Happy New Year and good luck everyone.
Preface from Mooderino
Wormhole Island - Interior.
White Forest Room.
Secretary Daccord woke as the trees around him burst into fountains of sparks, momentarily lighting up a forest dotted with surprised faces, before fading to darkness. He exhaled a soft sigh of regret. It had been a wonderfully comfortable dream.
He stood there, listening while holding his breath. He could hear heavy breathing from right behind him. The weighty breath of a large, heavy man.
The dream had been a simulation, he realised that now. It had all been far too real to just be a dream.
He had been on a small planet somewhere out near the rim of the galaxy where life lacked structure but opportunities presented themselves for the taking. If you worked for a corporation like VendX, there were always opportunities, but the quality of those opportunities tended to mirror one’s status.
You could improve your situation bit by bit, but the really lucrative chances were snatched up by those who already had everything. That’s just how it was in the ever-competitive world of business.
But out on the rim, there was a near-perpetual gold rush and anyone could make their claim, murdering and slaughtering anyone who stood in their way, regardless of family connections or corporate allegiances. Daccord had always been something of a romantic.
Even a lowly shopkeeper had the chance to start his own empire out on the rim. Although, statistically, you were around ten thousand times more likely to die of an unknown contagion before you reached thirty. That was even if you had full medical coverage — and if you could afford full-med, why would you be out scrabbling in the wilderness?
A heavy hand patted him on his shoulder. “Daccord,” said a booming voice from just behind him. “Were you trapped in a simulation just now?”
“Yes, sir,” said Daccord. “It seems the white trees I mentioned before were involved. They’ve been knocked out, so we’re in complete darkness.”
They had entered a large chamber full of the tree-like structures, gently glowing to light the area in misty white light. They had taken every precaution when entering. The same energy that boosted organics was the only thing they found, bathing them all — VendX and Seneca — in the warmth of a higher power. Too good to be true.
“Hmmph,” said the Chairman of VendX, not sounding particularly concerned. Then again, being blind, his whole life was spent in the dark. “Our people?”
“I don’t think there have been any injuries,” said Daccord. He assumed there would be cries of pain if that were the case. Some of them could have died, though.
“And their people?”
“I don’t know, sir. I imagine they had the same experience as us.”
Daccord understood the Chairman was referring to the Corps. The two groups had entered the forest of strange white trees at the same time. It was only once they reached the middle of the chamber that they had been dragged into a forced simulation. The reason for this was not clear, but it had proven impossible to break out of, assuming you wanted to.
And then the trees had let them go. And left them in the dark.
“Oh, I see some lights, sir.”
Small personal lights started to appear around them. They were emergency snap tubes that provided a few hours of green luminescence. Standard mandatory VendX equipment that no one liked to use unless they had to. Replacements had to be paid for.
Judging by the number of green pools of light, most of the VendX team had remained close by. The lights appearing were followed by a number of yells as some of the snap tubes caught fire. It was a known flaw but a recall wasn’t deemed necessary. Hardly anyone ever used them.
“Did you see, Daccord? In the simulation, did you see it?”
“See what, sir?”
“The way out.”
“Erm, no, sir, I’m afraid I didn’t.” It was always a difficult choice when it came to looking like an idiot and looking like a liar. In business, the people you worked for wanted to feel you were good enough to work for them, and dumb enough to not pose a threat to their ambitions.
He wondered what kind of simulation the Chairman had found himself in. What did a man like him consider a desirable fantasy? It would probably be best not to know.
“This whole place is obsolete,” said the Chairman. “A derelict. Riddled with vulnerabilities. We can take over the ship. I should have realised when we found those cubes.”
“The puzzle, sir?” The last room had contained several exits and strange cubes with patterns on each side. The Corps had worked out that there was a way to open the passages using the right combination of cubes. VendX had followed likewise. They had been close to solving the puzzle when the Null Void had appeared and overridden their plans.
The boy was going to be a problem. Daccord knew the Chairman still intended to deal with him once the immediate issue was dealt with. Revenge seemed such a petty goal, especially when there was no financial gain to be had.
“No, not a puzzle,” said the Chairman. “Cargo with location codes. Only the assigned cube can pass through the allocated door. Simple logistics. This place is the same. These ‘trees’ are charging stations for organics. And they connect to the rest of the ship through their ‘roots’. We merely have to access the main database through them and we will find what we need.”
“Yes, sir. How should we proceed?” Daccord had no idea how they had gone from stumbling around in the dark — and that was before the lights went out — to being on the brink of taking control, but he was willing to believe it. The Chairman was a man of great insights. His three books on success in business were all bestsellers.
“How many infoganics do we have?”
Daccord had to think for a moment. He didn’t have access to his datapad, but he had made a mental note of the organic types among the VendX survivors.
“Erm… three, sir. A long-range detector, a blocker and a hacker.”
“Good, very good,” said the Chairman. “With the boost in power they’ve all received, that should be enough. Bring those three to the nearest tree conduit. It doesn’t matter which one, they should all be inert at this moment.”
He was right. The trees were now dull-white crystalline structures, like ice sculpture props for a shop window.
“Everyone else, I want them to form a defensive perimeter around this position, thirty metres, no one to enter. Absolutely no one.” It was clear he meant the Seneca women.
“Yes, sir.” Daccord looked around for green-tinted faces he recognised at the small pools among the trees. “Renson, Hartigan, form up a defensive line with, circle, three-zero from my position.”
Feet started running as orders were barked and VendX troopers began to organise themselves.
“Bashir, Welu, Osaga, with me.” Daccord called out the last three names slightly louder, not being sure where those three were.
Within a few seconds, all three were jogging towards him. They stopped in front of him, ready for their orders, two of them looking a little concerned, one looking extremely nervous.
“Bashir, what’s wrong with you?” said Daccord.
“Nothing, Secretary Daccord,” said Bashir, fidgeting and glancing around. He was from the special op force that had been sent to the asteroid as a preemptive strike force. The rest of his squad were dead. Apart from one other. Daccord looked around to see where she had got to.
“I want you three to direct your organics towards that tree,” said Daccord.
They all turned to look at the tree and then back at Daccord.
“You want us to go back in there?” said Bashir.
Daccord didn’t like the way the man’s voice trembled. He was an experienced operative. Even if his whole team had been wiped out, he should still follow orders like a professional. That’s what he was being paid for.
“Yes. You have a problem with that?”
“No, Mr Secretary,” said Bashir, sounding like he was about to bring up the problem, “but we just broke out of there. Why do you want us to go back in?”
On the surface, it did seem a reasonable question, but it was still being posed in a doubtful manner, as though no answer was going to be very convincing.
“Aren’t they broken?” asked Osaga. The dissent was spreading. They’d want to unionise next.
“Yes, they are. That’s why you won’t be at risk when you go in. Pay will be doubled for the duration of this incursion.” In the end, money solved all problems.
“If there isn’t any risk, why are we getting danger money?” asked Welu, with no snark. Her face was devoid of emotion, she was just making sure she understood the brief.
“It isn’t danger money, it’s incentivisation. You will enter the network that connects all the trees in this room with all the trees spread around this ship, and you will gather information on…” He turned to look at the Chairman who hadn’t said anything so far.
“Find the sigil and the most direct route there,” said the Chairman, who had an uncanny ability to know when he was being looked at. “Use your newly enhanced organics to force yourself into the network. Even dead, it will provide you with empty channels to flow through. Work together to scan as quickly as you can. A big ship like this will naturally have a simple layout.
The three infoganics nodded. It made it much easier to accept a mission when it was given by the Chairman.
The three of them approached a tree from three different sides and placed their hands on the trunk. None of them looked convinced this was a good idea, but they at least followed orders. Three pairs of eyes lit up with a light far more intense than any of them had been capable of before.
“We have been breached,” said the Chairman in a matter of fact tone. Daccord scanned the area looking for an intruder.
There was a rush of air. A dozen or more figures appeared around the tree, crouched but moving swiftly to surround the three infoganics, having somehow gotten past the outer ring of defenders.
They held rudimentary weapons in their hands — sticks, swords, spears — that were crudely made, but in their hands they looked menacing and deadly. They took up position, ready to attack those around the tree and also anyone who might rush in from the perimeter, should they notice their lines had been breached.
Daccord had been waiting for Seneca to interfere at some point, but not in such a direct manner. It was neither surprising nor unexpected, just annoying.
“You don’t want to do that,” said General Sway from on top of the tree where the branches flattened out. How she had climbed up there without being seen was truly impressive.
“We aren’t doing your people any harm, General,” said Daccord, keeping his voice even. “Please remove your troops and keep to your own area, as agreed.”
“We just managed to turn these light prisons off, now you want them back online?” She made it sound like a ridiculous proposition. “Are you completely stupid?”
“That isn’t what we’re doing, General,” said Daccord. “We have every right—”
“One moment, Daccord,” said the Chairman. He lifted his face, his sightless eyes closed, a thin smile on his lips. “General Sway, there is no reason for us to be in conflict, our purpose is the same.”
“Is it?” said the General. “I am not so sure. Your purpose at the moment appears to involve turning the power back on and allowing our host to resume observing us. I don’t like to be observed, Chairman. It makes it so much harder to perform unsavoury acts, don’t you agree?”
The threat wasn’t subtle. The Fourth had warned them not to fight amongst themselves and very likely had the power to punish those who ignored the directive, but now that they were in the dark, were they still being watched? And even if they were, how could they be punished? The power the Fourth used had just blown a fuse, and standard technology didn’t work here — no droids, no defence grid.
If General Sway wished to execute her rivals, now would seem to be the best time.
The Chairman scoffed lightly, a quivering sound from somewhere inside his voluminous throat. “You take it for granted that your women would be able to deal with my VendX specials?”
“I do,” said General Sway with complete confidence and barely any swagger, making it clear how little esteem she held VendX in.
Daccord could hear a soft growl coming from behind him.
“I dare say you’re right,” said the Chairman. “Your reputation certainly precedes you, General. But this is no detonation from orbit. You won’t be able to overwhelm us with superior battle tech. Hand to hand fighting is a dirty business, General. Desperate people will act in a most barbaric manner. Trust me, I know. Our sales strategies are based on it.”
There was a moment of silence as the Chairman’s somewhat more indirect counter-threat sank in. Seneca would win but at what cost? Certainly, they wouldn’t come out unscathed. And what would they gain? It wasn’t even clear what the Fourth planned to do with them.
“But there is no need to lock horns yet. There is a path to our goal here, one that will require us to work in tandem. I know you do not value partnership, but expediency is worth making a one-time exception.”
Seneca were known to reject cooperation. They saw it as a weakness that could be exploited. But the Chairman obviously saw a way to convince them otherwise. He was a brilliant tactician, and a legendary salesman. Daccord waited with bated breath to see how he would make such an impossible pitch work.
“You have nothing we need,” said General Sway. “Only consequences to share.” She looked down through the branches at the three infoganics with their eyes alight and their bodies frozen as they tried to manage the uptick in power surging through them. The tree was as inert as before.
“There are things you aren’t aware of,” said the Chairman. “Things VendX has knowledge of, about the old Antecessors, the ones who came before.”
Sway’s face remained impassive, but there was a glint in her eye. She wasn’t nibbling yet, but the hook was within reach of her lips.
“And your tiny little corp knows secrets even the megacorps aren’t aware of?”
“We have some investors that might surprise you,” said the Chairman. “We won’t always be prowling around the edges of the quadrant. We are building up to make our move, and we have accumulated the necessary data to do so. This ship, this network we’ve stumbled onto, it is more than oddly-shaped lamp posts We can—”
“Ah!” cried out Bashir, his body stiffening as he rose onto his toes as though he was preparing to float into the air. “I see it.” The tree began to glow at the tips of its branches.
“Stop him,” said Sway. The Seneca soldiers attacked, weapons thrusting at the three targets.
The tree flashed blinding white. Everyone covered their eyes, crying out in pain as they were sent flying away from the tree. Sway was sent crashing to the ground.
Two of the infoganics slumped, their hands still attached to the tree. Bashir remained standing, white glow flooding down the trunk and into his arms.
Only the Chairman didn’t flinch. “Did it work?” he demanded to know. No one answered him. “I said, did it work?”
“What are you doing?” asked a soft voice heavy with disappointment. “Did I not warn you to keep the peace? Now it seems you will have to die.”
Osaga screamed and was thrown from the tree. Her body had turned to ash before she hit the ground.
“Did it work?” shouted the Chairman.
“I can see… the way to the sigil,” moaned Bashir weakly.
“The shortcut?” said the Chairman.
“Now, General,” said the Chairman. “Be a slave to a god’s whims, or join me in risking everything.”
He was grinning. His eyes were glowing and his mouth was shaped into a smile of pure malice. Whatever his plan, he was betting it all on this one gamble.
Not all gamblers were successful, but all successful people were gamblers. Daccord knew that because it was the premise of the Chairman’s first book, Choose Your House.
One rule was inviolate in gambling; the house always wins. Which was why you never made bets with the house, you made bets with the person next to you at the table.
General Sway rose to her feet. Her eyes were already on fire.
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