(Early 21st Century)
‘Ah, come in Rex! Fancy a ‘wee dram’ as you always call it? I know you’re keen on a drop of the single malt…I have a fine Macallan Oak which has just had its 130th birthday‘ Aalok III started to pour without waiting for an answer.
‘Aye, that I am! No water or ice thanks. Since that last trip around the Highland Distilleries, I’ve been very keen indeed.’
‘How was your sabbatical?’
‘Absolutely perfect. As you know, I was following the footsteps of ‘In Search Of The Perfect Dram’ and I am pleased to tell you, the book has really stood the test of time. Hardly anything has changed since Iain M. himself did that epic trip around Scotland.’
Rex sunk into a battered old leather armchair with a tartan car-blanket casually thrown over the back. Aalok had set the scene carefully earlier, to remind Rex of his recent holiday and relax him ready for this discussion, which was bound to be tense in parts.
Aalok himself wrapped his long green body around something looking like nothing so much as an old tree stump. He poured himself a whisky too.
‘Now sir, I know you are not going to all this trouble to make me feel this comfortable because you have something good to tell me!’
‘Sharp as ever, Rex! No, it’s not good news especially as I know you’ve been looking forward to your own Ascension soon. But we’ve recently had some terrible, terrible news which changes everything.’
Aalok looked down, as if wondering where to begin. Rex had never seen the old diplomat lost for words before.
‘What I tell you now must stay between us Rex, or there would be utter panic throughout the Galaxy. Word will get out soon enough but I must tell the Federation first, they must be in the picture, bleak as it is. But you have arrived for your Ascension Evaluation just as I’ve heard myself.’
‘Well, what is it Aalok? Spit it out!’
‘Sixty four billion souls, Rex, sixty four billion of the most promising souls around, right now, gone. Snuffed out in under a week, every single one of them!’
‘What? Who? How?’ Rex felt the ground drop out beneath him and he totally lost his customary cool.
‘The Lysithia. Dead. All gone! Just this morning, I heard from O’KellyIsleyJunior who happened to be passing out that way. He found a great big nothing where a glorious planetary aura should be. He has subsequently done a full reconnaissance on my orders and all the probes on ‘Strawberry Letter 23′ have confirmed it. All life extinguished.’
Rex felt as if he’d been nailed to his chair. His brain seemed to be refusing to function. ‘This is a disaster of such epic proportions…but what could do that to a whole planet? One of the Federation races? No, that’s unthinkable!’
‘It’s very unlikely one of us is responsible, I can’t believe it either, what would be the motive? The cause seems to be a variation of the old human disease ‘Alzheimer’s’ but if so, it’s heavily mutated. There were enough news broadcasts recorded on the planet before it got everyone, to be able to work it out retrospectively. The air samples ‘Strawberry Letter 23′ took confirm it. Mutated or, heaven forbid, let loose on purpose. People got very confused, very quickly. They either stopped looking after themselves and had horrible accidents or got violent. The kids and babies didn’t stand a chance! I can’t bear to think about it.’
‘Are you actually saying it could be deliberate, Aalok?’
Rex sat very still staring at the man who had run the Federation for the last few thousand years. In all that time, nobody had ever seen Aalok show any negative emotion.
Now, he sat there with tears running down his barky old face, staring off into the distance as if he could see it all happening right there before him.
‘They are so far away, even if we had got word earlier, we couldn’t have got there in time to make a difference. We only know about it now because that old reprobate O’KellyIsleyJunior happened to be in that neck of the woods, sightseeing so he says.’
They sat in silence for a few minutes, absorbing the horror of what had happened. Then a terrible thought came to Rex…he tried to push it away but he had to say it.
‘But that means…oh, no! It can’t be true……they were about to…..’
‘Yes, it does. It is. They were. Now there is no other race even remotely ready to Coalesce to bring us all up to DuoDenary status. We are well and truly fucked – as the Vojin would say’. Aalok leaned back around his seat and breathed out, closing his eyes and striving for calm.
Rex took a sip of his Macallen and then leaned back and shut his eyes while his brain raced, computing the different variables.
‘There is only one entity who has a vested interest in wiping out the Lysithia.’
‘I keep trying to convince myself that this entity ….well let’s call it him, as that’s how I knew him….is so far beyond meddling to this degree but I just keep coming back to the same conclusion myself. I knew he was wrangling with some pretty big conceptual challenges and struggling with that, but I never thought he could be capable of evil like this, I always believed that he was basically a good person and that he would come to his senses eventually.’
‘The problem with that kind of intelligence Aalok, is that it often leads to over-thinking and is always prone to extreme cynicism and existential angst.’
Silence fell as the old friends allowed their enhanced brains tick over and compute all the possibilities, such as they were.
Rex opened his eyes and sat up straight. ‘Do you think….?’
‘O dear, I knew you were going to say that!’ Aalok leaned forward and leaned his forearms on his knees. ‘What do you think, is it possible?’
‘Mmmmmmm, could the Vojin be gotten ready in such a short time? They are showing so much promise but they don’t have everything they need to do it, not by a long chalk. That bloody ship going down back in the day, with the Twelve Keys all lost, didn’t help matters!’
‘I’m very aware of that, thank you!’
Aalok sometimes had to make allowances for younger AI’s. Not everyone knew that his Grandfather had been Head of the Federation then or that he’d lost family ancestors on the ship. It still hurt his sense of family honour every time he had to talk about it.
‘But how? Now they’ve entered the Probation Phase of their evolution, we are not allowed to go down there. I only scraped that last holiday in before the embargo. No more so-called messiah’s from outside, that’s the rules, they have to do it all on their own now.’
‘One of them could do it, but they would have to choose most meticulously. They must also be one hundred per cent free of any ‘Messiah Complex’. We must screen against a maniacal ego or thirst for blood and power whatsoever. Remember what happened with that nephew of Ghengis Khan, and the old man himself was bad enough!’
Aalok shuddered at the memory of watching decomposing bodies hurtling over town walls, spreading disease and breaking sieges. ‘Clever bloke though, he had a deep native cunning, which is one thing many of the Vojin have in common.’
‘The trouble is that you never know which ones are going to go too far until it’s too damned late. Such creative buggers, which is why we want them in the Federation, but it’s also why they need strong mentoring.’
Before the words were out his mouth, Rex felt a creeping feeling of dread. He realised there is only one senior enough Race Mentor available, even though the time had come to Ascend himself in a few short months. His assured future seemed to be slipping through his fingers like sand on a beach in the Maldives (another favourite holiday destination).
‘Oh no……you don’t mean me, Aalok! I’m due to retire from all that soon!’ Rex took a large slug of his single malt in a most disrespectful fashion, throwing some down his immaculate linen shirt in the process.
‘I know lad, I know. But who else could do it? There’s nobody of your calibre and experience, with your obsession for late 20th & early 21st Century Human Culture. You are the most obvious and fitting choice’
Aalok stared at Rex as if trying to force him to say yes by sheer force of will. A tactic that had worked many times before but Rex knew he had to come along with the plan willingly or not at all.
He leaned back and closed his eyes again, all dreams of his own Ascension fading like Scotch mist, at least for the next few years. He sighed, knowing that he had no choice but to agree. If his Federation needed him….and he owed Aalok III too. He’d seen him through his own rough patch once and made him the AI he had become today.
‘We would have to look for someone very unlikely. Not least because we’d have to keep them hidden from the other Federation Representatives especially in the early days. The less likely the person, the better. They would have to have some other reason to be wandering about down there and they’d have to be totally alone, with nobody to help them.’
As the perfect kind of candidate popped into Rex’s head, he realised that this would make the person they chose even more difficult to deal with.
Making his job that much harder. He kept quiet to see if Aalok would come to the same conclusion.
‘Yes I agree. And they would have to be unaware of the real mission too. If we pick someone unwilling, to make sure of no power trips in the future, we’d have to come up with a massive incentive for them to do it too. One that’s unconnected to anything off-Earth. Of course, Rex, that would also put both you and the Vojin firmly in the sights of our mutual friend, if indeed he was responsible for the annihilation of the Lysithia.’
They sipped their drinks while turning various ideas over in their head.
‘We are coming up to one of those time / space singularities, are we not? Where you can pop between for a limited window?’ Aalok stood up and started looking around, searching for his comms screen which always seemed to disappear when he most needed it. He didn’t like to use the one embedded in his gnarly old forearm in polite company.
‘Yes, it’s due in about a year. What are you thinking?’
‘How about if we could find someone who’s lost someone, who would do anything to see their loved one again, even for a short time.’ Aalok found the screen and breathed on the button to power it up.
‘Sounds good but how would it help us? We can’t kill them and they’d be missed if they kept disappearing. Which they would have to, at least 12 times.’ Rex could see Aalok coming to the same conclusion as he had and his heart sank.
‘What if we could catch them, at the moment they kill themselves? Then, instead of shipping them off to the Rehabilitation & Reincarnations department, they came to us. Unorthodox but it might work. Of course, we’d have to get the First Key into their possession to smooth the transition from their current location. Even more difficult, I’ll have to get permission from “Her Upstairs” for a mission like this!’
‘Rather you than me!’ Rex laughed, he couldn’t help it. ‘You’d better dust off that old ‘Difficult Conversations & How To Survive Them’ book again.’
‘Are you up for it lad, in principle, though?’ Rex owed him but Aalok thought himself far too much of a gentleman to call his chips in. This favour had to be given freely.
‘Oh I suppose so. After all, what’s one last challenge before I get to Ascend and chill for the next few thousand? And what a challenge, in so many ways! I will have to think of a nice juicy bonus for when I’m finished. Another cultural immersion sabbatical perhaps….’
Aalok put in a request for an appointment with the high level being whose permission he needed for this rather ‘outre’ plan. Then the two friends enjoyed a second large dram before Rex said his goodbyes and headed for an early night.