True Ending: Sacrificial Fire (7/​8)

(Part 7 of 8 in “Three Worlds Collide”)

Standing behind his target, unnoticed, the Ship’s Confessor had produced from his sleeve the tiny stunner—the weapon which he alone on the ship was authorized to use, if he made a determination of outright mental breakdown. With a sudden motion, his arm swept outward -

- and anesthetized the Lord Akon.

Akon crumpled almost instantly, as though most of his strings had already been cut, and only a few last strands had been holding his limbs in place.

Fear, shock, dismay, sheer outright surprise: that was the Command Conference staring aghast at the Confessor.

From the hood came words absolutely forbidden to originate from that shadow: the voice of command. “Lord Pilot, take us through the starline back to the Huygens system. Get us moving now, you are on the critical path. Lady Sensory, I need you to enforce an absolute lockdown on all of this ship’s communication systems except for a single channel under your direct control. Master of Fandom, get me proxies on the assets of every being on this ship. We are going to need capital.”

For a moment, the Command Conference was frozen, voiceless and motionless, as everyone waited for someone else do to something.

And then -

“Moving the Impossible now, my lord,” said the Lord Pilot. His face was sane once again. “What’s your plan?”

“He is not your lord!” cried the Master of Fandom. Then his voice dropped. “Excuse me. Confessor—it did not appear to me that our Lord Administrator was insane. And you, of all people, cannot just seize power—”

“True,” said the one, “Akon was sane. But he was also an honest man who would keep his word once he gave it, and that I could not allow. As for me—I have betrayed my calling three times over, and am no longer a Confessor.” With that same response, the once-Confessor swept back the hood -

At any other time, the words and the move and the revealed face would have provoked shock to the point of fainting. On this day, with the whole human species at stake, it seemed merely interesting. Chaos had already run loose, madness was already unleashed into the world, and a little more seemed of little consequence.

“Ancestor,” said the Master, “you are twice prohibited from exercising any power here.”

The former Confessor smiled dryly. “Rules like that only exist within our own minds, you know. Besides,” he added, “I am not steering the future of humanity in any real sense, just stepping in front of a bullet. That is not even advice, let alone an order. And it is… appropriate… that I, and not any of you, be the one who orders this thing done—”

“Fuck that up the ass with a hedge trimmer,” said the Lord Pilot. “Are we going to save the human species or not?”

There was a pause while the others figured out the correct answer.

Then the Master sighed, and inclined his head in assent to the once-Confessor. “I shall follow your orders… kiritsugu.”

Even the Kiritsugu flinched at that, but there was work to be done, and not much time in which to do it.

In the Huygens system, the Impossible Possible World was observed to return from its much-heralded expedition, appearing on the starline that had shown the unprecedented anomaly. Instantly, without a clock tick’s delay, the Impossible broadcast a market order.

That was already a dozen ways illegal. If the Impossible had made a scientific discovery, it should have broadcast the experimental results openly before attempting to trade on them. Otherwise the result was not profit but chaos, as traders throughout the market refused to deal with you; just conditioning on the fact that you wanted to sell or buy from them, was reason enough for them not to. The whole market seized up as hedgers tried to guess what the hidden experimental results could have been, and which of their counterparties had private information.

The Impossible ignored the rules. It broadcast the specification of a new prediction contract, signed with EMERGENCY OVERRIDE and IMMINENT HARM and CONFESSOR FLAG—signatures that carried extreme penalties, up to total confiscation, for misuse; but any one of which ensured that the contract would appear on the prediction markets at almost the speed of the raw signal.

The Impossible placed an initial order on the contract backed by nearly the entire asset base of its crew.

The prediction’s plaintext read:

In three hours and forty-one minutes, the starline between Huygens and Earth will become impassable.
Within thirty minutes after, every human being remaining in this solar system will die.
All passage through this solar system will be permanently denied to humans thereafter.
(The following plaintext is not intended to describe the contract’s terms, but justifies why a probability estimate on the underlying proposition is of great social utility:

In the Huygens system, there was almost enough time to draw a single breath.

And then the markets went mad, as every single trader tried to calculate the odds, and every married trader abandoned their positions and tried to get their children to a starport.

“Six,” murmured the Master of Fandom, “seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven—”

A holo appeared within the Command Conference, a signal from the President of the Huygens Central Clearinghouse, requesting (or perhaps “demanding” would have been a better word) an interview with the Lord Administrator of the Impossible Possible World.

“Put it through,” said the Lord Pilot, now sitting in Akon’s chair as the figurehead anointed by the Kiritsugu.

Aliens?” the President demanded, and then her eye caught the Pilot’s uniform. “You’re not an Administrator—”

“Our Lord Administrator is under sedation,” said the Kiritsugu beside; he was wearing his Confessor’s hood again, to save on explanations. “He placed himself under more stress than any of us—”

The President made an abrupt cutting gesture. “Explain this—contract. And if this is a market manipulation scheme, I’ll see you all tickled until the last sun grows cold!”

“We followed the starline that showed the anomalous behavior,” the Lord Pilot said, “and found that a nova had just occurred in the originating system. In other words, my Lady President, it was a direct effect of the nova and thus occurred on all starlines leading out of that system. We’ve never found aliens before now—but that’s reflective of the probability of any single system we explore having been colonized. There might even be a starline leading out of this system that leads to an alien domain—but we have no way of knowing which one, and opening a new starline is expensive. The nova acted as a common rendezvous signal, my Lady President. It reflects the probability, not that we and the aliens encounter each other by direct exploration, but the probability that we have at least one neighboring world in common.”

The President was pale. “And the aliens are hostile.”

The Lord Pilot involuntarily looked to the Kiritsugu.

“Our values are incompatible,” said the Kiritsugu.

“Yes, that’s one way of putting it,” said the Lord Pilot. “And unfortunately, my Lady President, their technology is considerably in advance of ours.”

“Lord… Pilot,” the President said, “are you certain that the aliens intend to wipe out the human species?”

The Lord Pilot gave a very thin, very flat smile. “Incompatible values, my Lady President. They’re quite skilled with biotechnology. Let’s leave it at that.”

Sweat was running down the President’s forehead. “And why did they let you go, then?”

“We arranged for them to be told a plausible lie,” the Lord Pilot said simply. “One of the reasons they’re more advanced than us is that they’re not very good at deception.”

“None of this,” the President said, and now her voice was trembling, “none of this explains why the starline between Huygens and Earth will become impassable. Surely, if what you say is true, the aliens will pour through our world, and into Earth, and into the human starline network. Why do you think that this one starline will luckily shut down?”

The Lord Pilot drew a breath. It was good form to tell the exact truth when you had something to hide. “My Lady President, we encountered two alien species at the nova. The first species exchanged scientific information with us. It is the second species that we are running from. But, from the first species, we learned a fact which this ship can use to shut down the Earth starline. For obvious reasons, my Lady President, we do not intend to share this fact publicly. That portion of our final report will be encrypted to the Chair of the Interstellar Association for the Advancement of Science, and to no other key.”

The President started laughing. It was wild, hysterical laughter that caused the Kiritsugu’s hood to turn toward her. From the corner of the screen, a gloved hand entered the view; the hand of the President’s own Confessor. “My lady...” came a soft female voice.

“Oh, very good,” the President said. “Oh, marvelous. So it’s your ship that’s going to be responsible for this catastrophe. You admit that, eh? I’m amazed. You probably managed to avoid telling a single direct lie. You plan to blow up our star and kill fifteen billion people, and you’re trying to stick to the literal truth.”

The Lord Pilot slowly nodded. “When we compared the first aliens’ scientific database to our own—”

“No, don’t tell me. I was told it could be done by a single ship, but I’m not supposed to know how. Astounding that an alien species could be so peaceful they don’t even consider that a secret. I think I would like to meet these aliens. They sound much nicer than the other ones—why are you laughing?”

“My Lady President,” the Lord Pilot said, getting a grip on himself, “forgive me, we’ve been through a lot. Excuse me for asking, but are you evacuating the planet or what?”

The President’s gaze suddenly seemed sharp and piercing like the fire of stars. “It was set in motion instantly, of course. No comparable harm done, if you’re wrong. But three hours and forty-one minutes is not enough time to evacuate ten percent of this planet’s children.” The President’s eyes darted at something out of sight. “With eight hours, we could call in ships from the Earth nexus and evacuate the whole planet.”

“My lady,” a soft voice came from behind the President, “it is the whole human species at stake. Not just the entire starline network beyond Earth, but the entire future of humanity. Any incrementally higher probability of the aliens arriving within that time—”

The President stood in a single fluid motion that overturned her chair, moving so fast that the viewpoint bobbed as it tried to focus on her and the shadow-hooded figure standing beside. “Are you telling me,” she said, and her voice rose to a scream, “to shut up and multiply?


The President turned back to the camera angle, and said simply, “No. You don’t know the aliens are following that close behind you—do you? We don’t even know if you can shut down the starline! No matter what your theory predicts, it’s never been tested—right? What if you create a flare bright enough to roast our planet, but not explode the whole sun? Billions would die, for nothing! So if you do not promise me a minimum of—let’s call it nine hours to finish evacuating this planet—then I will order your ship destroyed before it can act.”

No one from the Impossible spoke.

The President’s fist slammed her desk. “Do you understand me? Answer! Or in the name of Huygens, I will destroy your ship—”

Her Confessor caught her President’s body, very gently supporting it as it collapsed.

Even the Lord Pilot was pale and silent. But that, at least, had been within law and tradition; no one could have called that thinking sane.

On the display, the Confessor bowed her hood. “I will inform the markets that the Lady President was driven unstable by your news,” she said quietly, “and recommend to the government that they carry out the evacuation without asking further questions of your ship. Is there anything else you wish me to tell them?” Her hood turned slightly, toward the Kiritsugu. “Or tell me?”

There was a strange, quick pause, as the shadows from within the two hoods stared at each other.

Then: “No,” replied the Kiritsugu. “I think it has all been said.”

The Confessor’s hood nodded. “Goodbye.”

“There it goes,” the Ship’s Engineer said. “We have a complete, stable positive feedback loop.”

On screen was the majesty that was the star Huygens, of the inhabited planet Huygens IV. Overlaid in false color was the recirculating loop of Alderson forces which the Impossible had steadily fed.

Fusion was now increasing in the star, as the Alderson forces encouraged nuclear barriers to break down; and the more fusions occurred, the more Alderson force was generated. Round and round it went. All the work of the Impossible, the full frantic output of their stardrive, had only served to subtly steer the vast forces being generated; nudge a fraction into a circle rather than a line. But now -

Did the star brighten? It was only their imagination, they knew. Photons take centuries to exit a sun, under normal circumstances. The star’s core was trying to expand, but it was expanding too slowly—all too slowly—to outrun the positive feedback that had begun.

“Multiplication factor one point oh five,” the Engineer said. “It’s climbing faster now, and the loop seems to be intact. I think we can conclude that this operation is going to be… successful. One point two.”

“Starline instability detected,” the Lady Sensory said.

Ships were still disappearing in frantic waves on the starline toward Earth. Still connected to the Huygens civilization, up to the last moment, by tiny threads of Alderson force.

“Um, if anyone has anything they want to add to our final report,” the Ship’s Engineer said, “they’ve got around ten seconds.”

“Tell the human species from me—” the Lord Pilot said.

“Five seconds.”

The Lord Pilot shouted, fist held high and triumphant: “To live, and occasionally be unhappy!

This concludes the full and final report of the Impossible Possible World.

(To be completed.)