Triple Stars Trilogy box set.
The unfolding mystery
Three warring worlds attempt to resolve their differences over a disputed planet, but the peace talks upon the central Nexus world of Coronade are thrown into chaos when one of the delegates is brutally murdered. Conciliator Magdi, an empath from Periarch, pursues the killer in a desperate attempt to keep the peace talks alive.
Meanwhile, confused rumours circulate about the discoveries made by the Magellanic Cloud, a ship thought lost in the galactic core. Wild rumours warn of a biological or technological discovery that threatens the very existence of interstellar civilisation.
Magdi sees an opportunity to use the rumours as a way to encourage the three worlds back to the table. But has she underestimated the risks she faces?
And has she made the mistake of not taking the troubling rumours seriously enough?
The Triple Stars prequel novella.
A hidden trail among the stars
The galaxy is in flames under the harsh theocratic rule of Concordance, the culture that once thrived among the stars reduced to scattered fragments. Selene Ada, last survivor of an obliterated planet, joins forces with the mysterious renegade, Ondo Lagan.
Together they attempt to unravel the mystery of Concordance’s rapid rise to galactic domination. They follow a trail of shattered starship hulks and ancient alien ruins, with the ships of the enemy always one step behind.
But it’s only when they find the mythical planet of Coronade that they uncover the true scale of the destruction Concordance is capable of unleashing…
The return of an ancient galactic threat
Selene and Ondo piece together the secrets of Concordance’s ascension to galactic domination, and the truth of what it was Vulpis encountered at the heart of the galaxy three hundred years previously.
They uncover an ancient threat to all life – a threat that Concordance seems intent on reawakening to complete its genocidal aims. But they also follow another trail – one left for them by someone or something unknown, a hidden intelligence seemingly guiding them to hopes of a possible salvation.
But each time they unearth a new fragment of the puzzle, Concordance are waiting, its ships and miraculous technology unleashed against them…
The darkness at the heart of the galaxy
Following the clues given them by the Aetheral, the Radiant Dragon and Toruk, Selene and Ondo close in on the existential threat to galactic life unleashed by Vulpis.
They battle Concordance all the way, aided by unlikely allies and mysterious messages. The trail leads them to more artefacts left behind by the Tok, drawing them ever-closer to the secrets at the heart of the galaxy.
But what they find there, and the truth they uncover about galactic history, changes everything…
Das E-Book können Sie in Legimi-Apps oder einer beliebigen App lesen, die das folgende Format unterstützen:
Prologue - The Magellanic Heresies
A Slow Cruelty
A World in Shadows
The Unmoving Stars
The Remains of Shattered Starships
Things Written in the Stars
Prologue - The Magellanic Heresies
The Moving Stars
The Mass Engine
The Dust of Shattered Worlds
The Teeming Death
The Seer Stone
The Fight at the Red Star
Prologue - The Magellanic Heresies
A Hole in the Sun
The Thousand Year Night
Blood and Broken Glass
Faster Than Light
A Star of Ill Omen
The Light at the Heart of the Galaxy
The Bells, Silenced
The First Augurs
Three Sentinel Worlds
The Thirty Million Years War
The Darkness at the Heart of the Galaxy
Table of Contents
A warm wind breathed into Conciliator Magdi's face as she gazed from the high viewing platform of Equatorial City Seven's eastern tower. The dizzying altitude made her grasp the smooth stone of the handrail. Heights troubled her more than she'd admit to anyone, but she'd wanted to be alone for a few moments before meeting the warring parties in the peace talks.
The city – known to all its inhabitants as Suri – was laid out like an engraved map around her: the clean edges of its triangles and tetrahedrons; the radiating lines of its garden boulevards crossed repeatedly by the three spiralling Turnways winding out to the edges of the city. One to the sparkling ocean, one to the great sands, one to the upland flower jungles. The city's embassies and halls and hotels were constructed in a dazzling array of architectural styles, reflections of a thousand different cultures, but there was a pleasing cohesiveness to the city's layout, too: the sandy hues of its walls, the rhythm of its skylines.
She filtered scents blown from the deep seas through the olfactory slits in her neck: smells that spoke to her of the lagoons and atolls of Periarch, her distant home. That, in turn, brought Olorun to her mind. They weren't a couple – for one thing they lived three hundred light-years apart – but the possibility was there, they both knew. Some days, her longing for him was intense, a physical response in her body. She felt it now: the animal need for contact. She would speak to him that evening, and it would help a little.
She breathed deeply again. There was a tang, also, of decay on the wind: the salt rot of the coastal kelp fields. Despite it, she inhaled three, four lungfuls of the planet's air to soothe her nerves. The atmosphere on Coronade was slightly low in oxygen for her biology – the climb up the steps had made stars dance in her head – and it was altogether too hot and humid for her liking so close to the equator. Still, she had chosen the site deliberately for the meeting she was about to take charge of. She expected most trouble from the Gogon Confederacy; it had taken three years of patient diplomacy to induce them to the table, and, quietly, every attempt was being made to engineer an experience that was as trouble-free for them as possible. The heavy, sticky air would be comfortable for a Gogoni, even if she and the delegates from Arianas and Sejerne suffered. But, if they could reach an accord and ease the tensions that had flared into open war in their solar system three times now, it would be worth a little perspiration.
“Is there anything else you need for the talks, Conciliator Magdi?” The voice of Coronade's planetary Mind spoke directly into her brain via the jewel-like glass bead embedded in her cerebellum. She felt it as a faint tickle in her head, although she'd been told numerous times that the sensation was entirely in her imagination.
Rather than replying brain-to-Mind, she gave her response out loud as there was no one nearby to eavesdrop. “I'm as ready as I'll ever be. Now we have to hope that none of the delegates storms out of the talks before we can find a workable solution to their seemingly intractable problem.”
Coronade's response was tinted with amusement. The planetary Mind had seen thousands of such peace conferences over the centuries. “I'd be surprised if they didn't all storm out at some point, claiming dire insult or betrayal in an attempt to extract some concession.”
Magdi let go of the handrail and pressed her eight-fingered hands together in a gesture that signified assent to anyone on her own world. It was a motion she'd need to be wary of making during the discussions; what meant yes upon her planet might mean something else completely upon another. Variations on the common tongue might be in near-universal use across the galaxy, but local idiom and gesture remained distinctive. Too many Gogoni hand signs, specifically, indicated insult or threat.
“I will be sure to play my part,” she said in reply. “I will be, perhaps, the mortified host horrified at the offence, or else I'll feign anger at the insult made personally to me by such actions.”
“A delicate balance to be struck,” said Coronade.
“It is no different from persuading families warring over some petty boundary dispute to set their disagreements aside; it's just that billions of lives are at stake rather than a handful. The trick is simply to make each side feel that they have gained what they most want, without having given away too much in return.”
“Do you think you can do it?”
Could she? She had a chance, the outline of a plan, but it was by no means guaranteed. This was a tricky three-way dispute over an uninhabited world that they all claimed. One culture considered it sacred, while the other two considered it ripe for resource exploitation. Finding a compromise was not going to be straightforward. “If necessary, I'll lock them in a room until they reach agreement or die of old age,” she said.
More amusement from Coronade. “That might not work out well, given that the Sejerne are vegetarian and the Gogoni purely carnivorous.”
“It might at least reduce the number of parties in the discussion.”
With an orbital-sensing scan overlaying her vision, the sky of Coronade was filled with a constellation of silver-white stars: the constantly shifting patterns of starships, hundreds of them arriving and departing every day, travelling from and to every inhabited system in known galactic space. As with all superluminal ships, they terminated their metaspace jumps well away from the stellar mass before completing their journey to the planet under reaction drive, avoiding any risk of being sucked into the solar gravity well during translation. She watched one ship, tagged in her mind's eye as that of Ambassador Vol Velle, the delegate from Sejerne, approaching one of the equatorial docks locked in ground-stationary orbit high above her head. His appearance meant that all three parties in the dispute had now arrived at Coronade. That was something. She'd feared more delays, more of their endless game-playing.
Coronade spoke again, some sly quality to its voice suggesting that this was what it had wanted to say all along. “I have been considering the wider picture, looking for angles that might assist you, conversing with other planetary Minds. We are obviously keen for this dispute to be resolved.”
She sometimes wondered if the planets ever grew weary of the warring, troublesome life-forms that crawled over their surfaces, thronged their atmospheres. The Minds were, of course, the products and tools of those troublesome life-forms, but surely the thought had occurred to them: Why do we need these ridiculous creatures, teeming in their countless billions. They are the source of all our problems. Without them we could arrange ourselves rationally, all strife forgotten. She had once asked that very question of Coronade, the central neuron in the galactic Mind, and it had expressed a complex mixture of amusement and revulsion in reply. The question is a category error; it is meaningless. You might as well ask why your mind doesn't rebel against the cells of the brain that houses it. Even if it were possible, what point would there be? And a galaxy without biological life-forms would be … dull.
She guessed it had to say something along those lines. She wasn't completely sure she believed it “Did you come up with anything?” she asked.
“A possibility occurred to me. You will be aware of the ship called the Magellanic Cloud, the fallout from its supposed discoveries in the galactic core?”
“I am obviously aware of the rumours. You have something more concrete? Something pertinent?”
“Not much. Even I am in the dark about what has been found. There are obviously no planetary Minds within the uncharted regions that the Magellanic Cloud was exploring, although those closer by, at the edges of known space, are expressing a certain amount of disquiet at the reports reaching them.”
Her mind had been full of preparations for the talks: strategies for persuasion, careful attempts to learn the details of the three disparate cultures involved. Still, she was aware that the feeds were awash with talk of what had been found. Through the fuzz of speculation and invention there was, so far as she knew, only one hard fact: the lost Magellanic Cloud had unexpectedly returned to the Ormeray Ten outpost station with less than half its crew onboard. Whether the others were dead, or had been abandoned or taken captive, was unknown. There was confused talk of a vicious mutiny led by a crew-member, one Dragonel Vulpis. Whether those returning on the ship were insane, or the perpetrators, or even heroes, was also unclear. She'd heard versions of the rumour claiming all that and more.
“What does the Ormeray Ten Mind say?”
“Little of use; it has limited intellectual capacity. It's basically a set of environmental control routines with no self-awareness.”
“Then I don't see how the Magellanic Cloud story helps. The system involved in our dispute is twenty thousand light-years from the central mass; there can be no possible connection.”
“I concur, but that does not mean our guests will see it like that. It's possible they lack … perspective.”
“Explain.” The word came out more tersely than she'd intended. She didn't have the head-space for this new angle; it didn't seem important. She forced herself to listen. Coronade was wise, and her boosted Pack Queen nature could all too easily make assertiveness tip over into rudeness. Another thing she needed to watch when it came to the diplomatic discussions.
“You will have heard the stories that the Magellanic Cloud encountered a major technological or biological power previously unknown to us. A power that, now it is aware of our existence, will burst from the galactic core to destroy us all.”
The stories were clearly ridiculous, a rehashing of common myths and tired old tropes. Although she did sometimes wonder if the prevalence of such stories might not be an echo of some shared folk-memory rather than the result of simple paranoia about the unknown. Whatever the truth of it, there could be no such threat; the culture centred on Coronade was vast, extending to sixty percent of the galaxy's star systems. Nothing could threaten it.
Yet the Mind was right: there might be something there she could use. “You're suggesting that fear of a common enemy, even an imaginary one, might unify our warring worlds?”
“They might start seeing all they have in common, rather than what divides them.”
“I will give it some thought. I hope to reach a settlement based on something more solid than lies and fear, but the angle might prove useful when a little extra pressure is needed. Have you been in touch with the Minds of the delegates' homeworlds?”
“I am in constant communication with over seventy-two thousand planetary intelligences across the known galaxy, either via the nanotube mesh or, for worlds where that does not reach, via despatches carried upon metaspace ships. Gogon, Sejerne and Arianas all express the hope that a solution may be found, but none proposes what that might be. They are happy to place the onus for a resolution upon Coronade. And, therefore, upon you.”
“Of course they are.”
Another voice sounded in her head, a notification from her personal AI. “The Gogoni delegates are requesting an immediate audience with you to lay down their preconditions. Also, the envoy from Arianas appears to have heard of this and is demanding a meeting of her own. And Ambassador Vol Velle has lodged a formal complaint that the talks are starting before he has even arrived on the planet.”
Magdi inhaled one more deep breath. “And so it begins,” she said.
In the end, she waited a day and a half before meeting any of the representatives from the warring worlds. Partly, it was an opening move to deflate their self-importance a notch, to tell them that they weren't the most urgent matter in the galaxy – without frustrating them too much. Mainly it was to give them a chance to experience Coronade. Along with her apologies to each envoy, she'd sent messages encouraging them to visit the planet's sites, complete with a suggested itinerary of highlights. The embassies of more-or-less every starfaring civilisation were to be found either on the surface of the planet or upon one of its moons or orbital platforms. Coronade was a treasure house of cultural wonders – and if all that architecture and art didn't appeal, there were always the ancient cultural remnants: the artificial oceanic islands with their intriguing ruins currently being excavated by teams of astroarchaeologists. Civilizations had seemingly existed upon Coronade long before the recording of any histories.
She'd learned from experience that time away from the negotiating table could pay dividends: released from the pressures of their own planets, and faced with the experience of bumping into the citizens of worlds they'd never even heard of, delegates often mellowed a little. Acquired a degree of perspective. It was part of the point of Coronade: neutral ground where representatives of all civilisations could mingle and learn from each other. Nobody's home world, and so everybody's.
When she judged they'd fumed long enough, she arranged a meeting with each delegation – without telling them which she was meeting first. That was another detail they didn't need to know.
Delegate Palianche of the Gogoni informed her that he was waiting at his quarters; she could come to him. It was immediately clear that the enforced delay had done little to soothe his anger. Before she could utter her words of greeting to Palianche and his two advisors, the Delegate stood, sending his chair clattering to the ground, his muscular green body unwinding in a way that emphasised his brute physical strength. He towered over her. His metallic-sheen skin – an adaptation to the high solar radiation of his world – shimmered in a clear fury display. Gogoni were evolved top-predators, their forms powerful and their laser-like focus on their prey absolute.
His words, though, threw her. His voice was a soft whisper, like a coolant gas escaping a leak under high pressure. “Please convey to Coronade that I demand a different Conciliator be assigned. I will not work with you.”
Magdi kept her expression neutral, her voice calm and slow. Palianche had to be allowed to play his games. “May I ask why you object to me?”
“I do not trust one of your kind. Your telepathic abilities are an affront, an intrusion. Do you deny you can read my thoughts?”
She stepped forwards slowly, sat on the empty chair waiting for her and folded her hands in her lap, in a gesture that conveyed passivity to one of his world. “I am a Periarch, yes, and like you we are a predatorial race, proudly so. Our Pack Queens have natural empathic abilities, there to resolve conflict, impose order and maintain strong social cohesion, and it is true that my biological responses have been boosted with the relevant hormones to enhance that capacity. I cannot read your mind, Delegate Palianche, but I do have some sense of your emotional state. It is part of what makes me a good Conciliator.”
He regarded her with his reflective green eyes. It was hard not to see malevolence there, but in truth she was reading something else entirely from his mind: wariness, even outright fear. Interesting.
“And so, we are your pack now?” he said finally. “Do you intend to control all three delegations, bend them to your will like Periarch warrior drones?”
She sat back, keeping her expression neutral. The living quarters of the three delegations were identical: comfortable, luxurious, one wall taken up with a window that overlooked Suri's Hub park, a calming, pleasant vista to most species. On the opposite wall of each suite she'd placed a stylized representation of the planets in the disputed system: Palianche's own world, Gogon, next to the sun, then Sejerne, then the disputed world, then finally cold Arianas. She'd wanted each delegation to have that simple image in their heads. It was rare to have a trio of naturally-habitable worlds in a single solar system – a fact that she was glad of. Contested systems were almost always flashpoints once one or more cultures acquired spaceflight technology.
Her eyes on the diagram rather than him, she said, “I cannot control any of you, and I would not if I could. My intention is simply to find an agreement on what to do about Forge.”
Forge. Such was the Gogoni name for the third planet in their system – a fitting title for a world they wished to mine for its abundant mineral reserves. The other civilisations had their own names, of course – many different names. To the Sejerne the world was generally referred to as Amon, the sacred domain of the gods in their dominant religion. To the people of Arianas it was Penanda, the brightest of their three morning and evening stars, and a world whose uranium reserves were badly needed.
“Our claim to Forge is undeniable,” said Palianche. “We are the closest planet claiming mineral exploitation rights. The legal principle of proximity is clear.”
She turned back to face him directly, fix him with her own gaze. “There are, as you well know, other legal principles to consider. Sejerne, for one, is nearer.”
“But it does not claim mining rights. It does not wish to land there at all.”
“It does claim that the planet is inviolate.”
Palianche snorted. “The planet is uninhabited and rich with minerals and heavy metals; it makes no sense to leave it untouched. Sejerne's fairy stories won't build cities and ships, and they won't feed or house our people.”
One of his two advisors, smaller and less powerfully-built, eyes always averted, stood and, standing on the tips of his toes, whispered something into the line of otic receptors that curved up the side of Palianche's head. This one, she knew, was called Emchek, an observer from Evening Star Rising, the dominant political/military faction on Gogon, there to advise on negotiating strategy. The other, Sorabai, was a technocrat, from the currently subservient White Peak faction, sent to ensure Palianche had all the required scientific facts at his talon tips. Emchek was the taller of the two by several centimetres, as befitted a member of the planet's controlling bloc: a Gogoni individual's physical stature altered in line with their social rank; the more important the person, the larger and more powerful their form. Palianche was truly impressive, while Emchek and Sorabai were shorter than Magdi. The Gogoni monarch, Emperor Avigand, was said to be truly titanic.
Their one-word names, meanwhile, were typical of the no-nonsense Gogoni: individuals on the planet were assigned a random designation at birth that was guaranteed to be unique. It was a system she had some admiration for.
Whatever Emchek said, it appeared to placate the Delegate a little. Sorabai placed Palianche's chair back on its feet, and the Delegate sat. He fixed his unblinking glare upon her. She had to be wary of falling into the prejudice of seeing the Gogoni as simply hot-headed predators from a sun-blasted world. Their need for mineral resources was not primarily military: mainly, in her view, their expansionism was driven by their rapidly growing population, a situation that Coronade and the other Minds were keen to facilitate. Expanding cultures were considered highly desirable in a galaxy where habitable planets vastly outnumbered the civilisations to live on them. Space was, to all intents and purposes, infinite – although, sometimes there was a need for balance, for potentially warring worlds to grow at similar speeds.
“Your claims over Forge will, of course, be discussed at length once the talks begin,” she said. “Your objections to me are noted, but I ask that you give me some time. If you still feel the same in, say, a week, then we can look for another Conciliator. There are many of us on Coronade. The protocol for my replacement is very simple: you will need agreement from the other delegates, or at least a majority of them.”
There was, in truth, no such protocol. But if she could at least get two of the worlds co-operating, it might be a start. The danger was that the Gogoni and the Aranians might set aside their bitter military differences and agree to carve up Forge over the objections of Sejerne. The Gogoni considered the Sejerne to be credulous fools, although they also considered the leader of the delegation from Arianas, Fleet General Pannax Ro, to be a war criminal. Gogon and Arianas would never form friendly ties, but they might at least understand each other.
Palianche glowered at her for a few more seconds, the flesh around his nasal openings pulsing as he breathed in and out. “A week, then,” he said. “You will have that time.”
“I am grateful,” she replied, and rose to leave. As she crossed to the door, she expected to sense something like relief from the Gogoni, a lowering of his guard. Perhaps satisfaction at a small victory won. Instead she felt that fear in him mounting a notch.
She'd arranged to meet Ambassador Vol Velle at the Temple of Countless Spires rather than at his living quarters or the Congress Hall, thinking that a more spiritual setting might put him at his ease. She took her time to stroll there, thinking about Palianche and the solution she intended to steer the three warring parties towards. The streets of Suri were always busy – Coronade was a magnet for tourists – but the throng became denser than normal as she approached the temple district, to the point where she had to start pushing her way through the crowds. She began to hear raised voices, too: the repeated, amplified chant of a ringleader and the response of a crowd. Something was going on.
Demonstrations and marches were a common sight on Coronade, but generally they were aimed at one embassy or another, or at the delegates attending some specific conference. This was the first time she'd witnessed one in the temple district. Whatever it was that the crowd were objecting to, her main concern was for Vol Velle: if he was caught up in the trouble it might make him wary, and that in turn would make compromise all the more difficult.
She contacted him directly, her bead seeking out his on the planetary mesh and politely enquiring if he was contactable. She made the connection low-priority, not wanting to intrude if he was attempting to hide from the trouble or quietly at prayer somewhere. He might also have chosen to go off-network, making him untraceable. Most people on Nexus worlds rarely bothered to conceal themselves, but she knew it was more common on less connected worlds like his.
Despite that, Vol Velle responded immediately, reporting that he was inside the Temple and looking forwards to meeting her. He sounded calm. She pushed through the jostle and reached a line of City Marshalls forming a cordon around the temple. The Coronade equivalent of a local police force, they existed mainly to corral and control the growing numbers of offworlders who visited the planet. The Marshalls had no power over a member of the planet's diplomatic staff such as herself. Still, it made no sense to take any undue risk. She pinged her ID to the nearest officer as she approached, making it clear that she wished to enter the temple. The crowd around her was visibly angry, building up to something, an edge of fear to them as they shouted abuse at the Temple and the Marshalls – although neither, presumably, were at fault.
The Marshall looked wary, eyes darting left and right beneath his helmet as he battled to maintain the cordon, arms linked through those of the two officers next to him. In truth, he was in no real danger. In an emergency, he could issue executive control overrides to the mob's brain beads and coerce them into moving away. It was a rarely-used power, superficially at odds with the freedoms visitors to Coronade were allowed, but it was effective, making everyone more relaxed about allowing displays of public dissent. Whatever happened, the situation would not be allowed to get out of hand.
The Marshall unlinked his arm for a moment to let Magdi through. He didn't otherwise respond to her. As she passed, she felt the faint wash of resentment from him – the Marshalls disliked the fact that people like Magdi were immune from their authority – but it was soon replaced by his watchful wariness of the angry crowd.
The interior of the temple was a cool, airy space, light slanting down from high windows to spotlight floor slabs worn smooth by the passage of many feet. Every step echoed off the hard surfaces, and dust motes floated in the still air like a scatter of faint white stars. Although she followed no religion, saw no reason to follow any religion, she often came in here. A place to sit and think and wonder. She'd once walked all around, numbering the supposedly countless spires. She'd reached a total of twenty-seven before deciding that she was missing the point.
She found the Ambassador in a shadowy corner, seemingly unconcerned by the trouble outside. He was studying a triptych of abstract paintings, each perhaps representing a face, each an aspect of Ambidon, the Triple God of the Myrcin League. Their names, she noted, were Wisdom, Fury and Adoration.
“My apologies for the inconvenience of the current situation,” she said as she approached. “If I'd known there was going to be crowd trouble, I'd have arranged to meet you elsewhere.”
She'd expected Vol Velle to be a grim, austere figure, the product of a world with a strong puritanical streak. Before becoming an ambassador, he'd been a leading light in the One World Brotherhood, amongst the planet's larger religious denominations, and he was still a committed devotee of the faith. His appearance immediately confounded her: his shock of springy grey hair and his open smile gave him the air of a man who'd seen and heard it all and managed to find the humour and the humanity throughout. He had the easy amiability, the charisma, that would allow him to hold a congregation – or an ambassadorial delegation – in the palm of his hand.
He looked amused rather than affronted at her words. “You'd be surprised at the minutiae of religious debate that have inspired much worse on Sejerne; our ancestors once fought three wars over the interpretation of a single word in a religious text. To be honest with you, all this has made me feel rather at home. If I'd known Coronade was going to be so interesting, I might have come sooner.”
He was adorned neck to knees in the simple, sky-blue robes of his order. She wasn't taken in by his display of penury: the robes were artfully tailored, their seams apparently hand-stitched with fine threads of gold. Elaborate jewelled rings of office adorned his fingers. She made a mental note of the fact: he was, perhaps, a man who might be seduced by the luxuries of life, despite his avowed asceticism.
“Are you aware of their reasons for demonstrating?” she asked, keen to engage him in conversation upon matters of interest to him.
“Aren't you?” he asked, raising one grey eyebrow. “I thought you here on Coronade knew everything about everyone's lives.”
He was gently teasing her. That was fine; anything to build bridges.
“I'm no expert when it comes to ecclesiastical matters,” she said. “My specialism is in concrete issues of resource competition. This is an area where I would undoubtedly benefit from your knowledge.”
He smiled, either out of pleasure at her words, or because he knew she was attempting to flatter him.
“So far as I can tell, it is a rather more profane matter,” he replied. “They are afraid, and fear all too often spills over into anger, does it not?”
“Afraid of what?”
“They are troubled by what they have heard of the Magellanic Cloud. This temple is a focus for religious feeling in this city, and although the Cult of Omn has no presence here that I can find, people naturally gravitate here to protest. The Temple of Countless Spires is dedicated to all faiths, yes?”
The Cult of Omn. Until the rumours came to her ears, she'd never heard of it. “People see this Omnian religion as a threat? So far as I know it is a minor faith, followed by few people across a scatter of Orion Spur worlds.”
“A number of the crew of the Magellanic Cloud were known to be followers, and they were the missing ones when the ship returned to known space. There is talk that they have somehow allied with whatever has been encountered. Or, even, that they have found the omnipotent entity long-foretold by their sacred texts.”
“Do you give such stories any credence?”
His ready smile filled his whole face. “I don't; they sound regrettably like another excuse for religious persecution to me, a thing we on Sejerne are not unfamiliar with. And, speaking of that, I believe you have met with Delegate Palianche already?”
Her attempts at keeping her meetings a secret had clearly failed. She wondered how Vol Velle had discovered the truth of it. She reverted to the white lie she'd invented in case she needed it. “A greeting rather than a meeting, just as this is. I am merely introducing myself to the delegations in the physical order of the planets: Gogon, then Sejerne, and then Arianas.”
Again, the amused look on his features. Her boosted empathic sense sometimes gave her a synaesthetic visual crossover, so that she perceived people's emotional state as bands of colours around their heads, like an aura or a halo. With Vol Velle she saw rich oranges and golds. His good nature appeared to be utterly genuine, although the bands of bright colour were also shot-through, occasionally and briefly, with Fraunhofer lines of pure black. As if dark and troubling thoughts were flashing through his mind.
He held up his hand as though he was blessing her. “Please, I am not affronted. My delegation has issued stern objections for public show, of course, but it is all part of the game. The Gogoni are the main obstacle to peace here.”
Was that true? No doubt Palianche saw matters differently, and with what she'd learned overnight, Pannax Ro might yet prove to be the biggest obstacle to peace. But Vol Velle was a skilled diplomat; he was positioning himself, offering arguments and establishing his credentials while pretending to do nothing of the sort.
Fair enough. She'd do exactly the same. “I'm intrigued by the religious underpinnings of your world's claim to Amon. Would you fill me in on some background detail that might be of use once the discussions start?”
Faintly through the great walls, the voice of the crowd outside could be heard, rising and falling like the roar of some great beast. Vol Velle looked utterly unconcerned. “I'd be delighted to help, but I'm sure you know the essence of it. To many people on Sejerne, simply, the planet is the abode of the gods and the place that the souls of the virtuous travel to after death. It is our sacred realm.”
She probed him gently, wary of angering him. “But, forgive me, you have sent ships there; you must know the truth of it.”
Again, he found her objections amusing rather than insulting. “Some on Sejerne would refuse to listen to statements like that, believing them to be the lies and conspiracies of Gogon. The more literalist Sejerne insist that it is physically impossible to visit Amon, that it does not reside within normal space. Most of us, I would say, have retreated into metaphor a little. Amon is sacred ground and represents our notion of a heaven, even if our ships reveal it to be a planet. It is possible to believe two contradictory things at once, is it not? I can utterly lose myself in a book or an opera while still knowing, on one level, that it is a fabrication.”
He was calm, enjoying the conversation. She pushed him a little further. “You're surely not calling the tenets of your religion a fabrication?”
“Not in the least; I would simply say that there are ways of looking at the universe other than through the lenses of a telescope. Have you heard of Amon's Grace?”
She'd come across the phrase a few times but hadn't bothered to explore its meaning. “Please, tell me.”
“As Amon lies outside the orbit of Sejerne, we often see the planet displaying retrograde motion against the background stars, appearing briefly to stop in its movement and go backwards. Astronomically, of course, it is only Sejerne overtaking Amon in its orbit of the sun, but to our ancestors it was clear proof: Amon had paused in its wanderings through the stars and was going back to pick up the soul of some great or virtuous figure who had recently died. Even now, it is considered very auspicious to pass over just as such an event is observed. I might understand why this phenomenon occurs in physical terms, but I can still find it wondrous to behold, a source of hope and inspiration. Does that make sense?”
“A little. We all employ, if you'll excuse the phrase, magical thinking at times.”
“I would say, we all see higher truths at times. The main point is that one form or another of this belief unites the great majority of people on Sejerne. Whichever of our factions is right is, to a degree, irrelevant. If the planet is not respected as our sacred realm, inviolate, set apart, then Sejerne will fall into war: internal civil war as the sects fight over how best to respond, but also war with whatever species has sullied the planet. It may make little sense to one such as you who sees the universe only through the sensors of science, but that is the truth of it. It would be total war; Sejerne would unleash its revenge with all the might available to it. My people would feel they were fighting for their very souls.”
“Any exploitation of Amon's resources, even if it was invisible, would be unacceptable?”
“Absolutely; it would be enough that we knew it was taking place. There can be no compromise on this point, it is a simple, binary distinction. Either Amon is left untainted, or it is not.”
She nodded. There was the crux of the issue. She believed Vol Velle, too. He portrayed himself as outward-looking, liberal by the standards of his world, but most of the people he represented would accept no concession or retreat whatsoever.
He must have seen the troubled look on her features. He said, “We have a saying on Sejerne: Fire on one side, ice on the other. Do you know it?”
She'd come across the idiom in her reading. “It suggests that there is only a narrow path to be followed between two great dangers.”
“Something of the sorts, although some might say it simply describes the position of Sejerne, caught as we are between the fire of Gogon and the ice of Arianas. The point is, your task is an immensely difficult one, with no obvious solution. I do not envy you, but I do thank you for trying.”
“Do you think there is a path between the fire and the ice?”
“The Gogoni and the Aranians will say what they need to say, do what they need to do. They will threaten and rage, and eventually, hopefully, they will listen to reason. We are all children floundering around in the dark, trying to make sense of the situations we find ourselves in, trying to do the right thing for those we love. Acceptance of our limitations and imperfections is central to Sejerne belief. We are blessed and we are cursed sentient creatures, aware that one day we will die, and, worse, aware that we find ourselves alive. I sometimes envy those lower creatures who live in the moment, oblivious to their fate. I even envy the Minds, effectively immortal as they are.”
He smiled at his own imperfections. “You see, I am not a very good believer. There are many on my planet who live with the certainty of an unshakeable faith. I envy them, too. It must be a comfort. I have only my hope.”
A carefully-planned speech or the words of a humble man? She wasn't sure. The black absorption lines continued to flicker in his aura, but otherwise the colours remained constant; orange-red and bronze. He was either a very good actor, or he, at least, believed what he was saying.
“Thank you,” she said. “I will consider everything you have told me. You are prepared for the opening meeting tomorrow?”
“We shall be there. Let us hope our friends from Gogon and Arianas are as well.”
She left him to his studies of the artwork of the temple. But as she was stepping away, he spoke again. “Conciliator Magdi, you might like to know that, on Sejerne, Amon's Grace is being observed at this very moment.”
“It is an auspicious time for someone to die?”
His smile remained as warm as ever. “Let us hope it is simply an auspicious time for our disagreements to be solved.”
Pannax Ro met her, as agreed, inside Suri's subarctic biome, one of a circle of eight domes in the alien environment complex. The site was thirty kilometres from the edges of the city, erected upon a natural stone plateau within the great sands and linked to Suri by a four-line underground QuantLev. Each dome was five kilometres in diameter, filled with fauna and flora from all corners of the galaxy. There were numerous microbiomes dotted around, too, providing isolated or bio-secure environments, but it was a surprise, to Magdi at least, just how compatible plant-life from distant, disparate worlds was.
It went further: many of the active pollinators – insectoids and avians and winged mammals – were apparently also quite happy to fertilize plants from worlds many light-years from their own. As she understood it, that fact puzzled the xenobiologists, too. The domes had been built partly to allow the scientists to explain why it might be.
The subarctic biome had been populated with life-forms from colder worlds and more extreme planetary latitudes. The vegetation was mostly low-growing grassland, along with mosses, lichens and ferns, although there were also dark, watchful forests of spike-leaved evergreen trees. Her bead told her that Ro was waiting within the largest of these.
Artificial snow drifted from the glass sky, but it cut out as soon as she entered the shelter of the transplanted forest. The floor beneath her feet became a springy mesh of discarded needles. She slipped back the hood of the mulithermal coat they'd given her. The hush enveloping her was absolute. The contrast with the clashing heat of the environment outside the dome was stark; it was hard to believe that she'd stepped from temperatures approaching fifty degrees to this sub-zero permafrost. She welcomed it; her brain was noticeably sharper in the cold. Her breath when she exhaled through her mouth was a visible mist of moisture.
She slipped the hand-weapon they'd given her into its holster; there were large predators in the dome, the most dangerous of them the carnivorous gataraptors that hunted the tundra for smaller mammalians. But she was safe enough under the trees.
Ro waited for her in a clearing. The Fleet General sat upon the body of a fallen tree, watching her approach in silence. Something in the set of Ro's body suggested that she might leap into action at any moment, throw herself into an attack. She clearly did not need multithermal clothing; to her the ambient temperatures would be something approaching normal, and it was no surprise that she'd chosen to visit the subarctic biome. It was another thing Magdi would have to manage carefully: she had asked a lot of Ro, especially, by choosing Coronade's equator as the setting for the talks.
Magdi extended all her empathic senses as she neared the General. The predominant emotion she picked up was suspicion – reasonably enough. It was a cliché to think of the Aranians as cold and distant, but the fact was that Magdi had failed to build up any sort of connection with Ro during the pre-talk negotiations.
Ro finally stood to greet Magdi, offering her hand in the traditional Aranian forearm-grasp. Ro was thirty centimetres shorter than Magdi, her body powerful and compact, a form well-adapted to the preservation of core heat. A fine down covered her skin, delicate and shaded upon her face, thicker on her neck and exposed shoulder.
They sat side-by-side on the log. The wood was soft beneath Magdi, orange with rot. Ro said, “You've met with both Palianche and Vol Velle, I hear.”
Magdi sighed inwardly. Did everyone know about her supposedly secret arrangements? She repeated her line about greeting the delegations in planetary order.
Her words seemed to amuse Ro. “Strange how statements like that always seems to mean my people coming last. Tell me, did Palianche demand my expulsion from the talks, refuse to have to gaze upon me?”
“As a matter of fact, it was me he objected to.”
Ro's eyes narrowed slightly as she considered that. “He was posturing, of course.”
“He is just as predictable on the battlefield. I have commanded our fleet against him three times and beaten him backwards on each occasion.”
“He would claim you flouted the rules of war and committed atrocities. That just this year you unleashed your fleet's beam-weaponry on the Achenar, a peaceful science exploration vessel, killing everyone onboard.”
Ro bared her teeth in what might have been a grin. “He does not come from a world that teeters constantly on the brink of social collapse; that gives you a rather different perspective on what constitutes an atrocity. And the Achenar bore a full complement of Gogoni shocktroops. It wasn't a science vessel; it was part of a colonization task-force.”
Grey areas. Getting at the truth between two tellings of the same story was all-too often impossible. “Do you think you could ever live in peace with the Gogoni, share local space with them?”
“By local space, you are referring to Penanda.”
Ro was clearly keen to get straight to the crux of the matter. She was not one for wasting time over niceties, a trait Magdi rather appreciated.
“The planet and your entire solar system,” said Magdi. “Two of your victories were nowhere near the disputed world.”
Ro dipped her head as if in acknowledgement of her military glories. “We do not seek war; we wish only to survive. If the Gogoni and Sejerne can accept our presence and our needs, then we can tolerate theirs.”
“You are referring to your need for the mineral resources of Penanda.”
“I'm told you've done some research on my world, so you will know we are energy-poor, lacking in the solar radiation that Gogon and Sejerne are bathed in. The energy halo we propose to build around our world will guarantee our survival for centuries to come.”
The Aranian plans were certainly impressive: a cluster of 360 fission reactors in stationary orbit, safely removed from the surface but able to beam constant, reliable energy down to receiving installations upon the ground. Once constructed, the only technical challenge was maintaining a steady supply of the required radioactive materials – and Penanda was rich in uranium.
“The Gogoni are suspicious; they suspect you of wanting to stock-pile nuclear weapons to arm your fleet. They talk of you unleashing a planetary strike on Gogon, scouring it of all life.”
“The Gogoni are paranoid fools. They assume everyone is like them: expansionist, aggressive. I imagine I don't need to explain this to an empath. The truth is that with enough energy to stabilize our ecosystem, we would be less of a threat to them, not more. We would have no need to scrap for mineral resources upon asteroids and comets.”
“You would be prepared to accept observers to confirm that your intentions are peaceful?”
“We would resist it strongly, resent the intrusion.” Ro stopped talking, then tilted her head to one side in a manner that suggested things might, perhaps, not be so clear-cut. “Although, between you and me, it is perhaps something we can discuss. We have nothing to hide, although if we did accept the presence of observers on our world we would, of course, assert our right to watch what takes place on Gogon and Sejerne.”
“Of course,” said Magdi. “The agreement must be satisfactory to all parties, or it won't be sustainable. We should also talk about the images you recently sent me in diplomatic despatches.”
“Ah. I wondered when you would get round to those.”
“Can we be sure they are genuine?” Magdi asked. “Do you know for a fact that they are an accurate record of past events, and not just some wild plan that never took flight?”
Ro stared to the sky, a patch of blue ringed by the canopy of the treetops. Magdi glanced that way, too. A single black bird flitted across the space, pursuing some invisible insectoid.
“You have my word,” said Ro, “but perhaps that doesn't count for very much. I can also give you the co-ordinates of the target site; by all means visit Penanda to check for yourself. I promise I won't say a word to Ambassador Vol Velle about your intrusion into the sacred realm.”
“Can I ask who else knows about the existence of these records?”
“At this point in time, only a trusted team of archive historians and a few individuals in Aranian High Command.”
“Surely your planetary Mind is aware of them?”
“It is. It chose to remain silent on the matter for fear of disrupting a delicate political situation. At our request, it did not convey them to Coronade or anyone else.”
That was good; the matter required very careful handling. Magdi considered Ro for a moment, extending her empathic senses to try and understand the Fleet General's motivations. In truth, she wasn't getting very much. Ro's mind and her emotions were locked away, frozen inside her like a city under martial law. Still, they could talk freely inside the dome; the habitat was completely natural, with no electronic surveillance apart from the camera by the doorway used to check for gataraptors before going inside. She suspected that was another reason Ro had chosen to meet in the dome. Respecting the choice, Magdi had also temporarily blocked communication links between her brain and all AIs. Even Coronade couldn't hear them.
“You say these records are nearly a thousand years old? Forgive me, but it might be hard for the other delegations to believe that such a story could be true.”
“Meaning, you do not believe it.”
“Meaning that if I can see these objections, others will, too. A thousand years ago, the most advanced civilisations on Sejerne and Gogon thought wooden carts were dangerously high-tech, but you are claiming your world was sending out spaceships advanced enough to land upon Penanda.”
“I do not claim anything. The records are there, and an archaeological assay of the landing site will confirm it. A millennium ago, my people landed upon and claimed the disputed world.”
Magdi wondered how Vol Velle would react to such information. Gogon was forever vowing it was on the point of violating the sacred planet without ever quite doing so: a long-drawn-out game of brinksmanship. Was it possible Ro's forebears had taken the extra step ten centuries previously? Arianas had no knowledge of Sejerne at the time, wouldn't have been aware that their solar system housed any other intelligent life, but still the presence of aliens upon the face of Amon would be enough to ferment fury on Vol Velle's world.
Magdi said, “May I ask why you haven't chosen to go public with this information? It clearly strengthens your legal claim considerably.”
Ro smiled at that, light washing across the delicate layer of down on her cheeks. “We reserve the right to make the information public if the negotiations are going against us, but, for now, we would prefer not to destabilize the political situation. We are well aware the news could trigger interplanetary conflict. While we are ready for that if it comes, we would prefer to avoid the cost and the bloodshed – despite what Palianche may think about us.”
“I understand,” said Magdi. She understood, also, what Ro wasn't saying. By choosing not to reveal the inconvenient truth of the ancient landing upon the disputed world, the Aranians were giving themselves a vital bargaining-chip. They'd calculated that the conciliators of Coronade would go to great lengths to keep the fact hidden. To reveal it would mean an abrupt end to the peace talks. Now that had become Magdi's problem: she would have to be very careful to give Ro what she wanted, for fear of the truth coming out.
Always assuming that the Aranians' claims were true.
“How is it possible that your culture's successful ventures into space have been unknown until now? My researches mentioned no such historical event, or anything even suggesting it was possible.” Most likely, Arianas had known the truth for some time and had held it in reserve for this moment, but the knowledge had to be relatively recent. The wars between the worlds had been going on for decades, and Arianas had come close to annihilation more than once.
“If you'd researched our world properly, you wouldn't find it so surprising. You must know how vulnerable our ecosystem is so far from the sun. Small climatic changes have massive effects on our biosphere. One thousand years ago, during our first technological revolution, we achieved great things, built marvels, including Skiavor, the ship capable of visiting Penanda. As an unintended by-product of all that increased industrial activity, we also raised the concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere by enough to trigger the devastating ice-age of an environmental winter. You will surely know of our Great Dusk. The Skiavor landing was the peak of our achievement, but within fifty years of that event, our entire civilization had collapsed. We descended into barbarity and much was lost. It is only in the past century that we have clawed our way back to where we were before the collapse. We are determined to make sure it never happens again.”
Without comms access to the outside world, Magdi was limited to the information she already had stored in her brain. “Skiavor. I do not know the word.”
Ro waved the matter away with her hand, as if it was of no importance. “The name of a creature in our sagas and myths. A vast beast that flies through the eternal night of space, lighting the stars by breathing flame upon them. By setting our sun alight, it brought life to Arianas.”
Magdi didn't pursue the question; Ro seemed a little embarrassed by the story. A calculating, military mind like hers would have no time for fanciful tales of vast star-creatures. Or perhaps she didn't want to answer the question of why this Skiavor had been so grudging with the paltry light and heat it had bestowed upon Arianas while being so generous to the other worlds of the system.
“Did your forebears send people or machines to Penanda?”
“There were two aboard Skiavor.”
“Can you prove that as well? Who were these people?”
For the briefest moment, Magdi felt a pulsar-burst of strong emotion from Ro's mind: anger, resentment. It was rapidly suppressed. It seemed to Magdi that the fine hairs on Ro's neck bristled very slightly.
“The names of the two pathfinders are lost to history. Please, do not belittle what my people achieved, and do not underestimate what we are offering here. The truth is, this ancient achievement should be celebrated across Arianas as a moment of the greatest triumph, but we are prepared, for now, to keep the fact buried. For the sake of peace.”
Ro was certainly right about one thing: a story like that could be used to inspire and unite the people of Arianas, give them something to be proud of. The political temptation to reveal the truth had to be enormous. “Did the two return safely to Arianas?”
Ro's voice remained as inexpressive as ever. “We do not believe they did. Our historians' researches suggest that the mission was always designed as a one-way journey. It makes the actions of the two travellers only more heroic. And it does not alter the value of our claim: our ship was the first to land on Penanda. The planet was, and remains, an uninhabited world, and that clearly makes it ours.”
“Ambassador Vol Velle might claim that it wasn't uninhabited at the time. That the gods and spirits of his people have always been there.”
“We can allow the Sejerne their childish stories, but the niceties of religious doctrine count for nothing against the survival of a planetary species. My planetary species. There is no equivalence in the competing claims. Unless Vol Velle can bring me proof of an earlier presence on Penanda – a real, physical presence – ¬then his objections can be ignored.”
And there lay the issue. What was vital to one planet seemed trivial or ridiculous to the others. There would be a point when such matters needed to be discussed openly, but not yet. “Whatever happens in these talks,” said Magdi, “I assure you that I, and Coronade, and the whole Nexus of planetary Minds, will do what we can to ensure that your world continues to thrive. You do not need to teeter constantly on the brink of social collapse.”
“Then give us the uranium and the mineral resources we need to construct our halo. That is all we ask.”
“This is your only demand?”
“A reliable energy supply and freedom from attack. We demand nothing more and nothing less. Cultural and economic ties can flourish after peace is established. Or not.”
Magdi stood. Her limbs were stiff from the cold even with the multithermal clothing. Her exposed cheeks and jaw were turning numb, making her slur her words. “I understand. Please, I beg you, tell no one about the ancient landing on Penanda. I'm sure we both appreciate that finding a satisfactory solution to all this will be easier if this remarkable part of your history remains a secret for now. One day, I hope, your two travellers can be celebrated as the heroes they were.”
Ro remained seated where she was. “Give us no reason to reveal the information, and we will not do so.”
Magdi nodded. “You will be at the Congress Hall tomorrow?”
“I shall be there; I'm looking forwards to finally meeting Palianche in the flesh. Let us hope he doesn't carry through some of the more … visceral threats he has made against me over the years.”
Magdi left Ro sitting on the fallen tree and picked her way through the hush of the evergreen forest for the outside world.
As she retraced her steps across the mossy slope that led to the dome entrance, the energy-weapon ready in her hand once more, she reactivated her link to the Coronade Mind.
“I need to ask you to do something.”
“Before I do, I have a question. I presume you are aware that other planetary Minds do not always share the information they have available to them?”
A human might have paused to consider how best to reply to such a delicate question, but the planet's artificial intellect responded immediately, as it always did. Sometimes it felt as if it were starting its response before she'd even finished speaking.
“The galactic Nexus operates on the principle of openness and honesty, but that doesn't mean we have to inform each other of everything that takes place on all occasions. Social interaction between us is like that between people: sometimes we have to dissemble or exaggerate or conceal for the greater good. Or because it saves another Mind's feelings.”
She wondered how far that went – or, indeed, whether it was even the truth. For all she knew, the Minds revealed everything to each other but chose to lie about the fact for the sake of peaceful relations with their organic populations. It was a troubling thought. “You would be prepared to act without the Minds of Gogon, Sejerne or Arianas finding out?”
“If it makes sense to do so. I presume this is to do with the peace talks. If you see the need to operate in secret, then I suspect I will, too.”
“But you can't promise me?”
“Not until I know what you are asking. I infer from your question that Pannax Ro has revealed information to you which the Arianas Mind does not know or has chosen not to share.”
Lacking Coronade's near-infinite computational capacity, it took her a few moments to decide upon the best response. “Yes,” she said eventually. “New information has come to light that affects the talks, but which the Aranians have chosen to keep secret for now.”
“As a way of putting pressure on you to satisfy their objectives. I'm intrigued.”
“They claim that their civilisation, or an earlier iteration of it, visited Penanda a little over one thousand years ago. I need to know whether that claim is reliable. It is possible Ro may have assumed I wouldn't dare to send anything there to confirm the truth, for fear of antagonizing the Sejerne.”
“One convenient aspect of Sejerne's reverence for the world is that they don't maintain close orbital monitoring of it, so far as I know. They certainly don't land upon it. I believe it would be possible for a ship to visit the world without any of the three cultures being aware.”
“Especially as you have access to the logged spaceship activity of those worlds.”
“It is possible there are vessel movements I'm not aware of, but I believe I can plot a safe vector into the system for a small probe.”
“There has to be some risk.”
“I calculate the chances of us being able to make a successful and secret visit are high. Arianas might be watching the location of the supposed landing-site because they are aware of its significance, but surely not the other two worlds.”
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