When the end came, it came quickly.
Spied’jjer stood on the bridge of the Merdokk Industries heavy gunner Balrothrax and argued eloquently and passionately with the High Council Special Overseers unit all the way to the last. The Corporate goons were almost gleeful in their disregard of his warnings, which left him feeling far less obligated to care about their professional and personal wellbeing after the fact. The Standard 3 Aquatic Environment Diplomatic Team were more a matter of concern for him, but he was fairly confident they would be fine. Their statements were a matter of record, and the official statements and adherence to protocol of a Uternlan were utterly above reproach. No matter what happened, Gartuda Felhbron’s team had done the right thing and would not be left swinging in the cold wind after the storm died down.
He was never quite sure what the Tanturians thought of it all. He doubted they even realised what was happening. They might have had a couple of minutes to be very, very angry, but it didn’t seem like that was a sufficient deviation from their ordinary background state to be worthy of mention in any case.
His interference with the Tanturian systems was minimal, and absolutely deniable. Most of it was done – admittedly on his detailed instructions – by brave Fliei undercover in the slave network, and was set to take advantage of flaws in the Corporation tech that Merdokk Industries had identified a long time ago in order to make competing products. The flaws were safeguarded, only rendered dangerous by specific tampering … and the Tanturians were doing a lot of tampering. It was a simple matter to introduce self-feeding processes that laid the malfunctions fatally bare.
The gravity plate flotillas didn’t merely fail, didn’t just reverse – they fed back into themselves and tunnelled. The mass of water bore down on the planet’s groaning crust, the gravity plates hurled pseudomass on top of it and through it, and for a brief moment the core of Tantur became a neutron star.
Then it stopped being one, and became a great big explosion instead.
The Balrothrax, and a large amount of dedicated Merdokk Industries proprietary equipment in orbit, was rocked and hammered with flying debris. Most of the machinery was destroyed, the rest unsalvageable and ultimately indistinguishable from the rest of the wreckage. Merdokk waited just long enough to lodge a full report and sensor suite with the Corporate Foreseeable and Preventable Disasters legal unit – the Department of Told You So, as it was commonly known – and then returned to The Centre. His own unlovely role in the Tantur affair, after all, had already been concluded some weeks ago. He’d only been waiting around out of obligatory loyalty to the Tanturians in accordance with MRA covenants, and trying to caution them on the ill-advised alteration of Corporate technology. It was understandable that the Tanturians were disinclined to listen to him, even after he’d withdrawn his military support and allowed the Fliei city-state to be eradicated. And it was even more understandable that the Corporation didn’t want to hear from him, for this reason and many, many more.
Responsibility for the calamity, therefore, fell squarely on the Tanturians and their Corporate sponsors. Merdokk Industries was deemed, even by the more fanatical factions of the MRA, to have acted in observation of all necessary accords. Whether or not this meant he would escape punishment for his earlier actions against the species, nobody was entirely certain and a rather insultingly small number even seemed to care, but they concluded that refusing to do business with him until the Fourth Dominion would be a bit of an overreaction.
The High Council was disgusted at his betrayal of the Fliei, but he was a Class Four criminal so they really didn’t expect any better of him – and the actual attack had been the fault of the Tanturians, and would have earned a very thorough tutting if they hadn’t blown themselves up shortly afterwards. In any case, the MRA’s representatives on the High Council blamed the High Council Special Overseers. And it would take centuries of top-secret debates and inquests to conclude that nobody, and everybody, was really at fault. And even then, the Corporate High Council could never accept a report as simple as It Was All Just A Giant Clusterfuck From Beginning To End. So the discussions would continue more or less indefinitely, until the dread Ghåålus appeared to dole out punishments Himself.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, a species failed to reach its ascendant mega even with Corporate support.
Some of them, sadly, didn’t last very long at all.
He only saw Volun one more time.
The Golden Sphere wasn’t exactly a vessel, wasn’t a habitat as such, but it had life support systems compatible with Fliei biology. Spied’jjer had stolen it, sold it off, and stolen it again from the buyer when it turned out he’d need it. It was the only … mobile structure … capable of housing almost eight million Fliei in comfort. Actually, call it what it was – almost embarrassingly decadent luxury. It wasn’t permanent, but it would get them to where they needed to go. Spied’jjer couldn’t promise it would be easy for them to pull themselves away from the fizz-baths and the hagger and moritzo dispensers, but they would probably manage.
Getting the multitude of refugees off-world and into the Sphere had been something of a logistical headache, but was actually assisted by the High Council’s data blackout and the hallowed silence. And moving products from place to place, while making it look like he was moving something else entirely, was a very basic criminal skill. He was supposed to be lifting Merdokk Industries equipment and raw materials off the planet, after all.
The Corporation’s eagerness to deny him contact and sponsorship rights to the Tanturians, furthermore, was nothing short of unseemly. And the quietly ongoing rise of the Tanturian oceans had ensured that nobody wanted to look while the brutal Spied’jjer Merdokk, dark darling of the Master Races Alliance and favourite of the Henchthings of Nnal, had wrought his grim duty on the Fliei. He’d stripped away their shielding, their weapons, their supplies of food and medicine and energy infrastructure, and had carried it all into space. Explaining, at every turn, his esteem for the ancient beliefs of the Master Races and the diverse followers of the dread Ghåålus. And his earnest desire to assist the Tanturians in their rise into interdimensional prominence.
The Tanturians had pressed their attack, hammering at the defenceless mountain strongholds with their as-yet unenhanced but nevertheless powerful weapons. They still weren’t quite as good at waging war in air as they were in water, but they were improving at a truly horrifying rate. At the same time, astonishingly, they almost had a civil war over whether or not to leave the Fliei alive until the ocean could reach them – just, apparently, for the fun of exterminating the air-breathers in person.
The decision was taken out of their cartilaginous little hands. By the time the water was lapping at the flanks of the mountains and the aquaforming process catastrophically failed, there wasn’t a single free Fliei left alive on the planet anyway.
“Pecha-Balch,” Volun said as Spied’jjer approached. They were standing in the executive gallery, a broad avenue near the shuttle bays where Spied’jjer’s own private craft waited. The gallery was spectacular in its excess. Massive crystalline windows on one side, high-yield atmocrystal growths on the other, with a waterfall cascading over the latter to form a long lake. Fliei children splashed in the water. Fliei adults sat and lay watching – all of them, Spied’jjer noted, a safe distance from the shore. Old habits died hard, it seemed. Or sometimes not at all. But perhaps, generation by generation…
“It’s pecha-Merdokk again now,” he said, gesturing to his face, his earrings, his suit with its evident lack of filtering and sanitary technology. “I’m back in my own skin.”
“Ah yes,” Volun said. “You are back to being the Spider.”
“Not that it wasn’t fun being Bortemus Balch,” he admitted. “It was actually tempting to stay that way, for a little while there.”
“But you did not.”
Spied’jjer shook his head. “Running away from yourself is almost as difficult as running away from an Infinite,” he said. “Sometimes the best you can hope for is to fool everybody else.”
“And I think you can do that better in this skin than you can in any other,” Volun said.
“I have the advantage of experience in this skin,” Spied’jjer agreed.
“You have made an enemy of the dread Ghåålus,” Volun noted. Spied’jjer shrugged. “His servants will not hunt you?”
“Oh no,” Spied’jjer said. “I’d have to try to escape for them to hunt me, and I’m not going anywhere. Besides, they all seem to agree that I did the right thing in the end.”
“They think you…” Volun seemed to swell a little, his hair rising in indignation. “They think that it was right.”
“Says all you really need to know about this Corporation, doesn’t it?” Spied’jjer chuckled. “I think the unspoken reality is that every species, everyone in a position of authority, is an enemy of the dread Ghåålus if that’s what He decides. They’ve made it absolutely clear that if He gets free, they’ll all stand back and point at me and say there he is, he’s the one who armed the Tanturians’ slaves.”
“And the dread Ghåålus will know the whole truth.”
“Yes,” Spied’jjer smiled. “I will be irredeemably, utterly, irretrievably fucked. But the thing about that is, there’s still time for me to get ready for it. Hopefully a lot of time.”
“And when that time comes, you believe our descendants will also face this … Infinite wrath.”
“I’m afraid I do,” Spied’jjer said. “Maybe we’ll face it together,” he eyed the Fliei. “You don’t actually believe the Infinites take a hand in mortal matters,” he said. “Do you?”
“A wise alien once explained to me that some things have a nasty habit of existing whether we believe in them or not,” Volun said.
“That does sound wise,” Spied’jjer agreed. “Not as reassuring as scepticism, perhaps, but certainly wise.”
They stood with their backs to the featureless soft-space grey outside the windows, and watched the young Fliei splash and squeal.
“The world you are flying us to,” Volun said. “It has bodies of water?”
“Yes,” Spied’jjer replied. “It’s even got some dangerous marine predators. Nothing sentient, though.”
“No,” Spied’jjer said, then honesty compelled him to add, “not unless we’ve been critically misinformed about the different strains and their development, and there’s a non-sentient colony there. I think it would be extremely unlucky,” he noted this was not amusing or reassuring the Fliei, so just shook his head. “It’s well and truly in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “When you get there, you’ll be on your own. I will leave you before you arrive, and let you continue on alone. I don’t actually know the exact location of the world. I had it scrubbed from the survey information, quite intentionally.”
“So you cannot reveal it to anybody.”
Spied’jjer nodded. It had actually been somewhat more intricate than scrubbing the navigation data, but that was the gist of it. “You may never be able to apply for Corporate membership,” he said, “but there are some steps you can take. There are special case conditions if you are found by Corporate explorers in more than one year’s time, allowing you to present as a different species – and I think it will be more than a year before anyone comes into this region. Until then, you have all the usual Merdokk Industries toys, as I promised you. It’s not Corporate membership, but it will do. You survived on Fliar, so this should be easy.”
“Thank you,” Volun said.
“I’m not sure you should be thanking me,” Spied’jjer said. “I am the destroyer of your world.”
“No,” Volun Embyri Qiie replied quietly. “You are the breaker of our cage.”
Spied’jjer digested that for a few moments, watching the children playing in the glittering water.
“I think,” he said eventually, “I can live with that.”