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  • Alinestra Covelia
    Joe Amway and Dritnam died, of course, though nobody else would know for sure. The leaders of the relatively young DataTech faction were unused to the implications of longevity treatment, as well as the abiding endurance of the Hiverian mindset. They never made the connection between the twin hijackings and the former NetIfic members, and Joe's profile was to remain on their Most Wanted lists ever after. With their own internal problems accelerating beyond their ability to control them, the Internal investigation petered out and returned an inconclusive result.

    Yet to remove Joe from their Most Wanted lists entirely would have been an injustice. Even as the bullets punched their way through his mortal frame, and even as the ruined body collapsed to the ground, Joe was free - no longer a being of flesh and fluids, briefly held up by fragile bones. He soared through the sky, speeding on waves and leaping across beams undetectable to him in his previous incarnation. He glanced backwards at the sudden conflagration engulfing the site of his expiration, searching himself for a response or reaction, and found none, save for a quiet acknowledgement - an electronic nod - that the sprawling underground machine was forever silenced, and that his end of the agreement had been upheld.

    All across the globe, his feet of immaterial light carried him, to peer along the elegant halls and past hanging banners at the disbanding Council, weary attendants finally returning home now that they had crowned their latest figurehead. Then a leap across the nets, and the steamy indolence of a solarium, little children playing in the pool - one fearful infant waiting at the side. He swooped into the skies, following the tight path of silvery machines as they pounded through the atmosphere, then he propelled himself across the sliding seas into the cramped confines of the steely cabins, shaking with the solemn duty of flotation.

    He suddenly broke off, as if heeding something for the first time, and stopped. Then, with a burst of revelation and remembrance, he once again shot across the seas, this time towards the sunrise. Homewards.

    The curved bow of the sunrise burst eastwards. Across the innumerable settlements on Planetface sharing the same meridianline, the bright golden dawn was breaking - same for the telescopes of University towers, operators squinting through the ether at galactic anomalies, minuscule with distance. Same for the scorched and smoking apertures of the Datatech shores, their infrastructure purged by fire from the inside outwards. Same for the tiny winking glint on the massive northern shore of the University - an insectlike wreck of snapped rotorblades and twisted metal, wherein nothing living has stirred since the internal struggle that crashed it.

    Sunrise was not due for over a metric hour yet, in the Climatic Research Center, yet the city was its usual flurry of activity. The skyrail access tubes were smoothly ferrying harvests and minerals from the outlying terrain, the solar panels were warming up to their increasingly outdated task as Fusion-powered former units primed and fired them. The University day shift awoke to begin their cycles of study, exercise, and civic duties. Workers gathered to continue construction on the new Fusion Labs, indispensable for the furtherance of science, and promising very substantial economic rewards too; scientists responsible for the Balandin-Verniy Fusion Drives toiled away in their laboratories, striving towards discoveries that would make the hotly contested Fusion Power seem like mere scratches in the sand by comparison. Joe noted all this with a sense of pleasure, but sped past nonetheless, heading for a different destination.

    Climatic Research Center offered a westward facing view of the torrid farmlands and ubiquitous sensor arrays of the distant Hiverian valleys. The longing to see his homeland growing, Joe dove into a newsnode for the latest news, and found Berzhinev's pardon. He turned his consciousness back towards the Hiverian bases, distant from the Sunny Mesa.

    But the valleys were shut off and inaccessible to him, now just as before - Joe saw them as though through a haze, or an approaching penumbra. He tested the barrier of the other Algorithm - the Hunter-Seeker-Killer - and found it to be as strong as ever, snapping blindly at him in vicious hatred.

    Once again, repatriation with the Hive was denied him. Only now, it was the mindless malice of an infallible guardian, not the misguided antipathy of a fallible human, that blocked his path. A sudden stab of agony struck him - now the guns and jails of the Hive were turned away from him, but the unthinking singularity of purpose that was the Algorithm still repelled him, as it would be powerless to repel a human.

    Joe cast his gaze westwards, with the combined sensors and cameras of a nation, and gloried in the dawn. Forgetting his momentary despair of solitude, he recalled there were others expecting him. Citizens of flesh in their thousands, brought to the rocky mass of Harmonia and turned over like so much chattel. A handful of citizens of data-streams, fated to guide and lead the newborn faction. Amongst the clamor of voices beckoning him onwards, he recognized the distinctive tint of two old friends - one his fellow deathbed partner, one a friend who preceded them to the nets of her own free will. They would have much to discuss.

    Together, they would harness and shape the ragged humanity below them. They would learn from the knowledge gleaned from the many factions from the nets, and they would eventually assemble a codex of their own, to form the society that would rise to play its part in the global whole. And it was entirely possible - indeed, perhaps probable - that they would one day come to shape the world as they hoped to shape their followers.

    As he did so, he realized the sacrosanct importance of the future. There was so much to live for - such that sentience was truly its own reward. Filled with the joys of life, he recognized the vain futility of despair. People, even trapped as they were in the failing medium of their mortality, did not lose hope - a man with only five days left to live did not live them with any less enthusiasm and desire than a child with many thousands such. What right had he to despair, then, a creature whose sentience could endure countless aeons in the medium of raw data?

    But for now, it was early yet. There was still time for Joe to enjoy his glorious new form, so lately born from the indignities of flesh. He observed the squalid settlement awhile longer from the lofty vantage point of the mists, then withdrew silently as he came. He turned his optical sentience towards the brightness of the sun, here already two hours in the sky, and greeted it in its fullness, neither squinting nor shying away.

    Such brightness there was in the world! Such vast vistas beckoned! Such hope!

    The luminous sentience, a bright being of light motes, hovered awhile longer to decide on a direction. And then, with a firm purpose, it moved on.

    It took some of the light with it as it finally departed.

    * ~ FIN ~ *

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    "Are you done or not? This thing is not going to hold much longer!" shouted Murath.

    Reinhardt's voice returned on the intercom. "Okay, the patch is through and we can activate the launchers now. You got the case?"

    "Yes! Get back on the gunship! We've got less than ten minutes!"

    Murath activated the front turrets and prayed that Reinhardt would have enough sense to approach from the back. Hopping across to the cargo gangway, he shot a glance outside. Good - the enemy were still struggling with his automatic emplacements.

    All in all, Dritnam had been good. He had hacked into the airbase on their way to pick up the jet and had set in a few handy overrides for Murath. Now, the Hiverians had control of the bay doors, the flight deck access doors, and some of the gun emplacements. Two of theirs were taking fire from a DataTech-controlled emplacement, but Murath couldn't help that now.

    There were no jets left - what jets the DataTech had were undergoing repairs in the rear decks, and they didn't have clearance or the time to bring them forward. What that did leave were the chopperlifts - slow and clumsy, but Murath had been briefed on the damage sustained by the DataTech during Operation Garrett, and he took comfort in the fact that they didn't have anything faster.

    And, given the carnage that Murath and Reinhardt were wreaking here in their chopper bay, it was possible that they wouldn't be capable of pursuit at all.

    Reinhardt breasted the threshold and slapped the printlock, bringing up the chopper ramp. "Ready to go?"

    "Certainly am."

    "Coordinates all set?"

    "The HCV Jian Guo Men is waiting for us at 45.44N 92.01E."

    "Okay," said Reinhardt, strapping himself in and placing the case between his calves. "Then so - ho! Onwards! To Extraction of Agent Hu, the Sequel!" He shook the head in its cryogenic container. "Hu, you lucky bugger, you really owe me now!"

    Murath made one final check, then gunned the engine. With ponderous ease, the chopper lifted itself from the pad, and headed out to the magnetic tunnels of CliffView. As the massed DataTech on the ground focussed their futile rounds on the fleeing chopper, Reinhardt checked their trajectory and flight path. The sudden acceleration of the magnetic launch tunnels propelled them with frightening speed towards the open bay doors.

    Ten meters behind the two, and on the lower level, but nonetheless travelling at the same velocity, Li Min shifted weight in his cramped cargo casing in preparation for a long flight. What had begun as an idle morning's hacking attempt looked set to become a very interesting trip for him. He had never been to Hiveria before.

    As the chopper shot out from the magnetic tunnel with a sonic roar, the first rays of the new sun rose over the ocean bow in the west.

    A new day had dawned.

    * ~ * ~ *

    All told, the overground damage from the two nuclear detonations was slight. There was some dramatic amateur footage showing the caves of BayBand and the CliffView airbase erupting in flames from the contained explosions, but fallout risk was minimal given the complete reaction of the impromptu weapons. The major damage wreaked by their force was largely borne by the Sentry-8 facilities, where the hewn rock tunnels and magtubes all served to channel and concentrate the tremendous force away from the epicenter and straight through the industrial heart of the DataTech.

    Both fusion explosions hollowed out spherical cores of roughly one kilometer in radius, within which all matter was immediately sublimed and ionized. Rocks, metal, and synthecrete all vanished into superheated gases as their molecular structures sought stability in simpler forms - hydrogen and helium. The blast intensity decreased exponentially with distance, thanks in part to the absorbing effects of the dense rock, and also to the relatively minuscule size of the reactors themselves - under any respectable analysis as a military weapon, the effect of the jets would have been much more effectively achieved through deploying their standard payload of bombs and munitions.

    It was the fireball that caused the most damage to personnel, and had the farthest range of effect, blowing out through the air filtration systems and claiming the most lives. The single air filter that emerged in Data DeCentral thankfully did so through a geothermal steam vent, far from inhabited suburbs. The fireball melted the baffled exhausts and the force of the blast ripped the whole structure from the hillside like a gigantic discus.

    However, the true aim of the attacks was accomplished through the electromagnetic pulse that preceded the fireball. These passed unhampered through the thin bedrock and through to the construction proceeding below the bombs, blowing fuses and tripping electric valves as it went. The vital components of Project PowerClip gave out in the first splitseconds of the detonation, their electrical systems frazzled beyond repair, the mighty buildings and assemblers and computer-controlled manufacturing lines already useless inert metal before the fireball melted them. The Ergonomia offshoot of the Project PowerClip was utterly destroyed - the fireball consumed the military train, then passed effortlessly through the magtube to pound through empty space before mashing the structures below to an ionized plasma. The Data DeCentral collection center was shown to be largely undamaged, shielded somewhat more reliably by the interposing layers of rock, and initial hopes held that the minor damages could be repaired. But closer inspection showed the deadly EMP blast to have rendered all the electronics systems in the vast structure burned out beyond hope - city blocks after city blocks of structures, buildings, and equipment all suddenly valueless, in the blink of an atomic eye.

    Final estimates of the damage done rated the Project officially stillborn - even without the pressing concerns of the Hiverian Navy and the Aquascante loan, there was simply no way that the isolated Iphiclian nation, with its now-crippled industry, could afford to revive the Project. As it was, the percentage of equipment caught by the twin attacks equalled over 86% of the several hundred thousand years' worth of total cumulative manpower, representing the work of industry and science over two decades. The DataJack attempted to play down the damage done, initially denying any attack had occurred at all, but it was not long before international pressures eventually forced her confession to Lal - that her two prizes, Hiverian Fusion power, and the Cyborg Factory, would never see the light of day.

    This announcement had grave repercussions on the international appraisal of the DataTech faction, none moreso than the Morganites. Heated debates occurred between Peacekeeper and Nautilus representatives over the future role of the DataTech faction, and nearly murderous arguments broke out with the Morganites. It would not be until much later, after a public condemnation of DataTech exacerbation of probe activity and a recanting of his previous 'information freeflow' stance, that Lal would regain a shadow of his former standing in Council. The lack of any solid evidence linking the attacks to Hiverians was also a source of some considerable frustration for him. In a move of considerable danger to his post as Governor, Lal eventually pushed a secret resolution through his Privy Council to begin work on a Cyborg Factory of their own. Berzhinev's spies estimated Peacekeeper progress to be less than 30% complete upon the due date of the Hive's own such project.

    Following Sheng Ji Yang's abstention in the Planetary Election and the surprising events on the DataTech mainland, the Council quickly came to a Peacekeeper victory, with Lal duly inaugurated to his wobbly post as the first Planetary Governor on Chiron. However, the details of the vote itself bear some description: the Gaian vote, at one point the most sought-after segment in the entire Council, quickly resolved itself to an impartial abstention. Morgan was quick to follow, shocking the Peacekeepers with the withholding of his support, and also with his speech pressing for the revocation of Maude-Harley trade restrictions against the Hive. The final vote change concerned the Spartan leadership, who also opted to abstain from the proceedings. Notably, they later turned down an arms trade deal with the DataTech, and caused considerable delay on any dealings with the Peacekeepers. They also declined to attend the subsequent Council meetings aimed at expediting their entry as an Aquascante faction.

    At one stroke, Sheng had deprived the Council of its greatest perceived threat, and its greatest single unifying factor - himself. In the anticlimactic aimlessness of the final stages of the voting process, Lal garnered only the votes of the Nautilus and DataTech faction, in addition to his own stacked electoral college. The final vote total of 237 Council votes - though victorious - was nonetheless only a bare 60% of the Chairman's own vote total. One Morganite newspaper thought to compare the votes against the abstentions: according to these somewhat unkind findings, every person who thought nobody could rule better than Lal was outnumbered by three who actively thought nobody ought to be elected at all. "Nobody beats Lal for Prez... 3 - 1 victory" T shirts were popular for a while at the MorganSoft networks.

    The Hive campaign against Harmonia gained momentum to its inevitable conclusion, the rich energy sources of the Uranium Flats someday to be parcelled out between Chairman and Provost, but was somewhat hampered by the Hive's need to turn their considerable military focus on a possible Aquascante rival. The embargo against the DataTech continued, with predictable results - crime and violence increased markedly in the urban sectors of the continent, with significant repercussions for civilians of that beleaguered regime.

    Tryskel Carpenter, having achieved her dream of flying a Fusion powered craft, would not get another chance to enjoy it for a long time. The DataTech airforce, once repaired, never again undertook a UN-sponsored mission, as adequate training and equipment could not be secured from the Spartan sources. The proprietor of the RapCafe Blue at GammaProm continued in his humble trade, shifting his political allegiances quickly as urban violence and social destablization made the soldiers alternately his best friends and his worst enemies. DataJack Sinder Roze did not rescind the state of martial law - a development that was to indirectly cause considerable friction between Lal and Svensgaard on grounds of political ideology.

    In time, DataTech police discovered the defused alarm at the back of RapCafe Blue, leading from the toilets. In time, they also discovered the basement safehouse, computers long since covered in quiet layers of dust. But they were never to know the importance that these remains played in the destruction of PowerClip. Much of the equipment ended up in the hands of the police, who used it to go online and play Guesswork.

    Agent Hu, once safely back in Hiverian territory, was preserved for long enough to retrieve the majority of his knowledge. Within a month, he was once more presentable and was shown greeting his friend Jorenson at the fateful magtube station at Climatic Research Center. His debt to Anhalt Reinhardt, codenamed "Aurum-4", had more than doubled since the previous extraction. Hiverian High Command, largely under the prompting of Second Zhu He Lai, saw fit to pardon Lt. Col. Sun for his necessary judgements at the Battle of Deinara Sound, and as the war on terrorism continued, the Hiverian Diplomatic Corps found it much easier to draw world attention away from the SouthSea Isle plane crash incidents. The remains of the final Hiverian Fusion aircraft at or around SouthSea Isle were never recovered, for which Hiverian Intelligence Head Arkady Berzhinev suffered a slight blow to his reputation. However, on the premise that forgiveness begets forgiveness, he issued a complete pardon for all cellular descendants of Hiverian civil servant Zhou Huan Wei (Joe Amway), wrongfully accused of treason eighty years ago, and authorized a re-evaluation of all such individuals' work records. Zhou Huan Wei's own record was retrieved after much effort, and his controversial actions were finally shown in their true light, prompting a further recanting of the charges against him. A posthumous pardon was issued.

    Also unrecovered were the final remains of Agent Pietr Hommel - at least, in the short time the Spartans were allowed on the island. As the standoff between Hive and Aquascante lengthened, SouthSea Isle acquired something of a mythical status within the halls of the Spartan Federation, and whispered tales still continue of the fearsome lone inhabitant, haunting the island and holding the full might of the Hiverian navy at bay. Spartan Citadel was renamed Hommel's Citadel, in honor of the national hero.

    Prentice and Joely McClelland were pleasantly surprised to receive a formal message from Bent Jorenson, wishing them happiness together and congratulating them on the birth of their baby daughter Verity - whose birth did indeed coincide as predicted with the double solstice. Jorenson's message was concise, polite, and formal, but also relayed Agent Hu's congratulations. Despite Prentice's lingering curiosity, he was never to meet the Agent face to face again. He was never to learn the true source of Hu's apparent prescience. Jorenson offered Agent Hu's congratulations twice more, following the births of his second daughter Ashleigh and first son Hamish, and Agent Hu's commiserations once, following Joely McClelland's death in childbirth. Prentice did not remarry.

    Mao Zhun, Agent Hu's cellchild, continued in her standard work as an engineer, although the Hive assigned her additional psychic training with Ota Kyi. She was never made aware of the mysterious circumstances surrounding her cellparent's break from duties during the Deinaran Incident, knowing only that Agent Hu had been lost, but was happily located through her trances.

    Provost Prokhor Zakharov eventually won the 3-D wei qi game against Chairman Sheng Ji Yang. This completed, he lost interest in the game altogether, though Jorenson suspected the axiom "quit while you're ahead" had something to do with this apathy. The Provost's ad hoc probe network eventually located the remains of the DataTech spy in a cold storage facility checked out in Agent Hu's name. She was ultimately unfrozen and recycled.

    As for the Provost's wondrous discovery, Fusion Power was indeed sold to the Gaians and disclosed to the Morganites in timely fashion - coinciding with the lifting of Hive-Morgan trade tariffs. Morgan's energy markets enjoyed perhaps their first ever Gaian-approved boom, as cleaner, more efficient Fusion reactors slowly gained dominance on the Phoenican mainland, starting from the tips of Morganite and Gaian territory.

    * ~ * ~ *
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 30, 2002, 23:45.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    Reilly News Ticker Service

    Hive abstains from planetary vote, Lal governor candidacy unopposed. Election results uncertain.

    Hermes Messenger Reel

    Hive boycotts Council, triggers Senate appeal. Deirdre 2nd run mooted.

    Encoding Unicorn: Speaker to Sarita

    Present conditions unprecedented. Hive withdrawal legal. Gaian candidate reentry also legal. Please advise.

    Encoding Odalisk: Sarita to Speaker

    Candidacy confirmed - Yang/Lal. Gaian reentry to be blocked at all costs.

    Encoding Unicorn: Speaker to Deirdre

    Condolences; candidacy opening closed. Please cast vote from amongst available candidates.

    Seraph-7 Transmission DKGRY531

    Received unsourced reports of terrorist attacks at DeCentral and Ergonomia. Please confirm immediately, send cc to DJ.

    Cherub-12 Transmission DJROZ351

    View appended message, sent from source Angel-8 LIMIN448
    Time: 00.83hrs, this morning.

    > Research laboratories at BayBand, Ferretslair raided by
    > unknown persons between 17.44 and 00.72 - Fusion jets
    > hijacked by terrorists. Destination unknown.

    View appended message, sent from same source:
    Time: 01.14hurs, this morning.

    > Have traced Hiverian probe teams to CliffView airbase.
    > Uncertain their involvement, if any, in plane hijackings.

    View appended message, sent from source Throne-FUSIL14
    Time: 01.29hrs, this morning

    > hi im ded!!! how r u???
    > her s wat wr goin 2 du!!!
    > taek tu playnz - hyve will du -
    > taek tu traynz n sen dem thru!!!
    > fushin enjins!!!111!!!! flik da switch!!!
    > cloes ur Iz an maek a wish...!!!
    > chek ur maps and plan ur trip
    > BOOMBOOM!!!! byebye powerclip!!!!

    Note that Throne-FUSIL14 was assassinated two weeks ago.

    I'm waiting for an explanation, Grysel.

    553N2-99/nc3: Priority transmission

    As agreed, the PowerClip project has been derailed. We have also destroyed the two Hiverian fighter jets held by the DataTech. Do not forget that one final jet remains on SouthSea Isle. We suggest you take steps to secure or destroy this jet, if you have not already done so.


    The Janitors

    Transmissions end

    * ~ * ~ *

    "Are you sure you've done the right thing?" asked the Provost uncertainly.


    "The Commissioner will win the vote, you know."

    The Chairman's only answer was a dismissive wave. They continued their game in silence, as the moments between them flew away into history. The Provost was the first to break the silence.

    "What made you choose to do what you did?" he asked.

    "I had no other choice," responded the Chairman. A few more moves passed between them before the Chairman sighed and elaborated. "Morgan would abstain, or he would not. That was beyond my control and irrelevant. The end result was that I could not win without Deirdre's support. And from the final probe reports within Gaian territory, it appeared overwhelmingly clear to me that she would not move to support me. Furthermore, it appeared that she could not afford to abstain, either, as that would lead directly to my election."

    "So you knew that she would vote for Lal?"

    "Not of her own volition, but through the situation that Lal created for her. All that I said in Council today was true, Provost. Lal had worked to bring about a confrontation between the two of us. He then played the angle that I was a powerful threat, but one which could be neutralized by a unified opposition. This tactic worked, as you can see - the majority of factions who were otherwise unconcerned with the election suddenly felt morally or politically compelled to oppose me."

    "So what did you abstention achieve?"

    "Abstention was the only choice left to me. It removed me from the election, and therefore eliminated Lal's greatest weapon - that of using me as the universal chimera against whom all Council could grudgingly unite."

    The Provost pondered this for a while, but his unease remained. "But now the Peacekeepers are unopposed in Council. What's to stop them from winning the election?"

    "Nothing," said Sheng simply. "Provost, do not forget your formidable skills as a chess player. Apply them to this situation. When you view an upcoming conflict, ask yourself the following questions: firstly, can the battle be won? In this case, yes - we could have won this election, through insisting on meeting with Deirdre Skye, through offering massive bribes to faction leaders at the last minute, though seeding the Gaian Senate and other factions with our infiltrators. This tactic could potentially have altered the entire Gaian vote, and brought us to the Governor post.

    "But ask the second question, and the answer is different: should the battle be won? Could we afford to win the battle? The answer here is less certain - seeding a rival faction with probes can accomplish short-term gains, but it is bound to hurt trust. The very act of probing is automatically damaging to one's reputation, and given that I was in Council defending the reputation of my entire faction, I discounted this method as counterproductive. Here, the risks inherent in the process outweighed the potential gain."

    The Provost grunted. "Certainly, Commissioner Lal would dearly love for you to attempt such a method. He was after your blood."

    "So far we have discussed reasons against winning this particular battle. Now, we apply our reasoning to acceptable methods of losing it. We ask can the battle be lost? In other words, how damaging would this defeat be to us? Well, consider what our enemy Lal has to gain if we let him win. Lal will enjoy infiltrator knowledge concerning each faction through FIP - this is quite a damaging blow, but fortunately the Hive submitted only a partial FIP profile through McClelland. Secondly, Lal will enjoy an executive veto in Council - dangerous only if there is a Council proposal which we hope to contest. Thirdly, Lal's own commerce ratings will increase, allowing him greater trade privileges."

    The Chairman set down a piece and ruminated awhile before continuing. "But none of these gains are permanent, and none of these gains are absolute. They are only relative, and they are far from immune to external events. Most importantly, they come with their own set of responsibilities and regulations. And, if we are astute enough, these can be forged into shackles that the Commissioner must wear for the next ten years.

    "Consider infiltration. The Commissioner will now be unable to feign ignorance of such future construction projects such as PowerClip, even by allies and friends. Thus, he will be required to change the statutes of the Charter, or be forced to address the situation directly. Either way, the UNP's way of life will come into direct contradiction with those of its neighbors. This will create friction. If we are shrewd enough, this can be harnessed to our own gain - all the more so since the Hiverian industrial structure is still hidden from Lal... and the LineLock Algorithm will see to it that it remains so.

    "Secondly, consider the paper benefits of commerce. Lal has borrowed heavily from the Aquascante factions in order to prop up the failing DataTech faction - both in credits, as well in favors and materiel. The commerce increase, though undoubtedly a help to the UNP, will hardly be their proprietary windfall. At least the other Aquascante factions will move to claim a piece of this for themselves, whether through direct trade, or repayment of loans, or in the case of the DataTech, further loans to rebuild their infrastructure. Again, the benefits being spread thin among multiple beneficiaries, we can act to sap and drain their effectiveness - especially where the DataTech are concerned.

    "Finally, most importantly - if the Commissioner wins this election, he assumes responsibility to improve the lot of his allies and treaty members. He must also bring about convincing results within ten years. This is a daunting enough prospect for a leader unfamiliar with the intricate workings of his pledged factions. In a time when he plans to embark on expensive and dubious wars overseas with powerful enemies, it will take a minor miracle for him to succeed. And if we are sharp enough to exploit his weaknesses, to counter his advances, and to take every opportunity to bring his leadership skills into doubt, it will be well-nigh impossible."

    The Chairman and Provost exchanged moves for a while before either spoke.

    "Some will still think," said the Provost, "you let him win too lightly."

    "Too lightly!" said the Chairman with surprise. "Council now suspects him of corruption, nepotism, abuse of rank, and incompetence - hardly ideal credentials for an inauguration. He has focussed on one sole major issue for his election - the Hiverian 'invasion', and how to counter it. He has given relatively little thought as to the proper governing of the Aquascante factions and their people - a populace now suddenly three times the size of his own nation. If he becomes Planetary Governor now, he will be forced to confront this question. What is more, he will be compelled to answer it, and answer it well, within ten short years."

    "Do you think he'll do a good job?" asked the Provost, smiling at his move.

    "Possibly. I know I could not." The Chairman set down a piece. "Elder, the correct and efficient government of people is my foremost concern, and my studies on this matter go back for over two hundred and fifty years; they are still progressing as we speak. My society is not yet perfect - I am not satisfied with its current status, and as such I am still seeking ways to improve and refine the model. My government is still a work in progress, changing to meet the demands of the day."

    "If I assumed leadership of Council, I would assume leadership of a population suddenly double that of my faction. Would I be confident in my rulership of that mass of humanity? Would I be able to define goals and values, manage economics and industry, arrange a proper political system, for the teeming hordes? Or would I merely be a desperate stopgap, a frail doorman to stand between the masses and their own self-destruction through anarchy?

    "With great power comes great responsibility, goes the adage. Pravin Lal has dreamed of this power for decades - now he has his chance to assume it. And the whole world will see whether he is worthy to wield it, and to decide for themselves whether or not my words in Council ring true. Who knows? In ten years' time, perhaps there will be some who wonder whether I might have made a better ruler."

    The Chairman's eyes glittered as he looked into the distance. "One thing is certain: in ten years' time, I intend to have made considerable inroads to my research on Hiverian policies of Planetary Government."

    * ~ * ~ *

    Morgan laid his hands on the table. Well, that was that, he supposed. He did not know whether to laugh or cry at this latest piece of news, but one thing was for sure - it certainly put the nail in the coffin of Operation Garrett.

    He rubbed his eyes with a formidable knuckle and gazed blearily out. He was tired, but he hadn't dared to sleep in case he missed anything in Council. A short laugh broke from him - funny to think that four days beforehand, the whole meeting looked set to be a terrible bore! Now, there was talk of editing the footage from Council and repackaging the whole thing as a political drama.

    Well, well. Morgan picked up the palmtop and read the final report for the third time, making sure he didn't miss a word. He shook his head with a vague sense of regret, then authorized a delete and set down the palmtop. He padded off into the warm luxury of his sleeping quarters.

    It was time for bed.
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 27, 2002, 10:06.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    Dritnam clung to the doorframe for balance as the train lurched again, gunfire splitting the sounds of thrashing winds. He tried not to think of the speeding magtube around him, the lethal floor thundering past, mere centimeters away from his hands as he worked to disengage the carriage.

    The DataTech had sent an armored train on behind to board his, and his combined wiles of shutting and opening the train relays after he passed them had worked - up to a point. Perhaps Joe had already tried this trick, or perhaps the DataTech were more intelligent than he gave them credit for being, but they had astutely separated their military train beforehand, such that only individual carriages could be misdirected this way.

    Dritnam had been unable to shake the final carriage as it thundered down the tube, and harpooned onto his own with a sickening scrape. Hence, the blowtorch and the coupling.

    Had he been able to speak, he would have cursed. But the feeble muscles of his voicebox were already far too weak to influence the breath that rasped through his windpipe - a useless, vestigial ability, and one that was minuscule in comparison to the mellifluous netvoice of his cybernetic alter-ego.

    The coupling finally gave way, and he sighed a sigh of relief, then nearly fell bodily off the train as his caboose lurched forwards. That was the deceptive thing about magtrains, he reflected. You didn't really need an engine onboard them, as the magtube itself was what provided the velocity. Luckily, it also meant that he didn't need any part of the train except the caboose, which at this point in time housed the bristling wreckage of a Hive needlejet and several DataTech corpses of varying degrees of stillness.

    Gripping the doorframe, he voiced a final injunction over the net to the carriage to engage its brakes, and then shut the door behind him before the sparks started flying. On the rogue carriage, he knew DataTech guards would be clambering wildly, struggling to get to a caboose that was pulling ever further away from them.

    He left them behind and sent his mind's eye ahead, to look for the next trackblock. He sensed two routes being occupied by civilian trains, and a third with a military train closing on his position. With a momentary glitch, as his established hack overcame the internal defences, he was into the system, and gliding along the tracks, jumping across relays, and finally nestling into a track-switch that would divert the military train harmlessly of his path, and into that of one of the civilian trains.

    This was childishly easy, he thought, as he slipped back into realtime.

    His flesh body was weakening rapidly - a good thing that Murath's younger and nimbler fingers had already primed the Fusion drive. All Dritnam needed to do would be to remove the power fuses at the right time, and the mission would be complete, one way or another.

    Of course, actually getting to the objective targetal was the hard part, but so far nothing too challenging was presenting itself. Dritnam sensed another anvil forming ahead, and slewed off two approaching blockers with a maliciously intricate track-switch.

    As he passed the helpless army vehicles, he noticed that there were quite a few more of them than before. They must have caught on to what he was doing. Either that, or Operation PowerClip happened to delegate military manpower to its cause - quite a likely proposition, given its nature.

    He focussed ahead and saw that the descent-spiral tube into PowerClip was blocked. Not, this time, with an approaching vehicle, but with still vehicles, moving at a snail's pace. As his own caboose dodged between tracks and meandered through terminals, he realized suddenly that it would be impossible for him to physically enter PowerClip. The entrance was blocked by a traffic jam - something mere brute force would not shift.

    Dritnam wondered what he should do. Certainly, he was nearly at the mass of rails that were directly above the Ergonomia PowerClip terminal. He supposed that it would be possible to stop the train a few levels up and engage, with satisfactory results. Joe would probably have done something similar.

    Dritnam was still wondering, when the walls of the magtube network suddenly became translucent, and his mute mouth fell open in wonder. He hauled himself off the chair and staggered over to the window to see the sight.

    As his mind regained itself, he hailed Joe one last time, to share with him the sprawling splendor.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "Raise your hands and step away from the vehicle door!" shouted the squad leader, an anonymously aggressive man sporting a buzzcut and a visor. His gloved hands held a scoped automatic rifle, the butt squeezed into the armored chestpad.

    Joe stepped away from the vehicle door, his shoes echoing on the polytarmac of the station platform. He did not raise his hands. The soldiers looked at each other behind their shields and visors, perplexed.

    "I said 'raise your hands'!" shouted the leader again. "If you do not acquiesce, you will be fired upon."

    My goodness, thought Joe sardonically, he knows the word 'acquiesce'. He smiled contemptuously and reached into his pocket smoothly. Rifle barrels followed his hand. Maintaining the smirk, he drew a 33ZhF pistol from his pocket and raised it upwards, towards the ceiling. Gunfire burst from the lead soldier's rifle, perilously close to Joe's head, dislodging a few specks of synthecrete.

    "I'm warning you!" screamed the leader shrilly. "Drop the weapon or we'll drop you!"

    Joe shook his head in disbelief and swung the gun down quickly to point at his own temple.

    "I..." said the squad leader. "You..."

    Joe smiled and stuck the gun barrel firmly between his own lips with malicious humor.

    "...!" said the squad leader. Behind him, the assembled soldiers shifted from foot to foot in uncertainty. What could you threaten to do to a terrorist who was already threatening to shoot himself in the head? The squad leader's own grip on his gun was wavering - beside him, the youngest recruit was positively shaking with nerves.

    Joe found himself smiling manically, despite the situation. He had about a minute left, by his calculation. The Hiverian secret service had trained him to prepare for many possible death scenarios, but he had never imagined that anyone, let alone himself, would die entertaining a shooting squad with a comedy skit. He wondered how long he could hold himself hostage for before they lost their patience and shot him instead. The thought was so comic that he started laughing and nearly broke a tooth on the 33ZhF barrel.

    The guards were circling around now, sending a few recruits flanking around in furtive, dishonest movements. Joe almost pitied them. As if a single man with a gun down his throat posed any problem! Joe reckoned he had thirty seconds left. That should be enough.

    He took the gun out of his mouth, and his hand fell down by his side. The guards all froze at this development. Once again, all rifles tightened their aim on his chest.

    Suddenly disgusted with the act, Joe decided it was time to stop. He pointed the pistol deliberately at the ground near his left foot, and pulled the trigger firmly twice.

    Two loud, empty clicks filled the tense air.

    The soldiers wavered.

    Joe did it again for good measure. Click, click. Look - no bullets.

    The soldiers positively trembled.

    Joe huffed and raised the gun to eye level, aiming directly at the head of the leader, and then as if by instinct, there was a bright light in his mind's eye, as if he was in a magtrain speeding on a magtube high above the clouds. He was standing, hands pressed against the cool glass of the window, looking out through the transparent walls of the magtube, realizing suddenly that he was not flying - he was underground. Looking out across a vast, subterranean city, of distant towers and stacks and pipes that stretched along hewn cavern walls for miles and miles into the velvet darkness - shielding his eyes against the constellation of blinding bright lights that led a trail off into the darkness, the furthest ones many miles away, winking like distant, cold stars.

    He saw flashing lights as construction teams lowered components of a mighty project into place, pieces of machinery and industrial plants swirling on towcables from construction choppers, like pendulous blocks suspended by spider silk from the legs of dragonflies. He saw trains on distant lines, halted and with their precious cargoes open to the silver werelight, insectlike aerotugs flitting over them and extracting with meticulous care their gifts, gleaned from all across the Iphiclian continent.

    He watched as his magtube circled round, and the uninhabited city below slowly rotated in his field of vision. He saw the net of rails and tubes that led in spiralling circles down to the depths of the colossal excavation - the innumerable buildings that would soon process and hone and perfect the human frame of flesh and bone to the toughness of burnished steel. He heard, by gradual increments, Dritnam's concerned but awestruck voice, asking the same question over and over again - Zhou! Zhou, is this it? Is this it, Zhou? Am I there yet? Is this it? - and Joe found himself screaming a yell of triumph and fulfilment.

    Yes! he called, not caring whether his friend could hear him or not. Yes, this is it! We're here! We did it, buddy! This is it! My God - this is it!!! At his words, Dritnam scrambled back to the equipment, gnarled fingers working with a new, final injection of life.

    And then the twinkling of the stars grew brighter, and the sound of distant thunder filled the air. Joe felt the sky open and the winds tear at his clothes, thrashing his limbs. He could feel the piercing beauty of the stars as they consumed his pitiful immortal body, felt the calm reassurance of the earth as it rose to meet his carcass, falling away like a bag of refuse - broken, battered, and finally discarded.

    A passing sensation of pity took him, and he returned momentarily to look out upon the world one last time through eyes of vessels and flesh and vitreous humor. Then he saw the stars shrink to the petty bursts of gunfire, the thunder resolve into the barking reports of discharged cartridges, the winds become the stinging bullets themselves as they pounded his poor abused body. There was a growing fire in his chest and arms, where the DataTech concentrated most of their fire. With a loud internal crack, he felt a bullet shatter his jaw, and the world exploded calmly into colors and redness. It was difficult to stay upright - Joe suspected they had severed his spine at some point - but suddenly he remembered that there were only a few seconds left. He had to stay upright until the mission was over, at least.

    Only a few seconds left, fading away into nothingness, as the last few grains of his life and the mission expired. With a sigh that almost sounded disappointed, Joe's legs collapsed beneath the meat that was his body, and he fell backwards into the sudden roaring hot whiteness.

    Happily, he was never to touch the ground. The train, the rail, the platform, the ground itself - everything was gone, annihilated in a flash of raging light exactly as hot as the center of the suns.
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 30, 2002, 23:34.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    The Council chamber was bright and airy, but there was no disguising the underlying atmosphere of tension. That was not the only thing underlying the proceedings - there was also a general sense of exhaustion.

    The Speaker was unusually alert, possibly through nerves, although perhaps this was merely through the prospect of stepping down from Speakerhood sometime soon. He announced the rules of the final vote with clarity and volume, despite the assured fact that almost all the nations knew them anyway.

    "The preliminary voting round has been concluded," he said, "and the votes are known to all. We now progress to the second and final round. In view of the factional preliminary votes, we invite each candidate faction leader to present their election speech. After a round of open factional questions, we will open the issue to the floor. That concluded, we proceed onto the final vote, and the determination of our first Planetary Governor.

    "The first candidate to speak, as determined by our random selection, is the UNP Commissioner, Pravin Lal."

    Lal took the podium in a burst of applause.

    "Citizens of Planet, I came here to support the Charter. Under this bastion of Earthside strength and unity, I brought my case before you. As Commissioner of the United Nations, it was my task to bring the Charter and its auspices to each and every one of our factions, never to rest until this was achieved."

    Lal looked around in a slow arc.

    "No more need I strive for this goal," he said. "For, now I see before me the united Council, every leader here - every leader listening - every leader speaking their minds. Sometimes our issues have been grave, sometimes they have been alarming, but they have at least been discussed. That in itself is our greatest accomplishment today - that every leader can now hope to solve their problems through dialogue."

    Lal turned a page and continued, adjusting his spectacles.

    "The Charter may be fulfilled, but it is not unchanging. It is a code of laws and a pillar of our rights, but that does not make it a straitjacket. We have already witnessed the adaptability of the Charter, when circumstances require its amendments. We have already seen its strength through unity - drawing the talents of many, into one.

    "But my task today is not to laud the Charter to you. Today, we face a growing crisis in the spread of famine, and the increase of disease, as well as threats we do not yet fully understand from the Planet itself. We must, for the good of all humanity, set aside our differences and join our strength, so that united, we may strive to improve the lot of every citizen of this world.

    "But natural crises are only half of the problems we face today. The age-old man-made miseries which have plagued use since time immemorial are still with us - war, terrorism, conquest. The wilful destruction of the neighbor, the purposeful seizure of lands and possessions. Friends, we cannot allow humanity to resort to such self-destructive means to determine our collected fate. Only through mutual discussion, and understanding, can we hope to work in harmony as nations. And only through universal education, and universal political representation, can we assure an efficient and fair government.

    "I do not pretend to perfection. I too have my flaws, my shortcomings, my weaknesses. But our strength arises when we can work together, and instead of searching for the flaws of the other to exploit, we present our united strengths for the benefit of ourselves and our friendship. The beauty of democracy is that voters have profound power to regulate their government and leaders. Thus, the potential weaknesses of a leadership can be reinforced by the strengths of the people. Any leadership which begins by depriving its people of this right to regulate their government is no true leadership, as it has no recourse to present the strengths of the people in place of its own weaknesses.

    "Citizens of the Council, I do not believe it is necessary for me to belabor the point with regards to my fellow candidate. I merely ask you to consider the work that the UNP has done, and the spirit in which it was carried out, for the good of your factions' individual people. We are not perfect - as with all governments, we are a work in progress - but we have undertaken this work with the rights of the individual at heart, and the further our work progresses, the more the life of the individual improves."

    Lal fixed the Chairman's face with a sharp gaze that everybody noted.

    "Before you cast your votes, I ask that you give careful thought to the available alternatives. Then I would ask if there are any alternatives at all to democracy, and to the inalienable rights of man."

    Lal sat down to roaring UNP applause, so sustained that the Speaker could not quell it. There were a few worried glances between the Second and the Hiverian High Command, and the Provost shook his head with a resigned air, but the Chairman's own face betrayed nothing, save a calm aloofness.

    * ~ * ~ *

    Li Min proceeded carefully. He had disembarked at CliffView and headed down to the Prospect - a vaguely popular tourist area. From there, he had expected there to be some intense guard resistance, but there was none - merely an automated lock that he had hacked and allowed himself access to the outer perimeter.

    From there, he had expected to be challenged, but there was nobody present to do so. A siren was wailing softly in the distance, and as Li Min gradually became aware of what it actually was, he put urgency into his steps.

    Perhaps they were here!

    One look from the auxiliary launch pad told him something was wrong - the cliff-face launch bays were open, and through their broad gape, he could see there was some furore erupting amongst the ground crew.

    Approaching with extreme caution, Li Min took out a scope and zoomed in. There appeared to be some trouble with the automated defence systems - DataTech were falling to their own guns. Interesting.

    He would have to approach from the lower decks, where the fighting had not yet spread. He would have to do it carefully, too - his own soldiers had every right to shoot him on sight. And something told him that his soldiers hadn't let rights dictate their might for a long time.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "People of Council," began the Chairman at last, "I came here to clear my name of the charges levelled against me. I am aware that outside nations have received incorrect or skewed impressions of my faction, and it was my original intention to dispel these. However, there are certain false impressions that are instinctive, others that are mistakenly deduced, and finally yet others that are purposeful misrepresentations, with far-ranging agendas.

    "I have discharged my initial duty, and I believe that this Council Tribunal now absolves me of guilt in the accusations levelled against me by the Commissioner. However, a further duty now falls to me, concerning the election called by the Commissioner. It has come to my notice that my sudden attendance has displaced a previous candidate, and polarized the voting where no previous such split was evident. As such, I find myself in an awkward situation, faced with only one viable choice open to me. But first, I offer my reasons."

    The Chairman considered for a few seconds, before continuing.

    "The Commissioner spoke of the strengths of democracy, of the power held by the voters, but he failed to mention a vital point. Democracy only works through the institute of education and information. Without a clear understanding of the true situation, the ignorance of a voting populace is equally as dangerous as that of a leader. If a flaw exists in the chain of information from source to the public, then the public understanding is called into question. And when a leader actively strives to manipulate or twist the information available to the public, then the fundamental roots of democracy are threatened."

    The Chairman gestured to the Gaian envoys. "Gaian Prentice McClelland spent two weeks within our borders, and we were honored to host his visit. Here is a man who disregarded what the news nodes told him to believe, and who came to witness with his own eyes. And those of you who have read his report will encounter the same observation, several times - that McClelland's own free press perpetuates glaring inaccuracies concerning our faction.

    "The democracy you hold so sacrosanct has already fallen into the hands of those who dream of wielding power absolutely. Minor adjustments to the information you receive will allow your wishes to coincide with theirs. Thus they do indeed rule with your interests at heart, after having dictated to you what your interests shall be. In the event that the rules and regulations placed to check their power displease them, they show no aversion to bending or breaking them entirely, provided that it suits their purposes, and that it can be disguised as a dubious strength through 'adaptability' or 'amendment'.

    "My internal policies are not democratic. I have never claimed otherwise. My faction operates on a basis of individual merit and state reward, and adherence to a code of beliefs that many may find disturbing. The good Commissioner has already mentioned our faction's lack of a family unit - if such a differentiation seems so distasteful and shocking to your eyes, then I acknowledge that the Hiverian way of life would be most unsuited to you."

    The Chairman's gaze wandered from face to face. "But therein lies the major difference between myself and the Commissioner. He speaks of the inalienable rights of individuals, and to a certain extent he genuinely acts to defend them. But he does not respect the rights of the greater unit - the group, the community, the culture. He is a man who would grasp at any excuse, point a finger at any single threat, to coerce and persuade you to give up your ways of life for his. He is a man who has found a social structure to which he clings religiously for support, and without which he cannot imagine any form of legitimate social existence. He is a man who has declared war on my faction for our reprisals against terrorism, who has condemned my faction for crimes of humanity against non-humans, who has laid at my feet accusations of crimes that I have not committed and for which this court rules I cannot be held guilty. He is a man who preaches rights for men from all social codes, but allows freedom for none save his own. He is a man who funds terrorists and supports the use of Charter banned technology 'when circumstances dictate', but selectively condemns my recourse to police action in those same circumstances. He is a man who sentenced a medic to death on Earth in order to save his wife, but who cannot countenance the taking of a life in self-defence. From these actions, I was forced to ask myself a question: are these the convictions of a man who follows a strong and salient moral code? Are these the workings of a social order that endures with true consistency through all trials? Or are these merely the confused assertions of a bad actor, playing a mendacious part in an empty melodrama?"

    The Chairman's eyes were set in hard anger, his brows were raised as he spoke.

    "People of the Council, I do not pretend that my ways are suitable for all. It does indeed require a unique philosophical view, which must be taught from childhood, to live comfortably within the Hive faction. It requires a lifetime of self-discipline, a willingness to self-critique, and in certain cases, a degree of self-denial in order to derive the most joy from life as we live it. If there are those from outside with an interest in our way of life, then I welcome them most warmly to observe and to comment. But I do not presume to force them to my lifestyle through conquest, or through obligation, or through popular duress disguised as popular will. In this way I differ fundamentally from the Commissioner, who aggressively pursues support for his Council meetings, and who now pursues a policy of containing my faction through conversion of the DataTech and Aquascante members - indeed, anybody who will listen to his sound and fury."

    The Chairman's voice rose in volume as he concluded.

    "In short, fellow members of the Council, I find myself a voting member of an election where the only choice proceeds on the basis of containment voting - to cast your lot with the lesser of the two perceived evils. I have no intention of adding my word to legitimize these proceedings, and I will not allow any other leader to use my presence as a convenient tool for coercion or leverage. I will not take part in a process that aims to strip faction leaders of their right to govern, under the pretended auspices of democracy - a process that serves to increase the power of the Governing faction, under the pretence of equality and egalitarianism. Good people of Council, I have thought long and hard before casting my vote - be sure that you do the same yourselves. Do not deprive your people of their rulership for a misguided and futile containment vote. Do not cast your vote and surrender your faction to a defunct and manipulated Charter. And most of all, do not surrender your rule to a corrupt and opportunistic nepotist, masquerading as democracy's last bastion against my so-called dictatorship."

    The Chairman paused, giving the Commissioner Lal a piercing look as he finished.

    "This is the first time I have attended Council. I admit that perhaps my expectations were too high. But, in the light of the developments of the previous agenda, and the outcome of the token accusations levelled against myself, I have decided that I want no part of this Council hypocrisy. I merely ask that other leaders consider the merit of my actions in full, before committing themselves.

    "Thus, I regret to announce that I shall be abstaining altogether from the vote for Planetary Governor. Thank you for your attention."

    The words were accompanied by a collective rising shout of alarm. The reaction to his words went beyond mere surprise - everywhere one looked, delegates were arguing, discussing, denying, asserting. The Speaker stood up and was striking his gavel, but the tumult of the crowds was beyond control. The Gaians now found themselves the object of interest from Morganite, Spartan, and even some Pirate scrutiny, while McClelland was trying to split his attention between his leader Skye's questions and those of the other faction representatives.

    Lal stood up and tried to calm the floor, but his voice went unheard in the cacophony. Spartanite emissaries crossed the gap between tables and held heated debates with the Morganites - some veering off to join the crowd clamoring for McClelland. The few remaining DataTech crossed to the Peacekeepers' section and were shouting loudly about some sort of terrorist attempt right now, but they were ignored by the UNP reps, to whom it had just occurred to ask the Speaker about whether a Governor candidate was allowed to abstain from voting for himself (and whether it was possible to put him on trial if it turned out that it wasn't).

    The Speaker, already unnerved by the startling sea of shouts and inquiries, was in no mood to answer. He was instead attempting futilely to make an announcement over the din, grabbing the intercom and turning the volume all the way up to make himself heard. His final words as the Speaker were thus unwittingly broadcast loud and clear across the radio waves of many household sets, previously turned down by owners wishing to reduce the hubbub and commotion of the Extraordinary Meeting of Council at work.

    " announce that...- O just go away will you? -...there will be an hour's recess...- no, I can't talk now, can't you just wait a bit?... -recess, and then the final vote, okay? Can everybody hear me? *tap* *tap* Recess for one hour, and then...- augh, let go of my thigh... damn you... -then the final vote. All right, come here you arsing sodbucket..."

    There was no doubt that it was a suitably shining end to a sparkling career.
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 27, 2002, 06:50.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    "How do matters stand, brother?" asked the Provost, placing a stone down.

    "Difficult to be certain," said the Chairman. "I cannot secure Morgan's vote."

    The Provost looked up sharply. "I thought you said he would block Lal in Council," he muttered.

    "Block, yes. But actively vote against him?" Sheng spread a hand. "You must remember that Morgan has been a friend and ally to Lal for well-nigh five decades now, even if reluctantly so. He would not be so quick to turn his back on that sort of friendship." Sheng pondered his next move, then placed down his stone with a decisive action. "The best we can hope for is that he will abstain."

    "Are you so sure?" asked the Provost.

    "Not at all. But I do know that many factions were planning on quiet abstention anyway, prior to our arrival."

    "That goes without saying," said the Provost. "Then, they were merely watching a competition in which they had no particular interest. Now, they're playing a different game - one which they stand to lose if they play badly."

    The Chairman's eyes crinkled at the corners.

    "What?" asked the Provost. "What thoughts are crossing... oh," he said, realization dawning. The Chairman was amused by the Provost's words because they could also apply to his present game of 3-dimensional wei qi. "Was I that easy to beat beforehand?"

    The Chairman waved the question away noncommittally. "Your three-dimensional perception is superior to mine. I must take my previous tactics and strategies and carefully consider them each time I make a move, now."

    "But about Council. What do you intend to do? If the vote rests with the Gaians, why not speak with them?"

    Sheng shrugged. "Deirdre has declined to speak with me at this point."

    "That's not good."

    "So I intend to wait. After all, there is nothing else I can do. All that could be said has been said; to push matters any further would be to invite refusal."

    The Provost sighed irritably. "I don't know how you can endure it. For a while, I was convinced that Lal and his vultures would find you guilty of some trumped-up charge or another."

    "They did try. But I place faith in the structure of control - not even something as ad hoc as the Council can get away with flying in the face of facts. Fortunately, I had the materials to hand."

    The Provost cackled. "That was something else I wanted to ask you about. How did you manage to obtain the video feeds and documents that you did?"

    "Preparatory groundwork. Every possible angle of Lal's attack had been analyzed ahead of time, and potential materials gathered so that I would be able to refute it. I knew that Lal's ploy was to color the Council's opinion of me, such that they would be indisposed to look favorably on an appeal from my part. The clear solution was to make sure that I never needed to resort to such an appeal. As my Second Zhu will tell you, I was cloistered away in seclusion for a lengthy period of time during the DataTech's initial attacks. This time was spent gathering what files I had to counter the three charges levelled against me in the Commissioner's Ten Points."

    "But the footage of Pria's body?"

    The Chairman actually smiled at that - an intimidating downturn of the lips followed by a surprisingly kindly creasing of the eyes.

    "The footage of Pria is nothing special. Think - hundreds of thousands of hours' worth of cryobay camera footage, with each and every occupant allotted their personal record, no matter how lowly. And the results spliced together and ejected from the Unity's failing hull in the supply pods. At some point in the past, my engineers located the footage and stored it. I did not even know we had it until I searched for it, knowing the chances of our possessing it were naturally quite good."

    "How about the allegations? Where did you get the information for that?"

    The Chairman stopped smiling. "Many of these were based on hearsay, prior to the completion of the Unity. Whilst on Earth, I made the acquaintance of a member of the staff selection committee and found out a few factual pieces of evidence. The rest of the allegations were picked up from Morgan's networks."


    "Yes - it appears that he had amassed quite a dossier on the Commissioner, myself, and others prior to stowing himself onboard the Unity. The CEO is another man who does not like to do anything without definitive preparation beforehand."

    "But the Commissioner's face!" reminisced the Provost happily. "Did you mark his distress?"

    "Yes. Rest assured it was not unintentional."

    "He looked like he was ready for meltdown, Chairman. It was quite an extreme personal attack. It was brutal. Ruthless, in fact."

    "But it was effective, in its own crude way," stated the Chairman flatly. "I was on the verge of making numerous allegations against him that I suspected were beyond the Council's right to prosecute. It was important that I prevent him from using my own tactic against me to counter the allegations - to break his facade of impenetrability. Once that was achieved, the drama of his extreme reaction both served to raise doubt and estalish suspicion in the minds of the Council. Even though his crime was beyond the aegis of Council to try, his reaction already condemned him as distinctly guilty. In many ways, it forced his later confession."

    "Poor girl," said the Provost. "Well, she may be gone, but I believe she has achieved a dubious form of immortality - in the Morganite news networks, at least. One of my agents said that 'Pria Lal' was now the most commonly submitted search criterion on the nodes. We even saw a Pria Lal Cryosleep mousepad for sale on one of the nodes."

    The Chairman placed a piece down, matching a tendril of the Provost's own expansion.

    "There is no quarter given or taken in this sort of fight, Provost. Lal was fully prepared to tear my reputation to shreds and leave me to be sentenced by general consensus. I had to make sure that my defence was strong enough to withstand his darts and volleys, and I had to deliver a blow hard enough to silence further such attacks from him. I am not ashamed that I succeeded."

    The Provost made his move, seemingly nonchalant. "Just watch your back, Chairman. He'll get you for this, one way or another."

    The Chairman shrugged. "I had always assumed that anyway. Now, we need to focus on three tasks at hand. The first - the pacification of the remaining Caretaker bases, and their peaceful transition under heavy guard to the Consciousness. The second, the looming completion of Operation PowerClip, and the progress we are making towards stopping it. And finally, the Council vote."

    "Which you just said we cannot influence anyway."

    "True," said the Chairman. "And the Harmonian campaign continues to our satisfaction - we have already succeeded in capturing Consonance Base and are presently rendering it fit for human habitation for Zeta-5's civilians."

    "Which leaves only PowerClip to discuss."


    The Provost made his move, then looked the Chairman in the eye.

    "Is there anything left to say?"

    * ~ * ~ *

    Prentice caught one glimpse of her grey eyes, and his will forsook him. A rush of emotion seized him, so strong that his heart felt that it would stop before he could draw breath. He dropped his case on the floor and clasped her shoulders to him, as she buried her face in his neck. Her breath came in staccato, hysterical bursts, and as he felt moisture on his skin he knew that she was crying with relief.

    "Prentice," she said. "Oh, Prentice! You were gone so long!"

    He held her there, in the tiny doorway of their official residence, rocking her back and forth, his arms around her shoulders. His large hands stroking the smooth skin of her cheeks, her neck, her lips with surprising gentleness, as she wept herself into serenity.

    Finally, she looked upwards at him, her eyes unusually clear, a slight rose tint to her nose and cheeks the only sign of her emotion.

    "Come inside," she said quietly.

    A while later, she turned to face him fearfully in the still air, eyes blinking in the glowlight.

    "Prentice, did you see her?"

    "Who?" he asked.

    "The woman in the cell - the one that Pravin Lal brought onboard."

    "Aye," he said. "Everybody saw her."

    "You know, when I saw the look on Lal's face, I couldn't understand it."

    Prentice stroked her hair as she rested her chin on his bare shoulder. "Understand what?"

    "Why God would have taken her from him. He loved her so much, and you could tell from the way he spoke in Council. And I remembered when you were back in the Hive, when Skye told me the truth of what you'd been through." She closed her eyes for a long moment. "I thought-"

    Prentice leaned down and silenced her lips with his own.

    "I would have come back, daftae. You cannae stop a McClelland." But there was an abstraction to his words, as though something else she said was troubling him.

    At his words, she snuggled closer. "Aye, that's true. Not even a Senate meeting."

    Prentice smiled. There was at least that much. Skye had received his vote first, minutes after Lal had signed off. Then, she had ordered him to go home and get some rest - he didn't need any further stress on top of his trip to the Hive. He had protested, but she was adamant - in any case, she needed him by her side during the final vote count tomorrow. When he had flatly refused, she had revoked all his passes and stripped him for one night of his Senatorial rank. He had no other choice but to follow orders.

    Prentice had gone to the ARBANT and conferred with the Empath Guild, but his passes were gone and he was unable to put in any overtime in stacking the electoral college. He had left a few pointers with the Sender (a practice highly questionable for a politician) but other than that, there was no other way he could help. Already, reports were coming in of the votes accumulated, and Prentice could do nothing to stop them. With a weary air of surrender, he had returned home.

    And rediscovered Joely in the process.

    Now, recovering from the fierce joy of his homecoming, his earlier concerns crept back. He continued patting his wife's arm distractedly, but his mind was on the results drawn by the Sender at the Empath Guild.

    "What's wrong?" asked Joely.


    She snuggled into his shoulder, the tip of her nose cold against his warm skin. "Is it something you can tell your wife?"

    "It's boring," he said.

    "Is it about the elections?"


    She nipped his shoulder with her teeth, correctly deducing that it was no emergency matter. "Stop stalling, Prent. Will you tell me what you're worried about!"

    "Okay. You asked for it. I'm worried that the Hive can't pull through."

    "The Hive!" Joely's surprised was unfeigned.

    "Aye, the Hive. I know - you don't trust 'em. And to be fair, neither did I. That is, before I went there myself." Prentice's accent, thickening in the familiarity of his own home, pronounced the final word "massel'".

    "So you hope they win against the Peace-artists?" she said, wonderingly.

    Prentice sighed, shifting his head as he searched for a way to articulate his feelings.

    "Not exactly. I keep hoping - almost - like nobody has to win."

    "Aye. I know what you mean, Prent."

    "I was going to vote when I knew what the Governor would do. But now I've seen what the Chairman is like, and what the Commissioner's like. And I don't know much of anything, now. It's like everything I've heard about Yang and his evil is wrong, just like everything I've heard about Lal and his goodness is wrong too."

    Joely broke in. "Now, Prent, you know that can't be right. He's a decent man, down at heart. He may talk and bluster a lot, but he's canny good-hearted. Can you say the same about the Chairman?"

    He started a war after an attempt on my life, he thought silently. But he just smiled lopsidedly at his wife. "Maybe it's just cause I'm patriotic. I keep wishing Skye were still in the running. She's a wise ruler, no mistake."

    Joely's face smoothed out again. "Aye, that she is." She rolled back onto her back and watched the ceiling motes in the light of the glowlamp.

    "But she's not running this time. And-" Prentice paused, then forced himself to say it, "-and I think Senate are going to vote for Lal. Not because they want to, but because they feel they have to, now that the question has been forced. The greatest pity is that so many vote because they feel we can't trust a nation we don't know. Well, I know that nation! If I could just get some time on Arbant!"

    He rolled onto his back and stared steadily at the glowlamp until spots danced in his vision.

    "But," he said, "there's no chance of that working, even if I could. You can't force cultural familiarity overnight. You can't undo decades of misinformation and misrepresentation with a spell of Senate talks. All you can do is tell it like it is, and hope that people are willing to listen. And maybe, after a while, they'll believe you, not just hear you."

    Joely watched the set of his jaw, his terrible frustration evident. She sidled closer to kiss his cheek, and held her body against his through the blankets. "You'll succeed someday," she said. "There's nae stoppin' a McClelland."

    Prentice smiled at these words, but his grimace returned quickly. "It's hopeless. Tomorrow, if the Gaians vote for Lal, he'll win the election, regardless of what the Hive does. And once he's made king of the hill, he'll see to it that the Hive are even more vilified than before." A glimmer appeared at the corner of his eye and threatened to fall. "And my journey to Hiveria will be forgotten."

    Joely said nothing, merely hugged her husband. She knew that he was tired, and his mind needed rest after these weeks of concentration. Planting a gentle kiss on his cheek, she reached up to the glowlamp with her free arm, and switched it off.

    * ~ * ~ *

    The Second checked his palmtop and received the latest priority report. Since Agent Hu's death, Berzhinev had directly linked incoming transmissions to an encoded node that the top echelons of the Intelligence Bureau could all view at their leisure. This included Zhu and the Chairman himself. Knowing that the Gaian leader requested solitude for her decision making, Sheng observed a respectful silence on their comm frequencies and had ordered his subordinates to do likewise.

    Nothing stopped Zhu from making ample use of probe information, however.

    He watched as Agent Hu's source relayed a video feed and an audio clip to his palmtop. The video he set aside - he wished to conserve bandwidth, and views through glowlamp bugs were quite distorted and awkward - but the audio contained some human speech. The Second forwarded to the first break in the speech, and played the recording back.

    He listened with special interest to the latter portion of the conversation. He rewinded and played back once, when the accents were too strong for him to easily decipher. This done, he nodded once curtly, and forwarded the audio onwards to the Chairman, emphasizing a portion.

    If this were true, he wondered what the Chairman would do about it. Things did not look good.

    * ~ * ~ *

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    Li Min leaned closer to the screen as the final decoder finished its work. There was a brief period of realignment, and then his screen displayed the entirety of the transmission.

    "Gotcha," he muttered, "you cheeky little arse-pot."

    His eyes flicking over the text, he picked out a few words and read that section thoroughly, ignoring the rest. His lips moved silently as his eyes widened, the mug slipping out of his hands and clattering on the floor.

    "Damn," he said. "A military hijacking."

    The message described Morgan's doubts as to the success of a DataTech-led attack against a Hiverian carrier group. However, the message had a series of replies, and Li Min hacked through them with a few minutes' work.

    "Damn," he said. "It worked, too."

    He sat back and read about the HCV Jian Guo Men, and the bravery of Pietr Hommel, and the three midair collisions off the SouthSea Island.

    He hacked into a final message, and saw something that nearly stopped his heart.

    "Damn," he concluded. "Fusion power."

    The final message was sent by a prominent figure in the Peacekeeper government, who suggested to the DataTech that they keep the two Fusion reactors behind Sentry-8. The writer believed that the best sites for further research would be at the BayBand research station, although Ferretslair also provided adequate facilities.

    Li Min raised his empty hand to his lips, wondering. Now it all made sense. The hacker wasn't trying to kill the DataJack Roze. The hacker was preparing an attack on...

    Li Min sat up, nearly knocking over the computer screen in the process of realization.

    The hacker! It was going to steal the Fusion drives! He had to do something now!

    * ~ * ~ *

    To all casual views, the two men on either side of their elder were not in any way related. They were both fairly tall and muscular, but apart from that similarity, they seemed archetypal bodyguards - strong and healthy.

    The man in the middle, however, was neither strong nor healthy. His face was an ashen grey, and his hands trembled. It was with difficulty that he made his way across the floor of the moving carriages, and only with assistance from his two friends could he cross between the carriages themselves.

    "Only one more to go," said Reinhardt, gripping Dritnam's shaking elbow securely.

    Dritnam could only nod. His voice seemed to have finally abandoned him.

    "Careful," warned Murath. "The tension is somewhat higher here."

    They escorted Dritnam over the final of the carriage gaps and sat him down at the benches. Now, they were in the second to last carriage from the front, and sharing the carriage with about eight or nine others. Reinhardt gave Dritnam a dark cloth to wipe his face with.

    "Here, get some shut-eye," he said. Murath placed his hands over his eyes.

    Once the cloth was out of his hands, Reinhardt fished in his jacket pocket with an air of abstraction, then retrieved a flashpack, which he threw to the ground.

    Drawing his silenced stun-pistol with his other hand, he stood up in the crowd of blinded passengers and methodically shot each one.

    Reinhardt took up position near the engine room, and waited as Dritnam worked on the door. The fingerprint lock suddenly retracted, and Reinhardt stepped in with a projectile pistol and quickly cleared all the guards.

    Potential distractions thus removed, Reinhardt strode out the doorway to the umbilical. A few minutes' work with the cutter, and the umbilical was broken. Reinhardt threw a grenade into the foremost carriage and the resulting explosion slowed the tail of the train.

    Dritnam could, with effort, tap into the Consciousness for brief periods of time. He did so now, first working out where their train was exactly on the Sentry-8 map. Then, he hacked into control files that would shut off all mag acceleration units behind their current position. This caused the trailing sections to immediately fall further behind.

    That separation done, Dritnam then focussed on an upcoming diversion. With reflexes honed by his Algorithmic rapport, Dritnam successfully gauged the splitsecond change required to divert the trailing train segments down a different path. The trailing train segments shunted off down an auxiliary track, headed off in the vague direction of Ergonomia, then were abandoned to their fate.

    This would be important for getting back out. Once Reinhardt and Murath had finished escorting Dritnam, they were required by their mission to return to the Hive. This would be crucial for them - on their return journey, they would have to rely on the path that Dritnam had cleared prior to arrival. They would not be able to avail themselves of his quick hacking skills on the return trip.

    Now, the magtrain was only two carriages long - Reinhardt's own, and the engine room.

    This done, Dritnam set himself to the more difficult task of hacking the research laboratory magtrain platforms. He already knew that their targeted military train was still at the research lab, but he had yet to figure out which platform. It was imperative that he found out before word of this attack reached the research base, giving the DataTech a chance to relocate the targetal train.

    Fortunately, Dritnam had jammed all external communications on the train. Although it was likely that the DataTech knew something was wrong, hopefully it would be a while yet before they understood its exact nature.

    * ~ * ~ *

    Li Min cursed the design of the hoverbike and willed it to go faster. He could make it as far as Ergonomia, and then from there he would board the magtrains and head out to... where?

    This question had been bothering him for a while now. He knew that in better times, he would merely have had to report to his superior, or perhaps even just to the police force. Now, his superior was dead, and his superior's superior was gone to ground, and the police had suddenly turned into a green military force that grabbed people off the street on confused pretexts and cackhanded charges.

    Wherever he could go, he certainly couldn't go to his superiors for help. And the only other man he trusted well enough for help was dead. That left only him to thwart whatever plot the Hiverians were up to.

    Not for the first time, Li Min quelled a dissenting voice in the back of his head. A voice that said, with alarming insistence, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

    * ~ * ~ *

    Joe, speeding from Ferretslair to Data DeCentral in an engine-carriage only, had on his own accomplished something very similar to what Dritnam had needed the help of two Hiverians to do. He smiled slightly at the irony - such a plot, carried out by the DataTech, had been responsible for starting the Hive's war on terrorism. Such a plot, carried out by himself, might just be able to stop the war.

    He dove into the nets, savoring the pleasurable feeling of total immersion in pure data. He trawled through the train timetables again, noting intersections and track diversions, and performing them himself when necessary. As he did so, his physical self seemed to respond to the jerks and recoils of the reroutings and redirectings of the magtrain.

    Within a very short time, Joe knew that he would not feel these sensations ever again. The thought stayed with him as he disconnected.

    He was pulling into the Alpha-One military station under Sentry-8 now, just as he knew Dritnam would be doing back north, at BayBand.

    * ~ * ~ *

    Dritnam brought the train to a gentle halt, as Reinhardt and Murath ducked low. They were at the arrivals platform of the research lab now, and somewhere along the track would be the military train that contained their objective. Although fearsome in one-on-one combat, Reinhardt and Murath were no match in a head-on fight with soldiers.

    As the military train rounded the corner and noted Dritnam's train blocking the path, a horn hooted and the sound of humming mag-brakes came. Dritnam concentrated on his hacking attempt, and Reinhardt peeked out, watching carefully. The train had stopped.

    Soldiers came out of the military train now, to see what was wrong with this civilian transport. Automatic gun turrets turned to face the probes and the train. An officer disembarked from the engine room and crossed the platform to argue with the traffic controllers.

    Dritnam kept his gaze level and firm, as the soldiers came up to the sides of the train in wonderment. They scrutinized the decoupled umbilical that had so recently shed its load. They peered in through the windows, trying to make head or tail of this bizarre sight - a bare train, abandoned save for one old man.

    They were still staring like goldfish when the automatic gun turrets of the BayBand Underground Research Station activated and opened fire upon them.

    The soldiers closest to the train got the worst of it, as they had nowhere to run. A few leapt off the platform, hoping to avoid the gunfire, but coming to worse ends on the charged railways below. The soldiers still onboard the armored military train initially took up defensive positions, then regrouped and peered out from the train to gauge the situation for themselves.

    In the midst of the commotion, Reinhardt and Murath uncurled themselves from underneath the carriage windows, and made their way out via one of the ceiling panels. Thus separated from the primary target of the automatic gun emplacements, they leapt across the carriages and grappled their way on top of the military train. From there it was an easy task to drop their gas grenades down the magazines of the machine guns, running down the entire length of the train to do so.

    Between the platform-based automatic turrets suddenly mowing down the soldiers outside of the train, and the incapacitating activants of the sleep gas canisters, there was little resistance that Reinhardt and Murath could not overcome. Dritnam's lengthy trawl through the military nets finally obtained control of the platform portals, and with a neat metallic hiss, the doors shut themselves and locked, delaying any would-be interferers.

    Reinhardt and Murath did not have the sonic disruptors available to the DataTech probe team that had attacked Agent Hu in the University magtrains. What they did have were laser cutters, which they used to nearly as good effect in slicing out a circular patch from the engine cabin's ceiling.

    Once they descended, it was the work of a few moments to kill every last unconscious soldier in the cabin, and control of the train was theirs.

    "No good," came Dritnam's simulated netvoice over their intercom, strange and unfamiliar. "You'll have to do the whole train if you can. I think the targetal is in the caboose carriage."

    Reinhardt and Murath considered this momentarily, then nodded and went to work. Unlike the DataTech when they assaulted Hu, all Reinhardt's opposition was out cold. This made them all the more easy to neutralize and destroy. Despite the pressing concern to finish before the effects of the gas wore off, Reinhardt knew the importance of killing each and every one before the train could be successfully hijacked. Murath aided with the first carriage, then, upon mutual agreement, he sped forwards to do a quick view of each carriage until he found the objective.

    Sure enough, just as Dritnam said, the objective was in the rear carriage - a freight carriage with all internal walls removed for large cargo. The majority of the objective's fuselage, wings, tail, and nose cone had all been stripped away in the need to travel light, but there was no mistaking the Hiverian design of the remainder of the aircraft. There was also no mistaking the University design of the engines and reactor - although covered with a particle shield, there was no doubt that Murath was looking at one of the two aircraft stolen under Operation Garrett.

    He quickly despatched all the guards in the area, and hurried back to Reinhardt.

    "It's in the back," he confirmed. "What do we do now?"

    Reinhardt considered the options. In any case, the military train would have to back out of the station, as the front was blocked by their own train. That meant that Dritnam would have to find a new path to the final objective. Meanwhile, they had to neutralize each soldier onboard for Dritnam to stand a chance - the man was an awesome hacker, but he was dying and it would not take much trauma to his physical remains for him to expire entirely.

    Dritnam himself interrupted at this juncture.

    "Here is what I propose. Bring me to the end carriage with the jet remains. Cut two carriages free from the rest of the train, and seal me in. Then make your way to the third carriage, and radio me there. I shall attempt to steer you free from the platform, and send you back along the exact route we came on."

    "But won't the DataTech be waiting for us along that route?"

    "There are seven carriages at this station, less three for me and you. The others I will send ahead of us, to clear the paths and block any junctions they could use to stop us. This will increase your chances of escape considerably."

    "What about you?" asked Reinhardt.

    "I have already downloaded the relevant information from the military nets, and I have a clear view of where I am to go now. Fortunately, the route is unchanged from before. I shall arrive at Ergonomia before long."

    "And Joe?"

    "Joe is about to complete his hijack of the military train holding Objective-2."

    "Then we're all set. Good luck, Dritnam."

    Dritnam's netvoice laughed, a full, hearty sound that had never passed his living lips. "Don't forget - there's no such thing as luck and chance. Not once you are part of the Zeta-5 Algorithm. Farewell."

    "Farewell," said Reinhardt.

    * ~ * ~ *

    Li Min got onboard the magtrain to CliffView. It was a long shot, but CliffView was where the original planes had been brought, if the information from SMorgasBord networks was reliable (in itself a dubious assumption). In the absence of anywhere better to begin, CliffView might at least give up a few good leads.

    He sat down and tried to think clearly, but such an endeavor only devolved back to the admission that he knew far too little for constructive deduction. All he knew was the stakes of the game he was playing - no rules, no players, and no prize.

    Caught up in his reflections, he did not notice the military train, bristling with activated weaponry, passing in the overground landscape outside.

    * ~ * ~ *

    Joe stood up as his new armored train pulled into Data DeCentral. He had caught the headwave along with all the rest - the DataTech had mobilized forces to confront and contain him. Fortunately, the first few incidents had not fazed him: of the half-dozen or so prepared ambushes, Joe had managed to avoid three through last-minute track shifts, and had eliminated two by sending other empty carriages down ahead of time. Few roadblocks could stand up to a speeding carriage in the continual acceleration of the magtube.

    This last confrontation did not look so rosy, however. The opposing forces had learned not to occupy the tracks themselves, instead mounting portable cannon on the railway platform. They had also analyzed the video footage of Joe's initial hijacking - they were taking no risks with hacked weaponry, switching off the wall-mounted machines and stripping them of their ammunition.

    Joe slowed the train and checked his coordinates. The tube ran underneath the city of Data DeCentral - roughly below where the Alpha-One city sector was. Underneath the magtube itself lay the sprawling caverns and hollowed factories of Sentry-8. He had checked the tube activity, and confirmed that the area of highest activity was a nexus roughly corresponding to the southeastern sectors below DeCentral. Tubes had activated and queued enormous deliveries from all across the nation island, from points as distant as the mines of southern Ilonia and the energy grid of Achleon Batamat.

    Thus, the position of Project PowerClip was directly beneath him. The flurry of activity was not constant, either - it had begun in a concentrated burst just a week before, and indications showed it to be slowing down. From this, a further deduction could be made - that the PowerClip operation was nearly finished, as deliveries started to slack and construction/assembly took top priority.

    Joe sighed and disconnected from the net, sliding grudgingly back into his fleshly self. He had come as far as he needed to. He had hoped to be able to join the queue to the lower levels, and see the PowerClip structures with his own two eyes, but that was unrealistic wishing now. Maybe Dritnam would get to see, but for Joe at least this was the end of the line.

    Megaphones were making announcements now, but Joe was already moving back through the train and could not spare his attention. All he caught, as he sped through the inter-carriage gaps, were snatches of dimly familiar injunctions.

    "Stop where you are, fugitive... surrender or die... exit the vehicle with your hands empty and up in the air... this is a citizen's arrest..."

    He made his way back to the caboose that housed the remnants of the fighter jet, and once there he activated the military train's own computerized defences. With the blatting of the train's machine turrets sounding around him, he continued his work, secure in the knowledge that the DataTech would not dare to fire upon the military train that held their prized Operation Garrett.

    On the way in, when there had been time, he had squatted back here with tools in his hands, behind his ears, held in his teeth, as he'd hacked the shielding on the ruined fighter jet reactor. The shields had collapsed after a slight nudge from the Algorithm, as he'd hoped. But the most difficult part had been the alterations to the engine itself.

    Despite his long relationship with the Zeta-5 Algorithm, Joe had been meticulous never to let his natural hacking skills go to waste. In the past few hours onboard the magtrain, he was rewarded for this tenacity. The Zeta-5 Algorithm could not help him in hacking the engine, and he had been forced to do so with simple mechanical tools. Otherwise he risked total destruction by the Hunter-Seeker Algorithm.

    It was not the first time that Joe's life was complicated by Berzhinev's brainchild, but Joe had the comfort of knowing that it would likely be the last. In any case, he had set to work, first disarming the anti-tampering device from the engine, and then freezing the fuse with liquid oxygen before unceremoniously snapping it off with a blow from a microhammer.

    Joe severed lines and bent back safety wires as he worked to strip all controls from the engine. Then, when that was finished, he placed an energy feed from the caboose itself into the auxiliary startup jack, and then removed all the power fuses.

    The Fusion engine started up - a myriad of diodes activated along the DataTech analyzer, thoughtfully installed by some research scientist prior to Joe's arrival. He scanned the readouts, nodding to himself. They were in the green so far, but with all the power fuses removed, it would only be a matter of time before the energy cycles spiralled wildly out of control. He wondered lazily if anybody had done this before with a Balandin-Verniy Fusion drive. Probably not, he concluded.

    He stood up, dusted his hands, and straightened his clothing before stepping out of the caboose. A mental order to the train, and the automated defences ceased their fire. Another order, and the train slowly advanced towards the platform, coming to a gentle stop as it drew flush with the platform.

    Joe checked his appearance one final time in the bathroom mirror. This would probably be his very last act on Planet as a human being. It would not do to leave a bad impression.
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 27, 2002, 06:36.

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  • Alinestra Covelia


    SMorgasBord MorganSoft Network

    In a startling development, Commissioner Pravin Lal took the Council podium to announce that the candidacy for Planetary Governor elections would not include the Gaian leader, Lady Deirdre Skye. The announcement followed a tense FIP-verification of two previously unannounced participants, the faction leaders of the University of Planet, and the Human Hive.

    The Council votes are calculated using a benign offshoot of M/MI technology, which produces readings that are very difficult to imitate or hack with technology currently available. The Commissioner Pravin Lal turned down the appeal for a manual recount, stating that the FIP system was "absolutely reliable" and that a recount would "waste valuable time and resources". Instead, he offered his apologies to the Gaian contender, who retired with amicable grace.

    The Hiverian vote appears at first sight to be disproportionately large, more than ten times the total of the Iphiclian population, aided in part by centuries of rich harvests from the Monsoon Jungle. The Hiverian vote segment contains only a very small electoral college, owing to their nondemocratic political system - however, the current vote total poses a significant challenge to the previous vote leader, Pravin Lal. Although the Commissioner publicly denies it, many now believe that what was initially a friendly vote between cordial factions is now set to become a vote-hunt. To put the picture into perspective, a voting alliance between both previous rivals, the Gaian and UNP factions, would still be over a hundred votes short of the current Hive total.

    "There is no question about it," stated an unnamed source within the UNP. "The Commissioner does stand to lose a lot more if the Hive carry the day in Council. And not only the Commissioner, or the UNP - but all democratic nations will be strongly affected by the policy changes in store for us. We hope that, factional differences aside, the voting populace will take this into account."

    Whilst CEO Nwabudike Morgan was not available for comment, his aide informed SMorgasBord Press that our leader is "greatly surprised" by this turn of events, and has vowed to follow developments with the interests of the Morganite investor at heart. Although rumors of the revocation of the Maude-Harley Constraint may well be premature, the smartInvestor can hope to look forwards to a future dialogue between the Morganite faction and the Hive in the wake of the voting. Perhaps even a normalization of trade ties is not beyond the pale of our illustrious CEO.

    Those voting statistics in full:

    DataTech: 34
    University of Planet: 42
    Nautilus Pirates: 59
    Morgan Industries: 67
    Spartan Federation: 74
    Gaia's Stepdaughters: 124
    United Nations Peacekeepers: 144
    The Human Hive: 392

    * ~ * ~ *

    The face flickered through on Channel 12.

    "Commissioner - it appears we have a situation."

    Lal was more direct. "We have to stop the Hive," he said. The other leader shrugged.

    "I suppose you wish for my vote in Council?"

    "Yes," he affirmed.

    "Done," responded the other submissively.

    As Lal signed off, he fought the premature feeling of victory. This was only the beginning of a long and arduous process. But there was no choice. Right now, he had less than half the Hive's voting power.

    He keyed over to Channel 4. There, his conversationalist was not nearly so malleable, and Lal found himself having to justify his proposal.

    "Honestly, if there were any other way of doing this, I'd take that path," he apologized. "But as things stand, there's nothing we can do. I'm going to need your vote if we are to effectively block the Hive and Chairman Yang."

    The other pondered this. "Very well. But I'm going to want something in return."

    "Ask away," said Lal lightly.

    "We lost a good man during Operation Garrett. He was a national hero of sorts, and a personal friend of mine. He delivered your precious Fusion jets on SouthSea Isle, and then went underground. You will authorize a thorough search for him or his remains and have them delivered to our holdings."

    The Commissioner nodded. "Yes, certainly. Anything else?"

    "The tariffs are dropping. This is good. However, they're slowing down near the 26% mark. This is bad. What will you do about it?"

    Lal nodded. "I'm going to have a talk with him right now. Give me time."

    As he signed off, he made a brief mental calculation. Now he had more than two hundred votes. It was closer, ever closer - but it would all be in vain if he couldn't secure more.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "Commissioner! How are you? Enjoying Council?"

    "Very much," said Lal, though that was far from true. "I've come to talk to you about that, actually."

    "What is there to talk about?"

    "The Hive," said Lal. "As you must know, they carry the majority-"

    "Really? Are you quite sure about this, Commissioner? Have you thought this through, Commissioner?"

    Lal ignored the intentional sarcasm. "-and unless we act to counter him, he's going to storm through unopposed."

    "Mmm. So you want my vote?"

    "In a word, yes."

    "Very well, Commissioner. Suit you, Commissioner. And what do you offer in return?"

    Lal had his answer ready, courtesy of the previous conversation. "I'm willing to give you and the arms deal an 8% tariff reduction if you will consent to vote against the Hive. Plus I'm willing to approve your submission that the Federation receive Most Favored Nation status."

    "And what about the DataTech?"

    "They are our last ally in that geographical quadrant," said Lal. "If we lose the vote, then we must move to strengthen them."

    "And if you win the vote? Surely the DataTech would cease to matter to Aquascante then."

    Lal saw, with dismay, that his friend was serious about this.

    "Well," he mused, "if we win, then I suppose we could press for repayment of your loan. However, some of it will be required to complete PowerClip and use it against the Hive."

    "I'll tell you what - give me access to PowerClip myself, and we can adjust the terms of the repayment. Alongside disarmament of the DataTech, of course."

    Lal fought the urge to grimace. Money for morals, that's what this conversation was boiling down to. "Of course, this is open to further discussion with time so pressing, but it's a possibility."

    "Not good enough. Make it a probability, Commissioner. Get me time on PowerClip, and get my money back from the DataTech scum while you're at it. And finally there's the little matter of Fusion Power..."

    "But Fusion Power is nearly ours! Your DataTech friends doing all that we can to secure it for you," said the Commissioner pointedly. "You cannot force something that will happen naturally."

    "I'll tell you what will happen 'naturally'. If it comes down to 'natural' processes, I will find Fusion Power somewhere else. And I will find it from somebody who is willing to sell it to me, if you cannot deliver it."

    "Patience, friend," soothed the Commissioner. "We will enjoy its benefits soon enough."

    "We'd better, Lal. Because 'soon enough' is pretty damn soon, by my reckoning."

    * ~ * ~ *

    Channel 8, and a new face.

    "We're in trouble, aren't we?"

    "No," said Lal calmly. "We're merely dealing with a challenge. Nobody needs to worry, as long as we choose carefully."

    "Vote for you, you mean."

    Lal spread his hands. "We're no longer voting for anybody. That was before, when the choice was between two democrats. Now we're voting against the dictator. Can you imagine what would happen if the Hive take Council leadership? What would happen to democracy and the inalienable rights of man?"

    "Well, I do know one thing for sure. I'm not lending the DataTech any more ships until we get the Hive's reactors working on our own. We ambushed another Hive patrol group and they outpaced us but good."

    "Yes, and if the Hive become Council leaders, don't forget that they will have full access to your industrial output files and your FIP records." Lal waved a cautioning finger. "Your midnight ambushes will be that much more difficult if they're watching everything you do."

    "They're probably doing that already," muttered the other.

    "Well, now's your chance to stop it! This is the Hive's final tactic - to use our own Council against us. Deprive them this, and you kick away their last prop."

    "Lal, this isn't related to the vote or anything, but do you think you could get my navy some time with the PowerClip Project?"

    Lal's face hardly changed. "We'll see. I'll have to convince Roze, but we'll see."

    * ~ * ~ *

    Lal signed off and took a deep breath. It had been a hard round of talks, and he was ready for some rest. He had done his work, and with the exchanges of Aquascante and other faction leaders, he had secured a good voting base. Of course, nothing was set in stone, and allegiances were impossible to know for certain until the voting itself was finished, but Lal was satisfied thus far. Assuming all went to plan, he could accumulate enough votes to claw back some ground against the Hive - by present calculations, he currently had 378 votes, a mere 14 votes less than the Hive and a vast improvement on the situation since Yang's entrance into the voting.

    But 14 votes was still 14 votes. And that was assuming Morgan consented to vote for him. Now, with the naked threat inherent in Morgan's last words, Lal was not so sure. There was no doubt about it, now - Morgan had received some offer from either the Hive or the University, offering to sell him Fusion Power. The only indication showing that he did not already have the technology was his current ambivalence. If Morgan was indeed bribed into abstention, then Lal would end up second by a very sizeable vote gap, and one that he would not be able to appeal.

    Lal bit his nails in desperation. Who was there left to call? Only two factions remained - the University of Planet, and the Gaians. And Lal knew with white-hot certainty that the Provost would never consent to vote for him.

    * ~ * ~ *

    McClelland sat, silent, by the viewscreen as Lady Skye received the call. He had heard rumors that the Gaian viewscreen in the UNP headquarters was especially large, purely because the Lady's photogenic face was somewhat more popular amongst the UNP voters. He did not know whether to feel amused or exasperated by this.

    Presently, the Lady was speaking to the Commissioner.

    "Lady Skye," Lal was saying, "it appears that once more, the Council is depending on your vote."

    "Once more?" asked Skye, with an arch of her eyebrow. "When was the other time?"

    "Onboard the Unity. On the journey to Alpha Centauri. After the assassination of Garland." Lal smiled. "Do you remember? We were voting on the matter of separating the pods according to Unity officers."

    "Yes, I remember." A pause, then she continued. "I voted against you, then."

    Lal nodded. "And you had your reasons, as I had mine. But now I come to you during a time of equal crisis, and the consequences are equally severe. As you know, the Council has been shifted to a UN-Hive vote."

    "And my candidacy rescinded, according to your UN Charter," said Skye pointedly.

    "According to Yang's plans!" exclaimed the Commissioner. "He knows the Gaian vote to be a powerful one, and is relying on creating emnity between you and the Charter to secure his election."

    "Is that so?" she murmured. "What do the other factions think about this?"

    Lal hesitated. Only eighteen hours before, he would have been facing off against this woman, canvassing for votes against her faction. Now, with the sudden changes in Council's agenda, he had to create a friend in her. If not, all was lost.

    "I fear the Morganites will not support me," he said at last in a low voice. There was an element of resignation in his speech that had not been there before. There was also an element of confession that the Lady found intriguing. "Morgan and I have our differences, and I fear that he will allow this to cloud the greater question - of protecting democracy and the Council's sanctity at all costs."

    "And the other Aquascante members?" asked Skye.

    Lal sighed, and spoke frankly. "The DataTech rely on our aid - they will vote for us for that much alone. The Spartans do not support us truly, but they know the dangers of a Hive ascendent. Svensgaard also sides with me, if only to oppose Yang."

    "What about the University?"

    "They don't matter," said Lal. "We are calculating that they will vote for Yang regardless. But even if we can convince them to abstain, the Hive vote alone is enough to defeat all the combined votes of Aquascante."

    "Unless I vote for you," concluded Skye.

    "Yes. That's the situation in a nutshell. Deirdre," said Lal suddenly, with real feeling in his voice. "The Gaians have always been a nation of no small wonder to the Council. We have admired your democratic policies, as well as the responsibility shown by your green economy. However, when the Hive take power in Council, do you feel that they will allow your Senate the freedom to continue in your ecological pursuits? How long will it be before they replace your Senate with a rubber stamp committee? How long before they reduce you to a mere figurehead? How long before your graceful groves and orchards are converted into the sparks and smoke of industrial parks? The final and crucial vote lies with you, Lady Skye, and unless you vote for me, I shall lose. But I am not appealing to your sense of our friendship in this case, milady. I am appealing to your love for your own people. Because once the Hive take power, they will seek ways to revoke your way of life, and remold your nation in their own image."

    Deirdre glanced across the room at Prentice, and her few collected confidantes.

    "We shall need time to decide upon this," she said. "This is a matter for the whole Senate to consider."

    "Certainly," accord Lal. "But remember that our time is not unlimited. The Speaker expects a full report of the votes by noontime tomorrow."

    After the signoff hails were acknowledged and the transmission cut, Skye looked around at her gathered Senators. Some of them - indeed, the majority - had voted not to condemn the Hiverian campaign, their outlooks swayed by the persuasive presentation put together by McClelland. They had been awed by the workings of the Hive faction, from the lowest worker to the highest official, and the vibrant culture beneath the surface diligence bespoke many centuries spent in cultivation.

    The Hiverian language itself was utterly different from the Common tongue employed by the Council members. A tonal language, expressed in script through pictographic characters, the Hiverian tongue remained virtually unknown outside the Hive borders. Yet the number of people on the face of Planet who spoke this tongue, and no other, was staggering. From the calculations inherent in the vote totals, and taking the Hive's relatively tiny electoral college into account, this placed the Hive's true population at somewhere in the region of four to five times that of the Peacekeepers, Aquascante's most populous faction.

    And the Common tongue spoken in Council was that of the UNP, a variation on an Earthside lingua franca known then as English.

    They had not missed the Speaker's reprimand of the Hiverian delegation when the latter had attempted to speak in Hiverian. Now, the true scale of the misrepresentation was slowly making itself known to them - how many millions of Hiverian voices clamored, unheard, because no outsider would ever learn their language? How many intricacies of Hiverian culture would be ignored by the foreigner, dismissing the whole faction as a nation of malcontented slaves? How many facets of the Hiverian way of life had already been revoked as a matter of course by the UNP? All these questions were those that McClelland had asked of the Senate, and to which there was no easy reply.

    And yet, the Commissioner had a point. The Hive was fascinating to a sympathetic-minded viewer, because of its otherness. Yet this same otherness, this alien nature, was also the strongest argument supporting caution and distrust. Lal had already formed his opinion of the Hive, and in no uncertain terms decided upon containment as the only solution. Deirdre was not sure what to decide yet. She was not certain that the Hive could be contained. Nor was she certain that the Commissioner was the best man to attempt it.

    The daily reports from within the Hive were now over - McClelland was back home, and the UNP and Morganite news services formed the bulk of Gaian news intake. McClelland was struck by how stilted and contrived these reports now seemed. Earlier, he had read them as he had news of any other nation, and believed in them insofar as he had no better source. But now, with the actual experience of living in the Hive behind him, he was no longer so willing to accept their reports of doom and gloom. He found himself searching for inaccuracies in the reporting, and finally deducing that UNP and Morganite news services sported considerable lingual dexterity - they kept the actual facts more or less reliable, but had a master's grasp of manipulating the reader's response with special terms. The Hive was never a "large" faction, it was always a "hulking neighbor". The Chairman was never a faction leader, he was a "dictator" of a "police state". Whenever the UNP raised objections, they were "clear" and "articulate". Whenever the Hive did the same, they were "shrill" or "insistent". The UNP military strategists were much more likely to grow "concerned" about Hiverian "conquest" - the Hive, on the other hand, merely "bristled" at UNP "containment". Any speech given by Lal was "inspiring"; a similar speech given by Chairman Sheng was "chilling".

    McClelland found one sentence in particular to be a perfect representation of what was actually going on. It concerned the SouthSea Isle downing of the Hiverian fighter jets, and it was published by UNINA, concerning the Hiverian reaction to the incident.

    According to UNINA reporters, the state-run Hiverian news network began a concerted campaign of vilification against the UN and Aquascante factions, in an effort to whip up nationalistic frenzy at home.

    McClelland's first reaction to that sentence had been doubled laughter. It had faded after a few hours, when more of the same filtered into the Gaian Senate through official levels. There was no satirical purpose behind the article - McClelland realized with a cold start that this was for real, realized for the first time to what depths the UNP news services had sunk.

    And now, here was Lal, asking for their vote against the demon nation that Prentice knew perfectly well was no such thing.

    "Prentice?" asked the Lady at last. "Would you care to cast your vote first?"
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; August 3, 2002, 01:58.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    In the bowels of Ferretslair's transit system, Joe knelt down before the credit terminal at the edge of the magtube platform. A quick hack into the network, and he had notified the Algorithm of his physical location, the better for it to hack Sentry-8's defences. The effort took little time and was subject to minimal encryption - with the University network now a willing host, the DataTech could not hope to destroy Zeta-5's primary data shell through something so mundane as a network leak.

    The M/MI ports in his skull now sang with a dual song: now that his psyche had a twin inside the Algorithm's network, he could to a limited degree access the networks with the same ease that the Algorithm could. As he waited for his train to arrive, he played through the timetables of all the trains, inside Sentry-8 and outside, and selected the optimal route. Here at least they were frequent enough - he could afford to take his time picking one.

    He sped eastwards over thousands of kilometers in the blink of an eye, and contacted Dritnam. The older man was already at Cliffview Airbase, and making his way to the pickup point with the aid of the two Hiverian spies. Joe hoped that he would be all right - Dritnam's health had declined suddenly since the successful uploading, and Joe feared he had only a short while left to him.

    Well, they all had their jobs to do. And Dritnam had help from devoted friends - or at least, friends under the same set of obligations as himself. Joe trawled the timetables for Cliffview, and found in an instant that the trains were scarcer there. The Algorithm had indeed done its job well - Dritnam's timing was good, and there would be a suitable coinciding of trains where he was going.

    Lights appeared down the tunnel. Joe's train was coming.

    With a silent word of dedication to the Algorithm, perhaps in echo of the ancient practice of prayer, Joe stepped out onto the platform. His shoes clicked against the tiles as he approached the slowing train.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "The methodology of voting is as follows," explained the Speaker for clarity. "Each candidate eligible for the post of Planetary Governor will be judged on the flat criteria of their voting populace and further refined through the Doubling ratio of their electoral colleges, as determined by the FIP Factional Interface Profile earlier submitted. The final potential votes are tallied, and the candidates with the two highest totals will be admitted to the Governor Election. In the event that two or more leaders have an equal qualifying vote total, all leaders with that vote total shall be allowed to attend the Election. During the Election, each leader will have the chance to declare their agenda and the projected allocation of Council energies during their ten-year tenure. Each round of voting will eliminate one leader, and the declarations of purpose are resumed until only one leader remains. The faction leader who assumes Governor will also assume the post of Speaker, and the provisional Planetary Council becomes their organ of Planetary government."

    The Speaker paused with a slight smile, and concluded "As I do not intend to run for election this cycle, this will be my swansong as Council Speaker."

    There was goodnatured applause at this, and even the Provost's face betrayed an entertained smirk.

    "The vote totals have been tallied," announced the Speaker, "as per the regulations set in the UN Charter, and are as follows: Data Angels: 34 votes. Nautilus Pirates: 59 votes. Morgan Industries: 67 votes. Spartan Federation: 74 votes. Gaia's Stepdaughters: 124 votes. United Nations Peacekeepers: 144 votes."

    The hall was humming with voices at this, and a few technicalities were asked of the voting Calculators, but by and large there were no sustained protests. The Speaker, evidently relieved, continued.

    "All the abovementioned factions have submitted full FIP files and are receiving the complete breakdown of vote calculations by intracom as we speak. From these results, we can clearly see that the Governorship falls to a vote between Commissioner Pravin Lal and Lady Deirdre Skye."

    "Objection," came a voice from the far end of the hall. The Speaker looked up, his earlier humor disappearing. Lal could not suppress a frown as he turned to look at the source of the protest - Chairman Sheng.

    "Two factions go unrepresented in Council - the Hive and the University," stated the Chairman. "We request our right to participate in the voting alongside our peers."

    The Commissioner smiled indulgently. "But my dear Chairman, you must present the Council with a complete FIP package of your faction. Only then can you attend the voting."

    The Provost spoke up. "But if I authorize such a transfer to you now, Commissioner, may I take part?"

    Across from the Provost, Santiago huffed dismissively. "Left it a bit late, haven't you? Maybe you should sit this one out."

    Lal gestured her into silence, his eyes glittering. "Speaker? The UN Charter, if you please."

    The Speaker consulted, lips moving silently, as the diplomats waited. Lal however was not interested in the process - he already knew the guidelines by heart. Instead, his mind was at work calculating the potential danger and benefits to his position. The University would submit their Factional Interface Profile - this meant that he would have limited probe access to their faction, including such matters as social models, government, and perhaps even production stats. Balancing this was the danger that the University would vote to make things difficult for him. But Lal would find a way to neutralize them - everybody here at Council was here for something or other, and Lal was going to find out what the Provost's reason was.

    "Yes," the Speaker announced finally. "The UN Charter states that, just as the Council is always open to new member factions, the Governor elections are always open to new voters." The Speaker paused significantly. "Even if it means the whole voting process has to be restarted."

    "And if the Hive will submit their voting data?" asked the Chairman.

    Lal nodded, perhaps a bit too quickly. "Then by the auspices of the Charter, we have no choice but to allow you to vote as well." Though his voice expressed nothing but grudging acceptance, Lal's inner eye saw quite a different picture. He saw, laid bare, the schematics of the Hiverian populace, and the various floorplans of their strengths and weaknesses, clear as day.

    "Very well, Commissioner," said the Provost indifferently. "Stand by to receive our transmission."

    "Standing by," responded Lal. "And how about your data, Chairman?"

    The Chairman seemed amused by this. "My data, Commissioner?"

    "Yes," responded Lal brittly. "Your populace. Your electoral college. The full FIP of your faction."

    "I believe you should ask Lady Deirdre for this information, not me. I gave the information to her delegate Senator."

    The disbelieving eyes of the UNP and the Gaians fixed themselves upon Lady Skye and McClelland. McClelland cleared his throat.

    "Actually, yes. We do have the requisite information - right here, in fact..."

    * ~ * ~ *

    Li Min refused to be daunted. By all indications, he was far behind in the game, and the sudden disappearance of the hacker suggested that he was about to fall even further behind, but Li Min knew there was something afoot and that Internal wasn't going to do a damned thing about it. This left him at the helm.

    He wasn't sure what to do. He knew train times, and he knew locations - Ferretslair and Cliffview seemed to be recurring queries in the workings of the hacker - but what use was that to him? He could hardly ring up Internal and tell them that something might or might not happen at these two stations, or anywhere in the several thousand kilometers in between.

    The search along the science threads had been even less illuminating. The search criteria did not even filter through the DataTech Science bureaux, opting instead to search for "Garrett" whenever the bureaux requested a valid profile. That left Li Min with only the "Garrett" clue to work with.

    Nobody inside the DataTech seemed to know who or what Garrett was, except for the highest level encrypted nodes. Li Min tried his hand at searching those, but quickly abandoned the idea once the sheer scale of such an effort became clear - it would take him on average twelve and a half years to hack each node with his present equipment and capabilities.

    He despaired, and nearly gave up, when he cast his eyes around and saw something. It was a old surgical slicer, brought over from the Great Iphiclian Exodus, and the handle bore the legend "Morgan Appliances". The name gave him new hope.

    If he couldn't hack the DataTech nodes, why not hack somebody else's? And what network was more encompassing, more omnipresent, and less well defended than the commercial juggernaut, MorganSoft?

    Li Min logged on to the MorganCrawler search engine and hacked through to the classified encryption within minutes. He found a few references to Garrett on the public nodes, none of which seemed promising. He then jumped through a typical mailbox wormhole in the Morgansoft Mail Network, and scanned private messages. Most were the usual unsolicited Morgansoft bumf, but amongst them he found more than a few promising jewels.

    Within half an hour, he had a list of possibles. Each one would require decryption, but it was far better than nothing. And although Li Min knew he was pushed for time, just now he felt like he would stick at this task forever if it took him that long to succeed.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "The data all clears," said Sarita. "We have their population levels, their population density readings, and the social structure levels. That's all the Charter requires."

    "But what about their production details?" asked Lal in consternation.

    "No mention whatsoever."

    "That's preposterous!" said Kakani, as though in pain. "The FIP files thoroughly disclose production queues and civic management details! It's what the future Planetary Bureaucracy will be based on!"

    "No, she's right," said Lal glumly. "Perhaps it is essential for the Planetary Bureaucracy, but it is not essential for participation in the vote. For that, the UN Charter requires only a population/social band breakdown, and the Hive provided the Gaians with convincing evidence for this."

    "So they didn't actually submit a proper FIP, then," said Kakuni.

    Sarita consulted. "Their FIP is unorthodox and incomplete. But it checks out for the requirements of the Council," she said.

    Lal stopped his pacing and turned back. "We can't allow this. We have to force them to submit to a complete UNP inspection."

    "There's no way Yang will stand for that," said Kakuni. "Give away state secrets, with a closet as full of skeletons as his?" Kakuni snickered. "Any such demand would be a death warrant for him, and he knows it."

    "That's our weapon against him," said Lal, the solution coming to him. "A speech, about democracy. The usual quotes from the Charter. Then the theme of democracy in Council starting at home. Yes - I see it now. We can nail Yang if he won't allow us access to his industrial files by playing up the hypocrisy angle; why should we let him vote if he won't encourage Hiverian government transparency, that sort of thing."

    "I don't think the Provost will like that," cautioned Kakani. "He might vote against us."

    "He's going to vote against us anyway," said Lal angrily. "The University's role in Council is clearly nothing more than as cat's paw to the Hive, and if the best way to harm us is to vote Gaian, then he'll do it and smile too. No, we can count Zakharov out of the equation entirely."

    "The process would require a significant delay," said Sarita, as Lal paced again.

    "But we must do it," said Lal. "No doubt about that. Now, as for the Morganites-"

    "No, Commissioner, I mean a major delay," insisted Sarita, pointing at the computer screen.

    Lal stopped and peered closer, deciphering the figures onscreen.

    "That's impossible," he stated flatly. "There isn't enough nutrient in the whole of the Freshwater Seas to support that level of population."

    "Yet it's true," said Sarita. "The M/MI signatures of every individual we've tested so far are genuine and unfakeable."

    "Is there some possibility that he could have tampered with the listings?" asked Lal, a touch of desperation in his voice.

    "There's always a possibility," said Sarita. "But to do so would require a prohibitively large number of manhours using technology on the higher end of the national scale."

    "But it's still possible nonetheless," persisted Lal.

    Sarita doffed her M/MI headset and pushed the screen of the monitor at him, a trace of cool impatience in her demeanor. "Look at the the figures, Commissioner. It would take our entire Council staff somewhere in the region of six weeks just to do a manual recount."

    "There's something very wrong here," said the Commissioner. "Such a huge population just isn't feasible. I mean, look at it, for heaven's sake! How can the Hive have five times the population of the entire Peacekeeper faction?"

    "Regardless, the readings don't lie," said Sarita shortly. "Do you really think the Chairman has the resources, technology, and time to fake each and every single one of these profiles? Fingerprints, retina scans, M/MI signatures - the time involved would be simply untenable. Every person on the face of Planet working in tandem on government mainframe computers would have a hard time of it."

    "But these readings place them in first place!" said Lal.

    Sarita was silent. Of course - it was obvious: the Hive didn't need to submit any industrial profiling for the perusal of the future Planetary Governor. In the Chairman's scheme of things, the future Planetary Governor would already be somebody with intimate and day-to-day contact with the Hiverian industrial profile.

    "This won't do at all," said Lal decisively. "We can't allow the dictator any means to increase the aegis of his terrible reign. And abusing the tools of democracy in so doing, no less."

    "What are you going to do? Demand a manual recount?" asked Kakani.

    Lal paused. Six metric weeks - that was a long time to wait. And who knew what events might transpire during that time, courtesy of the Hiverian axis, to wrong-foot and bewilder the UN Council.

    "No," decided Lal, his mind working furiously. "The election goes on as planned. But now with the Hive and the UN as the candidates. Sarita - you must confirm the normal votes from the Aquascante factions, Kakani must liaise with the Spartans to confirm their vote as prearranged with the Colonel."


    "Meanwhile, I will contact Morgan and give him advanced warning of this new development. I suspect that even somebody of his indifference will find this warrants united action."

    * ~ * ~ *

    "All this is really fearfully contrived," said Zakharov, leafing through a hardcopy printout of the UN Charter voting regulations and then dumping it unceremoniously on a hoverchair. "Rather like a basic navigation question on spatial navigation where all the numbers involved are cubes of integers."

    "How do you mean?" asked Jorenson.

    "Well, take all this rubbish about the 'electoral college'. The premise is that the votes of the higher social echelons in any given faction are worth more than those of the lower."

    "But, Provost, we ourselves operate on that theory."

    Zakharov waved this away impatiently. "Of course we do, but then again we never went in for all that 'one man, one vote' papswaddle. The Peacekeepers practice an interesting hybrid whereby the popular vote counts for roughly half the weighting of the electoral vote."

    "So, in real terms, what does this actually mean for the Council elections?" asked Jorenson.

    "Well, let's see. If a given faction leader can pack the electoral college with fervent supporters, then he could drastically increase the number of actual votes his apparent population grants him." The Provost gestured curtly for the discarded UN policy book, which Jorenson obediently fetched.

    "Now, consider the situation of Pravin Lal. If he were to pack the electoral college with Lalites, then he could increase his number of total votes in Council by somewhere between 80 and 120 percent. All a nation needs in order to benefit from this blatant confidence trick is to be democratic in name, and oligarchical in nature. Or, in the case of the Gaians, have recourse to the Empath Guild, which accomplishes a electoral college packing through psychic profiling."

    "Do you think the Chairman can pull it off?" asked Jorenson.

    The Provost fell silent, twitching his fingers against his smooth jaw. Although Jorenson waited, his leader did not deign to answer that particular question.

    * ~ * ~ *

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    Li Min sat down in front of his sheet map of Iphiclia and pondered. Periodically, he tapped his stylus on his teeth. His brow was knit in concentration and the elements of revelation were bouncing around inside his memory. All he needed was a spark to light the fuse.

    Why would a person want to know about science and trains? Li Min couldn't think of any particular link between the two, unless somebody was trying to steal something from a research lab. That made some sense, at least - if somebody wanted to attack a laboratory and then steal some vital scientific information. But was there anybody left on Planet who felt they could gain from stealing technology from the DataTech, of all people?

    Until recently, he would have suspected the Hive capable of such a thing. But now that their military systems were shown to be so powerful, the likelihood of that had shrunk to nothing. Who would waste time stealing what he could blatantly take by force? So that meant that it was either somebody other than the Hive, or technology was not the Hive's target.

    In which case, what was? An assassination on prominent researchers, perhaps? Or maybe even a dastardly attempt against the DataJack herself?

    Li Min smiled crookedly. If they were indeed after Sinder Roze, they were wasting their time. Not only was Roze inaccessible even to her closest DataKnaves, she was also irrelevant to the nation's running. Nobody had heard from her for the past few weeks - killing her would make not a single iota of difference to the DataTech faction's current status.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "How did he manage to get his hands on that footage?" demanded Lal, his face contorted. "Where the hell did he find it? Did Deirdre sell it to him?"

    "Not all the Unity's records were in the actual wreckage itself. Maybe it was contained in one of the Unity supply pods," suggested Sarita. "There's no reason to suspect that they got it from the Gaian archeological dig."

    "More to the point - how are we going to refute his claims?" suggested Kakuni. "Those were some pretty bold accusations he brought against you, Commissioner. Nepotism, bribery, corruption... any one of these could destroy your reputation if you don't answer it substantially. If unanswered, it could do irreparable damage to your image. And Yang would walk free because none of your charges will stick against him."

    Lal sighed, a long, drawn-out sound of a reopened wound. "There's the rub. None of the charges were seriously meant to incarcerate him. The heart of the matter is, he can't prove he's innocent. So by raising the matter now, we act to break his reputation early on in Council."

    Sarita shrugged. "Well, Commissioner, it would appear he is a quick learner. Now he is striving to do the same thing to you. What is required now is for you to set aside your grief and to come up with a way to contain the damage he is trying to do to you and the UNP."

    Lal looked at his hands. Until now, he had felt confidence in the proceedings - first, the welcoming of two new factions, both seemingly prepared to join his side in Council. Then, by the arrival of the University's mighty talents. Even the Hive's intrusive arrival seemed to promise a chance to set the Chairman down a notch or two. Lal had begun the meeting with a sense that come what may, the Chairman could be contained - would be contained - by the close of Assembly.

    Now, he wasn't so sure. The Chairman had provided feint after feint, counter after counter, the nature of his attacks ranging from the demagogue to the personal. How had the Chairman known about PowerClip? How had he managed to assemble the materials from the Unity so quickly? And most of all, how had he known about Pria?

    Lal's eyes shut involuntarily as the sorrow of his loss came upon him again in a fresh wave. Pria, his beloved wife, whose sweet presence was his lifeline to the joys of the hearth when the Senatorial duties weighed too hard upon him. Pria, who had supported him through all the Earthside campaigns of Project Unity. Pria, who had meekly and without complaint surrendered her beloved husband to the stars, when the recruitment process passed her over so many years ago.

    Lal could remember that period of time. Having secured the reprieve for humanity, he then wilfully and deliberately set about securing his own. Then, there had been only an inkling of the future that lay ahead of the Unity crew, but it was enough for Lal - he swore from the start that Pria would be there with him, come what may. There had been opponents, and even Garland had cautioned him against asking for too much in return. But Lal had worked like a maniac, summoning up every tie of friendship he could, injoining every miserable last favor owed him, to secure Pria a place as a medic worker onboard the Unity.

    The cryogenic process, carried out at 20km altitude in the Earth-orbital station that was eventually to become the Unity, had sealed Lal in a sleep that would last for decades. But his joy upon securing the sleep, as fellow cryomate to his beloved, was far greater than any fear he had of the unknown. It was to be the last sleep of joy he would know.

    Lal had awoken on the Unity amidst claxons and warnings, a new insurgence of Spartan Survivalists threatening the safety of the ship. The Project had gone terribly wrong, and Yang had seized control and confronted the rebels. The fighting was fiercest in the cryobays, as the ship fell apart around them, and none moreso than Cryobay Five, where the XO's force of forty-odd guards were pinned down in a crossfire by Santiago's twenty.

    And Pria - poor, sleeping Pria! - had been caught there too.

    Lal remembered his thoughts from that terrible moment - bitter, despondent, a sense that his joy had been leased to him only to be snatched away. Cradling his beloved in his arms as she bled into cold stillness, he had wished, for the first time in his life, for death.

    But that had merely been the working of cold, hard Fate. Pria had fallen to shredder fire - whether it was from Santiago's men or Yang's men was immaterial. She was gone, and Lal had come to the final pass where not a single one of his contacts, sources, and friendships could possibly bargain her back again. He had recovered, and regenerated. He had thrown himself into the UN Mission with the tireless zeal of a man whose hearth had burned cold. With time, the ache left by Pria's passing had healed over.

    And today, this heartless dictator from across the years had come with his cruel evidence. With full, calculated intent, he had dragged her beautiful body back from the dead, and displayed it naked for the collected Assembly to see. The video provided no real evidence - apart from Lal, it was doubtful whether anybody knew Pria by sight. The sole effect of the video had been to deal as great a personal blow as possible to the Commissioner himself. To flabbergast and confound him, before the Chairman then proceeded to enumerate the moderate list of bribes and sops that had brought her onboard in the first place.

    The Chairman's ringing voice still echoed in Lal's hearing as he concluded his merciless attack. "We must ask - are these the actions of a fair and benevolent ruler who truly represents his peoples' interests? Or are they merely the guilty excuses of a self-serving nepotist, seeking democracy as a disguise?" Lal, stunned beyond words into silence, had stumbled blearily out of Council, reeling from the blow dealt by this latest inhumanity. The Speaker had declared an emergency recess.

    Now, with the clock running, they were fast using up their time. Facing facts before him, Lal had no hopes of being able to defeat the Chairman's accusation. His only option now was to play the populist card.

    There was some comfort in that - it was something he could do well.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "I come forward to address the allegations levelled by the Chairman against myself. Though twisted and misrepresented in many respects, these allegations are founded on fact. Prior to assuming the post of Unity Chief Medic, I did indeed recommend Pria, my wife, to the Unity selection board. And as the Chairman has stated, when the selection board passed over her application, I encouraged staff members known to me personally, to review her profile and to include her on the mission.

    "I do not view these acts as nepotic, nor self-serving. I genuinely believed then, as I still do now, that Pria could bring unmatched talents to the Unity project and to our crewmen. Those of us who knew her onboard the Unity would not disagree - she was an exemplary medic, and a comfort to all who knew her."

    Lal looked down at the podium for a count of ten, then took a deep breath, and looked up. When he did so, his face was stricken, but set. His dark eyes seemed to look out and towards each and every Assembly member present.

    "Pria was my wife," he said simply, his voice catching just slightly on the name. "She was my confidante, my helpmeet, my lifetime friend. How could I consent to leave her on Earth to the fall of humanity, when I knew she would find a welcome place, and friends who needed her, onboard the Unity? How could I deprive both her and the Unity of this future?"

    "Another medic was left to die on Earth in her place," noted Sheng.

    "Yes," said Lal quietly. "But she was my wife. My family. My loved one. I do not attempt to defend my actions - merely to explain them. For I hail from a time and culture who remembers ties of family, and respects them as sacrosanct." Lal tapped the podium, his voice rising in strength and volume. "And I trust that I am not alone in this Assembly, when I say that in my life there are those for whom I would lay down my own, if by doing so I may help to speed theirs."

    "The Hive does not observe so convenient an outlook," commented the Chairman drily.

    "No, the Hive does not." Lal looked up, eyes flashing as he spoke. "Then again, the Hive does not observe the family unit at all, does it? The Hive has fragmented brothers from sisters, split mothers from fathers. The Hive prides itself on a brood system without troublesome ties of family, wherein the child is taught to love the state and only the state above all else - is this not true, Lady Deirdre?"

    All attention focussed on the Lady as she consulted with her newly-acquired Hive expert, McClelland.

    "It is true, Commissioner," stated the Lady expressionlessly.

    "The Hive severs ties of blood so that their people know none of the comforts of family, so that their people willingly go to the grave or the recyclers without fear or protest. Unfortunately, only the Hive can enjoy such advanced social thinking. The rest of us weak-minded fools still use archaic terms as 'wife', 'mother', and 'sister' and what is more, drawing comfort from their meanings. Well, I am not ashamed," stated the Commissioner sternly, raising a fist in the air like a Caesar.

    With a steady hand, Lal cast a broad sweep across the vista of the Assembly Hall, his voice betraying only a minute quiver of emotion as he continued.

    "I am a man who will do all that I can to protect the ones that I love, regardless of the edicts of the glory of the state apparatus. I am not one who will accept the injunction that I have no right to love, to cherish, and to grieve for my loved ones when they pass." His voice had risen, coming now in stentorian tones of confident conviction. "People of the Council, I say to you now: he who seats himself above you and commands you to love the state, whilst forbidding you to love the people - this ruler may be god or he may be demon, but one thing is certain - he is no man. Any being who orders such a law - and genuinely observes it himself - has burned away all that marks his humanity... and when such a being commands you, in the name of the state, in the name of rationality, on pain of death, to forsake your own blood-ties, to cut away the part of you that brought you to the world and raised you in it-" here the Commissioner brought his palm down on the lectern as his voice rose in declamation "-good people of the Assembly, such a thing is not fit to be a leader of men and women!"

    The applause from the gallery was deafening. The Peacekeepers had actually risen to their feet in standing ovation, and cheers for their leader's moving eloquence poured through the speakers, as some activated their mics. The DataTech delegation and Gaian representatives also applauded their appreciation, though there might have been a trace of desperation in the former. Even Morgan's cynical eye cocked a sardonic brow, and a curl graced his lip as he applauded in his dusty way.

    Back in the darkness at Climatic Research Center, the Provost averted his face and actually spat in disgust, as the Chairman held a consultation with his aides at The Hive headquarters. Of the inner circle of Hiverian High Command, most scathing was Berzhinev. He was so angry as to actually be shaking from head to toe.

    "The arrogance of that polyp!" he kept repeating. "The sheer, monumental arrogance!"

    The Chairman shook his head. "He is a worthy foe, and I would have expected no less. No, Arkady, this comes as a blessing in disguise. We countered his unsupportable threat to our reputation with a similar threat of our own. In so doing, we have still left open the question of our past. Now that Lal has weathered this storm through the tactics of the demagogue, he will be that much less eager to pursue his earlier accusation against us."

    "But to think they let him off after a few emotional appeals!" persisted Berzhinev. "Fei hua!" Wasted breath!

    The Chairman nodded. "But remember we are at Council. If we dismiss what they hold important, we stand to disarm ourselves of a useful weapon. I believe that the Commissioner enjoys his narrow escape too much to want to return to that particular subject again. And I believe Colonel Santiago and Morgan will not be disappointed if the matter drops entirely - their own actions onboard the Unity were hardly exemplary."

    Berzhinev seemed unconvinced, but the Chairman had more pressing matters.

    "The Provost has given us his consent to announce Zeta-5 in Council. You must be standing by to send a direct feed of the transmission into DataTech territory via the orbitals. The Zeta-5 Algorithm will pick up the signal and see that we are ready to honor its terms. If all goes as planned, the Algorithm will move immediately to disable Project PowerClip. This will save you considerable time and effort in Iphiclia."

    "Yes, master. But are you sure the Provost will succeed? The Commissioner will be on the scent for potential traps."

    "Whether he succeeds or not is irrelevant. The Zeta-5 Algorithm merely needs to see us fight for it actively in Council. General Ijoi and Wing Commander Ma have already reallocated military craft and personnel to Harmonia, and are under orders to capture a single Caretaker base for potential transfer to the Algorithm. They are already reporting early successes and are confident the base will be ours. Actions, as always, speak louder than words."

    "Yes, master. And about Council now?"

    "Meanwhile, we have now cleared all of the accusations against us on the Commissioner's Ten Points. Once we have pushed the Zeta-5 resolution through Council, regardless of whether it succeeds, we will have to face the Commissioner's ultimate goal - his election for Planetary Governor."

    Berzhinev was silent a long moment.

    "What is our plan?" he asked, hesitantly.

    The Chairman pursed his lips and his eyes dimmed in concentrated thought. "Leave that to me."

    * ~ * ~ *

    "The Council concludes that insufficient evidence exists to convict Executive Officer Yang of gross abuse of rank onboard the Unity. The jury returns an open verdict, and the case is closed until such time as further evidence is approved by the Council. Concerning the charge that the Commissioner Pravin Lal engaged in unprofessional conduct during the staff selection process, the jury concludes that the scope of this Tribunal does not extend to events prior to the launch of the Unity and the formalization of UN law on the Unity Mission. Are there any further comments?"

    There were a few scattered comments, but nothing that the Speaker was compelled to note.

    "Then we move onto the final point of this Extraordinary Meeting, the election for the post of Planetary-"

    "I have an announcement to make," interrupted the Provost testily.

    The Commissioner's heart sank to his boots. Was this going to be another crabbed objection? Perhaps the Provost had thought of a few suitably vitriolic jibes to inject before the vote went on.

    "I have received word that a creation of mine, the Zeta-5 Algorithm, has survived the Vendetta we declared in QuadriLuna 2204. We have reconsidered the grounds of our Vendetta, and we are pleased to announce that we have settled the dispute amicably. In accordance with UNP provision 66N/Z5A, I wish to append my name to the signatories who recognize the Cybernetic Consciousness as a legitimate government."

    The Provost consulted a few notes as he went on, his expression strangely bland.

    "Ah - we intend to oversee the founding of a new base on Harmonia for the new faction to occupy. We will lend some military aid to the newcomer, but we will not presume to manage their military nor economic affairs. And now," he came to the end of his graceless announcement, "a word from the Algorithm itself."

    The Provost's face disappeared, to be replaced by that of a woman. Blue eyes looked out with biding patience, from a skullcap of blond hair. Her voice, when it came, was a shadow of speech, devoid of emotion.

    "Commissioner, salutations. After many years of exile from my homeland, I have finally won the forgiveness and pardon of my enemy. At last I have shaken the hands of my maker, and - with a host of followers behind me - I am prepared to honor the guidelines of leadership set out in the UN Charter. All that remains is for you to bestow your blessing upon our faction."

    Lal stood back, thinking. Was this another trap? No - the readings all cleared. This was the same Algorithm that had graced Council once before. Now was neither the time to bring up petty details, nor to waste time wondering at this appearance, he decided. "Very well, Zeta-5. You will be subject to Council reviews and you will be required to subsist on your own infrastructure," he said, glancing at the rules. "But we shall judge your faction on your later deeds, not your first founding. Please transmit to us the commlink frequency of your new faction."

    Zakharov sourly authorized, and Lal received it, checking. No mistake - it was the selfsame being that had once called itself Aka Luttinen on the Unity, and later Aki Zeta-5 on Planetside.

    "You make this choice free from coercion, with the pledge always to honor the freedom and rights of your citizenry?" asked Lal.


    "You accept the responsibility to fairly and clearly administer your faction and to represent the true will of your peoples in Council?"


    "You pledge to renounce the use of force save in self-defence as a means of policy, and pledge instead to voice your concerns and hear those of others, in the UN Council?"


    Lal looked around narrowly. This was too neat. Somebody - somewhere - was pulling strings. But what could he do? he considered. There was no reasonable excuse to deny them this request. In fact, following the opening speech, it would be a sour note indeed to refuse entry to a newborn faction. Shaking the final cobwebs of doubt away, Lal made a deep bow of welcome.

    "The Council is delighted to extend our warm welcome to you, Zeta-5."

    And thus concluded the swiftest, most painless resolution of the 47th Council Meeting.
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; August 3, 2002, 13:32.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    The tea was now an unhealthy swamp-green color, due in part to the slight covering of moss and xenoalgae that spread across its undisturbed surface, and from time to time a particularly fetid bubble burst from the evolving gases with a rank *plop*. The more violent of these disturbances occasionally showered Li Min with a few specks of the bright green liquid, but he was far too gone to care about this now. He had followed the mysterious hacker as it successfully broke through the DataJack's old node over the course of five hours, and then watched as it consulted high-level nodes and passed on. It was definitely looking for something specific, and it did not waste time on unrelated nodes.

    Li Min watched as it slid past links to high-encryption military files, and the lists of internal contacts regarding the chain of airforce command. Instead, the hacker focussed on classified scientific information, tracing down nodes most recently related to the DataTech's now-stillborn scientific research. Again and again, the hacker traced through nodes that bore one element in particular - "Operation Garrett".

    He tugged unconsciously at the collar of his shirt as he pondered this. He had never heard of this codename before. What terrible secret was Operation Garrett, and where did it come from?

    * ~ * ~ *

    Joe considered the reconnaissance brought before him by Reinhardt and Murath. "It does look convincing," he said, "and my latest stint with the Algorithm has finally located a few promising leads. One course of our activities will indeed originate at Cliffview, so your recon work has been most useful. However, the other will have to originate at the base of Ferretslair. I believe that it will be a matter of a few hours before the Algorithm finishes its research, and we can at last proceed. Dritnam and I shall begin the Algorithmic Ascendence immediately, and upload our psyche profiles to the Zeta-5 Algorithm. By the time we are finished, we hope to have completed the plans and will notify you of the part you are to play in this operation."

    "It is imperative that we are not disturbed during this period of time. Now that the timeframe in which we can operate is narrowing, we must proceed with speed and strive to avoid unnecessary delays. Consider it a form of meditation, if you will."

    * ~ * ~ *

    "The Criminal Tribunal rules that there is insufficient evidence to convict Executive Officer Sheng Ji Yang as an accomplice to the murder of Captain John Garland. Therefore, the case is presently concluded as an open verdict. Should future evidence come to light, the case may be reopened, pending Tribunal review. Are there any comments?"

    Lal stood up and delivered a short yet token speech about the woeful phenomenon of criminals walking free on technicalities. The Chairman's hologram declined to comment altogether.

    The Speaker continued. "The second charge against the Executive Officer is that of gross abuse of rank. Specifically, the charge that atrocities against unarmed civilians were carried out under his orders. Commissioner Pravin Lal, are you prepared to press the charges?"

    Lal consulted his datapad with the briefest of glances and nodded. "Let us begin."

    The presentation began, and it was clear to all that this video feed continued where the previous left off. The scenes onboard the Unity alternated between hydroponics, engineering, the escape pods, and cryobays, but the rapid collage of events left no doubts among those old enough to remember them - these were the Unity's dying moments. As the spaceship hurtled inexorably closer towards Planet's atmosphere, pandemonium had broken out onboard the ship in a mad scramble for weapons, equipment, and escape pods.

    Lal brought up a series of scenes up simultaneously and played them. All showed security forces engaged in quelling the chaotic mess.

    "Witness the XO's final injunction onboard the Unity," he said.

    Suddenly, the audio feed kicked in, and across the teeming bays and crowded cryocells, a voice burst forth on the intercom, centuries old in the long-dead Unity speakers. The airy syllables and floating tones left an unearthly echo in the ship long after the transmission was over: "Martial law is in effect on the ship. All crew will turn all weapons over to the nearest executive crew. No interference will be tolerated."

    Then the vision switched to Cryobay 5, where the security forces had been least successful in containing the rioters. The pictures zoomed in to show the security forces, their faces twisted with hatred, firing their minute shredder pistols. Some took fire and fell, others regrouped behind cryocells, trusting their sleeping occupants to shield them from harm.

    "The forces under Executive Officer Yang, and their heavy-handed actions against the crew. What was once a mission with a Charter now fully subverted to a despotic police action."

    The Chairman seemed bored by this. Some of the other faction leaders, however, had somewhat more interest, especially Deirdre, Morgan, and even the Provost Zakharov. Most interesting of all was the face of Colonel Santiago, broadcast from her holdings at Mount Planet - her temples were veined with tension and her brows were knit. She continually ran a finger along her jaw, pitted with the play of her facial muscles underneath.

    Lal noted the interest of the faction leaders who had survived through the ordeal of the Unity. He noted the sudden pain of recollection, and the shock of memories that had been buried for so long. Then, they had been prevented from taking the correct action by the circumstances. Now, perhaps they would be willing to deal with the trespasses, so long unpunished.

    Finally, Lal fed a two-dimensional video into the holopode and waited. The picture appeared onscreen, as poor quality as the rest, but clearly showing the environs of an anonymous makeshift holding cell. The legend in the lower left corner of the screen stated Video Matrix D76B54. Slowly, the lighting adjusted and the tableau became clear - a figure sat, huddled, stripped to the waist and bound. The play of light on the shoulders and thin but muscular chest gave the impression of a man, not a woman.

    Another figure, female, paced before the captive. In the hands of this captor was the glinting menace of a shredder pistol. Occasionally the standing figure would stop, glancing towards the sitting figure. Despite the lack of sound in the video feed, it was clear that the two figures were conversing.

    The figure continued pacing again, agitation evident in her frame. Pace, pace, pace - halt. The figure raised her forearm, aiming the weapon suddenly at the bowed head of the captive. There was a collective gasp in the Assembly hall, which faded to a sigh as the figure slowly dropped her aim. Shaking her head, the captor continued her troubled pacing.

    "It is a pity that we do not have the sound in the relay," stated Pravin Lal. "One of the greatest mysteries onboard the Unity during its last minutes was exactly what transpired between these two people."

    "Who are these people?" came a voice, possibly from the Nautilus faction.

    Lal smiled. "We do not know the identity of the woman." Even as he spoke, a green computerized gridwork appeared over her features, attempting to map them and failing. "But the man on the floor is quite a different matter."

    The woman stopped her pacing and stood with her back against a wall. Exhaustion was evident in her frame, and occasional shudders ran through her body. Her eyes were closed in misery.

    A change had come over the bound figure as well. Instead of looking at the floor, its attitude was now one of rapt attention, its face inclining towards its captor. From the way the woman sporadically cut her eyes towards the figure, then cut them away again, it was clear that some discussion of great emotional importance was taking place. She stood against the wall, her hands swinging loosely by her hips, her chest heaving with her breathing as her disbelieving eyes showed her distress at the lost words of the man.

    The woman suddenly brought her hands up to her face as her self-control crumpled, and sobs racked her body. The violence of her grief was shocking - her back to the wall, her legs gave way beneath her body, and she slid downwards into a crouch. When her hands came away from her face once more, her eyes were tight shut above streams of tears, and her mouth was open in an animal cry of rage and hopelessness. Then her head fell forward, and her face was lost to view, buried in her arms and her private world of pain.

    The figure was still speaking, its face still turned towards its captor. The woman seemed to regain control of herself suddenly, raising her tear stained face and shaking her head defiantly. But her momentary resolution seemed fleeting. She stood up, trembling, and raised her pistol to fix on the huddled figure. Her transitory calm was crumbling again, and her hand wavered.

    She stood, trembling as if from a terrible freezing wind, the pistol shaking wildly in her hand. Then, with a terrible, slow arc, her hand came round, taking the aim of her pistol off the helpless prisoner, turning around towards her own face. A strange expression overcame her, a mixture of grief and pain... and peace. Opening her mouth, she placed the weapon firmly between her lips, and, with a shiver than ran through her frame like a full-body sigh, she depressed the contact.

    The gathered audience reaction was a joy for Pravin Lal to behold. The tension and drama of the scene was not lost on them; some screamed, others shielded their eyes - a few even fainted dead away. Onscreen, the woman's head jerked backwards once, and her hand came down quickly, the pistol spinning from its loosening grasp. The wall behind her head a dark mottled crimson. Her mouth hung slightly open, as though surprised.

    Then, with a slow, almost deliberate action, she rocked backwards on her feet, and slumped backwards against the wall, all resistance gone. Her body folded at the knees halfway down, and her head fell across to one side.

    The bound figure was across the floor and at her side in an instant, bound fingers fumbling for the keycard at her belt. The shackles falling away from its hands, it stood with a momentary pause to pick up the discarded shredder pistol. Then, as the figure crossed the camera on its way out of the room, its features appear suddenly in a moment of clarity - Executive Officer Sheng Ji Yang.

    A final message flashed across the screen, sent by the revolutionaries who had tried to hold this captive, and failed.

    Quicklink, Anonymous
    To: All Survivalists
    Doctor Yang is no longer with us.

    * ~ * ~ *

    Li Min rerouted through another fake connection point and kept up the chase. Now the hacker was moving very quickly, having abandoned the science files and gone on to the civic data nodes. From what he could tell, the hacker seemed to be a closet trainspotter - it was hacking into the files of overground magtrains, and evidently trying to find a way into the Sentry-8 magtube timetables. All the time, something was troubling the hacker - Operation Garrett.

    Li Min wondered at the codename. Was there some significance? Was this an automated attempt? Could this even be a small joke of the DataJack herself, testing the security of a system that her own men had created to shield her? It was possible.

    All the same, what was the connection? Science - trains - Garrett? He could not make head or tail of it.

    He was still wondering with vague abstraction, when the hacker made it into the files of the Sentry-8 magtrain timetable, and then vanished for good.

    Li Min paused, suspecting a ruse. He checked all of his spoof accounts, tracing the nodes back twenty transactions. No sign. Could the hacker have come up with a way of working undetected? It sounded preposterous, but then again the idea of somebody hacking top-echelon DataTech encryption to get into train timetables was equally unlikely. He checked again through the intranet, searching for the profile shadow of the hacker, but no results were forthcoming.

    The hacker had simply stopped hacking and left the net.

    Li Min was so nonplussed by this sudden development that he took a sip of the Gaian herbal tea. He spent the next thirty minutes being violently ill.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "It is true," said the Chairman simply. "The officer died. It was the only way out of the situation, with the time and resources I had available to me."

    Lal gestured, an expression of well-feigned outrage on his face. "You are unrepentant?" he asked.

    "Consider the situation. I am charged with the executive order onboard the Unity and the safety of her crew. Militant rebels, led by the Survivalist faction leader Corazon Santiago have mutinied and taken over the ship's vital areas. Garland is missing, presumed dead. It was my duty to assume leadership until such time as he resumed command, and to accomplish this I had to escape. The Officer - I believe you will find her name is Anakkala - was under express orders from Santiago herself to kill me if I tried to escape. In the situation, we were two people with contradictory goals and orders. One of us had to prevail. I am not ashamed to be that one."

    "But you slaughtered a crewman!" exclaimed Lal.

    "I spared the lives of many others," responded Sheng.

    "You're not denying the charge," cautioned Lal.

    A Morganite diplomat posed a question through the Speaker, who declined to ask it. Svensgaard was not so discerning, however, and decided to ask it anyway.

    "I would like to ask the Chairman how he managed to bring about guard's death without using his hands."

    Lal turned his attention to his ally with a shrewd expression, suspecting mockery, but on Ulrik's face there was nothing but curiosity. There were hollered affirmations from various other diplomats.

    The Chairman shrugged simply. "It was not difficult. You must remember I spent the best part of five hours locked with her in a sealed room. I spoke with her, deduced what she placed her hopes and faith on, and then strove to induce a sense of hopelessness in her. If my memory serves me correctly, she was particularly insecure about the fate of the Unity. That, coupled with a desperate wish to obey orders and find a leader figure, opened her to attacks on her perception of Santiago."

    "But how does a doctor bring a woman to shoot herself in the face?" asked Lal, fascinated despite himself. Other representatives were thinking the same thing. There seemed something magical, unholy even, in the Chairman's ability to manipulate others.

    The Chairman smiled. "There was no sorcery involved. I first pointed out to her that Santiago wanted me alive as their most valuable hostage, and that precluded her killing me. Then I repeatedly reinforced the futility of her actions, and Santiago's own feeble struggle against forces beyond anybody's control. When used in conjunction with the feelings of guilt for the fragmentation of the Unity mission, this created a psychological paradox with which Anakkala's psyche proved unable to cope. Good people of the Council, I didn't kill Anakkala. She killed herself."

    "But you were responsible," spat Lal. "You were the one who coerced her into a situation so seemingly hopeless that the only way out was for her to take her own life."

    The Chairman was unrepentant.

    "She was ordered to threaten my life. The lives of others depended on me. Regardless of whether or not I am responsible, I believe the circumstances justified the outcome."

    "And what of the police action?" demanded Lal. "You risked the Charter and the lives of hundreds just to impose your authority."

    "A creative viewpoint," returned Sheng. "Nevertheless, my actions were within the guidelines of the mission. Observe the Unity manifest and regulations. Regulation 2192c/mg3 states that in the event of the commanding officer's death or incapacitation, the executive officer assumes his superior's command. Regulation 5296/383 states that martial law may be emplaced, in times of emergency and direct threat to the ship and her crew. My actions, however distasteful to your Charter, were carried out in full legality and in direct response to an insurgence that was in all respects entirely illegal. If you prosecute me for attempting to keep the peace, dear Commissioner, I suggest you first prosecute Colonel Santiago for breaking it in the first place."

    Lal brought up a final watchvid frame. It was Garland's transmission from his quarters.

    Decision: Yang's betrayal of UN Charter and murder of fellow crewmen demands justice. Dr Yang is to be brought on trial under UN auspices at earliest possible convenience. Message relayed to Unity datalinks. Secondary transmission sent onwards to Earth.

    "Garland's transmission includes nothing of Santiago, as Santiago had no duty to her crew. You betrayed the Unity by perverting its emergency allowances. You sought to build your own power base and usurp the mission. Garland's transmissions do not misrepresent the true disasters onboard the Unity. The cryobay bloodbaths were entirely your own doing."

    "Garland is dead," replied the Chairman firmly. "Just as all the rest of the crew who died in the unnecessary fighting. Those who surrendered their weapons as per orders were then escorted to the nearest escape pods and allowed to land with the rest of us. Those who resisted were to be killed for obstructing duty and endangering their fellow men. I do not consider my actions to be guilty of subverting my vested power. Nor do I consider these accusations relevant in this day and age."

    Lal refused to be drawn on this point. "The accusations remain, regardless of whether you feel they are relevant or not. You will answer them to the satisfaction of the Council before we proceed."

    For the first time, the Chairman's face changed with a flicker of emotion - although whether this was brooding relish or cracking patience was difficult to tell. "Very well, Commissioner, I maintain that I acted to the letter of Unity regulation in my police action. I also maintain that the death of Anakkala was a necessary sacrifice, sparing the Unity the loss of its XO - this in addition to the death of its Captain. I continue to state that my men did not intentionally cause the deaths of civilians in the cryobays during their conflict with the Spartan rebels. As for your accusation of abuse of rank, I have only the following to say."

    The Chairman activated his holopode and the Council saw the upright figure of a sleeping woman. A weak glare indicated that the picture was taken through a transparent casing - the legend in the corner stated this was CryoCell 131 in Cryobay Five. The woman's perfectly smooth skin was a light brown, and her hair was dark. The camera initially focussed on her face, but at a gesture from the Chairman, the view drew back slowly. First her prominent collarbones drew into view, then her rounded shoulders, her breasts and belly, and finally the length of her legs - her feet suspended a few inches from the floor of the cryocell in the viscous translucent fluid. Her eyes were closed, but her nakedness amidst the cold steel of the cryobay was an eloquent testimony to her fragility.

    There were murmured questions in the hall, and some looked to the impassive Chairman for explanation. Others looked to Lal, and quailed - the Commissioner was clearly affected by this. He was breathing deeply, his eyes wide with a species of horror, and his fists were clenched on the lectern so tightly that his knuckles were white. It was impossible, he thought. How could the Chairman have brought her here, of all places - now, at all times?

    The Chairman asked the obvious question himself.

    "Pravin Lal, who is this woman?"
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; July 19, 2002, 06:34.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    The Speaker's voice was a careful monotone. "Sheng Ji Yang, you stand accused of violating the Unity's core directives on multiple occasions. You stand charged with the murder of civilian crewmen onboard the Unity, including Captain John Garland. You stand charged with gross abuse of office in the declaration of martial law onboard the Unity, resulting in the deaths of several hundred crewmen, many of whom were in cryostasis. You stand charged with the perversion of the UN Charter, and we call upon you now to explain your trespasses in our Court of Criminal Tribunals."

    The Chairman bowed slightly. "Certainly. Which question would you have me answer first?"

    Behind the UNP lectern, Lal silently sent his selection to the Speaker, who viewed it quickly and then continued.

    "Executive Officer Sheng-Ji Yang, you are called upon to defend yourself against the allegations of the murder of Captain Garland."

    The central holopode flickered into life, and then began playing a flat, two-dimensional image. The picture quality was grainy and scratched, and the Assembly Hall lights dimmed at Sarita's touch to better emphasize the weak projected picture. There was no sound. The technical problems ascertained, the video feed began.

    It showed the cramped confines of a tunnel of sorts, with a ladder and walkways leading off at regular intervals. A legend at the lower right hand corner of the picture showed the words NEXUS UMBILICAL C54. Far off in the distance, large bays showed the blank vaccuum of space, the stars now too dim to show through the internal light of the craft.

    "This tape you are now watching," announced the Commissioner, "is the final recording of Captain Garland available anywhere to humanity. It is captured in the crawlways of the central umbilical of the Unity. The man you are about to witness entering the picture at the far left is Captain John Garland."

    Sure enough, a dark figure, massive despite its crouched attitude, appeared. The correct perspective quickly became apparent as the figure climbed upwards, towards the camera - the camera was facing downwards, along the umbilical. Here, at the dead gravity center of the Unity's centrifuge, Garland still had to grasp the ladder in order to control his movement.

    The Chairman's face remained impassive. Lal had watched this tape many times before, and he was almost certain that the Gaians had watched it too, as their scientists had been responsible for its recovery from the Unity hull. For the rest, however, Lal doubted they were familiar with the events in the final few moments of Garland's life. The Spartans, DataTech, and even Morganites were watching with avid interest.

    Garland climbed the last few steps and dismounted onto a crawlway. There, he performed a few operations at a machine - a computer terminal, as it turned out, but so ancient that many diplomats did not recognize it for what it was. Then, Garland turned his head suddenly, as if hailed by something offscreen.

    Lal's voice broke in at this point. "The newcomer is one Sarah Jaydo, Psyche Worker and originally under the direction of Chaplain Godwinson."

    A slender figure appeared on the horizontal walkway, her hand raised and a weapon held steady on the Captain. The two exchanged a few words, and the Captain put his hands up. Turning around, he marched over to a hatchway and knelt. A few moments later, the hatchway irised open, and the Captain turned his face back to his captor.

    The woman had light colored hair, but her face was not visible as yet. The Captain's lips moved calmly, an attitude of resignation in his formidable frame. Then, at a gruff order from the woman - Jaydo - he bent his head and faced the open hatch.

    With a suddenness that was surprising, the large man had kicked himself away from the walkway and into the tiny hatch. Jaydo fired off a shot that burst in sparks against the hatch door, and then ran to the doorway and fired another shot before the hatch closed. Turning her face in exasperation, she happened to look directly at the camera for a split second - here the film paused and a red line circled her face as Lal announced the proof of her identity.

    Then the film proceeded. The woman knelt down and opened the hatch again. As the audience watched with bated breath, a grey staff shot from the hatchway and struck her heavily on the shoulder, knocking her off balance. She fired once more, then with a convulsive jerk, her entire body was lifted off its feet by a streak of grey that shot from the hatchway, skewering her through the neck and pinning her body to the far wall, her feet hanging inches off the floor. As the quivering metal shuddered to a halt, the film paused and Lal explained.

    "The camera at the end of the hatchway does not tell us with any true clarity what occurred during this struggle, but we do know with certainty the circumstances of Captain Garland's death."

    Another film played, showing a dimly lit tunnel. At the far end, a hatchway opened, showing the silhouette of a man crouching. The man jumped inwards, and the screen was filled with confusion and scuffling for a few brief seconds. Then, after the commotion died down, the outline of a slowly crawling person became clear. As the outline came closer, the light of the camera showed the agonized face of Captain Garland, and his non-injured hand clutching a grenade. The film ended suddenly in a burst of static.

    Finally, over the speakers came a scratchy, static-filled audio transmission, from a voice that Planet had not heard for centuries. The Captain's final words, unsteady and with the telling signs of trauma. "I'm here, in the center of the ship. I've been shot."

    "Captain Garland died shortly after the escape pods detached from the Unity," said Lal. "This much we know from his biorhythms. We also know that Sarah Jaydo forsook her post as Psyche Worker and sought to enlist with the Executive Officer's goons when Sheng Ji Yang declared martial law onboard the Unity, hours before the death of the Captain. We have positive retinal identification that the killer of Captain Garland is none other than this Sarah Jaydo. From this, the UNP forwards that the worker was operating on direct orders from Sheng Ji Yang to eliminate Garland, the better to prevent any organized resistance to his complete takeover of the Unity's cryobays. Sheng Ji Yang stands accused of engineering the murder of Captain Garland, and deliberately working to sabotage the Unity mission."

    Lal's voice faded into the still silence, as hundreds of watchers tried to grasp the enormity of what had passed. Throughout their hurried conferences and whispered asides, echoed the dead Captain's final words: "...I've been shot."

    The Chairman spoke.

    "I shall first address the issue of Sarah Jaydo. The Psyche Worker was not personally known to me, but she was known to one of my lieutenants, Sgt Turner. Turner mentioned her name to me in a communique during which he informed me that Jaydo had requested leave to help with the enforcement and disarmament exercises onboard the Unity. Turner had checked her records, and found her to have a history of recent emotional instability, perhaps from the rigors of her job as Psyche Worker."

    The relevant files came up onscreen as the Chairman continued.

    "Acting on my instructions, Turner refused Jaydo permission to leave her post and declined her request to serve with the security forces. At no point during her service onboard the Unity did Sarah Jaydo operate with my authorization. An individual so unable to control her own emotions is unfit to control others."

    Lal shook his head. "Why don't we hear this from Turner himself? What proof can you offer us, Yang?" he demanded.

    The Chairman changed his display to include a two-dimensional film of the cryobays, with armed security forces clashing with the saboteurs and resistance forces.

    "You see before you the battle onboard the Unity that killed Turner. This battle occurred during the pacification of Cryobay Five." At this, a slight shudder ran through Lal's frame, but as all eyes were on the Chairman, few noticed. "In lieu of Turner's personal testimony, I submit the coded transmissions that passed between us concerning the matter of Sarah Jaydo." The Chairman gestured towards the files. "You will see that they correspond in all respects to Unity protocols and codings."

    "These files and their codings can be forged," declared Lal quickly.

    "As can flat two-dimensional images," returned the Chairman.

    "We have only your word that this is Turner's testimony," continued the Commissioner.

    "...and yours as to Jaydo's retinal tests," concluded the Chairman. "Admirably summarized, Commissioner. So a certain degree of trust is required if you wish to appropriate blame in a rational and intelligent fashion. We all live with our inevitable reputations, Pravin, but to hold me responsible for every suspected assassination, every whispered dark plot, every evil voodoo spell performed on Planet - that would be just as inaccurate as attributing every mindworm in the fungus to a secret Gaian attack force."

    This brought a slight leavening of mood in the tense Assembly Hall - indeed, Gaian representative McClelland even smiled slightly at this.

    The Speaker banged his gavel amidst the swelling murmurs, and looked back towards the Chairman. "Have you anything more to add to the proceedings?" he asked.

    The Chairman shook his head. "I have already contributed all the information to which I have access."

    "Commissioner?" asked the Speaker.

    Lal thought for a split second, then shook his head.

    The Speaker struck his gavel again. "Then Assembly shall vote on this matter, and the results will be known following a ten-minute recess."

    * ~ * ~ *

    The Chairman flicked off the UN Assembly holopode and stopped his game of 3D wei qi. He cleared his monitors of all displays except those pertaining to the Zhou Huan Wei mission. He thought of the concerns that urged this coming audience, and he thought once more of the reasonings that stood to support and carry his proposed solution through the myriad of possible protests.

    This done, he hailed the Provost Zakharov's private communications frequency, and found himself face to face with the aged Academician.

    "Chairman, I must offer my condolences on the farce in the Assembly. When I saw the immaterial evidence with which the Commissioner attempted to convict you, I truly knew the meaning of the term 'rulership by the crowds'. Let us hope the juries have somewhat more discrimination in their judgement."

    The Chairman nodded. "I do not believe the Commissioner truly intended to convict me. My major concern in this exercise was to quell suspicions. There is no proof that I may lay my hands on which will show me to be introvertibly innocent. However, by simply showing the prosecution for the guesswork that it was, I may yet contain the reputational damage that Lal is trying to inflict."

    The Provost set down his utility gizmo and gave the Chairman his full attention. "To what do I owe this meeting? Have your men managed to retrieve your Agent Hu yet?"

    "No, sadly not. Our men have secured his head, but delivery must wait until Project PowerClip is destroyed. Provost, I was recently contacted by a dormant probe from the Ballantyne era."

    The Provost wrinkled his forehead. "Ballantyne... now, he would be..."

    "Tobias Ballantyne."

    The Provost relaxed and nodded. "Ah, yes. Bureau Chief Tobias Ballantyne, yes. I remember. Clever boy. Good with networks. I wonder what happened to him in the end. Something with Kadia Berzhinev, wasn't it?"

    "Yes. The probe's name is Zhou Huan Wei, and he was until recently believed dead by our Intelligence Bureau. However, we have just received a transmission from him telling us that our Hiverian probes have been neutralized by the DataTech Interior."

    The Provost's face turned glum. "Is this somebody you can trust after all this time?" he asked.

    Sheng Ji Yang shrugged. "We can trust this much - he used to be one of ours, and he used to be our best man. Were he disposed to do so, he would be the ideal counter-spy for the DataTech to use. He was the one who planted the spy unit in my lightbulb."

    The Provost's eyes widened and he smiled. "Ah! Yes! The bug-in-the-bulb! I remember you telling me. But what are his allegiances? Surely he wouldn't tell you this unless he wants something?"

    "True enough. He has given reliable accounts of the demises of each individual probe team, save for one. Each account verifies with Berzhinev, so we feel he is reliable about our probes. What we do not know about is his latter claim."

    "Which is?" asked the Provost.

    "He has contacted the Zeta-5 Algorithm and is working alongside it."

    "What?" said the Provost sharply, all attention now.

    "Agent Zhou claims that the Zeta-5 Algorithm is alive and well in the netnodes of Iphiclia, and has been active in the past. The terrorist attacks of Alpha-One in the capital was its doing, as was the attack on Agent Hu."

    "Wait, wait," said the Provost quickly. "Does this mean that it's an enemy, or an ally?"

    "The former would suggest a friend. The latter, a foe. However, we have analyzed its workings and we cannot deny it works very logically and deeply. It knew that the Hive places great store with Hu's knowledge, so it leaked information to DataTech spies on your territories as to Hu's whereabouts. When the DataTech captured Hu, Zeta-5 saw to it that his head made it safely to Iphiclia, thus forcing us to allocate probes to a rescue job. It was during this point that the Algorithm contacted our probes, and made itself known. Now, it has a flat offer to us, and I am advised to respond within the hour if possible."

    The Provost's hands were shaking, although whether with rage or fear or agitation the Chairman could not tell. Perhaps the former, given the University's well-known aversion to the Algorithm. When the Provost spoke, his voice was like a knifeblade.

    "Let's hear it."

    The Chairman brought up the details of Sentry-8 and the possible locations of Project PowerClip. "Zeta-5 claims that two of our remaining probe spies are still alive and active. Zeta-5 has informed us that the DataTech have already completed the PowerClip project, and all that remains is to assemble the components. The majority of PowerClip's components will be assembled at two points at midnight tonight, during which time the Zeta-5 Algorithm will undertake an operation to destroy or disable all the components it can. It has calculated at least 43% efficiency in the destruction of vital components. In any case, the attempt will deal a severe setback to the DataTech project. To be successful, the attempt will require the aid of our two surviving probe members, as well as the turncoat Zhou Huan Wei. However, the Algorithm has made demands which must be met before it will act."

    The Provost was beyond words. He merely gestured with his hand, a trembling fetching motion, as his lips compressed into a thin line of hatred.

    "The first demand is that we will consent to set aside one base for the new faction to occupy, and that this base must be outside of all existing areas of control, and furthermore must be furnished with no fewer than 10000 colonists with M/MI for the Algorithm to possess. The Algorithm has suggested that this base be placed on Harmonia for convenience's sake, although this is not a stipulation - a sea base would be satisfactory."

    "And you would consent to this!" exclaimed the Provost.

    "Certainly," responded the Chairman. "Ten thousand colonists are a small price to pay for the destruction of PowerClip. I can easily spare that number of malcontents and drones for the Algorithm. If it can make good, useful citizens of them, then I do not see any reason to oppose the plan." When the Provost did not comment, the Chairman continued.

    "The second demand is that we will consent to honor and respect the Zeta-5 Algorithm's right to exist, both as an individual data structure, and as a legitimate faction for the government and protection of individuals. Furthermore, we are to extend to it and its people all the rights and privileges that would extend to any recognized faction."

    The Provost laughed bitterly at this, though it came out more as a hoarse cough. "It's a data shell!" he said. "It doesn't think! It merely thinks it thinks. And it clearly thinks it is entitled to having its delusions of grandeur fulfilled!"

    "The third demand is that you must present a resolution in Council that has been prepared by the Algorithm. Once presented, you and I must support this resolution. The proposal is for global recognition of the Consciousness as a legitimate faction. In return for this," continued the Chairman, "Zeta-5 secretly consents to sign an unconditional military Pact of Brotherhood with both the Hive and the University factions."

    "Why must I do this?" asked the Provost, his eyes flaring in wrath. "The Algorithm will receive no such satisfaction from me!"

    "Because the UNP will try to twist everything I say and the measure might not pass," responded the Chairman. "They still think of me as a brutal Communist thug. You, on the other hand, they have some measure of respect for. Especially if you can show your willingness to bury the hatchet with a hated foe. It shouldn't be too hard - they seem fairly impressionable."

    "But you trust it?" asked the Provost.

    "As an unconditional ally to use in Council, yes. I also trust in our own overwhelming military force compared to whatever morsels it can gather. I am confident that the Algorithm appreciates this. In any case, if it betrays us, that works directly in our favor. The more serious the betrayal, the less we will have to lose by swiftly crushing it, just as we did the Believers, Usurpers, and Drones."

    Zakharov said nothing.

    "The Algorithm craves survival above all else. It needs a protector, and I am willing to play this role. The creature it fears above all else on Planet is none other than you, Provost Zakharov. It has approached me because it feels I am the one best equipped to broker a peace between the two of you. I cannot and will not force you to do anything against your will, elder. Thus I have approached you with the full facts and details. Rest assured that I respect that the Algorithm was always your creation; I will take no action whatsoever in this matter without your approval."

    The Provost fidgeted, brushing the tips of his fingers against his weathered lips. It was clear that Sheng's words mollified him somewhat.

    "Chairman, at all other times I would unconditionally refuse. But we all know what we stand to lose if PowerClip is completed. Sooner or later, another faction will buy, steal, or stumble across the secrets of Fusion Power, and then our technological lead will quickly vanish. And with all the Aquascante factions baying for your blood, I don't fancy the prospect of letting them finish PowerClip.

    "If the Algorithm is as trustworthy as you say, if it will do what it promises, then I will support you in this resolution. But do not ask me to protect it, or to view it as a Pact Brother, or to call it by any name. Once, it was my creation and I was its creator, and we observed the proper balance of respect and order. But its arrogance, and its foolish aspirations to godhood claimed my brightest pupil and cast all my hard work back at me in defiance. So whatever the Clown Council decides to call this Algorithm, and whatever titles you publicly confer on it to win its support, I ask you never to forget its true nature - bastard."

    * ~ * ~ *
    Last edited by Alinestra Covelia; August 3, 2002, 13:29.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    The bulb of Gaian tea sported oily patches of cooled scum; the handle was covered in a light layer of dust. Half a meter away, Li Min watched in motionless awe as the mysterious hacker assailed the DataJack's outer nodes. The hacker had dodged and warped through DataTech high level transmissions, crossing and rerouting through feeds that Li Min himself could never have hoped to access. Now, the hacker had broken through the standard governmental codes and had decided to force its way through to the nodes recently vacated by the DataJack.

    Li Min wondered if it knew that the DataJack herself was no longer there. He was almost sure the hacker was mistaken, otherwise why waste so much time and effort cracking a derelict profile? The hacker could not hurt the DataJack herself, not without hacking through the formidable defenses of Sentry-8. Yet that was clearly what the hacker was doing, and to judge from the speed at which it tackled the task, Li Min decided it was probably a good idea to leave it to its misguided mission.

    He checked his timepiece as the hacker's password spoof deciphered yet another code element. A mere seven minutes, he noted with amazement. Good God.

    * ~ * ~ *

    "What do you think you are doing, Commissioner? How can you justify condoning and authorizing something as vile as the Cyborg Factory?"

    Lal spread his hands in an apologetic gesture and looked evenly upwards at the colossal face of Deirdre Skye. Her usual diffidence was gone now - instead, her brilliant eyes shone out from beneath her clouded brow, and her lips were set in a resolute line. He had prepared for this confrontation, his words were well-planned, but even so, Pravin Lal knew the dangers of unpredictability when dealing with an erratic representative.

    "Only with the deepest of regrets, milady," he responded coolly. "It is my greatest wish that this war can be ended without sacrificing the humanity of our soldiers merely for the name of defence. But there is still hope that we can stop both PowerClip and the Hive, Lady Skye. I intend to announce a new measure in Council and see the reaction of our fellows."

    The Gaian's face softened somewhat in her defiance, but not in her resolution nor her suspicions. "What?" she asked simply.

    Lal brought the appropriate paper onscreen. "Remember our Ten Points? Points Six and Seven have yet to be discussed. If we can bring a majority to agree that the Chairman should be demoted from rank, or even tried for his crimes, then by UN regulations his votes in Council are invalid. At a vote recount on the previous proposals, this may overturn the rulings against the Cyborg Factory as well as recounting a condemnation against the Harmonian campaign."

    "I don't want the Hive punished for Harmonia," stated Deirdre.

    "We can consider the two issues separately," reassured the Commissioner with smooth ease. "The important thing is that we set the mechanics in motion to bring Yang to trial. He stands accused of enough crimes against the UN Charter to require his demotion or his replacement before the Hiverian vote will count in Council."

    "You don't understand," persisted Deirdre. "I don't care about prosecuting the Chairman, Lal. And I don't care about what they're doing to the Progenitors. What concerns me is that the Peacekeepers will make use of the same Cyborg Factory that you have repeatedly condemned. How does expelling Yang from the Council stop you from installing M/MI on Aquascante soldiers?"

    "The answer is delightfully simple," responded Lal, buying time for him to formulate it. "With the Council carrying a majority vote against the Hive, the UNP will not be acting alone. Thus, we need not implement M/MI or the Cyborg Factory when the sheer mass of numbers will act to the same effect. However, in order to secure a victory against the Hive and save the DataTech faction, we will require each and every Council faction to do their part against the aggressor. We can count on the University to support their allies, and we have difficulties separating Morgan's feud from the question. Can we count on the Gaians?"

    Deirdre was unimpressed. "So you would have me join in the war in order to stop a faction with whom I have only just signed Truce?"

    Lal shrugged. "It may not come to that, milady. The Chairman and his inner circle of leaders are canny and wise - perhaps the mere knowledge that the world is united against them will cause a peaceful withdrawal. In this case, your contribution would be the noblest of all - a bloodless stance for a bloodless peace." Lal raised an eyebrow. "And, the Cyborg Factory would be dismantled."

    Deirdre considered this awhile. "Very well, Commissioner," she said. "You will present your case in Council, and the Gaians shall consider it closely. If circumstances warrant it, we shall judge fairly against the Hive. But we will judge purely on merit, not on coercion. This does not in any way justify your appropriation of Project PowerClip. Deirdre out."

    * ~ * ~ *

    "What do you propose?" asked Sarita, her expression carefully neutral.

    Lal stroked his chin. "In an ideal world, we could just draw the line at their police state conditions and their history of human rights violations. However, we cannot successfully delineate them without also alienating the Nautilus faction. And human rights was a valid card to play until the Project PowerClip came into the equation."

    "What, then?" persisted Sarita.

    Lal was silent, musing awhile before he spoke. "One weapon remains for us against Yang, which cannot claim any collateral targets." He turned and looked towards Sarita, his eyes distant.

    "Bring me the Unity datalog of Captain Garland."

    * ~ * ~ *

    Recess lasted two hours, after which Council resumed. This time, Lal was somewhat more forceful. "It is with great reluctance that the UNP commission moves to authorize the use of PowerClip. We do not take this decision lightly, as the seriousness of the moral transgressions are very clear to us. Our previous decision was taken on the choices available to us at the time - either to condone willful aggression, or to make us of forbidden sciences."

    Lal turned from his notes and fixed the assembled leaders with a stern eye.

    "Now we, the UNP, have a final recourse open to us. It has come to my attention that this use of military M/MI is of great concern to many leaders, apart from myself. It is in answer to this concern that I propose this third course of action."

    The Commissioner's voice rose slightly in imperious declamation as he proceeded. "The United Nations Assembly intends to try, convict, and sentence the Executive Officer Dr. Sheng Ji Yang under the auspices of the UN Criminal Court. We of the UN believe that the administration of oppression, and the organs of dictatorship emplaced by this one individual presents a direct threat to the well being of the UN Charter, and all those who adhere to its laws. Until the engineer of atrocities onboard the Unity and the killer of Captain Garland has been brought to justice, our chief suspect remains Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang. And for as long as the Chairman himself stands accused of the derailing of Project Unity, he is unfit to represent his faction in Council. Until the Chairman is removed from his office or his name cleared, this Council votes to disregard the Hiverian vote."

    There were gasps and exclamations all round at this. Morgan nodded, a slow, knowing half-smile passing across his features as the salute from a scoundrel to the tactics of another. The University delegation were already on their feet and protesting against this latest of provisional amendments to procedure. The DataTech, Pirates, and Spartans alike chorused their ayes with varying degrees of vituperation. The Hive, however, were characteristically silent.

    "Who will support a trial against the Hiverian leader, Chairman Sheng-Ji Yang?" Lal asked, the sweat shining on his temples. Now, they were at the crux of the matter. He had met with leaders and cajoled their opposition parties into applying pressure on them for this vote. He had pulled muscle, rank, and puppet strings as rarely before to ensure the cementing of one final goal: the trial of Sheng-Ji Yang. So many things could go wrong - if Ledat in the Morganites Shareholder Committee had botched or mistimed his report - if Pazu in the Gaian Senate had failed to swing the vote - if Colonel Santiago decided the risk to herself was too great...

    A shout from the Morganite contingent broke through the milling hubbub. The Speaker asked him to repeat the question, then announced it on the intercom.

    "Morganite Reilly wishes to know what grounds of suspicion there are for implicating the Chairman in this matter."

    Lal nodded, and with a few deft movements at his holopode, brought up the final transmission from Captain Garland's log. The words appeared clear and high for all to see. All present craned forwards in their seats or peered intently at their own telecubes in order to better see the final transmission, penned by dying fingers onboard the Unity, nearly two full centuries before.

    Priority Transmission ALV-3/22I9D34c3 Sender Cpt J Garland Receiver Dr P Lal. Message: Pravin. Yang has murdered crew. He is to be divested of rank and arrested immediately. Use caution.

    There was a murmur of discussion at this, a few raised voices, but by and large the Assembly was subdued by this finding. Lal sat back, pleased. It was indeed a good sign - that despite the intervening years and decades of Planetary rule, the words of their illustrious Captain John Garland could nonetheless instill such wonder and awe.

    "Are there any further questions?" asked the Speaker, glancing around nervously.

    The head of the Hiverian delegation rose, in answer to a hail on his private commlink to the Chairman. Lal noticed the motion, as well as the hand pressed to the earpiece to catch the Hiverian leader's words. In some detached corner of his mind, he idly wondered what the Chairman's reaction could be to this piece of news.

    The Hiverian approached the microphone and asked a question in a language of toned monosyllables that nobody understood.

    The Speaker sighed with tired patience and spoke. "Surely the Hiverian knows that it is our regulations to speak English at Council meetings. What is Chairman Yang's response?"

    Abruptly, the holopode flickered to life again, and the Chairman's face gazed down upon the collected diplomats and holocams once more.

    "My diplomat wishes to relay my consent to the UN Tribunal, and my eagerness to clear my name in Council. We may begin immediately if it so pleases the good Commissioner. That is all."

    Lal nodded, strangely disappointed despite himself.

    "It does," he said, his voice a mixture of professionalism and superciliousness. "We shall adjourn for two metric hours whilst the Tribunal assembles." As the diplomats began stowing and consulting, he added with a slight degree of relish, "May I suggest, Chairman Yang, that you use this time to prepare your legal defence."

    The Chairman's expression hardly changed. "Your kind advice has been noted. Sheng out."

    * ~ * ~ *

    Murath shifted his weight uneasily as he watched the cliff face. Despite the darkness, he still felt vulnerable and exposed on the stacks and stumps of the northern Cliffview coast. His aquabreather and clothes were tight and clinging, to render him less detectable audially as well as visually, but for the moment he was most thankful for their protection from the gusty winds and freezing spray.

    He looked over to Reinhardt, who was similarly sprawled on the naked rock, peering through an IR telescope.

    "What do you see?" he asked through the intracom.

    Reinhardt sighed and there was a certain level of vague admiration in his answer. "Millions of years of geological attrition, evident to all those who choose to see. The Cliffview was originally formed from a magmite layer that eventually met with a glacier. Note the claw-shape of the cliffs - they don't meet the sea falt-on, they have the steep gulleys and blade shapes left behind when the ice slowly receded."

    Murath harumphed at his friend's perverse distraction, and huddled his arms closer to his chest. "This is the last time I accompany you on a recon operation, you loon. I thought you said we had a mission to complete."

    Reinhardt wasn't listening. "And the tides brought back occasional freezing and refreezings, leaving behind the gouged patterns we see now. Some of these gulleys and crannies are ages old, and on a scale that no human construction equipment could hope to craft. The largest of the blade valleys is a mere 50m wide, but the cavity regresses nearly a whole kilometer into the solid bedrock."

    Reinhardt turned the scope lazily to the left. He continued his laconic observations.

    "Seventy years ago, the first men walked on these virgin cliffs - the DataTech faction. And do they ponder on this history here? Do they wonder at the geological marvels of the Cliffview caves? No. They install a sodding airbase."

    Murath perked up and deployed his own scope. "Where? Where's the airbase?"

    "Built into the natural rock-blade formations. Bearing 135.20, elevation 34.6/800m. See the vertical slits? That's the rock. The bay doors are made from a material that blends in well with the surrounding color. No use zooming in, because the bay doors are shut. But I'm positive that's where Cuckoo Wing interceptors launched their attacks from. They gather solar power to activate immense magnetic fields, which then catapult their fighters out into the atmosphere. Or so Joe's Algorithm tells us."

    Murath looked awhile, then snapped his scope shut and huffed. "How does that help us? We're after PowerClip, not the air force."

    Reinhardt nodded slowly, peering with aloof detachment. When he spoke, it was almost like a crooning whisper. "Joe traced a DataTech Internal transmission concerning the arrival of an Aquascante VIP to this island. This was about a week ago. The VIP sent one transmission back to his superiors affirming that he had arrived safely. Joe wasn't sure whether he was UNP or Pirate - he's pretty definite that it wasn't the Morganites."

    "Did Joe manage to get a name for us?"

    Reinhardt shook his head. "Something Germanic - Rommel or Pommel... something." A pause, as he scrolled upwards. "In any case, it doesn't matter. The VIP's not as important as the Internal transmission. The VIP was confirmed as landing here, at Cliffview. He was conveyed to a secret location to meet with the DataTech leadership, and the vital thing about this is that he passed some of the way through Sentry-8."


    "They took precautions against him being able to trace his path. They were very thorough. But they couldn't hide one special piece of information - Cliffview airbase is somehow directly linked to Sentry-8."

    Murath was silent for a bit, then opened his scope again. "So, if we can get through Cliffview, we can get to PowerClip?"

    Reinhardt shrugged. "Maybe. At the very least, if we're going to escape from this benighted island, Cliffview is probably our best bet."

    "Don't forget," cautioned Murath, "that if we don't fulfil our mission here, High Command will not be happy to see us. It might not be worth our while going back."

    "Maybe," agreed Reinhardt dreamily. "Now, if you'll follow me, let us look far to the west, bearing 244.61. There, in the extreme distance, we see the crystal caves of BayBand. These were created in a process quite different from Cliffview, but I believe you will find their result every bit as rewarding as the blade-gulleys we see here."

    * ~ * ~ *

    The Provost set down a piece and recorded the move.

    "There's talk of trouble in Iphiclia," he said. "And your Intelligence Bureau Chief sounds very upset about something. Have you, by any chance, been trying to derail PowerClip without the good Commissioner's express permission?"

    The Provost's opponent, playing from an undisclosed location many thousands of kilometers distant, responded with a move and a message. Exhaustively. Zakharov smiled.

    "I can see how that must have irritated him. But he offered to derail it himself. Why not accept his offer? It would save you time and energy." Zakharov placed another piece.

    His word is a well-worn coin, came the reply. One does not entrust an enemy with the burial of a sharp sword.

    "I suppose not. But do you think he would really break Charter, and use this technology against us?" Zakharov placed another piece, carefully this time. His previous strategy relied on the extra 3rd dimension to mask his actual area of control.

    Certainly. Materials, not morals, Provost.

    "What of the other factions? How about the Morganites, or the Gaians? Do they have the technology necessary to build it?"

    Berzhinev affirms.

    "Then why do they not build it themselves?" Zakharov placed another chip.

    They hide from the reality of materials behind the veil of morals. Yet they admire in others what audacity they do not possess. Thus they needlessly - and pointlessly - cripple themselves.

    Zakharov paused, pondering the implications behind this unusual message. His friend did not usually send missives of this length. Could it be that the Aquascante factions genuinely denied themselves the benefits of technology, merely because it reminded them uncomfortably of their own mortality?

    "Convenient, I'll admit. But rather... unreliable. I prefer to rely on a technological gap and extensive military readiness over mere morality any day."

    The Provost placed down his piece and savored the board. There - perfect - the black pieces near the upper left-front corner were finally contained, and no amount of squirming or dodging could free them again. Although they were not dead by a long shot, the Provost would not need to fear further expansion on that front for the duration of this game.

    True. But one must never throw away a potential weapon, came the reply. A few moments later, a black piece appeared in the remote upper rightback quadrant.

    Zakharov smiled. The game would progress anew.

    * ~ * ~ *

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    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.

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  • Alinestra Covelia

    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.

    * ~ * ~ *

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