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:
ALIENS. ANYONE WITH A STARSHIP, FILL IT WITH CHILDREN AND GO! GET OUT OF HUYGENS, NOW!)

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?

“Yes.”

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.)