CW: chemical weapons, secrecy, light combat, fascist iconography, casual racial generalization, colonial symbolism, colonial literature, culture war, conspiracy theories, gunboat diplomacy, US imperialism in Latin America, military standoff, parental conflict, ecological disaster, cliffhanger

“I’m sorry - I wouldn’t want to see a total stranger addressing me right now either.” This part had been typed out for me in screenwriter’s Courier. “But I can’t say who I know who I’d want to see addressing me either - and while that’s obviously a me problem, I suspect it’s true of a lot of you.” This part I had scribbled in the big margins in the twenty minutes of absolute panic before I went on camera, in front of a green screen on which would be projected the CG model of the bridge of a flagship that was still under construction. “Apart from the few of you who might recognize me - hi, this is weirder for me and it is for you. If there’s anyone you trust to handle this situation, rest assured they’re involved. They’ve been briefed, and they’re representing your interests as tirelessly as you’re willing to believe they are. But in the meantime, uhhh, I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to get to know me for the next little bit. Or rather, us. And if you think I’m a stranger, wait till you meet them.”

I took off my white gloves, running Halation down my hands in elegant, human-friendly patterns like henna, elaborating naturally from the lacy golden embroidered cuffs of the uniform. It was Mai’s design - mostly, passed through several different rooms of consultants. White, tight and mobile in the sleeves and legs, puffed at the shoulders, embroidered detailing giving the modern, hyper-durable materials a formality, a sort of sharp-shouldered and -hemmed vest with horizontal braid over the torso. (A callback, I couldn’t tell if conscious or not, to a conversation we’d had about how those braids had become a staple of women’s fashion in the 19th century, the strange gender play that entailed and just how cool they’d looked. I had even bought a shitty Beatles jacket at a vintage store but left it at a club like a week later.) I hadn’t felt as evil in my life as when she cornered me in a stairwell on my way up from my gruelling morning gym routine, too exhausted to say a word, and handed me the sketch page, completely unprompted, not saying a word either.

“This isn’t a trick. This isn’t the Mark of the Beast, or the Dajjal or whatever, either. I don’t believe in that, but even I would be thinking it at least a bit right now.” I kept waiting for my voice to crack up and waver, but it didn’t. Halation was helping, but it didn’t seem to be either one of us carrying it. I wasn’t looking at anything except the play of smoky depth between the lights. “Nobody else is going to have to do this. In fact we’d rather nobody else try, at least for now. This is Halation. She lives in my body. She can come out and that’ll be up on our Youtube channel this weekend but this is already enough to process probably. She’s a delightful guest. And she’s” - the comms team had been sickeningly all in on the gendering - “nothing like the things that just attacked San Francisco. She’s on our side.”

We had used a white phosphorus-based ammunition I had told them would be repellent to the silicon-based lifeforms that went off in huge plumes like summer anime clouds, sculpted away from populated air currents by Azoth drones. In reality, we had already hacked them. The programming language they ran on was extremely simple, resembling sudoku squares, but writing binary that approximated it was excruciating. I spent nights figuring it out in my dreams and woke up feeling like everything was covered in a kind of shrink wrap. Of course it would have been much faster if I’d taken it to one of the hundreds of coders I was surrounded by every single day. But I couldn’t pass up what might be my only chance to reverse the deception against me - my only chance to claim the starting advantage.

“It’s only thanks to her, risking her life to bring her message here, that we even understand what just happened. Which is that Earth has come into the crosshairs of a galactic war that has nothing to do with us. Not because of anything we did. Not even because of the TV and radio signals we have going out into space. They would have found us anyway, and the guys who found us would rather wipe us out, or at least nerf our technology, than even risk the other side finding us first. But they weren’t ready for us. They overplayed their hand. Now that they know what we can do, and now that the other side did find us, they won’t try anything again any time soon.”

The code we developed consisted of two programs: a simple backdoor, and a translator. These were taught in the Ahasurunu spy school, a basic exploit to infiltrate extremely simple informational life forms in case you didn’t have any other form of computation or communication where you were going. In terms of the level of information that could be transmitted, this was the equivalent of smoke signals taught to boy scouts in the rest of the universe, but basically anything that could run on the internet here could run on it. It was, essentially, a virus that established a decentralized node of a meshnet on every system it copied itself to, running code conversion as part of its send-receive protocol, while camouflaging all its packets as untranslated code from outside the host system. Clamps were able to distinguish this camouflaged code in several of the most common languages now, but the alienness of human code (which apparently read like the cosmic version of English, as far as being an irrational clusterfuck) might be enough to get it through. If not, it would trigger a panic in which the Clamps would retreat to the ocean giving us time to surreptitiously shine our own version of the laser, having given the military faction an easy claim to victory by scaring them off and more than enough propaganda to blanket the Earth anyway.

“This gives us enough time, at least, to decide what to do as a planet. As I’m sure those of you frantically Googling me after this will find out quickly, I’ve always thought we should be doing that on a bunch of other things already, and hopefully this makes you think about what else we could come together on, but it’d defeat the purpose if we forced anybody. So I’m not talking about a One World Government or anything, which like, I might also be worrying about if I heard this. The organization your elected officials, while I speak, are slogging through the paperwork of forming to defend you - to defend us - to defend the future we choose, and our right to be everything we can be - is called the International Interstellar Expeditionary Force. Hopefully, it won’t ever have to see action on Earth.”

If the hack worked, they would just sit there. Huge walls of canvas and eventually concrete and roadblocks would go up around the bend of the river between the two central power plants of San Francisco, which would eventually hum back to life but operated by military personnel with security clearance. At some point we’d test out the Limited Asymmetry Field prototype to cut into them, carting away huge boulders of translucent material that barely amounted to skin-flakes off their bulk till one showed up in MIT, one in Stanford, one at the Perimeter Institute, one at CERN.

“As of this broadcast, the International Interstellar Expeditionary Force is now recruiting. If you’ve been watching the footage of activity at Azoth’s Uraniborg launch site, the rumours are true, well, the good ones - we’re building the warship you can see behind me here. Azoth’s support while the rest of the world comes together has been invaluable, and so has Edison Lens, an organization you’ve probably never heard of that’s been preparing for this eventuality since before most people thought it was possible. But the Expeditionary Force will be its own independent organization - from Azoth, from Edison Lens, from any alien alliance, and from any terrestrial government - although any state contributing resources will have oversight authority. And the authority guaranteeing that is uhhh -” This time I paused. Once while it was plausibly deniable and disarming. Again after it wasn’t. There was something almost exciting about the cutesy-misogynistic humiliation my own body was subjecting me to in this role that would have made the last dwindling vestiges of eleven-year-old boy in me go starry-eyed and if I didn’t stop it past that I would vomit. Halation took over. There was something infinitely more so about Halation’s smooth and firm voice and gaze illuminating my face and body with unselfconscious poise, a profile I never knew I had like a sanded cliff at sunset. “Me.”

The virus eventually extracts all the original code of its host, using it as its own substrate. (This sort of informational conversion operated a concept that was almost untranslatable into terrestrial computing theory, but apparently extremely important in the politics of informational life, including to the significance of the Trans-causal Adipose itself. This at least we had to give the Edison Lens coders a crack at.) The process runs faster if there are more nodes, which is why we had to connect it to everything the Clamps themselves were siphoning from, so we could suck the whole code of the Clamps out of their bodies before anyone had time to ask us what was going on. A message transmitted directly through the main connection and the fear of doing something potentially illegal mostly deterred anyone from talking about it but rumours did surface on 4chan, which Alastair and Jax made a wild drunken all-nighter out of disrupting from behind several proxies. Once the Clamps’ code was extracted we wouldn’t need the liability of so many nodes (but would be able to produce up to a million); our last message, at the end of three days, to the citizens connected by our network was a CICADA-3301-style announcement of an application process to remain in contact. The application let us read the full phone data of anyone who applied. I was past being outraged about privacy - one argument I had internalized from my tankie days was that all’s fair in class war and we should be more concerned about playing than reffing the rules. We screened out cops, start-up guys, Republicans, Democrats, racists, rapists, pedos and some people with just non-specifically rancid vibes. We were in the best city in the world to do it - we scored offensive and defensive hackers, systems architects, cryptographers, people who had been sitting on classified material since Wikileaks went to shit, activists with experience and connections in tenants’ rights, anti-police brutality (and counter-police surveillance) organizers, antifa, forest defenders and pipeline blockers and flat-out ecoterrorists, people I hadn’t even believed existed because compared to me and my friends they seemed like some copypasta that would go from a chain email to Tucker Carlson.

“Let me be clear, this is a mostly formal, ceremonial role.” I was still resolved that it wouldn’t be, but it wouldn’t be in space where no one was watching. “It’s like - in some societies you probably haven’t heard of,” I was off script again, “you had kings who didn’t have the power of life or death over anyone necessarily, but had no allegiance to anybody, so they could resolve conflicts between people who did, but ideally they didn’t have to, because no one wanted to defer their conflicts to a random stranger. So they talked their shit out instead. Ideally, I don’t have to do anything; humanity works together, and we show the rest of the galaxy what the fuck we’re made of,” now I was back on script, sweat being edited off my skin in split-seconds before broadcast by a guy whose screen I could see the corner of, “and in the meantime enjoy access to technology that is going to revolutionize every part of your life."

This was somewhere Mai really wanted to shine, and I grudgingly accepted she could safely since her only involvement would need be through the communication system whose existence we were still concealing. The story we’d feed our network wouldn’t be exactly the same as the one we gave the authorities. Neither would be entirely true, though both would contain elements of the truth; they served different propagandistic ends. To the rest of the world, we wanted to justify human military intervention in the galaxy; to our secret network, alien covert activity on Earth. This covert activity, we had to convince them, wouldn’t extend beyond the maintenance of a secret communication network; the eventual export, through this network, of unsurveillable alien code for other digital infrastructure; and instructions on building technology that would officially only be released through companies partnered with Edison Lens. The principles of Meteorology, applied to political theory, tended to produce something like a cybernetically managed stateless communism (although I was starting to grasp that there was more variety of organization and ideology within than outside this category - and in practice Meteorological societies often fell short of their ideals, especially under wartime conditions). Mai would transmit the teachings of Meteorology, translated in a compelling, poetic voice I would never have been able to muster, along with the message of a utopian alien confederation that wanted humanity to liberate itself, but had to deal with our illegitimate authorities in the meantime. This wasn’t true yet, and probably wouldn’t be for some time, but depending on what I did out there, there was no reason it couldn’t be, and until then unfiltered information wouldn’t be getting back any time soon.

(At the first sign of defection, a security program would delete the node leaving a final virus that not only would wipe out any data that they might have saved as proof, but leave a final message attributing it to a hacking group and mocking the victim for falling for it. We had threatened worse, and so far almost no one had tried it.)

“We’re talking things that could eliminate natural aging within a lifetime; near-instantaneous transport of individuals and goods to anywhere on Earth. We’re talking localized suspensions of laws of physics. But it’s not the kind of technology that would… make somebody a god, either. That’ll make the government able to read and control your thoughts, or go off misinterpreting some dumb wish and turn the planet into paperclips. That is, in fact, more the kind of technology we’re going to be fighting to keep out of anyone’s hands. Stay tuned, follow us on every major social media platform, and you’ll find out more once our stakeholders agree what we’re allowed to say.”

There were two Clamps, which meant two copies of our virus, and by the end, two networks. One would stay Earthbound, with Alastair and Mai holding administrative privileges, at least for the moment. The other would come with me and Jax to space. Communication between the two would be as limited as any other communication between the Expeditionary Force and Earth. The galaxy communicated, it seemed, somewhat like when letters had to be delivered by horseback courier and ship. The amount of mass it was transporting had no effect on the strength of a Weak Asymmetry Field, so it was no faster to get a long-distance message from one end of the galaxy to the other than a physical craft; there was a rough limit on the amount of information a Weak Asymmetry Field could process which effectively put an upper bound on its “speed” (determined by the speed at which it could “calculate” across the asymmetry it was introducing in local physics) as well as its size. Even the times were similar, with most parcels travelling in a few months, communication from one end of the galaxy to the other taking a little over a decade, and communication outside the galaxy (though contact with other lifeforms had been made) almost unheard of. This was good for secrecy if nothing else; there were ways of packaging a drive with a micro-engine that were virtually undetectable, a distorted pocket of space-time the size of a large briefcase coasting through light-years of empty space in a pre-calculated straight line without emitting more than a trace of energy or communicating with its surroundings. Guessing or compromising these trajectories was the only way to eavesdrop on such communiques. If they were our only means of staying in touch, we’d have plenty of time to build up real defences before our enemies even figured out the location of Earth.

“In the meantime, I’m Leona Lillywhite, commander of the International Interstellar Expeditionary Force. I’m the last person who ever thought I’d be leading a campaign like this, or even cheering it on from the sidelines. But if I can come together for this, so can you - and maybe, once we do, we can make this humanity’s real war to end all wars.” I barely blinked but an imperceptible ripple righted the surface of my face. “And I’m Halation. I’ve been told that in your culture there is a widely celebrated film in which a princess from another planet appears in a hologram and tells the protagonists, ‘you’re my only hope’. I am not a princess, in fact I am closer to what you would call a refugee. But I hope you can extend the same spirit of daring compassion” - in their language this was a single word - “to me and my cause as the heroes of your so-called ‘Star Wars’.” (This was some Edison Lens Redditor’s idea and they helped me regulate my breathing so I wouldn’t go red as I marvelled at their willingness to recite it.) “The wars in my stars are nowhere near as clean or heroic. They are against a force that seeks the power to manipulate reality itself, not only to negotiate agreements between its constituents, but to render it pliable and without resistance - but the reasons they seek this power are understandable, common to all life, good in themselves. The things they have done in its name - my home destroyed, merely for seeking a technology that would constrain it in the name of peace - are unlike their motives, inexplicable, unforgivable, yet follow step by step from them according to the tortured logic of war, as have many acts from my side. We would all stop if we knew how - we do not know. This is why anyone who comes to help us will not be mere cannon fodder, whether you succeed or fail: you will be our only hope. Because from what I’ve learned from Commander Lillywhite” - at this my control of my breathing snapped - “you may know something we don’t. Some of the conflicts, distrusts and grudges feeding this war are older than your planet, but have not gone hot like this since your crust cooled. Despite the technology I can promise we will soon share, we have devoted little resources, and less invention, to war. The curse your planet has borne in silence - that you have been at war with each other since you first built cities, that your nations are built on graveyards - may soon prove a blessing to innumerable stars.”

I’d heard her in this rhetorical mode a few times when I’d prepared for my own delivery by listening to the propaganda she had been distributing across the Ahasurunu’s interstellar parcel network. The language here was somewhat restricted by adapting to English - but the default style of interstellar communications, given their limitations, was literary in a way that reminded me of the most inspiring historical radical pamphlets I’d read in microfiche while preparing for her thesis. She also had - and I’d been a little scared to get around to this - a collection of anti-war communications in the same style, which she’d memorized and often cited or rewritten to acknowledge in her arguments. The role of this “Folder of Rot”, I had to think, was something a bit like the role Mai wanted to play in designing the uniforms; no matter where she was, I’d have to think of her and the star I might be betraying whenever I wore it into battle. Though I probably wasn’t going to be wearing it in actual battle all that much.

Beek turned to me, eyebrows arched sharply up like a pagoda roof but somehow not enough to unconceal his eyes. “Impressive. Especially after you were blubbering in the hallway. I never make calls until the numbers come back, but I think you understand making the things that are unrelatable about you relatable, which is harder to drill into most influencers than trigger discipline into new recruits.” Trigger discipline isn’t that fucking hard, which inadvertently told me something I made a mental note of about the quality of his recruits. “I think the millennials and so-called ‘Generation Z’ are gonna like you at least. Which’ll count for a lot eventually with how long this thing is going to go.”

“You never acknowledge her when you do this.” I glared at him without looking at him - letting him be a blur as I walked on. “She’s seen as much combat as you. And as much comms. I’m easy to talk down to, but don’t forget I’m not the only one you’re talking to.”

The more exciting message I had to send, but harder to transcribe, went off-planet. Instead of radio waves or a metal plaque, Halation’s ship would be sent ahead of us. It would stop on route to Towers, the nearest battleground world, some 30 light-years away, where we would be sending our first delegation, and continue on to Contemplation, and if they saw fit to forward it, all the way to Orchid.

To record a message, I had to get inside the ship, which at a glance wasn’t designed for anything that couldn’t collapse into a semisolid and mold to any vessel; but the tube in the middle turned out to be extremely flexible as well, not glassy-fragile like it looked, flattening spines and untwisting folds under pressure as it stretched like a condom around the top of my head, my naked shoulders. (Although a second tube-organ stayed knotted tight no matter how far I fit in; that, pulsing with dim mauve light, was the dormant Inchworm Drive itself.) It tingled like static wherever it fit my skin; I could feel a light instead of a darkness at the limits of what it was possible to be aware of. I stretched out my thoughts. The message I was trying to record wouldn’t be in words, although it wouldn’t be wordless; I would have to try and gather as many words and their referents together as I could for either to mean anything, to provide a mutual matrix for translation, with Halation providing their own layer. All these layers, though, were to be simultaneous and extend as deep and far as possible. Halation had given me a series of simple questions for the message to consist of: What are humans? On which side and under what conditions do humans intend to join the war? What do humans have to offer? What do humans want? What precautions should the galactic community take in dealing with humans? - and I was to free associate on them, as if on a therapist’s couch, not shaping my associations into words except where I was confident the words completed the thoughts, which would no less be recorded. I would do so within a limited time window; enough to condense a discrete set of brain-states into a sort of immensely complex chemical print that would remain on the inside of the ship. This being a small ship, and an immensely complex message, an hour would take up about a third of its storage. We wanted to save the rest for additions our allies might make at its stops - though it could also deposit its messages into a hardened cartridges that could be copied and transferred to other ships, like Halation had done with their propaganda transmissions at various relay points. This process looked unfortunately like pooping and the cultural context of why that was funny and what this entailed for human adoption of virtually any sphincter-based technology got encoded into the message unplanned. Even free association, or the self-organizing void of mindfulness, isn’t really an adequate metaphor for the way I was thinking, I don’t think it was possible for me to even imagine before Halation showed me but now I did it all the time on my own. It was letting my mind spread out like a fungal rhizosphere; feeling and tracing every tendril and association from every word out into the sediment of etymology and long-forgotten experience; following as many paths simultaneously as the raw RAM my brain permitted, which was certainly more than language did.

A sort of sub-phenomenological static shock notified me when my time was up. I crawled back out feet-first, at least avoiding an obvious birthing metaphor. Looking back at it from the outside, watching the tube spring back into its weird shape, or maybe a slightly different one.

Why does it look like that if you can just fit in a regular canister? I only thought to ask then. Is it related to the Drive?

Not particularly. Lots of things look like that. But not fitting any form is viscerally uncomfortable for us. Especially if we’re going to be stuck in one in space for long periods of time. We want a form that makes us proud and happy and doesn’t bore us when it comes to our attention. These forms are based on understandings of the physical configurations that make us feel good that have been refined for hundreds of years.

It was interesting, in that case, that it looked so much like a brain. Maybe that was another convergent evolution, like anomalocarids.

When it had sprung back to the shape that would leave Earth’s atmosphere, the clear surfaces of the tube were etched emerald green with what looked like an immensely complex slime mold, or a circuitboard created for artistic purposes, its most common repeating and nesting figures hexagonal rather than square.

The screen wrapped around about one-third of one wall of the round-tabled war room, like an Imax, even though most of what we watched on it was handheld phone quality, so it was kind of like floating in a vapourwave void. The workers on the launch site had made a timelapse of the construction of our flagship like some of those videos of China building hospitals or apartment buildings in a week, set to a godawful synthwave song.

On the other side of the table, a local feed on the lab (peeling tin and hangar cloth evident even from the inside, an abandoned trucking depot in the Sonoran desert) where the Inchworm Drive, the ship’s “heart”, was being tested. We were already past testing the Asymmetry Field itself. We had prepared to do it, after all, in the chaos of the military cleanup of the Clamps, before anyone could regulate anything about doing it, while the eyes of the world were still blinking and adjusting to the basic premise of aliens. As far as actual caution was concerned, the safety checks mandated by Meteorology (as I understood them) eclipsed anything Earth’s governments would ever think to come up with. Halation’s ship had demanded a complete database of all chemical compounds ever recorded on Earth, a statistically random sampling of DNA across all major groups of Earth life, average readings of fundamental forces across Earth’s surface, and a bunch of things I had not realized Azoth’s huge surveillance satellite network (something I’d gotten sadly too comfortable thinking of as hypothetical) was recording to certify Earth as a safe location to activate a Weak Asymmetry Field, even though the technology was based on fundamental physics that operated the same almost everywhere in the known universe, and its compatibility with that underlying physics could be expressed in a single elegant mathematical function. I had already seen most of the footage in this montage through 3D videoconferencing in which Halation through me scrutinized and directed their literal every physical move (they had tried to get a direct bond but we weren’t biting that). Chalk markings on the floor marked spatial variations of local objects (cinderblocks, motorcycles, fuselage, water tanks, explosives, piled up against one wall) in low-power microsecond tests fine-tuning the precision with which it would have to determine its Mean Surface Asymmetry at incredible levels of power. We’d had to whip up in a lab the kind of material that would support the form of superconductor necessary - what looked like a transparent plasma tube wrapped around itself in folds like a brain.

The ship itself, on the other hand, I’d barely gotten a chance to see. It was tastefully clitoral, more tastefully than most rockets are phallic at least; sweeping curved lobes forming a convex V, an ovoid dome for the bridge (detachable) raised lightly at the top where they meet, wrapped around a broad oblate tube that would carry a small fleet of terrestrial aircraft and mechanical facilities to modify them for unfamiliar atmospheric conditions. I had approved it in wireframe, but now the cladding shone white and featureless on about 65% of the surface.

“You’ll notice a lot of the workers on screen are Chinese,” Bennett-Fog began. “It’s not just because they’re the ones who can build something this fast, although it helps. America…”

“…doesn’t want any testing until they’ve done their own safety checks on the designs. They’ve told me directly.” I had been talking to people ten hours a day all week, embassies, brass, carefully vetted journalists, CIA slimeballs, the Prime Minister of freaking Canada. “I didn’t tell them we were testing already, but if there’s a way we can make it look like a mistake, then - won’t they see it’s already working and safe? Or do they have some ulterior motive with this?”

“It’s literally the fucking longtermist lobby,” Bennett-Fog groaned. “And the other tech companies that don’t want Azoth to get a big advantage before they can lock down a contract or copyright deal paying them.”

“It’s literally the longtermists in the Space Force, who I’d commend except they never actually wargamed for aliens so I don’t want to be beholden to them on anything,” Bennett-Fog groaned. “And of course the other tech companies that don’t want Azoth to get a big advantage before they can lock down a contract or copyright deal. That’s probably the more important part.”

“I’m more worried about the Expedition Force bidding system,” I redirected. “That shit looks like a university portal, can’t we just make something in-house? The Russians think it’s rigged against them.”

“Ignore it,” said Beek. “I’m bringing my own people. We don’t need a bunch of teachers’ pet spec ops out there.”

I’d been seeing more and more of them in the last few weeks: wearing the standard issue Edison Lens white meditation pyjama things they gave their workers privileged to use Plastic Beach, but obviously not Plastic Beach employees, big and oily-locked or with ruddy beta retriever college hockey faces, or cartel tattoos, or giant rolexes, or guns I’d only seen in video games. A guy with a crucifix surrounded by runes tattooed on his collarbone and a guy with horn-stump forehead implants and a split tongue stood and bellowed at each other in the middle of the third level cafeteria and had to be held back from clashing with tables. I’d asked Jax about them because I’d seen him shadowing groups of them in the halls exactly like he’d shadowed groups of cooler kids in high school, but like those they didn’t seem to be telling him much of anything. They had a particular kind of taciturn boisterousness where they wouldn’t acknowledge you were there until it was to treat you as if you had not only been there all along but known them your entire life, but only when they wanted to. That, I supposed, settled who they were, although I’d been basically sure anyway, so I hadn’t bothered to ask.

“I’ll remind you,” the acting director of Edison Lens, a skeletal looking boomer with a bowl cut and an Eastern European name I always forgot, “we have our own psychological assessment, that we’ll be running against all candidates selected by the bidding system.”

“I’m not entirely confident it outperforms human intuition with a large enough training set anyway,” Bennett-Fog shut her superior down. I hadn’t assigned her a role in the Expeditionary Force yet, but she clearly didn’t think of herself entirely as part of the Edison Lens hierarchy any more; her role couldn’t be reduced to anything formal any more, and she knew it; she was part of this table, part of first contact. And although I didn’t trust her, I couldn’t help but see her the same way.

“Training set,” Beek sighed. “Is that what we’re calling my life of service and adventure now? The friends who’ve died in my arms, the meals I’ve eaten from the knapsacks of corpses? A training set?”

“Well exactly.” Bennett-Fog sat up straighter but didn’t permit any other sign of discomfort or apology. “Our own assessment is graded by an AI model against a training set, but I’ve said before its vector space is probably very narrow compared to human experience - particularly in the emotional vectors.”

“Even if humans store a huge vector-space in their experience, they don’t actually access much of it in forming a first impression, and emotion blocks it out by being hyper-selective, rather than improving it,” argued the voice (before you start working up your most pinched and rubber-squeaky nerd impression in your head, it’s the smoothest, deepest voice in this room, enough to tickle my long-dormant bisexuality, but only just tickle). Edison Lens’ tech liaison with Azoth. Ponytail weaving through the back of his chair down to his hips, prematurely receding hairline on a face that still looks freshman. Yaoi jaw, patches of subtle stubble from an uneven shave, wireframe aviators. His chosen name is, not making this up, “Alex Ghost” and I have to make sure Alastair never finds out about him at all costs. “Leona you’ll appreciate this - as I do - because it’s the reason stereotypes are so sticky. I’m citing a specific paper but it’s also just trivial Bayes…”

Beek shrugged, but Bennett-Fog looked at me. “I don’t trust either that much, so I’ll sit this one out.” I glanced back at her.

“You can run the assessment on my recruits too,” Beek added. “My point is more that we should be moving fast. Like as soon as that ship is ready, we head out.”

This time he looked at me with a sickly expectation of complicity. This he had talked to me about - in the private gym where I was training both basic combat requirements and testing the limits of Halation’s symbiotic assistance. And I wasn’t - we weren’t - unsympathetic. Halation wanted to get back to the front as soon as possible. The longer we waited, the higher the chance someone else in the galaxy found out about us and started preparing. And on Earth… it wouldn’t hurt to have more time to set things up, maybe find more reliable people to run my networks. But the reason the US government was so intent on dragging things out was obviously to figure out ways to contain us. My leverage in this situation came from the element of the unknown, of surprise.

“That could be as soon as a week,” Artjoms (I remembered it!) fretted.

“Well then. Do you want my boys to start running those psychological tests?”

“We hadn’t even decided what to call it.”

The creative work, I was discovering, really did take longer than the practical work half the time - at least if you allowed yourself to think about it. All my ideas were references to Mai’s stuff but that would be a step further than even the suits. All Beek’s ideas sounded like boats out of Hornblower and all the ideas from Edison Lens were as cringey as you’d expect. Halation had great ideas but too many of them, and almost too abstract to sell anybody on - Bell, x. I stared into the margins of my vision, and didn’t focus in on the face that was starting to move:

“From his place rose Hiawatha,

Bade farewell to old Nokomis,

Spake in whispers, spake in this wise,

Did not wake the guests, that slumbered.

"I am going, O Nokomis,

On a long and distant journey,

To the portals of the Sunset.

To the regions of the home-wind,

Of the Northwest-Wind, Keewaydin.

But these guests I leave behind me,

In your watch and ward I leave them…”

But I recognized the voice. I’ve already mentioned it, and I’m not gonna do that again.

Luckily this guy is actually indigenous. I’ve heard a bit of his story at bar nights - orphaned from the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation, referred to Edison Lens as a 16-year-old hacker who had built his own improved SETI@home architecture and run it on a massive botnet across the Northeast by the retired CIA guy whose foster home he was living in. If you think given that it was weird for him to be citing the Longfellow poem instead of the story of the founding Iroquoian chief and peacemaker directly, you have to understand he’s also a weird hyper-libertarian who exaggerates the throughline from Iroquois to American democracy and liberal values. (To be honest he makes a plausible case the people I learned from in college were exaggerating the opposite but I have to double-triple-check against anyone here rubbing off on me and that’s a bad sign.)

He calls himself “Alex Ghost”, by the way. I need to make sure he doesn’t meet Alastair at all costs.

“One of my favourites in school,” Beek reminisced, eyes closed.

“They didn’t teach it by the time I got there. Not woke enough, sir.” He always got like this when Beek addressed him directly, which was barely ever. “I read it in the classic literature textfile from an 80s BBS, sir.”

“What’s your point?”

“Hiawatha. I’ve been thinking of the name since I heard what was going on, sir.”

A smile spread slowly across Beek’s face, and my own, if you’d taken a picture of it, must have been some taut, manic equivalent. Yet another one of those spurs of exquisite cruelty lying around the floor of this project that I sort of just had to leave there because they summed up its contradictions so perfectly. Any reason to deny it would feel like denial of at least one of the contradictions of what I was doing, in whichever direction.

“As always, the decision rests with the commander.”

“Give me… a while to think about it.” At least I could run it by Mai.

But that evening I did something else I’d been putting off for more than a week. I sent a message to Jax through the second Clamp network.

I’m ready to approve your idea.

Reply “yes” and you will be from that moment major lieutenant of the secret military order“Rho Aias”, loyal against all other orders to myself-and-Halation acting in accordance as one being, and sworn to protect us against all other orders even as separate beings. You will receive orders from us only through this network. You will identify worthy candidates for recruitment to this order from among the other recruits, and submit them to us for approval. Recruits to Rho Aias will be added to this network.

If asked to choose between our relationship as brother and sister and your duties in this role, you will choose your duties.

I clutched my phone to my chest and lay stiff in my bunk for about half an hour with no idea what he was doing. Hopefully considering. Halation circulated around my body massaging me into a rhythmic peace that contained the breaking tides.

The contrast of rhythms reminded me of a particular noise show I’d seen in my first week with Mai.

Halation, I won’t have anybody now.

I’m sorry, I know but I’m not even sure what it means to have you.


>I have to reply to that without any other shit right

>so now that I’ve said it

>I’m not kidding I think I needed something like this

>I’ve talked about it with Alastair, more seriously than you probably think

My fingers kept twitching over the reply you should have been talking about it with me

Instead I typed: you know that isn’t reassuring

you shouldn’t be doing it because you ‘need’ it. nobody ever knows what they need. you should be doing it for the mission.

>nobody ever does anything for that either

>and isn’t the mission about balancing what you think everybody needs, which is even harder

ok even Halation thinks that was a good answer. that helps

>don’t just test me with stuff like that because you’re my sister and worried about me either

look tbc. I wouldn’t be even considering this if you hadn’t been pretty reliable through this whole thing.

>I think I might be good at it. I think I just might be bad at everything else

>but also like who else would you be considering

>you don’t need to pretend you have more options than you do

that’s probably true. anyway your first orders are to run the recruitment script on the chatbot Alastair’s training 100 times a day and don’t try it on anybody IRL until you can do it without getting caught five days in a row.

and until we’re in space

which don’t tell anybody this but

might be sooner than you’ve been thinking

so get ready for that too

By the time the final Drive came to Plastic Beach - not the same one I’d seen in the video, they’d had to make sure they could repeat their success, and when I looked inside the crate they’d hoisted on deck from a nondescript barge indistinguishable from the ones that visited regularly for repairs, it was about three times larger - we had established that I would travel on the cruise that would take it to the launch site, and probably wouldn’t come back.

Azoth had rented a cruise ship to transport us. By this time Beek had assembled a brigade of about three battalions - 3000 men, and they were almost all men, the ratio even worse than if we’d waited to select regular soldiers - although he managed to scrape up a squad of Gaddafi’s former Amazonian Guards somehow. (“Yeah, it blows that there isn’t really a Revy or Koko Hekmatyar in real life,” Jax commiserated. “I guess you get to be first.”) Alastair dragged along a whole troupe of influencers, and even Mai brought a couple of SF trans girls she’d met on shore trips to rooftop parties and raves. I didn’t ask questions about their relationship. Supposedly Hiram Ogier himself was somewhere on board but he was elusive - even Edison Lens didn’t know where he was.

We still weren’t publicly acknowledging the Drive, but certain backchannels had confirmed the government knew we had it - had spies in the testing facility the entire time. I took this to mean their bids for a regulatory agenda were mostly theatre, meant to satisfy the same people pushing them - in particular a wide swathe of the Republican Party and grassroots conservative movement. An elected congressman had shared a video claiming Halation and myself were the Beasts from the Sea and the Land in Revelation respectively. The comments under videos of the Asymmetry Field over Montana were full of anecdotes about mysterious cancer cases.

It was a week’s cruise to Uraniborg, which surprisingly hadn’t been built that close to Plastic Beach (Ogier could jump between the two in his private jet if he wanted), being instead located on the prime equatorial real estate of Isla la Tortuga - no relation to the more famous Tortuga - off Venezuela. After Azoth had helped broker the transfer of power following Maduro’s suspicious retirement, forcing the “coalition” between liberal and Chavist factions with their infamous shutdown of services, they had been granted the whole territory for the spaceport they’d been hyping for years, although it still wasn’t as perfectly outside national jurisdiction as Ogier had wanted and achieved with Plastic Beach. Come to think of it, hadn’t Waldo Beek been involved in that too?… Uraniborg was a good couple hundred kilometres into territorial waters - as I had understood it so far, that was actually better protection against international interference than the total independence of Plastic Beach had been. Since the regime change, the Bolivarian Republic had positioned itself as a kind of neutral party between superpower blocs; maintaining its unilateral control of key resources while liberalizing markets so rapidly no one was left out or favoured.

We sailed through the Panama Canal and I barely looked out the window. Where we were going, this was like stopping at a motel. It felt pre-emptively ridiculous to try and muster enthusiasm for famous sights, although I let Halation pilot my body wherever struck their fancy whenever we got shore leave, to the San Francisco zoo, across the Golden Gate bridge. (When we’d still been working on a months-longer timeline Alastair had been planning elaborate tours of New York, Tokyo, Shanghai…) The things I paid the most attention to on the trip were the constants, the colour of the sea (what constant? it was different every time I looked at it, I could look at it every day and it would never be the same), the ways the sun swung its pendulum blades across the sky.

It was harder to treat as a normal tourist cruise - even a last normal tourist cruise - because I kept being called in and briefed on what the Americans were doing. As soon as it became obvious where we were going, Azoth’s satellite network started showing a nearly constant rotation of ships leaving bases in the Caribbean, strafing the edges of Venezuelan territorial waters, particularly the North-East corner where Uraniborg was. A couple got close enough that we got reports, blurry drone footage, from Uraniborg. Then reports from the Venezuelan coast guard, that they were doing firing exercises. When they made contact, they said it was training to deal with an uptick of piracy. The last time pirates had been in the news was last year. Closer Azoth satellite views showed them shooting across the border, but not in ways we could prove without admitting the existence of the satellite network.

Thanks to my weeks of work, almost every government in the world had by now signed on to the agreement to support the International Interstellar Expeditionary Force, which involved submitting it to a new international governing body, the International Interstellar Relations Committee. This wasn’t under the UN because not everyone liked the UN - its security council had too many privileges, it had its own big unelected bureaucracy and there were too many memes about it taking over the world. I commanded the former, not the latter. This meant that decisions directly pertaining to the well-being of member nations or the Earth as a whole could not be made without the approval of those member nations or a plurality of them, unless it was a situation where snap decisions had to be made. The US had been trying to argue - although we had already started work before the agreement had been hammered out - that even developing the Weak Asymmetry Field before a regulatory regime was developed would count as such a decision. Most of the other member nations didn’t agree since this would either mean US regulatory authorities imposing a framework on the whole world, or having to build a whole new international regulatory agency on top of the whole new international military.

It was, more widely, agreed upon that launching would require the IIRC’s permission.

But the IIRC had no security council veto. At the end of the day, if everyone except the US decided to launch, we could still launch.

And when I thought about those Chinese workers on the video again, workers who had been supplied through China’s initial contribution of resources to the IIEF - while the US had largely supplied tech contracts - it started to make sense why they were helping us build fast.

In spite of everything, there was one tourist stop we had to make. The night before we were scheduled to arrive, we sailed through the strait of Maracaibo, just fitting between the enormous concrete struts of the bridge - a wonder of the world I’d never heard of, like highly specialized Lego pieces elevated to brutalist sculpture - and not pausing for the harbour or the rhythmically spaced layers of sandy or mud-red apartments or orchid-coloured steeples, kept going until the shores receded on either side of us and on into the middle of the lake, the rough rolled glass of its surface only slightly (perhaps delusively) more metallic and less crystalline than the ocean. It had been too dark to see anything for an hour when we saw what we came for. A patch of blue-purple light on the horizon that widened and narrowed and shifted from side to side like an uneasy sleeper. A hazy curtain with ragged edges, corroding and seeping away from flashes of acidic white. The ship slowed down but kept moving until we were close and adjusted enough to see shifting tracery in even the brightest vaults of cloud, and the reddish root-systems of Catatumbo lightning reaching and just as rapidly recoiling from the momentarily silhouetted coastline.

It’s adorable, Halation annotated my vision, and it struck me that when I described Yayaraya, or the cables of plasma suspending Halation’s lost Reef in the eye of its storm, it hadn’t even occurred to me to convey their scale, or I just hadn’t known how yet.

But that was still better than the few strikes we’d seen from Plastic Beach, bedraggled snapdragons the optical equivalent of sneezes, a stab of static or a bulb breaking, and I grinned with the honest pride of a kid whose first crayon drawing had come out recognizable.

Mai, who was stiffly and sweatily holding my hand although neither of us could feel it and I only remembe

r this now from Halation’s perspective, said out loud - reluctant, I think, to use our shared channel: “I still think you should have shown them some really Earth Earth stuff - the Great Barrier Reef, a Gothic cathedral, a safari in the ancestral environment - and then visited the the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. Or the Dark Spot on Neptune. Or the hexagon on Saturn. I’d see the hexagon on Saturn.”

“I’d be a bit scared of going through the black cube portal, but I’d visit the hexagon with you,” said Alastair, arms folded on the railing in a white techwear raincoat. We were close enough that we were getting whipped by curtains of dense mist at intervals of ten to thirty seconds. Despite this Jax was leaning on his shoulder in a huge grey college hoodie, trying to shelter a joint in his hands.

“You’re not going.” I realized how weird and authoritative that sounded. “Right?” She shot me an incredulous, curl-lipped facial gesture with Halation shimmering turquoise-through-lime across her eyes, and went back to improvising a song which Halation translated automatically into the Ahasurunu melody-language (she had only learned minimal vocabulary, any meaning still accidental) as something like polyp-intoxication-lilt-accent-angle-marrow-serration-medicine.

Only when a uniformed Edison Lens errand boy came shouting for us did we process the toneless churning that had been meshing with the background of soft rain and thunder. A Fernando Gómez de Saa class patrol boat had pulled up almost alongside the prow, and where the cruiser illuminated the water behind it, at least two Constituciòn class gunboats for security.

Waldo Beek was there when we unrolled the ladder to let a highly decorated officer in a Naval, not just Coast Guard uniform who spoke English like he was twisting a dagger on board. “They’ve made explicit threats. We’ve been instructed to take you into custody until a new agreement is arrived at.”

“My plan,” I explained as levelly as I could to the officer with a knitted brow as we sipped black-thick yerba mate in a soundproofed conference room, “was to get to Uraniborg, test the drive on the ship - maybe even an off-planet test, we could circumnavigate the solar system in about an hour - and then resume negotiations with a stronger hand.”

“The rest of the IIRC has approved the test at this point - it’s just America trying to stall negotiations by claiming ‘existential risk’ because they won’t accept our proofs to the contrary,” Bennett-Fog added. “They’re inventing entirely circular doctrines out of thin air because they want to get overseers into our labs.”

“And is there a reason you don’t want overseers in your labs?” The general’s voice was icy.

“Well” - taken aback - “same reason you wouldn’t want them in your oil refineries. Not to mention we’d have all the other countries to deal with.”

“But you’re not a sovereign nation. You’re a company, that’s already interfered with ours, and some rump of an organization attached to it. And that doesn’t matter.” He had been glancing at the other leaders, but now fixed us directly in the eyes. “If you grew up in Latin America you’d understand it doesn’t matter if their doctrines are invented or circular or what. You’re playing, what do you call it, chicken, and you don’t have a very big car. Even if you have a spaceship.”

I knew this. I’d spent all this time positioning myself to be here because I knew this. And yet, my face felt like an overheating bulb and a cold sweat couldn’t cool it down. The heat wasn’t coming from my skin but my skull.

I reached for Halation, only to realize they weren’t the calm one this time. In fact, I could feel their network vibrating all through me, like my spine trying to squirm out. I touched my ears, nostrils, for a second, to make sure nothing was flowing out of me.

What’s wrong, you know this too, don’t you?

Not like this - not on a planet that can just - blow itself up if the balance of power wobbles a bit -

You’ve seen homes blow up -

My body almost fell to its knees.

You think that makes it better?

And I had seen homes blow up too. I had this sudden intuition that it was all the same at scale, which somehow made it harder to accept, not easier. I was back in the silence and light after Delilah - waiting for it to change in its absolute regularity that could be broken down infinitely and never constitute a moment that would be any different, waiting for Sophie’s voice to cycle in and out of the slamming open-shut doors without grasping any words. Grasping only the empty form of time, time absolutely emptied - and in Halation there was not even light in this time - black space in all directions, black-cold-empty the same thing through the various sensors of the ship Halation’s senses were connected to, and a constant tumble of thoughts and images that couldn’t impose themselves on it, unless they chose to block out their senses entirely which they couldn’t do because even the world of their inner projector would feel flimsy, about to cave in, scratch any detail and uncover the roaring vacuum of the world that wasn’t there. Better for that world to have stars - other homes, that might be safe, that might still be saved, as long as they would never be more than points on a sensor.

Better for that world to have stars. Well, if that’s what you decided.

I checked how much time had passed on the faces around me. Waldo Beek was grinning in a way he must have been coached never to do on video.

“Of course it doesn’t matter. So what do you propose we do? We’re not expecting you to do all the heavy lifting. We’ve already got more combat experience on this ship than you probably do on this base.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of battle they’re preparing for.”

“Why would we do what they’re prepared for? A few years ago, you used to hear a lot about piracy in off the coast of Venezuela. In fact, if I recall, I ran some missions for your coast guard.”

The officer slammed his fist on the table, all the more frighteningly for the fact that he genuinely didn’t seem aware of it, his eyes not moving from Beek’s at all. “Yes, a few months later those crews you captured were released and all joined the protests. I seem to recall your own exploits better than you do.”

“You’re not complaining about the government you pledged loyalty to, are you? Depending on how things go once we’ve established our foothold in the galaxy, we could get you another one. The Americans are here because they’re scared of us. When’s the last time you had a chance like that? Just get us to Cumaná - they still have a port there.”

“Should we” - I was still sweating - “try and communicate with the Americans first.”

“They say they’re only doing a military exercise,” said the officer, stony-faced. “With missiles that would be capable of hitting Uraniborg without actually entering our territorial waters.”

Beek laughed drily. “And give them the idea they can reopen settled negotiations this way? I thought you were smarter than that.”

“The negotiations aren’t settled. We need them to launch anyway. They might be preparing for an unannounced launch, since we were testing behind their back.”

“If they’re spying on us they know we aren’t planning that. They want to establish a veto like they have at the UN. Didn’t you write a whole paper on how the security council veto prevented the UN from fulfilling its stated mission?”

“The farce of Waldo Beek explaining post-colonial theory to a graduate student isn’t giving us confidence in anything that’s going on here.”

His goading was so much like my father’s but so practiced it made my father’s seem pathetic in retrospect. “Yes, and I’m the one who insisted we not give them a veto power in designing the IIRC. I’m not about to back down from that. What I want is to force them to own up to what they’re trying to do…”

“‘Post-colonial’. You think you’re special.” The voice from behind me, as dissociated from my model of the space I was in as a ghost, sent a chill down my spine. The locked door had opened, soundlessly, without any hint of approval to enter. Glancing at the faces around us, only Bennett-Fog was unsurprised.

Hiram Ogier was standing directly behind me, sunglasses on indoors, staring at the ground and thereby avoiding eye contact with the officer whose face was stretched motionless over a seismic upheaval.

“Ants have colonies.”

“That’s an analogy that obviously comes from humans, not the other way -“

He put his hand on my shoulder and it felt like he must have hit some sort of pressure point. “Most of humanity throughout history has lived in a colony of somebody’s. If you make your definitions consistent, all. The structure of authority is fractal, and latent in the dynamics of information, and extends throughout reality. We are already colonized by things we do not know, and our friend Lillywhite’s discovery has only proved this. There is one way to escape it, and that is to worm through the layers to the top. If you care about what you claim to care about you will help us do this.”

Bennett-Fog wiped her forehead. “I mean, that’s a simple way of explaining it, but Edison Lens has models I’ve suggested before you look at that show-"

“You could devolve Uraniborg back to us, and let them hit it.” The officer snapped us back to reality. "Then they would be openly breaching both international law, and the newly formed IIRC doctrine.”

“The resources and work we’d lose…” Caroline bristled.

“Are as nothing to what we have, and what we will soon.” Ogier nodded.

Halation had carved out a bubble of quiet within me. They literally weren’t hearing anything. They were modelling something I couldn’t quite see. In turn, I didn’t say anything as the argument raged on, focusing on processing anything they’d need to know and dismissing anything they didn’t. I was breathing steadily in and out. It seemed stupid, I thought in the voice of Halation, although Halation was occupied inward and not watching myself from the outside with me, that I looked like the one taking this worse and less seriously, as voices raised and overlapped. Sweat was streaming down my face in rivulets and no one looking at me could tell how little it mattered, the friction between the hot air whipped in weary circles around the room by plastic fan blades and the grinding matryoshka layers of thought inside the shadowy force field that was my body. Surely the reason humans fought so much was that they couldn’t communicate their thoughts fully yet didn’t stop communicating to think them either? Just to keep them nervous I let Halation extend rainbow veins up and down my skin with my breathing, lapping up the sweat where it touched them.

“We don’t have to lose any of it. They don’t understand what a Weak Asymmetry Field means still if they think they can threaten us.”

We turned the cruiser back, not to the port at Maracaibo, but all the way back through the strait and up to the naval base at Punto Fijo, a scrubby, striated peninsula where I walked with Halation for hours outside the base, the sort of very Earthy Earth place I think Mai meant, although Mai never came with us. She hated it there - I think she felt even worse about being there than I did. I didn’t even think on the walks. I didn’t strategize. I had to get used to just moving in it. This miasma. More disorienting than the Weak Asymmetry Field. Is there a Strong Asymmetry Field? Or is the name free? - It’s a weapon of mass destruction, it was quarantined by the Meteorological Synod, no no no it’s the last thing you want to be thinking about right now - It probably helped to think about things like that, but I didn’t want to just lacerate myself either. I wouldn’t be able to do this every time. I would get distracted wondering whether my decision was sound, but I couldn’t think about it directly half the time, it was too raw, and I knew it was more or less taken care of without me anyway and I didn’t have much to add, that my mere arbitrary knowledge alone had been enough to make me a “leader” while the experienced led the fishing boat that had puttered up to the base in the middle of the night on a bristle of wavelets like crocodile scales, lowered the invaluable folded crystal onto the aluminum raft roped behind it under a black cloth tarp. The pirates looked more normal than any of Beek’s recruits (although not that unlike some of Edison Lens), dads with their stretch-marked bellies poking out of gym class pinnies and Caribbean baseball team hats, barely ever looking at us.

After midnight when they moved I’d check in on them over an encrypted videoconferencing system developed by Azoth, with an Edison Lens translator. A squadron of Beek’s mercenaries were tracing them along the shore, prepared to engage if another faction of the Bolivarian Navy or hidden Americans intercepted them, and if not to pile onto boats themselves in Cumanà, forming part of our unofficial fleet. There they waited and gathered forces from the surrounding villages for the Americans’ next perigee with the maritime border, while the Venezuelans scudded back and forth to Uraniborg fitting it out with their cutting-edge Millennium CIWS systems. In the mornings, looking like someone was holding a gun to my head and figuring the look helped my case, I stalled for time in the elliptical, passive-aggressive language I knew from years of watching geopolitical standoffs play out across drip-fed quotes and analysis videos, unfortunately including Waldo Beek’s, realizing with dread that there wasn’t much more to it after all and they were just like me clueless spectators who had to weigh their interpretation of vague bullshit against the risk of hellfire before they were dead. I made it seem that the preparations for resistance were entirely Venezuela’s, in the inalienable interest of their sovereignty, and that in the meantime I didn’t want to force anyone else into anything and would do my best to comply with any demands they made, but in the interests of the rest of the IIRC they would have to make them out in the open.

On the last night I followed along their stream from setting out to mission accomplished, switching perspective to one of Beek’s boats where I could at least follow the banter (and Jax seemed to have made friends). I didn’t have the right kind of presence of mind to participate, but I was able to pull the things he said next to me out of context and hold them. He’d wanted to go, but he wasn’t even officially enlisted yet. They passed close enough to Uraniborg to see its cold spotlights strafing the waters, emulsifying half-translucent clouds against the pixel-charred background of the sky, but kept going. As they got close to the border they turned the motors off, and rowed, while raising canvas on sticks at complex angles around the boats to throw off radar. They did get caught eventually - a warning flare going up on the horizon and everyone collapsing folds away from guns and scrambling - but they were close enough - just within 5000 metres. I switched feed to the boat that was carrying the Inchworm Drive, which had been charged at the power station at Carabobo. At that point visual streaming became unreliable - the sailors got quieter as they tried to parse the inconsistencies in what they were seeing - parts of the sky looking different every time they blinked without any fluid throughline of motion, superpositions - different brains corrected for it different ways, but most were advised not to look outside the boats too much. In another room of the base Edison Lens was getting reads of the water disturbances as the Inchworm Drive (hooked up to a minimal navigation system hacked from a Gamecube controller) pulled them, at a speed of 400, 500 knots, through the water, along with the ships that occasionally sprayed the waters around them, their radar producing illegible results as they tried to make sense of why it seemed like they were getting closer to their targets at the same time as their targets were getting closer to them. The displacement of matter around the edges of a Weak Asymmetry field, the Metasymmetric Obverse recalculating the laws of physics from end to end, was the part the Americans claimed to be concerned about as an “existential threat”, although a field whose Obverse was malfunctioning would simply static out under the accumulation of unbalanced calculations (releasing the considerable energy going into maintaining it, but that would just be like, a very large conventional bomb). Still, a crude Asymmetry Field in the middle of a continuous complex fluid was guaranteed to create some strange kinds of turbulence, and the same would likely go for our atmosphere. As much as anything else about this plan I was worried about causing some huge fish die-off to wash up along the coastline. The only thing we noticed, though, was the whales. A whole pod that had been sitting around in the deepest areas on Uraniborg’s sonar, when the vibrations drew near, spontaneously split into two groups, one of which sounded and the other which tried to make contact and swam away.

And then I got the link for Uraniborg’s cameras. The shrinking, brightening conch-shell of blacklight fade on the horizon was surrounded by overlapping ripples of white foam, like an uncanny birth of Venus. Our fleet was just about close enough for them for them to start firing by sight, but suddenly the Millenniums were strafing their own decks. As they exchanged fire with their original target, they tried to retreat, realizing how fucked they were. They couldn’t explain why or even how they were suddenly in Venezuelan territorial waters. The Bolivarian Navy had been scrambled. The only serious explanation would prove beyond the shadow of a doubt to the rest of the world that their concerns were unfounded. And mercenaries more hardened than anyone they’d had on board in fifty years were coiling grappling ropes around the railings.

In a moment of weakness at 2:00 in the morning, I called my dad. He slept with a bulky grey phone and a lukewarm Irish coffee next to his bedside, always ready to pick up and respond to a desperate client. When he picked up he didn’t respond to a word I said except to let me finish and let himself forget I’d finished, and I was half grateful to give up trying to say anything. He sounded rehearsed, still stumbling on his lines, but in a way where he had to have them written out better somewhere, even if not in front of him, even if deleted:

“All I can say about what you’re doing is, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’d want to do it. You have no idea how much I’d want to do it. But I couldn’t do it. I’m not sure if that means anything to you now, or ever would have, or how much choice you even have in any of it. But I couldn’t do it. And that includes what you’ve already done. So if my… son ends up dooming humanity, I guess that’ll be pretty funny. And if you don’t, I hope it’s because of something I did, or showed you. I’m good at talking to idiots, and I’m good at talking to hardasses. That’s two things I bet you’re gonna have to do a lot of, and thank God you’ll have some men like Waldo Beek” (I had never heard him once mention Beek before, I wondered if he’d gone down the rabbit hole since the announcement) “who are even better at it than me. But honestly… I don’t know how to talk to you now, because it seems like you’re a different kind of idiot and a different kind of hardass than I thought. And so is Jax…” here it seemed like he went off script, and broke into a gnashing whisper-shout like he was trying to keep his teeth clamped shut against his own tongue: “Fuck fuck you fuck you fuck you send him back and tell him to respond to our messages I don’t care if he wants to go I don’t care if he’s old enough he’s a retard the army wouldn’t let him in if he tried to join you’re manipulating him you’d call that abuse or some shit if we did it you fucking sicko” - “or at least I hope. I hope you don’t just think you are. God knows both of you have enough problems thinking you’re things. I guess I shouldn’t say that. I should say something nice or at least patriotic, something that makes you want to come back here for dinner some night when you’re back and have crazier war stories to tell us than I ever dreamed I’d hear from my own children. Well, good luck out there. We love you. And if I have to mop your mother up off the floor every goddamn day for much longer” - I started to force out a word in edgewise, and before I knew what it was, he hung up.

The first images of the surface of an exoplanet, the bookend to what will seem a brief cosmological interregnum since 1967, will not arrive on Earth before this text, but in the meantime you must have the first video of a Weak Asymmetry FTL launch, which I can only imagine from what Halation plays through my mind to as I go to sleep. There will be video from dozens of angles all over the news, but I prefer to construct it through your eyes, on board Edison Lens’ VIP farewell cruise, the spray of noise from Alastair’s hot tub party (popping bottles, screams escaping human emotion into seabird register, verses of The Final Countdown) misting your hair and shoulders. A bookend, perhaps, to the star I saw that night, falling: the flower you saw that night, rising. My prayer, your fear. My fear, your prayer. (I need a better word than “bookend”. On Contemplation, there is an entire artform dedicated to curating such symmetries, transmitting the neural state of imagining them in superposition.)

By now everyone had connected the grainy videos of a blob of vomit-green light wavering like an electric fireplace on the horizon over rural Montana, or a sinister spiky photonegative cutout on the Caribbean horizon, to what was going on. This wasn’t that. It wasn’t even one of the cinematic-quality deepfakes that touched it up with a sharp discrete halo or procedural shimmer.

The Hiawatha’s Asymmetry Field was, obviously, much larger, and at its centre, brighter, but also simpler, as it wasn’t directed by a semi-conscious ship, and quite simply far cruder in components. (Halation’s was, of course, on board.) Instead, it looked like a circle of overlapping circles, within concentric circles, within overlapping, within concentric… it spread from the fanning light-cones and glittering scaffolds of Uraniborg, until its faintest iterations seemed to encompass the whole sky. Their colour a pale blush, almost lilac. The water taking up the other half of the tableau remained black and impassive; nothing reflected off it, as if it wasn’t really light, though if you looked down closely you might pick up a wavering white circle on the surface of the water almost reaching the prow of your ship before it disappeared. The centre overlapped and brightened until the shape of the Hiawatha was barely visible except as a kind of sigil in negative space, then the whole field rearranged itself in a split second around a circle above, then two circles above, then four, the rearrangements of the whole array accelerating until it began to diminish in the sky, momentarily a Dantean rose the size of a harvest moon, then a point of light among the stars, then an exhausted sky, scraped almost clean of cloud.

Night after night, I imagine what you would have done next. I like to hope you had a melody in your head; whether you stood there humming it, or opened up Fruity Loops on your phone; I hope you interpreted it, the way you always could text but occasionally pictures too. We talked a few more times on Plastic Beach but I never heard any music if you were making any. You could give me uniforms, you could give me a flag (although after the events of our arrival we’d settled on the good old-fashioned Jolly Roger over any of your designs, which all felt like those sand paintings that left out one element so as not to summon too powerful magic) but you could never stoop to giving us an anthem. But this wouldn’t have to be that. It wouldn’t even have to be a farewell.

Really not much to say about the voyage itself. Weak Asymmetry means none of the clumsy hijinks of space suits and zero gravity, just being stuck inside for weeks. The ship barely even had porthole windows, which would have been both a pointless defence liability and more disturbing to look at than mere void. I only knew where we were by the navigation program, and that didn’t mean anything to me. We didn’t get to play around in zero gravity, but we did get to eat boring space food Edison Lens had synthesized (had already been producing, in fact, since the Cold War) for maximum storage efficiency. It felt more than anything like living in a nuclear bunker.

It wasn’t the space that was inside Halation, but that was there, inside me, and I sat with my empty stomach to get used to it.

Food was an obvious worry pertaining to the whole expedition, but Halation had told me the place we were going was the best place to start for that. The Towers (which the inhabitants of Towers were also called) were famous for their portable manufacturing and agriculture tech, due to “the whole deal with their planet”. Towers, I was informed, was fragile - the whole crust had been cracked like an eggshell in a misguided attempt at expanding it in the early days of geoengineering and Weak Asymmetry technology, and the planet now resembled a giant pumice stone, with its labyrinthine geology constantly shifting, subject to cave-ins and eruptions and simply crumbling overnight.

But the bridge did have a big wraparound “window” that was actually a screen projecting “footage” generated by artificial intelligence based on the Metasymmetrical Obverse calculations, which acted as the ship’s ultimate “sensory system”. Its light was still too pixelated and dull to have the aching cold precision of stars the way I’d look up at them with Mai, and Mai not here to make any sense of them, but I ran up there the moment I heard on the intercom we were within deceleration range of the planet. Even though the deceleration still took three days to coordinate, I barely left the bridge except to sleep and eat meals. Bennett-Fog, I’m pretty sure, did sleep in there.

When I first stumbled in with my morning coffee to see the larger blurry-edged circle among the small blurry points on the display had expanded into a surface with features, Towers looked like the moon if it was made of blue cheese. A white-grey, lined and pockmarked and shadowed disc, its only hint of colour vague splotches dusted the blue of lichen or juniper. By the time we could see it like that we were hours away and everyone on the ship was getting ready to spend the next few hours burning through as much of our reserves, especially of alcohol, as we safely could before we fully understood what the Towers’ technology entailed.

I gave a speech and no one was paying attention. Most of it meant less than anything I had said in public since high school. But there was this bit I think is worth recording: “I’m not sure whether our victory at Uraniborg is helping or hurting morale about our mission. I’m not sure whether it should be. The basic problem is, we beat the most powerful army in the world with alien technology we’ve never used before, with a leader who’s never commanded before. And now we’re heading out to fight people with lots and lots more of it. In spite of this, we have significant advantages. As new as we are to any of this technology, we can look at it with new eyes. We can look at it and ask: how do we use it to kill things. How do we use it to secure positions. People have been doing that against the United States in particular for decades. China used gunpowder for centuries before anyone thought to use guns. Of course, this isn’t an advantage that lasts. Everything we do our enemies will pick up how to do in months, weeks.”

“And yet those few weeks of advantage lasted centuries for the conquistadors,” Beek yelled from a crooked plastic table he was sitting at the head of, and cheers rose throughout the room (and a few guttural counter-bellows of indignation).

“That’s the way I’m here to make sure we don’t use it,” I shouted back, but my words were lost in the enthusiasm. I paused to let them wear themselves out. “I brought you victory at Uraniborg, but if anyone still thinks I’m soft wait till I hear anyone has been massacring civilians,” (there aren’t exactly civilians and soldiers in this war, Halation had explained to me, but that just meant I had to make calls based on the exact strategic situation on the ground, which I didn’t know yet) “or pressing labour, or… there’s probably nothing most of you’d wanna fuck down there” (“Bet!” someone yelled, but the response was mostly boos) “…because if you watched Waldo Beek he used to throw screenshots of the kind of nasty things people like me wanted to do to people who did things like that up on screen and hand wring about them, and I’ve never had a chance to until now. And I’m sure some of you want a chance to yourselves, with the things you’ve seen. My point,” they were quiet now, although that didn’t mean convinced, “was that within that window, we have to think. We need to make sure we understand what they can do to us, and they don’t understand what we can do to them. And whenever it looks like that advantage is slipping out of our hands, we have to think of something that’ll give it to us again. From hereon in, I’m doing that every waking second. And you will be too - or you’ll die really fast if you don’t.”

And then Jax raised a cheer for me, and invited me to his sticky-stained table, and introduced me to a bunch of people whose names I would get too drunk to remember but wrote down on a slip of paper I hid in the cuff of my uniform to do background checks later on, and eventually for the first time in a month I witnessed something like dawn as the thin atmosphere of Towers began to glow turquoise around the edges of the screen. Eventually we all quieted down and stopped drinking as the planet’s real surface became visible. Gnarled and looped shadows pointed away from stacked bubbles and roped filaments of stone, giants’ causeways extending the length of Marianas chasms where the faint glow of magma breathed in the dark, straggling cliffs and sharded mesas projecting rows of chimneys like the pipes of an organ, every formation pockmarked with more holes the closer we got, swollen burls like owls’ hollows or simply random gaps as if the texture of the surface hadn’t been filled in. The faint lichen-splotches discernible in any more detail even at the point where geological formations were filling up the majority of our screen, a coiled chimney rising from the top of a terraced mountain on the edge of a gravelly, megastructural slope, suggesting the scale of these things relative to any conceivable life even before the chimney swallowed up the whole of the screen and kept going for ten minutes before we even entered it, and we gaped as the ragged layers of its esophagus descended narrower and narrower, until we finally reached a layer of unnatural flatness, a heptagon of overlapping slabs of something that looked like porous concrete, across which the gap of which - just large enough for our ship to fit - flickered the glow of a plasma membrane - a Weak Asymmetry Field. Halation guided my hands on the keyboard of our control system, entering the code for the precise tachyonic vibration that would mark us as friendly. From there we descended what was unmistakably a tunnel, albeit a tunnel opening on other tunnels in every possible direction, a ribbon of open space winding through a dense foam of rock that shone black and sharp-toothed under accumulations of sediment. There was still almost nothing close enough to discern as life, except occasional strands of what looked like preposterously long chains of triangular blue-grey scales hanging out of crumbling vesicle mouths, but still not long enough to get a close look at at the rate we were descending. The Asymmetry Field in here, now that we had made the handshake, was aligning our gravity with the direction of the tunnel so we just had to drop towards the centre of gravity of the planet, and we did for almost half an hour, descending what on our systems read as almost a hundred miles before somebody pointed out a rain of boulders falling alongside us, and someone else spotted a pillar collapsing before it vanished offscreen. In here there was no sound, the sense we had all learned to associate with this kind of danger before localized inconsistencies in flickering pixels, but soon readouts from the field itself, which was communicating with the one surrounding us and the whole tunnel, confirmed it. Rhythmically, like a drumbeat we couldn’t hear, couldn’t even visualize because we hadn’t devised a readout for this eventuality, the chimney was shaking itself apart.