“Projections Do Not Guarantee Future Returns”
by Marc Singer
Cold sweat and tangled sheets. I reach out gasping for Gesen but he isn’t there, his pillow cool and untouched. I’d known he would be gone sooner or later but I’d forgotten it was today. Is today. In dreams it’s easy to mistake departure for arrival. Better to stay in the present. Less confusing.
The display on the headboard is blinking—the kline software records all my alpha-wave activity in case something is work-related—but I swipe to erase it. The dream is still more vivid, more real than the world around me: I can see lightning crashing over a darkening plain, rains of white-hot ember and ash, a falling tower. The coppery kiss of blood. A hammer of burning bronze bears down on me, and then—
My hand flies to my head, probing for wounds that aren’t there. Not yet.
I slip on a robe and walk out onto the balcony. Trying to recenter myself in the here and now, not whatever future I have just foreseen, whose afterimages linger like hot welts. I focus on the city instead, the spires and skyways free of skimmers in this predawn hour. I can just make out the reef, the waves breaking over the coral, and the ocean beyond that, where vermilion skies herald the return of our swollen sun. It was already in the opening stages of its decline when my people settled here and it will remain so long after we are gone, but it is dying just the same. We’ve had plenty of time to accommodate ourselves to this truth, as we have to our world’s stately rotations and leisurely nights. Bodies and habits have adjusted over the centuries, giving us the rhythms offworlders mistake for lassitude or torpor at their peril.
I don’t know how long until it comes to pass, only that it will. Long-range forecasts tend to be more arcane, abstract, necessitating the art of interpretation; dreams of this intensity usually transpire within a day or two at most. It’s been a long time since I divined such violence, such death. I don’t miss it.
I’m shivering, and have been for a while—the early morning chill, no doubt. I withdraw into my bedchamber and begin making preparations to face the day, however it may end.
The central spire of the Crystal Branch. Sunlight floods through translucent walls, touching every sinuous surface, not a right angle in the room. The lighting is particularly favorable to my hair, bringing out the platinum in tresses I have arranged for maximum effect. My kline is locked into its fully upright, thronelike position and placed directly in front of the rising sun, a harmony of elements designed to impress visitors with our majesty—although I fear it will only serve to isolate or provoke these particular applicants. The delegation from the Skalvo metalworks is sweaty, unkempt, with a layer of stubble already poking through what passes for their morning shave. They are nervous, and with good reason. They have come to ask me to save their industry. I have to tell them that I can’t.
The accountant, an earnest young man in an ill-fitting suit that came straight off the rack, does not yet know this. He pleads his case with meaningless models, wish fulfillment fantasies posing as facts. One of his comrades spares me the discomfort of cutting him off.
“Save your breath, Wyl, she’s not listening. She’s already made up her mind.” This is Rik Graaf, shop steward at the metalworks, most senior member of the delegation, and no friend to me or my people. The other branches of humanity and its offshoots only see the gifts our trait has brought us, our peace and riches and beauty, and they envy our confidence in our future. They never think about what it means when you dream a darker fate.
I end the suspense. “I’m sorry, Mr. Graaf. It’s nothing personal, you understand—our projections just don’t look good for the returns on investment.”
Wyl slumps in on himself. Everybody knows what it means to be rejected by the Crystal Branch; no reputable bank will take on a failed applicant if word gets out.
Graaf is not so quick to surrender. He flexes arms that could snap a woman in two, exposing thickets of copper and cobalt tattoos that snake back beneath his cuffs. “Your returns, you mean. What about the returns for my shop, my people?”
“Temporary at best. You’d receive a short-term boost during construction and retooling, and of course a substantial windfall for the contractors.” I cast a sidelong glance at the third member of their delegation, the developer Kroll, long enough that I know the steward sees it. “We don’t anticipate any permanent increases to employment, and if anything the overspecialization will hurt your long-term prospects.”
“We don’t have any prospects without this loan,” Graaf sputters. “We have the metal, we have the knowhow… we should be building those starships instead of the horsefaces.”
“If you’re referring to our Kentauri friends, I’ll thank you not to use that language in my office. We all have our aptitudes.”
“Aptitudes?” He shouts the word like an accusation, and I wonder if this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. I tense up but try not to show my alarm. “Aptitudes? Those null-grav freaks built that whole damn shipyard with our alloys. We made the UP and now we’re being poured out like so much slag. What about our aptitudes?”
Unlike our matrons of old, his forefathers cultivated a more physical trait, one better suited to a world of things. As his voice rises every ferrous object in the office begins to quiver and hum—which amounts, in practice, to some of the fasteners and joinings in the furniture, along with the bracelets and piercings worn by Graaf and his compatriots. The furniture is mostly plastic and ceramics, the curving Küvaloomu desk reclaimed from real wood. There simply isn’t enough metal in the office to threaten. Which speaks to why the metalworkers are in such desperate need of a loan, and why they won’t get it.
“Mr. Graaf, if you ever wish to do business with this Branch again—”
“Why should we bother? You stuck-up bitches are all the same.” Wyl attempts to silence him but the steward brushes the accountant aside with one meaty hand. “You keep all the money for yourself while we’re dying. We’re dying! When was the last time any of you helped us?”
Probably sometime before the last time he called us bitches, but I keep my composure. “Mr. Graaf.” Leaning forward, balancing my chin on one upraised fist. “Do you really think I would be sitting here if this meeting were going to end this way? The authorities would be outside that door right now.” Doing my best to project a confidence I do not feel. “Are they?”
The quivering stops.
“Screw this. Screw this planet and screw you, lady.” His eyes roll up and down me and I know that his sentiments are not strictly figurative. For a moment I still wonder which way he’s going to go, and I wonder how I could have forgotten how terrifying the wondering could be.
But he pushes back from the desk. “Fuck you,” he says, hoarse and impotent. “We’re leaving.”
He storms out of my office into an empty hallway. The accountant mouths his apologies, the developer shoots me a poisonous stare, and they scurry after him. I don’t exhale until their footsteps have faded and the door has slid shut behind them.
“All things considered, counselor, that went better than expected.”
Félix-Jacques emerges from someplace unseen, as is his habit. He speaks the intragalactic universal language in a rich and lilting accent with traces of his native tongue. It’s called Français and it’s only spoken in his homeland, a place called Africa.
“Better for me, maybe,” I sigh. “They won’t go home happy. I’m glad you were here.” Félix is my insurance, my hedge against disaster. He’s also Earthgov’s special envoy to the Crystal Branch, and by inviting him to eavesdrop on a meeting I have violated every protocol in my profession. It seemed like the better option.
He answers me with a resigned shrug. “In truth, I never thought they posed you any danger. They are desperate, but not stupid.”
I activate my kline and lower it into trance position. “Desperation makes men stupid.”
“Only men?” The cocked eyebrow tells me he’s joking, but his jokes only go so far. Back in our gap years, we worked together in the volunteer security services. I was in threat assessment; he ran covert operations. He’s one of the most serious men I know, but he never drops his casual demeanor. “You underestimate them, I think. They would have nothing to gain by attacking you, and everything to lose.”
“I know what I saw, Félix.”
“D’accord. I have never had reason to doubt your visions. But are you sure you saw these men?”
“Spoken like a true diplomat. I have been doing this for a while, you know.”
“Of course. We are not all so fortunate.”
He bows and disappears off to some other corner of the building where he won’t be in breach of his diplomatic charter. Once the door seals behind him, I dim the lights, lie down on the kline, and begin recording. The visor lowers into place and I wait for a sleep that never comes.
Waking visions are never as potent as dreams, but today I can’t see anything past the raining embers, the burning bronze. When I can’t maintain the pretense of work any longer, I leave the office and hop a skimmer over to the Lido to join Alona and Zura for lunch. They booked a table at some chic new bistro on the pier when they dreamed that Gesen would leave me. I only saw it a few nights ago, myself: glimpses of him wrestling in a tangle of satin with some shopgirl, an offworlder with kohled eyes and cyanotic skin. Perhaps he pins her now. He left no word of his departure, assuming I had foreseen it already. Such arrangements are common here, where endings are read before the story is even begun.
“Just forget about him,” Zura advises me. She works for the planetary holonetwork covering gossip, entertainment, and financial news, and I sense that her interest in my romantic misfortunes is more than strictly friendly. “If he wants to share a bed with a fateblind, that’s his loss.”
“Men on this planet are so fragile,” Alona adds. “As if it’s our fault the gift runs through the motherlines.” Her trait is strong like mine; the Acanthus Branch recruited her straight out of school, and she’s on the fast track to a seat in their Domos. She’ll make oracle before she’s thirty. My volunteer service set me back and I feel like I’ve been racing to catch up with her ever since. “I don’t understand why you get so hung up on them.”
“It’s all that time with the offworlders,” Zura says, teasing but not teasing. “How long did you date that frontier boy in the services? The astronomer’s son?” They both break out laughing before I can answer.
“So much time with someone you were never going to stay with,” Alona says, more in amazement than sorrow. “Better to enjoy yourself and move on when it’s done. I hate to admit it, but Gesen may have had a point.”
As does Alona. I can hardly call it infidelity when there is no profession of faith in the first place. Our partings are no less temperate than our couplings; they simply are. Were.
Lunch arrives: salt-crusted vornfish on a puree of hydroponic kelsa root, a cascade of bubbles and froth mocking the sea foam that swirls and eddies beneath the pier. I slide a bite around the plate but I can’t find my appetite anywhere. I push away from the table and take out my omnicom over the protests of my friends. Rik Graaf’s anger was foreseen days ago, no more a surprise to me than Gesen’s wandering cock, yet his accusations linger with unanticipated persistence. The phenomenon is not unknown to our kind—as if only now, once events have passed, can we reflect on their meaning.
But Graaf is wrong: we aren’t keeping all the money. I’ve exceeded my quarterly loan targets, which were higher than last quarter’s, and the quarter before that. (Although, I note with some dismay, the only loan for Graaf’s homeworld goes to a municipal government seeking to establish an outplacement and retraining center. Those dreams haunt me as well—lines of men and women winding around a still uncompleted building.) Summoning the figures for the Branch as a whole, I see no decline in our lending there, either. If anything we seem slightly overextended, though I can’t account for our investment holdings. Certainly our commercial lending fits a profile of expanding capital. We’ve approved loans for undersea hospitals, psychopharmaceutical laboratories, a confectionary conglomerate whose name hovers on the lips of every child, pupa, and hatchling in the UP. They’ve developed a new species of cacao tree that grows without sunlight, cultivated specially for the nightworld resorts. I once spent a bank holiday weekend there with the astronomer’s son, three endless nights in bed with only the ebb and flow of the tides to mark the time.
Something nags at me, something looming and unseen. Not my frontier boy: that ended before it began, too. Something else, something that questions my judgment and rattles my confidence.
I rise and make my apologies to Alona and Zura, mouthing unprovable lies about afternoon meetings. They look at my untouched plate and insist that I need food and company right now, but I know what troubles me and I know where I need to be.
The Domos of the Oracles. Félix would say it’s only an impressive name for a board of directors, but I like it and have never felt embarrassed for doing so. Let the Earthers keep their gross utilitarian nouns. Our names speak to tradition, ritual, continuity across time—which is, after all, the medium of our splendor.
We do break from tradition in one respect: no dank, fume-choked chasms here. The Domos sits on the highest spire of the Branch, enclosed in transparent walls that afford views of the entire reef. Polyplastic tracery pulses with light, sending luminescent packets twining down through the windowpanes, across the floor beneath my feet, and up into the klinai where the oracles roost. The effect is humbling but strictly decorative, mere symbol for the information that flows along less beauteous conduits between our offices and the planetary narcoleptrix at speeds no mind can grasp, save perhaps the one that sits, more or less, to my right. The hologram acknowledges me with a curt nod and trains his attention on our employers.
The Oracles surround us on their elevated klinai, some sitting upright at full attention, some reclining deep in sleep. A few twitch and mutter while automated logs record every half-formed mumble; others snore. Hard to say if they’re oneiromancing or just old. All but one of them are my elders, their furrowed faces framed by wispy locks of gray hair. Normally I wouldn’t be permitted to address them in the Domos, even as one of their top counselors, but my reputation and my service record grant me liberties not afforded to others of my station.
The Grand Oracle’s eyes flicker open and pin me in my place. “We do not see the cause for your concern, counselor.”
“If you’ll just look over our lending activity,” I explain, summoning the last three quarterly reports on my omnicom and sending them to her kline. “We’ve allocated heavily in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and home security, along with a recent but dramatic uptick in outplacement and temporary labor services. Transportation and industry have all but disappeared. We’ve been calling in outstanding credit in those sectors without replacing it.”
“This suggests a consensus on the fields for future growth,” the Grand Oracle says, drowsy and impatient, a professor addressing a particularly disappointing student.
“A troubling consensus,” I insist. “We’ve also been funding luxury ventures at the expense of more economical staples.” I draw a deep breath, then vent it out while I am still allowed to: “I believe we are looking at the foreshocks of an economic downturn.”
“And you have seen this?” says Moriven, one of the few men in the Domos and my only junior. “In your dreams?”
“I haven’t dreamed it,” I confess. “I just found it today, in the quarterly reports.”
Moriven furls his lips into an impressive pout. I’ve heard he was given his kline because of that pout, not to mention the lean, muscular figure that pokes out from behind the cut-outs and belly windows on his snug white bodysuit. I have never repeated this gossip, but neither have I been given any cause to doubt it. “That isn’t really your job, is it?” he frets.
The Grand Oracle is more to the point. “And what says our sage of numbers?”
Vorl Narn. Chief quantitative analyst for the Crystal Branch, the only other person not seated on a kline, and the only offworlder allowed access to the Domos—if it can be called access when he speaks from a hundred quadrillion miles away. It’s easy to forget the distance when the holographic interface captures him with such perfect fidelity: sea-green skin, pale white hair, the snaps and seams on his functional blue overalls. In the custom of his people, he dresses like a workman even though he is one of most highly paid sentients in the UP.
“Thank you, milady.” He replies after the slightest of delays, one that has been collapsed down to the thresholds of awareness via subspace communication at expenses only he can imagine. The viridian mind clears his throat and rises from his chair.
“We have noted the same trends, but they pose no cause for concern. It is detailed in my latest report. Our models predict the benefits of ongoing economic growth will accrue primarily to the wealthiest worlds, creating higher returns in the luxury sectors. Your counselors are no doubt anticipating the same effects and adjusting their lending accordingly.”
I summon another report, this one a rejected loan application. “We recently denied a promissory note to Polygamete Fields. What kind of growing economy doesn’t invest in wheat?”
Narn addresses his reply to the Domos, not me. “May I remind the esteemed counselor that she works in commercial lending, not investment banking. My algorithms trawl the total UP economy, and I can assure you that we remain heavily invested in wheat futures.”
“But not actual farms.”
The quant doesn’t bother to suppress his smirk. “You would have to ask the signing counselor why she denied that particular application.”
“I was the signing counselor,” I say, with more shame than I intend. “If I could just look at those reports, Chief Narn—if I could see what you see—”
“Out of the question,” Narn declares. “Oracles of the Domos, this communication now threatens to cost you millions of credits, not to mention the time lost in my own computations.”
“Then it’s settled,” says Moriven, assuming an authority no one has granted him. Narn was his hire, the nominal reason for his elevation to the Domos. “We thank you for your concern, counselor, but why don’t you let Chief Narn handle the numbers?” The quant nods at the trophy as his image winks out into nothingness.
The Grand Oracle is uneasy. Another stirs in her sleep, moved by unquiet dreams.
I march out of the building, too wrapped up in my own anger—at Vorl Narn, at Moriven, at myself for playing their game and losing—to pay attention to work or anything else. The fugue persists until I realize I’m being watched. Across the Plaza of the Oracles, the Skalvo delegation is moving toward me: timid Wyl, sullen Kroll, raging Graaf.
We stop and stare across the burbling, gushing fountain while the sculpture in the center shifts and recombines between us. It’s a nest or tower of interlocking self-guided semi-autonomous motive blocks, never resting, always moving, a display that’s supposed to allegorize The Future. And it’s all metal, as are the benches and tables that ring the fountain, the pipes that feed it, and even (I realize now, hours too late) the twisting transteel girders that support the Crystal Branch and every other spire in the financial district. I look around for someone, anyone to warn and there is Félix, rushing to my side. He moves calmly enough that only I, and perhaps the metalworkers, notice as he reaches inside his jacket, hand paused on the plastic grip of his neural disruptor. After a long moment the delegation departs with more poisonous looks from the elders.
I watch them until they climb into a skimmer and ascend to parts unknown. Then I turn to Félix. “Still convinced they’re not that stupid?”
He’s too polite to argue the point, and too persistent to drop it. “If you’re wrong then your real attackers are still out there, unknown and undetected.”
“And if I’m not then they’re right here, known and unstoppable.”
He shakes his head in sympathy. “What are you going to do?”
And then I see it—a way to solve both of my problems. It’s reckless, certainly illegal, and there’s almost no way it will work. If it could, I would have foreseen it. But I’m ready to try anything, given the alternative.
I hop the orbital lifter up to Naltara Starport and bluff my way onto the last supply flight of the week. One mention of my employer and the captain is practically begging me to take a seat—although technically it’s not a seat so much as a folding bench in the cargo hold. There are some expenses even the Crystal Branch will not approve. As the freighter judders and lurches out of orbit, I reflect on the reasons that impel me to trade the comfort and prosperity of my homeworld for a rickety jump seat on a slow flight to the ends of the UP. Am I trying to predict an intragalactic catastrophe, or flee a personal one?
The journey is long, even through subspace, and I can’t sleep on the narrow metal bench. I’m not sure I’d be able to dream anyway. Fear knots the pit of my stomach—not of the fate I foresee, but my clumsy attempt to evade it. I resorted often to such strategems when I was a girl, mounting elaborate masques for the sole purpose of deceiving myself. I would present the spectacle of calamity and then, like a magician upon her stage, whisk it away to reveal the more merciful or banal future that waited behind it all along. I thought these closet dramas were successful until I realized I was, in effect, duping my past self into misinterpreting my present. With maturity, I decided I might better serve my society and myself by arranging for more accurate information to be sent back down the corridors of sleep. And yet here I am, running from my future to the questionable safety of Ophiuchi Station.
The art and music of my people, an unbroken chain of dreams and dreamers extending all the way back to our earthbound cradle, are filled with tales of heroes who ignored the warnings of the seers, sought to defy their destiny, and in so doing helped it come to pass. Some of my old strategems had a nasty knack for becoming the calamities they sought to mock. Not for the first time I wonder if I am running away from my fate, or toward it.
Ophiuchi Station. I pause at the top of the airlock and grab a handrail, fighting back the nausea. My stomach lurches in the centripetal gravity while my brain struggles to make sense of the horizon, which curves up and away in two directions at claustrophobically close quarters.
The Station is the last outpost before the barely habitable reaches that stretch to the boundaries of known space. Docks teem with technicians, engineers, scientists, Navy officers, mendicant friars, a rowdy deck crew that seems to consist entirely of triplets. (Sound economic sense: fewer mouths to feed or beds to house when they recombine.) Another trio flaunts their individuality with fans and crests of jet-black hair spread over bloodcurrant skin. Limbs, eyes, and other extraneous body parts have been replaced by cybernetics, posing them no small inconvenience at the security checkpoint. I breeze through the priority lane while they ponder how to disarm.
Their leader, the one with hair swept back like a bloodhawk, stares at me as I pass. Contempt leaks through his remaining features and he confers with his kinsmen in their indecipherable machine argot. The Crystal Branch refuses to deal in munitions or mercenaries, but our grudges go back to my volunteer service. I led a lot of operations against the weaponsmiths and I wasn’t shy about it. Looking to the security contractors for reassurance, I realize that almost everyone else on the station is a male. I pull my Lux Athrami overcoat close around me and hurry through the next airlock, suddenly eager to find my colleague.
“Counselor.” Vorl Narn’s perpetual scowl is deeper than usual and trained solely on me. “Your presence here is unexpected.”
“Not a phrase I hear often in my line of work. Or on my homeworld, for that matter.”
“We are no longer on your homeworld, counselor.”
He has a gift for understatement. We’re bobbing in the microgravity of a laboratory pod on the farthest arm of the central axis. The rest of Ophiuchi Station turns slowly around us while I float untouched, enjoying a sensation I haven’t felt since my volunteer days. Weightlessness. Freedom.
Except I’m surrounded by a small army of technicians and analysts who drift between terminals and instrument panels, working as tirelessly as bees in the hive. “I am in the midst of some rather delicate calculations,” Narn grumbles. “Would it spare me any further interruption if you told me what you are doing here?”
“I wouldn’t have had to bother you if your department had simply given me the numbers I requested.”
His sigh is an astronomical phenomenon in its own right. “Counselor, you know as well as I do that our departments cannot interact. By Branch policy and UP law, the separation between commercial lending and investment banking—”
“Applies only to the bank’s capital,” I say, rebutting him before he can finish. There’s a reason most offworlders don’t argue with us. “I’m not going to defraud our depositors if I take a look at those futures reports.”
“Perhaps not intentionally, no. But if you were privy to our projections, they might subconsciously influence your own, might they not? Your elders enforce an absolute separation between our divisions with good reason.” He doesn’t even attempt to mask the patronizing tone anymore. “The sanctity of your visions must not be compromised by contact with our brute realities.”
I don’t know Narn well, but I can guess how much sanctity he places on our visions. I bat my eyes and purr, “Or vice versa, of course. We wouldn’t want to unduly influence you.”
Back home, this would open any door on the planet. Narn isn’t so easy to unlock. “I can assure you, counselor, our calculations are quite beyond any influence you might exert.” His analysts don’t just wear matching blue jumpsuits, they all sport the same viridian skin as their chief. They grew from the same hatchery on a planet that has pruned away every physiological element of reproduction, the dangerous and pleasurable alike. Narn smiles at me, indulgently but without the slightest trace of lust. “Would you care to see for yourself?”
He waves a hand over the nearest screen and the analytics lab is flooded with light—not the station’s dim fluorescence but natural light, starlight of unusual clarity and intensity. Walls of transparent palladium form an observation deck that looks down onto the black hole that used to be 12 Ophiuchi. From this angle I can actually see it with the naked eye, highlighted in its absence against the star cluster behind it, which is flared and distorted with gravitational lensing. One day the cluster will fall into that bottomless maw, as must this station and anything or anyone else who passes into its event horizon. My lips part but no sound escapes. I just float there, mute and immobile, transfixed at the sight of what may be the universe’s one true absolute.
“Remarkable, isn’t it?” Narn says, after a decent interval has passed. The condescension is gone and he speaks as one penitent to another, a seasoned pilgrim addressing the newest convert. “I count myself fortunate that I get to work with it.”
“What are you doing here, Narn?” I hate sounding ignorant and stupid, confirming everybody’s worst assumptions, his most of all. I have to remind myself that I came here to learn. “Why would the Branch invest so much to study one black hole? Surely any activity here will happen far outside our time horizons.”
“Hmph.” That smirk again. “My dear counselor, 12 Ophiuchi is not my subject. It is my computer.”
And just when I think I have accommodated myself to the impossible, he reminds me how far beyond the limits of the possible we really are.
“This station is transmitting millions of streams of subatomic particles,” Narn explains. “The streams encode sales, productivity, population trends, weather patterns, and so on, essentially the entire economic activity of the galaxy. We’re beaming them into the spatiotemporal distortions that whorl and eddy around the event horizon in subspace—this is the only place in the universe where we can achieve the processing power necessary to perform our computations at the speed and volume we require. By reading the escaping radiation through quantum entanglement, we are able to decode and interpret the results of those computations, which amount, in essence, to a temporal map of the UP economy.” He clasps his hands behind his back and awaits my response, false humility discarded for self-evident pride.
“All this.” For a moment, they are the only words I can form. I force out more. “You built all this just for… stock predictions?”
His disappointment seems genuine. “I would think you, of all people, would see the value of accurate predictions, counselor. In any case, the costs were only a fraction of the tremendous yields this installation has generated for the Branch.”
“Still, you’ve barely tapped its potential.”
“True. But no one else possesses both the resources and the will to make such projects a reality.”
And something about that particular absolute trips my natural curiosity and snaps me right back into focus. “What about those Navy ships?” From here I can see their swollen bellies clinging fast to the outer ring. “They must know what you’re doing here.”
“More impediment than opportunity,” Narn says, dismissing them with a wave of his hand. “We could do so much more with this technology: run alternative simulations, imagine whole new galactic economies. Whole new galaxies. I weep when I contemplate the discoveries we could make with parallel systems operating in concert. I believe their simulations might well encode the sum of all creation, from the most infinitesimal quanta to the macrostructures of the universe. Perhaps we might discover multiple universes, vibrating in harmonies we cannot conceive. Given sufficient computational power, we might even draw them into being.”
I have a difficult time imagining Vorl Narn weeping over anything, but the mystic reverence in his voice makes me think he might not be exaggerating. It’s almost enough to make me overlook the most unnerving detail in his reverie, but before I think to stop myself I let him know that I haven’t.
“Well within the Navy’s capabilities,” Narn says, “but the political leadership is adamantly opposed to the prospect. As if the galaxy weren’t filled with perfectly useless stars.” He motions toward the star cluster, that majestic backdrop to his life’s work, then pays it no more thought. “Of course, such discussions are strictly classified, as are our projections. I’m afraid I cannot speak to you any further about either one.”
“You mean I came all this way for nothing?”
“You have received a most precious gift, counselor. I have shown you a vision of cosmic beauty that puts its organic configurations to shame.” He waves his hand and the walls go dark. The analysts continue their silent work without complaint. “And now this demonstration is over. I must insist that you take the supply freighter back home before you transgress any further on your Branch’s sacred customs.”
I take the maglevator back down to the outer ring, growing heavier with every second. Having dawdled and delayed my fate here, there’s nothing left but to return home where it awaits me.
I wake up to find the freighter already departed, gripped by the strange inertia that means we’re deep into subspace. Fatigue must have finally caught up with me. I don’t remember falling asleep on my bench. I don’t remember much at all, except odd flashes: sheet lightning over a dark plain, grasses twisting and snapping in the wind. A tower crashing in flames. A hammer of burning bronze.
Somebody has strapped my safety harness in place, thrown a tarp over me for warmth, even stationed a servobot to prop up my dangling feet. They’ve also left something for me under the tarp: an omnicom, unmarked and unsecured, the kind of cheap model you can buy in any starport gift shop. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I see this one has come loaded with all sorts of interesting files: proprietary data from the Crystal Branch quantitative analytics research laboratory. If I’m caught with this I won’t just be fired, I’ll be blacklisted, prosecuted, and shipped off to a particularly unpleasant penal colony. So I settle in under the tarp for a good read.
The raw data is almost unintelligible, all frequencies and amplitudes and standard deviations, but my unseen benefactor has thoughtfully included the summary reports that distill it into economic forecasts for every planet and sector in the UP. Scanning through them, I see projections that make my own doomsayings look positively upbeat. The luxury projects and counter-cyclical industries we’ve been funding of late aren’t prime business opportunities—they’re shelters against the coming storm.
The Crystal Branch’s investment activities are even more troubling. With a steep recession or worse approaching, we ought to be buying heavily in tromium and other precious metals. Instead we seem to be taking on more debt from planets that will never have any hope of repaying it, including Graaf’s homeworld. As the pieces click into place my paranoia drops, or, more properly, realigns: the Skalvo delegation wasn’t stalking me outside the Branch, they were selling bonds to the investment side. Bonds that Narn has to know are worthless. He’s signed off on the report that says so.
Idly opening another file, I sit up and let fly a most unladylike curse I learned in my volunteer days. We haven’t just been buying bad debt. We’ve been investing in munitions, including a substantial minority stake in the Korraz Clan, who unless I miss my guess were recently docked next to me at Ophiuchi Station. Vorl Narn has signed off on that one, too.
So has the Grand Oracle.
Naltara starport. Unexplained delays docking the ship leave me with too much time to ponder my next course of action. My initial and overwhelming instinct is to storm into the Domos and confront the oracles with their treachery, which would feel good and result in little more than my own termination. I could take the data to the UP, but that would certainly backfire on me. The Branch has violated a proud custom; I’ve broken the law. Or I could go to Zura, who’d rather ask me who I’m dating, and expose their duplicity to the whole galaxy. But that would guarantee my prosecution, or worse: publicizing Narn’s forecasts could bring about the very thing I want to avoid, a mass panic.
When I finally debark the freighter, I see I’m already too late. Travelers choke the starport, crowding the gates and swarming the ticket kiosks. I ask one nervous matron what’s happening and she simply shakes her head and pushes past me, the classic sign of a fellow seer who refuses to acknowledge what her subconscious already knows. Most of the emigrating throngs look just like her, perfectly selected bodies clad in the latest fashions and beauty marks. The only offworlders I can spot—hulking stevedores, gate attendants in triplicate, sanitation bioengineers busily ingesting the overflowing bags of trash—appear singularly unconcerned, just trying to keep pace with the unanticipated crush.
For all the difficulties getting down from the starport, I have no trouble finding a skimmer to take me into the city. I’m the only one heading back. The artificially intelligent driverware apologizes for the delay, but I’m distracted by the streetscapes that unspool below me. Crowds pool around every restaurant and food market in sight. All natives, branded by their manes of silver and gold. Wondering what they see that I haven’t, I dig back into the stolen reports.
It doesn’t take long to find it. Narn didn’t lie in the Domos: at his recommendation, we are invested heavily in wheat and other agrofutures markets. His pet black hole, on the other hand, is predicting an imminent crop failure and a massive market collapse. When the bottom drops out, the Branch will be met with obligations it cannot pay—and most of our assets will be tied up in planetary bonds that will become worthless as soon as the depression hits. Narn has crippled us for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom.
But my world faces other, more pressing matters. With most of our surface covered by water, we import nearly all our food. Aquaculture experiments were abandoned in favor of offworld delicacies, and the commercial fishing industry was displaced long ago by the more lucrative tourist trade. Their tiny haul isn’t even enough to feed the visitors who catch it. No wonder every dreamer who can afford the passage is trying to leave before the shipments stop—and those who can’t will only make matters worse with their hoarding. Their families might weather the crisis, but all the offworlders we’ve hired to wait our tables and devour our waste will be caught high and dry… and we’ll look down on them and huff that they should’ve seen it coming.
At least I can see the crisis now in the warm light of day, and my own path through it. I tell the skimmer to take me to the Crystal Branch. Narn has deceived them, too, and I have the proof. Maybe there’s still time to prevent the panic, warn our clients, or at least soften the damage.
Or there would be, if the power drive on my skimmer didn’t explode in a gout of flame. I only have a few seconds warning, just enough to assume the crash position as the vehicle plummets. The AI does its best to guide the skimmer down to a rough landing on the promenade that runs through the middle of the fashion district before it gives up and dies along with the vehicle. I drag myself out of the burning wreckage, clutching my handbag and its precious omnicom to my side.
Another skimmer lands in front of me and two of the bloodcurrant weaponsmiths from Ophiuchi Station step out. The shoppers who were coming to my aid scatter at the sight of armaments that violate just about every law on the planet. They must be tourists, newcomers who didn’t know to pay attention when the locals all found somewhere else to be. The police are already on the scene, of course—one patrol cruiser with sirens blaring—until the weaponsmith with hair crested like a cockatoo fires his plasma cannon and the cruiser explodes in a rain of ember and ash. Did the officers see their death this day and rush to meet it like heroes of old? Or were they offworlders too, dispatched by and for a people who hadn’t bothered to warn them? Did they know whom they served, in the end?
The weaponsmith with hair like a peacock’s train approaches me. His arm gleams like burnished bronze in the setting sun. Glowing like it’s on fire.
I put on a brave face. “Korraz Clan, I presume?”
The peacock grins. “We are pleased that our reputation precedes us.”
“Your reputation as lackeys.” I have one path out of this, and it’s as likely to get me shot as spare me—but I didn’t dream myself getting shot. “Are you happy doing Vorl Narn’s dirty work for him?”
“He paid us handsomely for it. Though in your case, wench, we’d take the contract for free. There are insults to be avenged.”
“All right then, get it over with.”
After fencing with Vorl Narn it’s almost a relief to stoop to the weaponsmith’s level. Wounded pride and simple sadism bring him close. The gun barrel on the end of his weapon arm seals and retracts as a new protrusion slides into place. Panting with anticipation, he raises his hammerlike fist and closes in for the kill.
He comes in fast, hard, and very top-heavy. I duck beneath his downswing and drive a palm into the joint where metal meets flesh. While he’s howling in agony I’m throwing him over my shoulder and driving him face-first into the paving stones.
It’s not enough. He sweeps my legs and suddenly I’m down on the ground with him and he’s lunging at me. Bronzed knuckles rake across my face and my vision explodes into sparks and I know my dream has finally come to pass.
And in this moment, I am free.
I roll out from under him, spring into a fighting stance, and wait for the flummoxed peacock to come to me. Now that my vision of doom has passed I’m flooded with information about the rapidly unfolding future, sensing his moves a split-second before he commits to them. Ducking, sidestepping, swatting his lumbering cyberarm aside with dainty, precise movements that he never sees coming. They always forget I trained with the finest combat instructors in the UP. One swift kick to his meaty leftovers and the peacock is on the ground writhing in pain—though not so much that he can’t look to his clansman and scream, “Shoot her!”
The cockatoo raises his cannon. I’m readying myself for the curious freedom of an unexpected death when the Korraz seizes up and his shot goes wide. He falls and Félix is standing behind him, brandishing his neural disruptor.
A boot to the jaw drops the peacock in mid-curse. I don’t see the third one, the leader, the bloodhawk. I suspect I will be seeing him again.
For now, I limp over to my old friend. “I’m no expert at this sort of thing,” I mumble through swelling lips, “but I thought the whole point of a bodyguard was to stay close to the body you’re guarding.”
He stares at the flailing, sparking mercenary at his feet. “I’m so sorry. Traffic from the starport.”
“Don’t let it get you down. You were here when it counted. Incidentally, thank you for the data. And the tarp.” Félix was, and is, ever the gentleman.
“Thank you for the ride. So what’s next?”
More sirens are wailing in the distance, and the Korraz skimmer is sitting right there.
“Time to go to my bosses,” I say, “and tell them that we robbed them.”
Fading light fills the Domos with a warm tangerine glow, illuminating the empty klinai. I can’t tell if I’m looking at the beginnings of a shake-up or the aftermath of an abortive coup. The Grand Oracle towers over the chamber as if to remind those remaining of her authority—none moreso than Vorl Narn, whose smirking hologram holds the center of the floor. The Grand Oracle lowers her kline until she can peer into Narn’s projected face and demand that he account for his treason.
“There is nothing to account for,” Narn replies, chin held high. “My forecasts do not guarantee future returns.”
“You withheld vital information from this chamber.”
He shrugs off the accusation. “My models generated wealth so vast I had to invent new forms of computing to quantify it. You saw what you wanted to see.”
I’m unable to contain my anger any longer. “You sent the Korraz to kill me.”
“I instructed them to retrieve the data you stole from my facility. Any surplus of enthusiasm on their part is not my concern. In any case, your murder was unnecessary. The mere threat of death was sufficient to distract your premonitory trait from my operations.”
The assembled oracles gasp as one at his admission. “After all this Branch has done for you,” the Grand Oracle growls. “We supported you, funded your monstrous auguries.”
I find myself nodding in agreement. “You yourself said no one else could have built it.”
“That is precisely the problem,” Narn says, without a particle of contrition. “I was bred to be an astrophysicist, not a manservant to a coterie of moneylenders with delusions of grandeur. The best minds of my homeworld are wasted on your Branches. True research languishes while we enrich your coffers. I decided the time has come to adopt a new paradigm.”
“Enough,” the Grand Oracle spits. “We are shutting down your mad project. We have already contacted the authorities at Ophiuchi Station.”
“I am not transmitting from Ophiuchi Station,” Narn says, with maddening calm. “I have already downloaded the relevant data and located a new backer with a more flexible code of ethics.”
Something in his smug assurance triggers a sudden insight, not prophecy but memory. “Parallel systems,” I gasp. “Multiple black holes.” The missing Korraz. The bloodhawk. “You sold the technology to the weaponsmiths.”
He nods. “They possess sufficient resources to effect the initial stages of stellar collapse. Their finances cannot compare to the Crystal Branch, of course, although I expect their sector to do very well in the coming years.”
“Because of you, Narn. Don’t pretend you’re some hero of science—you decided to wreck the galactic economy because nobody would let you play with your toys.”
He accepts the accusation with his customary stoicism. “Be that as it may, I am thousands of light-years out of your reach, and I am no longer in your employ.” He nods to the Grand Oracle. “You may consider this my resignation.” The hologram winks out. The assembled seers of the Crystal Branch blink at each other in doddering confusion: the little prick didn’t even leave them the satisfaction of firing him.
The Grand Oracle breaks the silence. “Counselor, the Domos wishes to express our appreciation for your diligence in rooting out this betrayal. Of course, word of these transgressions must remain in this chamber lest the panic spread even further.”
In other words, keep my mouth shut and all is forgiven. But I’m not the only one who needs absolution. “This Domos acceded to his every request, Grand Oracle. Including the Korraz Clan.”
She’s no more apologetic than Vorl Narn. Perhaps it’s a prerequisite for occupying her seat. “We had to protect ourselves. Our dreams augured fortunes in their sector like few others.”
“And now you know why.”
“You speak with the clarity of hindsight, counselor. We who move the worlds can ill afford such luxuries.” But she softens her tone just the same. “We have much work to do in the days and nights to come, and as you can see, there are vacancies to fill.” She gestures to the empty kline next to her. Moriven’s, as I recall. “Will you accept a seat in the Domos and the title of Oracle?”
It’s what I’ve wanted since I left the services. And right now, at this moment, I can’t even remember why.
“I’m sorry, Grand Oracle. This crisis has grown beyond your ability to control.” I head for the door, the purloined omnicom still tucked firmly under my arm. “You may consider this my resignation as well.”
Downstairs, the traders have stopped trying to sell futures nobody wants and started fending off calls from creditors eager to redeem their mistakes. A glance at the nearest holosphere explains why. I can’t hear a word over the noise of the room and I don’t really need to: Zura’s panicked expression tells me everything. The images behind her and the chains of text that orbit her head finish the story. A climate control tower failed last night on one of the agroworlds. The pent-up atmospheric energy generated a storm that all but leveled Millhaven, galactic headquarters of Polygamete and three of the other largest growers in the UP. This year’s crop is gone.
I don’t bother to collect any belongings from my office. Instead I run outside, where Félix waits in his commandeered skimmer. There’s a mob down the street fighting over the scant pickings at the artisanal bakery. The offworld contingent has finally joined in and they want their fair share. A crew of sanitation bioengineers decides to cut out the middleman and starts gnawing on one of the frondtrees that sways over the plaza; when they finish they’ll be digging up pavement to get to the topsoil underneath. At least they won’t starve.
“Should we try to stop this?” Félix asks.
I could tell him that it’s not our job anymore, but the truth is that I am between jobs at the moment and we face a vaster and more dire threat. I fill him in on Narn’s greatest treachery, and the newest weapon of the Korraz.
“I’ll notify Earthgov as soon as we reach the starport,” he says, and he punches the skimmer to max speed.
He spends the next few minutes mulling in silence, until he makes the admission I’ve been dreading. “I already transmitted the data we stole from Ophiuchi Station. The forecasts, the investments, all of it went to Earthbank as soon as we landed.” Then, barely audible: “That’s why I was almost too late.”
His shame is no greater than my own. I knew Earthgov selected my old friend as their envoy for a reason. Sooner or later, directly or indirectly, we all work for the banks in the end.
At least some good might come of this betrayal. “They had a few hours to prepare for the crash. As long as they believed the forecasts.”
“They did,” Félix says, with the absolute conviction of a man who cannot see his fate. “I told them they came from you.”
I place my hand over his and we point our skimmer into the setting sun. We will fly to the starport, where Félix’s diplomatic credentials will get us through security, if they still have any security. We’ll buy or beg or steal a ride back to Earth, where it all began, and we will start over, building a new society on the promise of a better tomorrow.
Whether this is a true dream or just another projection, well, we’ll have to wait and see.
Marc Singer teaches American literature, film, and popular culture in the Department of English at Howard University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies and Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics. His short fiction has been published in Adventure Vol. 1, an anthology nominated for a World Fantasy Award.