The absence of war is just another war. This one started a long time ago – hundreds of years, to be precise – and it’s still going on. It started long before the LLTS drive was discovered and long before many civilisations came to exist. Those who started it all came from a small satellite galaxy called Tamma IV. This insignificant place had never previously showed any signs of life, and apart from a few natural radio transmissions, it was quiet, empty and isolated. It was a perfect place for them to hide and wait, and sure enough, they did.
Initially, this species came from another galaxy, and only used Tamma IV to refuel and rebuild – and find out everything about us. Their moon-sized monstrosity of a spacecraft suddenly appeared in the power centre of our galaxy’s imperial government, destroying it all: planets, moons, space stations and armies, without any warning or apparent reason. It was pure destruction. Then they started to move; system after system, layer after layer, sector after sector, they destroyed everything, and they were not interested in negotiations. For all that time, there was no communication with them, none at all. They just travelled around for centuries destroying everything in their path; planets, moons, asteroids, comets, spaceships, species and civilisations were all wiped out. Most of the galaxy’s history disappeared.
The size of their spacecraft was the reason they failed. After taking more and more resources from ruined worlds, the vessel finally collapsed under its own gravity. I guess someone lost their job for wrongly calculating the mass. But this didn’t stop the wars; quite the opposite, in fact. After the government failed, everyone started to fight with everyone else, creating war zones, dividing the galaxy back into its original states, and grasping as much power for themselves as they could. The real faces of most of the civilisations were shown, and clearly not everyone liked the central government.
Now, after all that time, we have forgotten why we are fighting. With so many species, no one can get together to talk peace, so the war is still going on. And imagine what the collision will bring.
The more time we have spent watching the cosmos, the more we have realised that there are a lot more galaxies on a collision path with one another than we once thought. After that became known, every single thinking organism wanted just one thing: to escape. The logic was simple: if you stayed, you were likely to die. The collision of those galaxies would bring chaos to an already chaotic world. In peaceful times, the collision of galaxies brings all the worlds together for everyone’s benefits, but we are at war, and it’s a big one.
* * *
Shan was walking through the dimly lit corridors inside his asteroid garage, passing other crew members’ rooms. The dark walls, rounded perfectly into a cylindrical tunnel, had been made with a quantum drill and revealed the polished dark meteorite rock inside, in some places showing beautifully coloured minerals. Below him, the metal floor with built-in gravity, cables, pipes and ventilation was making noises as he walked. Above him, more pipes and ventilation machinery were making noises, too. He didn’t hear it anymore, but for any new staff or guest, the first few nights were difficult.
After all, that place isn’t a nice quiet hotel, but a cyborg-trying-to-think-asteroid-machine where everything makes noise. Pipes move cold and hot water, and let’s be honest; they are not perfectly attached to the rock. The conditioning system makes noises too, pushing the cold and hot air, keeping the corridors and rooms at the right temperature. With a crew of so many different species requiring different environments, life support is complicated. And if you need specialists and experts from all over the galaxy, you’d better keep them happy. Lef and Tix, for example, are brothers or sisters depending on when you talk to them. This is due to their undersea origins. Their bed is hot, their room is hot, and they wear suits everywhere to keep their bodies hot, too. Normally they live on a warm planet where clothes or heaters over their desks are not needed, but here it’s a different story.
Here’s another room, which belongs to someone from a place where the custom of giving names doesn’t exist. Here she’s known as Phana, which derives from the place she was born. Her oxygen requirements are somewhat different, so outside of her hermetically sealed room, she wears a mask. Someone with an impossible-to-pronounce name is known as Nailee, which is a shortened form of his real name. His room is, let’s say… dark. Other rooms are unique, too. Regarding water pipes, only Goe has an extra one attached to her room, just because she did it herself. It has nothing to do with the requirements of her anatomy, but with being lazy sometimes.
* * *
Shan entered the secondary bridge located on top of the garage where Goe was connecting herself to the computer. It was an elliptical room with windows all around, and it was mainly used for manoeuvring the asteroid and checking for outside ships. From the windows, you could see the surface of the rock covered in spare parts for the most advanced spacecraft imaginable. The bridge was simple with only one seat, a circular sofa in the centre, and controls and consoles all around.
‘I thought you’d already connected yourself,’ Shan said when he entered the bridge and walked over to one of the windows.
‘I did,’ Goe answered, ‘but there’s something wrong with the wireless, so I need a wire. I hid the plug as I never use it.’ She was trying to connect a cable to one of the body interfaces inside her arm. She was sitting on the sofa with her right hand on the table revealing the mechanism within. The wire she’d just plugged in caused a little short circuit, sending a few sparks, and a holographic device, normally hidden inside her arm, dropped to the floor. It automatically deployed and started showing images from Goe’s youth.
‘Is that you?’ Shan asked, surprised. He’d never seen her old photographs before.
‘Don’t look at it!’ Goe squeaked, struggling to switch off the hologram.
‘Wow, was that a jet engine?’ Shan asked. The hologram showed a young Goe wearing a jetpack with two massive engines at each side, clearly home-made.
Shan had hired Goe a long time ago when she came looking for something to do. She was from a species similar to Shan’s, with two legs, two arms and a head on a neck, but now her body was so improved with advanced extensions you could mistake her for a robot. Every day you could see some new augmentation sticking out of her somewhere, or she would have a completely new body part. She was an engineer, with not only years of experience but a real passion for machinery and making them work. She had improved the garage a lot since she joined – all thanks to that brain interface Shan envied so much, but was too afraid to use himself. She had quickly become the chief engineer, and was now managing everything.
* * *
Now back to the LLTS drive, also called the low-level transportation system. It allows you to travel through the lower levels of the universe, removing the problem with time dilation, which, by the way, has nothing to do with time in any case. The LLTS drive allows you to travel fast, I mean really fast, not measured by miles per hour, but by time per distance something. Basically, you move way faster than light: LLTS level one equals five thousand times light speed. This conversion doesn’t really make sense, but gives you an idea of how fast LLTS is. The first people who tried it killed themselves, which wasn’t a great start. You travel fast, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you can end up going through a star. Stars are fun to be around, but not to be inside, that’s for sure.
LLTS blueprints were initially found in a monstrosity of a spacecraft belonging to a species called Besloors. These were the people who started the war, and when their ship broke down, their technology ended up all over the place. Apparently LLTS had been invented by accident, when the Besloors were testing high-energy weapons. During one of the highest-energy tests, they discovered malfunctions. Screens showed no data from any of the sensors, and when the Besloors checked, to their surprise, the core of the newly invented LLTS drive wasn’t there. It was found a few hours later, fifty miles south, in the home of some not-very-happy family, sitting there glowing hot in the remains of a smashed jacuzzi. After that, the Besloors discovered the way to travel at low levels.
Once the plans leaked from the wrecked monstrosity spacecraft, governments banned LLTS as it allowed everyone to escape ruined worlds without any control. But it was too late, and it didn’t take long for everyone to leave those worlds and spread across the galaxy. Currently, the best LLTS drives operate on level three, and can get you across the galaxy in forty-eight hours, that is, if you have a state-of-the-art power generator, cooling system, and a powerful enough computer to calculate your journey. The robots in Sector Four use it exclusively, but no one else honestly knows how it works, so you can ignore the above sentence. For the rest of us, travelling across the galaxy takes months. Nobody has yet figured out how the robots built this technology, and that’s the main reason everyone hates them.
* * *
‘Shut up,’ Goe continued. ‘Yes, it was, and it almost worked, kind of. Why do you think my right arm is artificial? I started when I was five; that’s the picture.’ Goe showed Shan the photo of her young self wearing an exosuit.
‘Argh, this doesn’t work.’ She unplugged the cable and turned to Shan. ‘I feel like something is missing from my body.’
‘Try again later,’ Shan smiled and looked outside.
‘What are you looking at?’ Goe asked and walked to the window.
‘With the number of clients we have, we’ll need another garage,’ Shan said, studying the long queue of spacecraft waiting to get their maintenance done.
‘With the number of clients we have, we’ll need a planet,’ Goe replied, chuckling.
‘I think I need to talk to our military friends. It’s mostly their fault we have so much work. We’re the only garage large enough for their battleships, and they won’t spare any more resources to build another one.’ Shan walked over to the console displaying the map of the galaxy. ‘If they did, or if I could find someplace, we could expand. If not here, maybe in another part of the galaxy. Sector Four sounds promising.’ He pointed at the map.
‘That’s where the robots live.’ Goe honestly hated robots, at the same time as hugely envying them. ‘They have the best technology you can get, and they don’t want to share it with anyone. I don’t like them; everyone shares technology but not them. They can get across the galaxy in forty-eight hours, and it takes us months, it’s ridiculous.’
‘Maybe they have a reason,’ Shan replied, still browsing the map.
‘Yeah right, they’ve been here so many times and we still don’t know how their drive works.’ Goe was pacing now. ‘They don’t even want to escape the collision; they’re so stupid.’ She sat down on a sofa and started adjusting her left eye lens.
‘You’ve seen their ships. They’re so advanced we can’t even scan them, but the robots still come here because they can’t fix the smallest thing themselves. It’s weird.’ Shan was annoyed too, but he was also happy as robots paid in good technology. ‘Let me speak to the military first. Maybe I can persuade them to give us another asteroid.’
‘Fine. But why do you want to expand, and why now? We’re all too busy to do anything.’ Goe looked at Shan like he’d said something stupid.
‘The collision won’t happen that quickly anyway, and I have some plans for Sector Four,’ Shan replied, walking to the sofa. ‘Look at this place,’ he continued after a pause. ‘I need to think about the expansion; not only expanding here but to another sector.’ He sat down and looked at Goe. ‘Listen, I am the owner of this garage, and I am responsible for keeping everyone safe, and making sure we fix all those battleships to help the military to stop the war. This garage brings jobs, food and shelter; it helps everyone, and brings us resources. The more resources we have, the easier it will be to escape. This sector is getting worse; the wars and battles are getting out of control. Apart from the robots’ planet, the rest of the galaxy is in ruins. Even with a small garage in another sector, we can make a difference. Everyone needs jobs, resources and food, and ironically, the war can provide that. We fix the military’s warships, they protect us and provide resources. We don’t have much choice; you know that. Robots can help us with protection; that could give us some peace, some normal life for a moment.’
‘What do you mean, you’re responsible? The war’s not your fault, and we’re all trying to live and survive.’
‘I know, I know.’ Shan was quiet again.
‘Seriously, Shan, we’ve been friends for a long time. You can talk to me. Besides, you have no one else to talk to, with your closed personality, trust issues, and general quietness.’
‘Hey, I tell it like it is. You have nobody, and you’re lonely. It is a lonely job being the boss, and if you don’t like my honesty, fire me.’
‘No, I won’t fire you for honesty. I like that, I always did, and that’s why I trust you.’
‘So you should trust me more.’
‘It’s not easy, and it might be a while, but I’ll try,’ Shan said, then took a deep breath. ‘I trust nobody; I am a nobody who would like to be somebody who could make a difference.’
‘What the hell happened in your life to make you like that? I don’t know anything about you. You never say anything about your life.’ For as long as Goe had known Shan, he’d always avoided talking about his past.
‘What happened to you and that jet engine? Why do you enhance your body?’ Shan always wanted to know Goe’s past, but she always avoided talking about it as well.
‘Don’t change the subject.’
‘I’ll tell you everything if you tell me.’
‘Fine. The truth is, I’m afraid of dying,’ Goe finally admitted.
‘That’s not a revelation; we all are.’
‘Yes, but my fear is exponentially bigger. It started not long after I lost my arm in that jet engine accident. After that, I started to think more, and feel more about myself, and my body, and that I might actually die one day. Thinking that one day I will close my eyes, and I will no longer see my nose, my extensions, and it will be total darkness and quietness… that is causing me actual physical pain. That’s why I want to live forever, and not necessarily in my organic body. I can be a robot, a cyborg or even a computer program, but I really want to be immortal. Another reason is to see the future, but for now, that’s a secondary problem. Now your turn.’
‘Before I opened this garage, I was stupid. I mean, really stupid. Me and my friend back then, we did all sorts of ridiculous things. Our interest in engineering brought us to all those fallen spacecrafts, and they were full of weapons. We’d always dreamed of having our own ship, so we tried to fix them. We took parts from some and tested weapons on others.’
‘That’s not a revelation. We all did that, come on! Where do you think I got my first enhancement kit?’
‘Yes, we did, but I’ve seen bodies. I’ve seen what this war has done to us, and what it’s still doing. Instead of helping those pilots and those robots, I did nothing. I was so into parts and machinery that I left them there. They were still alive, Goe. Soldiers, war robots, even civilians. I completely ignored them because I was more interested in getting as many parts as I could. It was my drug. Still is, but here I can control it. A drug: taking parts, taking data and more parts, taking and taking and taking. The cost was my health and the life of others, because I left them there to die, and myself to starve.’
‘There’s more, isn’t there? Why didn’t you tell me all this before?’
‘Closed personality, trust issues, and general quietness. Your words.’ Shan smiled.
‘Not funny. Continue with the story.’
‘I opened this garage with my friend. That’s something you didn’t know.’
‘No, you always said you opened it yourself. What was his name?’
‘His name is important to me, and I stopped saying it out loud a long time ago. Anyway, he died shortly after the grand opening. To this day, I don’t know who killed him, and I almost died that day as well. Since then I’ve changed, I think. I started to work so hard, and so much, that the last twenty years have passed as if they were a day. I made myself responsible for his death and the deaths of those I could have helped, so I turned this garage into a place where anyone could come, work and stay. By helping fix those spacecrafts, I could maybe do my part to help the military to stop the war, and help everyone, but I failed. And now it’s even worse. The war is worse; pirates are everywhere, in every sector, and on all the planets, and all the civilisations are fighting each other. It’s ridiculous, and I’m thinking about a holiday. I feel even worse for thinking that. I need a break while the war is raging, but the war doesn’t give you a break.’
‘I know the feeling,’ Goe said.
Shan continued after a pause, ‘I grew up in difficult times – well, we all did, you know that. Times of war and uncertainty, and times hidden beneath the war. Times where we all look for answers, understanding, and ways out. War or not, we all have little wars going on inside us; with ourselves, and with others, about everything and nothing. The war outside changes everyone for the worse, but at the same time makes us better, it’s a weird irony. And it’s a delicate balance, one usually destroyed by idiots. Good versus bad, them versus us. The war takes away everything and gives you something completely different. It provides you with a survival instinct, which is a good thing, but you have to be careful with it.
‘I’ve never been to war myself, but we’ve all experienced it. It affected my whole life, my parents, my planet, resources, my toys, food, water and freedom. On one hand, the war was very normal to me. Going to the shop, to the garage, school trips, walks, all the while bombs were falling, soldiers were fighting, guns were firing, spacecrafts were flying around protecting our little world. Maybe because I was an unusual child, I wanted to help others, especially those who were treated differently. I was a kind of refugee myself, I know the pain. Although my life differed from theirs, I think it’s ultimately all the same. After the collapse of the government, everyone closed their borders. Everyone from the worlds that had been destroyed tried to escape, but crossing the oceans of the galaxy wasn’t an easy task, and it still isn’t. I help whenever I can. I hire lots of refugees, different species from all over the galaxy, but now the war is getting worse. You have no idea, Goe. Requests are coming in constantly, from the government, from the military, from everyone, and I can’t handle it anymore, but nor can I stop, because then what would you guys do? I was thinking we could expand so I could fulfil all those requests, but am I right or am I kidding myself?’
‘Wow, seriously, I don’t think you’ve spoken this much since I met you, and I feel like you need a hug. But anyway, you definitely need a holiday. Everyone takes them, but not you. You don’t even do any technical stuff anymore. Every time I see you it’s like you’re barely here, you’re absorbed in that paperwork, and always talking to someone. I haven’t seen you in the kitchen for a long time. Go home, go somewhere, take a week off, or two or even more. If you don’t, you’ll go crazy and then we’ll definitely have to close the garage. War or not, you need a break. I’ve been doing a lot of management here, and with my enhanced body and mind I’ll cope. I’m already connected to the garage’s system; I see most of the requests in my head so I can deal with them anytime, anywhere. Lef and Tix will help, they’re good engineers. You need to trust us more, seriously.’
‘You’re right; I need a holiday. I’ll think about it. Thank you for that.’
‘Any time. You did so much for us; let us do something for you.’
‘You know what time it is?’
‘I have a built-in clock in my mind; I always know.’
‘Then we need to sleep. Don’t stay up too late, it’s not your shift,’ Shan replied, and started walking towards the exit, but after a moment he stopped and said, ‘Thank you again.’
He was leaving abruptly, but Goe knew to let him go.
* * *
Shan’s garage orbited the primary star between its second and third planet, his home world. The garage was the central hub for repairing spacecraft in this sector. It was also the last one surviving, as it was the largest and the military needed it. Shan, who had lived his whole life in the shadow of the war, had managed to keep the garage operational for the last twenty years. His primary clients were mining and cargo companies, local government and the military. The military took most of the space and time, to his and everyone else’s annoyance.
Sector Two, where Shan’s garage was located, had used to be the wealthiest place in the galaxy, and it had been the last one to fall after the ‘battle of the borders’. Before the war, this sector – which was abundant in resources, asteroids, planets and moons – had boasted the best defences, warships and military schools in the galaxy. It was the place where the central government had been established, before moving later to orbit the central black hole zoo. (Called zoo for its many black holes found in the centre of the galaxy.) The most ambitious projects had started here, and the most powerful weapons been invented. The most prosperous species originated in this sector, and even the poorest here were richer than those in other sectors.
Sector Two had been envied by every other sector and it was under constant criticism for how prosperous and wealthy it was. Then the place was flooded by all those who had harboured dreams of a better future, dreams that had been destroyed by those who were supposed to protect them. Now, Sector Two was like other sectors, in survival mode, and those who had come here now wanted to leave. The great migration continued but crossing the empty oceans of interstellar space had never been easy, and now it was almost impossible. The war, however, doesn’t give you much choice. So, they travelled, then and now, on private ships or with smugglers who didn’t care about lives, but about resources, as money lost its meaning a long time ago. Smugglers overcrowd their vessels; they don’t check maps, they don’t cooperate. And they die in sub-quantum nets.
Money is long gone, replaced by a resource, and knowledge-based society. The shift started so far in the past that no one remembers it anymore, but currency on that scale didn’t work. It was a slow and painful change, but eliminating money helped with many of its associated problems: greed, power, loans, debts, corruption; all the things that had caused poverty and inflation, destroying communities and economies. Half the civilisations were glad to see it go as they had disliked the concept of money in the first place, some tried to keep it, and the rest had a variety of completely different ideas. Barter was not a solution; it had as many issues as money. But it was decided – money needed to go. The resource and knowledge-based system was introduced, and for many years it was a disaster, but slowly, new generations learned to live without money, and gradually all the other sectors followed. A few of those isolated civilisations that somehow managed to survive decided to keep it, but for the rest, money was something only historians talk about anymore.
* * *
All the rooms were located under the main corridors and near the outside surface. Mainly for easy access to the maintenance floor, but also to keep them far away from noise and vibrations, and to provide natural light. This side of the garage was always turned towards the central star of the solar system, as initially there had been lots of solar panels here. Now it stayed like that so everyone could enjoy the view.
Shan’s room had a simple but very comfortable double bed, made by one of the last surviving furniture companies. As payment for fixing their spacecraft, they’d supplied all the wooden equipment for all the staff quarters. In the corner, where there’d used to be a corner sofa, he had a wardrobe, and shelves on one of the walls next to the door were full of things he had collected over the years from all over the galaxy. In recent years, he had been using his quantum drill to slowly expand his room and make space for all the things he was accumulating.
Shan went down to his room. It was either the last or the first, depending on where you started counting from. He closed the metal door and started his after-work routine. The main thing was showering. Space garages get dirty, but no one had ever built a spacecraft-wash. It would be crazy to waste water just to clean ships and those, ironically, don’t like water anyway. After his shower, the cook brought him dinner. A long time ago, when the crew was small enough, they’d had breakfast, lunch and dinner together in the main dining room next to the kitchen. Now that was tricky due to the different shifts needed to cover the twenty-four-seven operations of the garage.
‘Enjoy: it’s the last time you get to eat your favourites,’ said Colin, the head chef, entering Shan’s room after knocking on the door a couple of times. He put the plate on one of the shelves, which was now functioning as a small table. Shan’s main desk was always covered with paperwork, wires, and instruments, so he never ate food there.
‘What? Why?’ Shan asked, looking up from the bed.
‘You forgot again? You need a holiday.’ Shan had forgotten a lot of things lately, including new tunnels that were being drilled, and many of the deliveries they’d had in the last few months. ‘The last food transports were captured by pirates, or taken down to the main planet,’ Colin added. ‘We still have food, but you need to do something about it.’
‘Oh, yes, sorry. I remember,’ Shan answered, and closed his eyes before adding, ‘Yes, I need a holiday, and I need sleep, and I need to sort out food.’
‘Goodnight, and don’t forget: breakfast the day after tomorrow in the small kitchen,’ Colin said. He left the room, thinking that Shan probably wouldn’t make it.
‘Another day, another part,’ Shan mumbled to the empty room.
He was working so hard, he never had time to himself. This evening he was falling asleep over his dinner when the screen, attached to a mechanical arm on a wall, started flashing with hundreds of unread messages. I seriously need some time off from it all, Shan thought. He was tired of this: he was missing breakfasts and never socialising. Days were long, hard work, but the worst thing was that he was losing his passion for spacecraft, computers and all the engineering he had once loved. Now his job was mostly paperwork and managing the garage, trying to accommodate as many battleships as possible in the shortest amount of time.
He finished his dinner and lay down, thinking about his family and the old days; about friends, and most importantly, about his grandfather. Shan had always been interested in his family history. He didn’t know his birth parents and had made it his mission to find out any details he could about his biological family. But even with the most advanced technology and medicine, Shan’s DNA tests didn’t return much. The only thing he had from his real family was a photograph his foster parents had found when they discovered his cryo-pod. It was a portrait of his family standing on a hill with an unknown city below. He did all sorts of tests on the photo paper, from seeking experts’ advice to carrying out sub-quantum analysis, but no origin was ever found. The photograph itself he kept inside a hidden asteroid with all his other valuables.
Shan had appeared one day as a speck of dust on the radar of a family of engineers who were travelling home from the cosmic garage where they worked. The speck was a cryo-capsule, and they had never seen anything like it: sleek and advanced, while the cryo-pods they knew were made of scrap metal, and you prayed to who-knows-which god that they would work at all. Shan looked a bit different to his foster parents, but as they already lived on a planet full of different species, they didn’t mind; ironically, the war was bringing diverse cultures together. They took him to their big house full of parts, plans and tools, and it was there that young Shan got interested in engineering: first in breaking whatever he could find, and then in fixing it.
Now Shan moved the screen and brought the keyboard closer to him to type a new message, ignoring all the unread ones. I know I shouldn’t, he thought. Lacking Goe’s body extensions – he had never liked installing things like that, even if he loved them, for fear of developing another addiction – he had to use a regular old-fashioned keyboard. He typed a message in a sub-quantum chat with Eli, a girl he’d met a long time ago, who was now living in the wreckage city on the bar planet. He’d met her when she came to the garage to get one of her science vessels fixed. No reply came now; she was probably sleeping thanks to the difference in time zones. (If you have time zones on one planet, imagine time zones on thousands of planets. Booking meetings was a real pain.)
Shan fell asleep.
* * *
In the morning, the garage floor was busy with two large battleships having maintenance done. The room was enormous: a hole running straight through the asteroid and divided in half with corridors suspended on one side. Lef and Tix were floating around checking the spacecraft when the screen inside their helmets lit up. A message from Shan appeared.
Meeting this afternoon with Goe and me. 3 pm, please.
Shan’s office was a small room next to the main bridge, where he could focus on work. There was a simple desk, some shelves, a chair, a wall planner filled with text, and no window, just screens on the walls showing the status of all the garage systems. He was sitting in his chair when Lef and Tix entered the room.
‘Have a seat. Goe will be here in a minute,’ said Shan, unconsciously checking his internal body temperature. ‘Is it really that cold here?’ he asked, knowing the answer when his body reported normal operating temperature.
‘Well, I guess we can take off the helmets for a moment,’ Lef replied. You could see almost everything through his and Tix’s skin, as it wasn’t designed to operate off their home planet. All their veins, brains and eyes: you could literally see the inner workings of their bodies.
‘Might as well start,’ said Shan. ‘I’m going to travel for a bit. I need a holiday, and I’m going to have to leave the garage for you two to manage. Not sure for how long, but probably a few months.’
Lef and Tix – who were the two core engineers, one for each section of the garage – looked a bit shocked, as Shan never left the asteroid. His devotion to work was legendary.
‘I think we should be fine managing it,’ Lef replied first, not really knowing what to say.
‘That’s what we do here every day anyway. We should be fine,’ added Tix. ‘Excuse our surprise, but you’ve never left this place, like, since you opened it,’ he continued while Shan stood up.
‘That was, like… years and years ago. I don’t think you’ve even gone away for a day or two,’ Lef added.
‘Yes, I know, and that’s why I need some time off. Otherwise, I’ll go crazy. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time, and the best thing to do is just go. Otherwise I’ll spend another twenty years here. I don’t want that. It’s time for a small change, and anyway, I can always come back,’ Shan explained as Goe entered the office. ‘Goe, I took your advice, I’m going on holiday. The garage is yours, and Lef and Tix will manage each section. You’re in charge for the next few months.’
‘Wow, finally. Don’t get me wrong, though; I’m not trying to get rid of you. You know that, right?’ she asked, though she didn’t think that he did.
‘Yes, I do. After we spoke yesterday, I spent a lot of time thinking. Well, I’ve been thinking about this for years, actually, and you’re right. I need a break. I’ll leave some paperwork for you to do for day-to-day stuff. And one more thing, Goe, can you prepare some… brain enhancements I can take with me? Maybe I’ll try them during my holiday. You know everyone uses them but me, so I guess it’s time.’ Shan sat down and started moving some paperwork while Lef and Tix put their helmets on.
‘Can we go now? We have some big spacecrafts to finish,’ Lef asked, pressurising his helmet and adjusting the internal temperature.
‘Yes, sure. I’ll send the message to everyone. We’ll be in constant communication over a sub-network. You shouldn’t have any issues; just keep doing the excellent work you’re doing, and if there’s anything you can’t do, let me know. I’ll help remotely,’ Shan explained.
‘Where are you going, anyway?’ Lef asked.
‘Hopefully to Igem. They have the best beaches in the whole galaxy, and we don’t need to wear any special suits there,’ Tix explained. He remembered the last time he’d gone there and started imagining the sun, the ocean, and the freedom of not needing to wear a suit. He thought of his home planet too, which he missed so much.
‘Well, that’s not my kind of holiday, though I might check the place out. Got other plans,’ Shan replied.
‘Enjoy, and see you when you get back,’ Lef said.
As they both left, Goe sat down and started talking. ‘What do you want? I can give you all the extensions you’ll ever need. They can connect your mind to AIs and all types of computers. I have mind browsers, uploaders, downloaders, organisers, managers, injectors, modifiers, rootkits, and exploits. I have organ replacements, and…’
Shan interrupted her. ‘How many of those do you have?’ he was aware of body extensions but not on that scale.
‘A lot. And look at me; I mean, I’ve tried everything, but don’t worry, I’ll give you the best stuff.’ Goe was excited. ‘Some of those extensions are a bit illegal but don’t worry. In times like this everything and nothing is illegal. I also have muscle, smell and vision enhancers. And I bet you’d like some skin and sensory enhancers, too.’ She winked at Shan.
‘Goe, I just need simple things for now. This will be my first time using any enhancements, and I don’t want to end up in one of those derelict hospitals,’ Shan replied, trying to hide his fear.
‘OK, sorry. I’ll prepare you something simple. Most of them come in pre-packaged boxes with bots. You put one on your skin and the bots do the rest. They’re all universal and can talk to each other. Easy-peasy,’ Goe replied and started writing something on the screen on her wrist.
‘Cool. Leave it in my spacecraft. But I don’t know if I trust those things. How do they feel?’ Shan asked, trying to imagine the sensation.
‘Feel? Oh, umm, did you ever have a blocked ear? Or a blocked nose? Completely blocked?’ Goe asked, trying to explain an experience so subjective that she struggled to find the right words.
‘Ear, yes, and nose, yes, why?’
‘How do you feel when you unblock your ear or nose, and you can hear or smell again?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know… Good, I guess, one of your senses has comes back.’
‘Exactly!’ Goe shouted, standing up, her heart racing, and her artificial pupils dilating from excitement. ‘And that’s how it feels, but a million times more amazing. It’s like another sense comes to life or like another arm appears on your body. It’s incredible. When you connect your brain to the computer for the first time, the entire world opens up, and you can talk to it, travel its interfaces, data and networks. It’s seriously awesome, though not easy to use at first. It’s not travel in the literal sense, but you feel it, the same as you can feel and travel around your brain to find a memory, for example.’
‘OK, I’ll try,’ Shan replied.
‘You seem a bit sad,’ Goe said, feeling that something wasn’t right.
‘No, I’m just tired. I need time off, seriously.’
After knowing Shan for all those years, Goe could guess what was on his mind, and it was better to leave him alone. ‘Don’t forget the breakfast,’ she said, leaving his office.
* * *
In the morning, Goe entered the small kitchen. Breakfast was eaten here as the big kitchen wasn’t in use at that time of day. It was located not far from the secondary bridge, and it had small windows in the ceiling as Shan was always careful about having too much glass overhead in space. The little room was filled with the most odd-looking plants, vegetables, fruit, pasta, cheeses, powders, meats and bread. There were even single atoms floating around. At the same time, the appliances made various noises as they prepared meals. The kitchen had to serve many different kinds of food to a variety of species. From Lef and Tix who relied only on vegetables, to the omnivore species Goe and Shan belonged to, to meat-eating Kolubs, to the specially designed artificial diet for drots, to nano and bot species who could only eat food constructed on an atomic level. When food was scarce, you could see the metallic and wooden interiors of the kitchen, and when it was plentiful, it was everywhere. The kitchen was always working; steam was steaming, water boiling, mixers mixing and builders building. In the middle of this was Colin, the head chef. He came from Sector Three, where he wasn’t accepted in his society and had been expelled due to his disability.
Interestingly, it was the feature his culture considered a disability that allowed him to become the greatest cook in the sector. On his home world, his big nose and great sense of smell was considered a disability because the whole planet stank. No one knew that but him. He tried to tell everyone about the stinking planet, change the laws and society and even overturn the government, but he lost that battle. After spending years in prison suffering from malnutrition, he learned everything there was to learn about smells and food. He was expelled and put on a military spacecraft to work as a chef. Some good came from his protests when others created an anti-stink underground resistance, to try to fight the smelly regime.
‘Another new part? You look like a bloody robot, you know,’ Colin said to Goe, who entered while he was preparing food.
‘Fuck off, Colin,’ Goe snapped. ‘I don’t like your nose,’ she added, while looking for something to eat.
‘Oh, come on, you know I was joking,’ Colin replied, getting a plate ready for her.
‘And I’ve explained to you so many times that my body extensions are a serious business, and nothing to joke about. They are me, part of me and I treat them as my body,’ she explained, looking across the kitchen worktop and trying to grab something to eat.
Colin knew that, but he always teased her anyway. ‘All right, I’m sorry. Now wait for your portion,’ Colin replied, moving someone else’s plate out of Goe’s reach.
‘What’s for breakfast?’ Goe asked while playing with her attachments, adjusting them to smell and see better.
‘Your favourites. Stones on a wing,’ said Colin, giving her a plate. The meal was potatoes with cosmic chicken wings, and Goe loved it. Not because she liked potatoes and chicken but because of the spices and sauce. Colin’s unique mixture of flavours, collected during his military travels all over the galaxy and beyond, mixed perfectly. Food was something that kept everyone together, and Colin’s food was rather like a drug, like the best pizza, or garlic bread, or seafood, or cheesecake. His excellent sense of smell allowed him to make the greatest spices and sauces with almost sub-quantum precision. Something even Goe’s improved artificial nose didn’t allow her to do.
‘You should start selling your spices, you know,’ Goe said between bites of chicken. ‘You could open your own restaurant.’
‘Bit too late for that,’ Colin replied.
‘In case you’ve forgotten, we’re at war, and we all need to keep up our morale. Especially soldiers, they need food. Oh, my, I love this stuff,’ Goe started cuddling her food, stroking it with her newly implanted touch enhancers like the tongue of a fly.
‘It’s food, you know. Not a toy… or a lover,’ said Colin in amazement.
‘It’s not just food. I could have a relationship with it,’ Goe replied.
‘I can see you already have. Do you want to get private with it?’ Colin was laughing, seeing Goe’s face covered in sauce.
‘Shut up. Aaaaah, that smell!’ Goe exclaimed, touching the chicken with her nose.
‘Is Goe having a good time?’ Shan asked when he entered the kitchen.
‘As you can see.’ Goe was all over her food.
‘Stones again?’ Shan asked, looking at Goe while she spread the sauce all over her face. ‘Won’t that sauce break her attachments?’ Everyone was looking at her in wonder now.
‘Let’s leave her alone. Yep. For you guys, only stones left. The last food delivery was captured by pirates,’ said Colin. ‘That was the tanker-class ship,’ he added.
‘Shit, seriously?’ Shan couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. ‘Those pirates are getting more and more dangerous. Don’t worry, I’ll remember to do something about it.’
‘We can’t even take anything from the main planet; it’s stupid. We fix their ships, and for what?’ Colin replied, trying to express his anger by throwing the kitchen towel.
‘For drives, parts, gravity, shelter…’ Shan answered, sitting down with his portion.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know. We need to start charging in food,’ Colin said.
‘You had your portion already,’ Shan told Goe, as she was staring at his food as if craving a drug.
Glone, a young engineer who had recently joined Shan’s crew, entered the kitchen. ‘Stones again? I thought you were the best cook in this galaxy,’ he said to Colin, then took his portion and sat down next to Goe.
‘I’ll have it if you don’t want it,’ she said, looking at Glone’s plate.
‘Maybe I’ll move over here.’ Glone went around to sit opposite Goe, next to Shan.
‘Goe, try charging in food,’ Shan said to her.
‘It’ll be my pleasure, but I was telling Colin he should start selling his spices… or even better…’ Goe’s enhanced eyes went wide as she thought, ‘…we should open a restaurant on the sunny side of the rock. It would be awesome; everyone queueing for the garage could eat there. I’d call it the Hollow Ship Inn.’
‘We don’t have enough food for ourselves, so how could we open a restaurant? When we have plenty, then we can do that,’ Shan explained, killing her dream. Then he added, ‘Colin, how much food do we have?’
‘I told you not to worry. We have enough for a year, but it’s all stones and wings for you guys. We only have so many because I grow them,’ Colin replied.
‘Grow? Where?’ Shan wondered. He didn’t remember having a farm.
‘I thought you checked all the requests for expanding the garage?’ Colin said.
‘Well, I’m busy, I don’t remember all the paperwork. And where did you get that salad? I don’t recognise this stuff,’ Shan observed as he took mouthfuls of green, almost mutated, leaves.
‘I built a greenhouse on the solar side of the rock. Got stones there, lots of green stuff, some fruit and veg, and chickens,’ Colin announced.
‘Please tell me you’re joking,’ said Shan.
‘No?’ Colin confirmed with a question.
‘Well, as long as the garage is safe, I have no problem with it,’ Shan answered.
‘I know, you told me that the day you approved it,’ Colin added.
‘Seriously, where did you get the chickens from?’ Glone asked, then bit into a wing.
‘Long story short: my friend is a smuggler, he had some chickens on board from somewhere, and he didn’t know what to do with them, and I needed some eggs. By the way, tomorrow’s breakfast is eggs,’ Colin replied, finishing his salad.
‘Great. The last thing I want to eat is some unborn chickens.’ Goe felt her stomach extensions turning.
‘You just ate fully born dead chicken, so don’t complain,’ Glone said.
‘Can you show me that greenhouse you’ve built?’ Shan asked, finishing his stones. ‘Might as well see it before I go,’ he continued, though only Goe knew he was leaving for a holiday.
‘Sure, do you want to look now?’ Colin replied, cleaning plates.
‘Yes, if you have a minute.’
‘Let’s go then. Anyone else want to have a tour of the greenhouse?’ Colin asked, removing his apron.
‘Might as well see that secret garden of yours,’ Goe said, standing up. ‘Anyone else interested in eggs and chickens?’ she asked the other two. Glone decided to come, and the four of them left the kitchen.
* * *
‘I forgot how big this place really is,’ said Colin, manoeuvring the shuttle between military battleships and floating engineers. The shuttles were a fleet of small spacecraft, used to move quickly between different parts of the garage floor as the over three-kilometre-long rock wasn’t designed for walking. ‘I really should spend more time here,’ he added.
‘Yes, it is, but with those two massive ships here, it looks small,’ replied Shan, sitting down next to him. ‘I remember when I got this asteroid. They put it here in orbit, and we flew into it with our tiny shuttle thinking why the hell would we need a rock that big? And now look at it. Oh, I remember that bit.’ Shan pointed at a piece of shiny rock that protruded from the garage wall. ‘We had so many problems removing it, and adding those doors was a pain. We had to keep fiddling with the artificial gravity to get it all right. I mean, we had to make a hole in the middle of this huge rock, so it wasn’t easy. That was all before any of you came aboard,’ Shan explained, remembering the early days.
‘Oh, this place is like your child,’ Colin remarked, flying them towards the docking port on the other side of the garage floor. The place was busy with engineers repairing the hulls, docking ports, and weapons of badly damaged spaceships, and it took time and skill to manoeuvre safely through it all. ‘And here we are,’ he said, after docking the shuttle. ‘Now we have to walk.’ The ports were connected to the tube-like corridors that were suspended on the garage wall, allowing people to walk along the whole length of the garage without the need for special suits.
‘This way,’ Colin said, and he started walking up the metal stairs from the shuttle port to the main tunnel. After a while, he turned right towards the garden.
‘I seriously need to walk more. I don’t remember that garden tunnel being here,’ said Shan to Colin, trying to remember when he had approved its construction.
‘OK, this is the entrance, but we need to be quick going through the door,’ said Colin. The dark tunnel ended with a metallic door, and he started entering the code on a wall keypad. ‘It’s hot inside. I try to keep the perfect temperature, humidity, and pressure for plants and chickens. I want to install double doors but haven’t had time yet. Ready?’ They all nodded. Colin opened the door, and the hot air struck them like a pancake hitting the pan. ‘Get in quick!’ said Colin and locked the door behind everyone once they were through.
‘Oh, my…’ said Goe, trying to breathe. ‘My home planet is hot, but not like th… Oh, my….’ She was already sweating, and her improved body cooling system started working at full speed.
Meanwhile, Shan and Glone’s jaws had dropped.
‘Did you build this all by yourself? The forest, the jungle, and the water fountain thing?’ Shan asked, looking at the small canal. What Colin called a garden was actually a massive forest inside one of the craters, covered by a glass dome. It was hot inside, the perfect temperature for growing different kinds of plants, and for keeping the tropical cosmic chickens happy.
‘Yes.’ Colin was proud of his creation.
‘Of course, no one else is crazy enough to do it,’ said Goe, adjusting her temperature sensors.
‘Very funny. And that canal is part of the water system,’ Colin answered.
‘How can you breathe here? I’m all sweaty,’ said Glone. ‘It’s a jungle.’ Palm trees of all types were so densely planted that you couldn’t see the far end of the garden. They received light from the star and gave back oxygen, fruit and materials in exchange. The cosmic chickens supplied enough meat and eggs for the whole crew to be temporarily independent of food transports.
‘I wish it was bigger.’
‘Where did you get all that soil from, and who works here besides you?’ Shan asked.
‘The soil, well, that was the hard part. It took me some time to collect enough of it from smugglers and your home planet. About two years, I think. Ordering smugglers around wasn’t easy. They looked at me funny when I wanted tons of soil, but fortunately they didn’t ask many questions. For now, it’s mostly me here, but others helped a bit, so you might say it’s a community project,’ Colin explained. ‘I’ll be honest with you, I recreated some places on my home planet but a bit hotter. And if you don’t like it, I’ll tear it down. Just say the word.’ Colin was clearly hoping to keep the garden.
‘Are you crazy?’ Shan said. ‘This is amazing. The most amazing place I’ve ever been. How big is it?’ Years? That only confirms I need a holiday; I have no idea what’s going on here anymore. I spend too much time on paperwork and other shit I shouldn’t be doing. Goe needs to step in.
‘About a hundred metres across. So you’re happy for me to continue?’ Colin asked.
‘Yes, but…’ Shan looked up. ‘Install a double door. If that glass breaks and the field goes, we’ll lose the garage. And there are some big craters near here; you could expand into them. Just be careful: bullets and other things fly at high speed.’
‘Expand with a restaurant, that would be awesome,’ said Goe, displaying a holographic simulation of the restaurant in an attempt to get support for her idea.
‘I’m not sure about the restaurant bit yet. But I already have a plan for more craters with different environ…’ Colin began.
‘OK, where are the chickens?’ Glone interrupted, walking off into the small forest.
‘There! They went to the veggie section.’ Colin saw one and tried to catch it. ‘Dammit. I’ll find them later. They don’t like strangers and they can run fast. Apart from the mechanical chicken and the robots.’
‘You have a mechanical chicken and robots?’ Goe was incredulous.
‘Yes, the chicken monitors and entertains the other chicken. You should be able to connect to it. The robots help to maintain it all while the engineers are busy,’ Colin replied.
‘OK, I need to leave; it’s too humid for me here.’ Glone, who came from a cold planet, was all sweaty.
‘Yes, let’s go. Colin, fantastic job, seriously,’ Shan told him. ‘Can’t wait to see more.’
‘You’ll be even happier. That place produces oxygen. Not much now, but if I expand it, we won’t need to buy so much,’ Colin added.
‘Great news. I’m sure Goe can connect filters to it. And one more thing before we leave… Sorry, Glone, I’m sure you can wait another minute.’ Shan looked at Glone, who was struggling to keep his head dry. ‘OK, listen. You’re my friends, and you probably know this already, but I’m going on holiday today. Kind of now, actually…’ Shan explained.
‘What?’ Glone was surprised. ‘Did you know about this?’ he asked the other two.
‘Yes,’ Goe and Colin answered.
‘Why am I the last to know?’
‘Glone, I need a holiday,’ said Shan. ‘You all take them, but not me. I didn’t even know about those soil transports, that shows how busy I am. I’m sure you’ll all be okay without me for a while. And besides, I have remote access to the garage, and we can always talk, so don’t worry,’ Shan explained and added, ‘OK, let’s go. One more minute and Glone will die.’
* * *
Shan’s original intention had been to visit his parents and then go to the bar planet to see Eli, but after his discussion with Goe about expanding the garage, he decided to alter his plans. The military planet was nearby, and he wanted to visit the general in search of help with the garage’s food problem.
He sat down in his spacecraft and had a long sub-quantum chat with Eli; they decided they would meet in four months at the bar planet, and Shan would ask the general why nothing worked there.
In the meantime, Shan had started changing the flight path in the onboard computer when the message popped up on the screen. He recognised it at once. The sender was encrypted, the message was encrypted, and it was basically garbage. To anyone else, it would just look like an error or spam. Messages like this came from robots, always sent directly to Shan and always encrypted. Usually for no reason. Another robot’s spacecraft needs fixing, Shan thought. Robots usually came to his garage just to repair the simplest things. Often, the jobs were so simple that Shan could do it in minutes, outside the garage. It was worth it as the robots paid with great technologies and parts.
* * *
Artificial intelligence has always been challenging to build, and AI that could really think on its own never really existed. It kind of did, but never at the level of biological organisms, and when left to itself, it usually came to some final conclusions and died.
One story tells of a guy who tried a different approach. It was simple; like all revolutionary things it was so simple that no one had previously tried it. Or rather, everyone tried what he tried, but he forgot to turn it off. Everyone tried to build AI stage by stage, from recognising images and sounds to avoiding obstacles. His idea was different, but his new algorithm still didn’t work. Whatever he did, the output was always the same: garbage. Frustrated, he just left it, forgetting to turn it off. When he came back after two weeks’ holiday… guess what, it was still garbage. But this time, he saw words in between the random nonsense. Out of curiosity, he left it running, and after a few more weeks, he saw random images and more words. He looked at the code, and it was gibberish, but somehow something worked. To him, it was garbage, but the machine was learning, living, understanding hardware and interfaces, and creating its own internal world. He had created AI, which is now known officially as femacomputions, a word combining the inventor’s name with ‘computation’. Unofficially everyone calls them Garbs, short for garbage because if you don’t understand them, they sound like a talking garbage can.
In the beginning, communications didn’t work well. The guy didn’t know machine language and the machine didn’t know his. It took a year for the machine to understand who we were, who it was, where it was, and what the universe was.
Now, when robots, or machines as they are also known, come to Shan, they send a message about what they need and what they can offer. This time, the problem was their planet. Shan pressed his fingertip to the DNA reader to decrypt the text.
Our planet is dying. Requesting onsite engineer. Sending new LLTS for your spacecraft. ETA 30 minutes.
Robots were excellent at creating new parts, building, and improving everything, but creativity and fixing things were not their strongest points. Their planet was dying, and they wanted Shan to help. Requesting onsite engineer? Well, might as well go and see their planet at last. Maybe I won’t be needing another rock from the military, after all… Oh, and my holiday plans have changed again. But when Shan had first contacted the general, he hadn’t wanted to tell him many details, only that he needed to discuss the garage, and it would be suspicious if he changed his plans now. The military never trusted anyone, even their own kind, especially these days.
* * *
The military responsible for this sector of the galaxy were based on an ancient planet, located four light years away from Shan’s garage. It wasn’t a nice-looking place, mostly deserted, dotted with massive craters, with smoke and flashes of light randomly coming out of nowhere, and empty cities now used for weapons testing. Whatever your reason for being there, it was better if the military knew where you were. Getting shot at random by a ballistic missile is never fun, getting randomly nuked even less. This place had used to be an ordinary world, but after many battles, there was more army left than civilians. Not because everyone had been killed but because they’d escaped, and those who stayed joined the armed forces, so they decided to keep the whole planet for themselves. Now it was used for building and testing new technologies and weapons.
Shan set the speed to level two on LLTS, activated the drive, and five minutes later he was in orbit around the military planet. Four light years in five minutes, that’s what I call the need for speed. He received a message giving him permission to land, along with the coordinates of the hole in the quantum net surrounding the planet. This world hasn’t changed much since the last time I was here, he thought, watching the grey surface through the windows.
Thanks to its purpose and the army’s trust issues, this military world had a quantum net covering the entire planet. The only place you could pass through to the surface was through the hole, whose location had to be agreed in advance. Shan was flying along the virtual corridor projected onto the windows of his spacecraft, guiding him through the hole, going slowly and carefully as even the smallest mistake would cost him his ship. He didn’t know the size of the hole, and could only hope it was big enough.
After a few minutes’ flying he landed in a sandy desert, in a crater still steaming with smoke after the explosion that had created it. Should I be here? he wondered, and was checking the coordinates when suddenly all the systems went down, and he and his spacecraft were being dragged under the surface. Shan didn’t panic, as this had happened before when he was here, but this time the crater was new.
A moment later, his spacecraft landed on an underground platform. He went downstairs and exited via the loading bay. He found himself in a room the size of a hangar; dark, with a round roof through which sand was spilling in places. It had only one small door, which had opened when he landed. The faint radiance spilling through it was the only source of light, but before Shan could reach it a soldier entered the room. His body was similar to Shan’s but with more arms: he was basically an evolved cockroach, from the same species as the general. The soldier looked at Shan but didn’t say a word, just turned around and walked through the door. Shan followed and found himself in another room of similar size. A massive table was standing in the middle, and the general himself was sitting in a large chair, looking like a king on a throne. Shan tried to come closer, but the soldier waved his arms, warning him to stay behind the table.
‘So, you want to expand, my friend?’ asked the general in a deep voice, speaking in what had once been the official language of the central government. Shan, like many others, was bilingual, having learned the central government language at school, and even now it was no longer the official language, it was unofficially used by almost everyone, almost everywhere. For that reason, the central government language became the most complex language ever created. Galaxy wide language with endless accents, slangs, gender and non-gender related words, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and never-ending grammar rules. It was possibly the only language spoken by everyone not mastered by a single person but only by automatic translators.
‘Have you seen the queue outside my garage recently?’ Shan replied. ‘It’s pretty long. That’s mostly your fault, and it’s affecting military warships too, but no one wants to spend any more resources expanding the garage.’
‘My fault? Don’t blame me for the war,’ the general said, his mood changing.
‘Of course I don’t blame you for the war, I blame you for not wanting to expand the garage. We can’t repair your spacecrafts fast enough,’ Shan said, trying to be careful with words.
‘I don’t think you understand the situation. Do you think your garage is some kind of spa and we go there for pleasure?’ the general demanded, his voice getting louder and louder with each word. ‘Do you think I want to be here? Do you think I want that war? Do you think I want to fix those spacecrafts? Do you think I want you and your garage?’
‘I don’t want that war either, but we have no choice.’
‘I have a choice, and I already chose. For now, no new garage for you. We need all available asteroids to turn into weapons. They provide valuable resources.’ The general was famous for having rebuilt the shattered army of this sector, mostly by hiring local companies and mining everything available: asteroids, planets, and even cities and civilian spacecraft, sometimes without even asking. Though his methods were cruel, he’d become very popular by stimulating the local economy.
‘Then expect a call from the local government when I say “no” to them.’
‘I eat that stupid mayor for breakfast!’ the general shouted, hitting his chair with his fists.
‘You seriously need to work together.’ Shan had stopped being nice.
‘Where are you planning to expand?’ the general asked, his mood changing again.
‘First here, and then Sector Four, where the robots are. They pay in good technology.’ The general had always hated robots, but they were good for Shan’s business.
‘Hmm,’ the general replied. Shan could see he was thinking, probably not happy about the idea.
‘If that’s the case…’ He went quiet again. ‘You know what those robots have that we don’t? I can provide you with a whole planet if you can help me get it. I know they come to you often.’ The general had to be referring to the LLTS drive and probably a few other things, Shan reasoned. No one ever beat robots, even the military. The story went that the most advanced and powerful weapon the military had used to attack the robots’ planet had done absolutely nothing.
‘Yes, I need that too,’ Shan replied, standing next to a ridiculously large chair. ‘But the robots’ spacecrafts cannot be scanned or, to be honest, even understood. They only come to my garage to fix simple things.’ Shan was lying, but he reasoned that in these times you couldn’t trust anyone.
‘Keep trying. When you get what I need, you get your new garage,’ the general told him.
‘Yeah, thanks for nothing.’
‘Careful, my friend.’
‘What? Are you going to destroy the only thing that keeps your battleships running? You know my garage is the only one, and I have the best engineers.’
‘One more thing. Have you heard of the bar where nothing works? Any idea why nothing works there, or what might? Asking for a friend,’ Shan said. The bar where nothing works was located on a lonely planet just outside the galaxy, where Shan’s friend Eli was living.
‘You’re asking the oldest question in the universe, my friend. We’ve been trying to make things work at that bar since we discovered it, and I don’t even know when that was. We’ve wanted to destroy that place so many times, but it’s even more powerful than the robots. And we’ve held so many negotiations there, trying to stop the war, I’ve lost count. But no results.’
Shan wanted to say OK, but the general continued, ‘One of the first negotiations we had was actually with the robots. I wasn’t there at that time, but it’s all here in the archives. Those robots were not at all interested in escaping or helping anyone else to escape the collision and the wars. For them, it was illogical to leave, and they had no intention of helping anyone else, they just wanted to improve. Those were the fastest and most logical failed negotiations we ever had. After that, we sent many messages to the robots, but they always come back with the same answers: no escape, improve. Improve! I’m sick of hearing that word.
‘After that, they never came back to negotiate. We still have many negotiations there, almost yearly, with different species from various places. In a few months we’ll have negotiations with the species that started all those wars. They suddenly appeared not far from here, asking for a meeting. I almost destroyed their small spacecraft, but I was stopped. The most recent negotiations we had were with a powerful species from Sector One, the Tirans,’ the general finished.
‘They used to make Tiranian gold, didn’t they?’ Shan asked.
‘Yes, and I’m sure they’re still making it, and they control most of Sector One. We control most of Sector Two. We need the Tirans to help fight Shad’s army, your crazy cousin. That guy is powerful and has quantum nets all around the galaxy. He demands ridiculous amounts of resources from anyone who wants to escape. And he’s almost impossible to destroy.’ The general was angry. Shad controlled most of the outer galaxy, and his army was a perfect example of pirates waiting for anyone to try to leave or enter. ‘Their nets are everywhere, and we are blind. We have no idea where they are,’ the general continued.
Ironically, the pirates were also the ones who protected the galaxy, especially Shad. After the military had expelled him, he set himself up as protector of the galaxy. With all those quantum nets he refused everyone exit unless they paid.
‘Can you use Tiranian gold to destroy his army? Or wormholes?’ Shan suggested.
‘It’s not that simple. Shad’s army is so spread out; you would need an impossible amount of it, and Tiranian gold in sub-quantum is not stable enough. The robots have LLTS capable of incredible speeds, and I’m sure they have weapons to destroy Shad. Wormholes, yes, we are testing them. The problem is that as LLTS is superior to wormholes, we forgot about them for a long time, and we’re only doing more research now. What’s your plan for escaping the collision?’ the general asked. ‘I’m sure you have one.’
‘To be honest, I was hoping to escape with you,’ Shan answered. Well, not really, but that’s what he wants to hear. The military needed to think that Shan wanted to escape with them because they provided all the protection he needed. ‘I’d love to take the garage with me but it’s probably too big.’
‘With our current technology, we’re grounded the same as you. Not even our best ships can get through the sub-quantum nets and mines. But there are other species much more powerful than we are. Our LLTS is slow; not everyone would survive the trip to another galaxy. If I’m going to escape, your garage is going with me, so don’t worry. I cannot lose the only thing keeping my battleships running…’
How ironic, thought Shan.
‘Robots could survive that trip,’ he pointed out, interrupting the general.
‘And now you know why we need it. I’m so angry; you have no idea. I even went to Kreton just to destroy one of the planets. We are so powerful but so weak, and those senseless robots don’t even care about any of it.’
‘I know, and trust me: every time they come, I do everything I can to find out their technology. So nothing works in this bar, right?’ Shan asked again, hiding his anger after hearing what had happened to Kreton.
‘Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s why the robots don’t go there. It’s my only light in the dark, the only place where machines are weak. What scanner do you use in your garage?’
‘Sub-quantum version of ETIN, heavily customised.’
‘There’s nothing better. Keep trying and let me know.’ The general’s voice sounded tired now.
‘One more thing before I go. Would you help to get us some food, and help with pirates? Our food supplies are running low, pirates are capturing the transports more and more often, and if you’re not going to expand our garage that’s the least you can do. We can live without expansion, but not without food.’ Shan was hoping to get as much as he could from the general.
The tired general opened the screen next to his chair and started pushing buttons.
‘It’s done. You’ll get food and protection. Your spacecraft can fly now. Use the lift,’ the general said, and slowly disappeared into the darkness.
* * *
A message from Goe appeared on the screen while Shan was preparing to leave the military planet.
Hi, you’ve got a delivery. Something I would call a very badly designed package. Basically, a small spaceship that looks like it’s from the robots.
‘Shit, thank you. I forgot, be there soon,’ Shan replied, and went back to the garage.
‘Hi. I’m outside. Have you seen that package?’ he asked Goe over the radio while looking firstly out of the window and secondly at the radar console, trying to locate the package.
‘Hi, that was quick,’ Goe replied. ‘It’s outside, next to the docking port. It refused to come inside, whatever it is,’ she added, rolling her eyes. Shan couldn’t see her, but he recognised the envy in Goe’s voice.
OK, the package. Shan found the message it was broadcasting and then was able to spy it through the window. As usual with robot-made ships, it wasn’t pretty. It was rectangular, like a box, with all the wires and coils outside, making it look like it had been designed by a drunk person. He opened the loading bay, and the package flew itself inside. Then Shan went down to the bay to look at it – and the box looked back, from two protruding cameras.
Shan came closer, not knowing what to expect, and the box started transforming itself, morphing into something with two legs, two arms and a head with cameras sticking out like a snail’s eyes. Then it started walking towards the stairs.
‘Hi. I thought they sent the new LLTS drive?’ Shan asked, surprised at seeing the robot. It was almost the same design as the ones that came to his garage from the robots’ planet.
‘Hello. Yes, I am the new drive. I will install myself into your LLTS, and this will temporally improve it to level three. I know how,’ the robot explained and continued walking towards the engine.
‘How long it will take?’ Shan asked, and after a pause he added, ‘Wait… level three?’
‘Fifteen minutes. Your console will send you a message when it’s ready.’
‘Awesome… and my plans have changed again,’ Shan replied, and went back to the bridge. With the new drive, his three-month trip would now take thirty-nine hours.