The Glass House
A New Battlefield
Ever the reluctant warrior, it so happens that the first thing the Union does after wrecking your shit is throw you a party. For those of you who don't believe in following links, here's the gist: the Union has set up a massive social event to observe the 'affirmation of lasting peace and unity for the system'. Seems it's their way of saying the war's over, holding their hand out to the Outliers. Make no mistake, this thing is going to be spectacular – the guest list is as long as my Uncle Pete's arm.
He has a rare condition.
For myself, I hope this gives the Outlying Worlds a chance to finally calm down and let the Union do what it does best: unify. I'm not saying the Colonies shouldn't answer for their atrocities, but here's hoping something new and strong emerges from the fire and death they've caused.
If you're famous (or a fellow correspondent of high enough standing) then I'll see you there. If you're not, well, you follow this thing for a reason, right?
It was a clean war, objectively speaking. If you stand far enough back, get the right perspective, it was the cleanest war you'll ever see. There was a single pitched battle in the whole affair.
Get a little closer and it turns messy. You see, humanity long ago discovered that space combat is a tricky business. Spacecraft engines run so hot they can be seen from beyond the Solar System, which means that a hostile military movement in space is telegraphed to the enemy at the speed of light. Even powered down, heat generated by enviro-maintenance aboard a craft is enough to pick it out against the black. Should two flights actually meet, the engagements become so swift and deadly that any victory pulled from them is pyrrhic at best.
None of that was enough to stop the war. It just meant that when war came, it was better to find alternative methods of killing people.
Here, let me paint you a picture:
Deep in the territory of the Coalition of Outlying Worlds, a freightliner departs Neptune's collinear L1 station. It's routine, part of the regular inward and outward flow, the exchange between the basic living necessities of the inner systems and the vast untapped resources of the Outliers.
Only this freightliner doesn't slave itself to one of the transport lanes. Instead it finds a new bearing, and its thrusters spew fire continuously. This being space, continuing thrust is more than just continuing motion, becoming instead a constant, second-by-second increase in velocity. Added to this, with the freightliner emptied of its usual cargo, most of its storage has been given over to propellant.
Its thrusters remain engaged long enough to bring it to 15km/s before it runs out of remass, and the next phase begins. Its thrusters disengage, and, with a flare of distorted light, it makes a foldspace jump. The sheer energy released by this act blares through the system like the beam of a pulsar, visible to anyone who might be watching.
Now, transpatial jumps are no laughing matter – their prohibitive complexity and expense is why most freightliners still run trips lasting months between colonies, instead of hopping there instantly. A jump paints a cartoon tunnel between two points in space, allowing instant travel between them for a bare fraction of a second. At almost the same moment the energy flare plucks it from Outlier space, the freightliner reappears just beyond the gravity well of an inner world, outrunning its own emissions from Neptune. The freightliner pops out of that tunnel with the same velocity it had when it entered. Locally, its speed is still below that of light, but it's going just as fast as it needs to, and the jump hasn't altered its momentum.
The velocity it does have is now measured relative to the orbiting space station, and, in naval terms, they would call its current course a CBDR: Constant Bearing, Decreasing Range, and it would be a cause for alarm.
That'll be because it's a collision course.
Running no life support, and with its thrusters disengaged before the jump, the ship runs mostly black on the station's sensors beyond the jump-flare of its arrival. It's eventually spotted by cruder systems, but far too late for it to make any difference.
The ship hits the station with the force of around 60 megatons. Most of the station's population of 150,000 die instantly. The poor souls that survive find themselves on a rapidly de-orbiting twisted mess of steel and fire, which eventually slams into the colony in another multi-megaton explosion.
When the smoke clears, there is very, very little left of either station or freightliner. It'll take about a year for the smoke to clear, anyway, allowing for the station's fuel stores to burn themselves out.
In the chaos, a sudden flash in the night sky goes unnoticed. It's the freighter's opening jump from Neptune's orbit, finally visible, hours too late for it to matter.
Green Men in Outer Space: A Cause For War?
It's what the kids tell each other on the streets, but it's becoming more than that. Since the first few months of the war, rumours have flooded the lownet, telling us that the Outliers began the whole thing based on an irrational fear of—get this—aliens beyond the fringes of the Solar System.
Like I said, fodder for the tall tales of street kids and crazies, and not something you'd blow up a station for. But then there were the feeds and waves: distorted images and surreal audio, none of them with anything concrete to study, but so numerous as to make one think. By now there are entire pages devoted to them on the lownet.
So what do you think? Are the Outliers trying to take the Union's resources to fight a bigger war? Or are we looking at the simple crossover of viral marketing and warfare?
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I believe the phrase 'media circus' was coined for events such as this.
With the war nearly a year gone now, the Union has arranged tonight as the formal platform of surrender for the Outliers. Their military and extremist political branches already tried and executed as war criminals, the Outlier representatives attending tonight are the emasculated husk of those who started the war.
Basically, they're here to crook a knee and sign their blood away.
The venue is the Glass House, one of the most palatial event spaces to be found in Union territory. Its geodesic domes tonight glow like neon, their photoreactive glass fluorescing in the light, throwing their colours up to the ceiling of low cloud so that it seems even nature's getting in on the act.
But if the Glass House looks good, it's nothing compared to the people here. Standing just inside the doors, I watch as they filter past me, through the glass doors and up the broad carpets of royal blue that cling to marble stairs. Most of them are celebrities of all stripes, from VD stars to athletes and entertainers. This is more than a simple signing of a treaty. It's become a media phenomenon. You can pick out the Union's military brass easy enough – they're the ones who stand out by the quiet neatness of their dress greys.
I try not to glance to my left, through the front doors. Out there I can see vehicles larger (and undoubtedly more expensive) than my apartment.
I push my way through fellow reporters as I recognise certain celebrities. I may be here for my own reasons, but I still have work to do. Already there's drama happening between rivals and jilted lovers, the kind of stuff that'll make for a good blog later. I snap pictures on my Wave, record ice-queen glares and furrowed brows, and thrust the device in the faces of choice celebrities and babble some questions.
All in a night's work.
But that's not the kind of stuff worth telling, so let's move on.
The attendees line the main hall as the Outlier reps make the walk of shame down the centre, heading for the private conference room. We don't get to see the proceedings themselves, so I waste time chatting to famous people I've never heard of. A fair few spurn me entirely. I'm not sure if it's because I look like a reporter, or because I'm slumming it in a simple tux.
At any rate, the Outliers soon emerge. I approach some of the least important-looking ones, or try to, but Union guards aren't interested in letting anyone through. These guards aren't screwing around, either. Their suits are bulky over their power armour, and they make no secret of the shock batons at their belts.
On their default child-safety application of a quarter second or so, I know those stun batons are designed to be mere compliance weapons. On that default application, they give you a jolt of don't-do-that-again-sir-thank-you-for-your-cooperation. Notch two is a couple of seconds, and you'll wonder just how long a second can be as your limbs jerk and twitch like they're done answering to you.
Anything over three seconds, and you go twitching to the floor. Strike three, if you will.
I'm not interested in drawing their attention tonight. Or any night.
I keep trying, on and off, for the next hour or so. I try to sneak in among the big-name reporters who do get permission to interview the reps. With the media underpinning everything we do now, some of the reporters up there are as well known as the celebrities they report on. I'm nobody by comparison, and by the way I keep getting turned around, I figure I don't pull off a convincing impression of being somebody who's somebody, either.
Then I realise quite suddenly that I'm being watched.
She's dressed formally but plainly, wearing nothing to distinguish who she is. I don't recognise her, and by the way she stands a little apart from the crowd I figure she isn't a celebrity. She's attractive enough, though in a way a little less enhanced than most of the attendees here tonight. My shock obviously wasn't subtle – she starts to approach the moment I show my surprise. She doesn't show any sign of being in a hurry, and a slight smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. She looks like she's homing in on a kill, and my guts turn to water.
I try to look interested in something else. The VM chandelier, perhaps. It doesn't work. She stands right next to me and simply looks at me, waiting for me to make eye contact. I pretend, poorly, that I've just noticed her.
'Oh, hi, didn't see you there,' I say. 'D-'
'Really?' she says.
Alright, so that didn't go quite as planned. I smirk and shake my head, dismissing the pretence.
'Okay. You've been watching me for a while.'
'That's certainly true. Drink?' She plucks two glasses of wine from the tray of a passing waiter and offers one to me. I take it, and as I try to sip it past the knot in my throat she continues. 'You seemed quite interested in the Outlier party. Caught my attention, that's all.'
I can't keep the guilt from my expression. I pretend the wine has a bite to it, instead.
'Don't panic,' she says smiling. 'You were right, Stian. I've been watching you for a while.'
Yeah. So, she knows my name, too. And then it gets worse.
'It is still Stian, yes?' she asks, 'You haven't changed it back to Nat?'
As far as I'm concerned, things just turned very serious.
'You're toying with me,' I say, mouth dry, and manage to scrape together the few splinters of courage I have left. 'So do me a favour and get to the point.'
'Let's go outside,' she says, and before I can protest she plucks the wine glass from my hand, grabs me by the wrist, and begins to direct me towards the nearest door.
I follow, unsure whether I've just been duped by the World Union or whatever, but knowing that there really isn't any way out of this. If I panic and run, then the guards will be on me before I can say 'Please don't shut down my nervous system with an agonising burst of electricity'. Those probably wouldn't be my exact words, but consider it an illustration.
Through the door, we end up on a balcony, were a forgotten bottle of wine sits on the balustrade. Beyond is the vast garden of the Glass House and with the balcony at the same height as the trees, I can just about peek through the leaves to see people walking in pairs or small groups along the shadowed paths below.
She finally lets me go.
'You can call me Adriana,' she says.
'About as genuine as Stian, I guess.'
She shrugs, and moves to lean on the balcony's railing. I sigh to myself, and join her.
'So, what's the game?' I say. She looks up at the low ceiling of cloud, still painted in the lights from the Glass House.
'I'm with the Outliers,' she says, so quietly it's almost inaudible, and she leans in like she's my lover and we're sharing an intimate moment. 'It's my job to find sympathisers in the Union,' she whispers.
'Hey, don't get me wrong,' I reply, matching her tone, 'I'm no supporter of the Union, but the Outliers aren't much better. You killed more people than the Union ever has.'
'It was a mistake, a regrettable mistake, engineered by our desperate government. They've all been removed now. We're trying to build something new.'
'New? You're all part of the Union these days. Or did you miss what happened in there? The Outliers are over as of today – there is no 'new'. Sucks to be you, but I won't be joining you, that's for sure.'
'I misjudged, then. What are you after? Some of your activities over the past couple of months-'
'I wanted to see why,' I hiss. I want to know why the Outliers thought dropping a spacestation on a colony was a good idea. I want to know if...' I sigh, and look away. Even speaking to one of the Outliers, the whole thing seems ridiculous.
'You want to know if we really are scared of the dark.'
I look back at her. She isn't smiling, no hint of yanking my chain. She's being deadly serious.
'Alright, then,' I say, matching her look. 'Let's have it.'
'I can't tell you what my superiors believe, or what they believed when they went to war against the Union. But I believe they were threatened by something beyond our solar system. Whatever it was that spooked the Coalition, it was enough to send them against the Union – they threw themselves at a brick wall to avoid facing it.' She's silent for a moment, and then adds, 'They negotiated, at first. That's the part everyone forgets. They tried to find some other way of fortifying their worlds. They begged the Union for help, and when the Union refused, they hoped threats of mass destruction would convince the Union to give them weaponry. Circular thinking, and it was a doomed effort from the start. Shows how terrified they must have been.'
'So if they really were scared of the dark, it was a darker sort than anything we've ever encountered.'
'That's what I believe.'
'Let's say you're right - what can you do about it now? The Outliers have signed away the last of their power; the only gunships floating out there now are the ones that have 'World Union' stamped on the side.'
'They're sitting ducks for whatever it is that's out there.' She shrugs.
I note that she ignored my question, but I play along.
'How long do you think they have?'
'Who can say? But they're out there, and they're coming. The ships will start to disappear, and then the Outliers will go dark. By then it'll be too late.' Adriana pushes herself away from the wall, and turns to face me. 'I'm not asking you to come home with me, or fight my battles. I just want you to know that I can help you find the truth.'
'Fine. But you know, I'm doing everything I can to weaken the Union from the inside. How does that sit with your plans?'
We both become aware of what I just said. There'll be hidden mics here, and I've just spoken outright sedition.
'Simple,' she says, at normal volume. She's dropped the pretence, so she must have something else prepared. 'Nothing you can do could weaken the Union.'
'Thanks for the vote of confidence.' I wonder how she plans to get out of this, now? Maybe she's banking on the surveillance not being checked live, given how busy the evening is.
'I'm just being realistic,' she says, smiling at my flat reply, and walks back to join me at the balustrade. 'On the other hand, one more person with the right contacts might be all we need to find out what we're up against.'
'How do you figure?'
'Because I believe that whatever the Outliers face, the Union knows of it.'
I can see her reasoning. After the freightliner attack, the war became a cold, quiet thing. The rest of it was fought with planetside subterfuge, but the Union held all the cards. It sneaked its eyes in everywhere, but nowhere more than on home, Earth. It looked inward for insurgents and spies, informants and traitors. At first it worked, and they snooped out an endless number of turncoats and Outlier sympathisers. They kept Earth safe while their own agents took the battle to the Outliers, but then the war wound down and 'the enemy' began to run thin, so they looked for their scapegoats instead. They began looking for the dissenters and the peaceful protesters in an act of pre-emption, just to make sure we were safe. When those ran out, they needed something else. Something to keep people together in difficult times, you know? Sacrifice a minority or so for the greater good: security. The freedom to live, exempting perhaps some other, more inconvenient freedoms.
But it's okay. We're safe now. Watched in our own homes by cameras too small to see, but hey, what's a law-abiding citizen got to be afraid of?
Yeah, for some reason I don't want to dwell on that one. But the upshot of all this is that these days things don't really happen in the system without the Union knowing about it.
'You know,' I say, slowly, toying with the idea, 'for a power so hellbent on stopping outsiders, the Union sure spends a lot of time looking inward.'
Adriana doesn't even need to reply. Her look says it all.
I don't even hear the door open behind us. The voice sends ice water down my spine. Turns out they were listening.
'Turn around slowly, both of you.'
I do, and discover that the voice belongs to one of the guards, now with his stun baton in his right hand. He's young, early twenties, his expression eager; eager to bring us in, and eager to cause some pain.
'You are arrested on suspicion of felony state sedition. Present your ID card.'
He raises his stun baton, undoubtedly to level the capture-response device embedded in its handle in our direction. This is a problem. He can scan our IDs at a distance, and that means we end up on the sedition list for the rest of our lives.
Or until we're found guilty, whichever comes first.
So I throw my Wave at him. He swats it out of the air with the baton, but by then I'm already moving, though somehow it's in slow motion and I can feel every heartbeat thumping in my chest.
Thump. My first step towards him.
Thump. My second.
Thump. I don't consider myself a natural fighter.
Thump. I hope that in his eagerness, the guard hasn't already called in for backup.
When my fist shoots out with the intention of punching him in the throat, it's almost instinctual. The bare second stretches into an awkward minute where I'm watching my arm rocket forward as if it belongs to someone else. Distantly I find myself asking it what are you doing? as if it could give me an answer of its own, because I'm sure as hell not answerable for it right now.
Time snaps back to normal as the guard finishes the downward swing of the shock baton, reverses it in my direction, and belts me just below the right side of my ribcage.
Next thing I know I'm on the floor, and everything hurts. My right arm twitches once more, spastically. Lesson learned. Instinct is a wholly unrefined thing.
A second later the guard joins me on the floor. He looks at me, and then I blink, and realise he's looking straight through me, unconscious. Adriana stands above him, an intact wine bottle still in her hands.
'Get up,' she says, dropping the bottle and hauling me to my feet. 'That's enough excitement for one night.' She returns to the balcony rail and leans over it, then looks back at me. 'Ready to fly?' she asks. I join her.
'I can probably run, if that's what you mean.'
'Close enough,' she shrugs, and leaps over the balcony rail. I hesitate, but the sound of footsteps coming toward the balcony makes the decision for me. I leap and land hard, doing my best to take the impact with my knees bent, and my hands smack hard into the dirt to dissipate the rest of the impact.
'Learn to roll,' she says. 'You could've broken something.'
She grabs my arm again, and we break out in a run towards her car. I don't hear any cry raised as we run, though we startle a few people as we hurtle past them in the park. It's too dark here to see our faces, though, and that's a very good thing – the guest list contains name, picture, and address details for all attendees. If anyone could pick us out of the line-up, we'd be in trouble, which is why I'm hoping quite strongly that we gave that guard enough head trauma to forget us by.
We make it to the car, and as we head through the city we swap secure contact codes. She hands me a small drive, and tells me what it contains. I stare at her.
It's morning, and I sit here spinning the drive through my fingers, thinking about what it holds. I've skimmed it already: it's the info, schematics and all, on a clandestine holding facility, located on one of the asteroids. State of the art stuff, for political prisoners and the like. It's another symbol of the Union's increasing stranglehold, and it's a place to hide secrets.
It's a step in exactly the wrong direction, and I want to do something about it.
Trouble is, what the hell can I do? Start a lownet petition?
My spare Wave trills from somewhere under my papers, and I retrieve it to see an unknown number dialling, headlined with my recognition code. With a shrug I answer it.
'What do you know about BlastBall?' Adriana says, with something playful in her voice.
I roll my eyes. 'Skip to it.'
'Kien Randel. Take a look at your homepage.'
I do, and there it is in front of me: a headline article about a BlastBall player embroiled in a cold-blooded murder. You might have heard about it.
'You're going to have to tell me what I'm looking at,' I say. It's news, sure, maybe even food for the blog, but I don't hand out my recognition code for a scoop, and I'm sure Adriana has bigger fish to fry.
'Randel's being held at the facility. You know the place. I'll send you the reason for his arrest, and you'll see why you might be interested.' She terminates the call.
The drive already felt like a lead weight in my hands. With this news in mind, it creeps slowly up towards the density of a neutron star.