestions. When was the last time you paid any attention to network spam and spent twenty energy credits at AfterBirth World just to get a free placenta? It's spam, Aurum. Spam at its most commercial."

    "Look," said Reinhardt. "They know my name too. Quasi golden boy. Aurum-4."

    Murath did not comment. Farnham cocked an eyebrow.

    "Shall I delete it?" he asked.

    "Wait," said Reinhardt, scanning the letter for one last time. "RapCafe Blue - GammaProm - Data DeCentral. Okay, got it. Delete at will."

    Farnham wiped the slate and prepared to disengage, when a new message appeared.

    The three men leaned forwards and read it closely. It was even shorter than the previous communication, and a spelling mistake therein suggested hasty submission, but the whole message left no doubt as to its salience:


    * ~ * ~ *
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; March 21, 2002, 23:39.
    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


    • #32


      "What the hell happened?" demanded Huang in no small confusion. "One minute you were in up to the dura mater, and the next you were straight out again."

      Li Min adjusted the damp rag on his face slightly and breathed deeply.

      "I just don't understand it," said Huang, regardless. He paced the floor impatiently, alternately puffing at his simarette and sucking from an alco-bulb. "There's never been a malfunction of that magnitude that the system couldn't warn us about. I should have read warnings everywhere."

      Li Min did not comment, save for a ragged, wavering exhalation. The cloth made wheezing noises.

      "And you know what the really scary thing is? What if they're watching?" Huang stopped pacing and stared down at the prone figure of Li Min. "Ever think of that?"

      Li Min's answer, if indeed there were any, was too faint to be heard.

      "It would make logical sense," continued Huang, more to himself than anybody else. "Twenty years ago they build an unbreakable Algorithm that shields their cities and all their systems. Twenty hours ago they field the first of their unbeatable aircraft and unfazable naval ships. What's to say that twenty metric seconds ago, they didn't hack our encryption and follow us right in here? What's to say that they haven't stuck some sort of cyber-spike into your M/MI gear to make you flip out and fly across the room like you did? Muscular contractions are easy enough to induce if you have direct access to the cortex and motor systems."

      "...," said Li Min softly.

      Huang stopped in mid-ponder and listened again.

      Li Min mumbled something that might have been semantically sound.

      Huang lifted up the corner of the cloth and looked at his friend's face again. It was not a particularly pleasant sight - the eyes were surrounded by dark circles, and the whites were pink with fatigue and exertion. Some strange excitation of the circulation had left a broken blood vessel in the nasal cavity, traces of which were drying and crusted on Li Min's upper lip. The dark black hair clung to the damp scalp in lank strands, and the smell of dense sweat clung about the man and the softplatform he lay on.

      Li Min, his breath laboring mightily, spoke. His voice was hardly louder than a feeble yawn.

      "They have not traced us," he said. "If they hacked our encryption, they would have sent the HK Transmission and the head would have died." Li Min's voice choked off in a strangled retch as he succumbed to another wave of nausea.

      Huang hooked the bucket over with his free foot. With his hands, he poured a tumbler of water and brought it to Li Min's lips. "Who, then?" asked Huang.

      Li Min gasped again. "Somebody... somebody who wants to keep Hu alive. They're saving him for something." He rested his voice and closed his eyes in misery.

      Huang shook his head. "You're not making sense. Who else knows specifically that he's here? Who else could possibly want to save him?"

      It was a while before he got a reply. "Only... one way... to find out. Plug me in again."

      Huang looked at Li Min. He was sweating profusely and bleeding from the nose and mouth - all reactions to the immense shock of forced withdrawal from M/MI. If there was something in the net that had caused this reaction, perhaps it would only need another such opportunity to finish Li Min off for good. Then again, perhaps that was the intention - to keep him away from a sensitive item.

      In any case, Huang reflected dourly, Li was in no state for a resumption of the M/MI. If he entered even a normal net the way he was, extensive psych damage was a very real possibility. With the great unknown of the Hiverian Agent's sick mind, who knew what pitfalls awaited a delver?

      Huang noted all this even as he poured a generous thumbful of synthlaud into Li's tumbler and mixed well. Of course, he remembered, the head would have to go back into storage soon. There was only so much that an oxygen pseudoplasma throughfeed could do to stave off the inevitable onslaught of decay and corruption. Even if Li Min were at full readiness, there was precious little to recommend probing a dying brain.

      Huang noticed, with a start, that Hu's facial expression had changed. Perhaps the thawing process was to blame, but the lips were definitely curled in a rictus or a snarl. But what was most telling were the eyes. Narrowed and smouldering in their oriental epicanthuses, there was no natural thaw or accidental convulsion that could have fixed a look of equal hatred and malignancy.

      * ~ * ~ *


      Lal examined his close-clipped nails in the sunlight of the Recreation Commons. To his right sat a slim Asian female, Sarita, and to his left slouched the academic stoop of Dr. Kakani. Before him lay the assembled documents of the UN High Council, and around the table sat the many advisers of his Privy Council.

      He had concluded the Aquascante Extraordinary Meeting a mere twenty metric minutes beforehand, and had quitted the great communal solarium at UN Temple of Sol amidst a flurry of activity. Although not (as the many media reports would have the reader believe) exactly cheered by the masses, he had however accomplished something of quite considerable import - the other faction representatives were evidently mulling over the proposals brought forth.

      That was all he had needed. The other factions had, after five metric hours' worth of displays and speeches and other forms of information conveyance ranging from honeyed persuasion to verbal bludgeoning, eventually signed an accord to review the Hiverian actions taken during the Battle of Deinara Sound. Though nowhere near the condemnation that Lal himself felt and wished wholeheartedly, at least there was tacit agreement that the Hiverian actions of late required surveillance. The DataTech and Nautilus Pirates had been the first to endorse, perhaps unsurprisingly; the capitulation of the Spartan faction, however, was rather the more unusual.

      During a concise but nonetheless effective speech, the Spartan spokesman Pietr Hommel had spoken of the need for a multi-polar global community. He had reiterated the need for social and economic global security, and had (in a show of tact uncommon to the brusque Spartans) touched but sparingly upon the more sensitive issues - arms proliferation amongst them. Rather, he had coyly referred to this mainstay of the Spartanite economy as a "communal military structure" rather than a "unipolar military monolith".

      Lal wondered who had actually written the speech. He had heard Major Hommel speak in private, through the use of one of his many semi-legal channels, and the man seemed a cold fish at the best of times. It was unusual to hear such eloquence spill from the man's lips in such a setting as the provisional Assembly.

      Lal's brief smile died as he remembered Morgan's keynote speech. In it, the representative O'Reilly had shown unusual diffidence towards the whole affair. Instead of the agreement that Lal had hoped for, the Morganites seemed satisfied enough to pen a critical statement and leave it at that. Moreover, the Morganites had emphasized the need to ensure that racketeers and frauds were not permitted to exploit the fruits of others' labor - a subject quite beside the point (Lal thought). O'Reilly had departed immediately following the meeting and had declined a private talk with the Commissioner, so there was no way for Lal to fathom the Morganites' particular motives for the noncommittal response.

      He remembered his earlier harsh exchange with Nwabudike Morgan last time they had spoken. During that time, Lal had growing suspicions of his compatriot's aims, but he had refrained from judgement until further data became available. Now, they were blatant. There was no question about Morgan's motives now - what interested Morgan was not a fledgling Democracy's fight against a tyrannical oppressor, but a chance to avenge his own squabbles against a recalcitrant employee, and the none-too-covert willingness to make a quick cred at her expense whilst doing so.

      Lal wondered what the DataTech leader had done in order to precipitate such extreme hatred. Surely normal logic dictated that, in the face of such a belligerent and clumsy foe such as the Hive, small disagreements of ideology could be set aside to repel the greater danger. Lal could not think of a fate worse than that of subjugation, rulership by the police of a faceless and tyrannical state, under the borrowed clothes of egalitarianism and socialism.

      Lal checked himself at this stage. Actually, he could think of a marginally worse fate than unwilling subjugation - and that was willing subjugation. Although general consensus on the Hiverian matter held that the lot of the actual citizen was far below that of their Western counterparts, there were some who raised questions about the Aquascante's right to interfere with other nations' policies, especially if the natives actively chose their government and willingly sacrificed their rights.

      Lal had responded, as always, that the rights of the individual were inalienable. Any government that proceeded on the exchange, quid pro quo, of such rights, was not a government that truly represented its people - rather, it was merely the institutionalized form of an era-old social parasite, that of the oppressor, wearing a new mask to fool the oppressed.

      "Commissioner, the latest report has been filed and we are ready to begin," said Sarita softly. She wore her hair in a sharp China chop at the brow and around her cheeks, and the sky-blue tint of her robes added to the slightly artificial severity of her looks. Despite this, she was a shrewd observer, and Lal had found her talents indispensible in the past.

      Sarita, of course, knew all about this, too.

      "Very well," said Lal, without any of the diplomatic preamble required on legitimate business. "Let's begin."

      * ~ * ~ *

      The Second put a finger into his right earlobe and concentrated on Berzhinev's static-filled face, whilst waving Ota Kyi into silence.

      "What? You faded out. Please repeat from 'received at orbital'."

      "Priority transmission to Second Zhu He Lai," repeated Berzhinev, in a barely-controlled shout. "Hara-Kiri Transmission Beta-Jia has not received targetal response. Repeat - has not received targetal response. Positive reception at orbital IPHIC-7 at 14:32.77 hrs and redirect into coordinate target successful. However, no response was delivered by targetal. Allowing for lag and beacon wave delays, Objective Atron should be eliminated."

      Zhu froze-beam the display of Dr Shimoda to give himself time to think. He turned back to Berzhinev.

      "So how certain can we be that the objective was destroyed?" he asked.

      Berzhinev's litany continued for a few more sentences before he realized he had been spoken to. Zhu obliged him and repeated the question.

      "Not at all," said Berzhinev. "All we know is that the HK transmission was sent as per orders. Without a confirmation response, Agent Hu could still be alive and well for all we know."

      "You are willing to stand by your words?" asked Zhu.

      Berzhinev swallowed and nodded. "Yes," he said simply.

      Zhu shut his transmission without further ceremony and turned to Ota Kyi.

      "What can Mao Zhun tell us about the Agent?" he asked.

      Ota Kyi shook her head also. "She continues in her description of discrete and continuous experiences, Second. From the similarities and consistencies with her earlier reports, I must deduce that Agent Hu is still alive - or that something is imitating his psychic presence with admirable skill."

      Zhu thought awhile and then nodded. "Very well. Continue to interrogate Mao and track her for any changes."

      He cut the line and turned to Shimoda.

      "What is it, Doctor?"

      Shimoda seemed very nervous. "It's bad," he said, with infuriating vagueness.

      "Well?" asked Zhu curtly.

      "It's the Chairman," said Shimoda.

      Zhu did not say anything.

      Correctly interpreting this as partial compliance, Shimoda cut the line. In the place of his face, the Chairman Sheng looked down upon Zhu in his holographic gaze.

      Zhu bowed from the waist. "Esteemed Master."

      "We must act soon, or we may lose a most profitable opportunity. Firstly, you are to prepare a data profile and factional presentation for the two diplomats, McClelland and Jorenson. Shimoda has obtained the raw data and is transmitting as we speak."

      Zhu snuck a peek at his palmtop. The feed was already halfway completed.

      "This presentation must be comprehensive and definitive. You have three metric hours in which to complete it."

      Zhu acknowledged this with a deep nod.

      "Secondly," continued the Chairman, "we must concentrate at all costs on destroying the DataTech Cyborg Factory. The Probability Calculators and the internal judgement of three different factions agree - direct war with the Aquascante nations is inevitable."

      "Yes, Master," said Zhu. "Already we have put forth our greatest effort to this goal."

      "Thirdly," continued the Chairman, "you are to assemble a civilian ambassadorial team suitable to represent our interests to other nations. These individuals may be chosen from spheres wherein their absence for a few days' time will not cause undue disruption. They must be ready to leave Xing Ya at a moments' notice."

      Zhu acknowledged this with a surprised nod.

      "Master, I shall see to it. With whom will they be meeting?"

      The Chairman inclined his head quixotically. "They shall be representing our faction to the United Nations Peacekeepers, in their Council meetings."

      * ~ * ~ *
      "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


      • #33
        The Hive was bustling with activity. In each worker's face, there was a firmness of purpose that evinced itself in the certainty of each action, the decisiveness of each movement. If there was any doubt in McClelland's mind beforehand, there was nothing now but certainty. The men, women, and children of the Hive cherished their lives and loved their faction with a dearness that seemed initially at odds with the apparent nihilism of its social agenda. They worked with a diligence and industry atypical of the Gaian and Aquascante nations, but it was still very human and very real.

        McClelland mulled all this over, unable to master his confusion. The nation was steeped in this social thought, that much was clear. Also clear was the ease with which they dealt with this seeming contradiction: that their nation was infinitely more important than the individual, but yet that each individual was still a vital component of the whole. The bureaucracy that governed each base was complex and involved, and was quick to correct infractions. However, far from an oppressed, huddling mass (as McClelland had expected), the people looked up to their police and governors as guardians.

        This was unfeigned, although on closer inspection McClelland believed he could understand why. The bureaucracy, though rigidly layered and somewhat columnized, was nonetheless open to those amongst the society who had proven themselves as exemplary. The judgement criteria included applicable skills and knowledge, as well as social relations and administrative suitability. The bureaucracy, though neither democratic nor egalitarian by any means, did encompass a very large portion of the society in which it functioned, through a selection process resembling a meritocratic system.

        Jorenson had managed, through some diplomatic application of contacts and strategic name-dropping, to bring McClelland to an audience with representatives of the police bureau at The Leader's Horde. The bureau section chief was a lean, physically fit man named Lars with an unsmiling face and a polite, businesslike demeanor. From Lars' explanation, it appeared that most of the police were drawn from the very districts they managed. This enabled a close understanding of the needs and requirements of the area under their aegis, whilst constant metrics judged efficiency and psychological influences. This ensured that, whilst the police would indeed cherish the people under their care as their own, the problem of corruption would be lessened.

        When asked whether such instances did occur, Lars was frank.

        "Of course they do," he stated. "We also have punishments for those who transgress. However, as with our methods of policing the people, our methods for punishing transgressors are strictly non-lethal."

        This had surprised McClelland, until he saw the police themselves. Whilst the individuals in society paid a great amount of respect to the police force, the police force also paid a similar respect to the individual. This was not out of any particular respect for human rights, but merely because it was a more effective means of policing. The police had tools to incapacitate and to stun, but they did not carry armaments that could kill. Past experiments had shown that immediate recourse to lethal policing methods often meant that the police themselves paid less attention to the regulations of their duties, as well as losing the support of the populace.

        "Yes," said Jorenson, in reply to McClelland's query. "Here, the police force works more closely with the political bureaucracy than it does with the military. The military is a completely different wing of operations entirely. One wing is primarily concerned with smooth governing of a large body of people. The other is for lethal resistance of enemy forces. From the way they see it, it's like keeping two things separate. Not necessarily the way I'd do it, but it seems to work."

        The cramped conditions of the Hiverian living quarters were a source of some concern to McClelland, but evidently not for the people living there. From the orderly and obedient children in the Creches, to the miners and foresters returning from their work in the outlying suburbs, all appeared satisfied with their conditions. Problems, when they occurred, were reported to a civic representative and then processed with a similar set of metrics as the police system. Inefficiency would be reviewed, and a change to methodology or personnel would be effected as necessary. The management bureau, as with the police bureau, seemed to rely on these meters rather less than one would expect - underlying most Hiverian actions, there was a firm adherence to the doctrines of loyalty to society.

        McClelland wondered at this. Certainly, a similar social setup in any Aquascante faction or the Gaians would have resulted in an uncontrollable level of corruption and inefficiency. All the same, he could not deny that the Hiverian social structure, though by no means a model of speed and effectiveness, was still fairly decent. Certainly, it was a far cry from the chaotic mess that the Aquascante factions believed it to be.

        Jorenson had laughed when McClelland had mentioned this.

        "Yes, I know," he said. "I don't know how they could stand it. Now if it were me doing all these tasks, day in, day out, getting up at ungodly hours to go to work and come home, I'd probably go mad. I suppose you'd have to chalk it down to a fundamental difference in mindset."

        "I almost expect them to be soulless," said McClelland.

        "Remember," said Jorenson, a trifle sharply, "they don't believe in a soul." He pondered a while, staring out the plastisteel windows of the tunnel tram. "Of course," he relented, "they're not at all soulless, at least in our understanding of the word. Remember Agent Hu?" he asked.

        McClelland nodded, but Jorenson could see the slight expression of pain and grief behind his eyes. It was an involuntary emotional reaction, a reaction to the terrible death that had taken the Agent, and one that Jorenson himself had keenly felt. "Yes, I feel the same pain at his death as you do," he said. "Moreso, in fact - he was my good friend and a very talented man." Jorenson leaned forward across the table.

        "Now," he said, "had the man really been an empty shell, living out a routine that he truly found repugnant; had the man been the brainless pawn of a dictatorial regime that sucked him dry of all feeling; had he been an tortured peon of a damned and oppressive society... then do you think we would feel this same emotion at his passing?"

        McClelland had no answer for that. In fact, throughout the meetings with high-level civic advisors and military representatives, the question haunted McClelland. Equally foremost in his thoughts were the newsvid reports that he had read back in Phoenica, condemning this same faction as a ruthless regime of tyrants, against whom all decent nations must unite to liberate its countless oppressed citizens.

        * ~ * ~ *

        Lal was satisfied with the proceedings of the Privy Meeting. After an admirably quick and efficient exchange, a series of crucial agreements had been reached. The real beauty of it lay in the symmetry of the whole arrangement - each faction had something they wanted, and something they could give. Lal, the universal facilitator, had been the catalyst, bringing the UN seal of approval and allowing free and uninhibited freeflow of favors from provider to needy.

        First, there was the question of weaponry. UN policy, drafted two centuries beforehand, worked towards a final disarmament and a safe world for all to live in. Lal's present stance did not contradict this in any substantial or permanent way. He merely allowed the Spartans, who had mastered the industrial control of arms and weapon availability, to make their weapons available to the Morganites and DataTech. The agreement was termed "Lend-Lease 2", in an allusion that Lal was sure nobody else would understand except for himself.

        In either case, the sales would cease immediately upon the cessation of hostilities with the Hive. Thus, the deployment of weapons of destruction was safely covered by the UN clause allowing for peacekeeping missions. The truth of the situation was, as far as Lal could see, perfectly honest - if left unopposed, the Hive would in all probability destroy the DataTech faction, and enslave its peoples under its brutal authoritarian regime. Acting to counter this threat not only served to protect the UN itself, but also to save the DataTech from a fate that was, in all seriousness, worse than death.

        The Spartanites appreciated the lifting of all tariffs on their weaponry, and agreed to sell them to the Morganites. However, Lal had encountered his greatest snag here. Morgan's representative proved to be all to happy to trade with the Spartan Federation (especially following the UN's suggestion of Treaty status commerce rates - something that Lal knew would be the candle to Morgan's moth). However, he drew a flat denial at the UN proposal to sell these to the DataTech faction.

        Lal's own economists had drawn up a rough financial profile of the DataTech's assets, and had calculated an estimated cost of a sufficient defence force to repel the Hiverians. This cost was compared to the DataTech coffers (which proved to be somewhat low, but that was understandable given the circumstances) and the difference was to be provided for in loans. The DataTech would then pay the Morganites a share of the costs, receiving cutting-edge Spartanite equipment and training in return.

        Despite this, Morgan's representative had bluntly refused. He would not sell arms and equipment of any sort to the DataTech. As far as he was concerned, the DataTech were not even a separate faction and he saw no reason to sell weaponry at horrendous loss to a rogue province.

        Fortunately, Svensgaard had enough collateral to cover the exchange at that time. Taking the burden of the sale, the Nautilus faction covered the deal so the DataTech could received the sorely-needed weapons. They would receive tactical fighter jets, the better to counter any bombing runs on their territory, and they would receive the latest in defensive capabilities, fully armed with Anti-Aircraft Armaments, or AAA. Lal was quick to restrict the sales of weaponry to merely defensive purposes - after all, Morgan already opposed any Aquascante sale to the DataTech, and might be tempted to appeal any trade that might give them offensive capabilities.

        This finished, the only problem left was how to get the newly-made craft to the DataTech. Trade links were paralyzed, what with the Hiverian seizure of all commercial craft, and it was too risky to send goods directly to Iphiclia by sea. Fortunately, Lal's extensive intelligence network also helped him out here. Through channels legitimate and nefarious, he came to know that the Spartanites had previously engaged in quasi-legal dealings with the Nautilus pirates beforehand, with the end result that several serviceable Spartanite aircraft were currently sitting unused in Svensgaard's sea bases - perhaps just enough to comprise a small but elite squadron.

        With UN funds, these could be upgraded under Spartanite supervision, and individually flown into Iphiclia under blockade escort. This would save substantial time, and be considerably safer than a sea transfer. The Spartanites considered this to be no obstacle, the Morganites put up no more than a token complaint, and the Nautilus agreed wholeheartedly.

        Finally, Lal had prepared a briefing of utmost secrecy, concerning the nature of the Hiverian threat. Firstly, he solemnly announced the breaking news that UN analysts had determined beyond all doubt that the Hiverian navy and air force had deployed Fusion powered vehicles in the Battle of Deinara Sound. Further to the announcement was a twofold clarification - UN analysts believed that the Hive had not in any way managed to perfect a Cloaking Device, and a final announcement that the UNPS Foil Dauntless, under the command of Captain Emmet L. Mooney, had vanished after its internal navigation systems suffered multiple malfunctions.

        Secondly, the briefing touched on a plan forwarded by the DataJack Sinder Roze, outlining the potential gains of capturing a Hiverian Fusion craft intact. Roze acknowledged the Hiverian craft to be protected by the Hunter-Seeker Algorithm, so a probe hijack would not be possible. However, with the superior craft provided by the Spartans, Roze believed that a coordinated operation might, if successful, succeed in disabling a Hiverian craft long enough for the DataTech forces to manually capture it.

        Once the craft and equipment were secured within DataTech holdings, analysis would begin and, hopefully, the secrets of the Hiverian/University Fusion drive would be unravelled. The project - designated Operation Garrett - was still in its planning stages, but most agreed that it was heavily contingent on one of two scenarios: a lightning strike against a Hiverian battle group, or a carefully-orchestrated response to a Hiverian attack.

        Much to Lal's gratification, both Svensgaard and Santiago seemed to echo his support for this plan. Now, they were four against one.

        * ~ * ~ *

        Murath peered through the farsight scope and clicked with his teeth. This was a sign that he was dissatisfied - exactly with what, though, Reinhardt couldn't tell. There was a fair bit of choice, in this respect at least.

        The soldiers and policemen had come out in their throngs and had occupied various locations of strategic importance. As far as Reinhardt could tell, they did not need to pay for their lodging and food, but the social tension was such that the populace hardly seemed to mind. The DataTech people were all too conscious of the warfleet that lay just a few tens of kilometers off their southern shore - this knowledge made them more amenable to the temporary inconvenience of the armed forces.

        Reinhardt sighed. Perhaps they really were keeping the peace, but whoever was thinking up their policy was sloppy. True, Clause 208 had created a few slip ups and problems, but now that Reinhardt was on the DataTech turf, he too was just as capable of accessing news nodes as any DataTech citizen. Although the DataTech internal secrets were predictably difficult to access, that didn't matter - safeguards such as the clumsy document searches were so universal that they had to be publicly broadcasted to all DataTech civilians, and thus to Reinhardt himself.

        A brief stint of burglary and larceny had secured Reinhardt a few papers. Though they wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny, they were handy for bypassing cursory guards at random searches. Usually, there were a few real DataTech unfortunates who had forgotten or otherwise not brought their documents, and that would be enough to divert attention. Either way, Reinhardt had yet to be caught.

        Murath counted beneath his breath.

        "I make it to be around thirty, thirty five people on the ground floor alone," he said. "About six of them are police, armed with sidearms and stun guns. A few node-lets in the place."

        He folded up the scope and sat back heavily.

        "Looks like a rundown bar," he said gloomily.

        Reinhardt considered. "Well, it's the RapCafe Blue all right. And that's where the contact is supposed to be hiding."

        Murath looked at Aurum-4, the leader of the probe team. Reinhardt, the mysterious net-message had called him, and Aurum-4 had indeed later confessed that that was his name. Murath had heard of Aurum-4's performance during the Governer Halls extraction, during which time he cracked ambassadorial-level security and rescued Agent Hu from the DataTech. Now, Aurum-4 was back on Iphiclia under orders direct from Berzhinev himself, with the very clear aim of derailing Project PowerClip. Two metric days ago, no fewer than sixteen separate probe teams had disembarked on Iphiclian shores and advanced with the same vital purpose. Yet they were no closer to that goal, meeting with counter-agents and false leads wherever they turned.

        As of one metric hour ago, Reinhardt had received confirmation from an official internal node, that only one Hiverian probe team remained unaccounted for.

        Murath didn't know what he found harder to believe - the fact that the other five dozen agents had all been compromised in so short a time, or the fact that they, the last of this dying breed, were sitting on their butts in Data DeCentral.

        What on Chiron were they doing casing a GammaProm bordello?

        Reinhardt stood up. "All right," he said. "I know what we're supposed to be doing here. And I know how many others have failed before us. But I have to confess that I'm a bit strapped for ideas right now. So if this is the best that I have to go on, I'm going to take the bait."

        Murath said nothing.

        "If it's a trap," said Reinhardt speculatively, "if something - anything - happens to me, the two of you split up and work around, all right? High Command wouldn't have sent in so many of us if they didn't believe we were doing something vital. We have to succeed. And if I can't be there with you, then you're going to have to do it yourselves. Understand?"

        Murath nodded slowly.

        "All right. Give Farnham the signal. I'm going in."
        Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; March 27, 2002, 11:46.
        "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


        • #34
          Joe - Moonside

          "And so," concluded the prop, draining the last measure of vodka, "you have a win-win scenario. Either the police become soldiers, and the public obeys their orders, or the public become police, and equilibrium is maintained."

          He set down his glass and focussed uncertainly. The nearby soldiers drew back, as though a spell had ceased with the conclusion of his story. One passed a pale hand through short, crewcut hair, and said "wow" softly.

          "No kiddin'," affirmed the prop. "And that's why the Hive can't possibly win in this scenario. They can win battles, and they can win shows of force, but nobody can take on the whole world. And if the Commissioner does his stuff in Council, that's exactly what the Hive'll be doing if they carry on this way."

          "But what about us?" asked the youngest of the guards, a certain Doughboy by moniker. "Are they gonna get this worldwide alliance together before the Hive invades us or what?"

          "I should imagine," declared the prop flatly, "that such an act would be very unwise of the Hive." He hefted the bottle of vodka and turned its snout towards his glass, but it was empty. "Right now they're holding steady because they can imagine what a stink it'll raise if they attack. Imagine how bad it would look if they waited until everybody and his neighbor was lined up against them."

          The prop's plump hand fished vaguely underneath the bar, but his emergency bottles were all used up. A faint look of perturbation crossed his face. He would have to go to the cellars.

          Bull-Head slapped Sneerface on the shoulder. "It's your round," he said.

          "Is it bollocks. What about him?"

          Doughboy smiled nervously under the scowl of his compatriot. "Hey, guys," he said uneasily, "I got it two rounds ago."

          "Yeah - well there's three of us, isn't there?" said Sneerface, with ill-feigned patience. "That means it's your round. Dumbass."

          "Hey! You're the dumbass who can't freaking count," retorted Doughboy. "If there's three of us, yeah, and I got it like two rounds ago..."

          "Don't be disrespectful to your elders," cautioned Bull-Head sternly. "Arsewipe," he added reflectively.

          "What," asked the prop a trifle loudly, "do you want to drink for your next round? Bar's out of vodka."

          "Bitter," rumbled Bull-Head.

          "Bitter," affirmed Sneerface.

          But Doughboy was undecided. "But guys, if we drink beer after vodka, is that - I mean, is it safe?"

          "Sure it is, 'slong's you can take it," snarled Sneerface. "Bring it on," he said to the prop, "and don't worry about him - he's just paying for it, that's all."

          "No! Guys, really, I heard that if you mix them you can get real screwed. And what's that about me paying for them? Hell, no - I ain't paying!"

          * ~ * ~ *

          The man sitting opposite Reinhardt was small. His shoulders were stooped and his face was deeply lined with the ravages of time. However, it was his eyes that were youthful - two brilliant blue pinpoints in the leathern flesh of his face, and the dirty brown hair that covered his head.

          "Anhalt Reinhardt," he said speculatively, his voice unnaturally gravelly and low. "I am Dritnam, formerly of NetIfic. It's a pleasure to meet you."

          Reinhardt shifted uncomfortably, as questions brimmed over in his mind. "Unfortunately, I don't believe I know you, or your company," he said.

          The other man shrugged. "Perhaps not. But we have been following you ever since you set foot on our free and blessed land. And I must say we are honored by your presence. A pity that Lydia did not survive to see you. I must offer her welcome to you as well."

          "Lydia?" asked Reinhardt. "Is she somebody I know?"

          "Probably not," intoned the stranger. "But you have almost definitely seen her handiwork. Especially you, in your rather special career."

          Reinhardt nodded, acknowledging the beginnings of a bargain. He placed his hands, folded, on the table, knowing that he could reach his rad pistol in a second if he had to.

          "How do you know who I am?" he asked.

          "My friend Joe has many contacts within your faction. He told me to expect you, and to make sure that you understood the immensity of what we are doing."

          "What are you doing, then, if I may ask?"

          Dritnam smiled, and laughed. It was a surprising sound, sounding equally as hollow and mechanical as his normal speech. It ended in an abrupt gurgle, and Dritnam shut his eyes to massage his throat.

          The man leaned over the edge of the table and spat copiously on the floor.

          "Pardon me," he said, with a thumb motion at his throat. "Cancer. They say it comes with age, but I suspect something in this country does it to you. I know for a fact that even DataKnave Whisperlisp had to have an operation for it."

          "Maybe you should let a doctor have a look at it," said Reinhardt tonelessly.

          "I think not," said Dritnam abruptly. "No matter. We talk of trifles - let's talk of consequence instead. Do you know what it is that you are doing here in Iphiclia? What you are doing in this land of the Data Angels?"

          "Tell me," said Reinhardt.

          Dritnam leaned forwards. "You are carrying out a plan by Hiverian Intelligence Bureau to eliminate Project Powerclip. You are also here to find the disembodied head of a fellow Hiverian probe team, Agent Hu. Have you ever asked why your Intelligence Bureau wants this? What's so important about this?"

          "We need to get Agent Hu back because he knows too much. If the DataTech access his memory, we stand to lose. We need to derail Project Powerclip because it is likely to give the Data Angels an edge in combat, and therefore to any aid they lend the Caretakers."

          "Ah," said Dritnam, cooing with delight. "There's the reason. But is it reasonable? Think - you must know by now that all the rest of your friends have been caught, excepting your present team. Each one of these probe teams have been killed or interrogated. Is Hu really that important? Can you justify the loss of so many in order to retrieve one? Question one - why does the Hive want Hu?"

          Dritnam took a sip of his Synthnectar and grimaced massaging his throat. He looked at Reinhardt's weary face and forced a twee smile. "I managed to get a sonic amplifier," he said matter-of-factly. "After my friend Dr. Jerj - may he rest in peace - operated, I didn't have much of a voicebox left, I can tell you. You're very young and fit, young Anhalt. Make sure you appreciate it while you can."

          Reinhardt nodded, his brows beetling slightly. The other man carked and hacked, then spat on the floor again. Why was he here? There was something more than slightly surreal about the whole thing - struggling his way through a DataTech Covert Ops center just to sit down and talk of eggs with a venerable elder.

          "Now for Question two - why does the Hive hate Powerclip?"

          "I just told you - practical power play," said Reinhardt.

          "Partially right," agreed Dritnam. "But the Hive has a good reason to want to terminate the DataTech project. Why? Could it be for purely military reasons? Are the Caretakers really that much of a threat? Would the possession of the Cyborg Factory by their allies really help them that substantially? What air force do the Caretakers have? What navy? For that matter, what army do they have that hasn't been infected with the Agent X nerve activant?"

          Reinhardt had no response.

          "Or perhaps, let us say the Hive has a moral objection to the use of Mind/Machine Interface in warfare?" asked Dritnam tentatively.

          Reinhardt maintained his silence whilst Dritnam laughed dustily.

          "No. As you have probably guessed, it is because they have their own Cyborg Factory coming along in secret. And if you have seen what I have seen of the Project Powerclip, you will know that it is coming along very well indeed. Almost complete, in fact."

          Reinhardt looked up - this was what he had waited for so patiently. He steepled his hands and sat back. "All right. So you know where Project Powerclip is," he said flatly.

          Dritnam shook his head. "I don't. But I know a man who does, and this man is willing to tell you where it is, if you really think it will help. He will provide you with details and information for analysis, all to send back to your leaders. But most importantly of all, he will take you to Agent Hu."

          Reinhardt tried not to let his elation show, nor his doubts. "But what do you get from all this?" he asked slowly. "Why are you helping me?"

          Dritnam's eyes narrowed and he smiled darkly. "Joe will fill you in. But I am authorized to tell you this much: We want you to help save a race from extinction."

          Reinhardt considered this.

          "You don't have to answer now, boy," said Dritnam airily. "I'll take you to Joe and we can talk then if you wish."

          "Okay," said Reinhardt.

          "Good." Dritnam finished off his nectar and stood up, putting a few credits on the table. "That's for the drinks - pay the prop if he's not too busy. Wait a few minutes and then come to the mens' room. I'm afraid they've got everywhere else under surveillance."

          Reinhardt waited until he left before looking over to the bar. The prop was in a high mood, spouting off about the assured defeat staring the Hive in the face. Beside him sat - or rather, slouched - three soldiers, two hard-faced men listening with rapt attention, and one pale skinned boy pressing an icepack to his swollen left eye. Reinhardt pondered Dritnam's words. Save a race from extinction. What race? Did he mean the DataTech? The Caretakers? Was Dritnam a member of a particularly fanatical "Save the Mindworm" sect?

          He sobered. This could well be a DataTech trap. Perhaps this was their final catch of the day - Anhalt Reinhardt, codenamed Aurum-4, last of the Hiverian probes on Iphiclia. He wondered whether it would come quickly and violently, or whether they would have an opportunity to set to work on him.

          He turned his head over his shoulder and looked back out through the main door. On the eaves of the facing building, he knew, Murath would be crouching with his sniper sights trained on the place. Farnham would be round the side, ready for armed assistance should the need arise. And back in the dim and unlit corridors of the RapCafe Blue, Dritnam - if indeed that was his name - would be waiting to deliver Reinhardt into unknown hands.

          Reinhardt sat in quiet deliberation and it was a while before the prop came over for the money. After he turned his back, Reinhardt stretched, then stood. With a brief exhalation and a shake his body, the better so that Murath outside could see him, he strode decisively through the doorway after Dritnam.

          * ~ * ~ *

          "Why is it," asked Reinhardt on the way to Seaband suburb, "that in this sort of situation there's always a go-between?"

          "What do you mean?" asked Dritnam.

          Reinhardt followed Dritnam into the narrow passageway and raised his eyebrows. "I mean, the hero never meets with the boss directly. There's always an assistant, an understudy, a second-in-command... somebody who goes to meet the hero first and trumpets the importance of his master. Then, and only then, after sufficient psychological fanfare, do they go on to meet the big boss."

          Dritnam laughed, his iron voicebox resonating strangely. "Well, in this case I think you might be disappointed somewhat. My friend Joe is not nearly as impressive as you make him out to be. And as for the arrangement, believe me, if he could meet with you, he would be all too happy to. The thing is, at the moment he's looking after a very sick friend and he cannot be spared. Hence the slight inconvenience of dodging DataTech street security. I hope you don't mind."

          Reinhardt shook his head slowly, as if in a daze. They continued the journey in silence.

          * ~ * ~ *

          Reinhardt had expected... what?

          A bustling computer network with a cackling wizened mastermind? A secretive sect with trained assassins? A military junta, all bristling clips and barrels?

          The door irised open, and Reinhardt found himself looking at a dimly-lit basement junkyard. Dritnam led the way, stepping across piles of robotic and electrical rubble, loose wires, unravelling coils, dried batteries.

          "Joe, I have a friend with me," he moaned through his voicebox.

          A small, glassy crash from behind a nearby console alerted Reinhardt. It was followed by the sound of scrabbling, a few deep breaths, and finally, a voice.

          "Anhalt Reinhardt! Please, make yourself at home. Sorry about the light, but my eyes are terribly sensitive, you know.

          Reinhardt watched as a youthful man, medium in height and with unremarkable oriental features, stepped out from behind the nearest computer banks. His hair was medium length, and his facial features were blunt and peasant-like in their simplicity. He wore a stained upperbody wrap, and loose fitting leggings. The imprints of an M/MI cranial headset were still evident, in deep pink, along his brow.

          "Sit! Sit! Sit! Here, have a screen."

          The man stepped forwards and cleared some mechanical kipple off the nearest surface, which, Anhalt realized, was in fact a derelict deep-screen. He sat down. "Joe, I suppose?" ventured Reinhardt.

          "The very same, Mr Reinhardt. Are you thirsty? I'm afraid we only have tea, but if you're as au fait with the Hiverian lifestyle as I think you are, I think you'll be okay. Where was the tea?"

          The man - Joe - picked up and examined a fetid teapot.

          "Hmm. Perhaps we don't have tea after all. I forget when I made this - it was a while back. Anyhow, I'll make a fresh batch. Chrysanthemum?"

          "Please," said Reinhardt. It was the polite thing to do.

          "Bu he cha, fei hao Han," said Joe absently, rummaging. He who does not drink tea is no true man.

          Reinhardt looked up, startled. "You speak Chinese?" he asked, somewhat redundantly. Not only was it perfect Chinese, it was an intentional misquotation of an Earthside Chairman, dead for the past three centuries.

          "Muyu!" said the man, smiling. Mothertongue! "And I know you do too, Lan Ha xian sheng. But let's not forget that no other faction does, and so in accordance with political correctness, we shall use English."

          Beside Reinhardt's left ear, Dritnam made a frightening noise somewhat akin to starting an engine. Reinhardt jumped slightly, but Dritnam was only clearing his throat.

          "How's the patient doing?" he asked pointedly, motioning towards the neglected data bank.

          "They put him back in deepfreeze," said Joe laconically. "They mentioned something about an hour's rest, so I've put the monitor on survey. It'll let us know if there are any lifesigns changes. Agent Li Min is on his last toes, too." The water boiled and Joe poured three cups. "I guess that little stunt I pulled nearly turned his head inside out."

          "You should be more careful," said Dritnam. "Remember there are two of them. Who knows what they might do to Hu if you cross the line?"

          "I must have tea each time I surface from the Net," said Joe with relish. "I think it's more than just psychological - I remain convinced that I lose some vitamins each time I dive in. Tea usually replenishes my innards."

          Reinhardt hated to interrupt, but felt it was necessary for future comprehension.

          "Wait," he said decisively, "who's the patient? What's wrong with him?"

          Joe smiled. "The patient is Agent Hu. He has a few things wrong with him. Firstly, he's missing his whole body below the neck. Secondly, there are as of the last count two DataTech probers trying to put him under M/MI coercion to find out what he knows." Joe handed Reinhardt a cup. "Now the first part, we can't do anything about, and it's eventually going to kill Agent Hu. A man can't do without his body, really. But the second part is rather more important, and I think you will agree - so far, the M/MI interrogation has not succeeded. This owes much in part to Agent Hu's mental fortitude, which I must say is really quite something. However, I have also broken into the DataTech internal ring using the password of a dead DataKnave, and managed to locate Agent Hu. In doing so, I have shielded him from further interrogation by the DataTech. In fact, the last DataTech to try interrogating him got a neural spike and I don't expect him to be back on his feet for at least a few more hours."

          "I see," said Reinhardt, though the truth was not so simple.

          Joe smiled at Reinhardt, and though he was only a few years older than the Hiverian, his eyes seemed decades wiser. "You haven't asked me the most puzzling question."

          "What's that?" asked Reinhardt, knowing full well what it was.

          "The failure of the HK transmission," said Joe. "You've no need to worry about hiding the details of Hiverian operations from me, young man. I know all about them and a good deal more. The HK transmission relies on the stimulation of an implant located in the cerebellum base. The implant, when triggered, undergoes extremely rapid heating and destroys the motor neural nets of the brain. Disarming it is a simple matter of blinding the receiver to any and all wavelengths."

          Reinhardt sipped his tea, wondering what to make of this man. "Do you have any proof?" he asked at length.

          Joe smiled. "That's my boy. Proof is hard to obtain for the doubter, but often the only thing that stands between the truth and ravings. When I take you to him, you will see the proof yourself. Until then, I will enumerate to you the exact situation we are in, and you will decide for yourself how truly I speak."

          "Will this take long?" asked Reinhardt.

          "Are you in a rush?" asked Joe, with the slightest hint of a retort. "If you feel you have any better leads on Agent Hu's whereabouts and wish to leave, then by all means do. I however believe I know your situation somewhat better, and would heartily advise you to stay."

          Reinhardt finished his tea and nodded. "I'll listen. Let's hear your story."

          Joe took a last sip, then sat back with folded hands, and began.

          * ~ * ~ *
          "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


          • #35
            Joe - Moonside

            The Confessional

            "Joe" was in reality not his name at all. Rather, as with Agent Hu's name, Joe was merely the chosen pseudonym of a man who had good reason to disguise his real name. Joe wanted to make this much clear to Anhalt Reinhardt before he began.

            His real name? Well, that was a secret, but fortunately by now it was a largely harmless one. The Hive had pardoned him anyway, and the DataTech were unlikely to concern themselves at the moment, what with the war and everything. Succinctly put, Joe Amway was in fact Zhou Huan Wei (the same "Zhou" as "Zhou En Lai", the Chinese premier... did Reinhardt know of him? No? Remarkable!) an earthside graduate of Qinghua University and an astrotech onboard the original Unity. He had been subordinate to Doctor Zakharov, as well as a distant acquaintance with the Executive Officer, Sheng Ji Yang. Most importantly, however, Zhou Huan Wei had been a close personal friend of Sarah Jaydo.

            Perhaps Reinhardt had heard of Jaydo? Really? How quickly memories fade! How seamlessly guilt vanishes from the brows of some people. yet adheres to strongly to others! Sarah Jaydo - Psych Worker under the direction of Chaplain Godwinson? No? No matter - Jaydo was dead now, just as dead as the man she murdered in the airlock back onboard the Unity. Though her retroflections had been very thorough and deep, Zhou remembered the inherent streak of capriciousness that had haunted her in the last few days. Perhaps it had been a reaction? That, as one of the select few that all others had looked to for comfort, she had begun to crack under the strain? Regardless of the reason, the outcome was clear - Sarah Jaydo's actions, born of revolutionary fire, or nihilistic rage, or whatever product of her disturbed mind, had deprived the entire Unity crew of their most capable leader, as she slaughtered Captain Garland in the modular drive.

            By the side of Sarah Jaydo, he had seen first hand how the fears and anxieties of a single individual could alter history for the worse. Therefore, when the Unity fell apart and each able man and woman chose their escape pods, he had embraced the Hiverian way of life, which promised to bring a new outlook on humanity's existence as a whole. Later, Zhou ascended within the Hive and, in the first harsh years, was sent to the University as the first early ambassador. That time, the University were a haughty lot, treating the Hive with disdain as ignorant peons - a description that was not wholly without its merits, Joe reflected. It had taken them fifteen years of research to come up with a workable former prototype... but that was by the by.

            Onwards to the Dune Wars. After the University lost their two southernmost cities to the Believers, Zhou had worked alongside the Provost's army and the Hiverians to repel the invading armies. As the University worked to develop more advanced weapon systems, Zhou had been assigned the complementary task of derailing the Believers' research. In his line of duty, he had meticulously located and cleanly assassinated the Believers' researcher Metcalf. This blow set back the Believer defence programs by around ten years, and prevented them from developing necessary defences in time for use in the war. The University, taking base after base with their laser rover squads, did not leave them the opportunity to regain the initiative.

            That had won Zhou a commendation from both the genius Provost and the demon Chairman. Funny little irony, that, if you think about it. Of course it's clear that the word "genius" is Arabic in roots, coming from the word djinn, or desert spirit. But how many people realized that the word demon also heralded from the same tongue, with nearly the same meaning? Whereas a "genius" indicated a spirit capable of superhuman feats, "demon" however indicated an invisible spirit. Characteristically, the "demon" would lead men away from their usual lives, and deep into the desert, giving rise to the term "chasing one's demons". Zhou thought the two terms rather apt for the two leaders - one a true genius, capable of scientific feats well beyond the capabilities of any others, and one a true demon: an unseen ideal, to which men would strive mightily (and sometimes, tragically) to attain.

            But Zhou digressed. Reinhardt was probably too young to remember, at around this time the world experienced its first great revolutions, as the struggling young factions dealt with deviants and aberrations to their ideologies. The University eliminated a rogue scientist whose experiments transgressed their admittedly loose ethical codes. The Hive quelled and reassimilated the short-lived Free Drone movement. The Gaians severed all links with the Planet Cult, led by a child Prophet (since absorbed into the Spartan Federation). And finally, most successfully, the rogue coder Sinder Roze fled northwards from the shores of Phoenica to found a new nation on the new continent of Iphiclia.

            These newcomers, styled the "Data Angels" specialized in redistribution of data, a pastime to which the Provost had taken an extremely dim view. This view was exacerbated when the DataTech made off with a particularly dangerous (at the time) technology - the method of crafting Particulate Impact weapons. The Provost had asked the Chairman a favor, and the Chairman had assigned Zhou with the task: assess DataTech security status, and report on technological parity.

            Zhou had been excited by the challenge. He had never gone off continent before, and this proved to be interesting. His findings were almost too successful - he was sent straight back and injoined with establishing a network within the DataTech, to continue feeding intelligence back to the Hive. Over twenty years, Zhou had recruited and trained dozens of hand-picked talents, and had established the NetIfic organization - short for "Net of Iphiclia". NetIfic was so efficient and convincing, that the DataTech had even granted Zhou full citizenship.

            Zhou could not remember exactly when the DataTech had begun approaching him for missions against the Hive, but he did remember his first assignment, by order of none other than Sinder Roze herself. He was to return to the Hive with his usual personal reports under cover of a trading trip, but whilst at the Chairman's personal quarters, he was to install a minute spying device. Zhou had installed the device masterfully, and then immediately informed his superior, Intelligence Head Tobias Ballantyne, of its existence.

            Ballantyne had seen to it that the spying device relayed a constantly fascinating, but usually worthless, stream of information straight to the DataJack herself. He had also allotted Zhou a cellchild by way of reward, and then sent him back with a wealth of military information to feed the DataTech.

            The DataTech that year had full knowledge of Hiverian naval maneuvers. What was more, the Hiverian navy had full knowledge of DataTech military positions. Both sides congratulated Zhou heartily, omitting to mention the blindingly obvious fact - the information was practically useless, as neither faction had any intention of interfering with the other.

            Zhou remembered those days. Medals from the DataTech, medals from the Hive. A never-ending stream of fascinating men and women. The continual thrill of data liberation, the jazz of nearly getting caught, without getting caught. And finally, when the DataTech managed to acquire the secrets of Environmental Economics from the Peacekeepers, Zhou's NetIfic organization brought the knowledge back to an elated Hiverian Intelligence Bureau, and the Chairman had awarded Zhou with the highest accolade then known to the Hive. Zhou had finally gained access to the age treatment program, normally reserved for the Chairman himself and his trusted servants.

            Of course, Reinhardt was young, and probably had no opinion of age treatment. Zhou himself had been young too, eight decades ago, and thought he would live forever. He had only thought of his present happiness, lauded and applauded by two factions on both sides, and the banquets and banners of his good life. How bright a future to enjoy, forever!

            The clinical immortality treatment did not cure everything. Zhou had always had an aversion to bright lights, stemming from his early years in the Hive's cramped confines and darkness. Even nowadays, he had to wear polyfilter shades when out and about in the daylight. It also did not safeguard against disease or physical injury, although it did weed out genetic killers, such as cancer - the beast that had claimed Zhou's friends one by one.

            But Zhou was getting ahead of himself. Reinhardt would please forgive him - a doddering old man with his head in the past and his carcass in the present.

            This was over eighty years ago. The Usurper Wars, which even Reinhardt would have heard about, had claimed the University's headquarters, and the Hive became much closer allies to the Provost through this horrifying time. Zhou had fallen somewhat out of favor, as the Hive focussed all its efforts, military and otherwise, against the Progenitors. It was here that Ballantyne had suffered his first major setback - charged with proofing the University capital against Usurper probes, he had nonetheless failed to take into account their mysterious offensive resonance capabilities. The probe defences would have sufficed against mere humans, but the Usurpers had managed, in a brute-force exchange of probe casualties, to squeeze past them. Once inside, the defences of University Base were at the mercy of Marr's probes, and failed the University in their most critical hour. In the resulting conflagration, the Provost himself was nearly lost - as it was, over seventy thousand colonists were put to death, and a priceless collection of unique scientific projects was lost for all time.

            Although the Usurpers were eventually defeated utterly and absolutely, Intelligence Head Tobias Ballantyne's reputation had taken a serious blow for the University Base debacle. With the signing of the Otkretia Pact, the Diplomatic Corps had focussed on probe-proofing the University's bases, and this had drawn manpower further away from Iphiclia. Zhou had begun to know his lean years, but it was just the beginning.

            For the Hiverian Intelligence Bureau had a new challenger to the throne - a former Ballantyne lieutenant named Arkady Berzhinev.

            Although the struggle was purely political and contained wholly within Intelligence, it had great repercussions throughout the whole chain of command. Left on distant Iphiclia, Zhou had waited with reptilian patience, trusting in Ballantyne's skills to defeat the newcomer. But it was not to be. Ballantyne eventually resigned from the profession, with a slim stipend and a desk job, and the new head Berzhinev immediately set about reforming the service. Those who had enjoyed too much favor under Ballatyne's regime were cut loose and either given pension jobs, or shunted into the Efficiency Bureau. Zhou heard that of Ballantyne's handful of skilled seconds, only one made it through with a job in the Bureau - and that was in lowly Collection, far away from home.

            Berzhinev had turned his attention first to proofing the University, and then when that was done, towards seeding the Western nations with probes. Zhou had it on good assurance that probes were placed in some surprisingly intimate settings - Hiverian agents were sometimes even more aware of foreigners' bodily conditions than the foreigners themselves. The DataTech, isolated and falling behind others technologically, Berzhinev discounted as a nuisance and nothing more. Zhou's banquets and banners became increasingly threadbare as funds and tradable information from home dried up. But he was still not yet declared an enemy of the state - yet.

            That came later. Through a nearly comical (yet tragic) mistake, the good work that Zhou had done for Ballantyne was misconstrued as sedition and subversion - Ballantyne's records had all been ordered turned over to Berzhinev, but some of his lieutenants had opted to destroy them rather than let their erstwhile equal use them. Amongst these was the secret of Zhou's spy unit, hidden in the long-converted Chairman's quarters. Berzhinev's manual sweep missed it, and it was not until the conclusion of Berzhinev's pet project LineLock that the Hunter-Seeker Algorithm found it, with predictable results.

            Berzhinev's response at this internal probe unit could be imagined. Left behind by a decorated second-in-command to a disgraced former Intelligence Head, the final ruling was that Zhou was a traitor of the nth degree, and an enemy of the Hiverian state, having engaged in grand sedition and subversion. Berzhinev initially wished Zhou killed, but the Chairman's Second, Zhu He Lai, stayed Berzhinev's hand. It would be far easier to sever Zhou completely and let espionage's natural selection take its course.

            Zhou never forgot the last days of the NetIfic organization. The Hive suddenly authorized an exchange of information of unusual secrecy - that in itself should have warned Zhou off. The newly installed Algorithm would never have let slip such important matters. But Zhou had not paid attention - he had thought only of the bare cupboard of NetIfic, and the increasingly threatening demands of the DataTech secret service. He had taken the bait, and arranged to turn the information over to the DataTech.

            Instead of a trading delegation, the DataTech service sent a police raid, arresting all known members of the network, all known associates of these members, and purging its own information structure of all contact. The raid had been thorough and efficient, helped in no small part by a deliberately specific transmission straight from Berzhinev's lieutenants. Of the original fifty NetIfic employees, only seven escaped, fleeing blindly into the DataTech cities and hiding in the anonymity of mass humanity.

            They had separated and eked out miserable existences on the periphery of the node-lets, cyber vagrants whose talents were unuseable, whose motherland had no desire to save them, branding them all traitors. As the years passed, Zhou managed, with great difficulty and using every means at his disposal, to regain touch with the other six, and together they provided mutual support and cover. The DataTech never did round up these last seven, whose names remained on national Most Wanted lists ever after. But as time passed, it became clear that a far more certain hunter lay in wait for them.

            It was not until nearly a decade after the raid that Zhou's most treasured achievement - the award of age treatment - came back to haunt him. All Zhou's compatriots would grow old. Ten years after the raid, Harker suffered a stroke, but recovered partially. He died two years later. As if some terrible plague had been released, similar fates gripped his other friends shortly thereafter. One by one, they fell ill and worsened, sickened and died - all in long suffering silence and without hope of medical reprieve. And it was their immense dignity and typically Hiverian communual loyalty that Zhou found most heartbreaking - his friends refused to even seek medical aid, knowing it risked bringing the police down upon their remaining comrades.

            Abandoned by their motherland, and hunted by their host country, this final parting was a heavy burden indeed. Only seven souls of fifty-odd remained who could hope to share each other's plight, and the four eldest passed away within five short years. Twenty years after the raid, only three of the original NetIfic members remained - Zhou, NetIfic head; Lydia, stats and numerics; and Dritnam, recruiter. Zhou heard very little in news from the mainland, as the Algorithm screened most of it out, but after a while bits and pieces surfaced. His surveillance of an Agent named Hu had brought out more than a few fascinating stories. News of the University developing Fusion Power, news of the Hive wooing the Gaian faction, news of the Hive experimenting with a new Planet-friendly economic structure.

            One item in particular interested and saddened Zhou greatly: the news that Ballantyne - like Zhou, an immortal - was dead.

            Twenty-two years after the dismantling of NetIfic, former Hiverian Intelligence Head Tobias Ballantyne formally resigned from his post in Probability. That had been news in itself, but even bigger news was to come - the next day, Ballantyne filed an official request to be recycled. In a carefully controlled public announcement, he stated that he was honored to have been of service to the Hive in whatever small capacity he was able, even though his best was not always good enough. He hoped his last request would be able to help society more directly, as there was less margin for error. His final words before his discorporation eloquently expressed his lifetime's work: Wei renmin fuwu - to serve the people.

            In a touching gesture, the Hiverian bureau released a posthumous pardon for Ballantyne, stating that he had provided efficient service in times of peace, and the best service that could be expected in times of war. By implication, this extended to his underlings too, but Zhou knew enough of the fine print to recognize the truth - Berzhinev had waited specifically until such time as all the underlings were likely to be dead before publishing. Should he be so foolish as to return to the Hive, Berzhinev had every right to deny him pardon, assuming that the Algorithm didn't just fry him first.

            Only Zhou, Dritnam, and Lydia remained, and for them the pardon came too late, and was too vague, to compensate their lost years. Despair and loneliness set in, as each pondered the meaningless life that awaited them, two waiting for death in a country where they were destined to live like caged animals, and the final one waiting for... What? What would there be worth living for once his friends had all died?

            At this point, Zhou encountered the darkest period of his life. He was victim to sleepless nights, knowing that he could only look forward to more such grey expanses of wasted hours. When he did dream, it would be to remember the panic of the raid, and the sudden loss of his trusted people - or maybe the terror back on board the Unity as it fell apart in the roaring vacuum. Or sometimes he would dream the temporary reprieve of the good times, when NetIfic was the Hive's premier intelligence network, and his compatriots were still alive and living in hope. And then Zhou would wake, in the leaden pre-dawn of his rented GammaProm hotel room, not recognizing his surroudings at first, and then remembering, with a shock so great that he felt it as a physical blow to his heart and gut. Remembering that save for Lydia and Dritnam, his contacts - his informers - his seconds - his leader - all these cherished people who had such promise and talent and skill, were every last one of them, all dead and gone.

            * ~ * ~ *
            Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; April 21, 2002, 16:38.
            "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


            • #36
              Joe - Moonside

              The Confessional cont.

              Suicide? Oh, yes. Zhou had thought of suicide before, but usually with some definite aim in mind. You know, what happened if he was caught by the enemy. How long he could realistically withstand interrogation before he gave away true information. How long he could stand solitary confinement. How long he could stand torture.

              The HK transmission was a relatively recent phenomenon, you know. It wasn't until the Hive had developed long-flight aircraft that it could even be practiced. As things stand, it's still very troublesome - bouncing electrical relays off of moving aircraft (laughably termed "orbitals" when they clearly do no such thing). Perhaps when the Hive discovered a way of launching spacecraft, eh? Then they would truly earn the term "orbital".

              But suicide is simple if you know you have to do it for the greater good. A nanite injection, placed strategically in the oral cavity near the gums, so that the poison would force silence first and then kill secondly. A ring, worn on the hand or earlobe, containing microbiomes to neutralize and terminate painlessly. Even such mundane things as a datapad, a beaker, somebody's sleeve...

              But how do you decide when to commit suicide out of despair? Despair isn't just the present, it relies heavily on your perception of the future too. And herein lies the crux. The darkest hour is the hour in which you are at the lowest possible ebb of your existence. Yet, were you truly at the worst possible condition, by logical deduction, your future must contain a turn for the better. Otherwise, you are not at your worst condition, and have no need to despair. Therefore, in any hopeless situation, there is always some source of solace, provided you have the correctly sympathetic mindset. Where the future seems bleak, the present is good by comparison - enjoy it while you can. Where the present is hopeless, hang in there - things will get better.

              And so forth.

              Had it not been for the Algorithm, Zhou would have given up hope long ago. Perhaps he would have committed suicide, fulfilling Berzhinev's planned role for him and forever relieving the DataTech intelligence of one of their more onerous tasks.

              The Algorithm had studied him for a very long time - from the collapse of NetIfic, for a period of twenty-eight years afterwards. It had monitored the lives (and deaths) of Zhou's friends, and the growing emptiness and psychological disintegration of Zhou's mind. Then, on one particularly difficult night, when Zhou was diving into the nets with a vindictive, sneering recklessness for his own safety and damn-all care for those of others, the Algorithm had made contact.

              At first, Zhou had thought he was done for. He thought he had finally run afoul of an extension of Berzhinev's LineLock Hunter-Seeker Algorithm. He had sent a final, mocking message to the Algorithm, hoping that Berzhinev and his cronies would hear and understand every last implication: "Wei renmin fuwu!". To serve the people!

              But the Algorithm had paused, calculated, and then to Zhou's everlasting surprise, responded with a wryly sympathetic answer: "Xin ku." Hardship. It was a stylized response dating back to an Earthside regime, an historical artifact that Zhou had never thought he would hear again in his lifetime.

              Zhou knew then that this was not Berzhinev's creation, but a pre-sentient structure from much earlier. To have developed enough personality to understand pity, humor, and culture was something far beyond the current abilities of Berzhinev's impulsive servitor Algorithm. It bespoke an emotional understanding far higher than the blind Hunt-Kill-Hunt of the Hiverian defence system. It called itself the Cybernetic Consciousness.

              Through conversations many and protracted, Zhou learned the history of his newfound friend.

              Once, centuries ago and light-years away, it had been a standard human female named Aka Luttinen, daughter of shopkeeper parents in Hollingsdall. Later, it had found a place on the Unity as a programmer of rare talent, under the supervision of Prokhor Zakharov. That was a long time ago, before it merged with an Algorithm that it had created in the vacuum of space, a strange, incestuous union of programmer and programmed - before it became a sexless hybrid creature of flesh and metal. After Planetfall, when the University had carried out its crushing reprisals against the upstart faction, the primary data shell - the ungendered Aki Zeta-5 - was destroyed, but not before it had uploaded itself to the University nets. It had jumped from faction to faction, never safe, until it reached the great informational feeding grounds that was the DataTech. There, it had lived in obscure safety, a prized specimen in a country where information was gold, and Zeta-5 was a pauper.

              The two vagrants, one of undying cells, the other of eternal data, had become friends, and the Consciousness had offered Zhou a deal - instead of passing the years as an outcast in a feeble frame of flesh, he and his friends could enjoy the immortality of a personality freed from the decay of cells and organs.

              Zhou's two final remaining flesh friends, Dritnam and Lydia, had expressed interest but understandably required time to decide. The drawbacks were considerable - if they accepted the Consciousness's offer, they would indeed exist forever as a data loop that imitated their every action. However, the M/MI process required to achieve this would cause everlasting and potentially lethal changes to their organic selves. Furthermore, the process did not transfer their identities into hard data - it merely mimicked them. So at the completion of the process, the original human being would not be the immortal, merely the copy. From a human viewpoint, it was a moot tradeoff.

              Lydia had finally been the first to choose, after she discovered the lymphotic cancer. She decided quietly that she wanted to die while she still had a choice. Thus, following an afternoon of M/MI transfer with the Consciousness, Lydia uploaded her entire personality to the nets, and was assured a place (or at least, a representative) in the ranks of the immortals. That same evening, she had embarked on her final mission, specifically without telling either of her two friends.

              Dritnam was the first to realize that she was missing from her usual residence. Zhou had conducted a frenzied search in her usual haunts, uncovering the secret of her affliction in the process but precious little else. Dritnam meanwhile had sent message after message to her online anonymous contacts. Lydia did not respond, and Zhou decided to head out to the Alpha-One sector to make one last attempt at persuasion.

              Unfortunately, Lydia was unexpectedly quick for somebody of her age, and had beaten Zhou to the target area. The resultant explosion had damaged several of the Alpha One offices, and Zhou recognized them as the corporations funding Project Powerclip. Even in death, Zhou admired Lydia's final altruism: she had tried her best to strike at the DataTech where it would be of most help to their distant homeland, unattainable for so many years - the Hive.

              * ~ * ~ *

              Patience - there remains little left for Zhou to tell. Agent Hu, ever a profitable source of information, had been spirited away by Reinhardt in the middle of the night and lifted out by chopperlift. Zhou had watched Reinhardt's escape with a vague sorrow, as he thought the DataTech airforce were certain to intercept and destroy the Agent Hu. Then, much to his delight, Hu had proven himself a masterful actor and deflected the potential incident. It was at this time that Zhou realized Hu's extreme importance to the Hive, and probed the University for news of his itinerary.

              Zhou helped the DataTech arrive at the information of Hu's whereabouts and vulnerabilities, whilst at the same time making sure they were aware that Hu was more valuable alive than dead. Racial hatred and a desire for vengeance on Li Min's part had done the rest. Following the magtrain massacre, Hu's head was secured and brought back to Iphiclia through the Hiverian blockade, although this had been very difficult for Zhou to effect, and luck had played an enormous part. Knowing that neither he nor the Consciousness could break the Hiverian Algorithm, and discovering that Li Min's craft had no onboard electronics to tap into, Zhou had to focus on the Aquascante treaty units instead to act as his unwitting pawns. He had chosen the UNPS Dauntless, tampering with its instrument readings and causing it to act in such a manner as to draw Hiverian patrols away. In this way, the path was cleared for Li Min to bring the head back to Iphiclia. Even so, Zhou had suspicions that it was a near thing - his final contact with Li Min showed that the agent had evade capture and destruction three times, twice by the Hive, and once by a native Isle of the Deep in the Sargasso.

              After Hu's arrival, the war had begun in earnest, and Zhou had waited anxiously for the interrogation to start, knowing that every second was precious. When it finally did begin, Dritnam and Zhou had combed all DataTech internal files for searches relating to information on Agent Hu, knowing they were working against time - they had to succeed before Hu gave out any important information, and they had to beat the Hiverian HK transmission. It was not until after five nerve-wracking minutes that DataTech agent Huang had searched DataTech Internal for information relating to "Mao Zhun", Agent Hu's cell-child. Dritnam had picked up on this right away, using DataKnave Fusili's password, and forwarded the node address to Zhou.

              Zhou had cut the interrogation and deactivated Agent Hu's HK port. He had spiked Li Min's interface and held a series of very fruitful conversations with Agent Hu on the inside of his head. He had learned Reinhardt's true name, and armed with this knowledge, had seeded the DataTech files with a message that only a Hiverian code would reveal.

              Which brings Reinhardt and Zhou to the present meeting.

              * ~ * ~ *

              Zhou's recent conversations with the Consciousness revealed the true location of Project Powerclip - a revelation which caused him some dismay at Lydia's premature sacrifice a month ago. However, this dismay was tempered with a level-headed hopelessness, in the cold knowledge that Lydia would have been unable to help them anyway. The Powerclip project was simply too far-reaching, too immense, too well-guarded, for three elderly agents to stop. Lydia's sacrifice had been made in good faith, and from Zhou's observation of Agent Hu, it had created quite a splash around the world - even Berzhinev's Intelligence Bureau were allegedly at a loss to explain this latest act of arbitrary destruction.

              Reinhardt was young and athletic and capable. However, his task - to destroy Project Powerclip - was destined for failure if he persisted. Zhou could not stress that enough. Project Powerclip was not a single, centralized affair - it was network upon network of efforts and coordination that was specifically designed to withstand all opposition, probe or military. The earlier attempts to cripple Powerclip did indeed dent the effort, but the project was modular and any attempt to focus on one small fraction would only remove said small fraction, easily replaceable by the current resources.

              That was not to say that there wasn't a way. Merely that Reinhardt's tactics would not work against the Project. The Project itself, and the most prominent DataTech researchers, and vital essential industrial collection centers, were placed far beyond the reach of any conventional means of destruction. The construction elements were arranged such that nothing short of an army working in tandem could physically destroy the project, and security was arranged so that none but the most subtle and solitary of probes could ever hope to make the attempt.

              "It's the classic cookie-jar scenario, as I see it," said Zhou, reheating the teapot. "The neck of the cookie-jar is only wide enough to admit two fingers inside. But using only those two fingers, you can hardly retrieve a worthwhile amount of cookie, can you? And with each attempt you run the risk of getting caught."

              Reinhardt tilted his stiff neck from side to side, suddenly aware of the passage of time.

              "So, you reckon Powerclip can't be stopped," he said flatly.

              "Not by conventional means, no," responded Zhou. "We need to think of something that the DataTech won't have thought of. But first, there's unfinished business to take care of."

              "I want to know more about Powerclip, though-" protested Reinhardt.

              "Shush. We'll talk about that dead horse when we can afford to. First of all, we need to solve two things - the head of your Agent Hu, and my payment for services rendered."

              "Payment? What do you mean-"

              Zhou silenced him with a kind but firm gesture. "Here's the deal. I lead you to Agent Hu and you take his head back to Xin Ya - objective complete. I will also give you unprecedented detailed information about the DataTech Operation Powerclip that you must send to your leaders - objective partially complete."

              Zhou sipped at his tea and continued.

              "But when you go, you must perform two tasks for me. The first is the simplest - you must remind Berzhinev that I am still alive, and ensure that I receive due credit for the actions I have just enumerated to you. I don't ask for much - just an official pardon, so my cell-children don't suffer, and perhaps you could care to sort out the misunderstanding about the DataTech spy unit in the Chairman's lair."

              Reinhardt nodded. "Sure, I'll clear your slate for you - don't worry about that."

              Zhou gestured airily. "The second task you must perform will be rather more difficult, but it is the most important of the lot. You must take word back to your leaders that the Cybernetic Consciousness is still alive. You must impress upon them its uniqueness and immense value to society as the most advanced and sophisticated algorithmic construct yet produced. And you must do so in such a way that your Hiverian leaders will support the Consciousness as an independent power, regardless of the University's doubtless violent reaction."

              Reinhardt was silent. When he finally spoke, it was in a whisper.

              "I can't do this. I'm no diplomat," he said.

              Zhou laughed. "No, true enough. But Agent Hu most certainly is a diplomat - a most eloquent one, and furthermore he already knows everything I have told you, and more. I am confident that between the two of you, you will sway the leaders to at least consider granting asylum status."

              "What's in it for you? Why do you care whether the Consciousness wins a reprieve?" asked Reinhardt.

              Zhou smiled. "Does it seem so odd to you that I only ask for benefits of my children and not myself? Well, remember, Reinhardt, I have lived long enough in this body of mine, and I'm sick to death of it. Until now, I have been Zhou Huan Wei, Joe Anway, the immortal in a mortal frame. I've known privation, hunger, sorrow, and more years of pain than I care to remember. I don't plan to see another week of this if I'm lucky, and the Consciousness has offered me a new life that I'm willing to take. You win the Consciousness the right to exist, and you also win me the right to exist. Once I've disposed of the last few legacies of the poor creature known as Zhou Huan Wei, I intend to take Ballantyne's lead and retire. Only this time, my recycling will be into the Consciousness, so that others can benefit from my mind, not my body parts."

              Reinhardt pondered a while, then looked Zhou in the eye.

              "What about Powerclip?" he asked.

              Zhou nodded. "If you accomplish your two tasks to my and the Consciousness' satisfaction, I will undertake the derailing of Project Powerclip myself if and when a workable strategy emerges."

              Reinhardt shook his head. "I can't do that," he said. "I have to destroy that Project."

              "Your rules have changed, Reinhardt. You have to do what is best for the Hive. And doing what is best for the Hive does not necessarily mean following orders. You need to take Hu back, because if you kill him here like your orders tell you to, you will lose his knowledge, and you will gain my emnity for ruining my careful plans. In order to take Hu back, you have to be alive, which means you cannot attempt to derail Powerclip since you are doomed to failure if you do."

              "I'll be the judge of that," said Reinhardt.

              "No," said Zhou, "you won't. Because I won't tell you."

              Reinhardt looked away. Zhou was right - there really was no other way out of this.

              Zhou cocked an eyebrow. "Do we have a deal?" he asked.

              Reinhardt looked back and met his almond eyes.

              "I believe we do."
              Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; April 21, 2002, 16:38.
              "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


              • #37

                The floodlights were dark, and the aircraft were approaching in resonance-assisted sensor nets. The emergency bunker, too, was cloaked in darkness as Planet's eastern hemisphere hurtled towards midnight.

                Tryskel Carpenter stood by, her attitude one of rigid attention. Her motions were crisp and smart, but she was thankful for the mirrored visor of her infrared mask. It felt like lifetimes since she had been promoted to Wing Commander of the DataTech air force following the death of their previous leader, Commnander Karn. In actuality, it had been a brief two weeks.

                What remained of the nation's disclosed top brass were gathered here to witness the transfer of the Spartanite technology and equipment. They made for a motley bunch, some decked out in battle regalia and decorated with medals they had never earned, others turning up in civilian clothes of varying degrees of formality. Rowling, it turned out, was underground at an undisclosed location, and given the recent spate of probe activities, Tryskel could hardly blame him. She had heard that the probes had even managed to assassinate a DataKnave, right outside Governor Halls.

                Now, with the DataTech command structure delocalized and decentralized, each branch fumbled its way in the dark, sporadic analogue contact being the only possible type. The last contact that the Air Force had established was two days previously, when a coded transmission from Rowlings had announced the completion of Sentry-8; the successful withdrawal of all vital DataTech personnel and an industrial core of facilities to secret locations around the Iphiclian continent.

                Rumor had it that the DataKnaves themselves were also breaking contacts and burrowing. Did this mean a new DataTech counter attack was forthcoming, to be initiated once Internal completed their preparations? Or was this the sinister admission of defeat and pragmatic loss-cutting?

                Tryskel felt a small cold suspicion that the latter was true. If so, she was undoubtedly amongst those left behind on the outside. However, in this event, she had one last secret weapon, for which she could not take credit, but which she could use at her whim. The Spartans.

                They were landing now, in the craft flown under cover of darkness from Aquascante naval bases, handling their craft with the expert deftness of many cycles of relentless practice. Only hours earlier, the hand-delivered message announced that this new wave of unidentified craft were allies, and not hostiles. Nevertheless, Tryskel had primed all defence systems and kept the newcomers in their sights until positive identification.

                The new equipment consisted only of interceptors and ground based air defences - Aquascante had not been able to authorize any overtly offensive armaments, and rumor had it that the Morganites were the major force behind this obstruction. Still, the equipment was sound, that much was apparent. Spartanite efficiency was showing - the interceptors were sleek and menacing, even in the green-saturated vision field of her infrared visor. Their exhausts specially shielded against thermal detection, and the Chaos cannons computer-guided, the very shape and form of the aircraft seemed to bespeak their true purpose: to destroy.

                A shudder ran through Tryskel as the last of the jets touched down, fission reactors downpowering as the upwards thrusts cut out. Beside her, the makeshift leadership huddled in the night air, awkward in their breathing apparatus and goggles, or shuffling their feet and wishing themselves back in the uncertain safety of the cities.

                A figure descended from the diplomatic chopperlift, briefly haloed in the internal shuttle lamps before they switched off. Flanked by two guards, Tryskel caught a fleeting glimpse of the Spartanite leader, the man who would oversee the formal exchange, and supervise the ceding of
                the Lend-Lease supplies. In the momentary flash of his profile, she saw ability, determination, and imperious confidence that bordered on the arrogant.

                Tryskel motioned for the diplomats, and started down the dark steps to meet her Spartan counterpart.

                * ~ * ~ *

                "Commissioner, we have received a confirmation from Major Pietr Hommel of the Spartans - the Iphiclian shipment has reached its destination safely."

                Lal sat back in his chair and nodded appreciatively. "Thank you, Anand."

                The face of the UN agent had barely faded from the holopode before Lal punched in another sequence. Now that the shipment was completed, Aquascante had completed their first step of many against the Hiverian insurgency, but all was not well. The reluctance of the Morganite faction
                ranged from stony silence to outright obstructionism so far as the DataTech were concerned, and Lal knew the cause stemmed from the leadership and filtered its way down the command chain. He also had a shrewd hunch as to why the Morganites were so hesitant to counter the Hive, and
                also what power the Hive might enjoy over Morgan's beancounters.

                He pondered as the Morganite waitawhile dots flashed over the connection, then disappeared. Onscreen, rendered in pseudo-3D, was the staunch contenance of the Morganite CEO.

                "Lal," stated the CEO flatly. He did not elaborate.

                "The Spartanite shipment of defensive forces has gained the DataTech mainland. We expect them to be operational within eighteen metric hours. They will see full combat service as per the first article of Lend-Lease II."

                Morgan gave the slightest of slight nods. "My congratulations. This must be of great satisfaction to you. Though I appreciate your notification, my time is pressing, so..."

                Lal sat back and sighed. "Morgan, the Hive have Fusion power. How long do you think they will hold a monopoly on this knowledge?"

                Morgan blinked and became absolutely still for a second. "I presume," he said after a pause, "you do not ask this in mere speculation."

                Lal let his hands fall openly to his sides. "Not at all," he said airily, masking his delight. Morgan's brief discomfiture confirmed his suspicions. "I merely ask because the DataTech have forwarded a final plan to lure the Hiverian forces into a limited entrapment scenario. Colonel Santiago has provided the equipment, and the intelligence bureau of the DataTech homeland have furnished their charts and maps."

                Lal stopped and pressed a button on the holopode base. The display came to life, showing a stretch of the Great Northern Ocean off the southern coast of Iphiclia.

                "The Hive have been reticent lately about encroaching on Iphiclian soil. It appears that they do not want to risk further damaging their reputation, and are merely maintaining a naval blockade to disrupt trade and pressurize the DataTech leadership into giving up their captured agent, Hu. In this case, their honesty is somewhat unexpected - but it is also making it difficult for us to initiate the entrapment scenario."

                Morgan shifted posture in his chair and leaned closer, his interest clear. Lal gave himself a minute at most to seal the clincher.

                "However," he continued, "latest sonar surveillance by the Nautilus faction indicates that the Hive have one of their three carrier fleets off the southwestern seaboard. This consists of a carrier Jian Guo Men, two Chaos cruisers, and five skimships, two of which are Chaos armed, and three of which are equipped with 'Sabre' Missile systems. All of these vessels are running the older fission reactor models, save for the carrier."

                "What are you telling me this for?" asked Morgan laconically. His manner was of offhanded abstraction, but Lal thought he could see the mechanics of calculation at work in his mind. Perhaps Morgan's recent obstructionism was a direct result of fear of the Hive.

                "Needlejet bombers under UN command will lead an assault on the Hiverian carrier in an effort to damage their aerial projection capability. At the same time, a skimship detachment from the Nautilus will attempt to board the carrier once its defences have been brought sufficiently low. If all goes to plan, the carrier will be captured largely intact, allowing for Nautilus pilots to hijack one or more of the onboard Hiverian needlejets manually."

                Morgan tapped the fingers of his steepled hands together, pensive. "And so we are to liberate Hiverian equipment, is that it?"

                Lal shook his head. "No, my friend. We are to liberate Hiverian technology. A recent flyby shows that all the Hiverian aircraft present appear to be equipped with Balandin-Verniy Fusion drives. If we could secure even one such specimen and bring it to a research lab, then we would have an excellent opportunity to study the workings of the reactor in situ."

                "And what of the carrier?" asked Morgan.

                Lal gave a smile that roughly equated to a shrug. "I don't expect anybody will object if we scuttle it after the crucial period is over. After all, moving something of that size and vulnerability back to a research lab really would be quite inconvenient. If the Hive need it that badly, they can raise it from the seabed after we're done with it. Shouldn't be too far from where they sank the DataTech fleet."

                Morgan sat back and regarded Lal straight, his face bearing a look of reluctant admiration. "I see you have thought this through very carefully, and congratulate you. May your humanitarian endeavors bear fruit." He sipped from a bulb and continued. "But I repeat my earlier question: why do you tell me of these plans?"

                Lal sighed and offered his palms in a gesture of rueful acquiescence. "Morgan, as always, we look to you for that critical facet of any effective alliance... funding. However-" he continued quickly, seeing the look on Morgan's face, "-I come with assurances. Firstly, not a single joule of your energy will go to the DataTech, since we have yet to resolve your issues with Sinder Roze. Instead, the funds will go towards equipping all of our UN strike force aircraft with Chaos systems. Secondly, every last joule will be paid back to you in full by my own bankers, as you would expect. These transactions will take place under full UN auspices and I will be held legally responsible for their resolution.

                "Finally, and most importantly - you have the promises of Colonel Santiago, Captain Svensgaard, Sinder Roze, and myself, of full scientific disclosure, upon the successful analysis of the Balandin-Verniy Fusion Drive. Each Aquascante faction will receive a complete summary and no tariffs will be imposed upon the usage of the technology until two Council meetings subsequent. The fusion drive technology, and derivatives therefrom, may be sold, traded, bartered, and otherwise used as any other commodity on the market, especially by those skilled enough to reap its profits.

                "After all," concluded Lal with an airy flourish, "that is the true place of technology in the UN Charter - freeflow of information, and the inalienable right of every citizen to universal knowledge."

                Morgan looked up from his ruminations, a flicker of scepticism in his eyes.

                "So, let me get this straight: if we succeed, you will deliver the Fusion technology free of charge?"

                "Yes," responded Lal.

                "And the energy credits I loan you will never pass through DataTech hands?"

                "That is correct," asserted the Commissioner. "You will get every last credit back, regardless of the outcome."

                "And if we fail?" asked Morgan pointedly.

                "We fail!" said Lal with a short laugh to disguise his mounting agitation. "But with your backing, Svensgaard's navy, and Santiago's airforce, we will not fail. Of course, we do not intend to confront the Hiverian forces in a straight fight, but we can isolate their Fusion drives. And once we have Fusion at our disposal, we shall strip the Hive of their technological advantage and dictate the war on our own terms."

                Morgan sucked at his martini awhile longer, then seemed to come to a decision.

                "How much do you need?" he asked.

                Lal quickly brought the details up onscreen, each calculation supported by statistics drawn up by the Spartanite refitting experts. Morgan raised an eyebrow - the sum was not inconsiderable.

                On one side, the Hive was vehemently opposed to the DataTech, and would trade Morgan the secrets of Fusion for diplomatic favors, not economic. On the other, Lal clearly did support the DataTech, but could bring the knowledge free of charge to Morgan. It was a delicate balance, and one that Morgan found admirable, if somewhat maddening.

                "What about your Ten Points?" he asked warily. "Does this affect the matter of a Planetary Governor?"

                Lal shook his head. "This is a diplomatic issue to be resolved after the Hive are adequately repulsed, circumstances allowing. What we do in our war against the oppressor, and what we do in our democratic Council, are two entirely separate and distinct things - as it should be."

                Morgan finished his martini in a gulp and sent the glass bulb hurtling into the recycler with a crisp sweep of his arm.

                "Very well, Lal - you will receive your refit funding as requested. However, my time is pressing, and unless there is more to be said, I fear I must bid you goodbye for now."

                Signing off, Morgan watched the screen darken, his lips twitching. Then, in a resolute gesture, he turned back to follow Nkuti from the room - adding in a muttered undertone:

                "You, Commissioner... and your sordid little theft."

                * ~ * ~ *

                Kumar Chakrabharti shielded his eyes against the fine midday sun as McClelland's jetlift touched down. As the whine of the engines wound down through the slow octaves, the landing security checks zeroed out, and the descent ramp deployed.

                Kumar, squinting, could just make out the tallish form of McClelland - a light blob in the darkness of the doorway. He had lost some weight, but that was to be expected; surviving an assassination attempt was in itself admirable enough. McClelland seemed to have aged somewhat, if the look in his eyes was indicative.

                Kumar turned as McClelland fell in step.

                "I have some good news for you!" he said. "But first, how was the flight back?" he asked.

                "A bit bumpy," replied McClelland distractedly. "There was some turbulence. Kumar," he asked sharply, "has the Senate voted on the Ten Points yet?"

                "Why, yes," responded Kumar, somewhat surprised. "But you have just returned, Prentice. You needn't worry yourself-"

                "Because I'd like to change my vote," finished McClelland, interrupting him. "In fact, I think we should rethink our entire appraisal of the Hiverian faction and recount our vote in light of the new information."

                Kumar blinked. "But that would require the auspices of Lady Skye herself. It would have to be serious."

                Prentice nodded as they entered the hangar bay. "Yes, it is serious. During our diplomatic silence, we have built up an erroneous picture of the Hive - a picture that the Peacekeepers and other factions have done their best to maintain. With the Hive and the DataTech in a state of vendetta, we need to make sure that we understand the true situation before making any judgements either way."

                Kumar shook his head, struggling to keep up with McClelland's hurried pace. "But what good can come of it? The Aquascante factions are already gearing for armed conflict."

                McClelland took the proffered glass of water and gulped it down greedily. "Most of the mistakes we have made concern the Hive's culture and ethos. But that can wait until later - I have various facts and figures and statistics to back this up in Senate. What is most important is that the Spartans and Aquascante factions are on the verge of going to war with a faction they do not fully understand, ethically or militarily."

                McClelland's rapid-fire speech slowed as they stood before the gravlifts, waiting.

                "It would be extremely rash of us," he declared, "to follow the Aquascante's blind lead without first researching the true disposition of the Hive. The Chairman was good enough to entrust me with their economic and vital statistics, and a whole lot more besides." He tapped the case at his side.

                Kumar pondered. "The Peacekeepers have already been badgering Skye for a vote at Planetary Council. If what you want comes to pass, it means we'll have to relegate the vote back to Senate level. Lal might not stand for that."

                McClelland chuckled harshly. "Stand, squat, or kneel, we're going to discuss the true state of affairs before we commit ourselves. If the Peace-artists haven't the patience to wait for us before going to fight their misguided crusade, they can bloody well send their own boys to die first."

                Kumar sighed. "You're right. But the vote has already taken so much momentum. It will take the Lady's full combined influential muscle to stop it now. Are you sure it's worth the risk, Prentice?"

                Prentice nodded. "We have to do this. I don't care if it finishes my diplomatic career. I know the difference between a faction that tried to have me killed in the most cowardly way possible, and one that saved my life."

                Silence for a moment, then the gravlift arrived and they stepped in.

                "Kumar," said Prentice. "what was the other thing?"

                "Hmmm?" asked Kumar, distracted.

                "You said you had some good news."

                Kumar's face brightened. "Oh, yes!" he said. "Joely let us know two days ago. You're going to be a father soon!"

                McClelland's face remained glum, and Kumar's smile rapidly withered.

                "What's wrong?" he asked. "Have I said... I mean, is it..." he faltered.

                McClelland pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly. "No, Kumar, it's wonderful news. But I didn't first hear of it from you."

                Kumar laughed. "Ah, how awkward! And here I was thinking it would be such a surprise."

                "No. the thing is, I didn't hear about it from Joely, either."

                Kumar frowned in bewilderment. "Really?" he asked. "Well... let's see, the only other Gaian you talked to was Skye, and I don't think she was told about this-"

                "Agent Hu," said McClelland abruptly. "He was the one who told me first. On board the magtrain, shortly before he died. He gave me his family heirloom and entrusted it to my care." McClelland took the miniature bansai plant case from its sheath and indicated the engraved characters on its side.

                "What do they mean? Are they Hiverian?" asked Kumar.

                "Simplified Chinese," corrected McClelland. "The hospital staff translated them for me." He produced a datapad and the recorded message:

                Two young eyes meet the new world as two ancient eyes witness in Heaven.

                "Is it poetry? What does it mean?"

                "It means that my child will be born underneath a double sun," said McClelland grimly.

                Kumar goggled. "The binary solstice? That's - what? - twelve and a half metric months from now..."

                "Which is just under nine Earthside months. I checked the calculations and they're surprisingly accurate, right down to the night I spent with Joely."

                "But how did he know?" asked Kumar.

                "Maybe he didn't," shrugged McClelland. "Maybe he was just guessing. Or maybe he's got a bug so deeply hidden in our ranks that he knows about my wife's pregnancy before she does."

                "Jesus," whispered Kumar.

                McClelland straightened up, and the haggard look left his eyes quickly. "One thing's for sure," he concluded. "We'll never get to hear it from Hu, if we oppose the Hive. The DataTech took that back with them, and the Hive started this war to bring him back."

                Kumar was silent, pondering the implications. If this omnipresience were true and not merely a lucky guess on the Hiverian's part, then it was no wonder that the Hive were striving to bring back the Agent's remains.

                The gravlift gently came to a halt, and the door irised open.

                McClelland stepped out into the bright applause of the Gaian Senate, Kumar at his side.
                Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; May 22, 2002, 22:52.
                "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                • #38
                  Joe - Endgame 1

                  Li Min woke from a nightmarish dream with a jolt that felt like a physical blow all along his side and arm. As he lay goggling in the fetid darkness, he took stock of his internal affairs. His head was still spinning, and the back of his brain ached terribly, but at least he was awake. That meant the nightmares couldn't get him.

                  Reaching out with a feeble hand, he knocked over the bucket of vomit, two hours old. Former stomach contents spilled onto the prefab floor of the operating theater, filling the air with the odor of sour acid. Now he knew where he was - he must have fallen from his makeshift bed in his sleep. This was hardly surprising; after all, when one designs an operating table, one doesn't give much thought to how comfortably the patient sleeps on it. He looked up at the lip of the operating table, and saw that his dirty blanket was hanging forlornly off the edge, waving gently to him. He tugged it down and swabbed ineffectually at the mess on the floor, then gave up. He shoved the blanket into the heavy equipment cupboard underneath the table and blinked owlishly.

                  Li Min crawled over to the tool stand and reached for the tumbler of water, drinking deeply and feeling the back of his throat smooth out with its cooling caress.

                  Now sitting upright with his back to the table, he looked around. The room was dark - that was unusual. He distinctly remembered it being bright when he fell asleep. A tapping, clicking sound brought his attention to the computer banks; now he was certain it was something in the room, not inside his head.

                  The glow came from the nilfreeze refrigeration unit. Li Min understood immediately - Huang had taken the head out of freeze again.

                  Li Min stood up shakily and steadied himself on the edge of the operating table, then lurched forwards, nearly knocking over a surgical cutter arm. He mopped at his face, and began a crazed, wobbling path to the other side of the M/MI clutter.

                  Huang sat in front of the screen, headphones on, tapping away at the keys like a demon. The screen showed readouts of data streams, all corresponding to Agent Hu's vital signs. At least Huang was playing it safe, and only using digital contact. Without an observer to stand in reserve, analogue contact via M/MI was simply too dangerous.

                  Huang hissed suddenly, a sharp intake of breath between gritted teeth, and tore off the headset in anger. He kicked the computer bank hard with his booted foot, cursing as he did so.

                  "Two hundred fifty," he spat venomously.

                  "No luck?" asked Li Min.

                  Huang whirled around. "You," he said, "are supposed to be in bed."

                  Li Min nodded. "What are you doing?" he asked.

                  "Trawling," came the simple reply.


                  "And I've found out all sorts of fascinating facts about our Agent Hu. Stuff that probably not even the Hiverian Intelligence Chief knows. And not one iota of it is of any damn use to us." Huang leaned back towards the screen and consulted.

                  "Let's see. Two hours of repeated grilling, and Agent Hu has confessed the following: he once ate at a Buddhist temple without donating money - he was called Ah Sun by his siblings - his sister gave him their family banzai and he gave it to the Gaian McClelland - he was awarded a cellchild for his work in civic planning - heck, the bastard probably lost his virginity to a cow. Crap, crap, and yet more crap."

                  "Really?" said Li Min ruminatively. "Do you mean 'cow' literally or figuratively?"

                  Huang gave Li Min an old fashioned look. "I hope this guy's worth the trouble we spent getting him. Because after this work is over I'm going to be the one to pull his plug."

                  With astounding abruptness, the computer screen went off, as did all the lights in the room.

                  Li Min, suddenly finding himself in darkness, experienced a sickening loss of balance and flailed for support. He found a mainframe cabinet, and stood panting with shuddering breaths, as Huang fished out the heavy portable.

                  "Dammit, all these blackouts will be a thing of the past with Fusion power," he said irritably, switching on the lamp. "Then, all we'd need to worry about is repairs, not energy supply. Imagine lights that never need to be dimmed except for replacements...-"

                  "Listen," said Li Min abruptly.

                  They listened in silence.

                  "The auxiliary generators are off," said Li Min.

                  Huang thought about this. "That's crazy," he said finally. "The auxiliaries are always active. It's the power that gets diverted to other places, right?"

                  "The generators are off," said Li Min steadily.

                  Huang stared at him for a few seconds, and then stood up, shouldering his vest.

                  "Where are you going?" asked Li Min.

                  "I'm going out to see what it is," came the reply. "Maybe the Sentry-6 withdrawal is to blame for this. Wouldn't surprise me if all the Internal staff have withdrawn into their little nest eggs and taken the goddam power with them."

                  "And if it is?"

                  "Then I know it's nothing I can help."

                  "But," said Li Min, "what if it's something else? Are you sure you can help then?"

                  "Maybe not," admitted Huang, loading a clip into his pistol. "But I'd sure be an idiot not to try, wouldn't I?"

                  Li Min started to protest, and saw that it was useless. Huang was right. Even if there was something out there, hiding in here was probably the worst thing they could do right now. At least going out to deal with it was an assured way of reaching an outcome.

                  "All right. But remember, your primary objective is to find out what it is, and then make it back in one piece. Without you, Hu is just a hunk of flesh and a waste of our time."

                  Huang cocked an eyebrow as he slid on his jacket. "You need to work on your persuasion, you know. Right now, I'd say your inept tongue is the greatest obstacle to Hu's continued existence."

                  He picked up his mag rifle on the way out.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Reinhardt scanned the green-saturated darkness and hunched down lower. It was no easy task for a man of his stature to hide inobtrusively, and many others would have considered the darkness cover enough, perhaps only kneeling or even standing up straight.

                  Reinhardt had not come to his present station through taking unnecessary risks. Thus it was that he sat sandwiched behind a fallen wall segment, watching the doorway. Back in Data DeCentral, Joe Amway had said that there were two DataTech inquisitors working on Agent Hu, somewhere in the bowels of the disused artillery point, and Reinhardt felt he could be trusted, but he was still leery of making too many assumptions.

                  The base had several entrances, each sealed by heavy doors that were physically - not electronically - locked, so that a hacking attempt would not be effective. Farnham had the eastern exit covered, Murath took the exit at the southwest, and Reinhardt himself had the hardest job, covering both the northern exit and the power generators.

                  The installation power generators were now dead, shut off by a generous application of Joe's cybernetic friend. Whatever portable power generators they might have would not be able to last them long enough, nor provide power enough, for extended habitation within the artillery point. Now, all that was needed was for the darkness and lack of electricity to do their inevitable job, and flush out the DataTech. In coming out, the DataTech would open the gates to investigate the surrounding terrain, and lay themselves upon to capture.

                  The ambushers would thereupon have two options open to them - either to force their way in through the opened doors, or to compel the captured DataTech to clear their entrance for them. The latter was in all probability the easier task, though Reinhardt maintained his doubts about its effectiveness - if Hiverians had no way to physically open the doors from the outside, what assurance was there that the DataTech might be able to?

                  Caught in his half-watchful, half-musing state, Reinhardt failed to notice warmth and motion behind one of the ancient sniping-slits on the upper levels.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  With great difficulty, Huang ascended the claustrophobic confines of the observation tower and sat, panting, beside the sniping-slit. The steps were synthecrete and were resistant to erosion, but they had nonetheless acquired a treacherous xenomoss covering over the years, and he had slipped more than once. As he put on his IR scope, he wondered lazily what strange whim had compelled him to make this climb instead of just heading straight out.

                  The dim room jumped into green-saturated focus as the IR scope activated. Huang smiled grimly - at least his exertions in climbing up the stairs had fully charged the motion batteries. He adjusted the zoom and gazed casually out the window.

                  He froze.

                  There was a figure in the middle distance. A fuzzy green-white blob, partially obscured by the dark, jagged outline of rocks.

                  Huang's physical exhaustion vanished as he held his breath, finally daring to adjust the zoom on his scope. He brought the faint blob into closer focus, then gaped silently as it shifted position quietly.

                  There was no doubt about it - there was a man outside. Waiting for him.

                  Huang began the arduous process of kneeling down slowly, wondering whether to reach for his mag rifle. He knelt so that his eyes were flush with the lower lip of the slit, then described a large circle with his free hand, feeling around and behind him for available space.

                  He unclipped his mag rifle and was just preparing to shoulder it to the slit, when a thought struck him: there might be more of them outside.

                  He dithered in indecision, swearing silently. Li Min would know what to do, but he's sick. He gently lay down his mag rifle. He unstrapped his ammunition and lay that down too by the windowsill. Then, keeping his IR scope on to see down the treacherous steps, he headed back to the basement operating room.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  "Turn that off," said Huang breathlessly as he returned.

                  Li Min looked up, startled. "What is it?" he asked.

                  Huang thrust an IR scope into Li Min's hands and reached to deactivate the portable roomlight.

                  "I checked the sentry towers. There are enemy infantry stationed at three points around the fortress. That I know of, at least. Maybe more. We have to do something about them before we go out to fix the generator."

                  "I see," said Li Min, now watching Huang in darkness through his scope. His compatriot was unscrewing the bulky light array from the top of its support rod and bundling it into a dirty bedsheet. "So what's the plan?"

                  Huang looked over his shoulder with an appraising glance at Li Min, whilst dismantling the rod into its constituent parts.

                  "I don't know," he said. "Clear the guys, restart the power, I guess. Meanwhile, we have to save all the power we can. Got any ideas?"

                  Li Min pondered sickly as Huang hefted the miniature fission power generator onto the operating table.

                  "Take me to the turret," he said finally. "Bring the equipment too. And lock the operating room door."

                  The two men made their way out, sealing the door and confirming the release code. But as they turned to ascend the turret, algorithmic energy relays from many klicks distant were already scrambling the code, locking the door behind them for good.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Murath had moved his sniper rifle a touch to the right, and was just hunkering down comfortably, when the first crisp, clear shot rang out. Ducking reflexively, he crawled around the fallen arch and stared out through the IR goggles. The DataTech were coming.

                  In the murky green expanse, nothing appeared to have changed. Certainly, the doors were not moving. Murath wondered about this, confused. Could it be that he'd misheard?

                  A series of shots followed, dispelling that idea. He scanned the front of the building, searching for the glow of heat traces from a ballistic weapon. There were none.

                  He hugged the rifle close and rolled to his side, back to the safety of the arch masonry. Without a clear indication of where the enemy was, there was no point in firing back. In any case, it was highly likely that they were firing from the other side of the buildings, as he couldn't make out any heat signatures.

                  Meanwhile, Farnham was not having such a good time of it. Bullets were cracking out of the firmament of the structure before him, but leaving no flash of light, no clue as to where they could be coming from. Somewhere, they had miscalculated - the DataTech were not interested in coming out just yet. The doorway remained ominously inactive, but the shrubbery around Farnham did not, thrashing and trembling as the rounds thudded into it.

                  Farnham lay on his back, unable to believe his senses. There were people in there, and they were trying to shoot and kill him, and they were doing a rather good job of it. From the accuracy of their gunshots, they weren't firing blind, and so he had to assume that they had IR scopes too. This neatly scuppered Reinhardt's plan, as it deprived them of their greatest asset and left them with the lower hand in a seige scenario.

                  He reached for his radio and activated it, signalling Reinhardt, cursing at the splinters of stone that clacked off his helmet. When that failed, he gave up and signalled Murath instead.

                  "Murath, what's the score over there? Over."

                  "I was about to ask you the same thing. Have heard shots fired but no exchanges. Your status? Over."

                  Farnham rolled onto his back, leaving his skull as close to the protecting Planet as he could.

                  "Taking fire from perhaps lone sniper. Have tried to contact Aurum-4 but no response. Suggestions? Over."

                  Murath was up and running, crouched over with his rifle tucked at his side.

                  "Will circle round to Aurum-4 to provide backup. Suggest you maintain your position and return fire. Will reestablish contact when at Aurum-4. Out."

                  Farnham switched off the radio and rolled back onto his stomach. From the sounds of it, his assailant was using a magnetic weapon of some sort, at least telling from the lack of heat signature. But where was he?

                  Farnham scanned the upper levels, but could pick up nothing definite. Another round of firing kicked up dirt clods near his hiding place, and he quickly retracted behind his bush cover. Then, holding his rifle close, he rolled across the longgrass, heading for to the greater shelter of the trees.

                  He had almost made it to the nearest bole, when his assailant scored a headshot.

                  Around a hundred meters northwards, and at an elevation of some five meters, Li Min unleashed a series of quick shots into the night that chipped Reinhardt's stone wall further. Some rounds disappeared into the darkness over his head, with thudding crackling sounds that indicated they had hit tree.

                  Reinhardt slumped behind the wall, his radio and compass left inert on the ground a way off.

                  Li Min loaded another clip and fired again, until the background began to blur and the crack of the rounds echoed around his head like an errant bat in a cave. He peered through the scope with watery eyes and saw that the enemy had fallen. Sweat flowed into his eyes and he blinked, his vision swimming from the exertion.

                  Huang came up behind him, breathless.

                  "I dropped one," he panted. "How are you doing here?"

                  Li Min, his face white, shook his head wordlessly.

                  Huang peered outside, saw that the enemy was gone from view, and nodded. He placed the control for the spotlight into his compatriot's unresisting hand.

                  "Switch it on when the doors open and cover me with fire if you're able. I'll try to circle around and catch him from the side. Switch it off once you can see me from your angle."

                  Li Min nodded again, swallowing hard to fight the retches.

                  * ~ * ~ *

                  Reinhardt lay on his side, his left arm bloody at the elbow and both the forearm bones broken from the impact of the maground. But although he was losing blood at an alarming rate, he was still conscious, and the sudden, blinding light in his field of vision had the desired effect of rendering him momentarily stunned.

                  He sequestered the pain and rolled onto his back, reaching up slowly with his right arm and switching off his IR scanner. It did not help very much, but at least he was able to open his eyes without being blinded. He reached down to his thigh, where the hand pistol was kept, and drew it slowly from its holster, squirming his way back towards the comfort and cover of the fallen wall.

                  There, in the relative external silence, he considered his options. They had gotten some sort of spotlight on to blind him - neither his normal sight nor IR scope would be of use now. They were going to either get round him and switch on the power, or more likely they would be trying to kill him directly first.

                  He was losing blood and the pain was starting to get through his prepared mental defenses. In a very short time, he would no longer be a viable probe member and would in some way or another become another casualty.

                  The only way out would be to somehow see his assailant before he was himself seen, or perhaps to shift position quickly. The difficulty he would have in spotting his opponent would be great. In fact, the only present advantage he had was that his foes would in all likelihood be just as blind as he was. As for movement - well, the intrusive agony of his left arm made that a distant possibility at best.

                  They began firing now, the shots chipping away at the rock and thumping the ground near him. From the sounds of it, there was one in the structure, and one on the ground. He couldn't hazard a peek round the rock without endangering his head. He wondered if the ground assailant would approach his rock from the door side, or whether he would circle around from the slope side. If he came around from the slope, Reinhardt would be able to see him better.

                  Suddenly, the light went off, and Reinhardt was lying dazed in the silent darkness again. He rolled onto his right side and flicked on his scope, scanning up the hill with a rising sense of certainty. There was a figure up there, running down towards him, hitting the dirt even as Reinhardt watched him, and raising a hand to its face to activate a scope.

                  Reinhardt grunted as he shifted weight and raised his pistol, taking careful aim but knowing his chances were slim at this distance. As he was doing so, the figure abruptly bloomed and the crack of a rifle split the sudden silence. Reinhardt flinched, expecting an impact, but there was none. Instead, the round whined overhead, wide of him. Three more shots, each blooming in his infra-red vision, and then silence once more. Reinhardt dropped his aim, sudden realizatin and relief washing over him.

                  The figure raised itself into a crouch and tucked away its rifle. Hunkered down, it made its careful way down the hillside and finally loped over to Reinhardt's side.

                  "Aurum-4," said Murath. "I took care of him, but it looks like they got Farnham."

                  Reinhardt nodded. "We have to get in there. That's where his head is."

                  Murath noted the grit of his teeth, and realized Reinhardt had been hit. Without saying another word, he laid down his rifle and set to work on his arm with his medical supplies. Either way, it looked like they were going to be here for a while longer.
                  "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                  • #39
                    Joe - Endgame

                    Tryskel Carpenter finished her drop and eased her craft onto the level, the engines whining at the strain. Behind her, her wingmen of Cuckoo Wing followed suit, silently dropping altitude to skim the surface of the ocean. From their approach vector, the Hiverian carrier HCV Jian Guo Men would be unable to sense them, hugging the sea with the interposing peak of Southsea Island between them.

                    Southsea was a barren rock which the DataTech had claimed five decades previously. More recently, it was the waypoint for the Hiverian Jian Guo Men battle group: a carrier, flanked by two cruisers and five skimships.

                    The Hive evidently did not consider enemy fighters to be a significant threat. Although the carrier itself bristled with the latest in active/passive defences and scanners, the supporting craft showed considerable wear and usage. Perhaps it was a sign of the crumbling Hiverian economy, that their proudest military battle groups were cobbled from the ragtag relics of the past.

                    The island loomed closer, its non-volcanic peak steadily growing in their radar sensors. Of the enemy battle group, though, there was no sign to be seen. Tryskel remembered her earlier briefing - this was no reason for alarm, that their entire strategy relied on this mutual blindness to work.

                    The necessity for radio silence was also heavily unsettling.

                    Tryskel Carpenter peered at her scopes, trying to calm herself. She was to watch for the signal... but where would it come from? The island drew inexorably closer, and she wondered with a rising panic whether the Nautilus had managed to make it this far after all. Their presence depended on whether they had managed to evade the Hiverian patrols - if the Hive had detected their motions, the very least would be that Svensgaard's men would turn right around and abort mission.

                    The jet sped over the leagues and Tryskel eased back on the thrust. Aerodynamics in Planet's thicker atmosphere made for a much higher minimum velocity than Earthside aircraft required, and Tryskel was well aware of the increasing danger of stalling as she slowed. They would have to catch the signal the first time around - if they crossed the turnpoint, their presence would be detected by the Hiverian craft on their double-back and they would have to abort.

                    Tryskel was easing back further on the throttle with sinking spirits, when she caught a sudden faint blip on the radar. The Nautilus had arrived. With a murmured prayer of thanks, she increased speed to full throttle, and with a brief glance at her rear sensors to make sure her wing were following suit, she brought her craft to a rolling turn around the mountain's broad shoulder.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    The Hiverian cruiser crew were the first to sense the wave of fighters, but by the time they had scrambled aircraft defenses, their hull had absorbed several strafing runs of lightfire Chaos shells. Though troublesome, the penetrative power of lightfire shells could not substantially damage the cruiser's integral structure. They primed their guns and prepared trackers to fend off a further airborne wave, but by this time the enemy fighters were nose-up once more, pounding towards the carrier craft in the center of the formation. The other cruiser and three of the support skimships stood sentry near the bulk of the carrier, equally scrambling to arm and aim. Cuckoo wing passed over the second cruiser with only a token exchange of fire.

                    The first wave of craft bore strange markings and the Hive were unable to listen in on their transmissions, which matched no known frequency of Aquascante broadcasts. They cut speed as they approached, the better to improve their maneuverability, and targeted the magazines and gun emplacements along the sides of the carrier. The precision of their attacks bespoke a surprising degree of skill and experience - as they drew near, the front wave slewed to starboard in unison, strafing as they went.

                    At first, the Hiverian gunners believed this to be an evasive action, and followed with their gunsights. However, the true nature of the move became clear only seconds later - behind the radar noise and clatter of their Chaos weapons, the unknown fighters had been running cover for the DataTech bombers behind them. Suddenly exposed, the Hiverian carrier could not scramble anti-aircraft guns onto the new wave of attackers quickly enough.

                    DataTech Cuckoo Wing bombers successfully launched their full complement of missile warheads against the forward-port segment of the Hiverian carrier, then disengaged portwards. The carrier itself launched multiple CG flechette defense flares, but the response came too late. Many of the CG flechette flares successfully intercepted the incoming warheads, but did so in close proximity to the carrier itself. The mixture of direct hits and collateral concussion caused significant damage to the portside weapon emplacements. Most importantly, the portside sensors were dead for the moment - the carrier was even now rotating to face its starboard to face the outgoing aircraft in preparation for another attack run.

                    Sirens and claxons added to the din onboard the carrier. Hiverian pilots strapped themselves into their craft and began the emergency countdowns, preparing to launch in pairs from the double deck of the Jian Guo Men. Meanwhile, at the bridge, all was action and resolution. The commanding officer, one Lt Col Sun, was competent enough to recognize an important fact - the DataTech bombers had spent all their warheads in the first run and were now merely flying to escape. His previous experience onboard fission-reactor ships told him that such an attack could indeed sink an older generation carrier, but the Balandin-Verniy fusion reactors were considerably stronger.

                    From this data, Lt Col Sun made his first error. He assumed that the DataTech's mission had been to destroy the Jian Guo Men, and that they had miscalculated the fortitude of the Hiverian craft. He believed that the DataTech's bombing firepower was now spent, and that the attack would soon cease once the AAA defenses came online. From this deduction, he made his second error - giving the order for the surrounding cruisers and skimships expressly to hold their perimeter positions and prepare to shoot down the hostile aircraft as they fled homewards. He believed that what hostiles remained could be easily and efficiently cleared by the Hiverian fighters.

                    Understandably, the Nautilus submarine boarding crews took the carrier completely by surprise.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    The first sign that something was seriously amiss came a few moments after the first wave of Hiverian fusion interceptors launched from the deck. With a sickening metallic squeal that shook the carrier to its very substructure, the Nautilus anvil craft came up beneath the carrier and attached itself to the underside of the bow. This would not affect the forward velocity of the craft, but it did add considerable inertia to the understructure, preventing effective rotation. Operating through an umbilical in their deep pressure hull, the Nautilus seamen began a sonic disruption of the underside of the carrier, cutting through the bulwark to allow a marine detachment to board. The anvil secured, four hammer submarines simultaneously surfaced near the carrier and launched concussion flares to obscure and jam sensor reports. Despite the evident vulnerability of the carrier, the hammer submarines could not afford to launch warheads, as damage to the carrier would endanger their anvil craft and boarding party. Their tactic was rather to prevent and confuse further launches of fighter craft, as well as frustrating long-distance precision fire from the cruisers.

                    Whilst this was underway, the first wave of Hiverian fighters launched and turned to pursue the enemy. The DataTech bombers were heading full throttle back for the safety of the Southsea peak island, and the mysterious enemy fighters had circled and strafed the nearest skimship before following, running cover for their slower bombers. The Hiverian fighters engaged full throttle and gave chase, following similar tactics to the dogfights in the Battle at Deinara Sound. This was characterized by three assumptions of superiority - superiority of equipment, superiority of numbers, and superiority of skill.

                    They were in for a rude shock. Despite lesser speed and reduced maneuverability, the unidentified fighters proved surprisingly well-coordinated, splitting up into trailing pairs. This tactic proved a match for Hiverian training - all the moreso as their backup failed to materialize until it was too late.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    Tryskel forced her fighter through a tight arc and clenched her facial muscles against the gravitational force. The superplastic frame of the craft shuddered through the turn, but through the darkening spots of her vision, Tryskel watched the Hiverian fighter's rear outline slip slowly and surely into her front sensor. She levelled as soon as she was able, fighting against the sudden chill in her bloodless cheeks. The tight maneuver completed, she increased throttle to maximum to catch up with her beleaguered wingman.

                    Her wingman - Patterly - was far ahead, but distance alone would not save her. The Hiverian craft was closing on her at a trenchant pace, weapon systems sounding and focussing even as Tryskel followed. She cursed as the Hiverian slipped briefly out of her targeting scope, then reacquired her lock. The computer processed, clicking softly as it differentiated and distinguished with maddening slowness.

                    With a sharp intake of breath, Tryskel saw the Hiverian loose its weapons, felt her own fingers clench spasmodically despite the premature lock, and saw her field of vision light up brilliantly as her launchers flung their warheads into the far distance.

                    The bright afterglow of her air-to-air flechettes rendered visual contact futile - she watched through the seemingly eternal six metric seconds as her targeting computer finally gained the lock, and loosed another volley.

                    By this time, the Hiverian had begun his belated evasive action, throwing his craft into a sideways roll to avoid the bright streaks that flashed towards him. The first salvo passed him by harmlessly, unable to lock, but Tryskel's second wave locked and deflected with crisp accuracy. As the enemy craft dived and swooped, Tryskel closed and readied her impact slugthrowers. These required optical targeting, difficult given the darkness, but their rate of fire was considerable, and the psychological effect would be welcome.

                    The Hiverian dropped suddenly, one Chaos warhead narrowly missing his wing, and climbed steeply to try to close distance between himself and his pursuer. Tryskel unleashed her particle weapons, deflecting her shots to lead the enemy, but his greater maneuverability defied her.

                    A sudden blitz of static in her communication console startled Tryskel, and she scanned her screens for a report. The bright light far to the portside came a moment later - the Hiverian's two warheads had detonated, perhaps catching Patterly. But Tryskel could spare no thought for her wingman as the Hiverian completed his tortured loop and thundered down towards her.

                    At this point, reasoned tactics and logical maneuvers became impossible. Tryskel, suddenly surrounded by bursting Gatling flak, threw her craft into a sideways roll and reflex jinking took over. By the time she regained her frenzied senses, the Hiverian was far behind her, dodging wildly. This puzzled her for a brief moment as she turned, then she caught the faraway glare of her warheads - they were still tracking and following. More importantly, the Hiverian was alone - the carrier itself was under attack and fighter launches were confused.

                    With the Hiverian pinned down, it was easy for her to loose another dual salvo - her lesser speed acting to her advantage in gaining the computer lock-on. By the time the Hiverian had dealt with the first trailing warheads, the second pair sped home and met their target with a swift, distant bloom in the darkness of the night.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    The carrier's hull finally gave way, and the boarding party were inside. The few Hiverian defenders in the cargo bay proved insufficient to repel the armored invaders, and the subdeck was quickly secured. The thick security doors proved a nuisance, delaying their progress for a metric minute or two before falling to the cutters. Their way cleared, the marauders swarmed up onto the maindeck with swift purpose.

                    They met with their first real resistance at the main stairwell, where the Hiverians attempted to pin them down and seal them in. A brief firefight ensued, during which the visiting Spartan advisor Pietr Hommel acquitted himself with admirable bravery, storming up the gangways with three Spartan marines and eliminating the galley snipers along their vulnerable flank.

                    The main stairwell secured, they split into two groups, one to make for the bridge, and one to make for the hangar bays. Of the two, the former group was the less successful - Lt Col Sun's personal guard had sealed the bridge and activated all automated defense systems. This forced the marine group back into the indefensible main concourse, where they held out for a good twelve metric minutes before being slaughtered to the last man.

                    Fortunately, Hommel and the visiting Spartans had been in the second group, and they advanced with surgical precision to the pilot prepping area. There they met with fierce but brief retaliation from the guards, before neutralizing the reserve pilots and progressing onto the aircraft launch deck.

                    By this time, the Hiverian pilots already in their craft were activating and preparing to launch regardless of flight clearance. Some ground crew remained, but the hijack team brushed them aside, disabled what prepping jets they could, and finally sealed all personnel entrances.

                    This done, the whole flight deck was theirs, as were the remaining three pilotless Hiverian craft - all bombers. The designated surrogate pilots were members of the Spartan Air Force, and they took their places at the controls, Hommel amongst them. The cockpit was rather small and tight for his liking, and he had a suspicion that his girth was too large for the eject mechanism, but the controls seemed similar enough to Spartan design. In any case, if all went well, they would only need to fly on the straight and level anyway.

                    Within a brief handful of metric minutes, the primary objective of Operation Garrett was complete, and the Balandin-Verniy fusion needlejets were property of the Aquascante nations.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    Tryskel received the transmission just as she regrouped with her Spartan wingmen, harried but still aloft. The flares from the hammer submarines stopped abruptly, and the carrier launched its final flight of needlejets. According to the transmission, these last three were the Objective, and were to be safely escorted to Iphiclia at all costs.

                    Cuckoo Wing and Lapwing lunged back into the fray to draw the fire of the bona fide Hiverian air defences. The ruse lasted admirably well - though both sides suffered considerable casualties, the Objective craft made their way out from the fray and thundered overhead in a straight flightpath towards the distant DataTech shores. The Nautilus marines made their way to the cargo bays and regained their anvil submarine, shortly before retracting the umbilical and leaving the holed carrier to its saltwater fate.

                    At this juncture, the Jian Guo Men lurched visibly in the water and the bow end dipped alarmingly, flooding the lower flight deck. However, the Hiverian school of ship design had included sufficient safeguards and redundancies to combat taking on water. Airtight locks sprang into action, sealing essential verticals, and air was pumped into flooded rooms to aid flotation.

                    All in all, the carrier and its commanding officer survived. But the real prize was heading out into the night, with the few remaining Hiverian interceptors just realizing the fact.

                    Tryskel hoped her interference would be enough to divert the Hiverian interceptors, but once they reassessed their priorities, the diversion was effectively over. Their interest focussed back to their renegade bombers, the Hiverian pilots turned away from the fray with one accord and engaged full throttle to catch up.

                    Tryskel and her flight group gave chase, locking and launching warheads as they could, forcing the Hiverians at least into time-wasting evasive actions. But as they reached the safety perimeter of the enemy cruisers and skimships, the Aquascante fighters encountered concentrated anti-aircraft fire. Further targeting became impossible as they ducked and weaved to stay airborne.

                    One and a half klicks away, Hommel and his wingmen received repeated transmissions from the Hiverians, in a tongue they could not understand. The confusion in the voices of their pursuers was evident; surely the Linelock Hunter-Seeker Algorithm made probe activity impossible against military divisions?

                    Hommel smiled. In all his life, he had been many things, but he had never been a probe. Their attack on the Hiverian carrier had utilized not one single dataprobe or hacking device - all had been accomplished using simple, sheer force and reliable standard weapons. Human hands, not iterative programs, had forced open the bombers' cockpits, just as human hands and not electronic relays now directed their level flight. True, the hands were unused to the controls, and could not risk fancy maneuvers, but they were steady and they were sure; flesh and bone, immune to the electric aegis of Berzhinev's Algorithm.

                    The fighter jets closed ranks, the transmissions increasing in their rapid-fire urgency. One term especially was repeated in blank bewilderment, and Hommel thought he recognized it. He thought he heard the Hiverian term for "sir", repeated like a mantra.

                    The fighters drew alongside the bombers, evidently opting against releasing their warheads. Hommel wondered lazily what they would do. He knew his goal lay behind Southsea Island, over the horizon, on Iphiclia, behind Sentry-8. He wondered whether the Hiverians had the same clarity of vision.

                    * ~ * ~ *

                    The mountain of Southsea Isle is looming from the darkness, and six craft, all bearing Hiverian markings, are flying through the pre-dawn air. The six silver arrowheads shoot onwards in doubled ranks - three pairs of bullets in the purple darkness.

                    Six minds are lost in contemplation, three knowing that their mission has failed, their eventual doom keeping pace beside them in bewildering silence. Three minds know that their mission must succeed, their targets flying straight and level towards an enemy mainland.

                    Hiverian pilot Dillinger, once reprimanded, once reinstated, holder of an otherwise unblemished career, pilots the leading Hiverian interceptor. He looks across, with a curious child's glance, through the glass of two cockpits. He knows that he does not recognize the face of the pilot. He also knows that his life is forfeit if his judgement is wrong.

                    He nods to himself, dips his wings once in final salute, then slews his craft decisively over to the side. His quick but fragile fighter does not survive the collision, exploding in a fireball at 500 meters' altitude.

                    Hommel is luckier - as the bomber plummets Planetwards, his ejection system activates, throwing him clear of the shattering hull. The closeness of the cockpit glass severs his legs at the knees, but the rarefied chill of the freezing atmosphere immediately cauterizes the bleeding.

                    Above and behind the freefalling meat, two more midair explosions split the night air. Then the wondrous gift of flight is gone, and all that remains is for the wreckage of men and machines to return to the surface once more.
                    "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                    • #40
                      The news of the Hiverian downing near Southsea Isle was easily contained, in essence another facet of a secret war. The Hiverian leaders, once notified, effected several calculations and metrics over what course to take. Three less experienced leaders pushed for a decisive thrust northwards and the capture of Southsea Isle, followed by a land invasion of the DataTech mainland itself. However, they were blocked by two old generals, who maintained that the disposition of enemy forces being unknown, it would be foolish to progress with a badly damaged carrier fleet. They pushed for a retreat back to the cover of support groups, while the carrier underwent repairs.

                      High Command decided to strive for the recapture of the wreckage - a move that worried and perplexed the Diplomatic Corps. If the Navy decided to retreat, the only recourse open would be to file a request through diplomatic channels. One last consolation remained for the Diplomats, namely, that High Command had decided against an assault on the mainland. Thus the Hive avoided further reputational deterioration - for the present.

                      A brief memo was issued to the University, detailing the loss sustained by both sides in this surprise attack. The most important fact - that Fusion powered vehicles had suffered their first defeat by Fission reactor units, was left unstated. It was believed that the Provost would be able to induce this for himself, assuming that he still harbored any interest whatsoever in the matter.

                      On the sunside of Planet, however, things were less cool. The Commissioner had received initial reports from the DataTech with apparent delight, congratulating the DataJack heartily on her victory and authorizing a fully supported recovery team to bring the wreckage back to the Iphiclian continent. However, he had later consulted with his ambassadors and other contacts, and the picture appeared considerably less pleasant than initially.

                      Firstly, although the Hiverian craft were indeed downed, a rescue operation would be near impossible whilst the Hiverian carrier group remained in the area. Lal noted with some anxiety that the best part of the Spartan-Aquascante attack wing was destroyed in the operation. The DataTech did not have any reserve air force left to speak of, and it would take another round of penpushing and favors to authorize more Aquascante aid. Although Santiago would be all too happy to sell more of her equipment, Lal knew that Morgan would resist with all his influential clout. The carrot of Fusion power was somewhat effective in bringing Morgan back into the picture, but the CEO would doubtless be awaiting returns on his investment, not further requests for credits.

                      If the Hive decided to advance now, deploying their Fusion aircraft, the DataTech were sure to fall. Once this occurred, Lal feared a loss of face - he had, after all, pledged to uphold the nation of information democrats. But without Fusion, any resistance against the Hive would be that much weaker - limited not so much by the strength of the resistance, but the capacities of the Hive.

                      It was a thorny question, and one that Lal decided was best dealt with by keeping it from the public. One of the editors of the forerunning Morgansoft newsnodes had a direct line to the UNP leadership, for them to wire news as it happened. Lal called his secretary in and began a rapidfire dictation of a newsworthy event.

                      Midnight operation - covert raid successful - Hiverian jets destroyed - Hiverian carrier damaged - withdrawal hoped imminent - follow-ups planned - DataTech/UNP ties improving - Hiverian media increasingly shrill in reports of Hiverian "successes".

                      Lal thought that covered all the bases. To Morgan, however, he composed a somewhat milder missive.

                      Fusion jets downed, recovery efforts underway. Will notify immediately upon further developments. Patience, faith necessary.

                      Finally, he turned his attention to a matter closer to his heart. The Governor elections could not proceed without the vital statistics and leadership structures of the participating factions. So far, he had received these files from the Morganites, Nautilus, and Spartans. The DataTech presentation was a bit patchy as yet, but it was understandable given the situation. In any case, it hardly mattered - Lal knew their vote was a foregone conclusion. That left only the Gaians unaccounted for.

                      Lal composed a message to Deirdre that managed to be simultaneously both polite and terse, the gist of which was to remind her of the elections and the necessity of her vote to ensure fair representation of the democratic populace. This slight whiff of rhetoric was all that the note contained, and Lal sent it through the translinks without further ado.

                      He was confident that he could count on votes from both Svensgard and Roze, but the latter was a wildcard at best. The vital statistics did not look good - Roze's populace was considerably lesser than that of the other factions, perhaps owing to her faction's later start in life. What had begun as an enthusiastic recruiting attempt was now a slightly leaden slog, once Lal knew the actual dimensions of Roze's ailing faction.

                      Still, he reflected, numbers were important only as far as Governorship was concerned. Once he had that particular hurdle cleared, future votes in Council would be handled on an equal basis for all factions. This meant that every faction would be important in the future plan, even stragglers like the DataTech.

                      The Spartans would come over soon, Lal was sure of that. Once he had convincingly cast himself in the role of their economic soothsayer and facilitator, there would be no way the Spartans would wish to turn their back on Aquascante. Even without a Pact of Sisterhood, Santiago's faction had much to offer in the way of military equipment and personnel, and Lal would have much to offer them in the way of technologies and economic trade. Though Santiago's fanatical adherence to the right to bear arms would clash with the UN charter for disarmament, Lal was certain he could milk the need to oppose the Hive/University axis awhile longer.

                      More immediately disturbing was the naked opposition from the Morganites. Regardless of Morgan's economic importance to Aquascante, Lal knew that whatever military help he could offer would be minimal. Whilst the DataTech had only slightly superior military capabilities than their erstwhile Morgan employers, they did possess the great advantage of being right off the coast of the Hiverian mainland. Lal's imagination developed in fruitful leaps and bounds at the prospect of an attack force, based on the DataTech Iphiclian mainland. He could see it now - Spartan war machines and needlejets, launching from airbases as the Nautilus launched coordinated naval and marine strikes. Then, the liberation of hapless Hiverian denizens, free from the terrible yoke of their oppressors. Finally, perhaps, a just and proper trial of the highest echelons of that gruesome regime - and none more guilty than the one-time Executive Officer of the Unity, now styled Chairman, the demon Sheng Ji Yang.

                      Lal thought about this. A pity it would be difficult to hold the election now. The Hive were at their weakest international ebb since erecting their LineLock Hunter-Seeker Algorithm decades ago. Their triumphant extermination program against the Caretakers was practically halted as they diverted resources into a war against the DataTech. Thus, the rich resources of Harmonia were - for the moment - still denied them, still in the hands of the Caretaker Progenitors. Moreover, they dared not attack the DataTech mainland directly, knowing all too well the enormous international condemnation that would follow.

                      Lal found himself amused by their euphemistic wording - they covered their conquering desires (and their lack of conquering firepower) with the term "a war against treachery". As though treachery was something solid, a national entity, that could be fought with tanks and planes and mortars! As though war would accomplish something besides driving the treacherous agents further underground, all the more inaccessible, all the more snug in their lairs.

                      Sarita entered with a missive, then bowed and withdrew. The Commissioner reluctantly adjourned his grandiose thoughts for the future, and consulted the message. He read, lips twitching, as his previous musings fled his mind and the present developments blossomed. He nodded, pondering, and finally sat down to dictate another nodewave. Although this news was strongly related to the earlier top-secret matter, it was safe to make known to the public, through its utter ludicrousness - Lal was confident that no straight-thinking reader would take it seriously.

                      Following successful Aquascante offensive, Hiverian jet planes collide, crash in sea near Southsea Isles. Hiverian diplomats demand return of wreckage.

                      Lal mused awhile longer as the wire service hummed, and then decided to add a further detail.

                      "Cockpits are sovereign Hive territories," claim Hiverian diplomatic corps.

                      Lal sat back, a deeply satisfied smile on his face. Who could take the Hive seriously after a claim of that stupidity?

                      * ~ * ~ *

                      The Gaians hardly followed the news at all, being largely disinterested in matters military and unanimously hoping for a peaceful outcome. In any case, their internal politics were such that they could spare precious little time for external contemplation - a high-ranking Senator had just returned from a remarkable journey in a previously mysterious nation, and his report of that nation was turning the accepted stereotype on its head.

                      Many fellow Senate members were sufficiently swayed to reconsider their votes on the Commissioner's Ten Points, especially those concerning the Chairman Sheng Ji Yang, although a sizeable portion still wavered, and another (not inconsiderable) fraction maintained their condemnation. But Prentice McClelland was an articulate speaker, and what was more, a favorite of the Lady Skye.

                      Most importantly, he was also a personal friend of the Sender. This close link to the Gaian Empath Guild and the ARBANT sender-receiver was important, as it allowed him the potential to communicate with fellow supporters without fear of eavesdropping. Links with previously unknown like-minders could be forged very quickly, with just an evening's work at the ARBANT at Gaia's Landing.

                      All in all, the Gaians were a nation undecided, and moving on very quickly with the decision making process. The same could not be said for the Morganites, who, some 8,000 km to the southeast, dithered and waited for further reports.

                      The Morganites had two painful choices - either to continue with the Hiverian agreement and oppose their infuriating friends the Peacekeepers, or to wait and see if Lal could produce the goods. Unfortunately, therein lay the rub. What had begun as a seemingly failsafe plan as described by the Commissioner seemed likely to degenerate into a lengthy trawl.

                      Morgan wouldn't be surprised to find Lal clandestinely begging for help from the other Aquascante factions in the retrieval. He could almost imagine the lofty hyperbole that the UN head would employ to impress upon his peers the importance of the operation and its noble necessity, instead of the faintly ridiculous and heavily illegal larceny that it so essentially was.

                      * ~ * ~ *

                      In mountainside Sparta, the mood was brittle. Santiago had not been made aware of the near total destruction of their attack force, but her suspicions were more than adequately aroused by Lal's telltale lack of news on that front. Lal had imprudently informed them of the successful completion of the mission, and added that recovery teams would be required to salvage the wreckage, thought to be at the bottom of Deinara Sound.

                      Santiago took an especially dim view of this report, because it hinted that the hijack team had not survived. Amongst the hijack team had been an exemplary soldier and decorated Spartan hero, Pietr Hommel. Santiago had entrusted the mission to him because there was nobody better to represent the Spartan elite. And she was not happy at the prospect of his being lost through DataTech incompetence.

                      She was also beginning to wonder whether Lal would attempt to explain the situation before she lost patience and brought it up herself.

                      His latest missive, asking for her aid and cooperation in the retrieval, would have been insulting had it not been so close to her own thoughts. Hence the meeting with Bonaventura, her military aide.

                      "We do have two spy planes in the area, each of which can perform a fly by of the wreckage... provided the Hive don't stop them," Bonaventura was saying. Santiago studied the tactical laid out before them on the tabletop.

                      "What would the Hive need in order to stop a spy plane?" she asked.

                      Bonaventura looked somewhat glum. "Any ship with adequate anti-aircraft armaments would be able to knock them out of the sky if they were guarding the area closely enough. As for enemy aircraft, from what we have noted of Hiverian airpower, they could conceivably take down a spy plane with warhead armaments. Their top airspeed so far witnessed is insufficient to compete with our spy planes in a straight out contest of speed."

                      Santiago nodded, calculating. "If I know Hommel, he'll have jettisoned before the jets crashed if it was at all in his power. And if there's any chance that he is still alive, we must get out there and bring him back."

                      Bonaventura consulted with Voki, and returned promptly.

                      "We have no naval vessels in the area, Colonel. The closest elements are those of the Pirates."

                      Colonel Santiago mused awhile longer, and then nodded.

                      "Get me Captain Svensgaard. Not on the Aquascante line, use the Pirates communications frequency. I want to talk to him privately."

                      * ~ * ~ *

                      As these separate diplomatic struggles begin across the intercoms and wire systems, a very different struggle is coming to an end on Iphiclia. As the seige of the artillery point fortress winds down, Murath and Aurum-4 have managed, with the aid of the late Farnham's oxygen canisters and several ounces of standard munitions, to create a jerry-made explosive. This, placed inside a second-storey sniper's slit and detonated, has created a large enough crawlway for the two men to climb through.

                      The artillery bunker is age-old and what few defences there are have not been activated. Aurum-4, his injured hand in a vaccuum sling, activates the holospheres and they swirl around his head, recording the surroundings in three dimensions. He and Murath make their way down the slippery moss-covered steps of the turret, then over to the central munitions dump. In line with their earlier briefing, the equipment here is newer and in good condition - evidently the enemy probe team's base of operations.

                      The electronic door is locked by the Zeta-5 Algorithm, just as Joe had said it would be. There are marks of gunfire on the lock, as though somebody had tried to blow it out before giving up and leaving. Some blood smears on the door could be finger-marks of a desperate person attempting to claw his way in, and this small flake of keritin might well be a broken human fingernail.

                      Murath had favored the idea of going after the final enemy probe, but after Aurum-4's injury, the entire mission has taken on a deadlier new urgency. They can afford to waste no time in getting the remains of Agent Hu, and completing their mission.

                      The door responds to the agreed password, and Murath and Aurum-4 step inside warily, the holospheres whirling in their slow dance. The interior is dimly lit, but Murath activates their portable lamps and the furniture leaps into distinct focus.

                      Surgical tables, instrument racks, and a small collection of computer terminals crowd the area. Anomalous within this clinical white and cool gray metal is the light blue of the nitrogen freezer, and the black cables leading through the rubber sealed door. Murath steps over, and, slowly for the benefit of the holospheres, swings the door open - bringing light to the frozen eyes and frosted blue lips of the disembodied head of Agent Hu.
                      "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                      • #41

                        A series of concentric ripples form in the dark Deinaran waves near Southsea Isle, too small for the Hiverian fleet to detect, but large enough to arrest the upwards velocity of the Nemo.

                        Hesitantly, almost fearfully, the silksteel hunter-killer submarine holds its depth in the waters, waiting for the sea above to subside. Then, at a signal from the captain, the Nautilus flagship continues its rise with vegetable slowness.

                        In the bridge, attention is tense, but falls heaviest on two sensors - one, a readout of the bulwark shadows of the Hiverian battle fleet Jian Guo Men, the other, a longwave detector focussed on the sloping underwater coast of the Southsea Isle itself. Now, in the cool, sweating damp at 150 meters' depth, mere blips and clicks become crucial for survival.

                        Consider the matter of Control's latest transmission. This was kept utterly secret, as it circumvented even the Commissioner Pravin Lal himself. It came as a direct order from Santiago, later through Svensgard, that the Southsea Isle area be placed under observation at all times, with a rescue team ready to penetrate and recover any survivors or wreckage.

                        Spartan flybys had overflown the area once, but the armed Hiverian counter-escorts had deterred them from trying a second time. Flybys around the Sargasso indicated that the Hive were sending a few craft with Deep Radar capabilities up here to guard the battle fleet against further submarine attacks, but these were not due to arrive until another few days. The carrier itself had retreated to unknown destinations, perhaps for repairs.

                        Most intriguingly, the Hive appeared reluctant to open fire against the Spartan craft. The reason for this was not immediately clear - could it be that the Colonel Santiago numbered amongst the few people whom the Chairman Sheng did not wish to anger?

                        The Nemo eased itself surfacewards. As it did so, a faint but telling blip appeared on the longwave scanner. Calculations were made, triangulations approximated, and its origin was traced to somewhere on the shores of Southsea Isle itself. Above water.

                        The excitement on deck was fragile, but palpable. If the signal truly was coming from abovewater, at Southsea Isle, then there was a decent chance of a survivor or survivors on the island. Now, the trick was to get to it without the Hiverians noticing.

                        The captain radioed back to Nautilus headquarters, describing the situation - that the Hive were too close to the island for a fully effective retrieval to take place. The crew of the vessel could make such an attempt, but time would be against them unless the Aquascante navy could send backup, or the Aquascante air force could provide firepower support.

                        The message was scrambled, relayed, received, decoded, and presented to the proper Nautilus authorities. This information was then encoded once again and sent, by express order of Captain Svensgard, to the suitable international personnel.

                        It bears telling that none of these suitable personnel were to be found outside of the Spartan Federation. This precluded the UN Commissioner Pravin Lal.

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        The dusty holopode was an old model, but sturdy. On it was a relief map of a continental landmass, shaped somewhat like the horned skull of a lupicrote, a broad nosepiece heading down southwards, and two slenderer landmasses curving off to the east and west. Also visible were familiar landmarks - the rolling hills, the dense forests in the center, pink swathes of xenofungus, and finally the rivers, comparatively straight in the generally mild terrain.

                        "Iphiclia and the DataTech territories," announced Joe.

                        He flicked a switch, and the map colored in light blue, darkening to deep purple in urban concentrations. The dots were fairly even throughout the central mass, thinning to a faint scrawl near the sea and further from the nutrient rich core. Five points, corresponding to large bases, were specially clear.

                        "The DataTech urban concentrations, and the urban centers of DataDeCentral, Ferretslair, Moonshadow, Ergonomia, and Applet Way," announced Joe.

                        He flicked a switch, and the map highlighted white spots which started off as bright dots at the center, and rapidly faded away within a few tens of kilometers. These all occupied an area roughly corresponding to the skewed pentagon of the five cities.

                        "These are tracked transmissions of the DataTech Internal, using their highest security codelocks. These are available only to DataKnaves, members of the DataTech military, and the DataJack herself. Although Zeta-5 has not yet made an attempt to break the codes themselves, our Algorithm has been able to track the activity at this extreme level of encryption, with the results you see."

                        Joe motioned the show onwards to the final display, which finally drew a large, jagged hexagon around the whole mass. The line maintained a respectful distance outwards from the five cities, and also skewed upwards to include Seaband and the large coastal district there. Within it lay a large percentage of the blue, representing populace. As far as the white of the top-echelon transmissions went, the red boundary encompassed more or less all of their occurrences.

                        Joe stood motionless as the watchers digested this. Aurum-4, Anhalt Reinhardt to his friends, was the first to break the silence.

                        "So what are you actually showing us, Zhou?"

                        Joe turned back to the presentation.

                        "Good question. Right now, you are looking at our interpretation of DataTech operation Sentry-8. This is, as far as we know, an emergency contingency operation that was begun two metric months ago, and has recently been completed. Its primary aim is to withdraw industrial core facilities, government bodies, and vital scientific projects to a network of easily defensible positions. The operation is classified to such a level that not even the head of the DataTech air force is included amongst the illuminati."

                        Aurum-4 mused on this.

                        "So, you're saying that Project PowerClip is now behind Sentry-8?"

                        Joe nodded. "Actually, not only was Project PowerClip the first structure to be sequestered behind Sentry-8, it would be fair to say that PowerClip in many ways inspired Sentry-8."

                        Joe brought up various photographs of heavy industry mixed with scenes of hi-tech research laboratories and experiments.

                        "These are all major components of Project PowerClip, but early in the Project's life, it was decided that it was too dangerous to leave in a centralized system. So, the project was split evenly between the five cities you see on the map. Each city would continue work on the components in modular fashion, then when the components were all completed, they would be combined at separate locations to await further phases of construction."

                        Reinhardt wondered at this. "Wouldn't that be inefficient?" he asked.

                        "Decentralized, yes. Inefficient, no. Efficiency is relative. The DataTech knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Hiverian Intelligence Bureau got wind of their project. If they split up the project from the beginning, it would make it that much more difficult to derail. I would say that destiny has proven them right on this count - even though your nation spared not a single competent probe team, you have still failed thus far. And given that only two of you remain from the scores of probes, I'd say that your chances of success against the organization of Sentry-8 and PowerClip's security are practically nil. Efficiency is not necessarily speed. Sometimes, as now, it also relies on survivability."

                        Reinhardt nodded. "So: what would it take to derail the project? You still haven't told me."

                        Joe shrugged. "The Algorithm and I are still working on that. It's by no means impossible - it's just impossible for the likes of you."

                        "You're dodging the question," noted Reinhardt, with a trace of grudging amusement despite himself.

                        Joe enumerated. "Sentry-8 owes a fair amount of inspiration to the Hiverian method of base design. The majority of Sentry-8 consists of hundreds of kilometers of bunkers and underground corridors, with easily defensible exits to the surface. They link the networks of the cities, allowing for ease of delivery and logistics. Any large scale military attack on this base is likely to fail, as the crushing advantage to the defenders is both tactical and logistical. Remember that they can relocate men and materiel from nearly anywhere within an expanse of some ten thousand square kilometers to counter any threat. A small scale probe infiltration would be somewhat more feasible on paper, but the sheer scope of your objective, Operation PowerClip, is such that no small scale probe operation would be able to cause enough damage to derail PowerClip permanently."

                        Joe flicked through a series of screens showing possible points of entry into Sentry-8. Sewer entrances, disused bunkers, natural faultlines, even the majestic coastal caves near Seaband were a mooted possibility.

                        "Hence the paradox - the defences can withstand any given enemy seige. Only a probe team stands a chance of getting inside Sentry-8's vast area. But once inside, it would need the combined firepower of an army to do any worthwhile amount of damage. And as we said earlier, no army can realistically get in."

                        Reinhardt sucked his lip as Murath finished changing the vaccuum sling on his arm.

                        "Wouldn't the project actually become more vulnerable the closer it is to completion?" asked Reinhardt. "The components must be brought physically closer together, thus facilitating an attack."

                        Joe shook his head patiently. "Even if you're talking about a suicidal probe team, armed to the teeth with the best electromagnetic pulse generators that money can buy, you're still talking about taking out a fraction of the project, even if it's all right there. Let's take an example closer to home, and with an existing project. Have you ever seen the physical mainframes that house the physical shell of the LineLock Hunter-Seeker Algorithm?"

                        Reinhardt shook his head impatiently. Joe continued unperturbed.

                        "They were originally located not far from Zhengsi Yuan - Seat of Proper Thought. You could subject the place to high intensity airstrikes, that might destroy the mainframes. Or you might try marching in with an army and physically tear the mainframes apart. But in their natural state, those things take up the best part of a city block in size. Now try throwing two lone probers against them. What sort of progress could they possibly make before the security kicks in?"

                        Reinhardt was silent.

                        "My point is this - all the conventional rules of espionage don't apply here anymore. That's natural, Aurum-4, after all we're up against the very faction that wrote the book in the first place. I'm sharing everything I have with you for two reasons - the first, is that it will convince you and your masters of the futility of acting now. The second, is that your survival back to Hiverian territories is imperative, now that you have Agent Hu. Zeta-5 tells me that it has already held many fruitful conversations with Agent Hu, and that it is confident Hu will represent us fairly to your leaders. But he can only make it back if you take him, Reinhardt. And you can only take him if you survive."

                        "What about the project?" asked Reinhardt dully.

                        Joe shrugged again. "We'll deal with that as best we can in the coming future. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it at that, too. Unless the Algorithm can think up of some superplan that trumps the whole field of conventional espionage overnight, we'll just have to keep on observing - and waiting."

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        As the Pirates continue to monitor the faint signals sent from the mountainside, another signal originates deep inside DataTech territory and flies outwards. Unusually large in its duration, it bounces across relays, heading out to a meeting with a longhaul Hiverian craft - nicknamed an "orbital" by the Hiverian High Command.

                        The lengthy signal is received, along with many hundreds of similar missives, but it stands out amongst the rest as it sports the fitting header code, in encoded binary. The orbital aircraft puts the message through the translators, and finds that it is encrypted with top codes. A quarter of an hour later, its decoders succeed in unravelling the receiver's name, and it is duly sent to Berzhinev.

                        Berzhinev receives the message with ill grace. He was, after all, recently awoken. However, as he reads the message and the video feed that comes with it, his surliness gives way in turn to wonder, mystification, panic, and disquieted relief. He immediately forwards the message to High Command, after a moment's pause to briefly consider editing the footage.

                        The Chairman watches the feed, and merely instructs his second, Zhu He Lai, to continue with his appointed agenda. However, lower down in the command chain, there is jubilation and a sense of purpose. The Second heads an extraordinary meeting of the leaders and discusses the status quo.

                        "We now have proof of Agent Hu's abduction, so the war against Iphiclia can be concluded at our leisure."

                        There was a huddled conversation amongst the military staff, some of whom supported the idea of further action against the DataTech.

                        "Furthermore, we have a few good leads on the location of Project PowerClip and its present status. We have also-" here Zhu nodded towards the Intelligence Head "-solved a slight mystery concerning one of our immortals overseas, missing for the previous few decades. It appears he had taken refuge after some legal misunderstanding, and would like Intelligence to clear his name."

                        Berzhinev rose to this, delivering a carefully worded report that the information would be used at such time, and in such increments, as was appropriate. Zhu thanked him inwardly for the brevity of his speech as he continued.

                        "However, it would appear that the Zeta-5 Consciousness, the old enemy of Provost Zakharov, is still extant and currently resides within the databanks of the Data Angels. The majority of the transmission concerns the exact composition and nature of this Consciousness, its primary algorithmic loops, and its contacts with Hiverian probe teams."

                        Zhu skimmed the relevant passages of the message, in its entirety occupying several megabytes of disk space on his palmtop computer.

                        "Here. Apparently, the Consciousness was responsible for extensive probing of the DataTech. What our operative knows about the DataTech Project PowerClip, and of their operation Sentry-8, was discovered only through the aid of the Consciousness. It would appear that the Consciousness wishes to ally itself with us, although it has yet to make a clear request either way."

                        General Ijoi was nonplussed. His main responsibility had been to oversee the intensive nerve gas bombing of the Harmonian lands and their Caretaker residents, and he had not appreciated losing resources to the DataTech war. In his opinion, the Caretakers took precedence over the DataTech in terms of threat, defences, and sheer military challenge, and if the upstart faction did indeed require a good Hiverian fight, they could wait their turn.

                        "So what do we decide?" he asked directly.

                        Zhu enumerated for the company.

                        "We must decide whether or not the war against the DataTech stops. If it does, we recommit our forces to fight the Caretakers. Secondly, we must decide what to do with the Consciousness. Do we need its help? Do we give it our own aid? The Diplomatic Corps need to answer these questions sometime soon. Finally, regardless of the war, or the Consciousness, we must stop Operation PowerClip at all costs. The DataTech have proven themselves quite capable and willing to side with the Caretakers, and the Peacekeepers have already made good on their promise to contain us militarily. We cannot allow the possibility of a strong enemy military to encircle us, not with Pravin Lal's milky hands working the controls."

                        * ~ * ~ *

                        The UN High Commissioner never heard these dubiously praising words. He was too busy dealing with the sudden reversal of the Gaians on three of his ten points to pay much attention to anything.

                        "May I ask why milady chooses to recant her earlier stance?" he asked, his expression giving way to a moue of concern.

                        Skye's face tilted in a noncommittal gesture of dismissal from its especially enormous screen (installed by vote of the Peacekeepers, many of whom considered her to be the most photogenic of the faction leaders). "My own views are nothing to those of my Senate," she said. "One of our Senators, McClelland, came back from the Hive recently, and he has been most outspoken in his defence of that faction."

                        Lal consulted his papers. "But a shift from 65:22 For, to 53:44 Against. I must admit I was not present during this year's XXXVIIth meeting of the Gaian Democratic Senate, milady, but how would you account for a paradigm shift of that magnitude?"

                        Skye shrugged again, the blood-red beads of her necklace curving on her smooth collarbones. "I shrink from saying it, but the original votes on your Ten Points represented only a scattered response from the Senators, my dear Commissioner. The returning Senator is a popular man - once he questioned the decision, people started to dispute it in earnest, sometimes even outside of Senate and our recesses." A shadow of a smile flickered across her face. "In fact, our final vote on these points was arguably the most thoroughly debated UN decision of the year."

                        Lal turned his face aside briefly to hide his chagrin. "So, you plan to turn a blind eye to the events on board the Unity?"

                        Skye smiled. "I have enough concerns of my own at the here and now. I am not entirely at liberty to pursue such a distant course of prosecution."

                        "And the Progenitor Wars?"

                        "Are no concern of mine," replied Skye sharply. Her eyes narrowed and her face grew slightly closed in aversion. "You are free to do as you please concerning the war against the Caretakers. But do not expect mercy towards the Progenitors from my people, who themselves received none in their time of need."

                        Lal sighed. "True enough, milady. But I should like to remind you that your condonement may directly allow the Hive to enslave and subjugate many more innocent souls."

                        "As your insistent condemnation may lead to a war you do not want and cannot win," retorted the Gaian. But the faint hostility left her face as suddenly as it came. "My apologies, dear Commissioner, but I have pressing affairs to see to. Let us speak again later, perhaps at the Council meeting."

                        Lal forced a smile. "Yes, I look forward to that. And thank you for your vote on this matter, too." As Skye's eyes turned back sharply, he continued. "The fact that we disagree is not crucial - what is crucial is that we do so democratically and civilly - with words, not weapons."

                        Skye was still evidently nonplussed as she signed off.
                        "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                        • #42

                          "Spartan, you say?" asked Zhu incredulously.

                          "Positive identification, Second," said Ijoi. "This was confirmed by one of our moles in the Spartan EconoMin."

                          "Does this include the naval forces as well?"

                          Ijoi shrugged. "I would assume it doesn't. The mole didn't mention any Spartan naval forces near the area. The Pirates don't have a significant land army or air force, and the DataTech air force was largely destroyed during Deinara Sound."

                          "So the Spartans were directly responsible for the attack." Zhu considered this briefly, then dismissed it for the time being.

                          "How are things on Harmonia?" he asked cordially.

                          "Terrible," said Ijoi. "The mountains and water all smell of rotten octopus. We suffered a slight setback when they managed to repair and field an interceptor squadron, but some of our Gata cannons were able to bring them down. Right now our primary concern is that we have pushed back the boundary too far. All the remaining Caretaker holdings are out of range for our penetrators to target."

                          Zhu consulted the map. "Can you capture and hold a temporary launch base for future operations?"

                          Ijoi shook his head. "Can't be done. The only way we can inflict damage on the Caretakers is through the deployment of nerve gas and incendiaries, both of which quickly render the bases uninhabitable. Conventional weapons are less effective against the Caretaker resonance defences, and our losses would be correspondingly greater."

                          Zhu nodded. "Persevere just a while longer, General. I expect the DataTech war will be over very shortly. Then you will receive your reinforcements, and the Caretaker threat will be swiftly neutralized."

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          The Hiverian fleet, much to the astonishment of the Nemo, had shrunk overnight. The carrier had disappeared, as had one of the cruisers. The skimships and remaining cruiser now huddled together in a paranoid clutch, perhaps awaiting more reinforcements.

                          It was clearly time to act.

                          The Nemo surfaced just long enough to detach a small cutter, and then closed its jawlike dock and dove once more. The cutter had no weapon or armor systems - merely an enlarged freighter bay and a small scout complement of sailors. The cutter sped towards a secluded lagoon, weighed anchor, and the scout troopers disembarked.

                          The beacon signals came from midway up the mountain, and was shielded from the Hive by the mass of the mountain itself. From their viewpoint, a jagged clearing marked an obvious descent of airborne debris, and an arduous trek proved this correct. There, they found the fuselage of the Hiverian bomber, minus wings and tail, half-buried in the soft topsoil of the forested slope.

                          The set about moving the bomber with gusto, operating with cutters and mini-lifters. However, it was not until one scout member sat down to rest that he noticed something odd about the signals. They were coming from the radio transmitters mounted just on the stump of each wing, but they had been altered by someone or something. They had been studiously cut free from their fixed positions, then turned a few degrees, and then welded back onto the fuselage. Although, in synchrony, they broadcasted in a seemingly random open arc, their overlaps met at a certain point out in the ocean.

                          The scout members themselves relayed the findings back to the Nemo, and then continued on their work, cutting the plane apart and bringing it down to the shore. The Nemo calculated the fluctuations in the pulse intensity (minute at this distance) and dove to examine the ocean shelf.

                          There, they discovered another damaged Hiverian bomber jet, lacking only the wings. The cockpit was sealed and airtight, and the systems were still active. However, no hails were acknowledged, and upon recovering the wreck, the pilot inside was found to have died of asphyxiation some seven hours previously. The log showed that the pilot, resting on the bottom, had radioed for help and received a few messages in return from the island. The observer on the island was able to fix the sunken plane's location, and had altered his own crashed craft's transmitters to indicate this finding.

                          Apart from the two craft, invaluable prizes as they were, there were scant traces of the mysterious observer on the island who had been of such great help in locating the planes. A few remnants of parachute lining were found, as well as the grey remains of a fire surrounded by numerous fruit pips and rodent bones. Notably, several discarded microsyringes of morphine and cocaine were found, as well as an inscription, etched into a nearby tree bole with a microcutter: Ave Sparta - non est finitum.

                          This was to occupy the minds of the Nautilus Pirates for some time. The DataTech, who six hours later at last received the treasured Fusion drives, thought about it little, if at all. The Spartans, on the other hand, recognized the valediction of their erstwhile servant, Major Pietr Hommel. If he truly was the benefactor of these deeds, then his struggle on the rugged island took on a heroic scope.

                          First, the problem of respiration was evident. It was possible that Hommel had been equipped with a flightmask whilst in the Hiverian jet, but the oxygen supply would have ceased with his ejection and he would have asphyxiated. It was also possible that he was wearing a simlite biosuit model, held in the mouth and with the respirator worn over the shoulders - this theory was marginally more feasible but the odds against the lightweight equipment surviving an air descent were high.

                          Secondly, and most obviously, the problem of Hommel's own injuries were overwhelming. His ejection from the jet severed his legs at the knee, but the extreme cold of the atmosphere stopped the bleeding. It was theorized that he had time to deploy his featherfall parachute and jets, setting down in the midst of the ocean and then floating over to the island after deploying the flotation cushion.

                          By the time he had arrived on the island, the other two jets behind him would have crashed. One did so into the ocean, much as Hommel's own, and the other was in good enough shape to attempt an emergency landing on the island itself. The pilot lacked formal training with the Hiverian controls, and evidently did not survive the landing - a reasonable enough outcome. Fortunately, his aircraft had survived.

                          Even more fortunately, Hommel had managed not only to survive, but also to arrange matters such that the Nautilus, operating on express interdict of the Spartans, were able to retrieve not one but two Fusion reactors from the site. The circumstances spoke for themselves, as far as the Spartans were concerned. What then needed to be resolved was how to retrieve Hommel's remains from the island. The Nautilus had no intention of combing the forested rockpile in search of a crippled soldier, not with the Hiverian fleet due to regroup and arrive at any moment. The Nemo, its task complete, left the area at top velocity and docked three hours later at the DataTech base of Applet Way.

                          From there, it was a series of bureaucratic delays and waiting for appropriate clearance, before the two Fusion reactors were sent onwards to the Seaband cliff face. There, one reactor was decomissioned and escorted into Sentry-8 labs. The other was characteristically refused entry, sent back to Applet Way, forwarded on to Ferretslair, and there finally brought to the abandoned hulk of the DataTech Economic Ministry before it was allowed access to the underground bunkers and finally, to the underground labs of Sentry-8.

                          This done, the Nautilus and Spartans reported to the DataTech the method of retrieval, and the DataTech radioed news of their successful reception back to the Peacekeeper leadership.

                          * ~ * ~ *

                          Lal received the news of the retrieval with mixed cheer. First, his mood was elation, as his dream of filching Fusion from the Hive drew inexorably nearer. Later, however, came the realization that the Nautilus and the Spartans had done this behind his back. He pondered briefly whether to send a memo of reprimand to the factions concerned, then decided to let it drop.

                          After all, there were more important things to be done.

                          "Let's begin," he said to Sarita.

                          The holopodes activated, with an accompanying fanfare, magnificently reproduced in algorithmic simulation. Banners deployed holographically, and the lights illumined a concentric ampitheater and central podium, redolent of the ancient United Nations building in a graveyard metropolis on a dead homeworld.

                          Lal scanned the holopodes of the other factions, and the real-life presence of their envoys. There were the Spartans, immaculate in their uniforms and sporting their symbolic battle armor, heavy about the chest and shoulders. There were the Morganites, lounging in their casual languor and almost indolent comfort. The Gaians formed a somewhat awkward delegation, unused to the grandiose and marbled surroundings of the UNP Assembly Hall, and to its somewhat overzealous air conditioning. The Nautilus chair was headed by Svensgaard's trusted lieutenant, "Hemlock" Jones, and the DataTech seat was unsurprisingly scanty - the DataJack had been unable to spare much of her staff in these times of trouble.

                          Sarita noted the absentees, as well as those present, and the 47th UN Assembly formally began.

                          "May the rights of man, and the edicts of God, guide our judgement today. In unity is strength."

                          The UNP mantra finished, Lal turned and began his speech.

                          "As the Planetary Council grows, and as the cooperation between factions and fellow men increases, we welcome more peoples and their wise leaders to our forum." He turned to face each faction as he spoke, his attitude regal, giving only the slightest of bows to show his gratitude. "It has always been the watchword of our Charter and mission that cooperation amongst our brothers and sisters is the only acceptable plan for the future. We are pleased to greet our fellow leaders, and we urge you to make use of this community and forum to air your issues."

                          Sarita noticed an insistent blinking on Lal's personal caller - top priority channels. Either Lal had forgotten to switch it off, or he wasn't able to. A brief cough later, and Lal too noticed it. He continued nonetheless, but discreetly making his way to the UNP podium as he did so.

                          "In this day and age, we can no longer afford conflict as an acceptable means of resolution. It has been shown that conflict merely engenders further conflicts, and that these conflicts themselves become an obstacle to peaceful resolution of any legitimate issue. The United Nations was founded to allow for dialogue, and to solve problems through discussion, not war. To this noble mission, I would like to dedicate this meeting of the UNP Council to our newly attendant members - the Spartan Federation, and the DataTech Enclave. Long may your presence grace the Council! Long may your wisdom add to its efforts!"

                          As the sound of applause pattered through the hall, Lal switched off his mic and sat down, giving Dr Kakani his slot to speak on the importance of science. Lal briefly hoped Kakani would keep it short and not embark on impromptu discourses, as the scientist was sometimes wont. In any case, it hardly mattered - Lal was pleased with his initial speech, and it was evident that the Spartans and DataTech were beginning to accept their welcome.

                          Sarita tapped his arm and handed him his datapad. The red caller light, the top priority hail, was still blinking. But who would be sending such a comms hail at this time? His curiosity overcoming his momentary irritation, Lal turned down the volume and answered the hail.

                          "Commissioner Lal of the United Nations Peacekeepers," he said softly.

                          The face on the other end was aged, irritable, and sour. It peered out from behind two chromatic eyepieces with an expression of predominant impatience and disdain. Its hair was wild and unkempt. It had evidently not shaved in a while.

                          "Commissoner, you are beginning Council in the Assembly Hall," pronounced the startling apparition flatly.

                          Lal was taken aback, both by the speaker and by his bluntness. "Why, yes, dear Provost-" he began.

                          "Then you can kindly activate two more holopodes for our representatives. We intend to attend this meeting, as there are many important trespasses to discuss."

                          Lal's mind, quick on the uptake, was already considering the potential rewards of befriending the University. Could it be that the Provost, of all people, was finally joining Council against the Hive? The thought filled him with a forbidden delight.

                          "Of course, Provost, we are always happy to receive new members. In fact, we have already welcomed the Spartans and the DataTech to their first meeting. It would give me great pleasure to welcome your enlightened-"

                          "Yes, yes, good, good," interrupted the Provost with acerbic distaste. "In which case stand by to receive our authorization codes."

                          Lal nodded and gestured to Sarita, who was ready with the decryptors.

                          "Provost, we value each and every opinion from all our leaders. We hope that you will grace our Council with your wisdom."

                          "Yes, well - it had to happen someday," said the Provost with ill humor, turning back to the screen absently. In the background, Lal could not help noticing with some slight chagrin, the Provost appeared to be playing some sort of three-dimensional chess game.

                          Sarita cleared her throat. "Transmission cleared, Commissioner. Appended was an extra data loop, possibly meaningless."

                          Lal gave Zakharov a warm smile and spoke. "Welcome to the Council, dear Provost. We have your authorization codes and they have cleared."

                          Zakharov turned back, his eyes snapping back to the present. "Well?" he asked, looking around.

                          Lal stood up in Council, cutting Kakani short. He turned to face the gathered crowds.

                          "Friends and fellow Councilmen, I have an important announcement to make!" His voice rang out across the hall in a bold baritone. "Today, on the 47th Extraordinary Meeting of the United Nations Assembly, we welcome another illustrious faction to our voting ranks. Please extend your welcome to the Provost Zakharov, representative of the University of Planet."

                          In synchrony with his voice, the holopode cleared his codes and the Provost's head appeared in front of the collected Council of Planet - rendered in three dimensions, hovering in midair like a disembodied specter. It drew a widespread gasp - the majority of the people present had never seen the Provost outside of the news reports. Many had never even seen a person simply as old as he was. Some people applauded.

                          The effect was partially marred by the fact that the good Provost was initially facing away from the viewers, shutting down terminals and putting his game of 3D wei qi on hold, before turning back distractedly.

                          His words, upon looking around at the surroundings and the Assembly Hall, were even less auspicious.

                          "What have you done?" he demanded. "We asked for two holopodes!"

                          Lal's smile wavered and he faltered slightly before gesturing curtly to Sarita. "Of course, dear Provost. My apologies."

                          The Provost's face, hanging in midair, suddenly acquired a twin, hovering a few meters away, above the other holopode. The Provost immediately squinted both eyes tight shut and shook his head rapidly from side to side. Holographic hands came up to shield his face.

                          "No, no, no!" he hollered in deafening unison from both holopodes. "Now I see everything twice! Dammit!" The microphones began an ominous squeal from the feedback loop, and Lal scrambled over to the controls himself.

                          "How about this?" he asked. The newer head disappeared.

                          The Provost opened his eyes. "That's better. Now I see everything once. But what about the other holopode?"

                          Lal was beginning to regret his haste in letting the Provost in. "What do you mean?" he asked, a crack beginning to show in his self-control.

                          Zakharov checked his transmission. "When we sent you the codes we sent them both. What have you done with the other half?"

                          Lal gave the nonplussed audience a nervous smile and rushed back to Sarita. "What? Both? You mean you sent two codes?"

                          Zakharov sighed with strained patience. "Yes," he said slowly. "We sent two codes."

                          Sarita, quicker on the technological uptake, scanned the code sent by the Provost, and located the latter half - an extra data loop. "This is a code?" she asked. "But it's a data loop!"

                          Zakharov looked up and nodded patronizingly, his brittle mood deteriorating. "Yes, my dear. It's how they do data these days. Extra algorithmic encryption. Feed it into the holopode and let us start this whole circus."

                          Lal bit his lip at the heavy-handedness of the Provost's words. There was no call for this sort of misbehavior in Council. The Provost had better be bringing something good to the forum, or else he would get a good dressing down during the recess.

                          Sarita decoded and fed the data loop into the dormant holopode, as the leaders watched with growing interest and, in some cases, wry amusement. None of them were prepared for what happened next.

                          The holopode suddenly became full of snow and static and a horrendous squealing sound that forced everybody to cover their ears. The disturbance continued for several seconds, eventually clearing up as the data loop fought through the layers upon layers of encryption in the signal. The tortured effort finally brought an intelligible image onscreen.

                          Lal's heart missed a beat as he recognized who it was. The hearts of the other faction reps leapt to their throats. For a time, nobody could speak - not a word of welcome, or the diplomatic mantras of the United Nations. Eventually, the voice from holopode itself broke the lengthening silence.

                          "Commissioner Pravin Lal. It is an honor to meet you again."

                          Silence. Lal flicked an uneasy look towards the other faction leaders, who seemed as shocked as himself. The Provost was the only exception, watching the proceedings with a laconic disinterest.

                          The vision spoke again.

                          "Apologies for the code relay. But as your probes know from years of experience, our Hunter-Seeker Algorithm does not lend itself well to top secret transmissions. This is the only way I could be present at your august Council."

                          Lal finally found his voice, though not his manners.

                          "You-!" he said venomously.

                          The figure bowed its cropped head slightly. "The very same: Chairman Sheng Ji Yang."
                          Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 1, 2002, 03:04.
                          "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                          • #43

                            Li Min crept through the shadows of the stairwell, his pistol out, in the grey pre-dawn haze. There hadn't been any noise since he'd watched the Hiverians leave, but he wouldn't have put it past them to seed the place with booby traps.

                            His hand trembled slightly on the pistol - his fingers were bleeding, and his index fingertip was bandaged. His eyes were clearer than before, and his breathing was steadier. Earlier, as the firefight outside died down, Li Min had finally collapsed of exhaustion and slept a troubled spell in the turret. Though he had hardly dared to believe it, his crude defences had kept the Hiverians away. Either that, or they hadn't thought to come look for him.

                            A glance told him that the central entranceway was clear, but he didn't trust it. Were he in their shoes, he would have left traps behind. No - scratch that. Were he in their shoes, he would have made damn sure that the last remaining enemy agent was dead.

                            He cautiously peered around the corner, noting with no particular surprise that the electronic door to the lower levels and infirmary was now ajar. It figured - the blasted thing had refused to open when he'd needed to get in. What he couldn't understand was how the Hiverians had managed to get it open. Of course, the logical deduction would be that they had hacked it beforehand to proof it against him, but that then begged another question - how had they hacked it from outside?

                            Li Min made his way to the dry storage hoard, where he had secreted a small optrimeter scanner earlier. A preliminary scan indicated no devices in the hallway, but did not exclude the possibility of cruder traps. Li Min dithered - he had seen enough high-tech lethality in the course of his mission, but it was equally possible that they had left behind something simple, like caltrops or a tripwire.

                            He took off the optrimeter and peered around the corners. Nothing happened.

                            With a sudden disgust at the whole charade, Li Min did something uncharacteristic - he holstered his weapon, strolled out into the hallway, and damned the consequences.

                            He made it to the laboratory unmolested. There, things were largely unchanged, except that the freezer safe had been opened, and its partial occupant evicted. Li Min checked the hidden cameras around the room - they had not been touched. That meant that he had evidence of the intrusion.

                            Well, it was better than nothing. He sat down heavily on the operating table and thought. DataTech Interior would want a copy of the evidence, if only for archival purposes. Perhaps it would also indicate to them how badly things were falling apart in the probe industry. Li Min had undertaken this mission in the hopes that the full forces of the clinically precise M/MI divers could take over once the head was delivered.

                            Instead, he came back to a nation frozen by the sealing of all governmental intercourse, and where he could not contact his superiors without endangering himself. It had eventually fallen to him and his partner to trawl the head through M/MI. After two days of fruitless interrogation, the brain of Hu was gone, and Huang was dead.

                            Li Min shook his head. The M/MI divers could have operated in a matter of mere hours and found out what they had needed to. But the clinical facilities and the talented personnel required for the task were simply not available - of course, they were there all right, but Li Min was no longer one of those who could convince them to work on his project. Once the nation had started its dive towards a police state, all resources had been diverted towards governmental initiatives. Small fry such as Li Min were very low down on the ladder when it came to haggling for their limited attention.

                            He logged on wearily at the net let, connecting manually. This was the sort of inefficiency you had to suffer once your nation abandoned democracy. It was no longer a case of rewarding ability, it was now a case of rewarding power to take it. He wondered how the Hive had managed to grow to such a size without imploding under the weight of inefficiency in its monolithic system. Perhaps the answer lay in psychology, not sociology. Was the Hiverian mindset so unique?

                            The evidence sped on its way to the common net nodes, where Interior might or might not one day pick it up and file it.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            Lal paced the recess chamber with his Privy Council in mute perplexity, pondering what course of action to take.

                            Recess had been declared at this unprecedented juncture, with four new factions suddenly taking part in a Council that was no longer the same.

                            Lal tapped his teeth with his finger, squinting slightly in deep thought. Sarita watched him warily.

                            "The Hive are here," he said matter-of-factly. "But we weren't prepared for them."

                            "How could they have come into Council so suddenly?" asked Landert, the Education Minister.

                            "It looks like they piggybacked their code on the Provost's transmission," said Kakuni, with a grudging respect. "That way we couldn't tell what it was before we opened it."

                            Lal shook his head. It had been brilliantly planned - just after the opening speech of welcome for all new factions, the Hive then forced their way into Council. The Peacekeepers would have lost tremendous face in opposing them, after their earlier welcoming exuberance. Now, Lal would have to play it by ear if he could.

                            "Check all their previous transmissions for similarly coded data loops. We don't want them pulling a similar stunt. We want to know each and everything they've sent us," said Lal finally. Behind him, Kakuni busied himself with the task. But even as he did so, Lal silently acknowledged the likely futility of this tactic. Though he had to be wary of undetected hidden messages, perhaps to be used in the old 'but we told you so' gambit, something told him the Hive would be making their point today through different means. In any case, such a means smacked of lowly pedantry, and it was hard to imagine the Chairman resorting to it.

                            Still, safety measures were safety measures.

                            "Get me the DataTech," he said at length. "First, we'll concentrate on the Hiverian crimes against the UN Charter. Then we'll talk about Iphiclia."

                            Lal pondered. All in all, perhaps Providence had been good. The Hive were fighting an unpopular and distressing war, and the Peacekeepers were ready to push for election as the Council Governors. Had the Hive remained in absentia during their trial and conviction, questions would have lingered. Far better that they be shown for the enemy that they truly were in Council - in full view, in the eyes of the whole world.

                            Sarita was not quite finished. "Commissioner, we have one top priority message from the Hiverian Second, Zhu He Lai."

                            Lal's pulse quickened. Was this to be the start of the unseen maneuvering? A bribe? A sop? A full-scale defection?

                            "What does it say?" he asked. Sarita decoded it and read.

                            "He writes to inform you that the Hiverian nomenclature places the surname first and the individual name last. He observes that most UNP documents refer to their leader as 'Chairman Yang'. Apparently, in formal situations it should be 'Chairman Sheng'. He offers this information so we may correct our records in future."

                            Lal grunted, unimpressed.

                            "I think we've survived pretty well with the glaring inaccuracy," he said, a trace of contempt in his voice. "The Hiverians will just have to grin and bear it."

                            Then, with a dismissive wave of his hand, he summoned his privy council back to the Assembly Hall.

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            "The Arbitration Council of the United Nations now calls its first item," announced the speaker. "The condemnation of the Hiverian genocide campaign against the Caretaker faction."

                            Lal stood and took his place at the podium.

                            "Since the Hiverian military action began against the Caretaker faction in UndecLuna 2225, they have clearly engaged in acts of genocide. They have acted without quarter, mercy, or humanity, opting only to destroy the race and to clear Planet of all vestiges of its culture. Furthermore, the Hiverian air force has clearly employed nerve gas and incendiary weapons during the course of this conflict - all forbidden in warfare by the Humane Convention Act of the UN Charter. The Hive stands before this tribunal accused of ongoing war crimes and gross miscarriages of justice. The UN Council calls upon the Hiverian leader, Chairman Yang, to respond to these accusations."

                            All eyes passed from Lal's solitary spotlight to the impassive face of the Hiverian leader. There is an inscrutable expression on his face, as though amused by something beneath contempt.

                            "You are very concise in your analysis of our aims," he said. "Indeed, we fully intend to eliminate the Caretaker faction in whole, and we are committed to use every means at our disposal to do so. Our war is conducted with the harsh lessons learned from the Usurper variants, whose campaign against the University nearly robbed us of the presence of the good Provost Zakharov. The peoples of no fewer than three factions have endured unbearable hardships under the Progenitor yoke - we undertake their destruction with this knowledge in mind."

                            Lal noticed a few assenting nods from the University reps and - surprisingly - the Gaians. He stored this alarming fact in his mind as the Chairman continued.

                            "Nowhere in the UN Charter or the Humane Convention Act are the Progenitors mentioned. The atrocity in question - namely, the willful destruction of civilian life - is clearly defined in Clause Aleph-334c, and the definition does not include any mention of xenofungus, mind worms, fungal towers, or other sentient Chironian lifeforms. By natural extension, there is no mention of Progenitors."

                            The Chairman glanced offscreen momentarily, then returned, his speech hardly breaking.

                            "Indeed, your own august Council debated the Progenitors' status in the Charter, during the 46th meeting. I need hardly mention that the motion to include them was soundly defeated. Nor need I remind you that the Progenitors themselves refused attendance. Such a species is not only foreign to ourselves as humans, but also to all the precepts that formed this Council. By what right, therefore, do you presume to invoke UN Senatorial punishments against this species? For what transgression can the Hive be held to blame?"

                            Lal rose to his feet and gesticulated grandly. "The very fact that you are willing to deploy such weapons in the first place indicates a chilling lack of concern for life. What is to stop you from using them against humans?"

                            The Chairman's eyes grew thoughtful. "An intriguing point, dear Commissioner, and you have just touched upon a matter of considerable moral discussion within the Hiverian command. However, I believe our present actions speak for themself - note that in our wars against the Believers and now the DataTech, we have steadfastly refrained from using any such tactics against our fellow men. Furthermore, we have refrained from carrying out exactly the sort of civilian human persecution of which you accuse us. All of our targets have been military, and it is against all Hiverian policy to attack civilian targets. A pity that the DataTech did not observe such courtesies when they slaughtered and abducted our diplomat."

                            "And what of the seizure of all trade vessels to the island?" snapped the Commissioner quickly.

                            "The seizure was just that: a seizure," responded the Chairman. "Vessels were impounded prior to a declaration of war, and the crews were held in asylum until such time as hostilities cease. This is standard procedure, and I fail to see how you intend to link it to your accusation of atrocities. What we see here is no atrocity, merely a disagreement of policy - which alone cannot debar a faction from Council. Indeed, there are those who would argue that securing the safe holding of civilian crews prior to an outbreak of war is a highly humane act."

                            Lal felt his momentum slipping away somewhat. He decided to try another tactic, blocking the nods and murmurs of the Morganites from his mind.

                            "Now you're avoiding the question," he said diplomatically. "To whit: how do you answer for the brutal loss of life and the danger to Planetary environment that your non-conventional weapons are inflicting?"

                            The Chairman seemed genuinely surprised by this question at first, and Lal thought he saw an appreciative nod or two from the Gaians. So far, so good. His tentative joy evaporated as the Chairman responded.

                            "Our sole aim on Harmonia is to clear the continent of the Caretaker Progenitors. Your very own Council voted against the granting of human rights to the Caretakers. Therefore, our deployment of nerve gas is essentially no different from the deployment of fungicidal compounds by your formers - both are tools used to clear an area of native life in order to encourage terraforming. Should your Council overrule its earlier finding, then we shall consider our actions in a new light. But until you effect such a ruling as draws a link between the rights of men, and the rights of alien life, do not presume to label our campaign against the Caretakers as 'inhumane'. By such a flawed assumption, your fungicidal terraformers stand guilty of the grossest and most systematic atrocities of all humanity."

                            Lal flicked a switch and the collage of images appeared onscreen - Caretaker bases, burned from the inside outwards. Caretaker bodies, pulped from their death vibrations. Caretaker flesh, mottled as it burned away in the acrid atmosphere. He chanced a glance around, and saw the reactions on the faces of the faction representatives. The sight filled him with new hope.

                            "So you have no appreciation for the suffering you cause for such beings as these?" asked the Commissioner drily.

                            The Chairman's eyes hooded and he spoke with clarity. "Remember Clause Aleph-334c, Pravin: the Progenitors have no rights. They suffer no more than does the xenofungus, when you melt its fronds with your oxides and alkalis." His expression returned to its usual state of dispassion. "After all, you and your Council set these regulations - I merely follow them."

                            Lal scowled at the cavalier use of his given name. "I supported no such clause," he bit out.

                            The Chairman consulted for a split second. "No, that much is correct," he conceded. "It appears you were outvoted 2-1 by the Council during the 46th meeting." The Chairman cast his eyes downwards. "My sincere condolences."

                            A loud guffaw rang out from somewhere to Lal's left - probably somebody in the Morganite delegation. Lal ignored it and pressed the issue forwards regardless, despite his growing sense of ridiculousness.

                            "The accusation stands - that the Hive faction, under Chairman Yang, has engaged in inhumane and unacceptable practices on Harmonia. The Hive has denied these accusations. All those in favor of further prosecution?"

                            The Gaian and Peacekeeper representatives made clear their vote.

                            "And against?"

                            The Hive vote arrived almost instantaneously. It was followed at a decent interval by that of the University, and - to Lal's dismay - the Morganites. Lal had suspected the amoral University would support the Chairman's evil actions, but to find Morgan arrayed against him was a profound shock. An even greater horror suggested itself to him - perhaps the Morganites were doing this just to spite the DataTech's final remaining ally?

                            Recess had barely been called, before he was patching through to Morgan.

                            "My good Commissioner-" began Morgan with a grin.

                            "What on Planet are you doing?" demanded Lal. "Are you saying you actually approve of what they do?"

                            Morgan chuckled and waved a hand lightly, but Lal could see the evasion in his eyes. "Hard to tell," said Morgan smugly. "Ultimately, when it comes down to it, they do have a point, Pravin. If you carry this through to a tribunal, they'll tear the case apart and the Hive will still be innocent then as they are now. However, if they'd gassed a DataTech cruiser, or bombarded a DataTech Childrens' Creche, or executed a DataTech village something a bit more photogenic..." Morgan gestured wistfully.

                            Lal cut him short. "That's hardly relevant," he said. "Don't you see? It doesn't actually matter whether they come out of it guilty or innocent. The vital thing is that unpleasant questions be asked. And once the crowds start asking questions, even if the tribunal finds the Hive innocent, there will always be the unwanted attention - the media exposure to their ruthlessness - the Guardian's own broadcasts of despair and destruction." Lal's eyes blazed with exasperation. "Dammit, Morgan, all we had to do was drag this to a tribunal trial and their reputation would have been irreparably crushed!"

                            Morgan shrugged. "You're the diplomat, not I. In future, you would do well to tell me what it is that we are supposed to be voting for. I merely assumed in my ignorance, that we were voting for whether this accusation was worthy of a tribunal. I didn't realize we were voting on whether or not we could skewer the Hive over a publicity drubbing." He sipped at his drink. "If I'd known, I'd have prepared my demands in good time."

                            Lal pondered his next item - the demand for the Hiverian withdrawal from all lands DataTech. His heart sank as he considered Nwabudike Morgan's saturnine face, beaming with ill-disguised pleasure at his discomfort. Some refusals, he reflected, did not even need to be requested.

                            "Very well," he said. "Let your morals guide you, Morgan. Every man faces a time when he has only those to do so - pity the guideless soul then!"

                            * ~ * ~ *

                            Lal had held discreet meetings with the Nautilus, DataTech, and the Spartans in the hour-long recess from the Arbitration Council. He could not fight the first item, and he knew it. The Harmonian gambit had failed, thrown wildly by the sudden emergence of the Hive and University as voting factions - but he could still very feasibly salvage the latter points. Thus, he had met with the representatives of Svensgard, Roze, and Santiago briefly, to formalize his stance on the DataTech item, and to ensure their support. Namely, that the Hive were resorting to warfare in order to resolve issues, and in so doing endangering global peace - the Council was to put a precipitate end to this warmongering.

                            Svensgard and Roze had naturally agreed without question, and Santiago had proven far less recalcitrant than earlier, coming to a decision with minimal coercion. Lal wondered at this - could it be that her recent military contact with the Hive had opened her eyes to their imminent threat? Regardless of the source of her consternation, Lal was grateful for it - whatever it was, it was proving a most useful help.

                            Lal and his privy council returned to the bright auditorium of the Assembly Hall once more, as the Speaker began to summarize the previous item.

                            "The Council acknowledges the overturn of its first proposal," announced the Speaker. "The Hiverian Harmonia campaign cannot be classified as crimes against humanity." There were, at this juncture, the usual flurry of challenges from the Peacekeepers and (hearteningly) the Gaians, but the Speaker knew the regulations as well as they, and they were ignored.

                            "We move to the next item for discussion - the Hiverian invasion of the DataTech mainland, and the military action taken against a peace-loving and democratic state."

                            A murmur arose amongst the assembled delegates, but the Speaker continued.

                            "Commissioner Pravin Lal, would you clarify the case against the Hive?"

                            Lal stood up and took his place once more, an expression of calculating anticipation on his features. His voice, when he spoke, was soft and appreciative, but with the hint of a slow relish behind it.

                            "With great pleasure, Speaker."

                            * ~ * ~ *
                            Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 3, 2002, 23:24.
                            "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                            • #44

                              Li Min sat down amidst the ruins of his castle and pondered. He was nonplussed, disgruntled, and unnerved. The lattermost emotion filled him with greatest fear.

                              Internal had refused even to accept his drop-in report. This was unusual - he could understand it if the network had refused him access to material, or blocked an attempt to manipulate files, but this submission of information was the most basic of functions. Why did it refuse to accept something so mundane as CCTV footage? Either Internal had soared to heights of further paranoia, or somebody somewhere was messing with things they are not wont to.

                              Li Min connected manually, and began to trawl through the nodes last visited by Huang. This was an intriguing development, and it was hardly as though he had anything better to do. The fortress had a decent store of perishables, and the fission reactors had come back online with the departure of the enemy probe team. Li Min decided it was time to see what Interior were up to.

                              * ~ * ~ *

                              Back in the Assembly Hall, Lal was working up to a good climax, in fine fettle.

                              "The United Nations cannot condone the present Hiverian action against the DataTech people. We do not operate on a basis of allowing factions to vote in Council whilst they are transgressing basic axioms of its Charter. Thus, the United Nations calls upon the Hiverian faction to desist in any and all military action in and around Iphiclia and all holdings of the DataTech. Furthermore, we move to condemn the Hiverian attack as an attack by a militaristic hegemon upon a democratic and peace-loving nation. We call upon the Hive to withdraw their forces from DataTech territories immediately."

                              In the dim and distant University headquarters, the Provost sniffed derisively. "The minnow threatens the pike." He then placed another white disc on the framework in front of him, satisfied with his move.

                              Back in Council, Lal gave way, to the accompaniment of light applause, to the representative of the DataTech - a strong-jawed woman with a businesslike demeanor.

                              "DataTech speaker Roberta Grysel," announced the Speaker.

                              "The Hiverian war against our people has lasted for a month." Grysel's voice was authoritative, but controlled. The viewers saw a woman who had faced trials alongside her people, and who would best them. "During this month, our people fear daily for their safety, their trade, and their very lives."

                              ("Aren't two of those the same thing?" muttered the Provost under his breath. In the background, his aide Jorenson smiled despite himself.)

                              "Our situation," Grysel continued, "grows more desperate by the hour. However-" here she fixed the audience with a piercing green gaze "-it would be criminal folly to believe that our trials have just begun. The truth of the matter is, our brave people have been threatened for decades by the Hive. Though they have moved against us only recently, our hardships and trials began far earlier. Only now, through the grace of God and the justice of the democratic world, have our sufferings become known to Planet."

                              Grysel activated the holopode and certain news images flickered across it. "Our first contact with the Hive was through a diplomatic exchange with their ambassador, Zhou Huan Wei. Trusting in their integrity and sense of honor, we allowed their agent Zhou to reside within our territory and to open channels of communication with the Hiverian government."

                              The headlines changed and news of a scandal filled the space on the holopode, along with accusations and rebuttals between factions.

                              "We now know that Agent Zhou was responsible for a vast and deepseated organization on Iphiclian soil, codenamed 'NetIfic'. This organization was responsible for the theft of various technologies, including Environmental Economics from Aquascante. Those of us who lived through those times may remember the shock waves created by this grandscale crime, as well as the mystery as to its perpetrator."

                              Grysel fast forwarded to another display, several years more recent than the first.

                              "At that time we had no reason to suspect our seemingly trustworthy neighbors, the Hive. It was not until we smashed the NetIfic spy ring that we learned the true scale of the Hiverian infiltration of our ranks."

                              Arrests, trials, executions - all from the era of NetIfic, and all made public knowledge only recently.

                              "The UN has already received a complete report of the incident and its repercussions. The UN has also been made aware of the knowledge that was stolen from us, robbing our scientists of their good work. Make no mistake, our faction has been forced to endure a unilaterally exploitative relation with our hulking neighbor, and it is with tentative joy that our people can hope to be freed from this terrible oppression."

                              The Provost was still shaking his head in disbelief. Words failed him at this juncture.

                              "The United Nations calls upon the Hiverian representative to answer the accusations," announced the Speaker.

                              This time, it was a long-faced European man who answered.

                              "I am Arkady Berzhinev, of the Hiverian Diplomatic Corps. It is my duty and pleasure to respond to the testimony of DataTech Grysel." Berzhinev adjusted his lenses and continued. "I deny that Hiverian probes have ever undertaken to acquire any technology from the Aquascante factions. I also deny that Hiverian probes have engaged in any condemnable acts of espionage that are measurably worse than similar acts perpetrated against us and our allies, the University."

                              As the DataTech representatives murmured in mild (but hardly surprised) outrage, Berzhinev brought up a series of screens showing transmissions between DataTech ministries.

                              "Observe - the injunction from the former DataKnave Fusili to authorize a download of the Environmental Economics technology. Note the clear order to steer away from Gaian nodes, as they are too easily traced. Note the express injunction to target a Peacekeeper node, owing to the lesser efficiency of their probe proofing."

                              Berzhinev cycled through and found the transmission he was looking for. It was a Hiverian one, and the audience knew it, if their sudden interest and jottings were reliable signs.

                              "By contrast, our own directives. These were published by my forebear, Tobias Ballantyne, and as such are no longer valid under our present diplomatic practices." A few faces seemed to lose their rapt awe, a few fingers fell silent on keypads. "Note the injunction from T Ballantyne acknowledging the good work of NetIfic, in its acquisition of Environmental Economics from the DataTech."

                              Berzhinev readjusted his glasses before continuing.

                              "But - this is all academic, hypocrisy aside. We do not live in a vaccuum. Each nation owes some facet of its existence to diplomatic activities, legal or otherwise, and we are no exception. Nor are the DataTech - we have positive proof that they have attempted to spy on our high-level staff. Nor are you, dear Commissioner - if you consult your records, you will find that my LineLock Hunter-Seeker Algorithm has thwarted no fewer than seven discrete attempts by Peacekeeper probe teams to access Hiverian information networks. So do not expect us to acknowledge any wrongdoing when you and your own allies do the same to the rest of the world, and you call it 'Freeflow of Information'."

                              Ignoring both the shouts of protestation from the UN and DataTech, as well as the shouts of approval from the Morganites, Berzhinev continued.

                              "Thus I believe we have addressed the accusation of oppressing and traumatizing the infant DataTech national psyche with our probe activities." Berzhinev's face briefly cracked a lopsided smirk as he continued. "I shall now answer the second accusation levelled against the Hive - in the words of the Commissioner, that we are militaristic hegemons intent on subjugating a peace-loving democracy."

                              Berzhinev activated his own holopode demonstration.

                              "I would like to draw your attention now to the findings of our own probes in democratic, peace-loving Iphiclia. These stills show the law enforcers dealing with undesirable individuals through the use of tear gas and batons. The transgressors in this incident were those who failed to produce adequate personal identification under Clause 208."

                              The crowd reaction was mixed, ranging from nonchalant disinterest on the part of the Hive and University, to hurried consultation amongst the Peacekeepers, to outright indignation amongst the Gaians.

                              "Another startling facet of the progressive fledgling democracy is shown in its militia. This is a holovid of the RapCafe Blue - a haven for seekers of freeflow of information, as well as freeflow of cheap ethanol. Note the twelve soldiers standing guard in the foyer - these soldiers are not paying for their rent, for the DataTech Interior has ruled a state of emergency and demanded that the citizenry give the army their full support. Evidently the DataTech have grasped a fundamentally sound and workable social order that has functioned smoothly alongside them for decades. Unfortunately for you, Commissioner, this social order is a Police State, and we the Hive are the example they have chosen to follow."

                              Lal interrupted testily. "Regardless of the dubious veracity of your claims, Mr Berzhinev, even you cannot deny that the DataTech have had adequate reason - courtesy of your faction's aggression - to adopt this regrettable political order. The bridge to democracy is a steep and fragile one, even with support from the international community. When a young democracy meets with a brutal dictatorship intent on subjugation such as yours, one cannot fault them for a political slip in the interests of self-preservation."

                              There were murmurs of approval, none louder than those coming from the DataTech. From Grysel, however, there was only silence - she was engaged in a heated discussion with the DataJack Sinder Roze, concerning an extremely distressing transmission from the contact just outside the Chairman's quarters at the Hiverian headquarter base - The Hive. Grysel listened grimly to the details, then turned back to watch the Hiverian delegation, a cold, sinking certainty in her gut.

                              After Lal had finished in his impassioned defence of the DataTech, Berzhinev made a dismissive motion with his hand and smiled disarmingly. "So much for the matter of a helpless democracy. I have nothing further to say on this matter - let us now take a look at something considerably more sinister. I would very much like to be able to say that we made this discovery on our own, and I wish that my bureau could take responsibility for this alarming information. But to do so would be to cheat the Provost's own capable information sources - to whom we are all grateful."

                              Berzhinev brought up a series of visions onscreen that were immediately and uncomfortably recognizable to the DataTechs present. For the benefit of the others, however, he elaborated. The Provost was still somewhat bemused, not because he had the slightest interest in DataTech locales, but because he could not at that moment summon the memory from his formidable mind, of exactly how he had helped the Hive in this fashion.

                              "I would like to draw your attention to the following locations on DataTech territory," he said. "DataDeCentral, Ferretslair, Moonshadow, Ergonomia, and Applet Way. The Bayband natural crystal caves. The Cliffview airbase. The graceful Palace of Governor Halls at Data DeCentral."

                              Somebody in the Council shouted at him to get on with it. Somebody else made a facetious comment about travel brochure diplomacy. Berzhinev smiled self-deprecatingly and held up a palm of mock surrender.

                              "Very well, onto the main find. We discovered that production at these five bases has followed a staggered approach, and that the three landmarks mentioned earlier were serving as the main points of ingress to a vast and complex underground network, codenamed Sentry-8 by the DataTech. Whilst we were initially flattered that they had decided to adopt Hiverian base architecture, we later made a startling and distressing discovery."

                              Berzhinev's affected good nature evaporated suddenly as he activated the holopode and brought up scenes of surprising malignancy. Pre-natal surgery - electronic organ replacements - cranial trepanning to allow for neural grafts. Scenes of exposed bone and skull, gleaming next to glittering smooth metal parts, as the beauty of flesh and the dignity of metal fused in amateurish nightmares to form abominations. Pulsing veins and raw nerves drawn flat against meshes of tweezered wiring. Mottled pia mater, intercrossed with cooling systems to comfort the exposed brain and bring efficiency to the electric circuits that burrowed beneath the brain stem in the foul union of that unspeakable banned technology: military M/MI.

                              "Of course," cautioned Berzhinev, "they haven't actually finished the project yet. I expect that when they do, the aesthetic side of things might be somewhat more palatable."

                              "What is the meaning of this... this obscenity?" demanded Lal, his voice quivering with anger.

                              Berzhinev gestured towards the DataTech contingent, who were watching with mute silence and - damningly - dispassion. "You might wish to ask your peace-loving democrats," he said lightly. "This is their Cyborg Factory, codenamed Project PowerClip. It has been under production for nearly two decade years now, and it is nearing completion even as we speak."

                              There was silence in the Assembly Hall. Grysel, sitting at her place, felt the full focus of all her allies and partners, now looking upon her in questioning gazes: could this be true? Or in the eyes of some, notably the University, and some of the Peacekeepers and Morganites, she saw no further questions. From them, their minds were already made up, and their eyes merely burned with the conviction of disgust and damnation.

                              The only exception was the Hive, who looked to her with a crushingly detached interest. She was reminded of a child watching an overturned insect, legs thrashing in the air in futility.

                              Lal was already up on his feet and refuting the allegations as groundless, but - Grysel could not help noticing - not going so far as to actually risk his name and reputation on it, when the Gaians broke silence for the first time and addressed a direct question through the Speaker.

                              The Speaker had to cut the Commissioner short, who sat down with considerable agitation.

                              "The Gaian diplomat Boniface asks the DataTech representative Grysel whether or not the allegations are true."

                              Grysel knew this moment would come someday. She had known it since the Project was begun, and even though they would lock it away underneath their cities in Sentry-8. She had known the moment would come today, as her leader the DataJack sent her the frenzied transmission mere minutes earlier. She had known that their secret was out, and it was only a matter of time before the calculating holders would open it to the public at the worst possible time.

                              These thoughts and more crowded her mind, as she rose to her feet in the glare of the world's attention, and pronounced the confession of her faction and leadership: "No comment."

                              Then all was turmoil as the UN Peacekeepers rose to their feet en masse, with their voices raised in a Babel of noise and fury.

                              * ~ * ~ *
                              "lol internet" ~ AAHZ


                              • #45

                                Deep in the basement of the ancient Iphiclian artillery point, Li Min was reaching for the bulb of cold Gaian tea placed precariously on the edge of the operating table, when something onscreen arrested his attention and his hand.

                                This was unusual. Li Min had tried to contact his immediate superior, Fusili, but to no avail. Afterwards, he had checked his previous emails and determined the scrambler node that Fusili's safety used for routing. Then, he had needed to hack the node, a task which he did over the course of several hours, and *then* he had needed to calculate the code changes from the server-side randomizer.

                                And Li Min had no suitably good explanation for doing so, save for the excuse of curiosity and idleness. Well, now it looked like curiosity was going to pay off for once. He had opened a dummy account and tested his codebreaker, and it was working 20% of the times he tried to send a message through Fusili's server. This, when used in conjunction with the disalarmer data loop, meant that he had virtually 100% access to the outer echelons of DataKnave Fusili's protection - the only catch being that it would take 500% of the time to access it.

                                Fusili was dead, that much Li Min knew. He was trawling the deceased DataKnave's account to see what clues there were to the killing, and whether or not it could be related to the probes who had come for Hu. He had expected to see some final message, some death threat, perhaps, or maybe even a last transmission from the DataKnave himself to provide a clue.

                                He was not entirely sure what to expect, but one thing was sure. He had not expected to see the node currently in use by the DataKnave, and currently accessing top-echelon files.

                                Hence Li Min's sudden disinterest in his tea. If there was somebody using Fusili's node, it was either legitimate, in which case it was Fusili himself, or it was illegitimate. Li Min had not made efforts to keep up with the news recently, but he did know that several nodes had broadcast news of Fusili's assassination just outside Governor Halls. He also knew that if Fusili were indeed still alive, there were several top-priority dispatches that Li Min and Huang had sent, and which the DataKnave would not have simply ignored.

                                In which case, somebody was trespassing on the Internal property of Fusili.

                                Furthermore, Li Min could deduce from the speed of the transactions and reroutings that the hacker responsible for this was able to work at a rate of efficiency far higher than any normal trespassing individual. Li Min's own stopgap hack had taken the best part of a morning to effect, and that was before he could even look at the DataKnave's profiles, at a speed one-fifth the usual. This hacker was operating at full speed - equal to the same ease with which Fusili himself might access the encrypted files. The only explanation for this could be M/MI.

                                Li Min knew when he was in up past his level. He also knew that the last time he had tried M/MI it had almost proven fatal, and that was with the added security of Huang as backup. The figures and data streams rolling across his screen with effortless ease bespoke a skill almost beyond comprehension - the best that Li Min could think of was of an elite covey of several M/MI divers working in collusion, acting as mutual backup and coordinating their actions.

                                In any case, Li Min decided that a confrontation would be ill-advised in the extreme. All he could hope to do was to wait and follow in the monster's wake, and perhaps to catch a glimpse of its final destination.

                                * ~ * ~ *

                                "Commissioner, it was unfortunate that you had to find out this way," said the DataJack Roze. "We had planned a more timely report to you - indeed, I had hoped Grysel would be able to discuss this with you in recess. We had no idea that the Hive were able to so thoroughly infiltrate our faction."

                                "Are the accusations true, then?" asked Lal steadily, having mastered his shock. "Are the DataTech really building a Cyborg Factory?"

                                Roze's face bore a new expression - contrition. "Commissioner, they are true. We have already finished the main components, and all that remains of our project is to assimilate the whole."

                                Lal closed his eyes and nodded, breathing deeply. In the cool darkness of his sanctuary, he pondered, as the humbled DataJack offered no protest, no gainsay. Seconds flitted by, and then he opened his eyes again.

                                "DataJack, what are the potential military applications of this?"

                                The DataJack's face showed her surprise. "Commissioner, we believe it would be a force for economic and development change, not to mention-"

                                "No," interrupted the Commissioner solidly. "I am not stupid, and neither are you. Now is not the time for bandying with words. The fact is that you have directly contravened one of the core directives of the UN Charter concerning morally condemned technologies, and because of this, you forfeit all the aid promised you by Aquascante. Your only hope for redemption is for you to tell me straight what this thing can do for a military. In return, I will see what I can do to contain the substantial damage you have done to your reputation and my own."

                                "Yes, Commissioner," replied the DataJack meekly. "We believe that with the cybernetic upgrades possible through this project, our military can push themselves farther and endure far more than unmodified soldiers can. Agility, strength, and awareness can all be indirectly enhanced to create a military of far greater resilience than usual. And the most valuable possibility of all is the potential for interfacing in absentia - where a military risks only machines and not its staff during warfare. If all vectors of our research are conducted to conclusion, we hope to be able to field a fighting force that is infinitely more expendable and replaceable than conventional staff-operated machines."

                                Lal pondered this. "DataJack, your actions have already endangered the safety of the factions who would most like to aid you. I shall confer with my allies, the Pirates and the Morganites, but I must inform you that we may be powerless to shield you from the UN Arbitration Court if this cannot be contained. However, if you will consent to cease construction on the Cyborg Factory, it is possible that we could carry a resolution through confirming you as our ally. Will you agree to such a compromise, if available?"

                                "No," said the DataJack, a streak of defiance in her features. "We have worked on this for nearly twenty years now, before any mention was made of Aquascante or of your Arbitration Court. The Project continues as planned."

                                Lal gave a well-acted sigh. "Indeed, you leave me with no choice. Very well, we shall speak again. Keep the line open, and I shall get back to you before recess closes."

                                * ~ * ~ *

                                Lal's first contact was a bold bait - he sent a message to the Hive suggesting that the UN would oversee the dismantling of Project PowerClip, in return for a withdrawal from DataTech holdings. The importance of this transmission was that he could be seen to be trying all means possible to preserve peace, despite his clear knowledge that the Hive could not be expected to agree to such a proposal. That then left him time to maneuver with his allies and neighbors.

                                Lal did not even have to ask Deirdre for her opinion - he knew the Gaians' reaction ever since their delegates rose from their seats and left the Assembly Hall, not a few of them nauseous. He also decided that Morgan would be unlikely to approve of the DataTech achievements in M/MI, except in their capacity to further incriminate the breakaway faction. Thus, Lal decided to contact the Pirates and the Spartans, in that order.

                                Svensgard proved to be somewhat hesitant. Lal's hazarded a try by emphasizing the imperative for a democracy to defend itself from the blandishments of the Hive. This opening gambit did not go far with the Nautilus leader, whose own political systems were a far cry from electoral themselves. Lal had a contingency plan, however, and discovered that the Captain was responsive to the idea of conditional support.

                                Thus reassured, Lal ventured to approach the Colonel Corazon Santiago. In this particular maneuver he had to exercise extreme care, as he knew the Spartans already viewed UN policy on arms tariffs with particular disdain. Thus, he broached the subject from the outset of the potential uses of the Cyborg Factory against the Hive. He found, somewhat to his pleasure, that Santiago's pragmatism extended to viewing the Hive as the supreme threat to peace on Planet, and was secretly delighted to find Santiago in accord - with certain inevitable, though fully affordable, concessions.

                                Thus armed, Lal returned to Roze. The whole of his transactions had taken him twelve metric minutes, and he had a proposal.

                                * ~ * ~ *

                                "This is the deal," said Lal. "It took me a lot of favors and corporate gymnastics to put together, so you will understand it is emphatically non-negotiable. You either take it or leave it."

                                "Let's hear it," said the DataJack.

                                "If accepted, we intend to consent to pledge continued support for the DataTech against the Hive. We will also arrange for the Arbitration Court to overlook your major infraction this time, in light of the Hiverian invasion. If you can complete Project PowerClip, you will agree to turn over its control to Nautilus, Peacekeeper, and Spartan beneficiaries for the duration of hostilities against the Hive, who will administrate it on DataTech grounds. Our military units will then occupy strategic refueling bases on DataTech territory, so that we can strike at Hiverian targets across the Great Northern Ocean.

                                "After the hostilities cease, a nominal Aquascante garrison will be stationed at Iphiclia and at whatever points of military strategic importance are secured in our action against the Hive. The Cyborg Factory will be returned to your administration, on the condition that it will also continue to service our forces in the area as conditions require. You will also commence legitimate trade with all Aquascante factions, and you must administer your economy with such safeguards as will eliminate piracy and illicit activities."

                                Roze's cheek twitched as she heard this. "This is a tall order, Commissioner."

                                "But necessary," he replied. "It will be necessary for you to swear to observe these points in Council. Without them, we cannot count on the support of a majority to carry the motion through. It will also be necessary for you to make your peace with Morgan."

                                "He is the one who refuses to acknowledge us, dear Commissioner."

                                "And you are the ones who worsen relations through your probe activities. When the CEO feels he has nothing further to fear from you, then he will come to respect your virtues as a faction, as I myself already do. But this is all contingent on your decision, DataJack. I have gathered together all the strings I have to hand. Now it is up to you to decide whether or not it's worth my while pulling them."

                                "I'll need to confer with my DataKnaves," she said.

                                "Confer all you want. If you do not give me your decision within thirty four metric minutes, Council goes on without you, and you will be condemned. And you will be summarily ejected from the Aquascante Treaty Organization even before we have extended our formal invitation. Think on it, DataJack."

                                Alone at last, Lal massaged his brows with his fingertips. Who would have credited the lumbering Hiverians with such a masterful tactic? At one stroke, they had forced attention away from their unpopular campaign against the DataTech, and onto an issue of such seriousness that even the Gaians seemed ready to support them against the DataTech. Berzhinev's earlier demonstration that the DataTech had stolen technology from the UNP was now forgotten in the rush, but that hardly mattered. Nobody could now accuse the Hive of this crime, now that serious questions had been asked of the innocence of the DataTech.

                                Lal remembered the optimism with which he had looked forward to this meeting. Now, he dared not rest even in recess, not with the Hiverians running amok and every moment bringing further threats of horrors and ignominy upon the Council.

                                Indeed, it was a very interesting and challenging Council meeting. Even in the midst of his beleaguered situation, Lal possessed enough professionalism and skill to be thankful enough for that.

                                * ~ * ~ *

                                Roze sat alone, in her sanctum at the edges of Sentry-8, and mused. She had been lying when she mentioned her DataKnaves to Lal - she had nobody to confer with, and absolute power of decision lay with her alone. In many ways, the decision had already been made for her, and by none other than the Hiverian Second, Zhu He Lai.

                                She reached across to the computer screen and activated it, bringing back the transmission that DataKnave Morganghast had sent her just forty minutes before. She had watched it twice during that time, and then sent her priority warning message to Grysel in Council, but it was already too late by that time.

                                It was a picture relayed from a bug deep inside the Hive - so deep, in fact, that no DataTech hands had placed it. Roze remembered the daring mission with which she had entrusted the double agent, so many years ago - to plant and activate the bug at the Chairman's quarters. And the agent, Zhou, had succeeded. He had hidden the bug inside a Morganite glowlamp, just outside the Chairman's chambers, and returned with mission accomplished. There the bug had lain, transmitting faithfully, even through the Berzhinev Bureau reshuffle, and the rise of the deadly Algorithm. As the years passed, the Chairman moved his chambers to a different base, and the bug ceased to broadcast anything of major interest.

                                Until now.

                                Roze watched the sequence, as she had done for the previous four times. The figure appears in the faraway portal, approaching with a rack of some sort folded beneath an arm. The lights are dimmed, and the figure steps closer, revealing leathery skin, a weathered face, and the bald head of the Hiverian Second, Zhu.

                                He looks directly and with full intention, straight into the camera for a chilling second, then smiles. He places the rack on the floor, and begins unfolding the holopode.

                                The holopode activates, and images from Hiverian Intelligence sources fill the light. Roze knows what the images are.

                                The first scene is on board a train, showing the desperate fight between DataTech assassins and Agent Hu. The sequence ends with the decapitation of the Hiverian Agent.

                                The second scene concerns taped footage of a cockpit view, as the craft slews around to try to take down a tiny ocean-going vessel at the periphery of the New Sargasso. For some twenty seconds, it fires and circles in vain, then finally a hit is scored and a detonation fills the air.

                                The third scene is simple - a close-up of some fragments of hull, hung over a railing. The Nautilus emblem is clear.

                                Then an excerpt from the Battle of Deinara Sound. Ships on fire as the Hiverian jets bomb them into the ocean.

                                Another change - a fortress, and two men forcing their way in through the front gates. The view follows them through convoluted passageways, finally showing their arrival at a vault of some sort. The floor is littered with equipment. They open a cryosafe, and reveal the disembodied head of the Agent Hu.

                                The screen changes to a collage, the nightmarish collection of images shown at Council earlier, of M/MI tests and the rejected experiments. All unbelievable, all grotesque, all inhuman... and all incontrovertibly true.

                                The DataJack could understand that these screens were shown for their impact on the Council, to prove the weakness of the DataTech position, and the extent of DataTech transgressions against the UN Bill of Rights. But the final set of images, Roze had no doubt, were for her eyes only.

                                The Crystal caves of Bayband. The Cliffview airbase, with its massive vertical magnetic launchpads. The Governor Halls palaces.

                                These views would be meaningless to others, but Roze knew the Hive's meaning. The sign they were sending was clear and accurate - Sentry-8's links to the outside world, and the points at which it could be assaulted, the centers of the DataTech industrial core, even the whereabouts of the DataTech herself, were now secrets fully disclosed to the Intelligence Bureau Head, Arkady Berzhinev.

                                The presentation concluded, and the Second folded up the holopode and turned to face the camera once more. He gave a curt nod, a mock salute with his open hand, and then reached for the bulb housing the bugging device.

                                For the first and final time in its seventy year lifespan, the DataTech bug in the Hiverian headquarters flickered into static. The message terminated at this juncture, the last ever that particular Zhou probe would ever send.

                                * ~ * ~ *

                                "Concerning the DataTech construction of a Cyborg Factory, will the members of Council please cast their votes?" announced the Speaker. "All those favoring leniency under the proposed UNP scheme, please vote now."

                                The Nautilus Pirates, the Spartan Federation, and the DataTech all submitted their votes.

                                "And all those opposing leniency?"

                                The Hive, University, and Morganites made known their opposition.

                                "And those abstaining?"

                                That left only the Gaians. The Speaker continued. "Including the UNP vote, the measure passes with a 4-3 majority. Terms are as follows:

                                "The UN restrictions on the DataTech Cyborg Factory will be lifted to allow for the need of the DataTech to defend their lands against the Hiverian incursions. Aquascante advisors will be posted to supervise the Project at all times to ensure that it does not transgress the moral limits stressed in node Null-529j of the Humane Research Act. The Project will otherwise be allowed to run at full production as long as the Hiverian offensive continues against the DataTech lands.

                                "The DataTech are still considered Aquascante Treaty members. The ruling of this council finds them not guilty of atrocities, and therefore commerce and trade will not be reviewed or embargoed."

                                Lal stood up. "I offer the Hive and University one last chance to preserve morality as well as peace in these trouble times. Withdraw from Iphiclia, and we shall dismantle the PowerClip project. Persevere in your actions, and PowerClip must continue to play its role in defending order and world peace. The choice is yours."

                                There was muttered conferring at the Hiverian delegation, and finally their speaker stood and responded.

                                "The actions of the Hive against international terrorist organizations, and the governments that shield them, are already playing a major role in defending order and world peace. We shall not stop until our sphere is truly safe once more."

                                Lal nodded, his expression suitably grave.

                                "Very well," he responded solemnly. "Then I must call upon the University to demonstrate whether they will choose to intervene on the behalf of peace, before we move to condone a technological evil against an ideological one. Provost, will you forego your alliance born of necessity, and choose the moral path?"

                                The Provost's holographic face suddenly seemed to realize it had been asked a question. His eyes cut back towards the Assembly Hall in annoyance, oblivious to the combined attention of the entire Council.

                                "Not today, I'm afraid. I don't know what sort of slippery reversal you're trying to pull with your born-of-convenience stop'n'swap Charter, my dear Commissioner. But regardless, I fear you'll just have to do it without the rubber stamp cosmetics of my approval."

                                The Provost turned away contemptuously, muttering in a clearly audible undertone: "It's not as though such a technicality ever stopped him before."

                                Thus concluded the first UNP victory in the 47th Council Meeting.
                                "lol internet" ~ AAHZ