Sally sipped her ultresso, drumming manicured fingers on the glass chair's arm while she waited outside the Eggshell. She focused inwardly and glanded her own personal cocktail of clarity and cogspeed; the other participants in these meetings were usually slick operators. The hormone-drugs kicked in, her senses heightening: clinically white room, muffled sounds somewhere down a corridor -- she listened harder -- alien cleaners. Cassiopea Alpha's ruby sunlight strafed through shades behind the inter-stellar meeting device shaped like a giant egg, painting a lattice of rainbows on its underside. She felt a little dazed at first from the mental rush, then her mind stilled like a lake at dawn. She was ready.
Synth voice. The others were hearing it too, whichever Sphericon world they were on. She straightened her Celarini silk skirt -- the other participants would never see her elegant business outfit, but above all she was a professional. The white egg, a few feet taller than her, split open. Sally stepped inside. The Eggshell sealed her in.
It was wet. That is, it felt wet, though she always came out dry. And it was dark. She had no idea if she was standing, sitting, lying, or suspended. She tried to feel a tingling, to know where her body was, to sense her muscles and skin, but that's not how it worked. She gave it up. The meeting was starting.
"Welcome. Darok, Symtar, Azimuth, Remtak." Synth voice again, hermaphroditic. An artificial intelligence unit. The Chair of meetings like this one were usually AIs. Less diplomatic incidents that way.
All the names were code names, to protect their anonymity. It meant that whatever they'd been called for required a tough decision, one that could have repercussions on them personally if their identities were made public. She shrugged it off. It was what she was paid for; what she was good at.
She was Remtak; this time, anyway. Three faceless avatars sat around a transparent table hanging in space-like blackness, each a different colour: red, blue, and yellow. She wondered what colour she was today. Green, maybe.
Although the Chair was AI, as always -- most probably Generation Two-forty, military pre-release -- she assumed the others were human, certainly not alien. They could be synths or even remnants, but it was unlikely. Not for this meeting, anyway: they'd called her back off holiday specially. She'd guessed why -- Sphericon Command were losing the Crab Nebula. If computers, cyborgs, or rems -- reconstituted algorithms of dead geniuses -- could have figured it, she'd still be on Centauri's beaches. She tuned in; they were still in Prologue, the AI Chair speaking.
"Context. Three entire Sphericon fleets lost in sector 3182-alpha in last twenty-hour cycle during standard subjugation of indigenous species 214."
A time-indexed grid unfolded before her, the purple and scarlet nebula at its center, thirteen star systems at the periphery, grid-span forty light years. A Sphericon tactical strike unit -- three battle-ships plus support -- had been neutralized, whereupon a whole fleet had been dispatched at transwarp to crush the resistance. A trap. When that fleet had disappeared, two more took up defensive positions and? Mentally, at least, her mouth dropped open. The ferocity was incredible. Not to mention the speed. Three fleets gone in a radial attack of fifteen light years in -- she queried and the temporal axis illuminated -- a little over six hours!
She'd been recalled from holiday with a single word: unprecedented.
She interrupted. "Extrapolate. Assume viral characteristics."
The red avatar in the dark, virtual space briefly glowed. "We concur."
Azimuth. She'd recognize his arrogance and attempt to snatch team leader status anywhere. Didn't matter: her ratings as an EDM -- Executive Decision Maker -- were unparalleled, because she was prepared to make the tough calls. She bided her time. The Generals would be watching this one for sure. Maybe she could gain a promotion if she played it out right.
The grid extended, her perspective expanding to keep pace. Her breathing rate increased, vertigo threatening. She needed to calm down. She glanded distance. Cooling rain drizzled over her emotions. Sally reminded herself to renew the annual premium for mental control of her pituitary and a few other enhanced glands -- it was worth every cent. But she'd been using a lot of anti-guilt lately, since the Exec meeting a month ago when they'd decided to annex one of Sphericon's rare allies' territory due to a strategic need. None of them had considered the possibility of an entire alien world's decision to commit suicide rather than be enslaved. Not her fault. It had been a group decision. She brushed away the thought. Everything she did protected Sphericon and her family. When she was with them she didn't need to gland anything, as long as she could keep them safe.
That was Darok, the blue avatar apparently, real name Mengak, giving away his heritage by invoking the Holy Poet. Normally such an outburst would have been censored in real time. She realized they were operating in Level One parameters, not exactly a first for her, but it underlined how serious things were. And she could see why he swore. The Crab Nebula was so far away people wondered why Sphericon Command had even bothered to go there, but if the projection was true, the attack front racing outwards like the surface of an expanding balloon would reach Earth Prime in one week. Sphericon would fall, after four hundred years of interstellar supremacy, humanity along with it. Sally felt she was falling, too. She upped distance, adding composure. If she kept this up she'd pay for it later with a couple of days of heavy detox.
"Firebreak," she said, knowing what it would mean.
"Sally, is that you?"
Dammit Azimuth! At least he hadn't used her family name.
"Firebreak how?" he continued, ignoring protocol.
She was sure he was smiling at her behind the non-descript avatar; grinning probably. Still, he was one of the best. A true rival.
She concentrated and picted a spherical web around the infected zone, a hundred light years out. A day ahead of the attack wave.
"This is Symtar speaking."
Great, a newbie. Just what we need.
The yellow avatar continued. "We cannot assume the attacks will continue. The species may have been defending only, and as for the resources required to sustain the wave front, whatever it is ... No race has inexhaustible power."
Crap. "Tell him, Azimuth."
She imagined Azimuth inflating his chest. Quite a nice chest, she recalled.
Azimuth obliged. "First, my dear boy, clearly you are inexperienced, that kind of thinking did not get Sphericon where it is today. Perhaps you've never heard the eighth principle of peace-keeping? Assume the enemy's worst firepower, then hit several times harder. The Generals' preferred verb is 'crush.'"
This is taking too long. Azimuth was clever, but a windbag. She was surprised they hadn't killed him and extracted his algorithms, he'd be much more efficient as a remnant. Wouldn't be the first time they'd done that to somebody whose genius was required, without the associated personal politics. For the Sphericon cause ?
"Second," she interjected, "the wave-front as you've called it is almost certainly using a power conversion matrix. That's why I called it viral -- like a micro-virus attacking a human, getting the host's own system to react negatively." It's eating our ships. She doubted there'd even be wreckage. But this was a distraction. Symtar was slowing them down. "Request extraction of Symtar."
The AI Chair came back immediately. "Denied. Symtar necessary for group construct reliability. Your request was not broadcast."
To save Symtar's fucking feelings. Three fleets lost -- over a million dead, and she had to babysit. Fine. She glanded over it and moved on.
Azimuth picked up. "What kind of firebreak won't feed a viral attack that feeds on power?"
That was the question, why they'd been called in; why she'd been called in. She'd been doing cutting edge military research on the impact of certain new weapon configurations on subspace. The AIs weren't allowed such knowledge, not since the AI Insurrection of 2239, even if ever since they'd been hard and soft-coded with human-first value structures. Besides, AIs would never contemplate what she was formulating: her plan would create rifts that would trip up any ship at warp; it would devastate trade routes, not to mention erasing any systems caught in the way. But maybe she was moving too fast. Could Symtar be right? She didn't think so, and the attack wave showed no signs of slowing down.
Fuck off, Ben. She knew Azimuth's real name too. They'd met. Why on Earth she'd let him sleep with her was beyond her comprehension. He must have pheromoned her. At least Jack didn't know. But then Jack and the kids didn't know what her job really was.
"Contingency," Symtar said. "Evacuate command personnel from Earth Prime, regroup."
Azimuth's avatar pulsed. "And where exactly do you propose we regroup, young man?"
"Another nebula," Darok answered.
That spiked her interest. "Why do you say that?"
Darok answered her question with another, directed at the Chair. "What is Sphericon High Command's strategic interest in the Crab Nebula?"
There was a noticeable pause, unheard of with fluidic AI computer minds.
"Recess," the Chair said.
Light spilled into Sally's eyes as the egg cracked open and she stumbled out. She'd been standing after all, her eyes wide open. She'd never been so rudely ejected before. Darok had hit a nerve. She wasn't surprised. It was a question she would never have posed; even asking for military information above one's grade level was considered treason. But Darok was right; they needed to know. The egg sealed with a sucking sound behind her, and she sat back down on the nearby glass chair. A tumbler of chilled water awaited her on the small table. She drank greedily, hadn't realized how thirsty she'd been. She glanced at her wristcom. Eight minutes, that's how long the meeting had run so far. Seemed longer.
The sub-dermal node behind her left ear tweaked.
"Sally, don't react, I'm calling on a covert channel."
Idiot! If we're caught ? She headed into the rest room, turned the faucet on full, lowering her head toward the sink.
Azimuth continued. "Listen, obviously this is hugely political. But the fucking bureaucrats would rather protect their secrets than react in time."
"Is Darok in?" She doubted it but had to be sure.
"Do you think I slept with Darok, too?" Azimuth laughed, and Sally realized she had no way of knowing what that laugh meant -- plenty of people were bi these days.
Droplets of cool water splashed up onto her face from the steel basin. "What do you propose, Ben?"
Another laugh. "Are you teasing me?"
She waited. Azimuth could never switch off the banter. Why one night had been more than enough.
"Alright, Sally, let's focus. Catalogue the options."
"They've already done that, for sure. Oh, I see, you want to know what we're ruling out."
They quickly went through everything from old-fashioned nukes to black hole mines. The latter was tempting, but a singularity firebreak of that size would probably end the galaxy.
"What's taking the AI so long, anyway?" She gnawed at one of her cuticles.
"No doubt they're having to get human approval from Sphericon Command. Comms relays take a few minutes, even these days. You got anything you want to spit out, do it now."
"Twenty Seconds." Sally heard the synth voice above the running water. She toweled her face and stepped back outside. The eggshell was open.
She whispered. "Nova bombs; harmonic resonant configuration."
She heard Azimuth let out a long whistle before he cut off. She stepped inside.
A new avatar was present. Orange. She guessed it might be someone from Sphericon HC. Not good. Her supposition was confirmed as soon as they began.
"Darok, tell me why you suggested the other nebula."
It wasn't a request. She could imagine Darok squirming. She knew he hated the Military. It was okay that they paid him, and he'd work for them, since refusal was fatal, but he loathed interfacing with them directly. Not surprising, since they'd executed his wife ten years earlier. What did surprise her, though, was that they'd put the three of them together in a meeting, rendering useless the anonymity-driven objectivity, usually an absolute requirement for such meetings. Someone high up had pulled strings.
Darok cleared his throat. "My answer is predicated upon your response to my query."
Smart. Darok was using protocol to flush out Sphericon-man. Her estimation for Darok rose. She wondered if he was one of the academic separatists.
"Very well. We'll play it your way. Since the Sylvian fiasco, we've been searching for a new source of nutritium." His voice was calm but firm. This was no Sphericon bureaucratic lackey they were dealing with.
"In a nebula? Preposterous."
Azimuth, be careful, for fuck's sake!
"Correct. " Sphericon-man said nothing more.
Sally almost laughed. Whoever he was, he knew how to play this game. Azimuth would be compelled to respond, to fill in the gap. If it were a staged net-meeting, Sphericon-man would have just scored a point against Azimuth; no mean feat.
Azimuth played along. "Substitute. You found a substitute for nutritium?"
No wonder Chair had called a recess. If a new fuel source for transwarp had been found, it would rock the empire's commercial infrastructure. With a sinking feeling, she realized they might mind-wipe all four of them straight after the meeting. Or kill them. Or rem them. Time to accelerate. She jumped in.
"Who owned it? Not Species 214, that's for sure."
Darok came back in from the cold. "Whoever they are, they're using dark energy weapons, aren't they? Confirms my theory. My wife's theory. You bastards executed her so you could steal her work and block off that research avenue. You should have kept her alive. Somebody's beaten you to it. Well, good for them. And by the way, you can't rem me, I have a nodal -- "
Chair spoke. "Darok has left the meeting."
Despite the complete sensory blackout in these meetings, to create total immersion and focus, Sally mentally bit her lip, and despite the dissociative media of Eggshell meetings, she felt a chill run down her spine. She knew the price for uttering such treason. Darok had been about to say 'nodal inhibitor.' So they couldn't rem him just before they executed him. Well played, old man. Say "hi" to your wife for me.
Symtar spoke. She'd forgotten he was there.
"Can someone please explain to me this theory?"
Azimuth stepped up to the task, much to Sally's relief. "We've run off dark matter drives for four centuries -- nutritium is really just the catalyst. It's a bit like back in Pre-Sphere, twenty-first century old calendar: they had nuclear fission, as powerful as it was messy, whether for civil or military purposes. It wasn't until 2065 they cracked fusion, and afterwards nobody looked back. Step change. Dark matter was the next paradigm shift a century later, but the next big leap is dark energy, only --"
Sphericon-man cut in: "It's unbelievably rare."
Sally took up the thread. "Except in a nebula." In theory. Five nebulas they'd studied so far had found no dark energy. Crab was the sixth. "How much did you find?"
The Grid enlarged again in front of them. The crystal blue wave front, a spherical tsunami, approached Taxuan Ceti, a prosperous world of rare gems, hosting the fifth largest library in Sphericon-space. The 3D image zoomed in showing the planet with its unique synthetic rings and four custom-designed moons. Sally had been there once; she couldn't recall who with. The views were some of the best in known space. She watched ships leaving their orbital tethers, turn, then wink out at transwarp speed. The time index slowed. When the wave-front -- a translucent shimmering surface like gossamer silk -- touched the planet, the world exploded, shattered rock and inner magma boiling on the wave-front's surface, effervescing, fluorescing the wave a lighter sky blue before vanishing as if it had never been there. The wave continued. The image pulled back fast and showed the next point of contact, time indexed three hours. A binary star system. Statistics scrolled in front of her eyes, flashed into iconic memory so that she understood and retained them instantly. But there was only one stat she needed to see: population eighty billion.
"I have an idea," she said. "But we need to know what we're up against. The owners of this weapon. Who or what are they?"
"Gaseous squids, maybe? Light bees forming a collective mental strata?"
Shut it, Azimuth!
"Human," Sphericon-man said.
What? That couldn't be ? unless it was the Ninth Tribe Adventists. Like every sane person, she'd hoped they were all dead, or else had actually found their way 'home' as they saw it, to their beloved Andromeda galaxy. Point was, if any were still left, they were crazy enough to toast the entire Milky Way if they found a means. After all, they'd tried it a hundred years earlier.
Sylmar was ignorant enough about 23rd Century politics to venture a hypothesis. "Then if they're human, they won't destroy Earth. They must be separatists. They can be reasoned with, they must have a goal and value hierarchy which overlaps our own."
She ignored him. She wished she and Azimuth could work alone on this.
Sphericon-man broke in. "Remtak. Speak your idea."
It took her a second to realize he was addressing her -- she'd momentarily forgotten her code name.
"Nova bombs," Azimuth answered.
He hadn't mentioned the harmonic resonance; nova bombs alone were only half of it. What was he playing at? She decided to stay quiet.
"How do you know what her idea was?"
Shit. This could get messy.
Azimuth continued without missing a beat. "We know each other well. I know how her mind works, and quite a bit else too."
Thanks, Ben, just what we need. But she realized he'd added that detail to convince Sphericon-man. Nice touch, sort of.
Sylmar cut in. "Nova bombs won't work. You yourself, Remtak said the wave front feeds on power. Unless you meant ? Wait ... Did you mean ??"
Not so dumb after all.
"Would someone let me in on the secret?" Sphericon-man was losing patience.
Azimuth -- Ben -- why are you stalling?
"Give it to him, Sally, we have no choice, boy genius Symtar will tell even if you don't."
Ben's voice sounded so sad. The only other time she'd heard him sincere was when she'd called him from the airport to call it off, to say that it had been a mistake, and that they wouldn't see each other again. He'd suddenly grown serious, or just grown. But she couldn't figure why he was behaving like that now.
"Mrs. Kaynar. Respond now."
It was like a slap in the face. She felt a spike of freeflow surging into her system -- the Sphericon Military bastard had accessed her node and was glanding her. Her mouth went into overdrive.
"Strategically-placed nova bombs in a double-ring, simultaneous detonation followed exactly one wave-front frequency cycle later by second detonation, mutates dark energy wave-front into harmonic intermittent pulse in subspace, surges will occur at exponential distances until it passes out of galaxy, dark matter at those locations will flash to dark energy, all life at harmonic wave-points will cease, inter-nodal sectors will be undisturbed."
She stopped. Her gland control returned. She felt nauseous.
Sphericon-man spoke. "Thank you." His avatar vanished.
Sonofabitch! Sally felt disorientated. "Ben, talk to me."
There was no reply. For a moment she thought he'd left the meeting, but then the grid view pulled out even further, showing the harmonic ripples spreading throughout the galaxy, exponentially displaced, close near the Crab Nebula epicentre, which would become a black hole anyway, then moving further apart. Earth would be spared, as most of the galaxy would.
"Collateral stats," she commanded. Red spots lit up, around twenty, highlighting which systems would be obliterated. She froze.
"I'm so sorry, Sally," Azimuth said.
"Exit!" she screamed. She tumbled out of the egg, ending up on all fours, pushing down the retch building in her stomach. She scrambled to her feet, accidentally knocked over the chair, started running, heading for the landing pad. She tried to calculate how quickly Sphericon could put her plan into action, and how long it would take to reach home. She sprinted, lifting her wristcom to her mouth, and shouted: "Hover car! Upper Level! Now!"
* * *
Ben Smith sat on the porch, watching the night sky. He'd used all his influence, called in all his favors, to slow things down, to give Sally enough time, even though he knew it wouldn't be enough, not for her to reach Jack and the kids and escape. He didn't need a timer; his brain had always been able to do math projections as easy as most people breathed. He mentally counted down: three -- two -- one. An electric blue arc slashed through Orion, pulsed once, and then faded. He stared hard, but it was no use; the Pleiades and Sally were gone.
With a shaking hand, he poured a tall glass of burgundy wine, heard the ground car winding up the road towards his ranch. He had no doubts: rem squad. Sally had been caught in the harmonic defense of her own making, and Darok was no doubt executed to keep him quiet, probably on a charge of being an academic separatist; which was also probably true. Sylmar was almost certainly a cyborg, so they'd just program the knowledge of a nutritium substitute out of him.
One loose end left.
A minute, maybe less, to decide. Algorithms for high-performance rems had to be taken just before death -- a second after, and they lost the advanced cohesion necessary for complex problem solving. The antique S&W pulse pistol lay there next to the ring Sally had politely returned all those years ago. But he'd always been a bit of a coward, he knew that, and she had confirmed it the morning he let her slip through his fingers. Still, he couldn't cope with the idea of becoming a rem. For some it was immortality of sorts, a great honor to serve the Sphericon Cause, or posthumous fame. For him it was purgatory -- his intelligence without his wit, such as it was, would be a travesty. Sphericon would have to do without him, and anyway, Sylmar was a quick study.
The vehicle ground to a halt. Four men in sealed suits and helmets sprung out and surrounded him. One of them confiscated the pistol. A gleaming man, asexual and gold-plated, strolled up to him. Sylmar. Of course. He wanted the algorithms for himself.
Ben stood up. He raised the glass to his lips and took a sip, savoring it. A hint of oak, subtle hints of vanilla and black currant. And something else.
A bit of a coward, yes. But not a complete one.