Unseen Key

(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.”

 

War! (Of Equals)

Eric Manwill asks:

I’ve really enjoyed reading (and re-reading) both Vignettes of the Star Empire and The Core War. I did end up wondering about something, though. In most cases, when the Empire and/or its citizen-shareholders faced down an enemy, they did so from a position of obvious technological and offensive superiority. The outcome rarely seemed in doubt. Have they ever had to go appendage-to-appendage with an opponent who was at least as strong or as dangerous as themselves? How would they handle it? What happens if they lose?

(Been noodling with this a few hours trying to find a good order to address the various factors at play here. Not sure I’ve found one. So I apologize if this seems a little disjointed.)

Well, the first part of this is a matter of doctrine. As the Thousand Wise Analects of the Supreme Warlord, Xian Anandonos-ith-Anaxios, put it, with regard to the question of how to go to war with a technologically or otherwise superior enemy:

“Don’t.”

“No, seriously, don’t.”

“Well, if you absolutely can’t avoid it, cheat. Cheat first, cheat second, and if that hasn’t worked yet, consider cheating.”

(I may be somewhat paraphrasing the elegant phrasing of the original 7th-century text, here.)

So, factor one: avoidance. There are powerful elder races and Powers in the galaxy: but even as the polity of the eldest of the younger races, the Empire doesn’t go around picking fights with them, because you don’t prosper by starting an ass-kicking contest with God.

(At least, not until you can reasonably claim to be a minimum of three times more God.)

As a side-note here, this is essentially doctrine for all circumstances, not just this particular.

To paraphrase the words of the Supreme Warlord in modern idiom, again, “There are people who seek out fair fights. Those people are gamesters. As an officer in the Legions, it is your responsibility to ensure that any battle you engage in is as hilariously unfair as possible, preferably to the extent that it’s mathematically impossible for the other side to win.”

Or, to put it another way, the Empire has never had the demographic luxury of playing silly buggers with straight-up fights or the We Have Reserves mentality. Their edition of The Book is the one that relies on seizing and maintaining every technological advantage possible, admixed equally with the gentle art of being sneaking, cunning, devious bastards whenever possible. Preferably, if at all possible, without actually having to engage in war at all – if a discreet assassination, meme campaign, or some militarized accounting will solve the problem for you, well, that’s a much bigger win.

Factor two, on the other hand, is very similar to Earth’s issues with superpower warfare: which is to say, we avoid the hell out of it. Brushfire wars and proxy wars, maybe some privateers and commerce raiding, etc., are one thing, as is trimming back the kinds of rogue states that might disturb the general equilibrium – but no-one wants to see two of the Great Powers actually throw down, because that’s the kind of thing that blasts entire regions of space, with devastated worlds, gigadeaths or worse, and all hell breaking loose. Everyone within the Worlds has a distinct interest in this sort of apocalyptic scenario not happening, and thus far enlightened self-interest has prevented anything major from breaking out between the big boys. It would be a much harder fight, I guarantee, if we saw the Empire facing off against, say, the Photonic Network, or the Consolidated Waserai Echelons, or the League of Meridian, or especially a combination per the doctrine mentioned here. But all of those four powers have a definite interest in not letting it, ever.

(This, incidentally, also applies to the Republic. The Core War is something of the exception that proves the rule: it was fundamentally more of a large deep-penetration raid than a generalized invasion, and was won by, essentially, strategic trickery: but also is an example of the Powers walking carefully around each other to avoid escalation. The Empire hit the enemy fleet in being with a hammer of just the right size to shatter it —

— but that’s because they weren’t looking at the full Republic fleet pouring over the Borderline, because while it’s technologically inferior, there’s a hell of a lot of it. The Republic isn’t larger than the Worlds, but it’s over twenty times the size of the Empire, which buys a lot of metal. They might not win if they invaded en masse, and the loss ratio would be spectacularly not in their favor, but they certainly would kill trillions and depopulate thousands of worlds trying.

No-one’s underestimating the danger of that. This is why people are gravely concerned about the instability of the Republic, because while the Empire et. al. may not like the Republic’s current government, they do credit them with not being actually insane. But if it comes apart, and doesn’t so so cleanly… well, that’s what we have people whose job it is to worry about existential threats for, yes?)

Now, having said all that, it’s not like there aren’t people worried about the possibility of other threats turning up, because the explored space of the Worlds isn’t the whole galaxy, not by a long shot. For which there are all sorts of codeword operations, like –

  • BERSERKER VOID, which concerns itself with why there aren’t more and older elder races (i.e., the hypothetical Great Filter);
  • BLACKWATER BISHOP, which researches Outside Context Problems and theoretical response patterns;
  • DEMIURGE ERRANT, which keeps an eye on elder races and seed AIs that might one day present an ex-threat;
  • EPOCH SHATTER, which investigates epistemological and extrauniversal threats;
  • GHOST WHISPERS, which tracks high-energy civilizations beyond the far horizon;
  • REWARMED MORBID, which makes sure sleeping perversions don’t wake;

and so forth.

And they also have a variety of response cases planned for this contingency, be it something minor or a full SKYSHOCK BLACK (“a full-scale invasion of the Associated Worlds or Imperial Space by an excessionary-level threat from beyond the far horizon”) – which in turn range from the relatively benign SVANEK WHITE (“make nice until we can get hold of their tech, reverse-engineer it, and build an equivalent or preferably better version”), up through medium-range strategic responses, and then high-level ones like destroying gate links, using relativistic kill vehicles, and blowing up suns, up to things like ADHAÏC CALYPSE (“unleash the swarm fleets from the depths of Armory’s well”; where a swarm fleet is what happens when you crossbreed a Rapid Offensive Unit with a von Neumann machine, and something normally kept entirely off the list of options because self-replicating autonomous war mechanicals with fast-burn capability scare the crap out of everyone) and NIGHTFALL ASUNDER (“take the specially-designed lurking-in-deep-space craft carrying a backup of our entire civilization and book it for the other end of the galaxy – or if necessary, another galaxy – exploding everything on the way out”).

So, y’know, there are plans.

Losing, though? That ain’t going to go well for anyone. Hypothetically. I mean, they can lose at daehain (which is basically a wargame used for arbitration), and have, or at teirhain (civilized war, between honorable gentlesophs). No disgrace, there, nor consequences likely to be unendurable.

But zakrehain (“barbarian war”) or seredhain (“blood war”, fought to extinction)? Not going to happen. They take their Live Free Or Die seriously ’round those parts. If it comes to that –?

The Galaxy’s going to burn.