Bortemus Balch – Spied’jjer Merdokk was a Class Four criminal and under no circumstances permitted to set foot on the Pinian Brotherhood’s sovereign flatworld, although he couldn’t have said why since he’d never even conspired to commit a crime here – sat back and gathered his thoughts while the other three grazed steadily at cakes and drinks.
“The Tanturians,” he said, “can’t be given full Corporate membership and knowledge. They’re too dangerous. And the High Council branch that deals with things on this level has realised it, way too late, and that’s why they’ve closed the book on you.”
“We met the Tanturians,” Gartuda Felhbron objected. “They were … fine, they were as creepy as any other selachoid aquatic, but they weren’t particularly advanced, and didn’t seem unduly hostile,” he acknowledged the Fliei with an apologetic flick of his ears. “Except where your people were concerned.”
“Harmless enough at their current level,” Bortemus said. “But they reached that level frighteningly fast. And now…”
“Oh, I see,” Felhbron said suddenly.
“Yes,” Felhbron replied. “While the Tanturians were dumblers, unaware of the true extent of the Cosmos and the urverse beyond, they were fine. They were busy working their way through their little technological revolution and couldn’t do any harm to anyone – mostly because they didn’t know there was anyone out there. Now they’ve been introduced to the rest of us and given Corporate technology, they’re apparently a threat again.”
“Something of an understatement,” Bortemus began.
“But at the same time, you showed up and armed their competitor-species, putting a slave revolt and a protracted war on the table,” Felhbron went on. “You’re performing the role of the Firstmades or the MRA here, keeping the Tanturians contained and calling down the wrath of the dread Ghåålus upon yourself. I’d be very surprised if the High Council even acknowledges your situation, let alone agrees to help you.”
Bortemus didn’t bother to hide a grimace. “You do see,” he admitted. “Yes, the High Council blundered by letting the Tanturians have Corporate tech. But I was the solution to their problem. A solution they could put all the blame on,” he turned to Team Member 7. “There’s only one problem with that.”
“An innocent species is trapped in the middle of this theological and political mess” 7 said. “And risks extermination if you withdraw your aid.”
“Correct,” Bortemus said. “An understatement, again, but-”
“There are many dangerous species in the Corporation,” 7 looked back at Bortemus over the lip of her glass of Skeg’s. Her eyes were as chilly and colourless as the liquor. “The Damoraks and Time Destroyers alone are extremely powerful, completely hostile, and more advanced than any but the other Elder Races … and of those, only the Molren do anything to keep them in check. And even they do not do much.”
“The Master Races account for a large and powerful faction in the High Council,” Bortemus agreed, “but they are kept in check. The Damoraks and the Time Destroyers are ancient, they’ve been around forever, and they’re part of the tapestry because they were the ones who started weaving it in the first place. They’re normalised. They are dangerous, but they play the game,” he looked at the two Corporate lifers. “The Tanturians won’t play the game. Their patron Ghåålus doesn’t play the game. He tears the game apart and devours it.”
“And they have taken your Corporate membership package technology,” Volun told them.
“So what if they have?” Felhbron scowled. “Our tech is non-military.”
“It is true,” 7 added. “The standard Corporate offering is specially designed to account for dumblers at a wide range of developmental and hostility levels, as well as technical aptitude. There is nothing in the package that can pose – or be altered to pose – a danger to the newcomer species. Let alone anybody else.”
“It’s not enough,” Bortemus insisted. “If you think the Tanturians evolve fast, you should see how fast they adapt. It’s imperative, even for those who delude themselves that they can be the Tanturians’ allies, to … hold them back. To keep them from finding out too much about the urverse. This is why the Zerf’s Cosmos case has such potential for disaster.”
“I have to say, this sounds like Fliei propaganda,” Team Member 7 said.
“Entirely understandable Fliei propaganda,” Felhbron put in, flicking his ears again. “But … yes, it sounds a lot like overblown scaremongering.”
“And yet Fliar – Tantur – is in lockdown,” Bortemus said. “If it’s a normal contact event with your run-of-the-mill aggressive aquatic jerk species, why all the secrecy?”
Gartuda and 7 exchanged uncomfortable glances.
“There could be any number of reasons…” Felhbron said weakly.
Bortemus shrugged. “The Purifying Fire haven’t sent destroyers into Zerf’s Cosmos because of the unprecedented High Council attention that has already been brought to the area,” he said. “It seems unlikely the Ghååla of Farrendohr would object to the sort of witness-cleansing the MRA would implement, but the High Council is now obligated to care. And too many people, on too many levels, know about this for the Purifying Fire to be an entirely reasonable solution anyway. They still might try it, on some scale, because they’re not an entirely reasonable group … but it’s unlikely to be a standard mop-up job.”
“They’ll turn on you, wipe you out?” Felhbron asked. “I mean, they’ll destroy Merdokk Industries?”
“Their holdings on Tantur, at the very least,” Bortemus said. “I’d like to prevent that, if it’s at all possible.”
“It seems unlikely these MRA extremists will attack the High Council or their representatives in Zerf’s Cosmos,” Team Member 7 pointed out.
“They won’t have to,” Bortemus replied. “If it comes to that, and the Purifying Fire sends in an agent to wipe out the Fliei and any other people in the area sufficiently separated from whatever lofty and secret High Council task force is currently on Tantur … then the High Council will also withdraw. The MRA lofty-and-secrets in the High Council will see to it.”
“Leaving the Tanturians isolated, but in possession of Corporate technology and knowledge they otherwise wouldn’t have had,” Felhbron said. “And the Fliei extinct, at least as a free species.”
“Along with any sentient dumblers within a hundred thousand light-years,” Bortemus added. Gartuda looked shocked, but Bortemus noted that 7, an altogether cooler head, merely looked grim. “Absolute firebreak demolition is the only way to be sure,” he confirmed her evident guess. “Who knows whether the Tanturians have been chatting with any of them? They could be lying to you. And all of it too late,” he finished, “since now they know about the rest of the urverse.”
“And you on the hook for all of it,” Felhbron said.
“Sooner or later, someone in a position to make a call is going to realise all this,” Bortemus told them. “And then there will be no stopping it. I have come to you in the hope – the very, very slim hope – that we can get out in front of this and bring about the optimal solution.”
“Which is?” Felhbron prompted.
Bortemus allowed himself a tiny internal sigh of relief. “The Tanturians contained,” he said, counting on his fingers. “The Fliei safe. The Purifying Fire out of Zerf’s Cosmos. The High Council rid of this political and theological headache,” he raised his lower left hand and added a final digit. “And Merdokk Industries still intact.”
“How the Hell are you going to do all that, Bort?” Felhbron asked in clear fascination.
“Ah, well,” Bortemus smiled and picked up a cake. “I’m not. The Corporate High Council is going to help me.”
As he’d predicted, this declaration at once deepened the suspicions that Felhbron and Team Member 7 held, and intensified the fascination the Molran, at least, was feeling. The Uternlan, also as predicted, simply looked sceptical.
“And why would we do that?” Gartuda asked.
Bortemus popped the cake into his mouth and chewed while pulling his data pad from his pocket and folding it out to display configuration in the middle of the table. “Alright,” he said, “this is the information I’ve gotten from Fliar – or more specifically the Tanturian Assembly of the Greater Seas. This information was gathered … I want to say ‘the old-fashioned way’, but that wouldn’t be doing it justice.”
“What do you mean?” Felhbron was scowling again.
“After the onset of Tanturian hostilities against the Fliei,” Bortemus said, “and their resistance, Merdokk Industries made some attempts to get eyes and ears under the water. Unfortunately, they were detected and their security destructs detonated,” he went on. “Wouldn’t do to let the sharks get Merdokk tech as well as Corporate.”
“The Tanturians were capable of finding our surveillance devices?” Team Member 7 asked.
“They were once they’d adapted the protoelectronic mapping package from the Corporate membership offering,” Bortemus replied. “I told you, they’re resourceful. After that, the Fliei themselves took charge of intelligence gathering and sent several agents into the oceans posing as slaves. Not all of them returned.”
They leaned over the display and Bortemus began calling up data.
“What…?” Felhbron murmured.
“As you can see,” Bortemus said, “since the Corporate data blackout, Fliar’s sea level has risen almost a hundred metres, which I probably don’t need to tell you is staggering. Even more anomalously-”
“-The ice caps have not reduced in size,” Team Member 7 said, a hint of exasperation entering her voice. “Why did you not start with this information?”
“I have a certain amount of experience in negotiations with hostile organisations,” Bortemus replied calmly. “If I’d sat down and shown you this data without appropriate preparatory steps, you would not have accepted its authenticity.”
“I do not accept its authenticity now,” 7 declared.
“Then it hardly matters that we had a nice lunch first,” Bortemus retorted, “does it? Regardless,” he went on before 7 could rally, “I am not expecting you to believe it – I am simply reaching out in the hopes that you will take the logical step. I will provide you with all this data and the High Council can independently verify it from behind their blackout. Chances are, they already know anyway. Hard to miss a change like this.”
“I still do not understand how-” 7 insisted.
“The important thing,” Bortemus said, “is that the High Council will be looking for a solution and they’re already more than halfway there. All you need to do is tell them the truth – not that the things I’m telling you are actually happening, but that I have told you about them.”
“Confirming that you know what’s going on and data containment has been lost,” Felhbron completed the thought. Bortemus pointed at him approvingly. “And that you’re ready to take full responsibility for the Tanturians, if the High Council can ensure the survival of the Fliei.”
“Yes,” Bortemus said. “If I’m lying about what the Tanturians are doing, the High Council need not do anything. They will tell you that you were right to come to them, that I am pushing some kind of agenda or scam, and they’ll take it from here. If I’m telling the truth about it … they’ll do the same thing.”
“The High Council will not take the Fliei,” 7 said, continuing to stare at the data. “What could they possibly do? Data containment is already lost. If the so-called Purifying Fire has secret high-level High Council sanction, then nothing we say will prevent them from restoring secrecy by any means necessary.”
“Nothing – except that Spied’jjer Merdokk is willing to take the fall for the entire Tantur situation,” Bortemus said.
“And why would they believe that?” 7 asked.
“They can’t afford not to,” Bortemus pointed out. “Look at those readings. The Tanturians are on the cusp of becoming something … awful.”
Felhbron was looking at the data. “How much longer will Merdokk Industries military technology stand against them?”
“I have no idea,” Bortemus replied. “They shouldn’t even have been able to do that with the equipment they were given, and yet here we are.”
“And if they defeat the Fliei, they might end up being able to salvage a not-inconsiderable amount of your – Merdokk Inddustries tech as well,” Felhbron said. Bortemus nodded. “What about the Purifying Fire?”
“I might be able to stop one of their agents,” Bortemus said, although this felt closer to a lie than anything else he’d told them so far. “But if the Tanturians have already eradicated the Fliei, and taken on some additional military technology, and then a Damorak exterminator turns up … we’ll be looking at a perfect intersection of factors. It will accelerate the Tanturians onto the Corporate interdimensional stage so hard, it will sweep pretty much everyone but the Elder Races down into the orchestra pit.”
The Tanturians, Bortemus tried to explain, had taken the Standard 3 Aquatic Environment Diplomatic Team’s membership package and dismantled the environmental cleansing generator that was intended to help filter pollutants from the water. When they’d put the thing back together, it had begun fabricating breathable Tanturian water from the planet’s air and above-the-surface land resources. Then they had made half a million more of the machines.
He scarcely understood the mechanics of it himself, so it wasn’t easy.
“At a certain point,” he said, “the sheer mass of the expanding aquasphere would cause tectonic shifts and that would be the limit. That limit should have been reached already,” he called up some more data. “Unfortunately, as part of your adorable ‘come on out and meet the gang’ initiative, you also gave them simplified schematics for space vessels – complete with gravity plating.”
The Tanturians had taken that technology, dismantled it, and repurposed it into some kind of intricate buttress network – a second planetary crust, of sorts, suspended in the oceans and supporting the impossible weight of the swiftly-growing seas. Within another ten years, they wouldn’t need to risk coming up against Merdokk Industries guns in their primitive, water-heavy flying machines. Fliar would be entirely covered in ocean, and the Tanturians would be able to swim right into the mountain nation-state of the free Fliei, and devour them.
“How far can they take this … aquaforming?” Felhbron asked. “Surely they’re limited by the raw elements available…”
The Tanturians, even before he’d known their dark secret, had been an enigma to Bortemus. They were a ferociously intelligent species, and their hostility – even adjusting for the superstitious way they were portrayed in Fliei culture – was nothing short of awe-inspiring. And yet, for all their intellect and their immediate grasp of situations and their potential, they were as blind as most other species.
They hadn’t known about the remaining free Fliei in their mountain homes, and if Fliei history was any indication they’d been more or less content to continue living a life of peaceful terrorising oppression in the dark oceans, more or less indefinitely. Fliei philosophers referred to it as ‘the landbound divide’, a two-way perceptual disconnect that served to help the Tanturians forget about the Fliei, and also lull the Fliei into a false sense of security.
It seemed counterintuitive to Bortemus at first, because the Tanturians had come up on land and found the Fliei in the first place. Either that, or some unfortunate Fliei submarine explorers had found the Tanturians. The facts were lost in the blood-clouded waters of history. Either way, why would the sharks subsequently ignore the possibility that there might be more colonies of the loathsome landbound creatures hidden in the mountains, or in deep, dry caves?
Ultimately, it all came down to the divide. Land was land, to the Tanturians. And that applied to anything that wasn’t underwater. Plains and mountains, caves and sky, space … these were all simply massive concepts, and the Tanturians had never really needed to care about them. Until they did.
It had required an adjustment, a radical push to force Tanturian thinking beyond the aquasphere and onto land. After they’d first ventured up on land and found a sentient species of air-breathing creatures they could enslave, they’d adjusted their thinking as much they felt they needed to. Then the concept of space had borne fruit – the Corporation, a dazzling array of alien creatures from the airless gulf that was in turn beyond the waterless gulf they’d only just begun to fit into their worldview. And beyond that, a realityless gulf filled with other universes.
And so they had adjusted again. But they had also closed in on themselves. Tightened their ranks. They’d become more ‘them against the urverse’.
They’d become more them.
And they had taken the tools of their new enemies, because everything that wasn’t a Tanturian was an enemy, and they had begun to work on fixing an urverse they had concluded was in need of fixing.
“Who knows?” Bortemus replied wearily. “I don’t think the mere lack of water molecules will hold them back, since the Cosmos is full of raw materials and the fabrication technology is there. It’s possible, once they reach a certain altitude, the water will freeze. Turning Fliar into an ice ball with a shark-infested liquid mantle. Then they can fly to the next planet in the Cosmos and start on that one,” he shrugged again. “Or they’ll solve the ice problem like they solved the mass one,” he continued. “Maybe a ceiling of ice will allow them to trap heat and keep the water liquid to ever greater heights. They might adapt thermal tech or harness stellar radiation. Just continue expanding. There are water planets much larger than Fliar – or Tantur, as I suppose we would have to call it then.”
“You have to call it that now,” Team Member 7 said firmly. “It is on the Corporate census.”
“With all respect to the Fliei,” Felhbron added.
“I have read studies on aquaforming, as master Felhbron calls it,” Team Member 7 went on. “In the interests of creating extended safe habitats for Standard 3 aquatic environment sentients, the technology is in development. It was only thought to be feasible on worlds or in Dimensions with a very specific set of physical properties – as you say, there are worlds of greater size with Standard 3 aquatic environments, but they exist in Dimensions with physical laws that allow them to exist. The adaptation of aquaforming for use in other environments – even on such a scale as a single stellar-gulf ballworld – is a dramatic development.”
“You’re not kidding it’s dramatic,” Felhbron said.
“I imagine there are specialists trying to figure out exactly what the Tanturians are capable of, and what they’re going to do next,” Bortemus told them. “And all I can tell you is those specialists will never get it right. Because not even the Tanturians know what they’re going to do next. They have the stimulus-response model of a raw nerve, or a – a coiled aactur event. Whatever acts on them next is going to be what dictates their response and the next stage of their development.”
“But with no way for us to control their direction,” Felhbron said grimly.
“Oh, for a time I have no doubt they will seem entirely governable,” Bortemus replied. “Predictable, even. They will wait to see what the different alien groups’ intents are. But when they finish wiping out the Fliei, they will begin work on their next enemy.”
Gartuda Felhbron and Team Member 7 looked at one another.
“What do you want us to tell the High Council?” Felhbron asked.
“Nothing but what I have told you,” Bortemus assured them, “true or otherwise. Tell them that I am looking for a way to restore the hallowed silence and minimise the offence Merdokk Industries has unwittingly committed. And that I want the High Council to guarantee the survival of the Fliei with sponsorship at the highest possible level.”
Felhbron whistled through his teeth. “That’s a long shot.”
“And nothing you could not have demanded of them directly,” 7 said, “by sending all of this data using a protected delivery protocol to a contact point in the Diplomatic Team Coordination Offices.”
“That’s true,” Bortemus said, and then grinned. “But ask yourselves – does that sound remotely my style?”
Bortemus and Volun stood on the headland, the sunny vault of Heaven’s sky above them and the picturesque landscape and almost-as-attractive citadel stretching out ahead.
“The High Council will not take the Fliei under their protection,” Volun said calmly. “Will they?”
“No,” Bortemus replied. “I don’t expect they will. The safest and most politically expedient approach for them will be to either let the Purifying Fire destroy you, or leave you to drown on Fliar when it becomes Tantur in truth as well as in the eyes of the Corporate bloody census.”
“To drown if we are lucky,” Volun amended.
They stood again in silence for a short while.
“The Uternlan, 7, still suspected you of having other motives for contacting them directly,” Volun said next.
“I’m sure she did,” Bortemus replied in faint amusement. “But I’m also pretty sure Felhbron had me even more accurately figured out,” Volun looked at him with curiosity apparent in his strange Fliei face, and Bortemus smiled. “The contact team members are invested in the world they know as Tantur,” he explained. “They may not have been involved in contacting your people, but they don’t really believe anything we said about the Tanturians, either. It’s all just folklore to them. Folklore wrapped around their job. They’ll relay my message – not just to the secret High Council halls where the action will be decided, but through their own delightful bureaucratic channels as well.”
“You are hoping that they will render the situation still more public and visible by their actions,” Volun said. “Making it more difficult for the Master Races to orchestrate a secret genocide.”
“Nobody wants a secret genocide,” Bortemus said vaguely.
“To be honest,” Bortemus said more loudly, “I’m just hoping to delay the Damoraks for a few more months.”
“I think perhaps there was more to it than that,” Volun said.
“You know me well, Volun,” Bortemus said approvingly. “I suppose you could say I decided to talk with the Council people because I was actually trying to talk myself into something. Convince myself that the course I’d already decided on was the only one available.”
This seemed to satisfy Volun. “Are we going to take the AktaTech Acquisitions and Marketing shuttle back to The Centre?” he asked. “Or are you going to try to steal the Destarion while you’re here?”
Bortemus turned and stared at the big shaggy Fliei. “How did you know about that?” he demanded with a genuine laugh of surprise and delight.
“I read about it in the guide book of myths and legends and of the history of the Four Realms,” Volun said, and shook himself with a rattle of beads. “It is all just folklore to me. Folklore wrapped around my job,” he added, a little smugly.
Bortemus shook his head and laughed again. “My family used to tell me lulltime stories about the Godfang when I was a child,” he reminisced. “Sadly, as much as I am itching to explore that particular piece of folklore, I suspect you know as well as I do that the Godfang vanished at the same time three of the Four Realms did,” he said. “Along with almost all of the Burning Knights,” he added, “a notorious force of Brotherhood peacekeepers … although from the tall tales my family told me, what they generally kept was the opposite, and they had a solid supply. The Knights and the Godfang being gone are the only reasons I’m daring to show even this much of my face here. The whole lot of them vanished when I was a baby. The Four Realms has just been Heaven for as long as I’ve been alive. The Destarion, alas, isn’t here for me to steal.”
“There are stories that she is still in the gulf below this world,” Volun said. “Between Heaven and the Rooftop of the great Castle.”
“If she is, my teams have never been able to find her,” Bortemus said with a sigh. “And neither have any of my crafty, ambitious relatives.”
Once again, Molran and Fliei stood in the warm, sweet-scented perpetual daylight and watched the jewel of the Pinian empire shine.
“You still intend to do this,” Volun said. Bortemus nodded. “And sooner rather than later,” the Fliei added.
“Sooner rather than later,” Bortemus agreed. “While it’s still possible. It’s the only way.”
“The Master Races, your Ice Wall, the Gods,” Volun said quietly. “The dread Ghåålus. They will all come for you.”
“Maybe they will,” Bortemus smiled. “There’s not really a solution to the Ghåålus part of it. The Infinites will do whatever They do, and the damage I have done to the Tanturians is already enough to damn me. Quite literally. They won’t forgive, so He won’t. But if I act fast, I might just be able to keep hold of the MRA. Keep Merdokk Industries out of the Purifying Fire’s path. Keep the Ice Wall…” he faltered, then let his smile widen again. “Keep the Ice Wall behind me and the High Council gnawing on itself.”
“Some of those you would fool are Gods,” Volun said, “are They not?”
“Well, that’s the thing about Gods,” Bortemus smiled again, and gestured at his grey face. “Do you think this would fool a God?”
“From what I have learned, pecha-Balch, I tend to doubt it.”
Bortemus spread his hands and turned in a little arc. “Doesn’t look like this particular God is overburdened with giving a damn,” he said, “does it?” he turned back to face the scenery, his smile fading. “So what makes you think any of the others do?”