(Note: this is set a few years before the Core War.)
Palaxias (Imperial Core) System
CS Eádinah’s Bower
The Admiral kept a Variasotec double-scimitar on his desk, twelve feet long if it was an inch.
It wasn’t likely that the Admiral himself was Variasotec, of course – nearly three hundred planets and even more countries to choose from – but whatever the real face was hidden underneath the carefully chosen generic features of the day, no-one was going to dispute the right of a soph who used that as a paperweight to own anything he damn well pleased.
As the whispers have it, a couple of hundred years back, some contractor or other decided they’d double-cross the Shadow Fleet, and do it right to the old man’s face. They say he didn’t get through more’n a couple of treacherous words before the Admiral picked that blade up and stabbed him right through the heart, then went questing around for the backups with the sharp end. They’re only whispers – anything that happens at that level’s downright fuliginous – but then there’s that nick in the blade. Just exactly where it’ll catch the light if you’re sitting in front of the Admiral’s desk.
Fortunately, I wasn’t a contractor, just seconded over from ISS, Second Directorate, and made more uncomfortable by body-adaptation than semiotic trickery. The only way into or out of the Shadow Fleet’s most-secret-death-before-disclosure-hush-hush headquarters, unless you’re being brought in to receive a reward either great or final, is mindcasting, and when your mind gets there – if you’re not permanent staff or some kind of specialist – they instantiate you in a generic synth-shell. No sense in growing custom bodies for anyone who’s only staying long enough to do some business, and if you’re here at all, that’s what you’re here for.
Which meant bipedal locomotion, binocular vision, bilateral symmetry, and assorted other things starting with bi-. I’m sure they were great advances when my proteinaceous cousins’ ancestors first thought them up, but really, in this day and age, they’re welcome to them.
With which grumbles I was occupying myself – or debugging myself, take your pick – when the Admiral telerepped in behind his desk, a different projection this time than the one that called my section chief and had me seconded – this one a blond, coppery lumeneldrae male, not the black-haired, pale eseldrae neuter of before.
I offered him an ISS-brand civilian-Service salute, “Agent-Minor Athné 0x411A7CB2, Second Directorate, reporting as requisitioned,” which got me a nod in return, while the Admiral lit up his desk and flicked virtual papers around the glasstop.
“So. Agent. The operational reviews for your previous missions appear quite impressive. Your section chief speaks highly of you.”
“Thank you, Admiral.”
“And you are also qualified in technical archaeology?”
“Before joining the Directorate I worked at Probable Technologies for thirty years. That was one of the reasons I was recruited.”
“And presently unknown, to the best of our knowledge, to both foreign intelligence agencies and other domestic interests.”
“If that’s what my file says. What’s all this about, Admiral?”
“Hmh.” He gestured a trigraphic image into existence over his desk. “What’s that?”
I shrugged. “That? It’s a stargate. Ring Dynamics Mark Three.” I peered closer, but couldn’t see anything unusual about it. “Relays, projectors, traffic-control… Nothing visibly special about it. There must be sur-dodeciads of them, all over the Worlds.”
“And this?” A second image appeared, similar to the first, but bulkier, with cubes and angled edges where the first had smooth organic curves, seam lines visible crisscrossing its surface.
“I haven’t seen one personally, but since they’re the only other people building them in quantity, I’d say that that must be a Republic stargate. Am I wrong? Where’s this going, sir?”
“You are not wrong. How much do you know about the invention of the stargate, agent?”
“Just the same as everyone else. Imogen Andracanth’s Initiative was dabbling in exotic physics research. The way the later company history tells it, they stumbled across the key to inflating wormholes serendipitously, published, and a private consortium then funded them to reduce it to engineering practice. Once they did some demonstrations, they pulled together a huge influx of capital from all sides to reunite the Thirteen Colonies – and since no-one else has figured out that piece of engineering, and Ring Dynamics isn’t letting it out of their hands, they’re now one of the Big 26 and lease out just about everyone’s interstellar transport infrastructure. Except the Republic’s, of course.”
“Of course.” The Admiral’s voice was ironic. “How?”
“How? Presumably they discovered it –”
“-the same way we did?”
“If we discovered it as a matter of chance –”
“If we discovered it as a matter of chance alone, certainly. If. I can believe in the unlikely happening twice, Athné. I can believe that even that civilization must occasionally throw up the odd millennial genius on the scale of Imogen Andracanth. But what I will certainly not believe is that the serendipitous discovery of a millennial genius with her brain ‘laced, in symbiosis with self-improving thinkers, and hooked up to what was, in its day, the largest quantum computing cluster ever built can be reproduced using slaved AIs and brains running solely on baseline meat.”
“Something’s going on. Maybe they’ve just dug up an elder-race artifact, or found a simple wormhole recipe in some archive. If so, we can deal with that. But there are other options, ranging from bad to existential. Finding out which is going to be your job. We need to know, Second Directorate needs to know, and quite possibly Ring Dynamics needs to know, too.”
He slid a data rod across the desk towards me.
“Operation UNSEEN KEY. Memorize, encrypt, and burn.”