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Bottle Born Blues

Bottle Born Blues

Book excerpt

Chapter 1 

“I’m most happy to welcome to the Mengchi Centre for the Promotion of Historical Knowledge. My name’s Shakbout Mansard and I’ll be your guide today.”

I always paused after this introduction to gauge the animated crowd and to get ready for another cycle of the winner’s history recited by one of the losers. My somewhat slim self never stood out in a crowd—not at a height of two metres, pale skin and dark-red hair, sage-green eyes, and extraordinarily ordinary features.

The group I was about to lead on a tour through the carefully edited and constructed narrative that the Centre preferred to broadcast was the usual spread of off-world tourists and local school students. Since everyone looked ready, I started on the official version by waving at the genuinely imposing—in fact, absolutely astounding—image that covered the whole west wall of the lobby. It showed a handsome woman dressed in a clearly high-ranking military uniform, driving a double-headed war axe into the skull of a somewhat fishy-looking lifeform standing before her.

“The creator of this image is unknown. No record has ever been found of who created it, when it was created, where it was displayed, or if it was in fact displayed anywhere before its discovery in a submerged warehouse in Lake Zan following restoration work carried out on the outer banks 150 years ago.”

I led the group of twenty across the vast marble-floored lobby to the image and, with my back to it, addressed the crowd while flourishing my arms at critical moments to draw attention to relevant sections.

“There’s some debate about the subject of this image. It’s been suggested that it’s part of a series of images that illustrate moments from the Ranger cycle of legends. They tell of a war among the gods. Another has suggested it’s a metaphor for splitting the atom. But the most popular view is that this is an exercise by a supremely gifted unknown artist, created as an expression of the creative impulse. We’re exceptionally lucky here at the Mengchi Centre to have been given the opportunity to house and display it.”

Gazes were riveted. So far, so good. “The image is woven from trapped light, fractured air, and some unidentified crystal dust with an unknown process. This level of magical mastery has arguably not been demonstrated again. The Mengchi Centre is allowed to display the picture under the condition that no copies of it are allowed in any format. The Standing Committee wishes to preserve this image as a unique viewing experience: it should only be seen and appreciated in its original form.”

I paused, allowing them to study the picture while I waited for the question. This time it came from one of the students.

“Can I get a copy of the image?” he asked with that acquisitive tone the question always rests on.

“I’m afraid not, but there’s a range of very attractive items available in the gift shop, which we’ll visit at the end of the tour.” I waited for the regulation two seconds, turned and headed for the stairs, confident the group would follow.

My shadow stayed behind, staring at the image. It was a dangerous mental necessity for me to survive intact in the job. My shadow provided an alternative script, saying words I longed to but dared not—they had to be voiced somehow or the pressure inside would become so great, I might do something extremely stupid.

My shadow turned to address his audience, everyone I’d led through the maze of “almost information” during my time at the Centre. “It’s true that the creator of that extraordinary work is unknown, but there’s no question as to what this image is—the colossal image of Empress Ingea axing the leader of the Wrexen Federation into two and starting the longest, most devastating conflict in the history of the systems. When you look at the Empress, you have to admire her—the creator demands it—she’s confidently and calmly taking decisive action. A leader in fact, as well as name.

“Wrexen has a subtly malicious air about him; clearly he intended to harm the Empress and she responded with decisive action. That one of the most extraordinary creations in history celebrates one of the most stupidly malicious events in history has to be one of the most effective jokes ever played.” My shadow surveyed the crowd and all stared back dumbly.

He swallowed a bittersweet smile. “The Standing Committee had a collective shit fit upon discovery. It clearly celebrates the moment as a triumph; the image is woven with the most explicit sense of justified pride at the Empress’ decisive strength and wisdom. Mengchi was Ingea’s home planet, the location for the action. Despite a light icing of regret at the boundless misery and destruction caused by the bottomless greed of the Empress, they really believed she’d been right. Finding this image was the perfect solution to showing what they thought … while ducking the consequences by claiming complete innocence of a chance discovery … and claiming artistic and historical importance as reasons for displaying it.”

Dramatic pause. My shadow, incidentally, was a total ham when it came to public performances. “While the Sickle Quadrant is holding with who knows what creatures—brewed in Ingea’s own farms as a last ditch effort to defeat the Quill Alliance forces—those creatures are still a threat to all lifeforms in the systems to this day. Displaying the image is a dangerously balanced risk, only achievable by the mystery that surrounds it. Allowing it wider circulation would be an invitation to the systems that haven’t yet recovered from the devastation driven by Ingea to bring a slice of it here. No one would try to stop them. Ambiguity is a good tactic as it creates breathing space, which allows for utterly breathtaking artistry to emerge and overshadow content.” My shadow didn’t take questions.

            I led the group into the Hall of the First Instance. We halted before the first exhibit, a large cabinet containing models of strange looking creatures. Some were cut in half to display internal arrangements, others appeared to be wrapped or bound in an assortment of cages.

“This exhibit is the result of the work of a dedicated collector who, over the course of his lifetime, sought to gather specimens of original Pre-Shoshone artifacts. What you see are ornamental versions of functional artifacts; they survived as they were designed simply for display purposes. There’s also evidence that they were used as teaching aids. On the top row, three in from the left, you can see that the StoneBeater has been carefully arranged to show internal lines of power, and each highlighted in a different colour. “

I gestured and we strolled to a large display, cut in half to show various layers and interactions. A marvel of precision and detail, it delivered an astonishing amount of complex information at a glance. The model was one of the early post Shoshone super-farms. There were 15 levels on display—from breeding bottles on the bottom to final saturation and production stations at the top. To the far left, you could see recycling chutes where depleted product was directed to the furnaces as high-grade fuel.

I waited as three group members ambled around to peer at the model from various angles. They seemed quite intrigued. “It was this particular process that allowed for the development of super-farms. The energy required to drive early production was nearly equal to the output, while the energy recovery from the recycling process provided up to 95% of the energy load and made the process commercially viable.”

My shadow had slunk into the room while I’d been talking and was hovering by the first exhibit. It took a minute for the crowd to join him. He spoke without facing them, staring at the contents of the exhibit.

“Someone realized that some of the small native Mengchi lifeforms were capable of manipulating their surroundings sub-atomically to support themselves in an extremely hostile environment. Someone else realized that if a human picked up one of these lifeforms, they could channel and focus that process quite usefully. Due to the completely mysterious nature of this power, it was called magic and that essential mystery is the only thing that has stayed the same since the start.

“All it took was the bottomless greed and limitless imagination of humans to realize that this magic was a road to dominance and power … if it could be reliably harvested. They had to find a more convenient way to carry the lifeforms, so they invented cages and frames. It was then discovered that these cages increased the quantity of energy each form produced, so they channeled it more efficiently … and also killed lifeforms a lot faster. This is when commercial farming of the lifeforms began—factories twisted, broke, and carved lifeforms to fit into frames, which killed them even faster when they forced power at a greater rate. These relics date from before the Shoshone developments.” My shadow drew a deep breath and pointed at its face with both index fingers. “Yes, these are tears streaming down my face; the agony of every twisted shape breaks my heart with pity. Boiling, venomous rage will start to develop from the next exhibit on and will be increasingly hard to restrain.”

This was the point when necessity started to move into danger, the possibility that the momentum generated wouldn’t stop where it had to, and I’d lose control of my shadow and not be able to stop. My shadow waved at the model of the bottle farm and spoke his script to his crowd as I did to mine.

“Depleted product—the words burn my tongue with acid hate—is the name for the bodies of the lifeforms that had been bred in bottles below, drained of energy and thrown into a furnace to enable more lifeforms to suffer the same fate … reduced to product, denied any independence in the great web! Look at yourselves with your vacant stares eyeing this slaughterhouse without seeing it; you’re the depleted products and I’d gladly recycle all of you right now.”

The problem was that my shadow was lying. They’d not be recycled. They had the right to life even as they stripped it from others. That realization made me more furious, because I couldn’t follow through on my rising rage. I was trapped, acknowledging a dreadful wrong that was fresh and could never be undone.

Showing the group through a door into a large room dominated by an enormous display of all the systems, not to scale, but a strategic political map that gave greater space to the more important locations, regardless of their actual physical scope. This had become the standard way to show the systems, so it proved a shock to view an actual scale display. The version in the room was simply another piece of the winner’s history, nudging out reality and reinforcing necessary messages.

We stopped before a highly polished oval conference table in the middle of the room; every place has a nameplate and on the centre of the table was a solid state-of-the-art comms block. In its day, it was the most advanced piece of technology in the systems, often cited as the hinge of the conflict, the vital edge that cut to victory. They spread so that every person stood before a nameplate and I took the position at the head of the table.

I straightened my shoulders and took an authoritative pose. “This is not a replica, but the actual strategic command centre for the Quill Alliance. The Mengchi Centre for the Promotion of Historical Knowledge was chosen as the display location after considerable negotiation. We’re very proud to have this extraordinary exhibit. The configuration of the table and the whole exhibit is the same as it was when the decision was taken to close the Archen Corridor. It was this action that proved to be the turning point in the Liberation Conflict—and this action was only possible because that block there allowed for the simultaneous co-ordination of over 16-million separate beings, spread across 5,000 separate Quill Alliance fleet forces, all of whom had to act in exact sequence. The scale of the operation was what had made it so unlikely; it was never considered a viable possibility and thus never planned against. The entire process took 10 seconds to complete, done with no resistance. No action of this scale has ever been repeated, and may never be. Now that the possibility has been established, it’s part of defensive planning everywhere across the systems.”

The group gazed at the antiques on display with a casual lack of interest, exactly the response that the Mengchi Centre for the Promotion of Historical Knowledge hoped to achieve. The less interest inspired by the events, in particular the part played by the Mengchi hierarchy, the better. If amnesia wasn’t an option, then bored lack of interest was a perfectly acceptable alternative.

My shadow had a desire to shake up the crowd, to force a realization on them that history held over them right now.

“This exhibit is the reason for the existence of the Mengchi Centre for the Promotion of Historical Knowledge, just as the blade that loped off Ingea’s head would be the centerpiece display in a museum housed in her palace. There have been a huge number of re-developments of the site over the centuries since; this has never changed and is always the physical centre for the place. Ingea was a one-off, willing to dream, plan and act on a scale that others simply couldn’t comprehend, believe or accept. She rode that weakness for all it was worth and nearly came to victory. She lost because other wolves in the systems were willing to take big steps. The sheer numbers working together proved that a pack will beat a lone wolf no matter how powerful.

“Closing the Archean Corridor was a death sentence for two-billion inhabitants in the trapped systems. They died trying to escape when the noose closed around them. This noose was the only thing that kept the inhabitants of the Sickle Quadrant contained, and if it ever failed, the future would be one long drawn-out scream of blood-soaked terror for everyone.

“One of the great absences in history is a common understanding of what Ingea was planning when she launched the conflict. That she had a clear aim isn’t in doubt; the question is what it was. At least part of it’s obvious, to me at least, and is never spoken of. Superimpose a map of her attack points on the display here and join them up, and what do you see?” My shadow gestured dramatically. “You’ve seen it recently before, no? She was shaping the systems into the battery just like the one that the lifeforms were being formed into.

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