A Farewell to R.M.S.
She was sitting on the floor. She had to: the table was too tiny, and the ceiling was too low. This room was leftover from the Bookkeepers’ occupation of the planet, back before it was called Roger’s Magic Sphere, back before the Bookkeepers were called the Bookkeepers. Roger herself (for her name was Roger, like her mother and her mother before her) had never met a Bookkeeper before, and looking at the specimen sitting below her at the table, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed – he just wasn’t as small as her parents had described, and he’d arrived in a boring metal sphere rather than on the back of a majestic multicoloured bird.
The door opened and a silver creature whirred up to the table. The Bookkeeper stood up with a start and said, “Welcome! Please, sit.”
The creature did not move. This had to be someone from the Houses. They first visited the Magic Sphere just after Roger became leader, landing their vast cathedral in the middle of a field and offering to buy the planet. The Bookkeepers stepped in to help negotiate, but it took them years and years to send a representative. Something about a deficit of field agents.
“Before we begin,” the Bookkeeper said, “which House do you represent? Tracolix, Bluewood? Or are you just a House Military bitch?”
The little creature cocked its head and replied with a buzzy voice that Roger couldn’t quite understand. Her ears had evolved for hearing underwater; she could just barely understand the Bookkeeper, but the creature’s voice was completely out of the question. If she strained, she could barely make out the words “generation unit”. Had the Houses picked this representative deliberately to mask their communications from her? The creature spoke some more, and the Bookkeeper stiffened in his seat.
“Forgive me, my lord,” he stammered. “Yes; my people donated it to these giant walruses in an act of charity after we accidentally desolated their original homeworld.” He gestured up at Roger.
The little lord pivoted its head to follow the Bookkeeper’s hand, although it took a moment to look all the way up to Roger’s face. She bared her tusks at it – a move she immediately regretted, as the creature replied with an incomprehensible question.
The Bookkeeper answered for her. “No, we chose it. It was foretold by the Library.”
Thankfully, the creature looked away from Roger. Its face was expressionless, even as it spoke its alien words.
“Perhaps,” the Bookkeeper said testily, “but that’s best left for another discussion, don’t you think, my lord?” After an unsure pause, he continued, “For what purpose do your people intend to use the planet? Our books tell us much about the agreements your people have been making with other powers.”
There was a long silence as the inscrutable silver lord thought, and the Bookkeeper shifted uneasily. Finally, the creature gave a curt reply, and the Bookkeeper relaxed.
“Merely a trade,” he said. “We need the ability to pluck individuals from time…”
Roger had already stopped listening. She knew she could crush both of them, if it came to it. No matter what agreement the little men made, her planet would be safe.
A Prelude to a Prelude
The War in Heaven was defined by its lengthy entrenchment phase. Each side was bunkered-down for decades, continually reinforcing their noospheres and meeting only in minor skirmishes. However, less well-known to the Needleborn are the many attempts to find an end to the War even during this time.
One of the first of these attempts took the form of direct negotiation with enemy representatives on Dronid. These talks came to an abrupt end when the Cataclysm began mere hours later, but they were responsible for paving the way for the Utterlost Accords, which first cemented the concept of “Hot Peace” in House Military ideology. This doctrine was
“The body’s on its way?” her coworker asked from his seat.
“Yup,” she replied, then continued reading.
This doctrine was reinforced a few years later by the Venue Accords, which were as high-potential as they were short. Some of the more inventive Remote suspected
“When will it be here?” her coworker asked again. He’d worked here for much longer than she had, and they both knew that he was fully capable of answering that question for himself.
With a sigh, she looked up and tapped the screen sitting in front of both of their chairs. “About fifteen minutes.”
She looked back at the book in her hands. This new edition of Primer for the Spiral Politic was supposed to be a revolutionary step forward in War histories, full of new information and perspectives from the archives, but so far everything she’d read was common knowledge on the message boards. Then again, that made sense: anything remotely interesting wouldn’t have made it past the Emperor’s censors. She restlessly flipped a few pages and started reading again.
Another experiment, secretively initiated by the more traditional Houses in response to the perceived failures of House Military biodiversification projects, involved a dramatic expansion of the Nine Homeworlds project. All of the newly-created, specially-primed “lesser Homeworlds” were given their own enemies to fight in microscopic models of the greater War. Confined as they were in bottle universes and oxbow timelines, none of the resultant conflicts approached the scope or intensity of the War in Heaven, but they provided “homegrown” inspiration for strategies and technologies that could prove useful against the enemy. One example, notable in hindsight, involved a race of mechanical invaders who gladly agreed to try their metaphorical hands against a few Homeworlds in exchange for the time technology that would give them a fair shake. The sole Homeworld to escape their assault did so not through military innovation but through self-enfeeblement: by returning to organic models of childbirth, then enacting the ritual of the “entrenched last stand” of gallant victimhood, they cried out to the unknown future, “We are the ‘deserving-at-war’, rescue us! Won’t someone think of the children!” Their battle against the invaders fizzled into an uncomfortable détente.
Like all the others, this experiment ended in failure, discontinued when the number of lost Homeworlds became too distasteful to bear for the same traditional Houses that initially sponsored the project. No; the Peace, when it finally came, was achieved much differently…
(With thanks to Simon Bucher-Jones.)
A Shift in Focus
The scalpel moved smoothly across the body’s forehead. Blood spilled out in smooth sheets onto the obsidian operating table. In lesser venues, every carefully cleaned surface would have been decorated white, but Huxley had different tastes. White was the colour of energy, of light, of vibrancy and potential. Of chaos. No – a sterilized surface, cleaned of life, kept perfectly in order, could only have one colour in Huxley’s mind.
The neurosurgeon silently set down the scalpel and plucked a drill from the tray.
One of Huxley’s employees had found the body – human, superbly muscular, covered in white tattoos – drifting through space near the remains of a small military skirmish. No one was sure which side had brought it; it might have just been floating nearby when the timeships arrived. All Huxley knew for certain was that the body had survived the stress of a temporal battle unscathed, and even better, part of the mind inside had apparently survived as well.
Indestructability was a very valuable skill in Huxley’s line of work.
Something moved in Huxley’s peripheral vision, and she turned to look at the tattoos covering the body’s broad chest. They seemed to be swirling and changing as she watched. Of course, experience had long since taught her that the effect was grounded in her perception, not physical reality. The ink pattern in the body’s skin was as permanent and fixed as ever; what was changing was the meaning of the shapes in her mind, deep below the level of thought.
She looked at the tattoos, and they read: HELLO HUXLEY
“Enjoying your new home?” she asked.
I WILL WHEN THE PROCEDURE IS FINISHED, the Shift answered. The tattoos swirled again. ONE OF YOUR AGENTS HAS ARRIVED IN YOUR OUTER ROOM
“My A-Team,” Huxley replied. “You’ll make for a fine addition.”
YOU ALREADY HAVE A BUYER, the Shift said.
At first Huxley thought it was a question, but this was the first time she’d ever made a sale in advance; the Shift wouldn’t have asked if it didn’t already know. It had clearly been poking around in her head. She decided not to dignify it with a response.
The neurosurgeon replaced the drill with a forcep. The body’s angular face was completely calm, despite the dark blood seeping into its eyes.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR YOUR PROFITS
An unambiguous question – undoubtedly an attempt to distract her from the intrusiveness of its last observation. Huxley was planning on taking advantage of the loosened time travel restrictions and zipping back in time to one of those years with only four numbers. She’d always wanted to visit Earth before its destruction, sightsee at Space HQ, maybe rent an airship in Czechoslovakia. But the Shift didn’t need to know any of that, if it didn’t already. Huxley’s eyes raised to the bright white light above the table. With the money that was coming, the possibilities would be endless…
As laid down by Nate Bumber