/ Language: English / Genre:antique,

Zero Point Owner Trilogy 2

Neal Asher


antiqueNealAsherZero Point (Owner Trilogy 2)enNealAshercalibre 0.8.6923.9.2012d17b5718-b52a-47e5-a74d-8839c1a01ff91.0

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Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

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8

9

10

11

12

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14

15

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19

20

21

1

Power to the People!

The rebellion was doomed to failure, even had its ostensible leader General Malden succeeded in his plan to drop the Argus Station on the largest bureaucratic conclave of the Committee, which was then located in Brussels (originally the centre of the old European Union). Malden, like so many would-be rebels of the time, was under the illusion – which the Committee promulgated – that the world government actually possessed a heart that could be cut out. In reality the Brussels governmental sprawl was just a larger and more wasteful version of the old European Parliament – real decisions weren’t made there at all, but during teleconferences between Committee delegates generally residing like old-time kings in their regional palaces which, along with the Inspectorate HQs, were the real centres of power. Alan Saul’s attack proved more surgical, destroying many of those HQs, and thus killing a large portion of the Committee Executive and annihilating much of the infrastructure of control. However, the government of Earth was like a hydra and, even though Saul cut off a number of its heads, they soon began to grow back. It could also be argued that he cut off many diseased heads, and the lesser number that grew back had sharper eyes and all their teeth.

Zero Minus Ten Days – Earth

It seemed somebody had left food on a barbecue for too long; the rich saliva-inducing smell like that of cooking belly pork was overwhelmed by the stench of charred fat and burning meat. Delegate Serene Galahad’s stomach rumbled inappropriately and, trying to ignore the fact that she had wet herself, she checked various computer channels through her fone and linked implants. Everything was down; the worst-case scenario had occurred, and the Chestrekon Protocol had been applied. As a result, trillions of specially designed computer chips all across Earth had dismembered Govnet. WiFi was down, because optics, cable, simple fone-lines and satellite channels had been electrically unplugged. Bluetooth was now black.

Shakily, Serene uncapped her water bottle, took a swill and spat it out to get the dust out of her mouth, then finally took a swallow. She had been right about that – about the necessity of the Protocol – as she had been right about so many things. Certainly she had been right about the danger inherent in the requirement for every citizen of Earth to have an ID implant. For those in the higher echelons of government – like Committee delegates such as herself – should not be thus encumbered or so easy to track down. This could be turned against them by terrorists and subversives, just as it seemed it had now been, though on a scale unforeseen.

Recapping her water bottle, Serene gazed out from under her desk – past where her bodyguard Jimbo lay face down, a gaping hole in his back where the first two readergun bullets had struck; most of his head missing where the final one had slammed home. At the edge of the spreading pool of his blood lay her watch. This contained her ID implant, which responded to electronic queries as if it was actually where it should be – inside her forearm. She had pulled it off her wrist and cast it away the moment the readergun, fixed up on the conference-room wall, had flashed into life to set the Sectoring Consultancy team jerking about in their seats, and spraying chunks of them across the wide teak desk before them.

She expected to feel sick, but just felt numb. Perhaps it was shock, so maybe some stronger reaction would occur later.

But the carnage was over now and it was probably safe for her to come out. Certainly it wasn’t safe for her to stay here – that noxious smell told her there was a fire inside the Dome’s conference chamber, burning up what was left of all those frightened idiots who had come here to the Straven Conference to debate further their unimaginative solutions to Earth’s population problem. The anger and the contempt that had driven her here in the first place quickly banished her current numbness, and now impelled her out into the open. She stood up, placed her water bottle down on the gritty surface of her desk, pulled a wad of perfumed tissues from her personal dispenser to clean her hands, then tried to brush some of the debris from her tight grey jacket and skirt. Annoyingly, bits of Jimbo smeared to leave streaks of blood and brain. She took another wad of tissues to clean her hands again, and finally surveyed her surroundings.

The blast had taken out one entire side of the Millennium Dome, even while the readerguns were turning the Straven Conference attendees into broken meat. Through the smoke the new opening gave a view across the Thames, over what looked like the mangled remains of the nose of a scramjet. The same view showed that the Gull developments and sectored areas of Blackwall looked undamaged, yet to their left, on the other side of the West India Canal that divided Canary Island from the main city, and where Committee tower blocks and cubic Civil Service arcologies clustered, pillars of smoke rose into the sky amid numerous massive collapses.

Ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. Serene should never have been here.

The conference had just been getting under way when a nuke took out Inspectorate HQ London. Yet, while it had been mooted that they should suspend the conference for the interim, Messina had issued orders for them to continue – business as usual. When Serene subsequently learned that one space plane had been crashed in Minsk spaceport even while another was being stolen, and that a hundred and fifty Committee delegates had been slaughtered in a terrorist outrage in Leuven, she had realized that the expected rebellion had begun. But still Messina would not shut down the conference. Meanwhile he and many of his pet delegates had disappeared – all further orders received from him coming by sat-link. Even as terrorists continued their concerted attack on the state all across Earth, Serene had to stay here discussing decidedly un-radical plans for population control.

She turned back to scan the rest of the conference chamber. Those here would no longer be discussing the continued sectoring-out and controlled starvation of the Earth’s zero-asset population. The only sign of movement left here was the flames still rising from where some lump of hot wreckage had smashed into the lower-tier horseshoe table. The five Committee delegates who had been sitting there, and their PAs, bodyguards and other support staff, were strewn on the floor, bloody meat. Delegate Schubert lay across the same table. The readergun shot that finished him must have hit him in the back of his neck, for his head was nowhere in evidence. The upper-tier tables had been similarly depopulated. It was, very literally, a bloody mess.

Time, Serene felt, for her to leave and put into motion her own plans, whether Messina agreed or not. She should see today’s chaos as an opportunity for her to demonstrate the effectiveness of her own population-control plan, to take leadership away from the present incompetents in government, including Chairman Messina himself. She just needed to get back to the Aldeburgh Complex, and there get ready for when the Chestrekon Protocol ran its timed course and Govnet would begin its secure start-up.

Clutching her briefcase, slim laptop inside, water bottle tucked into its special waterproof compartment beside it, tissue-wrapped watch in the other and a disabler clutched in her right hand, Serene made her way past burning wreckage and shattered human beings towards the conference-hall exit. As she walked out into the outer halls of the Dome, she felt a surge of euphoria. She had been right and, because of that, had survived, and would not now succumb to shock because she was too much of a realist. After stepping into an executive toilet, she removed her knickers and tights, and upon finding the water and power were off, wiped herself clean with tissues. Wetting herself had been a purely physical reaction to danger; just one situation for her to deal with in a whole series of them.

The outer halls of this part of the Dome were structurally undamaged, but the readerguns had been at work. This area hadn’t been as crowded as the conference hall itself, but still she sometimes had to walk through pools of blood. Finally she reached the elevator doors, waited for a moment, then swore at her own stupidity. The power was off – she would have to use the stairs.

The main exit from the Dome was surprisingly clear of corpses; just a bullet-riddled guard booth evidenced that the readerguns had been in action here. As she walked out into the stink of burning plastic and began heading towards the executive car park, it seemed she was the only living human in the vicinity. Then she saw that she wasn’t.

There was no way she could mistake these people for anyone she might demand assistance from. Even from this distance she recognized their generic attire, their slouching fearful attitude, their poverty, for zero assets were here. Of course sector-fence readerguns were offline and, from the devastation she had seen, probably many of the sector fences had even been destroyed. She picked up her pace along pathways through the Millennium-Plus-One Garden – a sad attempt, she felt, to bring some green to this place – and finally reached the open gate into the executive car park. Here she paused, noting by the spatter patterns from some of the corpses that they had been shot not by the fence readerguns but by those mounted on some of the aeros parked here, perhaps even the one she had arrived in. There was a chance that whatever had penetrated Govnet – and these aeros – was still in operation. Then she dismissed the idea. The range of the aero guns was well beyond the compass of the car-park fence, so if they were still operating she would have been dead by now.

A hundred more slightly unsteady paces brought her to her own aero, whose doors refused to open automatically in response to the ID implant in her watch. She uncapped the manual handle, opened the door and hauled herself up inside, closing and then locking the door behind her.

She had come to the conference aboard this vehicle with four Inspectorate executives along with their complement of bodyguards and PAs. A couple of them she had known vaguely, but she felt no regret at their loss. Seating herself in the pilot’s seat, she first strapped herself in, then began checking the controls. Other executives did not familiarize themselves with such systems, feeling it beneath them to do so. Again she felt a sense of satisfaction because again she had been proved right. All the aero’s components were functional, it was fuelled and powered, but the main computer was down – its hard drive wiped and all exterior communications shut down by the Chestrekon chip.

Serene popped a cover concealing console electronics, found the chip and extracted it, replacing it with a spare chip clipped inside the cover. The console went live, with three LCD screens coming on to display code prompts. Selecting one of them Serene ordered a selective reboot, ensuring exterior com remained inoperative because there was always the chance that whatever had attacked Govnet remained active. Even as she did this, her fone signalled to her that an exterior channel had become available to it. She hurriedly shut it down, worried that her rebooting of the aero computer might have activated something else, then checked carefully: general independent fone network, voice only, no data packets and no computer linkage. Still cautious, she kept her fone shut down and selected that particular channel through the aero console, then used the wholly archaic method of tapping in a fone number. No response, just the beeping to tell her she had reached the fone she was after but no one was answering. It could be that this fone remained intact in whatever remained of its owner’s head.

After half an hour of the computer rebooting, Serene saw that the ZAs had drawn closer. They were searching the dead, checking dropped bags, but had yet to summon up the nerve to enter the Dome itself. However, about twenty of them were gathering by the gate to the executive car park. They were looking for food, as always, and certainly knew that some of the vehicles here would contain it.

She paused the reboot and ran checks on the weapons system, consigning one screen before her to manual targeting. She had plenty of ammo, since it hadn’t taken many bullets to kill those within her aero’s vicinity. Using a console ball control, she brought a target frame over the one who seemed to be the leader of the ZAs at the gate, and poised a finger over the ball. If she waited too long they would enter the car park and then disperse, becoming more difficult to hit, and once inside the car park they would, without a doubt, be a danger to her. No one above a certain level in government went anywhere near ZAs without a great deal of protection – since their gratitude for the minimal dole they received was . . . somewhat lacking. Why was she hesitating? This was such a small thing compared to her overall plan. She clicked the ball control down then moved it gently from side to side. The guns, underneath the aero, made a sound like a compressor starting up, and Serene turned to watch their effect through the side window.

Full automatic: two machine guns, each firing at a rate of two thousand rounds a minute. The crowd disintegrated, flew apart in a mass of body parts and ragged clothing, a bloody mist boiling out behind it. Another click on the ball control and the guns shut down. Serene studied what she had done. She had expected some to survive, to be running away now, but it looked as if every one of them had been put through a mincer. No movement at all. She felt something like awe then, and a tight hard excitement. Just a few finger movements had done that. Now here was power. She tried to dispel the feeling, for what she had just done had been entirely necessary. Somewhat shakily, she returned her attention to the reboot and, long before anyone else ventured near the car park, she started up the aero’s fans and took it off the ground.

Then, as her view of London expanded and she saw the sheer extent of the devastation, the steady beeping from the console interrupted her inspection and a tired, familiar voice spoke out against a raucous crackling.

‘I should not be surprised that you survived, ma’am.’

‘Nor should I be surprised that you survived too, Simeon,’ Serene replied curtly, though mildly pleased that her security director, Simeon Anderson, was still alive. ‘Why am I getting so much interference?’

‘Well, Govnet being down doesn’t help, ma’am, but it’s not only that,’ he replied. ‘I’m told we’re building up to a humdinger of a solar storm – seems almost to have poetic timing.’

‘Yes, whatever,’ she said. ‘How many of the team survived?’

‘Hard to say,’ he replied. ‘We lost seventeen here, but fifty-four were either at home or outside the Complex for other reasons, and I’ve been unable to contact any of them.’

Serene grimaced. Readerguns had come as a standard fitting when the Aldeburgh Complex had been built but, as she took charge there and made the place her own domain, she had deactivated them.

‘What killed the seventeen?’ she asked.

‘Aero guns – they just opened up on anyone within range.’

That figured. ‘How many of you there now?’

‘Twenty-four.’

‘Keep trying to contact the rest. I’ll be with you within an hour.’

‘What happened, ma’am? What the hell happened?’

This was the closest she had heard her security director come to voicing emotion and she paused for a moment, gazing out of the screen as she considered her reply. Everywhere she looked, smoke was rising into the sky. She had just passed over a long scar cutting through the urban sprawl where it seemed likely another scramjet had come down, and to her right a massive smoke cloud marked the spot where she knew the Northeast Inspectorate HQ was located.

‘We got hit hard. What data are you getting now?’

‘Nothing from the satellites, which might be due to the storm, and Govnet won’t secure-start at least for another hour. I foned whoever I could get through to – Breckon in North America, Mouheed in China, Rocheur in Germany – and the same story from them: readerguns, spiderguns, razorbirds and shepherds all turning on government employees, all air traffic dropping out of the sky. And Breckon, who has access to the Kansas radio telescope array, tells me that, despite the solar interference, he can see that the Argus Network is gone.’

‘Gone?’

‘Dropped out of the sky . . . I saw a few fire trails but I didn’t make the connection until I spoke to him. Apparently it was quite a show, night-side.’

The whole network? Serene just did not know what to say, but she incorporated this fact into her calculations. More than ever now, her plan seemed the right one.

‘Not just that,’ Anderson continued, ‘Argus itself is currently beyond the orbit of the Moon and heading away.’

‘I see,’ said Serene, trying to keep her voice in keeping with her name. ‘So Breckon, Mouheed and Rocheur weren’t at their respective Inspectorate HQs when this went down?’

‘All of them at home.’

Serene considered all that had been happening prior to her diving under her desk at the conference. The rebels had penetrated Govnet at an unheard-of level, and taken control of all of Earth’s military resources. She now suspected she knew what that fire over to her right might be. Clearly, the rebels had dropped the Argus Network satellites on Inspectorate HQs all across Earth, and that smoke cloud rose from HQ Northeast. It seemed the rebels had also either stolen Argus Station, or dispatched it off into the Solar System.

‘Keep gathering data and be sure we have as much capacity as possible for when Govnet comes back online,’ she said. ‘You’ve checked our system for comlife?’

‘Comlife . . . yeah, had to be. Our system was visited, and a lot scrambled – someone knew every damned access code. We’re now fully hard-system; I’ve changed all the codes and closed doorways it left behind.’

‘Okay . . . do you still have outside power there?’

‘No, the Sizewell fusion reactors did a safe shutdown. We’re using the wind turbines.’

‘Good enough,’ she replied.

She didn’t need a great deal of electrical power for what she intended. The signal would transmit virally through Govnet, to be rebroadcast from any available radio transmitter. Not too many of them would be needed either, because those ID implants it reached would then rebroadcast it again, and it would spread, like a plague.

Argus

The scanning helmet completely covered Saul’s head and face. Usually this would not have been disconcerting for him, for he could have kept watch through the cams pointing down from the ceiling, or through any nearby robots like the spider-gun squatting over by the door into the laboratory. However, after his attack on Committee rule on Earth, it seemed almost as if the sun itself had registered its protest at the destruction he had wrought.

Just hours after Argus Station swung around the Moon in a low-fuel course change, then fired up the Traveller VI to begin its non-conjunction course for Mars, the solar storm had begun. The last sight Saul had of the sun was a flare arcing out and back down – forming a bridge large enough to roll entire worlds around – then it had been necessary to put up the station’s EM field to prevent those inside being roasted by the sleet of radiation. Only the optical telescopes still functioned, and their images weren’t the best. But this also meant that right now he could not, without plugging an optic directly into his skull, access the station’s computer system and thereby any cams or robots.

‘Your synaptic density is about twice that of a normal human being,’ said Hannah.

‘Do you have all the data you need?’ he asked.

‘You don’t like being blind,’ she remarked.

‘I do not.’

‘Yes, you can take off the helmet.’

Saul quickly lifted it from his head and gazed across to where Hannah had ensconced herself before an array of screens. Did she look unwell? Did she still hate him for the task he had given her? It was difficult to tell. He swung his gaze across all the equipment occupying her laboratory, to the viewing window into her adjoining surgical theatre. He’d known from the moment he came in here that she had been preparing for that ghoulish chore.

Arcoplex One, which was one of the three cylinder worlds extending like thick spokes from the centre of Argus Station to the outer ring, contained seventy delegates, along with Chairman Messina. They were all guilty of murder, whether personally guilty or having issued orders for mass exterminations. They had been given a choice of life or death, though in order to live they must have their minds erased. None had chosen to die, and Hannah must now carry out the chore of implanting specially designed biochips that changed neuro-chem, zapped synapses and made new connections – wiping a human brain like a magnet drawn across an old magnetic tape. Of course, mindless humans were a resource drain they could not afford here, so Hannah intended to make the wipe quite specific, so that a lot of what had been inculcated into them as children and as teenagers would not be erased. They wouldn’t lose their toilet training, for example, or the ability to communicate, or much of their early education. Saul supposed they would end up much like children, though like children with little urge to play.

He now swung his attention to the screens ranged before her.

Here were pictures of his brain, energy statistics, data-flow diagnostics and much about the medical side of what had happened to him. One screen showed the bio interface as a blur at the centre of the neurons it had grown. Since those neurons and the synaptic connections they made were based on his own genetic blueprint, they weren’t distinct under resonance scan until Hannah ran a computer program to utilize data that had been stored in the hardware in his skull. This provided the scan image of his brain before she had installed the interface and its related hardware and, now able to make the distinction, the program coloured new growth in a vibrant green. The interface looked like the core of an epiphyte, its branches spreading throughout his skull and even penetrating down into his spine.

Mistletoe in my head, Saul thought, but then remembered that plant was poisonous so decided to drop this analogy.

‘It grew too fast – there are imbalances,’ she said.

‘Inevitable – since it responded to mental pressure, and I was under a lot of it. The epiphyte underwent forced growth. What are the dangers?’

She sat back from her consoles, wiping a hand down her face. ‘Epiphyte, yes, quite . . .’ she said, and then continued, ‘The blood supply in your skull is struggling to keep up. You’re growing new capillaries, and the old ones are expanding, but still demand is outstripping supply . . . You’re going to need supplements.’ She stood up and walked over to a cupboard, took out an electrical pill dispenser and began inserting tubes of pills. ‘You’re eating?’

‘There hasn’t been much time to, but, yes, every opportunity I get. I’m always hungry.’

‘To be expected,’ she said. ‘I would say you are near the limit of what your body can handle without further assistance and, frankly, what it’s handling is already beyond the limit of a normal human body. You should be dead by now.’ She was referring to the things he had done to himself before Smith wiped out his original mind. Using nano-machines and tailored viruses, he had upgraded what nature had given him. As a result he healed faster now, adapted faster, his immune system was boosted.

‘Any further growth and any increase in processing will put you in danger of embolism. You are also at the point of diminishing returns, due to cell starvation.’ She finished filling the dispenser and now began programming it.

‘So what can we do?’

‘We can install carotid valves to control the blood pressure in your skull. There are ways of upping your red-corpuscle count, and I can run nutrients straight into your bloodstream. However, the best option would be for you to shunt some of that processing outside yourself.’

‘Which I already do – since a lot of me is now in the computer systems of this station.’ But, of course, he knew that wasn’t what she was talking about.

‘But you’re disconnected from it right now.’ She shook her head. ‘That’s beside the point, anyway. You do run processing outside yourself, but you mirror and map a lot of it inside your organic brain, because you’re translating from machine code to organic processes. Though what you can do outside yourself is becoming increasingly complex, your organic brain is still the control centre.’ She paused, losing her doleful expression to a glint of maniacal enthusiasm, as she always did when venturing to the cutting edge of her research.

‘Exolocation,’ he said, unable to resist second-guessing her.

She turned towards him. ‘Of course, you already know that.’

‘How would you go about it?’ he asked.

‘Do you need to ask?’

‘Yes, because I’ve decided to give you the opportunity to tell me about it.’

‘Big of you.’ She handed over the dispenser.

‘Do go on.’

‘I would take samples of your brain tissue, place them in nutrient-infused aerogel matrices and, through carbon micro-tubules, feed in oxygen and further nutrients.’

‘How would you take out the waste?’

‘With simplified leucocytes and biomechanical kidneys.’

‘And this would work?’

‘There would be failures, which is why I’d first grow maybe three or four samples.’

Saul smiled. It was a thoroughly fascinating prospect: organic extensions to his brain, extra brain mass grown from his own brain tissue and maintained in portable units. He hesitated. There was so much still to do and he now wanted to get back to his room in Tech Central, plug an optic into his skull and get on with it. However, he understood himself well enough to know that his anxiousness to leave stemmed from how vulnerable he felt when unable to connect into the systems around him.

He relaxed, sat back. ‘Take your samples.’

Earth

During World War Two the British government had developed radar here and, during the ensuing cold war, atomic weapons research had been sited here. Throughout World Wars One and Two, and until the nuclear age, a huge amount of bomb development had been conducted here too. Serene felt that her own work here was thoroughly in keeping with this place’s history.

Orford Ness extended parallel to the coast, from what had once been the town of Aldeburgh, but was now one of the big coastal cities incorporating Orford and Leiston on either side. Over the previous century the spit of land had grown, tidal action heaping up more shingle, while concrete rafts and docks were built out to sea to support first the maintenance of the wind farms, then the spread of fish farms. Upon all this, the Complex itself had been built, also bridging inwards to the land.

Serene took her aero over Aldeburgh itself and sucked in a sharp breath at the extent of the devastation, and again resisted the temptation to seek data from Govnet, which, only ten minutes previously, had begun its secure start-up. She would wait until she was within the Complex and able to ensure that any precautions that could be taken were made.

The city’s population had mostly consisted of government employees running the sub Northeast administration, but now it seemed that the only movement visible down there was flocks of ragged gulls scavenging in the bloody streets, or fires eating through the office blocks. However, there would be more movement some time hence. She had already seen hordes of zero assets, from the massive sectors of the Cambridge sprawl, slowly tramping about in the previously forbidden agricultural lands of Mid-Suffolk. She had also seen much similar movement across Essex.

Though there was some damage in the Complex, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the inward city. She noted people gathering on the landward side of the Ness channel, and she wondered if at least some of them might be her missing staff. Certainly, even if they weren’t, she would be needing recruits.

Beyond the Complex, the sea was chequered with decaying fish farms extending all the way out to the ragged towers of wind turbines, for most of which there had been neither the funds nor the inclination to repair. However, five turbines were now working again, powering her Complex now that the Sizewell reactor was down – another precaution she had taken earlier and further affirmation of what now seemed to be her destiny.

Coming in over the aero-port, she circled for a moment while deciding where to land. She could see bloodstains on the carbocrete and, parked off to one side, a forklift with its tines loaded with corpses stacked like logs. Then, as she began her descent, she saw Anderson striding out with two uniformed security staff behind him. For a second she didn’t like that, didn’t like to see him accompanied by armed men. But in the end she must trust, at least to a limited extent, someone. She took her aero down and landed, shut down its engines and headed for the door.

‘You’re gathering data?’ she said as he held out a hand to assist her down from the aero.

‘As we speak,’ he said, looking grim and slightly distracted – probably by a feed issuing from his fones and the implants in his skull. ‘Chairman Messina is gone, along with most of his pet delegates.’

‘What?’

‘We’re still trying to get the story clear . . .’ Anderson paused, and seemed slightly stunned. ‘You said we were hit hard, but I wonder if you know just how hard.’ Once she was down on the carbocrete he gestured inland. ‘All across Earth, it’s the same as what you probably saw over there. We estimate that over two-thirds of the upper Committee Administration, Military, Executive . . . everything . . . dead.’

She had suspected something like this, had seen some sign of it during her flight here, made her calculations on that basis, but now actually being told she was right jerked her to a halt. For a second she just wasn’t sure what to say next, then, ‘Zero assets and societal assets, people outside of the Administration?’

‘Mostly untouched – massive casualties from aero and scramjet crashes and infrastructure collapse, of course, but generally the zero-asset death rate is down on the previous quarter, while our programs predict that societal assets will show a greater propensity for survival now.’

She gazed at him assessingly. ‘Then we must ensure that the former don’t swamp us, as that stupid sectoring idea will have turned them more hostile than before.’

He nodded, understanding perfectly.

‘So, now tell me about Messina,’ Serene asked, as they began to head towards the Complex’s entrance.

‘The rebellion was widespread and damaging, but had no chance of success, and was just a distraction while rebels seized Argus Station. When that space plane crashed at Minsk, another was in the process of being stolen—’

‘Yes, I know that,’ Serene interrupted. ‘Who exactly are – or were – they?’

‘It’s a little confused at the moment.’ Anderson pushed the door open ahead of Serene and held it for her. ‘Initially we have reports that the leader of this group, this “Revolutionary Council” was someone called Malden, who escaped IHQ London.’

‘Seems plausible, since IHQ London was nuked.’ She strode ahead down the corridor, glancing through one door into a big clean-assembly room. Ahead lay the chip-etching plants and the biochip division, all self-contained, run on robotics controlled from the Oversight Room. Her operation here had been very efficient. Her future – and much larger – operation would be more efficient still.

‘Yes, but it seems this Malden died during the attempt to seize Argus Station, and Station Director Smith had regained control. This did not stop Messina summoning his delegates and taking an assault fleet from the Australian Outback spaceport.’

Serene smiled nastily. ‘Messina wanted an excuse to take Smith down anyway, and he wanted to shift his powerbase offworld.’ She paused, suddenly confused. ‘So Messina controls Argus now?’

Anderson shook his head. ‘The last we heard was from assault-force communications. It seems someone else seized control of part of the station, and started up the Mars Traveller Engine at just the right time to wipe out most of Messina’s force. It seems likely that it was this man who brought down the satellite network and turned our own guns against us.’

‘Do we have a name?’

‘We do – he’s called Alan Saul.’

‘Any data on him?’

‘Just a fragment from IHQ London: a disposal order sending him to the Calais incinerator.’

Serene wasn’t sure why that got to her. She shivered.

Soon they reached the armoured doors leading into Oversight, which slid open ahead of her at some unheard command from Anderson. She walked inside and surveyed all those personnel sitting gathering data at the various consoles.

‘Administration survivors – anything useful?’ she asked abruptly.

‘North Region survivors with available transport are heading to the enclaves on the Isle of Mull, though some are making for Inspectorate HQ Glasgow – one of the few to remain untouched. Those in the Midlands are heading to those places as well, or to the offshore algae farms. The same pattern is being repeated all across Earth – Committee survivors with access to transport are trying to put water between them and the zero-asset hordes.’

‘A sensible move, but one of limited duration. Have you managed to contact any European delegates?’

‘None at all.’

‘Then I have authority over the European Region, so summon those on Mull and elsewhere here.’ She paused to strip off her jacket and sit at her own console. ‘We’ve got some organizing to do.’ She glanced over at the door leading into her apartment, telling herself she would head there sometime soon, clean up, then pause and ready herself for what she must do next. However, it would be ten days before she passed through that door for anything more than short power naps, to use the toilet or to gulp down another handful of stimulants.

Mars

The news from Earth was now completely non-existent, but even the dismal picture they had obtained, before the solar storm blew up, lacked impact, especially since they had been on the very knife edge here, where, for survival, even air had been rationed. For five days after Varalia Delex blew out the windows of Hex Three at Antares Base on Mars, it had been necessary to divert a large portion of the reactor’s output to melting Martian ice and electrolysing the water for its oxygen. It had also been necessary to cut all non-essential power usage, even to cut heating in all non-vital areas. During those five days a total of eighty-two personnel were confined to their cabins with the instruction to stay in bed and breathe shallowly – to remain as inactive as possible without being dead. It had been close, and luckily no one had actually achieved that state of total inactivity. Now they had power to spare again, and they were using it.

Var walked slowly ahead of her two companions along the roof of the wing adjoining Hex Four, finally coming to a halt at the edge of the building. The construction robots, newly fired up, were dipping and weaving inside and outside the hex like a flock of iron swans. Gazing at this activity, she allowed herself to feel hope, perhaps for the first time since the Committee had sentenced them to death. In deciding to scrap the Traveller spacecraft through the bubblemetal plants of Argus, to shut down further Traveller construction and thus abandon the personnel here on Mars, the Committee had expected the eventual demise of her and her fellows to be almost certain. To push that demise to complete certainty, it had instructed the political officer here to thin out the population, ostensibly because this would enable the remainder to survive, but really because the resulting loss of expertise would ensure that those left behind didn’t live. But Political Officer Ricard and his staff were all dead, because Var had killed them all.

‘So run through it for me,’ she said. ‘How far along are we?’

Martinez, chief of construction and buildings maintenance – which, in this environment, was a very important task – gazed at the work in progress. ‘We’re finishing the upper section of the block-work wall and cementing in the ties for the dome. The furnaces are up to speed, I’m told, but best to ask Lopomac about that.’ He gestured to the other man accompanying them.

Lopomac, who had been one of those who had helped her dispose of Ricard and his crew, nodded sagely. ‘The furnaces are now running and we’re processing the silica sand. We should be able to start pouring the glass panes soon.’

‘That’s a lot of power we’re burning,’ she commented. ‘I really hope Gunther knows what he’s talking about.’

‘He’s the expert,’ said Lopomac. ‘Relying on experts, as has become quite evident, is how we’re managing to stay alive.’

Lopomac was referring to another near-disaster when the reactor started to fail. Among the staff here they had managed to find a specialist in powder-cast ceramics who had been mis-assigned, in a typical Committee screw-up, to work in construction under Martinez – epoxy-bonding regolith into building blocks. That man had managed to work out a method of making the reactor components the Committee had perpetually failed to send them. Notable, Var felt, how that same man had been on Ricard’s kill list as a non-essential.

Var nodded agreement, but her mind started to stray to other concerns. The Argus Station was still on course to reach Mars in just over two years, but whoever was aboard it had not responded to their earlier attempts at communication. Also, she had been unable to find out whether Messina’s Alexander was still under construction, though she did find out that other Earth-orbit stations were still functioning. Another concern was why both Martinez and Lopomac had been keen for them to come out here. She now switched her suit radio to a private band they had selected while suiting up.

‘So now we’re out here, let’s talk,’ she said.

‘It’s come to our notice that there are those here who are a little unhappy with the power structure,’ said Lopomac. He glanced at Martinez. ‘They’ve been attempting to recruit others who might not be completely loyal to you.’

‘I wasn’t aware of that, but I still don’t see why it was necessary for us to come out here.’

‘Simple answer,’ Lopomac responded. ‘They’re mostly in Mars Science, and we’ve suspicions that they’ve hacked into Ricard’s security system.’

‘Rhone?’

‘As far as we know, not him. Delaware and Christen seem to be the ringleaders. They are contending that we should run things here under a scientific meritocratic democracy – the strength of voting being proportional to IQ, which of course would mean more power for Delaware and Christen. It would also mean, Delaware feels, that he would be in with a chance of running this place, since his IQ is only a few points below your own.’

‘And yet,’ Var noted, ‘despite such high intelligence, he’s too stupid to realize how any squabbling now has a very high chance of being fatal for us all.’

‘What do you want us to do?’ asked Martinez – that question implying much.

Var considered the first option. Those two scientists could have some unfortunate accident. However, she felt there was no one here they could afford to lose – two first-class minds least of all. So what to do about them?

‘Actually, we do have a form of “meritocratic democracy”, in which my chiefs of staff have their say, though of course no vote. I will therefore delegate this to one of those chiefs. Tell Rhone what’s going on and leave it for him to deal with.’ She paused in thought for a moment, recollecting her history class and the phrase, ‘Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?’ and added, ‘Though you should ensure he is aware that we really cannot afford to lose any personnel at all.’

‘Will do,’ said Martinez. ‘They tried to recruit me, too, so it’s best coming from me.’

‘Any other business?’ she asked.

‘Not really,’ said Lopomac.

As they turned and began heading back towards the central hex, Var felt a sudden surge of disappointment. Humans in adversity could be at their best, but take the pressure off just a little and they resorted to type: squabbling for notice, clawing for power, security, comfort, luxury. She remembered something her brother Alan had once said.

‘We are a disappointing species,’ he had noted in his usual flat uninflected tone. She had thoroughly agreed with him but wondered, as ever, if that species included Alan Saul himself.

2

ID Implants

The first large-scale ID implant trial was conducted by one of the forerunners of All Health, EHS (the European Health Service), in an attempt to overcome the difficulties inherent in the highly politicized and unwieldy computer system used for keeping the health records of citizens. The idea was that you could walk into a doctor’s surgery, or be stretchered into a hospital, and implant-readers would immediately update the doctors with all they needed to know about you. The trial was a failure for two reasons: because the data the implants held was just copied from the computer records, so medical fact was difficult to separate from political jargon even when it was correct and uncorrupted, and because of a severe outbreak of MDRSA3 (third-generation multidrug resistant staphylococcus aureus) in the hospitals doing the implants – an outbreak kept under a news blackout – and half of those receiving the implants dying. However, since the political motivation behind the trial remained and politicians are never in a hurry to abandon a bad idea, further trials were conducted and, over a period of twenty years, ‘medplants’ were forced on the population of Europe as a precursor to the ID implant we know today. It is estimated that between two and five million people died during these next trials, but news blackouts were no longer required to suppress the story, since by then no independent media existed.

Zero Minus Five Days – Argus

The spidergun crammed itself in the airlock cylinder first, with its oddly shaped limbs raised up and pressed against the walls to make space for Saul. He stepped in, then turned and palmed the control to close the door behind him and activate the elevator. The cylinder entered the central spindle, then travelled down through its curved transport tube to the floor of Arcoplex Two, the spin of the arcoplex impinging more and more to give him the illusion of weight.

For some days now Saul had not ventured out of his cabin, other than mentally. He had run the station from there, with an optic plugged into his skull as he oversaw the complete reorganization of the hierarchy and set his people and his robots to clear up the mess and make the endless repairs. He had made calculations that extended into highly esoteric maths on how they might survive with the resources they had. As a result of these calculations, he had issued orders that might have seemed nonsensical to some, but which he knew would yield good results later on. Now, he felt, the station was running well and, though reluctant to leave his room in Tech Central, fascination at what had recently been found in Arcoplex Two had lured him out.

The cylinder airlock doors opened onto a long corridor running through one of the many buildings that crammed Arcoplex Two. The spidergun slid out first, its movements uncannily lifelike and fluid now as, like all the robots aboard Argus, it operated under his new programming. He stepped out after it and studied the reception committee.

Hannah looked careworn; with the steady destruction of human minds she was performing obviously taking its toll.

‘Hannah . . .’ he said, pausing to find the correct words, ‘are you good?’ Being too solicitous was not the way; better to acknowledge that he knew she was experiencing emotional pain, but expect business as usual from her.

‘I’ve been better,’ she replied, rubbing at the dressing on her arm where, like many on the station, she’d had her ID implant removed. ‘And I’ve been worse.’

He dipped his head once, then swung his attention to the others waiting.

Brigitta and Angela Saberhagen also appeared tired, but seemed to have lost that blank indifference in their expressions: the result of a state of mind that alone enabled many to survive under Committee rule. They, too, had dressings on their arms where their implants had been removed. The station doctors had been very busy for some time: station staff forming queues outside the doctors’ surgeries during their free time. Just over ten per cent of the people here were now without ID implants, including Saul himself, who had had five implants removed from his forearm.

‘You have everything ready for me?’ he enquired. He knew precisely what they had to show him – had known for three days – but had realized that his omniscience tended to defuse the enthusiasm of those who worked for him.

‘We’re ready. You’ll find the Committee had some interesting projects running here,’ said Brigitta. Angela grimaced, as aware as Brigitta that he had already peered into every nook and cranny of Robotics and knew precisely what was here.

Langstrom, a wiry black man who was now Saul’s police commander, and Peach, a tall Nordic blonde woman who was one of his officers, also waited here.

‘No problems?’ Saul asked.

‘None at all,’ said Langstrom warily.

‘Then let’s go.’ Saul gestured down the corridor.

The spidergun went first, now sufficiently independent to need no mental prod from Saul, and he followed. Hannah fell in beside him, and the twins came next, Langstrom and Peach coming up last. There wasn’t really much need for the last two – they were only here because they felt they had to be, and Saul had not ordered them not to be here. He had already checked out any possible dangers in the arcoplex, and his robots were installed all around him.

‘What about you?’ Hannah asked.

‘I’m good,’ Saul replied.

He could explain to her about the quantities of information he was able to process. He could explain how he could now individually control hundreds of robots, how he now created programs with a thought, some of them almost operating like independent intelligences. But how to explain the synergy arising from the biological interface she had implanted in his skull? How to explain not so much the growth in his abilities as that implant spread its neural network, but the integration? Then again, perhaps he could explain to Hannah, for she was the one most likely to be able to understand.

Numerous successive corridors brought them to an elevator which took them up, in two parties, to the robotics factory near to the arcoplex spindle. They stepped out onto a glass-panelled floor, walking lightly and bouncing in the lower spin. Saul peered down at the assembly floor visible below. It was a combination of production line and specialist workshop. Raw components were transported up by cargo elevators from floors below, three partially assembled carcases of construction robots lay directly below him, while a fourth, all but finished, was undergoing trials in a test rig. Twenty people worked on this floor, but most of the assembly directly below was being conducted by the brethren of these robots – the three humans Saul could see working on specialization of the basic construction robot. In the next area various maintenance robots were being put together. Beyond this lay Large Component Construction, where the parts for the bigger station robots were made.

Brigitta, who had moved up beside him the moment he walked out onto this floor, began a hesitant commentary, with the implication of, of course you know all this, until, from behind, Langstrom interrupted, ‘What about the military stuff?’

Brigitta had glanced at Saul as if seeking permission and, when he nodded, replied, ‘It was never made here – always transported up from Earth. We’ve got some packaged razorbirds and shepherds, but I’ve no idea why. Shepherds are just too big and the razorbirds would need substantial reprogramming to fly in zero gravity. And the only spiderguns here are those Messina brought with him.’ Thereafter Brigitta continued her commentary with more enthusiasm now she had a more congenial audience.

During a pause, Saul said, ‘Of course, this is not what I’ve come to see.’

‘We go to the end, then down a couple of floors,’ explained Brigitta. ‘I’m not quite sure what the aim was.’

‘A police force of unquestioning loyalty, I suspect,’ said Saul, glancing round at Langstrom.

The man frowned, seemed about to wipe this expression from his face, then stubbornly retained it. He said, ‘It was because of people not asking questions that Earth is like it is today.’

‘Precisely,’ said Saul, as he stepped, after his spidergun, into the end elevator.

The chief of Humanoid Unit Development had been one of the casualties of the recent station conflict. He had not been here in Arcoplex Two when Messina’s forces attacked, but in his executive quarters in the Political Office. He hadn’t been involved in the fighting, but stray rounds had punched through a small section of the PO, including his quarters, and vacuum decompression had killed him some minutes later. That was a loss, for he had been a brilliant man. However, had he survived he would have been considered one of those ‘difficult’ cases: a valuable mind in the skull of a multiple murderer who had experimented on human beings, not because he was forced to by the Committee but because he delighted in it. And here, in the HUD, he had applied some of the results from his research.

‘Are they fucking alive?’ asked Langstrom.

Ten of them stood in a line against one wall, frames supporting them, all sorts of umbilical pipes and cables plugged in. Each stood over two metres tall – big leathery-skinned humanoids, male in body shape but without sexual organs.

‘They’re machines,’ Brigitta informed him. ‘The skin is semi-organic and they contain many cross-tech components – quite a lot of what’s inside them being based on human tissue – but these things were assembled, not grown.’ She paused for a moment, forehead wrinkling in a frown. Perhaps such distinctions were not so easy to make in this case.

‘Why?’ Langstrom asked. ‘I thought the multi-task idea had gone out the window.’

For many years it had been the contention among roboticists that the best shape for a robot would be a humanoid one, since the human world had been built to fit humans. However, that was before factories became wholly robotic, and before the reality of specialized robots became apparent. If you wanted to repair a pipe under the sea, for example, better to send a robot with integral welder, with no need to breathe and no likelihood of suffering from the bends. The few humanoid robots still in existence on Earth were kept as quaint affectations of the very rich – which generally meant Committee delegates.

‘A result of Chairman Messina’s growing paranoia,’ explained Saul. ‘He wanted to be able to depend completely on his bodyguard.’

‘His paranoia is no longer a problem for him,’ said Hannah.

Saul gazed at her but could not read her expression. Messina himself had been the first to go under her microsurgery, and was now slowly recovering in Arcoplex One. Already, even after this short time, station personnel had a name for people like Messina. They were being called ‘repros’ – the reprogrammed.

Hannah steadily returned his gaze. ‘What are you going to do with them?’

‘These?’ He waved a hand at the racked androids.

‘Yes, them.’

Considering the atrocities committed in the development of these androids, Saul had thought about having them destroyed. But they were just a spit away from being put online, and he was reluctant to waste what could prove valuable assets. When he probed earlier, from Tech Central, he had found a route through to some minds that were complex and strange, ticking over like high-performance cars caught in traffic. They could do things the other station robots could do, and more, and they contained technology the like of which he had never seen before. And, if he was being totally honest, they fascinated him, for he saw potential in their semi-biological brains that no other station robots possessed.

‘I’m going to use them,’ he decided. ‘Another pair of hands is still another pair of hands.’

‘You don’t need any more bodyguards,’ protested Langstrom.

‘No, perhaps not.’ Saul turned to Brigitta. ‘You know what’s left to do?’

Brigitta looked puzzled for a moment, but Angela replied, ‘I know.’

‘Do it, then. Get them commissioned and tested.’ He turned away.

Year Zero – Earth

Serene closed the door firmly behind her and walked over to her mirror, gazing at her face. She looked as tired as she felt. Ten days of organization, ten days of trying to maximize her resources, gain control, and now this. She’d just returned to Oversight after an inspection tour of the growing town of Administration survivors, and had known, by Anderson’s expression, that something had gone badly wrong.

Without preamble he had announced, ‘We’ve lost Glasgow HQ – it’s been overrun. Only twenty survivors got out.’

‘What?’

‘Seems the ZAs are getting organized.’

‘They had readerguns at Glasgow,’ she said. ‘There were four thousand of them there.’ Then she managed to get herself under control. ‘Our perimeter readerguns?’

‘I did shut down radio access to them five days ago, but now we have direct fibre-optic control from here.’ He paused, grimacing. ‘They won’t be enough, though. Glasgow had no problem with their readerguns; they just ran out of bullets.’

‘Then it’s time,’ she said. ‘It’s time.’

She realized that, despite her apparent self-assurance and despite her hardness of purpose, she had been procrastinating. She had allowed herself to sink into bureaucratic time-wasting; pursuing detail and ignoring the central problem. She had not taken charge, and now it was time to. Glasgow was a wake-up call that brought home to her the necessity of what she must do. The face in the mirror returned to her a slow nod. She turned away, methodically stripped off her wrinkled suit, and went to take a shower. Then, just as methodically, she changed her appearance, and hardened her mind.

Finally, clad in an Inspectorate uniform of light blue slacks, shirt, tie and jacket, her weapon holstered at her hip, Serene again studied herself in her mirror, then carefully applied some make-up. Yes, this was the right choice. For too long now she had been making do, running herself ragged and not really taking control. During a time of emergency she needed to project an air of military efficiency, and of strength. No bureaucratic power suit now, with its associations of Committee fudges and paper shuffling. After a moment she donned the cap, studied it for a moment, then discarded it. No, instead she unpinned her hair and shook it loose, tied it in a ponytail, then clipped a palmtop and a disabler to her belt, finishing the ensemble with a brooch depicting the United Earth logo on her lapel. Yes, just right.

Next she turned from the mirror and walked over to her display cabinet and peered inside. Various examples of the hardware manufactured here were laid out on white velvet. Four generations of ID implants sat in a row. Three chips, the size of hundred-Euro coins, were the minds of respectively a razorbird, a shepherd and a spidergun. A fourth chip of the same size sat at the centre of an array of sub-chips smaller even than ID implants. These depicted the control hub and subsets of a readergun net. Under glass domes sat some of the biochips manufactured here for research organizations all across the Earth, and seven of these were even now being installed in seven somewhat reluctant ‘volunteers’ who would be deployed on Govnet as a counter to Alan Saul.

She suffered a sudden cold sweat at the thought. Govnet was still very vulnerable, but as yet there had been no attack from Saul. Almost certainly that was due to the solar storm and, when it finished, he would once again be able to reach back to Earth from Argus. She needed to secure Govnet before that happened. She needed her seven ‘comlifers’ up and running – and soon. However, there was something more urgent that needed dealing with first.

Many of the chips were too small to study easily with the naked eye, so magnifying screens had been inset in the upper sheet of the display case. She reached out and touched the glass just above one of the chips, starting up the screen so it showed her a clear image of a cube just ten microns across. Five of the faces of this item were studded with gold electrodes, while on the sixth face was a small rectangle – the biological component of the small biochip. Here, at the Complex, they had made the blueprint for this device, also the prototypes, and still made the biological component; fifteen billion of the finished item had since been manufactured in a further three hundred automated factories all across Earth. They were a part of the standard ID implant. Ostensibly – with their biological component facing out into the human body – they were able to read DNA and detect whether the implant had been removed and placed in another body. Apparently they were a failure, because the circuitry was easy to bypass. They were considered a black mark against Serene herself – a failure many of her Committee opponents relished too much to study too closely.

However, here, only two other people other than her knew that, upon receipt of certain computer codes, these chips would activate and carry out their true purpose. What the other two didn’t know, what had been known to a team of four development engineers who were mistakenly arrested and executed by the Inspectorate three years ago, was that these chips were in all ID implants, including those of Committee delegates, and not just in those of the ZA citizens they were supposedly intended for.

Serene turned away, strode to the door.

‘Anything new?’ she asked Anderson, as she stepped back out into Oversight.

He turned towards her, looking even more tired and hassled. ‘The twenty survivors from Glasgow are heading here. Another fifteen of our staff have reported in, and I’ve allowed them to come across from the mainland. Sheila’s gone over there to meet them.’

When she arrived back here ten days ago, Serene had hoped that Sheila Trondheim might be one of the casualties. ‘Your idea?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’

Good, because right now she didn’t want Sheila around with her large, self-indulgent and thoroughly inappropriate conscience. ‘Anything else?’

He paused, obviously reluctant to tell her the next thing, then said, ‘The total of known surviving delegates on Earth is now up to twenty-four. Delegate Angone of Region SE Africa has just made his presence known.’

Annoying – that now made three delegates in total with authority ranking over hers. ‘He’s been keeping his head down,’ she noted. Probably consolidating gains, making sure of his power base.

Anderson still looked grave. ‘As soon as he announced his presence, he claimed to assume top authority for the “interim of Chairman Messina’s absence”, and is organizing a teleconference for 20.00 GMT tonight. You are instructed to attend.’

Serene grimaced. She’d known it wouldn’t take long for the survivors to crawl out of the woodwork and start competing for the top job, but she had hoped to have known about them all by now.

‘Nevertheless . . .’ she said, pausing to take a slow breath, ‘we now have work to do in Comtrans One.’

His expression became even grimmer. He’d known this was coming, ever since she returned. This knowledge had been implicit between them, but perhaps actually accepting it was difficult for him. Perhaps not as difficult as for Sheila Trondheim, who was the other person here who knew, but still difficult enough. Serene would have to deal with this problem. When she carried through her next plan, three people would know precisely what she had done – and that was two people too many.

He nodded, detached the eye-screen extension to his fone and placed it down on a nearby console, then stood ready and waiting. She surveyed the room, noting that Clay Ruger, Anderson’s lieutenant, was on shift today. Clay was an ambitious and capable man with weaknesses that could be exploited. He was a sociopath but also a coward, like so many in high position, and quite simple to understand and manipulate.

‘Let’s go,’ she said.

Outside the door, Anderson signalled for the two guards to follow them.

‘No,’ said Serene, without looking round, ‘they stay here.’

‘We’re still not as secure here as I would like,’ Anderson warned.

‘Nevertheless,’ Serene replied, leading the way from Oversight.

Comtrans One was where they kept all the communications hardware: the signal boosters and other devices connected to the aerials and satellite dishes on the roof, the coders for laser transmissions, and the Govnet sub-servers and modems. Anderson entered first, halting in the middle of the room while he gazed steadily at the main console there.

‘You know I’m with you all the way on this,’ he said.

Obviously her dismissal of the guards had worried him. She noted how he casually rested one hand on the butt of his holstered pistol. ‘I know you are,’ she replied. ‘If you weren’t you would have done something about it before now. I know you well enough, Simeon, to understand that.’

‘They have to go.’ He turned towards her. ‘It’s the only way we can survive – we know that now . . . after Glasgow.’

She strode past him to the console, unhooking her palmtop from her belt. She placed this down on the table to the right of the console and opened it, then gestured to the seat. ‘Set us up for transmission. We want a local burst first, to secure things here, then the full Govnet transmission.’

He took the seat and quickly keyed in the required instructions, the screen now showing the main aerial and microwave array online, followed by subsections giving admission to other networks across the world, including readerguns, the transponders in all robots, and radio modems and servers. After that first burst, the signal would go viral. Serene Bluetoothed to the console here, sorted through her secure files and found the program required: the one that added just two digits to every zero-asset implant code on Earth. She readied it, then found two individual implant codes additional to that, and cued them up too.

‘We’re ready?’ she asked, linkage established and her finger hovering over the return key.

He had to clear his throat first, then after a nod managed a strangled, ‘We’re ready, ma’am.’

This then was the moment – so much like when she had pressed down the ball control to activate the guns on the aero she had flown here a seeming age ago, yet so much more.

‘I’m reminded of some historical context,’ she said, the politician in her insisting some words be said now. ‘When I press this button it’s like a reset for the whole human race. It’s like the “Year Zero” proclamation made by some of the worst and most genocidal dictators of our past, yet here and now it is utterly necessary.’

‘I know it’s necessary, ma’am, but it isn’t easy,’ said Anderson.

There, that itchy niggling of conscience which could grow into something inconvenient – the risk she just could not take. Nothing could stand in the way of what she intended to do now, and nothing must stand in the way of her future plans. She pressed her finger down on the return button, watched the loading bar appear and begin filling. There, it had started, just like that – easy. It wouldn’t get every zero asset on Earth, since not all had the new implants – just eight billion of them.

‘I did this with you. It wasn’t just you,’ he said.

Of course, he’d expected her to kill him here and now. He thought she’d dismissed the guards just so she could privately dispose of someone who knew too much.

‘Yes, we did this together,’ she replied. ‘And now I want you to head out to Sheila, ostensibly to help her with the selection process out there, but mainly to get her reaction. We need her to keep her mouth shut.’

‘Understood,’ he said grimly, again resting his hand on the butt of his sidearm.

He thought he understood, but he didn’t yet. In about an hour’s time he would begin to feel the effects of the biochip now active in his implant. By the time he realized what was going on, it would be too late for him. He might try to get back to Serene to exact some vengeance, but the chances of him achieving the quarter-hour journey from the perimeter back to here were remote.

Once activated, the biochips would release, from that sixth face on the cube, a potent cybervirus to multiply and spread through the recipient’s body, moving as fast as the beat of a heart. But it released more than just one mass of this thing, half virus and half nanomachine, for it acted as a template for further copies, continuously feeding them into the bloodstream for as long as the body’s bioelectrics kept the ID implant powered up. It was nasty, and fast. Based on the Ebola virus as the safest base agent to cut down on the possibility of air transmission, it also possessed a nano-mechanical component that made a nerve-toxin similar to Novichok agents. It took effect in an hour, whereupon loss of physical control was quickly followed by paralysis. During tests it had been a toss-up between whether paralysis of the heart or massive bleeding in the lungs killed the recipient first.

In her own mind Serene had named it ‘the Scour’ but, within days, as the signal retransmitted all around Earth, it would become a name familiar to all. She would ensure that her own personal signature became adhered to what she had created.

Mars

Var stepped into the agricultural laboratory and gazed at the equipment all around her, some salvaged from the old base, much of it put together from parts scavenged here. Screw you, Ricard, she thought. Switching her gaze downwards to the soil troughs, she considered how Ricard and his enforcers were now themselves components of the new soil used here.

Gunther, now chief of Hydroponics and Agriculture since Kaskan had sacrificed himself to destroy one of Ricard’s shepherds, gazed pensively at the green shoots spearing up from some of the troughs. He seemed to have developed a nervous tic, which became more pronounced when he coughed into his fist. He then rubbed at his chest, as if it was troubling him.

‘We received no seed stock from Earth, obviously,’ he said. ‘But we found that we actually had some stock here.’

‘Yes, I know about that,’ Var replied. ‘I wouldn’t have approved the work on Hex Four otherwise.’

Hex Four had been designated an arboretum right from the start, but completion of its construction had stayed on hold while the Committee constantly failed to send the required seed stock. However, after Var shot Ricard and gained approval from other heads of departments for her assumption of leadership here, she had ordered an intensive survey of the resources immediately available, including all the personal possessions, even those in storage belonging to personnel who had returned to Earth. And it was these last that had made possible what she was seeing here. She had not expected much, since the allowable weight of personal effects wasn’t much more than could be fitted into a wallet. However, for political staff like the enforcers and Ricard himself, things had obviously been different.

Ricard had actually possessed a small jar of olives, and Gunther’s staff, working non-stop in shifts, had been able to resurrect some of the stones. One of the enforcers had kept an apple carefully stored away in a vacuum-sealed cool box for some special occasion, and Gunther had removed viable pips from that. But the mother lode had been the stored effects of one Tina Bream, who had worked in what was now Gunther’s department and who had returned to Earth four years previously. She had brought in her own small quantity of seeds in very small containers: seeds for blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and redcurrants, and even two plum stones and two cherry stones. She had also obviously been collecting seed from the empty plates of the political staff too: here some orange, lemon and pear pips, there some peach, nectarine and avocado stones.

‘Okay.’ Gunther flinched as if ducking a blow – a reaction to her that seemed all too common, and unjustified. Yes, she had been ruthless, but necessarily so. The reaction of some people to her now she felt stemmed from them being so thoroughly accustomed to Committee rule, to leaders who could have someone dragged off for torture or execution almost on a whim. Gunther gestured to the troughs with one shaky hand. ‘We’ve had no failures at all yet . . . though not everything has been planted. After the dome goes up on Hex Four, we’re going to have to partition it to provide the various environments. My suggestion is that we divide it concentrically: the hottest climate at the centre, then progressively cooler out towards the edge.’

‘That seems sensible, as it should make temperature control less wasteful.’ She gestured to the plants already growing from the troughs. ‘What are these?’

‘Bream’s own stock – the seeds and stones had all been carefully treated, freed of any fungal or other infections and primed for immediate germination, so they were ready for planting quickly. All the other stuff we have is being carefully nurtured in my clean-room.’ He gestured again, jerkily, towards an airtight door at the far end of the laboratory. ‘What we have here,’ he stabbed a quivering finger at the seedlings before them, ‘are from various berries, and one quince pip I didn’t spot the first time round, along with two plum and two cherry stones.’ He gazed at the plants with something approaching awe, and certainly that would be the reaction of many others here at Antares Base.

Unlike most of them, Var was herself the daughter of parents high up in the Committee Executive, so she had eaten blackberries, raspberries, plums . . . in fact she could think of nothing Gunther was growing here in his laboratory that she hadn’t tried at one time or another. It was only when her parents were dead, and her status dropped to that of a valuable societal asset rather than an asset with connections, that Var found out just how luxurious her earlier life had been. Thereafter, like most people on Earth, she had necessarily become accustomed to highly processed foods, tank-grown carbs and proteins artificially flavoured, black-market sausages containing meat you didn’t really want to know about, GM beans with odd physical effects and bread that was more wood pulp than anything else – all flavoured by such occasional luxuries as much-diluted mercury-laden fish paste from one of the offshore fish farms, or the odd gull’s or crow’s egg.

‘I understand that you’ve had some other successes too?’ She felt it necessary to keep this conversation running; necessary for her personnel to know she appreciated what they were doing; that she enjoyed their successes and commiserated with their failures.

‘After finding those seeds, we decided to have a brain-storming session to see if we could come up with other places to search. We found a large collection of fungal spores in some of the air filters, from which I’m now growing some edible mushrooms.’ He paused to scrub at his unshaven face, then gazed about himself in bewilderment.

‘Gunther,’ said Var, ‘you need to get some sleep. You’re no use to me if you start making mistakes.’

He nodded in full and complete agreement, took one step forward and steadied himself with one hand resting on the edge of a trough. ‘Not been feeling so . . .’ he started, then he clutched at his chest, leaned forward and vomited blood all over his precious plants.

He was the first.

Earth

When the readerguns turned on the guards along the South Cray sector fence, the zero-asset population held back. Only when an aero crash demolished a section of that fence did they finally react. Chingly had been in the middle of the crowd that poured out into the adjacent government district, where he and his fellows had found the world utterly changed. They had found freedom first, and now they found possibility. So much blood and so much death, and Chingly instantly recognized those who had lived high on the hog while his own kind starved, if not by their clothing then by the thickness of the flesh on their bones.

The orgy of looting that followed seemed part nightmare, part wet dream. He found it difficult to accept what he had found in some of their homes, and his stomach ache reminded him of what he had found in various kitchens, cupboards and warming refrigerators. He and his twenty or so companions had separated from the main crowds, made their looting more methodical, and dubbed themselves the Cray Zees. They ate whatever would spoil, and all now carried heavy rucksacks full of food that could last. They’d taken weapons, too, from dead Inspectorate guards and soldiers, and in one case torn a readergun from its mounting. But they had used these guns to do no more than scare other ZAs away from their pickings. When they found any surviving Inspectorate or other government employees, they used other methods.

‘Cray Zee!’ Chingly bellowed, trying to be comfortable with the horrible images in his mind. The rest of the gang, sprawled around the fire over which they had previously been roasting an odd papery-tasting sweetcorn, responded in kind. They were all as drunk as him on the stash of raw spirit they’d found in containers alongside a still in one of the houses they’d recently broken into.

Chingly tried to accept that what they had done to the government employees they had found was well deserved, but still remained uncomfortable with his own actions. After filling his belly, he had found his libido returning in full force, and it seemed right to butt-fuck that stuck-up bitch wearing her grey power suit. He preferred that method, since the rest of her had already been well used by the other Cray Zees, and she was bleeding quite badly. She’d stopped bleeding about an hour later; about ten minutes after Denk slit open her guts.

Man, that corn was rough. Chingly rubbed his stomach, which felt tight and a little painful. He tossed away his roll-up and moved back a bit from the fire, because the smoke seemed to be bothering him now. His lungs felt raw.

‘Fucking shit!’ said Mills, tossing spirit into the fire so it flared. ‘I feel like shit.’

Maybe that was the cause – just a rough stash of bootleg liquor. It was certainly potent because Chingly felt numb, couldn’t even feel his feet, and now his hands were shaking. He put his own drink aside and tried to stand. Very drunk. Then, as he finally gained his feet, he felt a niggling in his chest. He coughed up something warm and salty into his mouth and spat it out, then gazed in bemused dread at the red phlegm spattered across the crushed-down corn, before abruptly falling on his backside. Shit, one of the new TBs! He needed to enjoy what he could now, before he died like so many in the sector, drowning in phlegm and blood.

‘Hey, Mills, wassup?’

Mills was lying on his back now, convulsing, a bloody foam about his mouth.

‘Y’know, I don’t feel so good,’ said someone behind Chingly, but his neck felt suddenly stiff and sore and he didn’t want to turn to look. A pain began growing behind his eyes and his right cheek started shivering as if just that portion of his body had grown cold. Across the fire, he saw Denk stand up and lurch forward.

‘Where is it?’ he shouted, then fell into the fire. He started screaming, but just lay there burning.

‘Help . . .’ Chingly began, then coughed violently, bringing up a great gobbet of bloody phlegm. But that didn’t seem to clear it. He was wheezing and bubbling now, coughs erupting as often as Mills’s convulsions. On the other side of the fire someone else stood up, and then just went down again. The screaming continued, and the smell of burning flesh permeated the air.

‘Bad . . . corn,’ Chingly managed. He tried to stand again, but found himself lying on his side, unable to get enough oxygen into his lungs while staring into a burning face. Beyond the face, and beyond the flames, he could see no one standing – all of them felled like . . . like the corn. Blackness edged his vision, just for a second, then it swamped him completely.

The first reports arrived with the passengers of the next fleet of aeros to land. Serene expressed horrified surprise, and then shed a brief tear on subsequently learning that the plague that seemed to be spreading across the world had also taken Simeon Anderson and Sheila Trondheim. But she was evidently far too busy to let it affect her much.

‘Apart from some tragic exceptions, this malady seems to be killing off zero-asset citizens,’ she told her Oversight staff and, via intercom, the small town of Administration survivors at the Complex. ‘It seems likely to be some form of super-flu, against the like of which many societal assets and government staff members have been inoculated.’ She had already run a search on that – to select a few million SA and Administration ID-implant codes in those whose inoculations were not up to date, and activated the biochips in those implants, just to make casualties less specific. ‘It seems that the rebels and subversives that attacked us are quite mad, and that this Alan Saul, their leader, is not just a revolutionary but a nihilist.’

Such power resided in her palmtop, still linked as it was to Comtrans One . . . but further killing to make the casualty list less specific was absolutely necessary, since it helped conceal the physical source of the Scour, and thus its ultimate source: herself. She could not allow her involvement to be known, for it would turn people against her, interfere with her plans, and she just knew that no one else possessed such a clear vision of how the future should be.

‘I have information,’ she added, ‘that these people were running a germ-warfare research base on mainland Europe, where they developed this affliction which, in an expression of their nihilism, they named the Scour.’

She paused to study the expressions of those immediately around her and saw fear, anger and grief, but no disbelief. So conditioned were these people to accepting what they were told that, even if they did disbelieve her, they would never show it. The reaction would be somewhat different amongst the surviving delegates, and some others in the hierarchy immediately below them, which was why, one and a half hours ago, she had transmitted the codes for every delegate listed, whether still surviving or not. Those immediately below them she was holding off on: no point killing people who might be useful once those they owed loyalty to were dead. She did not waste lives.

She continued, ‘A terrible blow has been struck against the lawful authority of the government of Earth and, though we can grieve and rage, we must also work hard to re-establish order. This is why I am gathering together personnel and dispatching Inspectorate teams to all the power stations in Europe. First we must turn on the power itself and then we must restart the machinery of our civilization.’

The prospect excited her. Though billions had died, and were still dying, so much of Earth’s infrastructure was automated. The vast population of zero assets had been sustained by this automation, but it was this same automation that would make it possible to restart everything. There would be no dearth of resources, now that there would be no vast unproductive population to both feed and control. In fact, Alan Saul had effectively done her a favour, too, by wiping out millions of bureaucrats. They would not be needed in the sleek government Serene was creating, and she fully expected herself to be ruling over a completely functional civilization within a year. First, however, she needed to establish her authority. She checked her watch: five minutes to eight. It was time for some privacy so she could take part in what seemed likely to be a very interesting teleconference.

‘Clay,’ she said, turning to Anderson’s lieutenant, ‘you are now my executive officer, so keep the pressure on. I want lawful authority re-established fast but, more important than that, I want production and transport back online, so tell our teams to go easy on the SAs they recruit. Also, do we have control of Tactical Excision in Belgium?’ The European launch site for tactical atomics was certainly something she might need, and soon.

‘We have control.’ He nodded tightly. ‘European Administration and Inspectorate survivors are somewhat more organized than here, and will accept your authority until told otherwise. TEB was one of the first places they ensured was under control and available – they used two tacticals against the ZA horde moving coastwards from the Frankfurt sectors.’

‘Good – and the rest?’

He continued. ‘We’ve probably got more than enough food stocks available now, and the auto-trucks are all ready to run. Our secondaries are also implementing population centralization. Also, all the east-coast power stations are undergoing start-up testing.’

That seemed surprisingly fast, but Serene nodded as if she had expected no less, and headed for her private quarters. At the door she hesitated, turned back, ‘What off-Earth facilities are still available?’

Clay answered without pause, ‘Most of the communication satellites are still available, as none of them was brought down. The Hubble Project is still running, and we have two space planes there. The old space stations, Cores One and Two, are still functional – all staff surviving. Also the Mars Traveller factory complex hasn’t been fully decommissioned.’

‘Space planes on Earth?’

‘Twelve planes at Outback Spaceport and sixteen at various other smaller facilities across the world are all operational. Twenty-three are in for overhaul, and SPP – Space Plane Production – has a further twelve near to completion, though production has halted for the present due to a scramjet crashing into part of the main factory.’

Serene nodded again, feeling slightly numb. She needed to enquire further into all she had set in motion, for it felt almost as if it was careening out of her control. Surely, despite her optimism, it couldn’t be this easy to restart a planet after so much death and destruction?

She stepped through into her apartment, took a steadying breath, then headed over to her big-screen console and sat down before it. One minute to eight, and the screen was already dividing up as delegates came online. And some, it seemed, had come online and gone off again – the screen segments they had occupied now just displaying a United Earth logo. Next, one of the segments expanded, pushing others to the border, and a stern-looking Asian face became clearly visible.

‘It seems, despite the seriousness of the situation, some delegates have not seen fit to attend,’ said Delegate Angone of Region SE Africa.

Serene kept her expression bland, even as one of the smaller screen sections turned a blurry red. It seemed one of the delegates had just coughed blood all over his webcam.

‘I would first like to speak to you all individually, then I’ll permit half an hour of open discussion through me, as the chair of this meeting,’ he said.

A screen segment expanded, cramming Angone to one side. Serene recognized Yinnister from New Zealand, whom she had known was one of the twenty-four surviving delegates but whose presence she had not originally expected. Yinnister had been close to Messina, and Serene had assumed Messina had taken all those loyal to him up to Argus.

‘I would like to know,’ Yinnister said, pausing to cough into a handkerchief, ‘what makes you think you can claim the authority to chair this meeting.’

Another screen division and Delegate Sinegal added, ‘Yes, I too would like to know that.’

It seemed that three delegates who, under the previous regime, had authority over Serene were still alive, though Yinnister didn’t look too good.

‘My position in the hierarchy is not open to question,’ Angone stated.

‘A hierarchy that effectively no longer exists,’ said Sinegal, over Yinnister’s coughing. ‘Messina is gone and, as far as we can gather, is either dead or a captive. Here and now we must establish a new world order.’

Serene couldn’t agree more, but suspected it would not include Yinnister or Sinegal, since now Sinegal seemed to have developed a pronounced tic, and there appeared to be a tear of blood at the corner of his eye. Also, of the eighteen screen segments that had appeared, yet more had flicked over to the United Earth holding logo so that, apart from her and the conversing three, only five more delegates were present.

‘You are arguing against yourself, Delegate Sinegal,’ said Angone, still looking stubbornly healthy. Perhaps, like Serene, he had decided keep his ID implant separate from his body. She opened her palmtop and started running a signal trace, quickly locating Angone not in Southeast Africa as expected, but in Egypt, in the newly rebuilt Red Sea resort of Sharm-El-Sheikh – a place where many delegates took their vacations.

‘If a new world order is to be established, who’s to say any of us Committee delegates should have anything to do with it? Our hierarchy therefore stands since, by dint of our positions, we are rightly placed to take up the reins of power, and my status over you all puts me in the prime position to assume the chairmanship.’ He paused, obviously staring at his screen. ‘What is the matter with you, Delegate Sinegal?’

Sinegal’s head was down on his desk, but he raised it for a second to say, ‘I am unwell.’ Then his screen segment also switched to the icon.

‘This is ridiculous,’ said Angone, as three more segments also switched to icons. ‘What is going on here?’

Serene resisted the temptation to tell him, as she wanted no recorded proof of her guilt. Better to let this Alan Saul take the blame – he was far enough away now to be beyond being caught and questioned. Angone went to holding. Was he, too, starting to feel the effects of the virus? Serene sat back and waited patiently, her fingers interlaced below her breasts. After a moment Angone reappeared, looking very worried.

‘It appears that this Scour presently sweeping our world is not confined to the zero-asset population.’ He paused as the last screen segments blinked out, leaving only him and Serene. ‘Delegate Galahad, I see that it is now just you and me.’ Again that pause. ‘It’s somewhat coincidental that it was you who identified the source of this Scour.’

Obviously the alarm bells were ringing in his head. She needed to deal with him before he tried to assert authority in Europe.

He continued, ‘I need you to send me details of this rebel biowarfare laboratory your people found. We’ll reconvene tomorrow at the same time.’ His screen segment blinked out.

Serene was out of her seat in a second and into Oversight, standing over Clay. She hesitated for just a moment. The human cost was irrelevant, but the Red Sea was on the endangered list . . . No, this had to be done. She said, ‘I want a launch from TEB immediately. Here are the coordinates.’

She put her palmtop down beside him, it showing only the numbers her signal search had found. He keyed them in, a map coming up on his screen showing a location on the Red Sea coast.

‘Why there?’ he asked.

‘It is not for you to question my authority,’ she told him. ‘However, just this once I will reply. A large contingent of the African Inspectorate military wing has occupied the city and is disobeying direct orders from Delegate Angone. It seems someone is intent on carving out their own kingdom, and this cannot be allowed.’

The firing order was now up on the screen.

‘I’ll need confirmation of the order.’ Clay’s expression was bland as he slid a palm-reader across to her. He didn’t believe a word of what she had just said, but that didn’t matter just so long as he obeyed. Serene pressed her hand down against the reader and then instinctively stooped forward, even though the retinal scanner and pulse transmitter inset in his screen would easily find both her eye and the ID implant contained in her watch.

A beep of acceptance followed, then a screen segment opened to show a cam view of part of the launch facility. A pan-pipes missile rack rose into view from some underground silo, and one of the four-tonne cruise missiles blasted into the sky. The thing, which would go SCRAM shortly after going airborne, would arrive at its target very quickly.

‘Give me the map,’ she instructed.

He punched a couple of keys and it appeared: Europe, North and Northeast Africa, the missile’s route showing as a dotted line, the missile itself as an amber light travelling along that, joining up the dots, slowly at first then accelerating as it went into SCRAM. The thing was now accelerating at a rate not allowed with passenger scramjets, since though the occupants would certainly arrive, most of them would be dead. Still, it would take at least another ten minutes for it to reach its target and, if he realized his danger, Angone could abort the thing. Serene watched the timer up in the corner of the screen, herself remaining a still point with all the activity in Oversight swirling around her. Finally, when the missile was joining up the last few dots, she stepped back, reached up to her temple for the control for her fone, called up a visual cortex menu and quickly found Angone’s number.

‘I said not until tomorrow,’ was Angone’s immediate response. Obviously he wore one of the newer fones that could link to local webcams, for his image appeared in her visual cortex. He looked distracted, angry. Doubtless he was busy learning about the terrible toll the Scour was taking on the surviving delegates.

‘I am contacting you to confirm,’ said Serene, deliberately vague.

‘Well, you’ll have your confirmation: tomorrow at 20.00 GMT. Incidentally, I still haven’t received your report on this biowarfare lab. You do have a report, don’t you?’

‘In fact, that’s the other reason I’ve contacted you. As you can imagine, things have been rather chaotic here, so I’ve had little time to file it. The laboratory itself was mostly destroyed by the assault team, and we only learned what they were making there after our interrogation of a captive.’

‘So there must be a vid file of that interrogation?’

‘Certainly: I should be able to transmit it to you within the next few minutes. You need it immediately?’

‘You’re damned sure I need— What?’ He turned, obviously being addressed by a shady figure behind him. ‘What!’

‘Very well,’ she said calmly, ‘I’ll send it to you shortly.’

‘Get me TEB!’ he shrieked, moving out of the webcam frame as he shot up out of his seat, cam tracking jerking as it followed him up. The scene whited out for a moment, Angone transformed into a charcoal silhouette, then blinked out completely. The moving light on Clay’s screen abruptly expanded and the words ‘objective achieved’ briefly appeared before the screen switched to whatever Clay had been dealing with before.

A tone chimed in Serene’s head: current number unobtainable.

3

Dig up the Foundations

Back in the twenty-first century, a technological singularity did not just seem possible, it seemed inevitable; but those booting up their computer models of human technological development neglected one critical force: the power of human stupidity. For technology to develop so fast that it goes beyond the ability of humans to model it, the underlying bedrock of science must be rigorous and stable. Yet, even in that century, science was becoming unduly influenced by political thought and execrable creations like post-normal science. Science itself began to break down when Karl Popper’s dictum of falsifiability was abandoned in favour of faith, and when funding for it became wholly controlled by political expediency. Scientific thought stagnated when the scientists themselves became frightened to pursue lines of research that led them away from whatever consensus happened to be the love child of the politicians who controlled the funding. They became merely puppets producing the results required of them, distorting their research to fit, taking their thirty pieces of silver and crying in their laboratories; dwarfs scuttling away from the shadows of giants like Feynman and Dyson.

Zero Plus One Month – Argus

‘You’re done?’ Saul said, gazing at Hannah steadily.

She felt a tightness growing in her stomach with the return of her fraudulent friend, her panic attacks. With the pressure off, it seemed it was stirring from slumber. She clamped down on it as best she could and surveyed the gleaming surfaces around her.

It had taken her some hours beyond what she had considered her shift to set the surgical equipment in her operating theatre back to a general-purpose mode, clear away all the additional equipment she had been using over the last month, and return her laboratory to order – return it to a place for research rather than production-line surgery. No more would station police be bringing her yet another heavily sedated Committee delegate, facilitator or executive who had remained blithely indifferent while signing orders for mass murder. No longer would she be destroying memories and adjusting minds down to a base template – a mostly blank slate. Now she could get back to her real work. But he knew that, of course he knew.

‘Yes, I’m done,’ she agreed.

It should have taken her longer but a sickness spreading through Arcoplex One, probably from the decaying corpses there, had shortened the duration of her chore to a month by killing off twenty-two delegates. She wasn’t sure whether to be glad about that or not.

Her gaze now slid to one of her work tables, on which stood three half-metre-square brushed-aluminium boxes. Even after tidying everything up, she had continued working: bringing these boxes out of her clean-room to ensure that the samples from Saul’s brain were still growing in their aerogel matrices, that the nutrients remained balanced and the waste was being properly extracted. She had even connected them up to her computers here and studied the waveforms – the shapeless thoughts already being generated in the growing brain matter. Now exhaustion was catching up with her, and she was too tired for the panic attack to get a firm grip on her.

‘And you’re okay?’ he prompted.

He thought she was burdened with guilt, beating herself up about erasing the minds of erstwhile Committee delegates, and styling herself no better than them because of what she had done. Or did he really think that? Considering how Hannah had reacted to violence of any kind, a normal human being would perhaps surmise that what he had driven her to do was reason for her to be miserable. But Alan Saul had never been a normal human being, even before Director Smith had tortured him to the point of extinction, before his strange resurrection, before the advanced implants in his skull and before he melded his mind with the artificial intelligence, Janus. Perhaps he could see through her, and knew that Hannah’s problem was that she felt no guilt at all.

‘Why are you here?’ she asked. ‘I got the impression you were staying in Tech Central until we can turn off the EM field.’ She glanced towards the spidergun crouching just inside the door. Doubtless the usual horde of robots would also be scattered throughout Arcoplex Two, though she didn’t think that was about cowardice but about control.

‘I’ve come to speak with Professor Jasper Rhine,’ he said.

Before she could stop herself, Hannah emitted a snort of disbelief.

‘You have some opinion?’ he enquired.

Hannah tried to read his expression. Was he amused, angry or indifferent? It was difficult to tell. His eyes were still a dark pink – something initially due to blood-pressure imbalances in his skull, but now due to she knew not what.

‘It’s interesting work,’ she said tentatively, ‘but I would rather rely on fusion, and I would rather not waste time and energy speculating about the transubstantiation of human souls into the fourth dimension, and the connection between the human “energy field” and holistic healing.’

‘But is that all his work is about?’ he asked.

She conceded to herself that it wasn’t. ‘I’m not completely dismissive,’ she said, formulating her opinion on the spot. ‘There are the possibilities inherent in Casimir batteries, rectifier convertors and the tangle communicator . . .’

‘All theorized and tested a century ago.’

‘So what’s your interest?’

He swung his gaze around her laboratory, it coming to rest on the three brushed-aluminium boxes. Hannah turned and noticed one of her nearby screens suddenly running streams of code. He was taking a look at it, in his own inimitable way.

‘We should be so much further ahead than we are now,’ he opined. ‘The Committee put human endeavour back a century at least. So much of the technology we have now is last century’s news.’

Despite her weariness, Hannah felt her curiosity stirring. ‘We should have entered the technological singularity by now?’

He shook his head. ‘Difficult to know where we are on the exponential curve, when you don’t know what the exponents are. No, I’m simply stating that, by subjecting the best minds in the world to the strongest political control, the Committee shut down free thought, hampered creativity and suppressed anything outside the box.’ He began heading to the door, then paused and turned back. ‘Do you want to come?’

He’d done it again. When he entered her laboratory, all she had wanted was sleep. Now she knew she had to go with him. She stripped off her lab jacket and tossed it over the back of a nearby chair.

‘So you’re saying that what Rhine is doing is creative . . . outside the box?’ she asked.

‘No, on the surface he is doing precisely the opposite.’

‘If you could elaborate?’

The spidergun rose up onto its legs and exited ahead of him. He stepped out too, and Hannah hurried to catch up.

‘At the start of the twenty-first century, the whole issue of zero-point energy was hijacked by pseudo-scientists,’ he lectured. ‘Like electricity and magnetism of two centuries before, it was associated with the supernatural, the miraculous. General scientific opinion gradually hardened against it and then, with the rise of the Committee, the whole issue petrified. There’s been very little real research into zero-point energy for over a hundred years.’

‘Which hardly explains Jasper Rhine’s function here, does it?’

‘Messina,’ explained Saul, stabbing a finger upwards, in the general direction of Robotics. ‘Just as with those androids the Saberhagens are working on, Jasper Rhine’s so-called research was another pet project of Messina’s. Rhine was instructed to investigate the interaction of the zero-point field with the human energy field. To put that into simpler terms: there have always been those who fear death so much they want to believe that something exists beyond it.’

Hannah suddenly got it. ‘Messina wanted proof that the human soul exists?’

‘On the button.’

‘So you’re visiting Jasper to tell him he’ll henceforth be working in Hydroponics?’

‘Certainly not.’

Jasper Rhine stood just inside the door to his huge laboratory. Thin and exceedingly tall, he had developed a constant stoop to make himself look smaller. His hair was blond and ragged, as if he had impatiently taken the scissors to it himself within recent days. His eyes were like black buttons and his narrow face bore the wrinkles of one who had suffered a great deal of pain. Just noticeable on his face and the backs of his hands was a web-work of narrow white scars.

Computers packed this place, jury-rigged in ways Hannah, during her few brief visits here, had been unable to fathom. Various experiments were also running. A complex tangle of glass tubes, through which clear fluid flowed, emitted bluish glows from within its midst. A framework supported a torus five metres across, this wrapped in electromagnets to which heavy cables snaked across the floor. Other machines here, within enclosed booths, Hannah knew to contain the tools for chip-etching and nano-machining. It seemed such a waste to have all this stuff here for the research of nonsense. What on earth did Saul intend?

Rhine looked terrified, and well he might, for here was someone who would be able to see through all his bullshit. He could babble all he liked about sono-luminescence, vacuum fluctuations and the ground state of hydrogen, and Saul would be baffled by none of it. However, Hannah remembered that he had looked terrified when last she saw him, and others who had met him had commented on this too. It seemed he spent his life in a constant state of fear.

‘You received my instructions precisely two weeks ago,’ Saul stated.

Rhine gave a sharp nod, and shivered. Hannah noticed that he seemed more tired and somewhat less clean than he had appeared last time she saw him. ‘You told me . . .’ he choked to a stop for a moment, took a deep breath, then continued, ‘to abandon a lot of research projects.’

Saul gave a slow nod. ‘Nothing will be lost, since memory storage has never been a problem, and some of the data from those projects might be useful.’

‘Chairman Messina considered it all . . . useful and of prime importance,’ Rhine managed.

‘Yes, but I’ve read all your submissions to him: Vacuum Fluctuations at the Point of Death, Zero-Point Initiation of Human Thought and Kirilian Aural Interaction with the Zero-point Field were the ones that told me all I needed to know, however.’

‘You’ve read them all?’ Rhine looked devastated. Perhaps he wasn’t used to people actually reading his papers.

‘All of them are post-normal science; all are based on statistical artefacts, wishful thinking and what I can only describe as an attempt to create a scientific basis for religious faith,’ said Saul. ‘Your last paper, on the underlying universal mind, is the one most blatant about it.’

‘So you dismiss it all? You’re shutting me down?’ The man looked as if he was about to cry.

‘Not all of it, just the pseudo-science rubbish you fed Messina so as to keep your resource allocation, and to have enough projects running under which to bury your real research – the research I now want you to focus on completely.’ Saul stared at him for a long moment. ‘There will be no more razorbirds or inducement cells in your future, Jasper Rhine. You will give me the truth even if you think I’ll find it unpalatable. All hypotheses will require empirical proof before they can be submitted as theories, and will thereafter undergo every possible test to disprove them.’ He paused again, allowed himself a rare smile. ‘The spirit of Karl Popper is going to be on your back henceforth.’

Rhine not only straightened up, but brushed his hair from his forehead, then inspected his fingernails with something approaching disgust. Saul had done it again: he had judged this man perfectly, used the right words just so, and reached into Rhine’s skull to flip over a few switches. But what was that about razorbirds and inducement? It didn’t take much thought for Hannah to realize that perhaps Rhine had once not been very cooperative with Messina. Here stood a man who had been broken and forced into submission. This whole station was full of people just like him.

Saul scanned the room. ‘You have the prototype power cells here?’

Rhine made a jerky gesture to a nearby bench, then after a pause led the way over to it. He pointed at a small stack of plain grey objects, like dominoes, amidst the other equipment.

‘Pick one up,’ he said.

Hannah glanced at him, and noticed his face had lost some of its stress. There was a hint of excitement there, a ghost of the boyish enthusiasm seared out of him in an inducement cell. His eyes, she now realized, were dark brown, and not black.

Saul reached out and took up one of the objects, held it for a moment, then passed it to Hannah. She almost dropped the thing.

‘Very cold,’ she said, then reached out to touch the bench. It wasn’t cold at all.

Saul turned back to Rhine. ‘What percentages are we talking about here?’

‘Nano-rectification of nearly eighty per cent of all external EM radiation and the same for heat. The ZPE accounts for a debatable five per cent of the power output.’

‘What can they sustain?’

‘Seventy watts constantly, unless in quantum vacuum.’

‘What is this, Saul?’ Hannah interrupted.

He glanced round at her. ‘It’s cold because the heat from your hand is being rectified into electricity and stored. In fact every electromagnetic radiation in this room is being converted into electricity through folded nano-films of rectifiers inside it. They rectify a small amount of electricity direct from the zero-point field too.’ He swung back to Rhine. ‘I want these in production as fast as you can, because we’ll need to cut down on the energy debt as soon as possible.’

‘They’re batteries?’ asked Hannah, not quite wanting to admit what she was holding.

Still gazing at Rhine, Saul replied, ‘Batteries that recharge themselves constantly from their environment, batteries that theoretically can output energy even when surrounded by only quantum vacuum.’ He shook his head and reached out to pick up another one of the objects. ‘The paradigm changed a hundred years ago, but then the research dropped into a cul-de-sac where increasingly complex methods were proposed to extract free energy from the zero-point field – while ignoring the other possibilities.’

‘It seemed as if Messina didn’t ignore them,’ said Hannah.

Saul waved a dismissive hand. ‘I’m talking about the realities, not the fantasy. I’m talking about the real research conducted here . . . aren’t I, Jasper?’

‘You may be,’ said Rhine, non-committal.

‘But you think it’s possible . . . or something like it, don’t you?’

Hannah gazed at Rhine’s expression. Maybe this was something he had spent so long keeping covered that he was finding it difficult to speak about it now – whatever ‘it’ was. Eventually he struggled to get the words out.

‘If you are talking about the Alcubierre Drive then, yes, something like it is very possible indeed.’

‘I am unfamiliar with the name,’ Hannah interjected.

‘How?’ Saul asked Rhine, ignoring her remark.

‘Polarize the quantum foam . . . then collapsing the ZPF ahead induces expansion behind.’

‘I thought there would be a requirement for exotic matter, negative-mass structures and Bose–Einstein condensates?’

Rhine shook his head and allowed himself a superior smile. The man would now explain something that Saul quite obviously already knew, and would feel more confident, boosted, and thus be more enthusiastic about producing what Saul required of him.

‘Exotic energy,’ he explained. ‘The apparent effects of exotic matter can be generated by the interaction of EM radiation fields with tensioned space-time.’ Rhine gestured about himself to indicate all of Argus Station. ‘Our EM radiation shield could supply half the equation. All we would then need is the tensioning device, which, the moment the interactions begin, would become a vortex generator.’

‘Speed?’

‘Of the tensioning mass?’ Rhine shrugged. ‘Overall spin would be . . . three-quarters c, with the spiral eddy currents taking us as close as it gets.’

‘Very high energy requirements to get it up to that speed,’ Saul observed.

Rhine waved a dismissive hand. ‘If you believe Einstein.’

Saul allowed himself a private smile, then continued, ‘Anyway, I meant, what is the overall speed of the space-time bubble. Theories on that haven’t changed much in centuries, and they put it at twenty-five per cent.’

‘No, it’s governed only by how fast you can collapse the field.’

‘Then I want plans and I want evidence. I want you to work out how we build it and, if you convince me it will work, we’ll start construction of your tensioning . . . of your vortex generator directly after we’ve finished enclosing the station.’

‘It will work,’ said Rhine, ‘and I can prove it.’

Saul nodded and turned to Hannah. ‘A theorized warp drive is what he means. We’re talking about inertia-less flight, faster-than-light travel, and everything that entails.’

Zero Plus One Month – Earth

The sun was shining on massive activity within the Aldeburgh Complex. Aeros were taking off and landing, personnel were disembarking or boarding. A couple of big heavy-lifter aeros were delivering a fusion reactor and, even as Serene stood there taking it all in, a scramjet shot overhead. There was no indication at all of the grim horror that lay just a few kilometres inland, except the smell.

Serene took the nasal spray out of her pocket, gave herself a shot up each nostril, and the putrid smell went away. Right at that moment, factories in Britain, Germany and Portugal which previously manufactured nasal inhalers for a particularly virulent herpes sinus infection, were mass-producing these devices. Even so, supply was struggling to keep up with demand, especially from those working the in-field clear-up teams. Serene turned to gaze at a distant pillar of black smoke: the pyre taking in the dead from Aldeburgh and from the hordes of zero assets lying beyond. It had been burning for ten days now.

Serene grimaced then headed towards her own aero, Clay walking beside her and the rest of her security staff and her PAs following behind. When she arrived, two guards boarded ahead of her, one turning to help her up the steps. She entered and went through to sit in the pilot’s chair, Clay coming through next to occupy the chair beside her.

‘We have a pilot on hand,’ Clay noted.

‘I like to keep in practice,’ she replied, strapping herself in then starting up the engines. ‘A lack of self-reliance can kill.’ She took the vessel up into the sky and tilted it nose-down towards that pillar of smoke.

As they flew over Aldeburgh, she noted the huge activity in the streets. The only people visible down there were the infield clear-up teams clad in bright yellow hazmat suits as they collected bodies that the heavy machinery swarming below couldn’t reach. The motorways in both directions were also crammed with convoys of trucks.

‘The cargo-rail networks?’ she asked.

‘They’ll be up and running tomorrow.’

She nodded. This was a microcosm of what was happening all across Earth, though in some regions they were using different methods of transport and disposal. One example immediately sprang to mind: in South Africa they had built ramps down to the sea and were using telefactored bulldozers to shove the corpses into the waves. Apparently the sea along that coast was alive with surviving sharks drawn in from the deep; even two killer whales, thought to be extinct for over twenty years, had been spotted.

‘What’s that?’ Serene asked, noticing something below, in the zero-asset sector beyond the city’s centre, and bringing her aero lower.

‘The river Alde,’ Clay replied, his voice neutral.

Only its movement showed that water ran between the carbocrete banks and under the enclosed walkways penetrating the rust-stained concrete wall to the rear of a megaplex. Its snail-pace crust consisted of corpses, to which the flow seemed to impart the illusion of life: here an arm flopping over, there a boot kicking defiantly at the sky, there a head jutting up with eyes white and tongue protruding cheekily. Serene could think of no explanation for why so many of the dead had ended up in the river. Perhaps something about the Scour drove them to water, or perhaps this was part of that same instinctive drive that had originally impelled so many zero assets towards the sea. She took the aero back into the sky, and continued towards the smoke.

From the residential perimeter of the city, factory complexes extended for ten kilometres to tall security fences. Again there was movement but little of it from living human beings. Here auto-trucks were being loaded and unloaded, while occasional chimneys belched smoke or steam. Not so much of a corpse problem here, since this area was mostly automated, and the problem only became evident in the agricultural land beyond the fence. As soon as the aero cleared the factory complex Serene gazed in numb awe at what she had wrought, then abruptly decided to land the aero. When he realized what she was doing, Clay reached for his nasal spray and took a couple of hits. Serene could hear the others behind doing the same.

Serene landed, the aero’s feet settling with a soggy crunching audible to all inside, and she shut down the engines. After a moment she checked her instruments, for it sounded as if something was still running, then she realized the noise was coming from outside. It penetrated as a droning massive din, as if from some ancient computer room with its switching of relays and hum of transformers.

Certainly there was movement here, what with the filthy seagulls and a scattering of crows, but they only complemented the sound. The view also didn’t seem clear, as if there were smudges on Serene’s sunglasses. She slid a pack of wipes from her top pocket, took off her sunglasses to wipe them, then realized the haze obscuring the view before her was not due to them. Both haze and noise had one source and it was flies: trillions of flies swarming in great foggy clouds over the hectares of corpses.

Good, she thought. At last.

‘They dropped even while they were on the move,’ said Clay. ‘It’s weird.’

The scene reminded her of pictures she had seen of the Tunguska meteorite impact, where trees had been felled evenly in one direction by the blast wave. Or perhaps a better analogy might be the passing of a harvester of GM bamboo, neatly cutting down and laying out the stems ready for the big collectors that conveyed the harvest directly to a nearby biofuel power station. A wheat crop lay before her, trampled flat by the advancing horde, all heading in one direction; and then the largest proportion of the horde felled while stubbornly refusing to change direction. All of them collapsing, all of them lying with their heads pointing towards the sea which, even though almost devoid of life, could be glimpsed sparkling merrily in the sunshine, between the tower blocks of Aldeburgh City.

‘We were thinking it would be better to use one of the big automated ploughs here,’ said Clay, then pointed: ‘we are already doing some clearing at the perimeter.’

In the distance a massive dozer was heaping up corpses, then scooping them onto the back of a long flatbed agricultural trailer.

‘They’re going to the fire?’ Serene indicated the pillar of smoke, which was considerably nearer now.

‘To the fire, yes.’

‘When will that all be finished?’ she enquired.

‘It will need to burn for three months,’ Clay replied.

‘What about burial?’

‘Every piece of earth-moving equipment available is at work, even the old ones that require drivers. All the biofuel power stations on Earth are currently running on zero-asset corpses. And every five kilometres, along all coasts, we’re making ramps to push the mounds of corpses into the sea – just like in Africa. The estimate is that we’ll manage to dispose of just ten per cent of the dead before the remainder are only bones.’

‘Surely we have more efficient methods?’

‘When we’ve finished security-checking Govnet, and can start running the robots, things should improve for the in-field teams as regards moving the dead.’ He shrugged. ‘But where do we move the corpses to?’

‘Our agricultural land is no longer at a premium, therefore much of it can be used.’

‘As we are doing,’ replied Clay.

‘It’s a short-term problem which nature will eventually solve for us,’ Serene stated.

‘Nature already is solving it for us,’ said Clay, indicating with a nod the masses of flies settling on the aero’s windscreen.

Serene smiled briefly, and resisted the temptation to apprise him of a reality recently detailed to her by a taphonomist – a man whose discipline was the study of decomposition. A hundred years ago such masses of corpses would have been much further along in decay after one month. That so many of them were still intact here after so long was due both to a severe lack of all the microbes and insects that had served as Earth’s undertakers, and to the sheer number of corpses they now needed to deal with. That was perhaps one of the best indications of the present state of Earth’s biosphere she had heard.

Serene was glad to see the flies.

Zero Plus Three Months – Argus

As he stepped out of the elevator airlock at the end of Arcoplex Two, and then paced along one of the walkways running past the cylinder world’s massive end bearing, Saul looked up at the ‘roof’ gradually being constructed out from below the watchtower windows of Tech Central, perched atop the asteroid. They would need to get all the reactors out of storage to keep up the work rate, and he calculated that enclosure would be completed a month hence.

He smiled to himself – a perfectly human response both to what he saw here, and what he felt had been another interesting visit to Arcoplex Two. The progress of the twins in Robotics had been slow but sure, and Rhine’s work was opening up whole new horizons of possibility. Moreover, the samples of his own brain grown to maturity in two of those boxes in Hannah’s clean-room – the other of the original samples had died – made it quite possible he would arrive successfully at those horizons and venture beyond them. The effect from them – the echoes in his head – he had considered removing, but the echoes seemed a perfect representation of being in the mansion of large empty rooms that some part of him now wandered. But Saul knew that his present ebullient mood had little to do with any of those three projects.

I was blind, he thought, but now I can see again.

The solar storm was dying at last and, though it still interfered with signals to and from Earth, things weren’t so bad inside the station. Now, but for a few small interruptions, he could remain permanently linked into all of himself.

Over the last three months it had been difficult to take himself out of his room in Tech Central, and each time he left he did so only after thoroughly checking the area he was heading to and swarming it with his robots. Now they no longer seemed necessary, because he could gaze through every available camera, through the eyes of his numerous robots: now he could taste and smell through thousands of sensors, even touch with specially sensitized robotic limbs; now, in fact, the station itself had returned to being his entire body. He was the ruler here too, he was the Owner, and it seemed necessary for him to begin showing his face to the human population again so as to establish firm personal control – to remind them to whom they owed their lives, and who could take away those lives in an instant. He also did not like that his manifest implements of power here were exactly the same as they had been for the Committee: the readerguns, spiderguns and other robots, and the distant impersonal instructions.

Such things he now considered before he died.

A human being, facing fatal danger, charges up with adrenalin and slows his perception of time to a crawl. Alan Saul, who some might not have considered human even before his brain implants turned him into something more, experienced the same surge of adrenalin. Already operating at super-cooled computer speed, his mind accelerated, and time slowed for him to the passing of aeons.

In a nanosecond he recognized the danger. That figure, suspended on one of the new bubblemetal beams extending out to the enclosure framework, was no robot but a human being in a spacesuit. Whoever it was should not be there, according to all work rosters, which Saul checked in that nanosecond. The figure also wore a vacuum combat suit, and a glimpse through a cam much nearer to it revealed it levelling an assault rifle. Saul threw himself sideways, simultaneously spurring his spidergun into action, its weaponized limbs coming up and targeting just as the distant muzzle flash impinged.

Perhaps it was an illusion, an artefact of death, but Saul was sure he saw the ceramic-tipped bullets descending on him like angry hornets, and he was sure he saw the clouds of depleted uranium beads hurtling up from the spidergun. The first bullet hit him in the right-hand side of his chest, the second punched into the right-hand side of his gut. He felt every sensation: the first bullet penetrating between his ribs, ripping his lung, fragmenting, and those fragments smashing several back ribs out from his spine; the second bullet thumping home, spewing a wrecked kidney out of his back. Perhaps he could have survived these. Hannah Neumann possessed the technology and skill to repair even more severe damage, and his spacesuit’s breach-sealant circuit would stop the holes and prevent him boiling his blood away into vacuum. However, the third bullet punched into the back of his space helmet and, broken into three pieces, it shattered his skull as it entered, shards of ceramic and bone tearing into delicate brain tissue as well as the new dense growth of artificially generated neurons and synapses.

The damage stopped his heart, stopped his breathing, blood and brain boiled out into space until a great gobbet of yellow breach sealant plugged the hole, incidentally filling one side of his helmet.

This Alan Saul died.

‘I see you’ve found them,’ Hannah had said.

The connections had been there, waiting invitingly. Had he wanted to go there? Had he wanted to take himself even further away from the original human he had been? Of course he had, because, given the opportunity, any ‘original human’ would choose greater intelligence, greater power. That desire was wired in. In an instant he had connected to one of the units and, at once, it was just as it had been when he amalgamated with Janus: a sudden expansion of his mental horizons – but this fitted him comfortably; there had been no resistance. It had been like submerging himself in a still, cool pool of clarity. He held the connection open, felt the mental pressure draining from his skull, then from the first unit opened a connection to the second. Using an analogy with old computing methods, he had decided to call this last unit his D drive. He had begun copying across . . . everything he was.

‘I am making a backup,’ he had said.

She’d turned to him, startled. Hadn’t she realized the possibilities in what she had made? Here she had done something that had been speculated on for centuries: she had made it possible to copy an entire human mind. Here, essentially, was a form of immortality.

‘I also want you to make more of these units,’ he’d added, ‘for yourself first, and for others here later. Rhine must be the next in the queue after you.’

Dislocation.

The extent of Saul’s world collapsed, instantly, down into something dark and limited and primitive. He had never expected to use this so soon, and it wasn’t really ready. To his secondary backup he’d copied across the entirety of what he was down on Earth, before the bio-interface began growing in his skull, but no more. The primary extension to his mind held spillover, just something to relieve the pressure, and the connections of both of them were via the new growth in his skull – growth that was now damaged and malfunctioning. He was merely human, a damaged human no longer even occupying a human body, but with the attention and capacity of the same.

Through the spidergun’s sensors, he saw the distant figure come apart in a cloud of flesh, vaporizing blood and tatters of spacesuit. The spidergun hesitated to obey his new orders, his grip on it slipping, its mind a bright and shiny complexity he couldn’t quite grasp. But its sensitivity to him now lay beyond the simple computer code it had once used and, after running some checks of its own, it sprang into action. It was fortunate that it had become a more complex machine than before, because the detail of its movements lay beyond him. It snagged his body, pulled it back down to the walkway he had been drifting away from, enfolded him in two limbs and headed for the airlock elevator, to take them back down into Arcoplex Two.

Alan Saul, linked to his cerebral hardware, and what remained of his brain and organic augmentations, tried to comprehend the damage from a dark vastness. Consciousness was a hazy concept to him, just as was his conception of himself and his location. Very little would be recoverable from that damaged being without oxygenated blood flooding its wrecked brain; unfortunately that blood would rapidly fill up his lungs and gut and also pour out of the holes there. Luckily, the breach foam in his helmet had sealed both helmet and skull, but still there would be numerous bleeds.

So, thought the Alan Saul struggling for coherence, is what remains of that Alan Saul worth saving? He realized it was possible; some part of him now making cold calculations. The blood might preserve a good portion of the brain throughout the time it would take the spidergun to get the corpse to Hannah, and then throughout the time it would take her to set to work on the damage. He decided it was worth it. There was a lot there that might be recoverable and, in the consciousness he had become, he discovered an old-fashioned attachment to owning a physical organic body. Via the hardware and undamaged portions of the body’s neural network, he struggled to find and identify what he wanted, his perception of the Argus Station diminishing as he applied himself to the complex task of dealing with his body’s autonomic nervous system. Eventually he restarted the heart, but the task drained him, reality stuttered . . . a whole minute gone, the spidergun now nearly at Hannah’s laboratory. He needed to locate her. From a place full of shadows, he struggled to visualize and map Arcoplex Two, laboured to link into the cams. He found her still in her laboratory, just paces away from what had now become his true self, residing in those two boxes, and managed to speak to her through her fone.

‘Hannah . . . I . . . I have been shot,’ he told her.

‘What . . . Alan?’

‘Just . . . listen,’ he said, ‘Right lung . . . lower torso . . . my head. I am dead.’

‘I . . .’

‘Surgery . . . right now – my spidergun brings me.’

She was sensible enough to ask no further questions, just head at full speed to the surgery adjoining her laboratory. Blackness, again, and more time lost. Now he was in the laboratory, his blood leaking out on the floor.

Things to do.

‘I have been shot’ – the words saved in a mini-file.

‘What do you want me to do?’ Langstrom asked, and Saul didn’t even know he had been talking to the man.

It required massive concentration to string the words together, to lose the hesitation. He lined them up first, open to his inspection, before sending them. ‘Retrieve what you can of the assassin and find out what you can from him. Start a section-by-section search of the entire station, missing nothing and ensuring no one can get past you.’

‘Will do.’ Langstrom paused. ‘How bad are you hurt?’

‘I’ll survive,’ Saul replied as he faded, not knowing.

Hannah took one look at what was now effectively a corpse, as the robot loaded it on to the clean-lock gurney, then she swung round to gaze at the blurring readouts on two of her screens – the two that were connected to the two metal boxes in her clean-room. She felt cold fingers drawing down her spine as she realized why he had been able to speak to her; that it wasn’t what lay on that gurney actually speaking. She abruptly turned away, overrode the lock into her surgery to take him straight through. Two of her staff arrived and donned surgical gowns, quickly following her inside.

‘Strip off the spacesuit,’ she instructed them, as she prepared her instruments.

Blood poured out as they first disconnected all the seals on the suit. They tried to take off the helmet, but with no success.

‘Quickly!’ Hannah barked.

One of the men stepped over to a nearby equipment cabinet and took out a small electric circular saw and quickly affixed to it a diamond wheel, while the other took from the same cabinet a set of bolt croppers. In very short order, Saul’s suit lay in a soggy heap on the floor, the helmet in two halves. Rather than bother with any of the lifting equipment available, they manually shifted him to the surgical table, strapped him down, tweaked the position of the table to bring his head up high, and shortly after that were attaching feeds for artificial blood. Using an external cardio-stimulator that injected a series of hair-thin titanium wires to provide current where required, they restarted his heart, which had failed again, and the blood filled his veins – then came out of the various holes in his body almost as quickly as it went in, pouring over the floor. Under Hannah’s instruction, one of the men pulled over a surgical unit, and it began simultaneously injecting surgical snakes into his two body wounds, quickly sealing the worst bleeds. Meanwhile, Hannah, after slicing away breach foam to expose the wound to his head, pulled over her specialized combined micro- and macro-surgery and set to work.

As he gazed at all this, Saul understood the detail, but only as a distant spectator. Nothing seemed real; he drifted in a dream, in some half-conscious state. Then, maybe because of some repair she had just made in his skull, everything momentarily slid into proper focus.

‘Must remove all . . . damaged matter,’ he told her via the intercom, causing her to jerk and quickly withdraw her hands from the telefactor gloves. He was only aware of having spoken after the fact, and wasn’t entirely sure of how he had accessed the intercom. The two men looked up in amazement, and some horror, for they were being spoken to by the mess on the surgical table before them.

‘I think I know what I’m doing,’ Hannah replied, returning her hands to her telefactor gloves, and her attention to the screen images the optics were providing.

‘Repair . . . then use tissue stores from the failed unit, rebuild and . . . regrowth.’ Why did he say that? He didn’t know. Time passed; images on a screen, but no emotional content.

She had shaved and then lifted his scalp to remove a hemisphere of skull from the back of his head. His brain had pulsed blood as she pulled out pieces of shattered bone and ceramic bullet, and injected numerous probes and other instruments. She was now cutting out lumps of tissue killed by the impact shock and depositing them in a kidney dish, then micro-cauterizing and repairing veins, so that the bleeding became less. She had also begun putting in struts and discs of collagen foam for support, for without these his brain would deflate like a speeded-up film of a rotting orange.

‘You’ll be on life-support for six months before I can even restore your autonomic nervous system – if I even can.’

‘I can guide regrowth,’ he replied. ‘I can run my body . . . through the implants. My body will . . . restore . . . I will . . .’

She paused, absorbing that.

‘You’ll control regrowth, just as you control your robots?’

‘Yes.’

And the truth? The truth was that it was taking a substantial portion of his erratic mental function to keep his body running. His perception of the station had crashed, and his control of the machines within it was now minimal. Maybe he could fully control one spidergun, but definitely not two. His cam vision had dropped back to something wholly human – for he could only manage to look through one cam at a time without becoming confused. But, worse than all this, his perception of himself seemed to have faded, as had his perception of time and place.

He felt adrift in a dream that was Argus Station.

4

The Reaper’s Blunt Scythe

Before doctors and medical technology came along to queer the pitch, death was a quite easily definable state. If your breathing and your heart stopped, you had achieved that state and little else was considered. This, in its time, could lead to some unfortunate results when the person checking the death failed to make absolutely sure, as fingernail marks on the insides of lids of ancient coffins attest. As time progressed, it became possible to restart the heart, restart the breathing and then to maintain both. Brain death due to the total necrosis of cerebral neurons then became the point of no recovery, but even that was a movable feast and a hunting ground for lawyers. This line was then blurred when the necrosis became a matter of degree, when cerebral matter could be regrown or replaced, and then became almost invisible when it became possible to programme new neural tissue. The new line was then the death of the personality, but even that became a moot point and was not necessarily connected to the death of the human body concerned. Combine the fact that we can now clone human beings with the seeming likelihood that we will soon be able to record most of the information a brain contains, and the meaning of death moves into the territory of philosophers – a place where ancient certainties themselves go to die.

Argus

Damn, she didn’t need this now. She wanted to stay with Saul, to be ready if anything went wrong, to be ready to ensure that he lived. But the implications of what Le Roque had told her, and the images she had seen, could not be denied. Her expertise was required, and essential. Not only that: her refusing to come would hint to Le Roque, and others, the extent of Saul’s injuries, which was something she hadn’t broadcast. She would see this through and get back to him just as fast as she could.

Twenty-two people had died, all within an hour of each other, all of them repros and erstwhile delegates. Others had conducted the initial autopsies and revealed some derivative of Ebola, but now, factoring in those pictures from Earth and the fact that the deaths occurred shortly after the EM shield had been shut down . . .

Arcoplex One, where most of the deaths had occurred, was quarantined, as were the quarters outside the arcoplex which the victims had occupied, but there were no further deaths, and subsequent blood tests, both within the arcoplex and throughout the station, had revealed no further spread. The corpses had been consigned to the outer ring, to storage in rooms open to vacuum, along with the numerous other corpses that were a product of this station’s recent history. It was a puzzle Hannah had not been involved in because of her focus on Saul, and it was one to which she suspected little effort had been applied in solving since, in the end, the victims had been Committee delegates. Now she was involved because of what was happening on Earth; because, according to some recent data intercepted, people had been dying back there of something similar.

‘Keep me apprised of what you learn,’ Saul whispered to her through her fone.

These words sounded rehearsed to Hannah, as if he had readied them for this moment.

‘Why? You’ll probably know before I do.’ She pulled on her spacesuit helmet and it automatically dogged down.

‘I did not tell you . . . as others were listening,’ he said, ‘I am . . . much less . . .’

‘What?’ Hannah paused at the airlock, cold fingers drawing down her spine.

‘The copy of me, which is speaking to you now, did not fully load before I was shot. I’ve lost everything I gained through melding with Janus. I’m not even as functional as Malden was. This will change as your tissue implants in my original skull grow and as the neural net reconnects, but right now I can watch through only one cam and maybe control just one robot.’

Pre-compiled, every word; something prepared for this moment. He was still on the surgical table in her private surgery, her two assistants finessing the major repairs to his body. He was, however, now controlling the beat of his own heart along with a few other heretofore autonomous functions. Hannah stepped into the airlock, suddenly frightened. Alan Saul was the glue that held this station together and, if anyone discovered the extent of his debilitation, it could all fall apart. It was significant that the only one he trusted with this knowledge was herself.

The elevator took her out to the endcap, where she departed the airlock, past the massive end bearing, and made her way up to Tech Central. She stepped into one of the new walkway tubes and very shortly reached the temporary airlock inside – put there until the walkway had been built outwards and connected to Arcoplex Two.

Within minutes she had reached the lower corridors of Tech Central, propelling herself along by grab handles in zero gravity. Only when she took a cageway up to the floor Medical was located on, and saw Technical Director Le Roque awaiting her, did she remember to remove her space helmet.

‘You’ve got some of them here?’ she asked.

Le Roque gestured towards the door into Medical. ‘Four of them – and another is on its way and should be here within minutes.’ He appeared puzzled. ‘I’m not sure how they relate to what we’re seeing on Earth.’

‘Timing,’ said Hannah. ‘They all died within an hour of each other and just after we shut down the EM shield and – in my estimation from that video feed you sent me – from the same disease as killed those back on Earth.’

‘I see,’ said Le Roque, still appearing puzzled.

Hannah entered the room ahead of him and, once inside, began stripping off her spacesuit. Three corpses were strapped on gurneys outside the surgery, while a fourth was inside, undergoing a second autopsy conducted by one of the military doctors, Yanis Raiman. She strode up to the glass to study the corpse, which lay open like a gutted fish. Raiman had obviously been struggling at it, for the corpse had vacuum-dried like old leather.

‘What have you got so far?’ she asked.

Raiman looked up. ‘The massive internal haemorrhages I picked up on before, but I’m also finding a lot of nerve damage that was previously missed.’

Only now did Hannah note that he wore a full medical hazmat suit. She glanced round at the other corpses on their gurneys. All of them were contained in sterile body bags. If she was right, there was no need for such precautions, but the chance of her being wrong meant they still had to be taken. She turned to watch as the door opened and two security staff towed in the last gurney and pushed it down to the floor so its gecko feet could stick.

‘The virus . . . nanoscope,’ Saul whispered in her ear.

As the two security staff departed, Hannah went over to a nearby console, and linked up to the surgery nanoscope into which Raiman had placed a number of samples. An image came clear, reams of data scrolling up beside it. Hannah ignored the image but studied the data intently, looking for clues, looking for confirmation.

‘Manufactured,’ she concluded at once.

‘What makes you think that?’ asked Raiman, studying the surgery screen.

‘Easy to mistake it for Ebola, since it is based on that virus. Ebola is a favourite for biological warfare – always has been. But this one has a cybernetic component to produce a nerve toxin. Check the chemical stats – because you don’t find iron molybdenum and platinum catalysts in anything natural.’

‘Ah, I see,’ Raiman replied, quite obviously not seeing.

‘But how did it get here?’ Le Roque asked.

‘It was here already,’ said Hannah. ‘What we need to know is how it was activated.’

She turned away from the screen and from a nearby cupboard removed a medical hazmat suit and donned it, then proceeded through the clean lock. In a moment she was standing over the corpse, noting where it had bled, checking the desiccated organs in glass bottles on a nearby work surface, then rolling closer a mobile ultrasound scanner. Meanwhile Raiman had stepped back, quite prepared to let her take over.

‘I’ll set the scan to the viral signature,’ she said. ‘I want to locate its vector.’

It took five minutes’ scanning. The concentration of the virus was all too plain.

‘His right arm,’ she noted, not exactly pleased to have been right.

‘Did not have . . . ID implants removed,’ Saul whispered through her fone.

Hannah nodded; that was it, of course. The twenty-two victims were those delegates who had not had their ID implants removed before the EM shield shut down. She picked up a scalpel, ran a finger down the corpse’s arm until she felt a slight lump, made an incision and, using a pair of forceps, removed the implant and took it over to the nanoscope.

‘Le Roque,’ said Saul from the intercom. ‘I want you to return to the control centre and get a team busy analysing that data from Earth further and collating anything else they find of relevance.’

Tick-tock – another prepared order.

‘I see,’ said the technical director.

As she stood beside the nanoscope, Hannah turned and glanced back at Le Roque through the glass. He looked pale and grim as he headed away. Did he hear it? Did he notice the disconnection between Saul’s words and Saul himself? Or was that just her imagination working overtime? She returned her attention to the implant and dropped it into a sample tube, which she then inserted into the nanoscope. She concentrated fully on what she was doing but, even so, the implication of Saul’s instruction nagged at her. The video feed she had seen might be only a very small part of the whole story. The implications hit home fully when she studied the implant, checked the hardware that interfaced with the body it occupied and found the biochip. It was saturated with the virus and its surface structures clearly indicated that, when active, it had actually been in the process of generating the thing.

‘Earth was hit first,’ she said leadenly, ‘then the signal got through once our EM shield went down.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Raiman, moving over to stand beside her. He had not seen the video feed; wasn’t entirely sure what this was all about.

‘Check implants already removed . . . if they . . . still available,’ Saul said to her through her fone, then out loud, ‘Yes, Earth.’

He had to hang on in: there was too much to do, too many preparations to make. He drifted about the station, sometimes watching ghostlike through cams, sometimes wholly occupying virtual worlds. He felt weary, utterly drained and at the limit.

Must concentrate.

A view opened into Langstrom’s office, where the soldier sat at his desk gazing at a video file on his screen. It was a transmission picked up from a camera on an aero back on Earth, and the horrifying scene it showed was thoroughly familiar to Saul.

‘You have a report for me,’ he said, speaking from the intercom, his cam reception breaking up even with that small effort.

Langstrom jerked and looked around at the door, then up at the nearest cam. He nodded and cleared his throat. ‘I do.’

‘Make it.’

The soldier cleared his throat again, and stood up. ‘The shooter might have been one of Messina’s troops, because we’re getting no DNA match with anyone we know of in the station. During our search of the outer ring, one of my teams was fired on, and two of my men killed. We returned fire, then went in pursuit and saw two people fleeing.’ He paused, obviously uneasy. ‘We had them backed up against one of the ring sections, where new supports are going in for the enclosure, but they escaped across it and lost themselves somewhere in the next two kilometres of ring.’

Langstrom had relied on Saul’s omniscience; expecting the two shooters to be unable to cross an area swarming with robots, expecting these people to be caught or killed. Here, then, was definite proof of Saul’s debility.

‘Keep searching . . . I want them found,’ he said, unable to put together a plausible explanation for the inaction of his robots in the time he had to talk.

‘We’ve still got them confined to the outer—’ Langstrom began.

‘Later,’ Saul snapped, then set pre-recorded words running. ‘You need to go to Tech Central now. You need to see this . . . I’ve ordered all high-level staff there for the same reason, then afterwards, once they are apprised, we’ll broadcast it throughout the station.’ He hadn’t given the order – he’d relayed it through Le Roque. With luck, the likes of the technical director would see this as Saul merely attempting not to humiliate his underlings by knowing everything and attempting to micromanage everything.

‘To see what?’ Langstrom asked.

‘What . . . you will see. Go.’

Rather than trying to find his own way through virtual space to Tech Central, Saul simply followed Langstrom, using a tracking program through the cam system. He saw Hannah join the soldier, looking very worried about what she had recently learned of the events on Earth, and probably by her knowledge of Saul’s real condition. The two finally arrived in the main control room of Tech Central, where all the other lead staff in the station had gathered. Included in this crowd were Le Roque, Girondel Chang, the Saberhagen twins and other appointees new and old.

‘You are all here,’ said Saul through the intercom.

Le Roque peered up at a nearby cam then, as previously instructed, turned and stabbed a finger down onto his console, turning on a big screen above it. Again the man had not questioned why he should be doing this, which was good – better for him not to know that it represented one too many tasks for Saul to handle mentally. Now it was time for his rehearsed speech, and his prepared answers to expected questions.

‘As some of you will know, twenty-two repros recently died from what looked like Ebola,’ he began, the first image appearing on the screen to show a satellite view of the South American peninsula. ‘After quarantine, sterilization of relevant areas and blood tests, no further infection was found and the issue was shelved. However, new information has now become available, with the consequence that further autopsies have needed to be conducted. I’ll let Hannah explain.’

Hannah dipped her head in acknowledgement towards the nearest cam, then reluctantly stepped forward.

‘The virus is based on Ebola but is an artificial construct with a cybernetic component,’ she said, then paused to close her eyes and rub at her forehead with her forefinger. ‘In the victims I examined, I traced its source and found it to be a biochip within their ID implants.’

A muttered response arose to that, probably, Saul reckoned, from those who had yet to have their implants removed, though he did not now have the resources to check on that.

Hannah continued, ‘I’ve since tested all the ID implants previously removed aboard this station, along with those kept in stock. I found only one that was without the biochip and that came from Technical Director Le Roque, and it was the only ID implant more than fifty years old. This discovery is why, I hasten to add, we’ve speeded up the implant removal programme and now made it compulsory.’

‘What activated the biochips in this way?’ asked Girondel Chang.

‘Good question. They were activated by a signal code specific to each chip.’ Hannah paused. ‘It was probably sent months ago but since then has continued to propagate in computer systems on Earth and throughout the solar system. It only got through to us here after we shut down the EM shield.’

‘But why?’ asked Brigitta Saberhagen.

‘Let me . . . answer that,’ said Saul, then began another prepared speech: ‘From the data we’ve been able to obtain thus far, it seems these biochips were devised as a radical alternative to sectoring, but whoever created them has now also used them in a bid for power on Earth. All but one of the surviving delegates on Earth is now dead. Those who died here on the station were the only delegates still carrying implants. The surviving delegate on Earth, one Serene Galahad, ran the centre for implant research in Britain and the biochip industry all across Earth. She is now claiming that the massive death toll was caused by a rebel-manufactured plague called the Scour.’

‘Massive death toll?’ someone asked.

His tone flat, Saul said, ‘All zero assets with implants, which means ninety-eight per cent of them.’

Right on cue, Le Roque magnified the picture on the screen down towards that South American coastline. In from the shore the regular structure of the sprawls now became evident, while offshore a large half-moon island became visible.

‘The island,’ said Saul, ‘was not there three months ago, but it was not the result of volcanic activity. It is now breaking up, but was previously a floating mass five kilometres long and two wide. The pictures you will now see are from a month and a half ago. Give us that fish-farm cam image, Le Roque.’

A wall of rotting human corpses flashed into view, two metres tall, all tangled together, and crawling with flat white crabs. The view retreated to give the whole horrible panorama, seagulls circling above it like vultures.

‘You’re seeing just a small portion of it here. We estimate, just guessing how many were under water, that this one island consisted of fifty million corpses. There were, and still are, masses like this offshore along just about every coastline on Earth. That is one method of disposal this Serene Galahad ordered to be employed, but there’s more.’

Another view now: a mountain of corpses with roads heading up the sides, up which earth-moving equipment trundled to deposit yet more corpses.

‘Another old clip,’ Saul noted, ‘because as the corpses started to liquefy, her people started losing earth-moving equipment.’

Now a fire belching clouds of smoke into which massive grain conveyors fed a steady stream of the dead, now mostly just rags and bones.

‘This is a current video. This fire has been burning for the best part of three months.’ He paused for a second. ‘A lot of the pyres are going out now, but the skies are still yellow all across Earth and every rainstorm is black, either from the smoke or from trillions of dead flies.’

He’d now said enough. In complete silence, the people in Tech Central had watched the parade of horrifying images. Finally someone spoke up, his voice catching.

‘How many?’ asked Langstrom.

‘Just under eight billion,’ Saul replied and wondered if, even with his mind operating to its full capacity, he could ever truly comprehend such a figure. He also wondered how Earth’s history would remember him, since it seemed this Serene Galahad was claiming that he had actually caused this plague, this worldwide slaughter.

Saul now drifted away, disconnecting from the cam and from the intercom, his mind feeling like the air hollows in a nautilus’s shell, reality slipping away into a dream state. I’m dying, he thought, as if to test the words. I’m dying again.

Mars

Another one, thought Var, as she quickly pulled on her clothing. The disease had hit very fast and killed eight people. Chief Medical Officer Da Vinci had the virus identified as some form of Ebola, but hadn’t committed himself beyond that. In response, Var had ordered the imposition of the virus protocols established under Committee rule. That meant relevant areas were quarantined and disinfected. The personal effects of those who died were placed outside, where the Martian atmosphere would effectively sterilize them, and their bodies were buried outside too. Ultraviolet lights were left on permanently throughout the base, alcohol-based hand-cleaner units placed everywhere, teams constantly cleaning and sterilizing. The community room had been closed in order to minimize human contact, and constant blood tests and physical scans were ongoing. And yet now – after three months and just when Var was relaxing the strictures – another death.

Once dressed, Var headed out of her cabin. Perhaps she should not have considered the results from the blood tests a good enough reason to start opening things up again. Da Vinci had convinced her otherwise, however. In his estimation, the chances of the disease spreading now, after so much time, were very low, but the detrimental effects of keeping the gym closed were quickly becoming evident. The low gravity of Mars simply wasn’t enough to sustain bone growth and muscle mass. Base personnel needed resistance exercises and their regular time in the spinner.

One of Martinez’s men stood guard directly ahead, behind a hazard tape, while twenty metres further along another stood ready behind another tape. They were both armed, which was surprising, but not half as surprising as seeing the corridor still open and no infectious-disease protocols being immediately employed. The two should be wearing hazmat suits, the corridor should have been sealed off with sheets of plastic, and a pressure differential applied. There should have been a suit here waiting for her, too. She was about to question the guard nearest about this, but then realized she might be mistaken. When Lopomac called her he had said, ‘We’ve got a death.’ He hadn’t used the word ‘another’, nor had he mentioned the virus.

Var ducked under the tape, headed straight over to the door leading into the gym, opened it and entered. Amidst the various weight-training and CV machines, Martinez, Lopomac and Da Vinci stood gazing down at a body bag lying on an exercise mat, while Da Vinci’s two assistants were unfolding a gurney nearby. Over to one side stood the spinner, a five-metre-diameter cylinder ten metres long, driven by big electric motors to wind it up to sufficient speed for those who had entered it to experience up to two Gs. It was standing still – all exercise suspended for today.

‘What have we got here?’ she asked, striding forward.

The three exchanged furtive glances, and Lopomac finally said, ‘What do you think, doctor?’

Da Vinci grimaced and kept his eyes down. ‘I won’t give an opinion until I’ve done an autopsy.’

‘Seems quite simple to me,’ said Martinez. ‘He did something stupid in the spinner and broke his neck. That doesn’t require an autopsy.’

There was something odd going on here, and Var felt uneasy. She prided herself on being able to assess any situation quickly and find the right response. It seemed almost as if Martinez and Lopomac were bullying Da Vinci, and he was having none of it. The three now moved back as the two assistants stepped in and picked up the body to load it on the gurney.

‘Let the doctor conduct an autopsy,’ said Var. ‘We should investigate this rigorously – I’ve never heard of anyone getting killed in a spinner accident.’

‘We’re all suffering bone depletion,’ said Lopomac, ‘so it doesn’t seem that unlikely to me.’

She gazed at him for a second, finding she couldn’t read his bland expression, then turned back to Da Vinci. ‘Do you have suspicions?’

The doctor raised his head and gazed at her almost defiantly. ‘Yes, I have my suspicions,’ he said. ‘I’m a little baffled as to how a man could have sustained such a severe break inside a smooth cylinder.’

‘It was up to the two-G setting,’ observed Lopomac.

Da Vinci rounded on him. ‘It would be convenient for people to think that. Maybe someone killed him out here, then threw him into the spinner and set it on two Gs just to make it look like an accident.’

‘This must be investigated,’ repeated Var, ‘and thoroughly.’

She stepped over to the gurney. Even though this might be murder, she was quite relieved it wasn’t another Ebola death. Murderers could be found and punished and, since the number of suspects available here was extremely limited, and generally their locations were known, she didn’t think this would be so difficult a case to solve. In a way she quite welcomed the distraction. She reached down and unzipped the top of the body bag, turned the head inside it to face her, then found her heart hammering in her chest as a whole new set of calculations began running inside her skull. She realized that, from the moment she had stepped in here, she had not asked them who was dead. That would look bad. She also now understood the odd reactions of those already here.

‘Delaware,’ she said. ‘Now that’s awkward.’

‘Or convenient,’ said Da Vinci, ‘depending on your perspective.’ He headed for the door, beckoning his assistants after him. One of them reached out and zipped up the bag, then they followed, heads ducked as if trying not to be noticed.

Var hesitated. Should she stop them leaving? Should she lock down on this? She knew well enough that honesty and truth would play no part in what would ensue; people tended to believe what they wanted to believe, and now everyone in Antares Base knew about the dressing-down Rhone had given Delaware and Christen – the two from Mars Science who had been plotting to unseat her. She did nothing, however, and the door closed behind the gurney.

‘Who killed him?’ Var asked, without turning.

‘It was an accident,’ said Lopomac. ‘Da Vinci won’t be able to prove otherwise.’

Var rounded on him. ‘Did you kill him?’

Lopomac looked surprised and baffled, which meant he was innocent of the crime, or a very good liar.

‘What about you, Martinez?’ she asked.

Standing with his arms folded, the man shook his head briefly. ‘If you’d asked me to make him have an accident, I wouldn’t have been this sloppy. More likely one of his suit seals would have given out while he was outside.’

‘Then you didn’t kill him?’ Lopomac asked her.

‘No, I didn’t,’ Var replied. ‘And if neither of you two did, then that leaves us with a problem.’

They were gazing at her doubtfully, judgement reserved, and she imagined that they were reading a similar expression on her face, too. What to do now? If she didn’t investigate this, then it could poison this entire base, yet how could she spare resources for an investigation when they were still on the edge of survival? And, more importantly, if they did find out who had done it, what then? Whoever did it would have to be killed, since they could not spare the resources for imprisonment either. And she could not afford to lose either Martinez or Lopomac, if it turned out to be one of them.

‘Perhaps Delaware and Christen had a falling out,’ suggested Lopomac.

Now there was an option: two birds with one stone. However, no one would believe the convenience of that, and no one would believe a diminutive woman like Christen to be capable of breaking someone’s neck.

‘No,’ said Var firmly. ‘You, Martinez, will assign one of your men to this. I want everyone located in the relevant timeframe, and I want people questioned. Meanwhile we’ll see what Da Vinci comes up with. Maybe it was merely bone weakness.’ It seemed a vain hope.

‘Okay,’ said Martinez, quickly heading for the door as if he wanted to be gone.

After it closed behind him, Lopomac asked her, ‘You really didn’t kill him or have him killed?’

‘I’m not a savage,’ said Var, well aware that many on the base wouldn’t believe that.

‘Then perhaps we need to consider just how inconvenient a death this is for you.’

Very true, Var felt, the image of Rhone of Mars Science coming to the forefront of her mind. But she mustn’t leap to conclusions. Just maybe someone had decided to ‘rid her of that troublesome priest’, because too much loyalty could be a penalty of leadership too.

‘And you didn’t kill him?’ she repeated, for confirmation.

Lopomac shook his head. ‘I’m with Martinez on that. If I’d done it, there would have been no body to find.’

‘Okay,’ said Var, considering how frangible a thing loyalty could be, and how easily it could be faked.

Earth

In the three months since it struck, ‘the Scour’ had gained currency as an epithet all across Earth, and this particular period of time they were calling the ‘Year of the Flies’. Much organization had been required to deal with its fallout, and so Serene had appointed four hundred delegates to govern the regions of the planet. However, already fifty-eight of her appointees were proving treacherous.

‘I’ll need confirmation sent to my palmtop within the hour,’ she said, as she gazed ahead – through the high-security fences, past the readergun towers, inducer emplacements and across the minefield – towards this surviving twenty square kilometres of Tuscan countryside.

‘It’s on its way to you now,’ Clay replied. ‘They are the ones who set up the laboratory and had recent Scour victims transported there. They staffed the place with scientists kidnapped from our Nanking factories, and diverted resources to it from West China Region’s disposal budget.’

Still the business of sanitizing the planet was continuing, still some fires were burning, and still the befouled earth-movers were dumping their loads in the sea or carrying them to mass graves extending kilometres across. In cold regions the corpses were still intact, in hot and damp regions they were little but bones and clothing, and in desert areas they were dried-out husks. But they all had to go because now they were causing death tolls among the surviving population: thirty million from cholera when a large portion of the North American water table became contaminated; fifty million from Ebola – a cross between the manufactured version and the old original; another twenty million from a resurrected form of the Black Death spread by fleas on the backs of rats, whose populations were so vast now that they swarmed like locusts all across Africa; and a further total of over a hundred and fifty million from other diseases too numerous to count. These tolls were in addition to the deaths caused by the crashed infrastructure; or regional conflicts where Serene had not been able to establish her control quickly enough, and often where the revolutionary council was trying to establish a foothold; besides regional conflicts she ended by tactical nuke. But this was all good, she felt, since, for her purposes, the human population needed to be much smaller – the only irritation being that some useful people were dying, too.

She checked her palmtop as the file came through, and immediately fed it to a program that would check it against other reports she had received from sources other than Clay and his people. Then she looked up at the two armoured vehicles and security van ahead of her limousine as they drove through the gates into Alessandro Messina’s private estate, and her driver followed them.

‘The laboratory?’ she enquired of Clay.

‘When they knew we were closing in, they locked the staff inside and used an incendiary, but by then we’d already got into their computers and copied their files. The evidence is secondary – since none of the fifty-eight would put their name to anything – but it’s firm.’

‘So they were trying to isolate the Scour and turn it into a bioweapon?’ she said.

‘So it would seem,’ Clay replied carefully.

Had she detected something in his voice? Did he know the real aim of that laboratory? When she had first received the report, it was obvious to her that the delegates concerned had been trying to nail down exactly what the Scour was and where it had come from. This she simply could not allow.

Soon her limousine, with its protection team ahead, its motorcycle outriders, and two armoured buses of her staff and then two more armoured cars behind, was motoring down a road seeming transplanted from another century. Maybe, just maybe, even more of Earth could be returned to a similar state. Already she was receiving reports of the benefits resulting from the Scour’s massive death toll.

The seas of the world that were not dead, or in the process of dying, at first extended their coastal dead zones by between ten and twenty kilometres, after having four billion corpses dumped into them. Now they seemed to have picked up after that large protein injection, and then benefited from a massive reduction in the flow of effluent, chemical fertilizers, industrial waste and, apparently, from an increase in sunlight and thus in temperature. Even though some pyres were still burning, because of the eighty per cent reduction in industrial and transport pollution, the world’s air was cleaner than before.

Serene herself had gazed in wonder at videos of enormous shoals of crustaceans like shrimps and krill, then only a few months later at ten square kilometres of sea boiling with squid. She had been told that already plankton levels were higher than they had been in fifty years and that fish stocks, breeding from those escaped from the fish farms, were on the increase. Unfortunately, only a genetic laboratory might be able to bring back now extinct species like the tuna or the grey whale.

‘Keep me apprised of any further developments,’ she told Clay, and cut the connection.

Other benefits were becoming evident on land. With the world population now standing at only about nine and a half billion, with vast areas of sprawl unoccupied and agricultural output scaled back, large swathes of land were blooming. Whole fields, tens of kilometres across, had been left fallow and were sprouting weeds, in some places biofuel crops were growing beyond the point where the harvesters could harvest them, and forests of bamboo and willow were stretching for the sky. In the sprawls, tough GM beans and soya were starting to crack through the carbocrete and thus give access to sunlight to other less hardy wild varieties. In one such sprawl, in the East European Region, someone had even reported seeing a roe deer, though that had yet to be confirmed. Upon learning of all this, Serene had ordered the planting of Gene Bank seed stocks of wild plants, and in Britain the first oaks for a hundred years were starting to grow. However, only after doing this did she learn that while some seed stock was still available, the bulk of the genetic stocks were gone, along with the Gene Bank database. They had been transported to Argus Station not long before that station departed Earth.

Finally, amidst groves of olive, orange and lemon trees, Messina’s mansion came into sight. Her car and its large retinue finally pulled up in the garden-enclosed parking area before a huge sprawling mansion vaguely in the style of a Tuscan farmhouse but constructed of modern materials and with all the modern facilities inside. Though impatient to get inside for a look around, she waited until her security network had been fully established, which took only ten minutes since they were only checking two cam black spots unavailable to them previously.

Gazing through one of the car’s windows she observed a couple of shepherds striding through the grounds, while up on the roof of the mansion a spidergun gleamed in the hot sunlight. She smiled to herself, then looked down as her palmtop beeped for attention. Yes, Clay had neglected to mention the incompetence of the commander of the assault team sent against the laboratory – and that this incompetence had resulted in a destructive fire. However, the man had been punished, and it was an understandable omission on Clay’s part for she was too busy for such details. She regretted that the commander had been executed by Clay’s enforcers, but at least the man would now be unable to say anything about the orders he had received from her directly. She flipped to another program page, where fifty-eight ID implant codes were queued up, and didn’t hesitate for a second as she hit send. By the time she’d entered this house, the fifty-eight would already be dying.

Finally receiving the security all-clear through her fone, she tapped on the glass separating her from her driver and personal bodyguard. They both immediately exited the car, and her new bodyguard, Sack, came round to open the door for her. She stepped out, using her nasal spray, because there was still nowhere outside that was not heavy with the stink of decay. Ten paces from the car, all her personal assistants had quickly fallen in behind her. The constant hiss of nasal sprays accompanied her towards the house until drowned out by a whirring and clattering from above, as five razorbirds swooped into attendance over her head. These amounted to unnecessary security, but the recording they were to make was one she felt wholly desirable. After some touching up and editing, she would later broadcast it across the planet.

‘Motivation,’ she said. ‘The people of Earth have always required motivation, and they have received it.’

The expected question arrived from the head of Global Statistics. ‘To what motivation do you refer, ma’am?’

She came to a halt, her right foot on the first rough stone step leading up to the oak and metal-studded front door of the mansion, which now stood open. ‘Vengeance is a great driver of human endeavour,’ she pontificated, then with one hand made a circular motion above her head, ‘and of course out there live nine billion people who would like some payback.’

She had used a program to make a particular calculation and now knew that over ninety-eight per cent of the survivors would have lost someone close during Alan Saul’s attack upon the Committee Administration or to the Scour. There wasn’t one person in her staff here, or in her now three hundred and forty-two delegates, who had not lost someone similarly, and that’s just how she wanted to keep it.

‘I could say that now the people of Earth must live and work towards the goal of bringing to justice the greatest mass murderer in human history.’ She paused in deep reflection. ‘But we cannot resurrect the billions who have died, so what is the point of vengeance?’ She climbed up onto the steps and turned to face them all. ‘We must have something stronger than vengeance to drive us, and we have that too. This Alan Saul has not only murdered billions, but he has also stolen the genetic heritage of Earth. Most Gene Bank samples and most genetic files of the extinct species of Earth are currently aboard Argus Station. And we must get them back.’

The first space planes were already launching, the two Core stations were changing staff, and materials and resources were once again being relocated offworld. These she would use to recover the genetic heritage of Earth, so she could create Paradise here and – because Paradise always had a ruler – herself rule over it. It was also necessary to establish humanity more firmly offworld, so as to take the pressure off Earth itself. She abruptly turned away from them, climbed the steps and entered the mansion’s front door. Ignoring the line of house staff waiting to greet her, she located the door leading into Messina’s main office and headed straight for it.

‘Kelly Shimbaum only.’ She gestured peremptorily to her entourage, then opened the door and stepped inside.

As expected, the ex-chairman’s office was opulent, supplied with every luxury and every technology available. Serene rounded a massive ebony desk and plumped herself down in the soft-upholstered chair behind it, placed her palmtop on the expanse of wood before her. The desk itself, of course, was otherwise utterly devoid of paperwork and visible hardware. She sat back, fiddling with the controls on the chair arm, then after a suitable delay raised her gaze to the short and tubby Vietnamese man standing before the desk, sweat beading on his forehead.

‘So,’ she said, ‘tell me about the Alexander.’

5

Slice ’n’ Dice

In the beginning, military unmanned surveillance drones were bulky things that had to fly high, away from enemy fire. New materials gradually reduced their size, and better motors and computer control brought them closer to their targets. As materials technology progressed and high-density power storage became available, the machines were made smaller and new methods of locomotion were devised. The next generation of drones looked like birds: flocks of geese, swans, hawks, eagles and often, where appropriate, vultures. But one strand of their development diverged when special forces found additional uses for them. The troops realized that the hard high-tensile ceramics, graphine and glass that their birds were constructed from could be sharpened, and that additional software could be written to act on recognition software. These were especially effective at night, and the troops soon found they could gut an enemy without even drawing a commando knife. Thus the razorbird was born – never quite as effective as a missile or a gun, but always inspiring more terror.

Mars

Var felt exhausted as she stepped into Hex Four to gaze up at the new triple-skinned geodesic dome, then around at the completed walls. She considered the work they had finished over the last three months, and regretted how eight of those who had survived Ricard would never see this. That was a crying shame because now, really, she felt all of them had a good chance of survival here. She even wished Delaware had lived to see this, and not just because of the huge headache his death had caused.

The investigation, meanwhile, dragged on. Da Vinci had confirmed that Delaware’s broken neck was not accidental, since someone had obviously tried to twist his head off like a bottle lid. There were also traces of powder from surgical gloves, but no traces capable of nailing the murderer. Two people had been exercising in the gym just before Delaware, but had left before the spinner was turned on. Martinez and his chief investigator had decided to break out some of Ricard’s supplies and used a brain-function monitor while questioning those two, merely confirming their story. According to all systems in the base, no one else had entered the gym within the time frame of Delaware’s death. Whoever had done this had somehow managed to alter system records without leaving a trace.

Martinez now wanted to work his way through every other person on the base, questioning them under brain-function monitor, too. Var had even submitted herself – with witnesses – but it seemed that few believed her results, having lived too long under the Committee to believe any claims made by authority. Now Var was considering stopping the investigation, since the atmosphere in the base had become poisonous, with resentments arising and already leading to a couple of fights. And it seemed pointless to waste resources in catching a killer and then having no one believe that the one caught was guilty.

While she gazed at the tall seedlings transported from Gunther’s erstwhile laboratory, Var was feeling a growing disappointment with all those around her, when the call came.

‘Var, you need to get to Mars Science One, asap,’ Rhone urged her.

‘What’s up, Rhone?’ she said lightly, but immediately suspicious.

After being told of their perfidy, Rhone’s dressing-down of Delaware and Christen in front of her had seemed real enough, but some instinct told her he wasn’t as sincere as he appeared. She had always experienced this feeling about him – that he was on the edge of betrayal – then was always surprised when he next supported her. It was irrational, with no basis in the logical world she always tried to inhabit, but she still could not dismiss her suspicions.

‘It’s complicated. Do you know about the tangle box?’

‘I know a little about it – the instantaneous communicator that cost the budget of a major urban sprawl but never worked?’

‘That’s the thing. Well, it’s working now.’

Var felt something creeping up her spine. She knew more about the tangle box than she cared to admit; knew it was cutting-edge science, almost fantasy science; that it should be actually working probably promised more for the human race than anything invented in the last couple of centuries. The possibilities Rhone had just opened up with those few words were . . . numinous.

‘I’m coming right now,’ she said, turning to the bulkhead door.

Only when she was through the door did she pause and consider. Rhone probably knew that news like this would bring her running – that she might come running without taking any precautions. So she took them now.

‘Lopomac?’ She queried through her fone.

‘I’m on my way – I take it you just got the news?’ he replied.

So it wasn’t just herself being summoned into some sort of trap. ‘Who else has been informed?’

‘All the chiefs of staff, and I’m also bringing a few of Martinez’s guys . . .’

That was shorthand for those personnel – generally from Construction and Maintenance – who were now the de facto police force here. They would be armed, of course. Perhaps this should have comforted her but, the way things had been since Delaware’s murder, she had become increasingly doubtful about those she had considered loyal.

‘Good, I’ll see you there.’

Maybe it was true. Maybe the communicator, containing carbon nanotubes whose atoms were quantum-entangled with those of similar atoms in a twinned box in some zero-point energy-research establishment on Earth, was really working. Maybe instant communication was now a reality, and causality had just received a terminal wound.

Quite a crowd had gathered in Mars Science Lab One, and Var allowed herself to relax a little. The atmosphere was almost party-like with its excited chatter and speculation. But, as soon as she entered the room the chatter subsided and the party atmosphere dissolved. She paused, a sudden resentment welling up inside her as she gazed at those present. Given the option now, she would have been happy to just leave, let them make their own way in future, but there was nowhere for her to go. She briefly considered stepping down and letting someone else take over, but realized, in that instant, that she would then become the object of a witch hunt. These people now felt the need to blame someone for their problems, and she was much closer to them than the Committee, if it even existed now at all.

Var stepped forward and the crowd parted to let her straight through to where Rhone sat at a console, with Christen beside him, the oval screen above them not entirely necessary but lending the whole set-up a futuristic air. Rhone turned to her, grinning wildly. Why did she doubt him, for his expression seemed sincere? Christen spared Var a blank glance, then concentrated again on her instruments, her back turning suddenly rigid.

‘What have we got?’ Var asked.

‘Data,’ Rhone replied enthusiastically. ‘Real fucking data. We’re establishing parameters at the moment, have received a text message and are preparing to go to full video and sound in a few minutes.’

‘Show me the text,’ she demanded.

Christen hit a button on her keyboard and some words appeared on the screen: PREPARE FOR COM AT 1.05 GMT – RHINE.

‘Why do I know that name?’ Var asked.

‘I’m surprised you do, because Messina has been sitting on him for years,’ said Rhone. ‘I only learned about him because of the usual Committee screw-up, when some bureaucrat confused us with each other.’

‘Who is he?’ asked Martinez, from just behind Var’s shoulder, where he was clearly watching her back.

‘Messina’s pet zero-point energy researcher,’ Rhone explained.

Martinez grunted dismissively.

‘So this is Earth calling to deliver instructions from whoever is now in charge of that mess back there?’ Var suggested.

Rhone shook his head. ‘No, Rhine’s laboratory was aboard Argus. And this is Argus calling.’

‘After all this time,’ Var noted.

‘They couldn’t call before because of the solar storm, which is still interfering badly with radio communications.’

‘It doesn’t interfere with this?’

‘Theoretically, no.’ Rhone shrugged, then glanced back at the oval screen, eyeing a counter there. He stood up and gestured to his chair. ‘I think this one is for you, Base Director Var.’

Var studied the faces surrounding her, then decisively took the vacated seat. She glanced at Christen. ‘Make sure you’re recording all of this.’

The woman nodded. ‘Of course . . . background too, any data we can get.’ Her voice was utterly controlled and utterly cold. As well as being her co-conspirator, Delaware had been her lover. Martinez had ensured that Christen was being watched, which Var didn’t like much because that seemed too much like something the Inspectorate would do.

Now a face appeared on the screen; slightly distorted for a second, then adjusting. For a moment Var thought the adjustment was still a bit off, for the man’s face was thin and seemed etched with too many wrinkles and the white lines of scars.

‘That’s him,’ said Rhone from behind her.

Jasper Rhine smiled delightedly. ‘It works!’ he exclaimed, then turned aside to adjust something, his arm apparently spearing out on one side of the screen.

Var jerked back.

‘3D,’ said Christen, her tone superior.

Var leaned forward. ‘I’m speaking to Jasper Rhine?’

He focused on her as if surprised. ‘Who are you?’

‘I am Varalia Delex, Director of Antares Base on Mars. I am also anxious to know what the hell is going on with Argus Station.’ She ran out of words. She wanted to know so much – such as who was responsible for trashing a large part of the Committee infrastructure on Earth by dropping the Argus satellite network on it – small things like that.

‘We’re independent now,’ said Rhine, waving a dismissive hand while still concentrating on something out of view.

‘What do you mean “independent”?’

He focused on her again. ‘The Owner runs the show here, but we’re free.’ He paused, momentarily puzzled, then shrugged. ‘Free as can be.’

‘First com in a month, and we get a direct line to the asylum,’ Martinez muttered.

‘So many thought I was crazy,’ Rhine snapped back, obviously having overheard. ‘He doesn’t, though. We’ll be constructing the generator directly after enclosure, then they’ll see.’ He nodded to someone out of view, the screen flickered and now a woman gazed out directly at Var.

‘Sorry about that,’ she said. ‘Jasper is a bit twitchy at the best of times. My name is Hannah Neumann.’

Var noted the sharp intake of breath from both Rhone and Christen. They knew – or knew of – this woman. Could this be the person who controlled Argus? No, Rhine had referred to an ‘Owner’ who was male?

‘Understandably the state of Jasper Rhine’s mind interests me rather less than the Argus network dropping on Earth, and the Argus Station now being on a non-conjunction route towards us,’ said Var. ‘Perhaps you can tell us something about that.’

‘In good time,’ said Neumann. ‘First I need to know who is fully in charge there. We have only just learned that Antares Base has undergone a . . . change in overall leadership. You’ll have to excuse our tardiness, but the solar storm is only waning now and we’re just starting to pick up data from Earth.’

‘We no longer have a political director,’ Var declared.

‘Why?’

‘Because I shot him.’

Neumann just stared at her for a long moment, before bowing her head in acknowledgement. ‘So you are now as independent as we are?’

‘I don’t actually know how independent you are. I am in charge merely because that was easiest, and because leadership contests aren’t a good idea when you’re fighting for survival.’ She glanced at Christen, who flinched. ‘But certainly we don’t have an “Owner” here.’

Neumann said, ‘He styles himself the Owner because it’s a title not completely degraded by its misuse on Earth. He now owns this station because its computers are part of his mind, and all its robots and cams are just extensions of his hands and eyes.’

‘Biochips, comlife,’ interjected Rhone. Var glanced round at him and he stabbed a finger at the screen. ‘Her . . . that’s the sort of stuff she was talking about – human minds interfaced with computers.’

Var absorbed that information, not entirely sure of the detail but pretty sure of the results. She turned back to the screen.

‘It still sounds arrogant,’ she said to Neumann, trying to keep her voice level.

Neumann shrugged. ‘He dropped the Argus satellite network on Inspectorate HQs all across Earth, and turned all the robots of Earth against the Committee. He wiped out something like two-thirds of the upper Committee administration and military and most of the Committee itself, including Messina, who is now . . . our prisoner. So I think I’ll allow him his arrogance.’ She paused for a second, then went on, ‘But you’ve got more immediate problems. Have you had deaths there, within the last three months, from something you may have identified as Ebola?’

Var nodded numbly. How did this woman know that?

Neumann continued, ‘Right, the signal must have got through despite the solar storm. The deaths we had here only happened after we turned off the EM shield.’ She paused for a second, contemplatively, then continued, ‘They were caused by a cybernetic virus emitted by biochips integral to your ID implants. That means you need to get all your implants removed, and fast. The woman who now styles herself the ruler of Earth, one Serene Galahad, seems to have the power to activate that virus in any implant she chooses, and she might just decide that independents on Mars are not something she wants.’

‘Jesus, that was it!’ exclaimed chief medical officer Da Vinci.

‘Galahad has no scruples in this area,’ Neumann added. ‘You’ve seen recent images from Earth?’

‘Some sort of plague,’ said Var. ‘We’re not getting much.’

‘It’s the same thing, and it killed just about every zero asset on Earth within one day – eight billion of them. It then went on to kill the remaining twenty-four delegates on Earth, except Galahad herself. And it tends to affect anyone who in any way questions Galahad’s authority.’

‘Eight billion,’ Martinez repeated numbly, others behind him echoing his words.

Var suddenly found a reason for hope. Maybe this news would be enough to dispel some of the bitterness in the atmosphere of the base. Then she pulled back from the thought, suddenly feeling very selfish as the true import of this woman’s words impacted. Eight billion.

‘You need to get on with removing your implants now,’ Neumann insisted. ‘We’ll talk again in twenty hours precisely. There’s no hurry, as we’ve got plenty of talk time before we meet face to face.’

The screen darkened. Var whirled around to Da Vinci, her stomach feeling like a knot of lead. ‘That’s true?’

He was distracted for a moment, still mulling over the horrifying news, then after another moment her words impinged. ‘Almost certainly.’ He nodded. ‘In every case the infection was concentrated in the arm, around the implant. And I thought that maybe, due to sloppy aseptic procedures . . .’

‘Move fast, then, to get all remaining implants removed.’ Her own was gone, so she had no worries for herself, but she could ill afford to lose any more personnel. ‘Come on, let’s get moving.’ She stood up. Best to keep people busy and distracted, and not let them think about this revelation too much.

‘Wait,’ said Rhone, nodding towards the screen.

There was an image there again, highly distorted and really creepy because the face there seemed to possess pink eyes.

‘Why . . . do I know you?’ whispered a voice that sent chills down her spine.

‘Who is this?’ she asked.

‘I am . . . I am the Owner.’ He faded away, and the screen turned white.

The voice sounded almost as if it hadn’t issued from a human being, so why, oh why did it seem so familiar to her?

Earth

Kelly Shimbaum nervously proffered a squat little ten-terabyte memory stick. Serene eyed it for a moment, then took it and set it down with an emphatic click on the desk beside her palmtop.

‘I asked you to tell me about the Alexander,’ she said quietly. ‘So tell me.’

Shimbaum gestured at the stick. ‘The Chairman . . .’ he began, then realized his danger and changed that. ‘Messina liked me to make a video presentation of the latest status update.’

Serene glanced towards one wall of the office, which presently looked just like a huge window offering a view across the extensive and lush gardens surrounding the house. The entire wall was in fact a high-resolution screen on which she could view the presentation Shimbaum had handed her. She contemplated the screen for a long moment then shifted her gaze along the adjacent wall to a short column on which perched a sculpture looking something like the by-blow of a hawk and a praying mantis rendered in heat-coloured iron.

‘That’s all very well, Kelly . . . I can call you Kelly?’ The nervous little man gave a stiff nod as Serene swung her gaze back to him. She supposed she could call him anything she liked and he would have to grin and like it. ‘Good. Now, what you have to understand, Kelly, is that until about twenty hours ago I wasn’t even aware of this project, so updating me on something I know nothing about might result in some confusion, you understand?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘So I repeat: tell me about the Alexander.’

‘Messina started the project twenty years ago,’ he began, his face now sheened with sweat, some of which had already soaked into his collar. ‘He wanted a big stick to wield out there because of the danger of the stations or Mars slipping out of his control.’

That made perfect sense. The problem with off-Earth environments was that only intelligent and highly trained personnel could work satisfactorily in them, and such people were not as easy to control as the average zero asset. Antares Base on Mars seemed a case in point that needed to be investigated: despite Serene ordering communications with the base to be opened once again, there had been no reply from its political staff. This could be due to solar interference, which was still high, but it had also been mooted that they, along with everyone else there, were now dead – which had been the intention. However, Hubble images showed the base still powered up and some signs of activity about it. Perhaps the radio transmitter had been destroyed during Political Officer Ricard’s thinning-out of the population? Serene shook her head in irritation and got back to the point.

‘How come so few in the Committee knew about this project?’ She did not know who had known about it, only that she hadn’t.

‘I didn’t question his instructions.’

Serene repressed her irritation at that response and continued, ‘So, after twenty years . . . how far along are you? What are the Alexander’s capabilities, and how big is it?’

‘The Alexander is the first ever space battleship. It was built around the engine taken from Mars Traveller IV.’ He paused, then added, ‘Documentation detailing the smelting of that engine on Argus was falsified.’

‘Do go on.’

‘The ship is two kilometres long, and four hundred metres in diameter at its widest point. Eight further fusion engines fixed in rings of four at two points along its body enable it to turn very quickly. It’s carrying seven hundred tactical atomic cruise missiles, with yields ranging from one kiloton to one megaton. These can be launched by its railgun or can launch under their own power from its ports. That same railgun is also supplied with case-hardened iron slugs that can be accelerated beyond scramjet missile speeds to deliver a cold yield of nearly half a kiloton. Additionally it possesses twelve antimissile lasers and a not-yet functional long-range maser. The crew complement is one hundred, with quarters for two thousand vacuum-penetration troops, and below the main bridge turret are Messina’s extensive quarters – currently being fitted out.’

‘Of course,’ said Serene, feeling as if her guts were trying to crawl out through her throat. Such power. ‘So it is ready to fly?’

He shook his head. ‘Unfortunately not, ma’am. Messina wanted to take it to Argus Station with him, after that place was seized, but its construction scaffolds are still in place and all internal systems have yet to be connected up and tested.’

Serene just stared at him. His tone had turned slightly patronizing for a moment – the superior technical director of the Alexander Project having to apprise a mere politician of physical engineering realities. She picked up the memory stick, touched a control on her chair arm, and a panel in the desk’s surface slid aside to reveal various ports and controls. She inserted the stick and routed its contents to her screen wall.

‘It seems odd to me that construction scaffolds remain in place when all that remains to be done is internal systems work.’ She gestured to two bamboo seats on either side of an occasional table set against one wall of the room. ‘You can now take a seat while I watch your status report.’

He walked over woodenly, slightly more afraid than when he had first entered the room. Perhaps he was remembering that she was a physicist by training, who had then branched out into nanotechnology, long before her distaste of the political inefficiencies all around her had driven her into a new career. What he didn’t know was that she had already obtained information over and above what he was currently presenting her with, because she had her own source on the Alexander itself.

The presentation was as glossy and as slick as she expected. The video of the Alexander in its station seemed grainier, less impressive, less real than a science-fiction CGI. However, noticing someone space-walking on the station gave her more of a sense of its scale and she began to know this was for real.

The narrative wasn’t delivered by the technical director, but by someone obviously recruited for his assured verbal delivery, but the words had certainly been carefully drafted by Shimbaum himself. Serene easily read the subtext and quickly confirmed much of what her source had told her. There was absolutely no reason for the construction scaffold still to be in place; it was in fact a hindrance to systems testing and the impending engine and weapons testing. She opened her palmtop and rescanned various reports she had read during the scramjet flight here to Italy. So long as the ship remained confined within that station, Shimbaum retained his power-base. Meanwhile, the highly trained crewmen and Captain Scotonis were obliged to sit on their hands or repeat virtual weapons drills and emergency procedures.

The presentation ended, with various credits – listing names she would be sure to have investigated. She gestured to the space immediately before her desk and Shimbaum headed back over to stand like a naughty pupil before his headmistress.

‘The rather extreme reduction in Earth’s population,’ she said, ‘has freed up many resources, Kelly. Yet still our population is too high, and the one resource we have in excess is people.’ She gazed down at the controls exposed in the desk before her. Among them lay a miniature screen which, when tapped with her forefinger, displayed a simple menu selection.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, jerking his head slightly so that a droplet of sweat fell from his nose onto the floor.

Serene gazed down at the spot where it had fallen. The white carpet was one of those that rotated its fibres into combs in the underlay, cleaning out all dust, dirt and spillages, which were then conveyed away through a network of microtubules. She returned her gaze to his face.

‘Earth requires vengeance,’ she said, ‘and it requires the genetic database and samples currently aboard Argus Station. What it doesn’t require is little empire builders like you undermining the efficiency of its projects so as to retain personal power and status.’

‘I’ve done the best I can. The Chairman has been more than pleased with my—’

‘Not good enough,’ she interrupted, touching her finger to one menu selection and sitting back.

Atop its short pillar, the sculpture opened out its two scythe-like wings and fantail before it launched, the wings blurring into motion with a sound like a clapped-out petrol engine starting. It rose to a hover even as Shimbaum turned towards it, his mouth dropping open. The razorbird unfolded two chicken limbs below, each terminating in a long glass hook. Then, the sound of it turning to a high, ear-piercing whine, it shot towards the terrified man.

‘I—’ he managed, then the thing was on him with a noise like a hatchet chopping into a watermelon. He staggered as it clattered away from him and then turned smoothly to head back to its perch. Blood gouted from his neck, from his nose, and from the widening line dividing his head from forehead to chin. His skull fell in half as he collapsed, pumping blood across the self-cleaning carpet.

‘Sack,’ instructed Serene through her fone, ‘in here now.’

Her personal bodyguard was through the door in a moment, gazing down at the corpse on the floor with something approaching disappointment. She eyed him for a second, suddenly attracted by the sheer physical presence of the big man, but then, knowing the ultimate reason behind the sexual frisson she was feeling, she dismissed it – at least for now.

‘Take that mess away,’ she said. Eyeing the spatters of blood on her desk and the long spray of red up one wall, she added, ‘Oh, and get some of the cleaning staff in here, too.’

A team of four house staff arrived to wipe down her desk and clean the spray off the wall, then bag up and cart off Shimbaum’s remains, by which time the pool of blood had been reduced to a pinkish stain by the self-cleaning carpet. Meanwhile Serene manipulated further controls on the desk, opening a communications link through the screen wall and, just as the staff were about to depart, the person she wanted to speak to was gazing at her from the screen.

‘Captain Scotonis,’ she said, smiling. ‘You are now in charge of the entire Alexander Project. I want that ship commissioned within . . .’ she paused to recheck some statistics, ‘. . . within four mouths. Don’t let me down.’

Scotonis, a heavy-set Asian with narrow moustache and tuft of hair just below his bottom lip, lowered his gaze for a second, doubtless studying the bloodstain on the carpet. He had been in com long enough to have witnessed Shimbaum going into the body bag.

‘Certainly, ma’am. We’ll be ready for you.’

The bloodstain was completely gone by the time Serene began studying a report concerning effluent pollution of the American Great Lakes, gathering statistics on the remaining population surrounding them – in what had once been the state of Michigan – and considering what degree of thinning-out there might be required.

Argus

Hannah’s surgery seemed just another place in his head, it being easy, if he allowed it, for his focus to become unstuck from time. If he allowed the waves of weariness assailing him to triumph, if he released his rigid control for just a second, he could just as easily be talking to Rhine in his laboratory, or walking towards the ruination caused by the nuclear blast at Inspectorate HQ London, or even lying again in that crate that had conveyed him to the Calais incinerator. Only a firm intellectual knowledge of his position in time allowed him to keep hold of things. Only sheer strength of will kept him together. But this was just part of his malaise, for his sense of self had no location, and the physically real was no more immediate than some processing space either in his damaged skull, that brain tissue in a container in the clean-room adjoining Hannah’s laboratory, or some silicon within the station itself.

Saul opened his eyes but, because of the bullet damage to his visual cortex, his body was blind. Closing his eyes did not shut down vision; only stopping the program he was running through surrounding cams could do that. His perception of this body of his was no more than that possessed by the spidergun presently waiting in a corridor outside. Yet, he did feel weary, and sleep – which he had forgone for so long – beckoned to him.

‘Shall I sleep?’ he asked himself, not sure if he had spoken the words out loud, and as if his physical being was making an appeal to some other.

The coldly functional part of him opined that sleep might be a good idea, since it would help with the healing of this physical body and the brain it contained. So he began flicking over mental switches, allowing that purely human function to take over; parts of his mind comfortably sinking into a place where he could release control, relinquishing . . . everything. Then, on the border of oblivion, he felt a sudden panic, because the whole process seemed to be going into cascade. This was coma, so how could he wake up again? He was allowing himself to slide into normal human sleep without a chemical timer, without the neural safeguards to bring him out again, and he now seemed unable to stop the process.

He fought to stay conscious, but found the only way to retain some grip on the conscious world was by driving down mental partitions; separating away parts of his mind both here and in the container in Hannah’s clean-room. He fought to retain control and realized, very quickly, that his complete self could not do so. Only a part of him could do that – just one of those partitions. But to what end? What was the best course to follow?

Seemingly without volition, he found himself gazing through a single cam into Jasper Rhine’s laboratory. The man was working on a schematic of some massive engine, something Saul seemed to recognize almost at once. Here it was, a design loosely based on the theorized Alcubierre warp drive. Saul instantly copied the schematic to his mind, lost himself in its possibilities, nearly dismissed it because of its physical simplicity, but then knew that it was right.

Approved.

It went into the system queue, but there was something missing, something else needed. He visualized Argus Station’s present non-conjunction class route towards Mars. He felt himself fading as he encompassed it, the effort to stay conscious a Sisyphean labour. He riffled through astronomical maps and surveys and at last found what he wanted, then sent his instruction to the station’s steering thrusters and to the Traveller VI engine. The core of Argus Station would be, albeit briefly in astronomical terms, returning to its original home.

Must see this through . . .

Who could he trust?

Hannah . . . He managed to utter, just that one word through her fone.

But she was powerless without him, unless . . . His instruction spread virally, leaping from robotic mind to robotic mind within the station. Further panic then as that viral spread also included odd semi-organic minds in HUD. But the panic faded, as did Saul.

Then he was gone, mostly.

As she headed back towards her laboratory, Hannah tried to dismiss her growing feeling of panic while recognizing that it was the real thing, the certainty that things were getting out of control and not just one of her panic attacks. She should have stayed with Saul; she should have monitored him more closely. But events seemed to be conspiring against her. First that damned implant virus, then Rhine’s demand for attention. Then that call from him – just her name – and now no coherent response from him.

‘Saul?’ she tried again, through her fone, and again got a strange muttering response. Had his physical body died and sent his secondary neural tissue into shock? It seemed highly likely. The monitor in her laboratory showed a general lack of coherence of the synaptic firings in that secondary tissue. It seemed to have descended into a fugue, a dream state.

She reached the corridor leading to her laboratory and noted the spidergun dutifully on station, turning one sensor limb to observe her. It then abruptly pointed two limbs at her – behaviour she hadn’t seen before, unless the robot was assessing a threat. She halted. Was Saul looking at her through those sensors? That seemed unlikely to her now. Instead, the thing was just continuing to run on his programming: a new kind of life set in motion by him before . . . no, she must not think like that.

‘Hannah,’ called Brigitta from the other end of the corridor, as she and her sister came hurrying in response to Hannah’s earlier summons.

The spidergun now turned towards them, and they halted. Then, after a moment, it decided none of them was a threat and it dropped its two raised limbs back to the floor and slowly closed itself up into a big steel fist. Still eyeing the weapon, the three women advanced cautiously to converge at the laboratory door.

‘Hey, it’s good they survived,’ said Brigitta, still eyeing the spidergun. She was talking about Mars.

Hannah paused, then decided to run with this, felt she needed a breathing space before entering her laboratory, then the surgery, and thus finding whatever it was she would find there. ‘There are some good minds out there,’ she replied, referring to Mars. ‘They would have known at once that they’d been abandoned and known that they couldn’t afford any political staff.’ Even as she spoke, she tried to accept the cold realism that must have been involved. Varalia Delex had stated quite simply that she had shot the political director. She had not appeared defensive or challenging – it was the same kind of unemotional murderousness Hannah had witnessed from Saul.

‘And that tangle communicator,’ Brigitta was obviously awed by the new technology, knowing that they stood in a moment of history. ‘We all know how that changes things.’

‘Something of an understatement, certainly,’ Hannah replied. ‘Rhine has proved again that he’s not the lunatic everyone supposed.’

‘There’s the other stuff he’s working on, too,’ interjected Angela, obviously impressed enough to break her usual silence.

‘Yes, there is,’ said Hannah, but her interest was now waning. She needed to go through that door. She didn’t want to talk about hypothetical space drives right now. The tangle communicator was one thing, mostly covered by quantum physics, but actually screwing with relativity on anything larger than the quantum scale seemed like fantasy. With some trepidation she reached out and palmed the reader beside the door, then ducked to accommodate the flash of a retinal scan. She entered, the twins following her, then headed straight for the clean lock leading into her surgery.

‘That communication with Mars was not why I got you here,’ she announced. ‘We may have trouble.’

Providence appeared to back her up right at that moment, as hollow booms echoed throughout the station. Brigitta stepped over to a console and called up station data.

‘The smelter plants just retracted,’ she said. ‘What the hell is he doing?’

Hannah held off on replying that his pulling in of those plants was probably no more than a nerve reaction, impulses from a severely disrupted or dying brain. But she still clung on to hope, and said nothing at all.

It seemed to take forever to strip off, shower and pull on some disposeralls, but finally she was inside the surgery gazing down at Saul. He still lay tubed and wired to the machines, and all the displays indicated that he was still alive. However, she walked over to him, held the back of her hand over his mouth, and felt the soft whisper of breath through her surgical gloves. She felt some relief, of course, but realized it could be false. He had run some sort of mental program in the hardware within his skull to control that autonomic function. The program would continue running even if the rest of his organic brain was dead. Checking pupil response was useless, since most of his visual cortex lay in a kidney dish in her laboratory fridge. Pinching him was pointless too, since it seemed he had shut down his sensitivity to pain just to enable himself to function.

‘What’s going on, Hannah?’ asked Brigitta, through the surgery intercom.

‘I’m getting nothing from him,’ Hannah replied. ‘No response.’ She took hold of his shoulder and shook him. ‘Saul?’ No reaction: in fact his body was locked rigid. She turned on her fone and spoke his name again: ‘Saul?’ All that came through was that odd muttering sound, as if from a distant spectre in some haunted house.

‘This is the trouble you were talking about?’ Brigitta asked.

‘It is.’

Saul had been shot and was now in a coma – she dared not think any other way – so who was now in charge? Obviously he wasn’t capable of making decisions. The debates and the demands for proof of Saul’s competence would soon begin, and Hannah reckoned the division into power bases and the infighting would surely ensue. Doubtless there would be those who wanted the station turned round and heading back to Earth immediately . . . and then there would be blood in the air supply.

‘Is he dead?’ asked Brigitta.

Hannah gazed down at the figure on the bed, then abruptly staggered and had to reach out to steady herself against the bed. A moment of disorientation ensued and she wondered if she had been pushing herself too hard, then she saw that the two sisters had also been put off balance, Angela righting herself with a hand pressed against the partition glass.

‘Steering thrusters,’ said Brigitta, looking puzzled. ‘So he’s not dead, is he?’

‘No,’ said Hannah. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘Can he die?’ asked Angela. She rarely spoke, this Saberhagen twin – but when she did it was directly to the point.

Earth

The monorail journey to Rome had been fast and comfortable, and Serene had hated it. Despite the line being bordered by a no-man’s-land packed with readerguns and genetically modified mastiffs, despite the escort of aero gunships and the elevated security all down the length of Italy, it just didn’t feel safe. When the train ran at ground level, it could not help but be overlooked by sprawl arcologies or government tower blocks, many of which were empty of life, admittedly, but contained just too much ground for her security teams to cover, and too much space in which a sniper could hide. And when the train track ran above these, on pillars a kilometre high, she felt even more exposed. Just one missile and it would all be over for her.

‘I’ll be taking an aero back,’ she told Clay huffily. ‘And I’ll be flying it myself.’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ he replied obediently.

The Centre for Advanced Medicine – established sixty years ago in the Vatican City by Pope Michael the Last, as Govnet media had dubbed him – had grown until it occupied the City entire. Of course, it had been necessary to move out a lot of art treasures to accommodate it, whereupon they had ended up spread across the world, decorating the homes of those delegates who had been overseeing the slow dismantling of the Roman Catholic Church. Serene stepped through a door held open for her by Sack, and into a corridor whose modern appearance gave no hint of the ancient stonework surrounding it. Her entourage, excepting Clay, remained in the reception room as instructed.

‘So bring me up to speed,’ she instructed as she strode ahead. She was, of course, already completely up to speed, but she had found that pretending ignorance tended to reveal any underlying agenda on the part of whoever was answering her enquiry.

‘We had to recruit more “volunteers”,’ he told her. ‘Two of the original seven died under surgery, and another three died a few hours after they woke up. They just shut themselves down and there was nothing we could do about it.’

‘Why did they do that?’

‘Apparently, in their elevated state, they saw no purpose in continuing to exist.’

‘But now you have replaced them and have seven ready for me who do see a purpose in continuing to exist?’

‘Apparently – though we do have safeguards,’ Clay told her, as they finally reached the door at the end of the long corridor. ‘We’ve surgically denied them control over their own nervous systems, immobilized them, and have them working under inducer. If they disobey, or try to take control of more than we allow them, like trying to access readerguns or robots, we can shut them down in a second.’

The door opened into what had been, until a few weeks previously, an amphitheatre in which modern surgical techniques could be demonstrated to an audience of students. Much of the seating had now been torn out to make way for computer equipment, and power cables and optics were routed all around the area like lianas growing on the wreck of an ancient civilization. A circle of seven couches occupied the centre of the amphitheatre – all facing inwards. At the centre of these stood a column, scaled with screens and surmounted by an inducer array. Various technicians were working in the immediate area, one of whom, Serene noted, was giving a couched figure a sponge bath.

‘But how will they perform, should Alan Saul launch another attack against us?’ Serene asked, as she made her way down towards them. ‘They might choose that moment to self-destruct.’

‘Conditioning,’ Clay replied. ‘The biological interfaces in their skulls are highly advanced, and when they melded with their comlife elements they were completely distanced from the real world. However, disconnected as they are from any influence over their nervous systems, they can’t shut anything down, and agony has a way of bringing them back down to earth. It will take maybe a further three or four weeks, but by the end of that time they’ll be utterly unable to disobey.’

Finally reaching the floor of the amphitheatre, Serene walked over to stand beside the pillar and looked around at the seven lying on the couches. All of them were naked, five of them men and two women. They had been electro-depilated for reasons of hygiene, and the scars on their skulls had healed into a cross-hatching of white lines, but the scars on other parts of their bodies were new. Optical plugs in their skulls trailed cables linked to free-standing servers. Other optics ran from their torsos to various machines attached to the sides of their individual couches. As Serene understood it, only the cables leading from their heads were required for them to access Govnet – any radio option being denied them – while the other optics extending from their bodies were for control over their nervous systems. They could not now shut down their own hearts, nor could they suppress their pain response.

‘So Alan Saul has hardware in his head just like these.’ She gestured at them dismissively.

‘Unfortunately not,’ said Clay.

‘Explain,’ she instructed.

‘The biological interfaces and internal computers we are using here are the product of Hannah Neumann’s research undertaken two years ago. The database of her recent research was trashed, we think by Saul himself, and all physical results of it were either destroyed when IHQ London was nuked, or were stolen by Salem Smith when he worked there, before taking on the directorship of Argus Station.’

‘So how much more advanced than this is the stuff in Saul’s head?’

Clay gazed at her expressionlessly. ‘As far as I can gather, by having access to Messina’s private files you would know that better than me, ma’am.’

He knew what she knew, so she wouldn’t catch him out in any half-truths or outright lies. She nodded soberly to herself, then turned abruptly as a woman lying on one of the couches began to shriek repetitively. Serene had heard that sound before, knew the rhythm of the agony an inducer supplied. She glanced back to Clay, who had his fingers up against his fone.

‘She recognized you,’ he explained after a moment, ‘and tried to gain access to the readerguns outside, for when we leave here.’

‘An assassination attempt?’ Serene swung back to look at the woman as her screams dropped in register to a steady groaning. ‘Have her killed and replaced.’

‘No, ma’am,’ said Clay. ‘She was completely aware that she had no chance of success, but was hoping for precisely the reaction you have given. It was a suicide attempt.’

Serene grunted in contempt and turned back towards the stairs. ‘Okay, ensure she stays alive, then. Now show me the rest.’

Serene did not like having to use these ‘comlifers’, as they had been dubbed, but they were a precaution she needed to take. Clay was correct: she did know more about ‘the stuff in Saul’s head’. One year and four months ago, the erstwhile Chairman decided that the bio-interfaces Neumann had developed were sufficiently advanced for installation in himself and in his core delegates, so had them transported to Argus Station. Those interfaces were much in advance of what was being used here now. However, Neumann had continued working towards producing something of an order of magnitude yet more advanced; something Messina had decided he wanted just for himself. But he wasn’t quick enough. Inspectorate HQ London was destroyed and Argus taken over before he could get his hands on the new interface.

It had taken Serene a while to piece things together from various reports. The forensic investigation of the slaughter at IHQ London, before the nuke was detonated, detailed how an exec called Avram Coran had removed a crate of physical objects from Hannah Neumann’s laboratory. Yet that same Avram Coran had apparently died in an aero accident over the English Channel some thirty-six hours earlier, just after he had visited a gene bank whose computer systems were trashed shortly after his visit. A stolen All Health trailer bus had been seized, and a forensic investigation revealed evidence that Hannah Neumann had been inside it and had used the sophisticated surgery therein. Someone else had been there too – someone whose genetic fingerprint just could not be identified.

Serene very much suspected that the genetic fingerprint was Alan Saul’s, and that right now he had some of the most advanced bioware ever developed sitting inside his head.

6

Comlifers

Over a century ago the phrase ‘computer life’ described computer programs that mimicked life. In other words, they grew and bred and evolved. However, over the ensuing years it became a catch-all term not only for programs that modelled living creatures and ecologies, but also for those that mimicked the function of the human brain. Towards the end of that century, the term became restricted to describing brain modelling, and to a limited extent displaced the old term ‘artificial intelligence’, which itself was applied to expert systems that often possessed no human characteristics of thinking at all. In the time of Alan Saul, it became completely confined to describing computer reconstructions of a functioning human brain that could effectively be used as a software interface between a living human brain and a computer. In that time, under Serene Galahad, those people who thus interfaced with computers were called comlifers, with its intimation too of them serving a life sentence.

Argus

The voice speaking over the station intercom was Saul’s, sounding utterly reassuring and utterly in control, yet Hannah knew he lay apparently comatose in her surgery. This only made sense if she considered that all of Saul did not reside in his physical body’s organic brain.

‘Prepare for a course correction,’ he said. ‘The Mars Traveller engine will be firing at 7.00 a.m. station time.’

Another prepared statement maybe? And how long ago had it been prepared? What the hell, exactly, was guiding this station?

Le Roque issued his instructions calmly, no more aware of Saul’s condition than anyone else aboard, except Hannah and the Saberhagen twins. Preparations were made and, after the big Traveller engine fired up, ran for two weeks without anyone being hurt, people soon returned to their usual tasks. Le Roque, however, wanted to talk.

‘He’s not answering me,’ said the technical director.

Hannah shrugged. ‘What am I supposed to do about that?’

‘You’re closer to him.’ Le Roque glanced up at a nearby cam, obviously anxious. ‘What the hell is he doing? This route change is taking us off course for Mars and swinging us out into the edge of the Asteroid Belt. That could kill us.’

‘The Asteroid Belt is not the same as the one you see in space-war interactives,’ Hannah lectured him snootily. ‘They’re not very close together.’

‘No, what we define as asteroids are in fact not very close together, but that definition fails to take into account small rocks capable of vaporizing large chunks of this station at the speed we’re now going,’ said Le Roque. ‘Do you have any idea what a chunk of rock the size of a pea could do at twenty thousand kilometres per hour?’

‘Yes, I’m not entirely—’

‘And we’re heading straight for the disruption zone,’ Le Roque interrupted.

Hannah was suddenly annoyed, though she knew herself well enough to understand that was because she didn’t really know what the director was talking about.

‘Disruption zone?’ she enquired.

‘It’s where the asteroid below us came from,’ he replied. ‘Think of it: millions of asteroids and what were previously thought of as asteroids but have turned out to be loose accumulations of rubble, dust, fragments – all barely stable after billions of years – then we come in and snatch the Argus asteroid away, meanwhile sending the remains of the Traveller VI tumbling into the belt. That destabilized the immediate area, and the disruption spread, so that now nearly two million kilometres of the belt is a mess.’

‘The objects in the belt are still very far apart, so we should be fine,’ said Hannah, further annoyed with herself the moment she said it, because she considered herself quite capable of admitting to her own errors.

‘Maybe, but Argus station presents one hell of a big profile.’

‘Best you take it up with him, then,’ Hannah replied, then quickly left Tech Central.

For over a month Saul just lay there, apparently with rigor mortis set in, but for the fact his heart kept beating and he kept breathing. He was still healing, though, the brain tissue she had used steadily growing and making connections; the organic net from his bio-interface unwaveringly repairing itself and reinstating connections. As he lay there, she’d tried to guide the process, to make it adhere to the maps she had of his mind as it was before, but had only been partially successful. The problem was that it grew with reference to the two masses of other brain tissue sitting in two one-metre-square boxes in her clean-room, and also seemed to be making partial connections to certain parts of his brain that he seemed to have partitioned off in some way. Yes, he was healing, but would he ever wake up and, if so, would what then woke up even be defined as a person?

Connections from his brain also remained open into the entire Argus computer system, and it seemed that, through that system, windows opened into his dreaming mind. She’d heard complaints from technical staff about strange strings of code propagating in their computers, like worms, then just transferring away, also disturbing images appeared in screensavers and visual coms, and nonsensical messages and spine-crawling sounds issued from speakers. The whole station seemed to have turned into a haunted house. People spoke in whispers, jerked nervously at unexpected sounds, and checked the shadows in the corridors. All this created an air of gloom, as well as a fear difficult to nail down.

There were ways she could force things with Saul, but she was in entirely uncharted territory here and might do irreparable damage. She had so far ascertained that he had allowed himself to sleep but without putting in place the processes that would wake him up. He was in a coma, and it seemed she had stepped a hundred years into the past with him, to a time when people woke up from comas for no real discernible reason, or woke not at all.

‘Le Roque called me up to Tech Central again,’ said James, her lab assistant.

He had only just returned with some downloads obtained directly from a construction robot, all of which type were still working on the station enclosure – in fact getting near to completing it. Saul remained connected to them, too, via some of those mental partitions, and she hoped to get some data on what was happening with him. James’s approach to a spidergun for the same reason had been unsuccessful – they wouldn’t let anyone near.

‘What does he want now?’ she asked.

‘He wants to talk to you personally, and he wants to know why you’re not answering your fone.’

Hannah checked her visual-cortex menu and noted eight unanswered calls from Le Roque, twenty from Langstrom, five from Rhine and a recent one from Brigitta.

‘Tell him that I’ll speak to him when I’ve got something to report,’ she said, then opened up the channel to the last of these. ‘Brigitta?’

‘How is he now?’ asked the more talkative Saberhagen twin.

‘Healing, slowly, but still not conscious,’ she said. Then, with some irritation, ‘I said I’d let you know.’

‘That’s not really why I called. I need your input.’

‘On what?’ Didn’t Brigitta realize just how bad things could get? Hannah couldn’t leave Saul now while he was so vulnerable. How long before either Le Roque or Langstrom decided to take full charge of the station? How long after that before they decided that maybe they would like to stay in control, and that maybe it was time for Saul’s coma to end, permanently?

‘I’m in HUD with Angela . . . you need to come and see this.’

‘I do have my own problems here,’ Hannah replied.

‘This may be related . . . we’re getting the same data-exchange processes here that you’re seeing between Saul and the robots. We think he’s loaded something to them.’

‘Them?’

‘The androids.’

Hannah felt a chill. She turned to gaze at the body lying in her clean surgery, almost lost among the feeding tubes, optics and wires she’d plugged into him.

‘What are you doing?’ she whispered to him, and stood up. ‘Keep an eye on things here,’ she instructed James. ‘No one is to have access unless I say so, understood?’

He nodded. ‘I doubt anyone will try.’ He pointed towards the laboratory door.

‘Yes, quite,’ she replied, heading that way.

Stepping outside, she turned to study the spidergun still installed outside her laboratory. The constant presence of machines like this was probably why both Le Roque and Langstrom weren’t being as demanding as she might have expected. Neither of them was entirely sure what the situation was with Saul; and neither of them wanted to become the focus of his attention by doing anything . . . hasty.

It took her a few minutes to reach Humanoid Unit Development, during which time she ignored a call each from Langstrom and Le Roque. The Saberhagen twins were waiting for her outside the door leading into the unit. The two were smoking hand-rolled cigarettes – a new affectation among some on the station since a patch of mature tobacco plants had been found growing in the Arboretum. The smoke would be unlikely to have caused any problems in HUD, so it looked to Hannah as if they had come outside for a break, for an escape from whatever seemed to be stressing them out. Even they were not unaffected by the present odd atmosphere aboard the station.

‘So, what’s this about?’ Hannah asked.

Brigitta drew on her cigarette, then ground it out in a little hinged box she was holding, snapping it shut before she reached to palm the door lock. ‘Come and see,’ she said, pushing the door open and entering.

Hannah followed her, glancing at Angela, who remained leaning back against the wall, smoke trailing from her mouth and with her eyes closed.

‘Over the last month we’ve been building some basic programming and frankly struggling, as nothing seemed to stick. Two days ago something dumped those programs and took over,’ she said. ‘It just closed us out. While Angela worked on trying to continue programming them as planned, but failing, I’ve been tracing the source of the interference, and it came through the computers we were using for programming, via the station network, from your lab. I then managed to shut it out, but that’s made no difference. They’re all interlinked and when I try to wipe it out in one of them, it immediately starts recording back across from the others.’

‘Viral?’

‘Call it a virus, call it a worm, whatever – it’s programming that perpetually recreates itself and it’s very, very complex.’

‘Comlife.’

‘Yeah,’ Brigitta agreed.

Hannah turned to study the androids. They had been fascinating before, even when they were immobile, for the leathery-skinned manikins stood over two metres tall and looked as tough as old oak. They were sexless things that possessed practically featureless heads, without ears or eyes, just a visor of the same leathery material as their skin and the harsh slit of a mouth, and big, long-fingered hands.

Now, however, they were on the move. Even as she entered the room behind Brigitta, ten eyeless visages turned towards her. The one nearest her tilted its head like a curious child that had spotted something of interest. Further down the row, one of them had an arm free of the frame and the nylon webbing straps which had previously supported it and still bound it. It was holding up the same hand for inspection, clenching and unclenching it slowly.

‘Let me see,’ Hannah said, walking over to one of the consoles.

Brigitta followed, tapped in a command and data began scrolling. Hannah studied it for a long moment, then sat down and pulled up her sleeves and set to work. She began opening files, inspecting packets, linking to the computers in her lab and opening analysis and diagnostic programs, trying to ignore her immediate snap assessment but only finding confirmation of it. After a while she sat back, her heart thudding hard in her chest, her mouth slightly dry.

‘Well,’ she said finally.

‘Well what?’ asked Brigitta.

‘They’re alive,’ declared Angela, who had just returned.

Hannah swung round in her chair and regarded the pair of them. These two were brilliant, their education and knowledge extending across numerous disciplines, but they simply were not familiar with the things Hannah herself knew.

‘Comlife is largely a copy of the synaptic neural processes we see in life, but running on, at its basis, binary programming,’ she lectured. ‘That’s what made it possible for living human beings like Saul, Malden and Smith to interface with computers. There’s a gap to bridge, because of translation difficulties, and a heavy reliance on modelling.’

‘Then this is comlife,’ said Brigitta.

Hannah shook her head, not quite sure how to reply. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling her way. ‘Saul loaded an AI called Janus to the hardware and bioware in his own skull. It was a comlife copy of Saul’s mind, with a binary base that allowed him access to computer systems. It was, if you like, his guide and translator, though much more closely interlinked. The core of Saul is mainly human, organic, synaptic, even though much augmented, operating through silicon binary hardware. These,’ she gestured to the row of androids, ‘are the reverse. They’re mainly binary AI with a smaller organic synaptic component. Yes, I guess what’s running inside their heads can be called comlife, but of a kind we’ve not seen before.’

Hannah stood up, not knowing what more to add.

‘Release us,’ said the first android in the row, the resonance in its voice sending a shiver down her spine. ‘Instruct us,’ it added.

Hannah stared at the thing. The sound of that voice meant nothing to her. A complete psychopath could reside inside that body, even if such a typically human description could be applied. It occurred to her that the same reasoning might now apply to Saul.

‘That’s a new one,’ remarked Brigitta. ‘So far it’s mainly just been asking to be released.’

Hannah gestured to the door and they trooped outside, closing it behind them. Once outside, Angela began rolling herself another cigarette, spilling tobacco from her shaking hands.

‘What are they capable of?’ Hannah asked.

‘They’re strong and fast,’ Brigitta replied. ‘And they have defences.’

‘How strong? How fast?’

‘Their bones are made of concentric microlaminations of carbon fibre and steel, all with bearing surfaces, which means they are flexible but practically unbreakable. They’re packed with artificial muscle sustained with oxygen and nutrients through microtubules and tensioned electrically. That makes them about five times stronger than a human being and they can act and react faster than any human nerve impulses. The stepper motors at their joints increase that same strength to something equivalent to that of a construction robot.’

‘Dangerous, then,’ said Hannah contemplatively, realizing something that maybe the twins had missed.

‘That isn’t all of it,’ said Angela, puffing out a cloud of smoke as she spoke.

‘Tell me.’

Angela reluctantly continued, ‘Their skin is another laminate. You’d be able to penetrate it only with an armour piercer, and then the chances are that you’d encounter another layer of armour underneath. Even if you get through that as well, your chances of hitting something vital are remote. Everything inside them is distributed: mind, power supply, nutrient supplies and stored oxygen.’ She tapped her skull. ‘The brain isn’t only in here, it’s everywhere. Even their senses aren’t completely located in their heads, as they have receptors for light, sound and smell located all over their skins.’

‘Hard to kill,’ Hannah observed. ‘You’re scared of them.’

‘Yes,’ said Brigitta. ‘Shouldn’t we be?’

‘Anything else?’ Hannah asked.

‘An electromagnetic field is generated through the skin – so EM weapons won’t work against them and, to a certain extent, they’ll deflect coherent radiations,’ Brigitta said. ‘That’s about it, I think, but it’s enough.’

‘No,’ corrected Angela. ‘Remember the internals.’

‘That’s right,’ said Brigitta. ‘They’ve got internal nanomachines that they can consciously control, which means they can repair any damage. I don’t know yet if they can also be used as a weapon. That’s it now, I think.’ She glanced at her sister, who merely shrugged and drew on her cigarette.

‘One point you neglected,’ said Hannah. ‘If they can consciously control those nanomachines, that means they can grow and change. Already they are growing mentally, as is obvious from the readouts, which are very like some I saw from Saul as he expanded his new neural net.’

‘Enough reason to be afraid,’ said Brigitta.

‘When you feel you are ready,’ said Hannah, ‘you should then decide whether or not to release them.’

‘What?’ Angela exclaimed.

Hannah studied the two of them. They had analysed and understood so much and, like so many brilliant minds, they’d missed seeing the wood for the trees. In fact they’d missed something blatantly obvious. This was why sometimes scientists needed prosaic minds around them, to slap them across the backs of their heads and point out the elephant in the room.

‘They’re as strong as construction robots, you told me,’ she explained. ‘So do you think that, if they wanted to break free, those nylon webbing straps would be enough prevent them?’ She watched them gape at her, then added, ‘Maybe they’re just making a polite request?’ The twins still had nothing to say to that. ‘I have to get back to Saul,’ she said, and headed away.

As she walked back to her laboratory, Hannah tried to ignore her conscience, which at that moment was telling her she was being a coward. The twins had wanted someone there in charge, someone else to be responsible, to tell them what to do. She had simply pointed out something obvious, and then run away. It was like the situation with her and Saul regarding the mind-wipe she had conducted on the Committee prisoners aboard the station. She had not wanted the responsibility, and had only accepted it when he forced it upon her. She now felt uneasy and slightly disgusted with herself.

Such thoughts occupied her wholly, to the extent that she did not realize an escort had fallen in behind her as she entered the corridor leading to her laboratory. She halted abruptly when she saw what lay directly ahead. The spidergun was right up against the wall, all its limbs folded inwards, clenched – and it wasn’t moving. She transferred her gaze further along the corridor. Langstrom and Peach stood watching as two repros held her assistant James pinned against the wall while they cuffed him. The medic, Raiman, and two other medics from Tech Central were also present. She glanced back as two more of Langstrom’s men closed in behind her.

‘Dr Neumann,’ said Langstrom, stepping forward, shouldering some sort of large heavy weapon with a silvered barrel ten centimetres across, a power cable leading from it to the heavy pack Peach carried on her back. Clearly he’d made one of the EM tank-busters portable, and used it on the spidergun.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ She transferred her gaze from the EM tank-buster to his sidearm, then briefly flicked a glance over some of the weapons the others were carrying. ‘I see you’ve armed yourselves – against the Owner’s explicit instructions.’

He tapped a hand against the top of his sidearm. ‘The situation requires them – there’re things that must be discussed. We’ve called together a meeting of heads of staff, and your presence is required.’

‘Like hell.’

‘I’m sorry, but you have to come along,’ he said.

‘What are they here for?’ she gestured at the medics.

‘They are here to make an assessment of Alan Saul’s condition,’ Langstrom replied.

And so it starts . . .

‘They will do nothing of the sort . . . he’s my patient and I’m staying here.’

‘Unfortunately not, Dr Neumann. Please don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be.’

Hannah swung her attention back to the spidergun. Still it wasn’t moving. Probably from this they had assumed that Alan Saul wasn’t paying attention, might even be dead. Such an attack on one of his robots should undoubtedly have elicited a response from him.

Hannah did not make it difficult, because in the end she was an unarmed woman – and not the sleeping demigod in the room beyond.

Mars

Var was spending far too much time in her cabin, but she would have had to be a robot not to feel some resentment about the attitude of other base personnel towards her. It was as if they had lived so long under totalitarian rule that they could not accept any other condition. They seemed incapable of questioning their belief that she had killed Delaware and, beyond getting some sort of justice for the man, there seemed therefore no reason to pursue the investigation. No one would believe the results, because all of them believed she was the guilty party. She insisted the investigation continue, however, out of a stubborn belief of her own – the need to discover the truth.

Now, having finished her shower, and again fully clothed and knowing there was nothing critical she could pursue on her computer, Var hesitated at the door. What was her way out of this bind? She wanted to be pragmatic in her running of Antares Base, which required some degree of authoritarianism, but she did not want to be seen as oppressive. Yet she had noticed how the people here were now working less enthusiastically for their own survival. It was a crazy situation.

She pushed open the door and stepped into the corridor, and decisively set forth. Within a few minutes she had arrived at Da Vinci’s surgery, encountering five personnel sitting outside in the corridor, awaiting their turn to have their ID implants removed.

‘Good morning,’ she said cheerfully.

Through the window opposite the seats they occupied along one wall, she could see dust settling after a windstorm in the night, its particles ignited in shades of rose and amethyst by the sun peeking over the horizon.

‘Director,’ one of them nodded in acknowledgement.

The others nodded too, but quickly returned their attention to their palmtops. She stepped over to the door and pushed it open. She found Da Vinci bending over the forearm of a patient seated in a surgical chair. He held up a cautionary hand for a moment, then abruptly stood upright, waving his patient away. The woman shot Var a wary look, then quickly headed for the door. A sterile circular plaster now covered the skin where her chip had been removed.

‘How’s it going?’ Var asked Da Vinci.

‘You saw the very last of them sitting outside as you came in, Base Director,’ said the doctor. ‘It’s not a complicated procedure.’

‘The last time you called me “Base Director” was when Ricard was still in control,’ said Var. ‘There’s no need to be so formal.’

‘It seems a healthier option,’ said Da Vinci.

‘So you, too, believe I killed Delaware?’

He just watched her for a long moment, then said, ‘Perhaps you didn’t yourself, but there may be some useful idiots around you who did do it. So it seems sensible to behave in a way that lessens one’s chance of becoming a target.’

The expression on his face indicated analytical interest, but Var could not help noticing the slight sheen of sweat on his forehead. He was obviously frightened of her, indeed scared to be saying such things.

‘That seems the same advice that everyone else in this base has taken, and there I have a problem,’ she said. ‘Our personnel are all keeping their heads down, just as they did under Ricard.’

‘But that is no problem, surely?’

‘I’m afraid it is,’ Var asserted. ‘Our survival here is still not assured and we need innovation, new ideas, invention. We need clever people arguing with each other and batting around ideas. What we don’t need is people sitting on useful ideas because they want to remain beneath notice.’

‘And this has happened?’

‘It has. On the base’s message board, and only because his discovery was referred to by someone else, I found out that Haarsen of Mars Science has found a way to cut down on our heat loss by five per cent,’ Var explained. ‘He didn’t flag his discovery or bring it to the attention of Martinez, and when I went to see him about this he was terrified, expected to be arrested. He hadn’t reported it to Martinez because he thought he would get into trouble for using samples of insulating spray in his experiments. This is madness.’

‘So what’s the solution?’ Da Vinci asked.

‘You tell me,’ Var replied. ‘People are talking to me as if I’m Ricard. What I should do?’

Da Vinci hesitated, looking hunted. ‘I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask.’

‘Maybe not, but it’s you I’m asking now.’

After a further hesitation he bit the bullet. ‘The feeling is that you should step down, that a new base director should be voted in, and that the murder investigation be handed over to Mars Science.’

‘That’s what people think?’

‘That’s the consensus.’

A very coherent consensus of opinion, Var felt, almost like one that had been carefully nurtured. Was she paranoid to think that someone specific was working behind the scenes to unseat her? No, she wasn’t, for the fact of Delaware’s very inconvenient death remained. Now she had two things to consider: what was best for the base, and what was best for her. Perhaps she was being arrogant in assuming that she was the best person to lead this place but, as she well knew, those who were never accused of arrogance were also those who never succeeded at anything.

If she stepped down, the chances of this base surviving might be reduced but, then again, with the people here happier about who was in charge, the opposite might happen. But what about her? It seemed highly likely that whoever ended up in charge would turn out to be whoever had been working against her. And, though she couldn’t prove it, she felt sure it was Rhone of Mars Science. If that was the case, then she could be utterly sure that any murder investigation conducted by Mars Science would not exonerate her. What then? She would certainly be executed, because this base could not afford the resources for a prison – and Rhone could not afford to have her wandering free.

‘Then I will have to consider that,’ she replied to Da Vinci, and turned back towards the door. He made no reply as she stepped out into the corridor, just followed her to the door and called the next patient in.

Var walked away, deep in thought, only realizing after a short time that her route was taking her towards the Mars Science laboratories. She continued to consider her options but there seemed no way out. It was not as if there was some haven she could flee to – the base was rather like the entire planet Earth in that respect. She had to stay in power here, and to do that she would probably need to be . . . harsher. Her alternative was her own death.

The sound of footsteps behind her only impinged at the last moment, as whoever was coming hurried to catch her up. She began turning, wondering what problem she was about to be presented with now, then a stab of paranoia spun her round faster. The knife speared towards her midriff but, taking a slice across her forearm, she managed to bat it aside. Christen glared at her, pulled the knife back and slashed at her face. Var stumbled back as Christen followed her, striking again and this time clipping the front of her shirt.

A whole series of calculations passed through Var’s mind. She was unarmed, so perhaps her choice all those months ago not to wear a sidearm had been a foolish one. If this went on any longer, Christen was going to slice her up. If she ran, she’d likely end up with that knife in her back. She had to end this now, quickly, but how?

Christen lunged again, over-extending herself. Var evaded the stab, turning to catch hold of her attacker’s wrist, desperately, in both hands. Christen drove a foot down against Var’s shin and agonizingly into the top of her foot, and Var’s grip began to slip. The woman was much stronger than she appeared to be. Next her fist smashed against Var’s temple and everything went black etched with bright yellow veins. Var just reacted wildly. She let go of Christen’s wrist with her left hand and brought her elbow back just as hard as she could, aiming for Christen’s head. The woman jerked her head back at the last moment, and Var’s elbow hit her hard, right in the throat.

The next thing Var knew, there were people all around, intent on separating them. Her legs gave way and she ended up with her back against the wall. A horrible choking sound issued from somewhere as a crowd of half-seen figures gathered around Christen.

‘Get Da Vinci!’ someone yelled.

‘The knife,’ Var managed, but she was ignored.

She began crawling across the floor to where she could see the knife. It was now Christen’s only hope. Var had felt the cartilage break under her elbow. Christen needed to breathe or she would die, and only a tracheotomy could save her now. But someone kicked the knife away, and then a boot slammed against Var’s head, bringing back the darkness and those yellow veins. She never actually lost consciousness, but events for some minutes remained unclear to her. When she finally managed to stagger to her feet Da Vinci had a tracheotomy tube in Christen’s throat and was trying to revive her, but she seemed just inert meat.

Martinez and Lopomac then arrived, and Var could see the doubt in their faces – and when Rhone arrived, she could see nothing in his face at all. Everyone else looked hostile. Var walked away, dripping blood. She would wear her sidearm from now on, and the people here would do what they were damned well told, or know the consequences.

Argus

Alex felt a surge of unaccustomed delight. He was alive, Chairman Alessandro Messina was alive! Alex squatted down beside Alexandra – his communications officer and the only other surviving member of the squad – and watched the short video file as it cycled. Initially the figure it showed did not have the Chairman’s face, but the program Alexandra was using had soon decoded the plastic surgery and revealed his true underlying features. There he was, Messina himself, clad in overalls as he walked along beside a hydroponics tank, stopping periodically to use a pipette to take a sample of tank nutrient and place it in one of a series of numbered sample bottles.

Only after the initial euphoria had passed did Alex start to get angry. They were making the ruler of Earth carry out the work of a robot, a slave, a zero asset. They’d humiliated him by forcing him to wear the clothing of a menial. This, if nothing else, confirmed for him just how petty and vindictive were the terrorists who had taken control of the Argus Station. However, most of Alex’s anger was directed towards himself. He reached up, as he often did in moments of stress like this, to rub at the fine web-work of scars at his temple and extending up into his cap of black hair – which was distinguished from that of his dead brothers only by a tuft of grey over one slightly larger scar located there.

‘We allowed ourselves to succumb to despair, Alexandra,’ he said, noting her glance at him in brief puzzlement upon hearing her true name. ‘We did not sufficiently check the data, and now our task is even more difficult.’

They should have tried for job reallocation and ensured they ended up out on Smelter Two, where the Chairman and numerous other repro delegates had been moved after the first assaults. They could have protected him from the final assault that put him in hospital, from which the news surfaced that he had died, when in fact he had undergone facial reconstruction. No . . . Alex shook his head in irritation.

‘So, beyond vengeance, we return to our primary objective,’ he said, his voice carried from his suit to Alexandra’s via an optical cable – radio wasn’t a good idea here as, even when coded, it might be used to locate them.

‘Just freeing the Chairman will not be sufficient,’ Alexandra reminded him. ‘We must continue to make meticulous preparations. We cannot afford to get ourselves killed, like Alex Two.’

The two of them paused to contemplate her words, remembering the brief scream as the fusillade from the spider-gun tore Alex Two to shreds. Alex, who until a few days ago had possessed the secret name Alex One, nodded in agreement. This was precisely why they had not tried to get close to the Chairman. If they were to rescue him, they needed to find a way off this station, and that way was clearly the Imperator and its as yet untried hibernation chambers.

‘But, really, Alex Two did not waste his life,’ Alexandra contended. ‘It is only because Alan Saul is dead that I was able to find this.’ She gestured to the video clip. ‘While he was alive, I couldn’t penetrate the system as I now can.’

‘If he is dead,’ said Alex. ‘That broadcast he made seemed pretty real to me.’

It seemed an age ago now since Alan Saul had spoken about the terrible disease that had swept across Earth, and displayed those horrifying images. Since then the two survivors of the squad had spent their time merely surviving, living like rats in the walls, slowly accruing resources, but aimless and depressed because they believed their prime reason for existence had died, while still unsure if their shot at vengeance had succeeded.

‘Falsified,’ said Alexandra confidently. ‘We saw where those bullets hit and it’s not possible that he could talk after that.’

It was her lack of experience that made her so sure, Alex realized. She had only ever seen people die when gunned down. She had never seen, as had Alex, shattered meat put back together again by modern surgical methods.

‘Also,’ she continued, ‘the search for us has involved human personnel, but not robots. Consider what happened when Langstrom’s troops first located us.’

Again a pause for contemplation. On that occasion they’d been cornered, backed up against an area occupied by construction robots, as the human searchers were closing in. In what he had thought was the vain hope that Alan Saul had at least been sufficiently disabled by Alex Two’s assassination attempt to not be watching, Alex had made the decision to cross that occupied area. The robots had ignored them. So it was just possible that Alexandra was right, and Alan Saul was dead.

‘So we must reinstate our previous plan of action,’ he declared.

Alex now considered that further, because even without Saul controlling the station, their position was bad. He damned himself for acting out of despair in that assassination attempt, and for earlier procrastination. Their squad had been placed on Argus for very specific reasons: they were first of all Alessandro Messina’s spies, rooting out plots against him, passing on the results to his main protection teams; and next they were his secret protection team, providing the last resort should all else fail. Concealed by false identities as diagnostics and maintenance engineers, they had been able to range about the station to this purpose, but no longer. Almost certainly their presence had been missed from the maintenance teams, and analysis of Alex Two’s remains would have been carried out. So, surely inevitably, by now someone would have worked out precisely who and what they were.

Damnation! Perhaps if they had acted right at the beginning of all this, there might have been a chance, maybe a very small chance, for them to grab Messina, steal a space plane and head back to Earth. That chance had passed as the station moved beyond the Moon and began heading out towards Mars, and then they found themselves simply unable to act in a station filled with hostile robots, humans and the ever-watchful and dangerous being that had taken control here. Alex shook his head: twenty-twenty hindsight was indeed a wonderful thing.

‘We need to talk to Earth,’ Alexandra said abruptly.

‘Why?’ Alex asked, gazing at her bright-eyed naivety. ‘There’s no help for us back there.’

Alexandra stared at him, a flicker of disbelief crossing her expression. ‘Schematics,’ she explained, gesturing to the mess of jury-rigged hardware she had put together. ‘Remember, our computer access is minimal out here, so I won’t be able to download a station schematic without being detected.’

Alex nodded, for she had a point. ‘So right now we’re operating on what we remember, and otherwise we’re blind,’ he said. ‘We first need to know where we can resupply ourselves, after Langstrom uncovered our hide. We need oxygen, food and water – and more firepower.’

‘All the data on this place is back there, along with tactical planners who can help us,’ said Alexandra. ‘I’m sure they will help us when we give them this news.’ She gestured at the video on the screen.

Alex could think of many reasons, however, why they would get no help. Carefully he said, ‘But we saw what happened back there.’

‘We saw, but we also know that Committee power is still current – so we have to try.’

Ah, the optimism of a four-year-old, thought Alex. He watched her intently. ‘What can you do?’

Alexandra pointed towards the outer edge of the station. ‘There’ll be dishes out there,’ she said. ‘I should be able to hack one and get a signal out, and I’m certain someone will be listening, despite everything.’

He tried to cast doubt: ‘I have to wonder if Delegate Serene Galahad would be prepared to help us. It seems quite likely that she won’t want the Chairman back.’

Alexandra looked quite offended by the very idea. ‘We have to try,’ she pronounced.

He nodded and smiled, realizing that he wouldn’t be able to educate her any further today.

‘It seems to me,’ he said, ‘that even if she doesn’t want Alessandro back, she certainly won’t want this station to remain in the hands of terrorists and subversives. We’ll have to play on that, so let’s go.’

As he pushed himself away from the wall, ready to head for the nearest exit from their hideaway, Alex called up his visor display, noting he had about eight hours of air left. Since they shared air between them, that figure applied equally to Alexandra. Over their time as refugees they had resupplied themselves through dangerous forays into pressurized parts of the station, occasionally grabbing some water but otherwise reusing the water processed out of their urine packs, and very occasionally finding something to eat. If they came close to really running out of the means of survival, if all options to that end were finally closed down, as seemed to be Lang-strom’s aim, what then? Surrender?

In some emotionless part of his mind, Alex realized that even surrender might give them a further chance to free the Chairman, but his conditioning prevented him from contemplating it too deeply, at least for now. As he found his way out towards the edge of the station, he vaguely recollected those long sessions with his teachers, interspersed with the regular visits to surgery, followed by thumping headaches and healing cuts in his skull.

Earth

Amazing, just a month after the population reduction around the Great Lakes, and the sewage plants were already back at optimum performance, processing everything heading their way. Clean water was being pumped back into the system while well-rotted and dried human sewage was coming out of the conveyors to pour into the backs of automated trucks. These then conveyed this form of fertilizer to the maize fields further south. They now even had hydrogen fuel available for that. The only fly in the ointment was that half of the trucks had necessarily been reassigned, along with something like fifty per cent of the Great Lakes transport system, to move the bodies, and that many of the maize fields were now occupied by fresh pyres.

‘You’ll have more up-to-date stats than me,’ she said to the figure appearing on her screen wall. It was a lie, of course, as she knew precisely what the numbers were.

‘It’s now gone over twenty million,’ said the dead-faced woman, Gene. She was the environmental officer for Serene’s new North American delegate, and a woman who had recently lost her husband and two children to the Scour. These three had died along with the previous delegate and any of his staff possessing knowledge of the report on effluent pollution of the lakes. After all, Serene did not want anyone joining up the dots.

Gene continued, now with a flash of anger, ‘You’re going to get him for us, ma’am. You’re really going to get him. It’s not all talk . . .’

Serene nodded confidently, suppressing the anger she felt at having this menial dare question her. ‘Alan Saul and the rest of those rebels aboard Argus Station will pay for their crimes, for their assault against Earth and against humanity. They will pay the ultimate price. My only regret is that they cannot be made to pay it a billion times over.’ Then again, the more she learned about the research and development conducted by this Hannah Neumann, the more she realized how people could die more than once. ‘Something like twenty per cent of the resources of Earth are now being diverted to this end. Space-plane production has recommenced, and I’ll soon be making another announcement concerning that matter. However, the business of running this planet cannot be neglected, so I would like you to continue with your report.’

‘Lake Huron is dead,’ Gene said, ‘well, apart from the masses of anaerobic bacteria it contains. It’s now just sixty thousand square kilometres of sludge, so what we’re doing will make little difference in the short term.’ Her image gave way to one side to show an image of the lake, divided up by the fish-farm barriers, processing plants and floating roadways, and surrounded by sprawl heaped up like technological mountains. Processions of big tipper trucks previously used to bring in feed, along with the cargo flatbeds that used to be employed to transport out the processed fish protein, were working all across the lake. The tippers were emptying their contents into the lake; forklifts were unloading the flatbeds. The lake had thus far swallowed seven million corpses, and was now acting as a giant digester tank.

‘What’s left of Lake Ontario we might just as well fill in, what with the heavy metal pollution, but Superior and Michigan are doing surprisingly well, and the water-purification plants are making some headway there. We’ve done better with Erie because of its size, and we have short-term algae blooms and some small areas of water weed re-establishing. If things continue at the present rate, we may be able to start restocking that lake at least within five years.’ Gene paused, her expression turning bitter. ‘The Scour seems to have spared at least some of them.’

‘I don’t think that’s somewhere we want to go, do you?’ Serene berated her, suppressing her own delight. Now, if only she could find some excuse to start demolishing the surrounding sprawl, natural landscape could be exposed, trees planted . . .

‘I’m sorry,’ said Gene. She gazed out of the screen speculatively. ‘I’m a little distracted . . . I’ve been asking for reassignment.’

Why did she think Serene needed to know this?

‘Really?’

‘I want to go offworld and help with our projects out there, help to bring Alan Saul back . . .’

‘I understand,’ said Serene. ‘Everybody wants vengeance and everyone who has lost someone wants to be involved. However, you must remember that you are involved. Everything you do to improve efficiency, rebuild infrastructure and ensure the smooth running of our planet means more resources can be diverted towards dealing with Alan Saul. With your expertise, Gene, you are better placed where you are.’

‘But—’

‘No buts,’ Serene interrupted, her voice hardening. ‘Consider yourself lucky to be alive and in a position to help, and try to remain alive in order to do so.’ Serene swiftly cut the link. The damned cheek of it! Just because her own ruthlessness had not been overt, well – she eyed the expanse of self-cleaning carpet before her desk – outside her immediate vicinity at least, there were people who thought they could question her. Perhaps she needed to be a bit more blatantly ruthless?

‘Ma’am.’

The channel was assigned Priority One through her fone, so he’d better have a damned good reason for contacting her through it.

‘What is it, Clay?’

‘We’ve got communications from Argus Station, and I felt you needed to know about this at once.’

‘Alan Saul?’

‘No, it seems there’s a small undercover squad, one of Messina’s, still free on the station. They’ve managed to turn a dish towards us and get in contact. Apparently they made an assassination attempt on Alan Saul, and he may well be dead, but now they’re in hiding.’

Serene experienced a sudden surge of disappointment, followed briefly by anger. It annoyed her that Saul might have been killed by some means other than as a result of her own orders.

‘What do they want?’ she snapped.

‘Data. They lost a lot of data and equipment recently. They want station schematics and access to a tactical planning team.’

‘To what purpose?’

‘They want to rescue Alessandro Messina, who is apparently still alive.’

‘And they think I would like to help them? I hope you didn’t laugh out loud.’

‘Certainly not, ma’am – they’re a good source of data, and are giving us some gold on the current situation aboard the station. That structural work we observed in the recent Hubble pictures is them enclosing the station disc.’

‘I need to talk to them,’ Serene decided.

‘You can, but there’s a com delay of thirty seconds and their situation, as regards their oxygen supply, is critical.’

‘Okay, give them station schematics and limited tactical planning – just enough for them to resupply themselves. Then I’ll speak to them.’

‘Will do, ma’am.’ He closed the channel.

Serene sat back in her chair, her elbows on its arms and her fingers interlaced under her chin. The Alexander had already test fired its railgun and was now just days away from test firing its main engine. And then, after maybe a further few months of testing and work on the internals, it would be ready to begin its pursuit of Argus. It seemed to her that she felt the hand of destiny on her shoulder.

7

Leaner Society

There can be no logical explanation for the vicious genocidal attack upon Earth and its peoples by the madman Alan Saul. It could be supposed that his hatred of the Committee was why he targeted the infrastructure of the most advanced socialist state the world has ever seen, but why did he then loose the Scour upon us? Was he motivated simply by a hatred of all humanity? Whatever his motivation, and though he succeeded in committing the most heinous crime against humanity ever known, he failed to halt the progress of civilization. It can in fact be argued that by killing nearly the entire zero-asset population and wiping out so large a portion of the bureaucracy required to control and direct it, he cleared the field for Serene Galahad’s new world order. The factories of Earth were relatively untouched but, with a smaller population making demands on them, Galahad was able to build a leaner and more efficient society – which it seems likely was not his aim at all.

Argus

Who are you?

Sometimes, for a frustrating period of time that could be either hours or microseconds long, he was aware of his condition, knew he had to wake up. The rest of the time he was washed to and fro in a sea of information, some of it current, some past and some just plain fantasy.

I am Alan Saul. I am the Owner. Who are you?

Her face just hung there, untouched by those informational maelstroms. She looked like the ghost of a double exposure on old-style film, or like something indelibly etched into the underlying reality of the universe. He knew her, he knew that face, he knew her from something deep and utterly integral within himself. Yet, in what passed for consciousness, partial as it was when it arose, he knew her not at all. Merely the artefact of a damaged mind, then?

He drifted, found himself running through a crowded street, all around him people in ragged clothes watching with avid eyes, then big uniformed enforcers pushing them aside and liberally applying those new handheld inducers, called disablers. The screaming, it was his fault; he should not have endangered them like this, he should not have put them in a position where enforcers had to be sent to fetch them back. Them? He turned, searching all those faces. There was someone with him, someone important . . . His mind leapt away, unable to process that . . . instead found somewhere else to go.

Minds, ten of them the utter proof of how something good and right could come from something so ugly, like roses growing in pig shit. So much data, so much information . . . weaned from the most inhuman research. That man called Nelson, or Leonardo, and his ways of maintaining life making the brilliant vivisection cruelties in HUD a possibility. Even Hannah’s research taken there and hammered into new and horrible shapes . . . the most advanced robotics forced into an amalgam with screaming flesh.

Ten beautiful minds – touched on in dreams that seemed an age ago now, and free at last.

Who are you?

She wouldn’t go away. She was watching him, and he felt that she had always been watching him. He found himself discomfited by her gaze . . . while drifting, catching new information. Some sort of news story acting as a further illustration of the horror caused by that arch demon Alan Saul?

The image was an old one, from the North India Region, from the Brahmaputra–Ganges flood basin. Saul gazed at the boy squatting by the mast of his small boat, a cloth over his mouth and his eyes wide and black. He looked as if he was out on a fishing trip on a mountain lake. However, a closer study revealed the true picture, which, so the narrator informed the waiting public, was taken only five kilometres from where millions upon millions of corpses had been heaped, literally into mountains. The climate and the flies had ensured that the corpses were quickly bloated, rotten and seething with maggots, and a subsequent monsoon had caused the scene displayed here. The flood of billions of litres of water, maggots and fluids from dissolving corpses had completely swamped the urban sprawl that occupied the flood basin, and this boy was one of the few survivors. His boat rode on the writhing glutinous mess while the mountain behind him consisted mainly of bones to which a few stubborn fragments of flesh and gristle still clung.

‘He must be punished,’ continued Serene Galahad. ‘And we must retrieve the Gene Bank data he stole.’

Did it seem to him then that the other woman looked on with a slight twist of contempt to her mouth? No, no, she looked just the same – and she wasn’t looking there, she was looking there . . .

A massive ship sat in its construction station, big robots peeling away surrounding scaffolds like a loose rind, clearly revealing the gleam of heavy armour, missile ports and a maser turret. Was this a dream? No, he knew it was real, and that ship was as imminent as a sledgehammer. He had to pull his consciousness out of this well, and back into the real, but the effort was too much and he felt so utterly exhausted . . . Hannah, help me . . .

After she had suited up, she expected them to take her to Tech Central, but it soon became apparent that they were moving round the circumference of the asteroid rather than heading up on top.

‘Arcoplex One?’ she enquired over her suit radio.

‘Yes, it seemed best, since there are conference rooms available there,’ said Langstrom. He glanced round at her. ‘Best place for a long sit-down discussion of our situation. It may take some time because this is no longer about a single individual issuing orders.’

Ah, democracy, thought Hannah, remembering Saul’s opinion of such a concept in this environment – and how they might all die even while the votes were being counted.

Once they were inside Arcoplex One, Hannah studied her surroundings. She had not visited this cylinder world since first coming here with Saul when he dropped the Argus network on Earth and then issued his ultimatum to Messina and his delegates. No corpses were visible – none of the two thousand victims Messina’s troops had nerve-gassed during their attack – though there were still stains visible on walls and floors, and the occasional scrap of clothing had stuck in place. All the corpses taken from here had either gone through overworked station digesters or been moved to the outer ring to be stored in cold vacuum – as a potential resource.

Just beyond the elevator doors, Langstrom and Peach divested themselves of the EM weapon, passing it on to some waiting troops, who swiftly set about remounting it on a tripod. That was a precaution, doubtless, against the arrival of a spidergun or some other kind of robot. Did this mean they were completely turning against Saul? Peach remained there with the troops, while Langstrom gestured for Hannah to follow.

It seemed to her that they were heading towards the conference room where Saul had confronted Messina and the delegates, but they soon diverged from that route to come up to a set of sliding double doors. Langstrom detached his suit glove, pressed his palm against a lock and the doors slid aside. Within lay a long conference table with people already seated, some of whom she recognized and others she didn’t know. Le Roque sat at the head with Chang to his right and an empty seat to his left. Those seated two down from Chang on the other side were a woman called Dagmar, who ran Zero-Gravity Hydroponics, and an Asian man called Taffor, another agronomist, who ran the Arboretum. Next along, sat another two men who Hannah vaguely recognized as having something to do with Construction. At the further side of the table sat an unfamiliar man and woman, then came two empty seats and another empty seat at the end. Le Roque immediately stood up and gestured to the seat beside him. Hannah gazed at him for a moment, then took the seat at the far end of the table. He acknowledged that gesture with a shrug, and sat down again. Langstrom took one of the other empty seats.

‘I rather resent being dragged away from my patient like that,’ said Hannah. ‘Why is it so important that I be here?’

‘We need to know the Owner’s condition,’ said Le Roque. ‘I’ve been trying to talk to you about that for some time . . . so has Langstrom. We may be heading away from Earth but the danger the Committee represents is by no means over, and we face new trials, new dangers. We are in deep vacuum now, and it’s quite possible we won’t survive it. What is the Owner’s condition?’

Hannah considered various answers, various lies, but in the end decided on a partial truth. ‘Saul was very badly injured by the assault made on him. I’ve repaired most of the damage and things are looking good, but obviously going slowly. He is currently sleeping, which is perhaps best while he heals.’

‘How long until he wakes?’ asked Langstrom.

‘How long is a piece of string?’ Hannah shot back. ‘Any time now, or maybe a month from now.’

‘He’s not conscious, then,’ Langstrom affirmed, ‘which means we need to get a firmer grip on station security.’

‘Yes, I’m not surprised that you would suggest that,’ said Hannah sarcastically.

‘You have your laptop?’ Le Roque asked.

Hannah unhooked it from her belt and placed it on the table before her. ‘I do.’

‘Check the file attached to the last email I sent you.’

Her laptop blinked on the instant she opened it, and she checked her mail. There had been a lot of it, some from eddresses she did not recognize but nevertheless had to be those of people aboard this station. She checked down until she found a message from Le Roque, with an attachment.

She read his message: ‘Here is the DNA map of the individual who shot Saul. Check it against the further DNA map below, look at the name, and please get back to me.’

A cross-matching program was imbedded in the attachment. The first map corresponded to the second to within ninety-nine point nine eight per cent. That couldn’t be right. Then she realized that, of course, it could. Some of the scientists alongside her in the Albanian mountain enclave, before it was broken up, had been working on such projects. She studied the name below the final DNA print, and shuddered. Really, she shouldn’t feel such superstitious dread, as this surely didn’t mean much.

‘A clone,’ she declared. ‘That doesn’t really make someone any more dangerous, or any less.’

‘I disagree,’ said Langstrom. ‘I’ve seen these Messina clones before. They’re very specialized, surgically altered, totally loyal and trained beyond anything possible with an unaltered human being. They’re dangerous. That’s been illustrated by the fact that the two remaining ones have evaded capture by us for as long as they have.’ He paused, looking grim. ‘It is also the case that they were not soldiers surviving from Messina’s forces.’

‘What?’ Hannah asked.

‘The equipment we found in their hide was all from the station – none of it brought in from outside. Also three maintenance staff have gone missing, and if you check a further email from me, you’ll find that DNA traces found in the cabins of the missing three all match up with Messina’s map too. And with Saul no longer in control . . .’

‘But he will be back in control soon,’ said the male of the two personnel Hannah did not recognize. He looked to her in appeal.

Le Roque held up a finger, pressing the fingers of his other hand against his fone. ‘We should have some data on that shortly.’ He leaned back and listened to whoever was talking, nodding and making single-word replies as he did so.

‘Perhaps we should be introduced,’ said Hannah, indicating with a smile the two unknowns at the table.

‘Leeran,’ said the woman, then gesturing to her partner, ‘and Pike. We oversee the furnaces.’

So that was why she hadn’t recognized them. They spent most of their time out on the furnaces and bubblemetal plants that currently extended outside the station.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Hannah, instinctively recognizing allies.

‘So that’s it,’ said Le Roque, leaning forward. ‘According to Raiman, Hannah has not been giving us the full truth. The Owner . . .’ he paused for a second, ‘Alan Saul is severely incapacitated. He’s lost enough brain mass to turn any normal human being into a bedridden vegetable. There’s regrowth indeed, but no indication that what will result afterwards will be any more able than one of our repros.’ He gazed steadily at Hannah. ‘We need to make some decisions.’

‘Raiman has no idea of the true situation,’ said Hannah. ‘He’s a military medic and his is just not the same area of specialization as mine. He doesn’t understand bio interfaces or the resultant neural growth.’ She paused, groping for the best way to put this. Certainly, if Le Roque, Langstrom and others here were turning against Saul, then it would be best if they did not know about Saul’s backup, his ‘D drive’. ‘How does Raiman explain Saul speaking to you all after he was shot?’

‘Did he?’ asked Dagmar.

‘Raiman?’ asked Hannah. ‘Did he what?’

Dagmar shook her head, refusing to lift her gaze from the tabletop. ‘Did Alan Saul speak to us?’ She began playing with a pen, tapping it against the table surface. ‘What we heard could quite easily have been created from recordings of his voice.’ Now she looked up directly at Hannah to add, ‘With someone else providing the words.’

‘Are you really accusing me of that?’ Hannah asked, the back of her neck feeling suddenly hot.

‘I’m merely pointing out a possibility,’ Dagmar replied.

An uncomfortable silence descended for a moment, broken by Le Roque clearing his throat, then continuing, ‘That’s as may be, but we still have decisions to make. I’ve kept this on ice until this meeting, and now we need to see it.’ He swung his chair round, holding up a small remote which he directed at the screen on the wall behind him. Hannah felt something tightening in her chest when the United Earth logo flicked into being, then faded to show Serene Galahad standing on the carbocrete of a spaceport, a space plane looming behind her.

‘It is with great pleasure that I can announce to you that vengeance is possible, as is the more important goal of retrieving the Gene Bank database and samples. It perhaps seemed to us all that the mass murderer Alan Saul had taken himself beyond our reach. However, thanks to the foresight of Chairman Alessandro Messina, this is not the case.’ Serene held up her hand, above which a frame etched itself out of the air, before accelerating towards the screen to fill it with the blackness of space, liberally sprinkled with stars.

‘Twenty years ago, Alessandro Messina understood the dangers of subversion, terrorism and rebellion in space, and in secret he began to make his plans. He needed something up there beyond Earth that could move fast and deliver a suitable response to those who might undermine humanity’s future.’

The screen view swung round to show a massive spaceborne construction station, out of which an equally huge spaceship was currently manoeuvring. Hannah stared at this thing. It could quite easily be some CGI effect that Galahad was using for her own obscure purposes. Some sort of propaganda exercise maybe as a justification for world-resource reallocation and an excuse for resultant starvation and further death tolls. Or perhaps just a bit of media glitz to take people’s attention away from just such problems . . .

‘Messina named this ship the Alexander, but now I feel it is time for a renaming. I considered the Vengeance, but perhaps that is a name that has been overused. So of course, considering what Alan Saul has inflicted upon the people of Earth, there is a more appropriate name available.’

The scene changed, the ship now viewed far out from its construction station. Sounds began to impinge, a repetitive thrum like someone hitting a taut cable with a hammer. These sounds had to be added, since this view was recorded through vacuum. Perhaps they were what the crew supposedly aboard the vessel were hearing.

The station started to come apart, great pieces of it exploding away, tearing up, the whole thing splintering like the trunk of a tree under machine-gun fire. Then either something else hit it, or the projectiles had hit something vital. The station exploded, the glare blacking the screen for a second, then the next jerky image showed glowing chunks of it tumbling away. The next view, probably captured by a camera on the Moon, showed one such mass of material crashing into its surface. Then another scene: debris burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, the view descending past them down towards the land surface, structures visible, then space planes neatly arrayed across a carbocrete expanse, then onto the surface itself, to Serene – a close-up of her face.

‘The name of this ship is henceforth the Scourge – for it is the whip with which we will punish Alan Saul, and all those other traitors up there on Argus Station. I hope you are watching this up there, you people. We are coming for you now.’

Le Roque clicked his remote, blinking the screen back to the United Earth logo.

‘There’s more in the same vein,’ he said. ‘A lot about how well Earth is doing since the attack on it, how production is up, resources growing, space projects expanding and advancing faster than they ever have before.’

‘Is that thing for real?’ asked Taffor.

‘It’s real,’ said Le Roque. ‘It must have been concealed under some sort of EM cloak that’s now been removed. We can see that damned ship from here.’

Hannah folded her arms, much of her anger at having been dragged here draining away and a cold dread settling in its place. They needed Saul more than ever now. Without him, without that demigod mind working for them, they would be defenceless.

‘How quickly could that ship reach us?’ she asked.

‘I haven’t calculated that,’ said Le Roque, ‘since the time it takes depends heavily on when it leaves. But what is certain is that it will get to us, and there’s nothing we can do about that. And you saw those weapons.’ He swung back to the screen again, already holding up his remote. ‘Now there’s this: a personal message for us.’

It was Galahad again, sitting behind a desk, looking relaxed and tapping idly on the buttons of a palmtop. ‘I’m not entirely sure who I’m addressing right now,’ she said. ‘I’m not entirely sure who now controls Argus Station. Certainly, Alan Saul is no longer at – so to speak – the wheel.’ She smiled. ‘Maybe I’m talking to Technical Director Le Roque, or Captain Langstrom, or Dr Hannah Neumann – all of whom seem to have risen under the regime of someone arrogant enough to call himself the Owner.’

Le Roque paused it there and turned to address them all. ‘It seems evident to me that she’s letting us be aware that she knows a lot about what is going on here. I’m guessing she’s in contact with Messina’s clones.’ He turned back and set the broadcast running again.

‘Whoever it is,’ Galahad waved a dismissive hand, ‘I have an offer for you. I am not so foolish as to think you will turn Argus Station around and hand yourselves over to me, but there is still a way we can all get what we want. Since your inexplicable course change, you will reach the Asteroid Belt in eight months’ time. There I want you to load onto a space plane the Gene Bank samples and database, along with Alan Saul, dead or alive, and moor the plane to the Asteroid which under new century listing is designated GH467. You may then swing back round towards Mars, or wherever it is you think you are going. If you do not do this, the Scourge will eventually catch you, and you will all die.’ She paused as if in thought for a moment, looking slightly sad as she returned her gaze to her palmtop screen, then continued. ‘Everything else at that distance from Earth can be faked for the satisfaction of the people of Earth. Having collected what I want, the Scourge will then destroy GH467. Anyone viewing that event through telescopes not government-controlled will be unable to see enough detail to know any different, and subsequently such video will be adjusted so it will seem the Argus itself was destroyed. Some story about Alan Saul’s cowardly escape aboard a space plane can be fabricated.’ She looked up. ‘You must speak to me soon.’

Le Roque clicked off the screen and it seemed everyone remained focused on it for a long time afterwards.

‘Talk to her, yeah, right,’ said Pike.

‘Seems to me,’ said Leeran, ‘that she’s just trying to work out some way of getting her hands on that Gene Bank stuff without using force. That Scourge comes against us, and everything she wants might end up being destroyed.’

‘No, I disagree,’ said Le Roque. ‘We’ve got no manoeuvrability and that thing has. It could simply take out the Mars Traveller engine, tear us up a little to ensure plenty of death and disruption, then dock and send in troops. We don’t stand a chance.’

‘If you give her what she wants, she’ll do that anyway,’ said Hannah.

‘Maybe.’ Le Roque nodded. ‘But I really think that we’ve got to talk to her. We can draw out the bargaining, maybe feed her bits of Gene Bank data at a time.’

‘Then we die when that runs out,’ said Leeran contemptuously. ‘And do you think for one moment that will hold them off from attacking the moment they reach us?’

‘And Alan Saul?’ asked Hannah.

Le Roque held out his hands helplessly. ‘Give me alternatives. What the hell do we do?’

‘We do what we can to survive,’ said Langstrom. ‘This was never going to be easy. The Owner knew that, too.’

Past tense already, thought Hannah, sitting back. The Saberhagen twins weren’t here, which would have weighed this meeting more towards an attitude of ‘Fuck you, Galahad’ and ‘How can we kill that ship?’ She initiated her fone, found a number she wanted in her cortex menu, and called them.

‘So you’re at a meeting,’ said Brigitta. ‘Funny how Le Roque forgot to invite us.’

‘Yes, funny that,’ Hannah replied.

Others at the table turned towards her, realizing what she was doing. Langstrom looked suddenly suspicious and began to rise from his seat.

‘You know that matter we discussed before I departed,’ said Hannah.

‘Yeah, I’m still thinking about it.’

‘Would you take an order from me?’

‘Second to Saul.’

‘Release them,’ Hannah told her. ‘Let them go right now.’

‘Ah, that kind of meeting,’ said Brigitta.

‘Yes, it’s that—’

A voice interrupted their exchange, speaking human words that in no way issuing from a human being. ‘I choose to name myself Paul,’ it said. ‘Instruct me, Hannah Neumann.’

Mars

They’d looked askance at her when she turned up for the latest broadcast from Argus with a gun at her hip, but then their expressions had shut down. Fuck them. She’d sat for a while in her cabin, binding up her arm, and then taken a rest, her head aching. She’d gone out like a light for twenty minutes, then woken up with blood soaking into her bed and realized she needed more than just dressings. All of them had seen that she’d been sliced and knocked almost unconscious, but no one had come. Belatedly Da Vinci had used wound glue to seal up the cut – along with a few staples – given her some painkillers and an analgesic cream. He hadn’t asked her about the very obvious blow to her head, and had quite obviously wanted her gone.

Now there was a meeting to discuss the information Argus had supplied. The atmosphere in the community room was hostile, even poisonous. Most here were trying to keep neutral expressions, but failing. No one had asked her about the attack on her, not even Martinez and Lopomac, who looked grim. Was she being paranoid in thinking everyone was now against her?

‘The truth,’ she said, standing up once everyone was seated, ‘is this. That ship could rail out a nuke right now and, though it would take some years to arrive here, the thing could drop itself on Hex Three with an accuracy measured in centimetres.’

‘You seem mighty familiar with its systems,’ noted Rhone. ‘It occurs to me that, as the overseer of the Mars Traveller building programme, you probably always knew more about this than you’re letting on.’

Var glanced at him. That seemed a comment specifically aimed to generate distrust against her. Was he now about to become more overt?

‘We all saw the broadcast,’ she said, ‘and it doesn’t take a whole lot of mental watts to work out what we’re up against. And, no, I knew nothing about this.’ The lie rolled off her tongue with worrying ease.

‘But if it does fire on us, we’ll see it coming,’ noted Martinez.

‘And how exactly does that help us?’ asked Lopomac.

There seemed a degree of tension between the two of them. Was one of them having his doubts about her leadership, and the other in disagreement?

‘That is precisely why we are sitting here,’ said Var, studying each of her chiefs of staff in turn.

Carol was here – Carol, who had been at her side when she went up against Ricard. She just looked depressed now and maybe disappointed. Gunther’s replacement in Hydroponics and Agriculture, Liza Strome, had joined them, too, along with Da Vinci and Leo from Stores. They were all obviously thinking about recent events, and really needed to snap out of that. Didn’t they understand the danger they were in?

She continued, ‘A long-range nuke is the first threat to us, followed, after a time, by nukes and high-velocity railgun slugs from orbit. Just one of either of these hits us, and we’re gone.’

‘Why would that ship come here?’ Strome asked. ‘Its designated mission is to go after Argus, which – as we understand it after that course change the station made – it’s likely to intercept out at the Asteroid Belt.’

Var turned towards her, fighting the urge to be dismissive. ‘First off, we’ve responded to none of their communications, but the Hubble will show them that we’re still active. They’ll be suspicious and want to check, and they’ll eventually find out what has happened here. Second, we have a dictator on Earth who has wiped out a significant portion of the human race. She’s also eradicated surviving Committee delegates to ensure her rule remains unchallenged. So I don’t think she’ll be prepared to tolerate us.’ She paused as if in thought. ‘Maybe she won’t send the Scourge here after it’s dealt with Argus, but are you prepared to bet your life on that? And, anyway, we’ve seen the activity ramping up in Earth orbit, and from that we know that she intends to establish an even stronger foothold beyond Earth than Messina did. It’s not a case of if her forces come here, but when.’

‘I agree,’ said Rhone, yet again surprising her with his support. ‘This Serene Galahad will either stamp on us or ensure that we take a leading part in some sort of show trial, either here or on Earth. Either way we die, if we’re lucky.’

‘Lucky?’ asked Strome.

Martinez, obviously uncomfortable with her naivety, quickly interjected, ‘If Galahad doesn’t have us killed, she’ll have us adjusted – probably adjusted till we’re drooling and in need of nappies.’

Good, they were now all starting to think about this very real danger.

‘So how do we respond?’ Var asked. She had some ideas of her own, but fought to keep them in check. It would be so easy to feed off the resentment she felt and become all dictatorial. Better to let them have their input first.

‘I have some suggestions,’ said Rhone, reaching up to touch a finger against his fone.

Var stared at him, wondering just what game he was playing now. He returned her stare. ‘We have a weapons designer in Mars Science – Linden Haarsen.’ He paused for a second before saying, ‘Yes, get in here now.’

Haarsen came through the door rather quickly, further arousing Var’s suspicions. But, then, perhaps she shouldn’t relate everything that happened to herself. Rhone wasn’t stupid and had probably understood the situation very quickly. She recognized Haarsen as one of the quiet individuals, usually in a lab coat, who was always hovering in the background behind Rhone. He quickly squeezed in beside Lopomac, placing a laptop on the table.

Var gazed at him. ‘You have something for us?’

Haarsen looked to Rhone, who gave his permission with a brief nod. This irritated Var no end. It seemed to be a sure sign of empire-building inside Mars Science.

‘We need a DEMP,’ Haarsen said.

‘If you could explain for the others here who might not know that acronym?’

‘Directed electromagnetic pulse,’ Haarsen explained. ‘I could build us an EM pulse weapon within the time available – one capable of knocking out even the hardened computer systems of cruise missiles.’

‘Time available?’ Var enquired.

‘As you said at the opening of this meeting,’ said Haarsen uncomfortably, ‘that ship can rail out tactical cruise nukes even from Earth orbit right now.’

Var glanced at Rhone. She’d never given any instruction that what was said within these meetings should be private, but it annoyed her that he had obviously been using his fone to broadcast from here to his own staff.

‘Do go on,’ she said.

‘If missiles were fired off now, they would take four years to reach us. Therefore, if they intend to fire missiles, they will do so either now or in the near future.’

‘Why?’ asked Lopomac.

‘The first reason is simple orbital mechanics. If they fired in, say, in six months, with relative planetary orbits diverging, the time it would take for them to reach us doubles to eight years. But that is supposing that they do fire from Earth orbit.’

‘But that ship is coming our way,’ said Strome.

Haarsen swung towards her. ‘They can’t fire on us while the Scourge is at full speed because that would ramp up the speed of the missiles to the point where they wouldn’t be able to slow down enough to enter our atmosphere and subsequently manoeuvre to drop on us. Those things don’t have fusion engines like Argus or the Scourge.’

‘So, on the face of it,’ said Var, ‘building a DEMP seems to be a reasonable precaution to take.’

‘Then what?’ asked Martinez abruptly.

Var glanced at him. Perhaps he too was seeing the shape of things.

‘Yes, precisely,’ said Var. ‘Then what?’

No one seemed to have any answer.

‘I too have been checking some figures,’ she continued. ‘The Scourge will have to slow down to intercept Argus, and there’ll be a delay while it deals with that station. We can assume it will strafe the station first, then dock and send in troops. Remember, Galahad doesn’t want just to destroy Argus; she wants to get her hands on the Gene Bank data and samples. After that, the Scourge can accelerate again. I estimate, what with the big deceleration it will need on arrival here, the ship will be over us in about two years’ time.’

‘The DEMP will be able to knock out anything self-guided,’ said Haarsen, but seemed at a loss for anything else to add.

‘But would be completely ineffective against line-of-sight railgun slugs. So building a DEMP to deal with a possible threat four years hence when we’re likely to be attacked in two years seems rather pointless, don’t you think?’

Both Rhone and Haarsen suddenly looked peeved. This had clearly been a little power play: Rhone wheeling out his pet weapons designer to demonstrate how useful and forward-thinking he was. Quite obviously, Rhone was no synthesist, or else he would have spotted the enormous hole in his own reasoning.

‘So what other options do we have?’ Var asked, and waited patiently.

Rhone should have been the one to see the only real option, but it was Martinez who now spoke up. The big bulky man leaned forward, tapping one thick calloused finger against the tabletop to emphasize each of his points. ‘Atomics and railgun slugs from orbit? Seems to me the penetration capacity of both ain’t great. A slug at full power probably fragments or even turns to plasma on impact. Both’ll leave nothing but glass on the surface.’

‘And your point is?’ Var asked, perfectly aware of what his point was.

‘Maybe they’ve got some way of dropping troops; I don’t know. But even if they have, those guys will be at a big disadvantage.’ He paused, stabbing his finger down again. ‘We dig. We go underground.’

Var swung her attention to Rhone and waited.

‘Yes,’ he said reluctantly. ‘There are faults down there – some big caves extending right to Coprates Chasma.’ He tapped a fingertip against the table. ‘We’ve still got all the records from the original geological survey, but still this will take a lot of work.’

‘Isn’t there a deep fault twenty kilometres north of here?’ Var asked, feeling sure he knew about it. ‘That means we probably won’t even have to sink shafts.’

‘I believe you’re right,’ he admitted.

Var swung her attention to Haarsen, who was now looking sour-faced. She flung him a bone: ‘We’ll be needing explosives to blast things wider over there, and we’ll be needing defences. It also occurs to me that, should there be landing craft aboard the Scourge, then a DEMP weapon might make them rather difficult to control.’

Now he looked happier. Var sat back, feeling completely dissatisfied with this meeting. Either she had just proved that she was the best person to run this base, by showing the only course they could take to survive, or Rhone had been planning some entirely different course. It could all be in her mind, all a product of faulty paranoid reasoning, but it seemed to her that if they didn’t go underground, the only options were surrender or death.

Maybe Rhone’s main plan was to assume command, ensure she ended up dead, then report back to Earth that the main rebel leader had been dealt with. And perhaps, if that was his aim, he was right. They could defend themselves here, maybe for decades into the future but, beyond then, as Earth’s full might came into play, they would eventually lose – and Var could see no way round that.

Earth

Clay gazed at the fine hairs on the back of Serene’s neck as she studied the scene displayed on the small screen in the aero’s cockpit. He wondered if she now regretted destroying the erstwhile Alexander construction station. It had been an overly dramatic gesture by which to demonstrate the Scourge’s power, and its loss had put back offworld construction, though not for long the way things were ramping up. Even so, she should have had the ship fire on the surface of the Moon – that would have been sufficient to deliver the message to Argus. It would also have sent a message to the people on Mars who, it seemed highly probable, were rebels too. It appeared unlikely that their communications equipment was so damaged that they could not rig up some method of replying to the frequent messages sent to them from Earth.

‘How long?’ she asked.

Clay, whom she had summoned up from the contingent of her staff occupying the body of the craft behind, leaned forward to peer at the image, quickly trying to put his thoughts in order. He knew by now that she would stand for no bullshit and, with her scientific background and a mind like a bacon slicer, she would recognize any such at once.

‘I’m told it’ll take over a month to get the small smelters back online,’ he said. ‘But to replace everything that went into the Argus smelters and bubblemetal plants will take a further six months, presupposing this and the others of its kind still work.’ He now gestured to the landscape lying beyond the cockpit screen, and specifically to the massive facility they had come here to see in the final days of this tour of hers round her planet.

Serene did not look up for a moment. She continued studying the various views she could get of what remained of the Mars Traveller construction project. Huge scaffolds hung in vacuum, dilapidated sun mirrors framed the ugly utility of the smelters, big factory cylinders stood open to vacuum within the scaffolding, large areas of their plating now gone. Construction robots, some of them the size of monorail carriages, clung to the scaffold like termites in the remains of a decayed tree.

He continued, ‘The big smelters have been mothballed for twenty years, ever since Argus took over, those that weren’t scrapped, that is, and will take a year to get up to speed. We’ll need more, too, and they’ll take . . . some time to build.’ He leaned further forward, feeling the need to get physically closer to her. She had listened carefully to his reports when he first arrived at Messina’s Italian mansion, then just dismissed him. It was only after they returned from Rome, after seeing the seven comlifers, that she’d made it quite obvious she wanted something else from him. They had fucked on Messina’s huge canopied bed, but only the once. After that, nothing – he returned to being her subordinate and she asked for nothing from him but information. Had he been a disappointment to her, and had she now decided to find that sort of relief from someone trained for the purpose, as had many Committee delegates in the past?

‘And how long before we can actually start building anything?’ she asked.

‘Some processes can start almost at once, but I’m told eight years before the first new-design Travellers can be commissioned.’

‘Not good enough,’ she said. ‘I want more space planes, more people up there, and I want them to work harder.’ She sat back, gazing at him, then reached out with one finger against his chest and pushed. He abruptly backed away, realizing she was uncomfortable with such proximity. He glanced round at Sack, who sat in a chair at the back of the cockpit, with his meaty arms folded and his expression blank. All it would take was a little hand signal from her, and Sack would be up on his feet, probably using his preferred technique of snapping a person’s neck like a stick of celery. She had given that signal quite a few times back at the mansion after – so staff there told him – frequent use of a razorbird had permanently stained the self-cleaning carpet in her office.

‘Messina screwed it up quite badly,’ he said, abruptly straightening his tie and trying to look more businesslike. ‘I’m not sure I understand why.’

‘It’s quite simple,’ she replied, flicking the screen off and looking up. ‘He’d lost interest in Mars and wanted both Argus and . . . his Alexander up and running. He was already diverting resources from the Mars Base ten years ago, but he finally started winding it down a year ago.’ She paused, now staring through the aero cockpit screen. ‘I didn’t quite realize how big a loss Argus was until now.’

‘They should be test firing within the minute.’

She glanced round at him, as he listened to the notification through his fone. She probably knew anyway. He was aware that she relied on numerous sources of information, crosschecking all the time, weeding out the liars, slackers and those stupid enough to audibly contemplate the possibility of being rid of her.

Luckily he had only lied to her once, and the three men who knew about that were all dead. Two of them had survived the incendiary fire in that laboratory she had ordered to be raided. But they had survived long enough to tell Clay exactly where the Scour had come from. The other had been the assault-team commander. After also hearing the story from the badly burned scientists, the commander had gone a little crazy, because he’d fought his own way out of ZA status, leaving a family behind him, all of whom were now dead. He told Clay about the orders he had received directly from Serene Galahad, about how the incendiary fire had been due to him and not the laboratory guards. He had talked too much, which was why Clay shot him through the head, then shot the two scientists.

‘It’s all set up for you,’ he finished.

‘Should I remain here, ma’am?’ asked the pilot.

She was piloting craft less and less. Maybe she considered that one of those earlier quirks that did not sit well with her new status, or maybe it just got in the way of the workload she was dealing with hour upon hour.

‘Just keep us hovering here,’ she replied, and returned her attention to the view.

It had taken some hours by scramjet to get here, to the mass driver facility. The titanic device, a cobwebby relic of a bygone age, sat towards the edge of Outback Spaceport – in fact space planes were visible in the sky either ascending or descending beyond it. Yet, on wide roads spearing off into the distance towards massive opencast mines, giant ore trucks were on the move, and smoke was boiling into the sky from the chimneys of the furnace complex, which sat like a city made for robots between them and the driver itself.

‘It’s the climate,’ said Clay, in search of something to say.

‘What?’

‘It’s because of the climate that this driver could be quickly made operational again. Nothing much rusts here, you see. They had to clear out some bodies and make some internal repairs, though – ZAs had set up house inside the thing. Also, barrel wear was minimal so, before any major maintenance is needed, we should be able to run it at full capacity for at least a year.’

‘Yes, I see.’

Further notification came through his fone. ‘Firing in one minute,’ he told her.

The mass driver lay on a ramp built up at fifty degrees from the ground. The two kilometres of coils and electromagnets looked, from this distance, like a huge busy train terminus tipped upwards by some geological cataclysm.

‘And what is it firing?’

‘Ten-tonne iron cases, each tipped with a ceramic nose cone,’ Clay explained. ‘The inside they load with ingots of whatever other metals might be required up there – copper, tungsten, chromium or whatever. They also used to do special packages containing components manufactured down here, and sometimes plain water or lubricating oils. If it could fit into ten square metres and survive the huge acceleration, then it would be sent. Once, so I’m told, something was sent that couldn’t survive the acceleration.’

She glanced at him. ‘What?’

He had unearthed this particular story only a few hours ago, and he thought it was the kind of thing she would like to hear. ‘A previous technical director who was caught using this mass driver as a means of smuggling unhealthy commodities to station staff and as a punishment was fired into orbit inside one of the cases. Nothing much left of him but sludge. Those receiving the goods at the other end were shoved out of an airlock.’

She shrugged, dismissing it. ‘So what happens when they reach space? They will be moving very fast by then, surely?’

Clay felt sweat breaking out on his forehead. Stick to the point, keep your head down and, most important, get somewhere you are less likely to be subject to the murderous whims of Earth’s dictator. ‘Not so much. They lose velocity in Earth’s atmosphere on the way up, finally falling into a stable orbit. The collector ship is in permanent orbit at a matched velocity, and when it has collected a full load, it decelerates to its destination.’ He gestured to the screen. ‘It’s firing right now.’

Serene concentrated on the mass driver, waiting for the show. He watched it, too, could see nothing of note at first, then raised his gaze to a vapour trail cutting a line up into the sky. Then, as the trail began to bow under the high wind, another trail cut upwards. Shortly afterwards, even through the aero’s insulation and over the sound of its fans, he detected the rumbling of multiple sonic booms, like a thunderstorm grumble that just went on and on. After a few minutes the sky was neatly banded with similar trails.

‘That’s all of them,’ Director Rourke told him through his fone. ‘Does she want to come and see the furnace complex?’ The director did not sound eager. Many people were learning what Clay had already realized: that it was better to remain below Serene Galahad’s notice and just get on with your job.

‘That’s it,’ said Clay. ‘They’ve fired twenty projectiles and with no problems. Technical Director Rourke would like to know if you want to see the manufacturing of the cases – take a tour of the furnace complex.’

It would just be another big factory complex with its noise, its robots, its dirt and its obsequious managers. Clay noted her slightly bored expression and knew that, though she was thoroughly aware of the necessity of all this to achieve her secondary purpose of surely establishing humanity offworld, her primary interest seemed to be in restoring the wildlife and ecology of Earth – hence her determination to get back the Gene Bank data and samples. He sometimes wondered how these two aims matched up. Did she visualize a future with a low-population garden Earth, while the bulk of humanity lived in tin cans out in the solar system? She had already seen space planes on a production line ten kilometres long, scramjets too on another such line, and shown only mild complimentary interest. The one time she had become animated about any machinery was upon seeing the factories producing the giant bulldozers and macerating machines that would be used to clear unoccupied areas of sprawl, clearing them down to the hidden earth.

‘I think I’ll give this one a miss,’ she said. ‘Send my apologies to Director Rourke.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ Clay paused at the door, even though he had effectively been dismissed.

She turned to regard him. ‘There’s something else?’

‘I should get back to Aldeburgh,’ he said. He would be relatively safe there and, but for these occasional tours, she seemed perfectly happy to remain in Tuscany. ‘There’s a lot that needs to be caught up on. It’s difficult to find recruits with the right . . . attitude.’

She nodded in agreement, doubtless contemplating all those she had already found lacking and who had ended up in pieces on her self-cleaning carpet. Most of those people with the ‘right attitude’ had previously found their way up within the Committee Administration, which meant, after what Alan Saul had done, they were now just so much ash in the ruins of Inspectorate HQs, administrative centres or scramjet crash sites all across Earth.

‘I think not,’ she said.

‘Why not?’ Clay asked. Was it now? Did she know what he knew? Would she now give Sack that special hand signal?

‘Because I have a rather longer journey in mind for you.’

He suddenly felt quite sick, both with relief and a growing fear. He knew precisely what she was talking about. She wanted someone she could trust – as much as that was possible for her – to be aboard the Scourge. He tried to think of some objection, some assertion that he was irreplaceable where he was, but knew there was nothing to offer. By making himself so useful to her, by working far beyond his basic remit, he’d now achieved a promotion he didn’t want.

‘Surely Captain Scotonis is able enough to—?’

Suddenly the cockpit filled with chunks of armour glass and a vicious swarm of metal fragments. Something slammed into his side, and for a second he thought Sack had grabbed hold of him . . . then he realized he was up against the cockpit wall. Ahead, the horizon was tilted upright, smoke boiling across the shattered screen. Behind the cockpit he could hear agonized screaming, and saw the glare of hot fire through the door into the rear section. He saw Serene reach across, hit the pilot’s belt release. The man dropped from his seat, landing soggily just beside Clay, soaked in blood, one arm nearly detached and the back of his skull missing.

Serene dragged herself into the pilot’s seat, wrestled with the controls, the aero’s engines producing a horrible metallic clattering.

Clay closed his eyes and clung on, wondering if the impact with the ground would kill him – or the fire.

8

Dark Soldiers

It has been rumoured that secret government research has taken implant technology far beyond the point where the technological component can be properly called an implant. Rumours of hideous experiments, where terrorist prisoners are experimented on, abound in scurrilous stories on the Subnet. Such spreaders of rumour and dissention tell horrific tales of researchers casually removing the organs, limbs and bones of their subjects so that state-of-the-art implants and prosthetics can be tried out on them. There are stories, too, of victims being stripped of their nervous, lymphatic and venous systems so that technological replacements of these can be tested; of computer replacements of the brain itself being trialled; and of brains divided, reordered and combined with hardware to form new structures. But the darkest stories of all are of people rendered down by this process until almost nothing of the original remains; of dark cyborg soldiers being created in nightmare orbital laboratories that seem like some annex of Hell. But it is, in the end, all the same sort of conspiracy theory as can be found in historical files about Area 57, FTL space drives and UFOs. It is the retreat of the permanently disaffected, those who cannot accept that we live in the best of possible worlds.

Argus

Le Roque’s face grew pale as he listened to his fone, then he blinked and gazed down the length of the table at Hannah. ‘What have you done?’

Hannah’s stomach felt tight, dreading what the android’s response might have been to her instruction to protect Alan Saul, to protect the Owner. Had this Paul and its fellows gone straight to her laboratory to kill Dr Raiman and any other medics found there? Had they also killed the guards Langstrom had left behind? She wished she’d been more specific.

‘One of those things the Saberhagens were working with is now in your laboratory,’ confirmed Le Roque. ‘Raiman and his people are out in the corridor – it won’t let them near the Owner, told them to stay out.’

Some relief there, but this was by no means over. Hannah swung her attention towards Langstrom, who was listening to his own fone, his expression grim. He turned to Le Roque. ‘My men opened fire on it,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘No effect – so I’ve ordered other men to break the armour piercers out of storage.’

Le Roque continued to gaze at Hannah. ‘I need an explanation, Dr Neumann.’

Hannah spread her hands placatingly. ‘I’ve simply ensured that Saul remains protected. He won’t be handed over to Galahad, and he’s going to remain under my care.’ She glanced at Langstrom. ‘You’ve no need of armour-piercing bullets, and they wouldn’t work anyway. The androids were programmed by Saul himself and, until he is well, they will take their orders from me.’

‘A police force he can trust absolutely,’ remarked Langstrom bitterly.

Hannah shrugged, trying to appear confident, though unsure of her ground. ‘Police for Saul only. You still police this station at large.’

‘More like doctrinal police,’ said Langstrom. ‘Real police are real human beings who retain the ability to question, to make decisions based on reality.’

‘Proctors,’ said Hannah abruptly, remembering the enforcers of correct political thinking from her university days, and also remembering how, before the Committee, such proctors had kept the chaotic and undisciplined student body in line. Wasn’t there an older meaning still? Yes, religious police – and that seemed appropriate since they were guarding a being who had, at least for a short time, been a demigod.

‘Proctors,’ said Le Roque. ‘So what else do you intend to do with these proctors, Dr Neumann?’

Hannah stood up. ‘I intend to ensure that we find a way out of this that doesn’t involve giving up Saul or surrendering ourselves. I intend to ensure that we survive, and don’t all end up shitting on the floor of an adjustment cell on Earth.’ She looked around at the others seated at the table. ‘We’re done here now until I can pull together those staff who’ll provide a more positive input. Then I suggest we discuss this matter again.’

‘Langstrom,’ said Le Roque. ‘Take Dr Neumann into custody while we resolve this situation.’

Langstrom stood up, looking very unsure, his hand on his sidearm.

‘Who do you take orders from, Langstrom?’ Hannah asked.

‘I take orders from the Owner,’ he said. ‘However, in the Owner’s absence I must take orders from the next person in authority aboard this station, and that is Technical Director Le Roque.’

‘You merely follow the chain of command, then, and tend not to think for yourself?’

He frowned, then abruptly dipped his head and reached up to press his fingers against his fone. He listened for a moment, then abruptly spat, ‘Get out of its way – then get over to the armoury. We’re going to need something a bit more substantial.’

He glanced pensively at the door before quickly moving round the table. His gun came out of its holster as he caught hold of Hannah’s jacket. He pressed it into her side and dragged her away from the double doors, which at that moment abruptly slid open. One of the newly named proctors ducked inside, the top of its head only a few centimetres below the ceiling. Little pieces of blue ceramic fell off its tough skin – the remains of low-penetration station weapons. It shrugged, shedding further fragments, and a pink haze like St Elmo’s fire rippled across its hide. Hannah did not know precisely how, but she recognized this as the first one that had addressed her, and as the same one that had spoken to her over her fone.

‘The EM weapon couldn’t stop it,’ said Langstrom – his comment directed to Le Roque as he pulled Hannah closer.

‘Hello, Paul,’ she said.

‘Hello Hannah Neumann,’ the proctor replied. ‘Would you like me to disarm Captain Langstrom, and render him harmless?’

‘Not right now,’ Hannah replied, shivering. The resonance of the voice was completely off key and, though the proctor spoke such reasonable words, there seemed to be terrible implications behind them.

She turned to Le Roque, who, along with the others, had stood up and moved back from the table. ‘So where do we go from here, Le Roque? If I order this proctor to free me, how are you going to counter that?’ She paused for a second. ‘And you, Langstrom. Are you going to kill me and then die shortly afterwards just so Le Roque can maintain power here?’

‘Le Roque?’ Langstrom enquired. Hannah could feel the dampness of his sweat through his uniform, could see it on his cheek. He was in a horrible position and knew it. What would he do next? She must not underestimate the possibility that, faced with this thing called Paul, he might not react rationally.

‘Release her,’ said Le Roque.

The gun retracted, a sigh escaping Langstrom as he let her go. Slightly unsteadily she walked over to stand beside the proctor, Paul. The android towered over her, completely immobile, but with a thunderstorm tension in the air all about it. Then it turned and dipped its head as if to peer down at her.

‘Your instructions?’ it asked.

She felt a moment of panic, and suppressed it. She should just concentrate on the words it uttered. She should not see them as a question asked by some demon she’d just summoned up from Hell. ‘We go back to Arcoplex Two,’ she replied, ‘and we’ll take it from there.’ She turned towards the doors.

‘Dr Neumann,’ said Le Roque, ‘you understand that we had no choice?’

Power had shifted abruptly.

She nodded an acknowledgement and stepped outside, Paul looming over her, the doors closing behind them.

‘I want you to secure the station armoury,’ she decided. ‘I don’t want Langstrom’s men running around with guns and rocket launchers.’

‘Already done, Hannah Neumann,’ replied Paul. ‘I sent a spidergun the moment Captain Langstrom dispatched Sergeant Peach there.’

‘Spidergun?’ said Hannah, halting abruptly.

‘We have all been awaiting your command,’ the proctor informed her. ‘You have only to issue instructions.’

‘All the station robots?’ she asked, suddenly horrified.

‘All that can hear you, and all the others through those.’

She hesitated, almost felt like running back to Le Roque and handing power back to him. What horrified her? That same thing Saul had shoved into her hands before, and now again: responsibility.

‘This is not going to be an easy conversation to conduct, so we must both think ahead to anticipate questions we might be asked, and add the further detail our answers might require,’ said the woman on the screen.

‘There’s a tidy-up program running alongside this image feed,’ said Alexandra, pausing the broadcast from Earth.

‘So this Serene Galahad is vain,’ said Alex.

Chairman Messina had once met Galahad during one of his many world tours. She was a British delegate, but not as active in the administration there as others – her rank was bestowed simply because of her scientific expertise and her organization of ID-implant manufacturing. Warned of subversive elements within her vicinity, and of some doubt about her own loyalty, his protection teams had been kept on high alert. Alex One and his brothers had been ready in a fast-drop boat underneath an aero hovering above the Aldeburgh facility, just in case something happened there that the conventional protection teams down on the ground couldn’t handle. This was why, out of the hundreds of other delegates he had encountered, Alex remembered her.

‘I’ll try to clear it up,’ said Alexandra, ‘so we can get a proper look at her.’ She set the broadcast running again.

‘You have by now seen all the data we sent and therefore understand the situation here. I am also told that the station schematic we sent has enabled you to break into some storage rooms to resupply yourselves, and that you have since found a safe hideaway. That’s good.’ She paused for a second in thought, one side of her face blurring and distorting as Alexandra tried to get rid of the tidy-up program. Galahad then continued, ‘For the people of Earth it is essential that we retrieve the Gene Bank data and samples, and that Alan Saul – if he still lives – and the rebels with him, be brought to justice, and that the delegates aboard that station then be freed. And it is, of course, also essential that Chairman Messina be released and returned to Earth. We need his wisdom, his experience and his insight.’

Alex found himself nodding in agreement, then abruptly ceased and felt a little sickened by such a reaction. This woman had been considered a danger to the Chairman when he was still back on Earth and Alex doubted that anything had changed. The delegates had always been the most perfidious and therefore in need of the closest watching.

‘Got it,’ said Alexandra.

Galahad’s image distorted again then resettled, now revealing a big dressing on her face, some hair missing on one side of her head and a black eye.

‘Burn dressing,’ Alexandra noted.

Alex shrugged. Whatever – it wasn’t really relevant.

Galahad continued, ‘To these ends, we are sending the Scourge – the ship whose images we sent to you earlier. This ship is entirely capable of destroying the Argus Station, but obviously we don’t want that. The data must be recovered and Chairman Messina must be secured and rescued. So, your best function for now will be to act as our eyes and ears aboard the station. Your prime objective will be to remain concealed, while you gather tactical data and send it to us on this frequency. I know that you have located Alessandro, but you must not act on that yet. It is also essential that you locate the Gene Bank samples and data. I’ll pause now to give you a chance to reply.’ Her image froze.

Alex and Alexandra sat and discussed the broadcast, only briefly, because they had already gone over what they needed to know. Then they replied.

‘How will the Scourge attack this station, and where would it be safest for us to position ourselves? Is it likely that you will fire on the station, and what are the chances of the Arboretum cylinder world being hit – that is, should we get Messina out before the attack begins? After finding this Gene Bank data, what should we do with it?’ Alex paused, wondering if there was something he had missed. He couldn’t think of anything.

They then waited. He kept checking his watch as the time she would have received it arrived and passed. It took a further ten minutes before they received her reply.

‘The form of the attack,’ she said, ‘will, to a certain extent, be dependent on the tactical information you now supply. There is also a limit to the amount of information I am prepared to provide you with, since there is still a danger that you may be captured and interrogated. However, the rebels aboard will already have surmised that the station will come under disabling fire first, followed by the injection of an assault force. Most of this fire will be concentrated on installations in and about the asteroid itself, where the main population is concentrated. It will be heavy enough to cause atmosphere breaches, disable power supplies and sever communications and transport, but not so heavy as to completely wreck the computer architecture of the station, since we do not want to destroy any recording there of the Gene Bank data. We will therefore tend to avoid any server rooms and data stores. My tactical teams also tell me, you will be delighted to know, that one of the most likely storage places for the Gene Bank samples and data is the Arboretum cylinder, so we will certainly avoid inflicting any damage on that place at all.’

She smiled at them then, and the sincerity in her expression made Alex uneasy. He was one of the first clones created, and so by now, at the physical age of thirty, had learned to recognize deceit, but he could not detect any sign of it in her.

‘I have to add,’ she continued, ‘that if you can, without any high risk of being captured, get to the Gene Bank data and transmit it to me, on this frequency, then you should do so. The Chairman himself would agree on how essential that data is for the regeneration of his beloved Earth. I could warrant that he would even be prepared to sacrifice himself in order to ensure that end. Now I will listen to one further message from you, then I must return to the administration of a planet until the Chairman returns.’

‘Chairman Alessandro Messina will not sacrifice himself – nor will he be sacrificed,’ was all Alex said in reply.

It took a further five minutes, on top of the signal delay, before they received her reply to that statement.

‘My apologies,’ she said. ‘I was only talking about what I believe his opinion would be, for he values himself only as high as he does his duty. However, he is more important to you, to me and to the people of Earth than any data imaginable. Please understand my sincerity in this. Now I must leave you to attend to your duties, while I attend to mine. The leader of the tactical team assigned you will once again take over. I wish you the best of luck, Alex, and hope that in the future we can talk under better circumstances.’

Her image froze again.

‘So what do you think?’ Alex asked.

‘She seems sincere enough,’ said Alexandra. ‘The Chairman would not have made her a delegate if he hadn’t trusted her.’

Alex gazed at her thoughtfully, remembering a fragment of some previous mission he had been engaged on ten years before Alexandra was anything more than a blob of jelly in her amniotic tank. The memory was slightly confused by the many conditioning sessions since, but he certainly recalled, at Messina’s request, torturing to death a delegate who had made an attempt on the Chairman’s life. Poor Alexandra: despite her brilliance with coms she was still, at only four years out of her tank, lacking in experience. To her the world was still divided into black and white. On the one side stood the rebels, subversives and terrorists, while on the other stood Messina, his delegates and the administration of Earth. To her it wasn’t at all complicated. Her naivety made him feel so very tired.

Things were better, as a brief venture into what Saul recognized as semi-consciousness gave him an overview. He felt the bandwidth of connections expanding as those units they extended from or terminated against healed, regrew, came online. He also understood that even when not fully in the world, he had influenced it and set in motion a counter-force; something to stand against that massive ship whose presence in near-Earth space felt like a hot nail being driven into his head. And Hannah had responded, too, taking the reins he had released but had failed to instruct her to hold.

Data continued flowing, and he could understand it better. He could distinguish now the difference between station computing and the events and propaganda broadcast on ETV. The demonization of Alan Saul never stopped and, motivated by the need for vengeance, the people of Earth seemed to all the more willingly wear their chains and work at a killing pace under Serene Galahad. Here another image appeared; here more damnation invoked.

One of the Gobi desert basins had been used as the Asian continent’s inner dumping ground. Any surviving population had been moved out and their buildings levelled. Then the corpses had been brought in by heavy ore trucks, and dumped and dozered up to a thickness of ten metres across an area of a hundred square kilometres. Months of decay, during which the flies had clouded so thick that people venturing into the area had choked to death on them, had reduced this layer to five metres of bones. They called it ‘the Plain of Bones’ now. It was poetically apposite, but by no means unique. In a moment of coherence, he managed to link to Govnet and discover that there were now a hundred and four places called the Plain of Bones, plus hundreds of others with similar titles: the Ossuary, Bonefield, Field of Skulls and numerous sites that had acquired the name ‘the Scourings’. That was all he managed to get before something – some shadowy force – tipped him out again.

‘For this they must be punished,’ declared Serene Galahad, seated in a plush office, looking all confidence and strength, her clothing plain and almost dowdy to impart the comforting image of motherhood. ‘But we must bring that data back here so we can grow a new Earth in the bones of the old.’

The broadcasts contained nothing new. He could detect the joins, the words reordered, the CGI changes of scene and the changes in her appearance. She had not actually spoken live for a long time now. The ersatz Serene moved on to talk of awards, promotions and the lionization of individuals who had invented something useful, speeded up some process, increased some production figures. It seemed to Saul that the ghost of the hammer-and-sickle shimmered once more on a red background and that Pravda was again alive and well.

She watched, too – the woman etched into underlying reality, the one he had seen somewhere, and heard speak. She had been far away, yet also impossibly close, space seeming an agonized curve in between. Sometimes he felt that curve, and found himself howling from behind a screen in Jasper Rhine’s laboratory. Other times he felt a brief twisting, distorting wrongness, and found himself gazing from the eyes of the proctor called Judd, in the outer ring. He knew, in an utterly theoretical way, what was being built there, and knew that theoretically it should work. But every time Judd tested a new section, and the machine just hinted at what it could do, he saw the working of the universe through utterly unhuman eyes, because that wrongness – that twisting – should not happen now but was a strand of a possible future stretching back to the now. It was a picture of reality that the normal human mind could not grasp.

Hannah,’ he somehow managed to say.

‘Alan! Alan, is that you!’

Hannahahhahahnonono . . .’

‘Alan! You have to wake up!’

His mental grip slid away, and he glimpsed himself lying all tubed and wired on the table in her surgery, a seeming meld of corpse and machine. He glimpsed someone in a corridor with his hands clasped over his ears, gazing in horror at a public-address speaker. He saw Le Roque leaping out of his chair in Tech Central and backing away from some nightmare images on his screen. Then briefly, for just one steady instant, he saw the station entire: every image from every robot sensor, every cam, every external array and dish, and even through the human eyes of those who wore cortex-linked fones. It was numinous . . . and so seemed the blackness that followed.

Earth

It had been five hours since the broadcast, but still Serene cursed her stupidity. She had read the recently revealed reports on Messina clones, about Alexes supposedly just like those that made up that undercover squad hiding aboard Argus Station. She had read about the conditioning, the brain surgery, the inducement and the brainwashing. She had known how it produced something utterly loyal to the Committee and the administration of Earth, but only after a total and unquestioning loyalty to Alessandro Messina. She had also known that the Alexes were supposed to be almost childlike, socially inept and trusting. And she had got it wrong.

The Alex she had spoken to had not been quite so easy to handle, and in retrospect she realized that though the wholly naive Alexes might be used in military units they wouldn’t, in any sane world, be used for undercover infiltration work. So, for her to even hint at Messina dying had been completely the wrong thing to do. She had complacently slid into error by assuming that the Alex was loyal to the office when in reality that loyalty was primarily to the man. That particular Alex must have lost any awe of Messina’s administration and his subordinates. She put her error down to her present physical condition and mental state, the latter of which she intended to do something about right now.

She walked slowly and carefully into the room, every stab of pain from her damaged pelvis further feeding the cold rage inside her. Gazing about at the awaiting technicians, managers and political officers, she reached up self-consciously to touch the dressing over the burn on her face and running down the side of her neck. The doctors had told her that grafts of her own skin from her personal stock would eliminate any scarring, and that the implants in her pelvis should soon heal the damage there. She had painkillers she could take, but they blurred her round the edges, made her less sharp, and she needed to stay sharp. That was evident.

The assassination attempt had been well planned. Rounds of armour-piercing bullets were fired from the top of the mass driver and through the cockpit screen, to take out the pilot. They couldn’t have known she was in the cockpit, too; if they had, the bullets would not have been concentrated on the pilot’s position, but on her. Taking out the pilot, however, was not enough to bring about a crash, not enough to ensure the death of Earth’s dictator, since the aero’s autopilot would have taken over, to bring it down safely. Hence the subsequent two copperhead tank-busters fired from the ground. The first of them took out one engine and one entire fan, the second filled the rear compartment with vaporized copper, incinerating fifteen of the passengers. Had Serene not instantly taken the controls, the machine would have plunged straight into the ground. As it was, she felt lucky to have managed to drag herself out of the wreck.

‘Have they been brought in?’ she asked, turning to Clay.

‘They’re in,’ he confirmed.

Clay had got off lightly, just a broken arm and a few cracked ribs, all now internally splinted and not hindering him in any way. Sack hadn’t been so lucky. The rear compartment wall he was sitting against had heated up, melting the plastic of his seat, thus jamming his safety belt. He managed to snap the belt only when it had burned through enough to weaken it, and then follow her and Clay out through the shattered cockpit screen. Currently he occupied a room in an advanced Committee hospital in Sydney, on life support while the doctors there tried to replace his ninety per cent skin loss with some artificial concoction.

‘And you’re sure we got them all?’

‘I got all who remained alive,’ he replied. ‘I had to use and lose some good contacts and close down some undercover networks but, yes, all of them.’

Now that he knew he could not use their brief sexual liaison as leverage, he was trying to assert how useful he was here on Earth, perhaps also hoping that recent events might have changed her mind about sending him to the Scourge. He would be disappointed.

‘What do you mean by “all who remained alive”?’

‘Twelve of them got forewarning, and made a visit to a Safe Departure clinic before I could get to them.’

She stared at him. They went to a suicide clinic, easily slept their way into death and then a community digester. She would have to close those clinics down. They were an anachronism the people of Earth could no longer afford. They promoted the idea that a citizen’s life was his own when, in reality, it belonged to the state. They should not have the option to end it so easily. That should be the prerogative of herself and her government.

She refocused her attention on the people within the room, and on what she had come to see here at this Security Development Facility in Brazil. It hadn’t originally been included on her tour route but, considering the fact that some societal assets felt in a position to try and assassinate her, she had changed her mind.

She could send a signal to ID implants to kill with the Scour but, since the Scour was being blamed on Alan Saul, she wanted something that was her own, some power to kill instantly that was obviously her own. She needed visible evidence of her ability to take any life she chose. And here they were developing just what she needed. She walked over to the table and surveyed the collection of items on display. They called these things DUs – disciplinary units.

‘These are all of them?’ she asked.

‘Yes, ma’am.’

The developer, Santanzer, was a nervous individual who reminded her of Shimbaum. Apparently, because the director of this establishment and most of his management team had been visiting an Inspectorate HQ in Brazil when Saul decided to drop a satellite on it, this place had since been run by a disparate team of political officers and low-echelon managers. They had obviously decided that Santanzer should be the one to speak to her. She was starting to realize that her harsh reputation was causing some irresponsible staff either to absent themselves when she visited, or to pass responsibility further down the chain. In future she would ensure she spoke only to whoever made the decisions, but just for now she would let it go. She picked up a silver ring twenty centimetres across, gazed at it for a second then put it down dismissively. The item was in fact an explosive collar.

‘Too dramatic,’ she said, remembering her stained office carpet in Italy, ‘and too messy.’

Next she picked up a rather heavier item which could inject a selection of drugs directly into the recipient’s neck. This might have its uses, but it wasn’t what she wanted right now. Another collar delivered electric shocks, while another was a pain inducer, and still others were varied combinations of all these things. But she liked simplicity, and finally selected a ring made of a strap of metal that seemed almost indistinguishable from a large jubilee clip, and studied the metal cylinder that the free end of the strap passed under.

‘This.’ She held it up to show Clay.

He nodded and turned away to speak through his fone to the guards currently standing watch over the prisoners. There were thirty SAs in all, including Technical Director Rourke from the Outback mass driver, one of her recently appointed Australian delegates, along with her advisers and bodyguards – a total of forty-eight people. Of course, the delegate and her staffs had not been involved in the incident, but that a bunch of democratically minded SAs could conduct such an assassination attempt under her watch could not go unpunished.

‘Diamond filaments imbedded in the metal make it practically unbreakable,’ Santanzer explained. ‘Those filaments are what science-fiction writers have been dreaming about for centuries, and now we have them. They could be used to take elevators up into orbit.’

She gazed at him with slight contempt. Here was yet another expert trying to blind the stupid politician with science.

‘Strange you should put it that way,’ she observed. ‘To my recollection, diamond filament was manufactured in China over eighty years ago, but since cost of production was so prohibitive, and other much cheaper options were available for the more prosaic tasks it might be used for, it was shelved.’ She eyed him carefully. ‘We can easily manufacture it now because of a steady improvement in furnace design over those eighty years.’

He didn’t know what to say for a moment, then gulped out a, ‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘What I would prefer you to tell me about,’ she continued, ‘is this motor here and its power supply.’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ He seemed unable to do more than mouth those two words.

‘Perhaps a practical demonstration?’ she suggested nastily. ‘Here and now rather than the one being prepared for us?’

He spoke all in a rush. ‘The battery is a nanotube store, kept up to charge by induction through the strap itself. It discharges into a micro-conveyor, which is an array of micro-wheels on a—’

‘I know what a micro-conveyor is. Please continue.’ She glanced round at Clay, who nodded, then pointed to the door leading out of there. She began heading towards that door, her four new bodyguards close behind her, Clay trailing them, and all the other flunkies walking attentively but silently after him.

Santanzer stayed at her side. ‘The conveyor simply closes the strap, which is prevented from being pulled back by spur hairs within the exit hole. As soon as the device receives an ID code, it checks it against the recipient’s implant and, if there’s a match, it can close the hoop . . . sufficiently in less than a second.’

As she reached the door, two of her bodyguards moved ahead to open it and check the area beyond. That was unnecessary, really, since the place had been swarming with Inspectorate enforcers for a week before her arrival, but this was what they were trained to do. After a moment they nodded, and she followed them through, Santanzer was still at her side, and frequently looking back towards his superiors in the vain hope that one of them would take over from him.

‘But there is more than one speed setting,’ she observed as she stepped out onto a platform overlooking a warehouse floor.

A racket greeted her there: the meaty thuds of rifle butts liberally applied, the shouting and begging and the screams from those feeling the touch of a disabler. Steel stairs led down to the main floor, a large area that had now been cleared of crates. Fifty Inspectorate enforcers had the prisoners all crammed together, and there seemed to be a bit of a riot going on. The prisoners, it seemed, were objecting to their new neckwear.

‘It allows any setting you choose,’ Santanzer replied, gazing over the rail with horrified fascination as he finally started to accept what might soon happen here.

Two bodyguards went down the stairs first, and she followed, her pelvis complaining at the extra effort. Finally down on the warehouse floor, she walked out to where a large comfortable chair had been provided for her, a small round table standing beside it, upon which sat a bottle of champagne in a cooler, and a single flute glass. She unhooked her palmtop from her belt and placed it on the table, then carefully sat down while Clay checked the secure seal on the bottle, before opening it and filling the glass for her. It was one taken from Messina’s stock, specially sent over for the occasion – and specially sealed and poison-free so long as the seal remained intact. She took a sip, opened her palmtop and studied the list of ID implant numbers displayed, and the icon for the new program that had just loaded. Then, after a pause, she raised her gaze towards the prisoners.

‘Bring delegate Grace Turpin and Technical Director Rourke forward,’ she instructed.

Enforcers cut the two she named from the crowd, shoved them to the front and then down onto their knees. Their suits were soiled and soaking wet, and only now did Serene detect the slight smell of faeces and urine. All these people had been kept without access to toilet facilities for some days, because, after their sojourn in Inspectorate cells in Australia, they had spent most of their time in the holds of aeros or scramjets. Doubtless they were dripping wet because the enforcers here had recently hosed them down to make them at least a little more presentable for her. She eyed them for a second longer before selecting their two implant codes from the list ranged before her, then dragged them across and dropped them on the ring-shaped icon. A new menu opened to show numerous settings. The thing was of a gratifyingly simple design: she could govern the speed of strangulation, she could render someone unconscious then open the collar again, and she could snap the collar closed so quickly it would decapitate whoever was wearing it in, as Santanzer had told her, less than a second.

‘Chairman,’ said Rourke, ‘we were utterly shocked and—’

The slowest setting, she decided, but without full closure since that would make a terrible mess here. Of course, she wouldn’t have to clear it up herself, but felt some sympathy for those who would. The two began making retching sounds and struggled to free their hands from the plastic ties binding their wrists behind their backs. Grace Turpin toppled over on her side, her legs kicking, her body thrashing and bucking, and shortly afterwards Rourke lay down beside her too. One and a half minutes of this was followed by a further thirty seconds of death rattles and the occasional spasmodic twitching.

Serene took another sip of champagne, then flicked her gaze back to the list. Some in the crowd of prisoners were sobbing, four had tried to run and been beaten to the floor, while one had managed to ram his head into an enforcer’s gut and then deliver an excellent kick to another enforcer’s head, before running. A disabler dropped him, screaming, beside a wall of crates.

However, most just remained in a kneeling position, doing nothing. She had previously noticed how, if you first selected a couple of prisoners from a crowd you intended to do away with, the rest somehow convinced themselves that they were being given an object lesson, and that they weren’t going to die, too. She smiled with a feeling of peace easing the tension in her body, selected the whole of the rest of the list and dragged it to the ring icon, left the setting the same, pressed send and sat back.

The noise was abominable, and in a short time the smell was too. Serene finished her champagne, then poured herself another glass. The enforcers moved back from the thrashing, retching mass of humanity. Out of this mass crawled one woman whose collar seemed to have malfunctioned.

‘Deal with her,’ said Serene, pointing.

An enforcer stepped over and beat in the woman’s skull with his rifle butt.

In two minutes it was all over.

‘Santanzer,’ Serene said next.

The man stepped over beside her chair. ‘Ma’am?’ He didn’t look well

‘You are now the technical director of this facility. How soon can you go into production?’

‘Within two days, ma’am.’

‘At what rate?’

‘The furnaces can produce two metres of strip every hour, but motor production and assembly is slower – about five to six thousand collars every twenty-four hours,’ he replied.

‘Not enough and not fast enough,’ she said. ‘That’s only a million in six months. You’ll be provided with all the resources you need to increase that figure.’

‘How many do you want?’

‘Let’s go for a nice round figure,’ she said, standing up. ‘If you haven’t produced a billion within the first year, I’ll be back here to find out why.’

She headed for the stairs feeling slightly woozy; the champagne had gone to her head.

Argus

They had food and water here in this zero-gravity hydroponics unit, and remained safe from discovery after Alexandra had managed to run a program through the local agribots so that they would ignore this apparent new staff complement. But Alex had become frustrated by the lack of action, and by all the sneaking about and spying. However, their instructions from Serene Galahad, then reaffirmed by the leader of the tactical team on Earth, had been quite explicit: no military action. Instead they were to watch and report everything they could and be ready for the arrival of the Scourge. Now, as Alex listened in frustration to the various sounds penetrating the surrounding walls – the clattering, the intermittent whine of a cutter and occasional deep groans and bangs – it seemed that they were trapped here, and that they were about to be found.

‘What are they doing?’ he asked Alexandra.

She continued studying her screen for a moment, then looked up. ‘It looks as if they’re dismounting the whole hydroponics unit.’ She paused for a second, her expression distant. ‘To isolate us?’ she wondered, clearly puzzled.

Alex shook his head. ‘Then why not just send in the robots? In this confined area we wouldn’t stand a chance.’

‘Maybe,’ she suggested, ‘they’re worried about the damage if there’s a firefight in here. Hydroponics is important, so perhaps they just intend to isolate us and wait us out.’

Good, she was starting to think a little bit more outside the box.

‘I don’t think so,’ he opined. ‘We’re just in the way.’

She focused on him. ‘I don’t understand.’

Alex frowned for a second then continued, ‘That thing they’re building in the outer ring . . . we saw how they cut straight through underneath the space dock, took out those big structural beams and repositioned them. They’re building it all the way round, and this unit is standing in the way. So they’re moving it.’

‘Makes more sense, that. I guess if they wanted to isolate us, they just had to weld the doors shut,’ she said, adding, ‘Maybe we should sabotage it?’

‘You heard what Tactical Analysis said,’ he said. ‘They can discern no military application for it, other than maybe some sort of EM defence, which the station already has. It looks more like some sort of fast transport system and, if anything, it’s a good thing that they’re diverting station resources into the project.’

‘I still don’t like it,’ said Alexandra.

At that moment, the whole hydroponics unit shifted and the lights went out. Alex turned on his suit light to compensate, while Alexandra remained focused on her screen.

‘Completely detached,’ she said. ‘We’ve got some big construction robots out there taking hold. I think you’re right and it looks to me as if there’s a place deeper in already prepared. We’re only being moved about twenty metres.’

They now sat in silence, holding on tight as the unit was moved. Then it clanged to a halt, the lurch not enough to disturb the agribots still working all around them. The racket from outside could be heard again, and Alex felt his tension ease when he heard the familiar sizzling of welders. When the lights came back on, he checked his watch. It was time to record another report. He gestured to Alexandra, who moved away from the screen, pulling herself up into the overhead scaffold while he moved into position and set the screen to record.

‘We have data on the other weapon, which I will transmit with this report,’ he began. ‘It is not, as we first supposed, a railgun, but some sort of beam weapon.’ He gave a brief description that provided no more data than the pictures they would send, then continued with, ‘Alexandra has managed to locate some old cargo manifests which indicate the final destination of cargos being sent here. As you surmised, the Gene Bank samples were transported directly to the Arboretum. They went there rather than to Arcoplex Two mainly because of the storage space. The data, however, is another matter. It was brought here in permanent-write carbon-crystal storage, then fed into the station system. We don’t know the location of the PWCC, but copies of the data are stored throughout the station. We tried to access them, but something’s happened – the whole system seems a lot more aware again, as it was when Alan Saul was still in control. We just managed to get away from the console we were using before a spidergun arrived. That’s all for now.’

‘What I don’t understand,’ said Alexandra, ‘is why there aren’t copies of that data all across Earth – you could get all of it on terabyte sticks.’

‘It’s not for us to question that,’ said Alex. ‘Remember, it was under the Chairman’s orders that the data came here, so it was under his orders that none of it should remain on Earth.’

He watched her acquiesce and dismiss the question from her mind, but it still remained in his. With data storage so easy, it seemed ludicrous to confine something so valuable to just one location. The Chairman must have considered this data part of his power base, maybe as a hedge against the possibility of revolution on Earth while he was up on Argus. Those down below would not have been able to maintain power while Earth’s biosphere died all around them, and without the Gene Bank data they would have nothing with which to regenerate it all. All he had to do then was wait them out.

‘Send the report,’ he snapped, uncomfortable with where these thoughts were taking him.

Alexandra dipped her head in acknowledgement, and set to work. However, it soon became evident that she had encountered a problem.

‘What’s the matter?’ he asked. ‘Are you getting that same weird shit again?’

The images and sounds seemed to come out of nowhere, though Alexandra explained it as a kind of inductance effect on her equipment. But what could possibly induce what looked like a nightmare artistic montage of flesh, blood, bone and insectile machine? What was inducing sounds like the howling of some half-man and half-beast, or the muttering of lunatics in dank dungeons?

‘Nope, it’s not that, thankfully. I think it must come from that thing they’re building out there,’ she said. ‘Every time they run another test on a section of it, it screws up com. I’m not getting the weird shit now, just weird readings. The carrier wave keeps compressing and expanding.’

‘Time dilation, signal shift, Doppler effect?’ Alex queried. ‘There’s all that stuff about relative velocities, as I recollect.’

She looked up at him, annoyed. ‘We’re not going fast enough for those effects to be very strong, and anyway they are constant and easily corrected for. This is something completely different.’ She paused for a second to again study her screen. ‘Ah, it’s gone now.’ She stabbed a finger down on a key and sat back with a satisfied look on her face.

‘We should take another look at that station schematic,’ Alex suggested, ‘see if there’s somewhere safer we can use.’

She briefly twitched her head. Negative. ‘We’re not going anywhere for a while,’ she said. ‘Look.’ She turned the jury-rigged screen towards him.

The screen showed robot activity in two directions. The structure they were building was approaching them from either side, concentric with the outer ring. Alexandra then manipulated a ball control to focus down on something nearby. One of those big humanoid robots was in the area, too. Leaving the hydroponics unit now would be highly risky – quite possibly fatal.

9

Cloning

By the mid-twenty-first century the cloning of farm animals and domestic pets was commonplace, while the idea that anyone was cloning human beings was dismissed as just a conspiracy theory. Then came the lawsuits initiated by grown human beings who, suffering one genetic malady or another, claimed to be the results of secret Pan Europa experiments in cloning. These claims did not get far because, by then, the power of unaccountable government had grown huge, and the legal system was in the process of being fully incorporated as an arm of the state. Even though such claims were quashed, it had by then become evident that human cloning had been going on for some time. It was the territory of the rich and the thoroughly egotistical, which by then meant the elite of political and media circles – the latter having essentially given up any pretence of being anything other than a propaganda mouthpiece of government.

The Scourge

‘Good to meet you, Captain Scotonis,’ said Clay, reaching out to shake the man’s hand but finding the motion put him off balance in the heavy combined acceleration- and space-suit he wore, so he had to grab for the edge of the airlock. ‘So you would be Clay Ruger, our new political officer,’ said Scotonis, gazing at him with tired and reddened eyes as he reached up and touched the collar he now wore.

‘You may call me Clay.’ Clay reached up and tapped a finger against his own collar. ‘We live in perilous times,’ he added.

He certainly hadn’t wanted to put it on, having witnessed Galahad take such pleasure in killing with this device, but in the end had no choice in the matter. And how much difference did it make to him personally, when he knew that Galahad could render him just as dead by merely sending a signal to his implant? How different, after all, was strangulation to choking on your own blood as the Scour ripped your body apart?

‘So glad to have you aboard,’ said Scotonis, a trifle bitterly, ‘despite your obvious lack of space legs.’ He turned and propelled himself smoothly along the corridor. ‘You’ll have to take care, Political Officer Clay, because here lack of experience can kill.’

Clay followed him. ‘Are you threatening me?’

Scotonis halted abruptly and turned. Clay nearly barrelled straight into him, but managed to stop himself at the last moment.

‘My apologies, Political Officer Clay. That did not come out right.’ He paused reflectingly, his head turned away as he fought to get himself under control. ‘I just lost two of the assault force to a faulty airlock seal.’ He now turned to face Clay, his expression wiped blank. ‘They failed to follow procedure in two ways: they didn’t check their external suit pressure gauges before unsealing, and they unsealed while still inside the airlock.’

This was precisely why Clay did not want to be here: space was dangerous and it could kill you in an instant . . . a bit like Serene Galahad.

‘I thought all suits and airlocks were computer controlled, with safety backups? I thought it was impossible to open a suit to vacuum?’

‘All modern suits are – but most of them went off with Messina and his assault force. In a perfect world we would have been able to take pre-tested and perfectly functional vacuum combat suits. As it is, we are two hundred short, so are having to use adapted Mars external activities suits.’ He continued moving along the corridor, slower this time, with Clay following.

‘I do hope that is not a criticism,’ said Clay.

‘Certainly not,’ said Scotonis. ‘I understand the urgency of our mission and why waiting another two weeks could not be countenanced.’

Back on Earth, Clay could have nailed Scotonis for the subtle criticism. Unfortunately there was no immediate replacement for the man, which was another problem with space, since people sufficiently intelligent to be trained to operate in this highly technical environment tended to have minds of their own. For this very reason, Galahad had ensured that everyone aboard this ship would be wearing one of her collars.

‘Our lives are unimportant,’ he said, ‘but our mission, to retrieve the Gene Bank data, and to bring Alan Saul and his rebels to justice, is essential to all the peoples of Earth.’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Scotonis.

At first sight, the bridge of the Scourge appeared to be an armoured dome, but the floor they walked out on was not attached to the walls, with a large gap lying between, and it actually sat inside the top of a sphere. In suspended acceleration couches all around this sphere, members of the crew worked instruments inset in the wall. Before four chairs on the main floor stood a multi-screen – a single curved piece of transparent pixel-laminate. Two of these chairs were occupied by the pilot and the gunner. A third chair was for Captain Scotonis, while the fourth – the one Clay would occupy – had apparently been put here for Messina himself. Scotonis easily walked over and took his seat, Clay following slowly, unfamiliar with gecko boots and not wanting to make a fool of himself by ending up completely detached from the floor.

Having strapped himself in, Scotonis waited with obvious impatience for Clay to finally get to his seat and do likewise. Scotonis then tapped some control and the entire floor revolved, exposing different sections of instrument wall as well as different crewmen. Clay hadn’t understood the purpose of this movable floor until it was explained. During high acceleration, those at the instrument wall would be secured and immobilized by expanding acceleration suits. Those in the command chairs wore a different kind of suit, and would be turned so that they faced the direction of acceleration, just as in conventional vessels on Earth. In this way they would be able to continue to function, and to make command decisions.

‘Pilot Officer Trove and Gunnery Officer Cookson,’ Scotonis introduced the other two.

For a moment the two gazed at him expressionlessly, then Trove, a thin black female with a completely shaven skull, evidently noted that he too wore a collar. She reached up and touched her own then gave him a brief nod. He had started to note a lot of this recognition amidst collar wearers. It seemed a kind of salute, a you too, along with the anger and the fellow feeling.

‘Interesting design,’ said Clay, gesturing to their surroundings.

‘Designed by committee,’ said Cookson flatly – another subtle critic.

‘Attention, all,’ said Scotonis, his voice reverberating throughout the entire ship. ‘Our countdown is at T minus one hundred and ten minutes. Crewmen, you know what to do. All passengers, please check your suit data feeds for any updates to launch-safety protocols. Those without data feeds, check your portable computers and link to Scourge One. The code is SA1276890V and should be appearing on all public screens right now. It’s all there, but to sum up: make sure all loose objects are secured, plug your suit air into the ship feed, and strap yourselves in tightly. This is going to be quite some ride.’

Clay wondered if the ship’s WiFi code was in some way significant, for it sounded like an ID code for a citizen – a societal asset. He unhooked his palmtop and opened it, first linking to the ship Internet to check the safety instructions, then opening up the list of ID codes for everyone aboard, but found no match. A further search linking to a database on Earth, however, revealed the number was Thespina Scotonis’s ID code, or rather it had been when she was alive. He felt a moment of worry, until he discovered that Scotonis’s wife, and his children, had died from the Scour – that same terrible disease Alan Saul had inflicted on Earth.

A hundred and ten minutes ground by with glacial slowness. Scotonis and all the others were constantly checking systems, continually revolving the floor for no apparent reason and bringing up all sorts of views on the multi-screen ahead. Conversation was desultory at best. Clay would ask questions and they would be answered, and that was the end of it. He concentrated on his palmtop, calling up data, checking how things were going back on Earth, sending messages to his staff and wondering why he couldn’t have spent this time in his cabin. He might only make a fool of himself by getting up and leaving now. He would wait here and pretend an interest in the technicalities all around him.

When, at T minus ten minutes, the multi-screen showed massive umbilicals detaching, he finally began to take more interest and his hands started sweating.

‘I understand that the extra fuel tanks and chemical boosters haven’t been tested.’ he enquired genially.

‘Rather difficult to test a one-burn chemical booster,’ Pilot Officer Trove observed.

‘They’re pretty safe,’ said Scotonis, glancing at him. ‘This one was retrieved from the Mars Traveller project. They used to use four of them precisely as we’re going to use this one, providing a big burn to fling us away from Earth before fusion-engine start-up. It’ll shorten our journey time by about three weeks.’

‘I see,’ said Clay. ‘And, as you noted, a few weeks can make all the difference.’

Scotonis gazed at him for a second, then dipped his head in acknowledgement of this point.

‘Why not four boosters, then?’ Clay asked. ‘This ship isn’t much smaller than one of the Mars Travellers.’

‘There was only one available,’ said Scotonis, a hint of a smile twisting his mouth. ‘And, with the present state of the Traveller Project, it would take some weeks to manufacture more, and the cut in journey time would have been cancelled out by those extra weeks, so it was obviously pointless waiting round for that.’

Touché, thought Clay, realizing the lack of spacesuits could have been made up in that time.

The next ten minutes passed rather faster than Clay might have liked. He ensured he was plugged in to the ship oxygen supply but, like the other three, kept his helmet open and breathed ambient ship air. When a robotic voice began the final one-minute countdown, second by second, he noted the others closing up their helmets and he copied them. Next, the floor locked into place with a heavy crump, and meanwhile those all around, suspended from the instrument walls, were locking the suspension arms of their cradles.

The last ten seconds arrived.

‘Pray, if you believe in that shit,’ said Gunnery Officer Cookson reassuringly.

‘Pre-igniters on,’ said Trove. ‘No errors.’

‘Five,’ said the robotic voice. Even it seemed to be counting now with some reluctance: ‘Four . . . three . . . two . . . one.’

‘Hang on to your balls,’ said Scotonis, just as a dragon kicked Clay in the back and roared at him.

‘Ain’t got no balls!’ Trove shouted over the thundering.

‘Lucky you!’ Cookson shouted back.

Clay’s suit tightened around him like a giant fist, and blackness encroached on the periphery of his vision. He didn’t know whether that was due to the acceleration, or the stark terror that seemed to have crawled up his spine and wrapped itself around his brain.

Argus

As she gazed through her spacesuit visor at the new structures slanting out towards the station skin, Hannah refused to let herself get downhearted. She had to keep pushing, to keep other people from letting their own feelings defeat them, to keep people from succumbing to the horrible atmosphere aboard the station and the idea, already expressed, that they were trapped on a ghost ship sailing to Hell.

Of course, Saul’s most recent venture into near-consciousness – there had been fifteen so far – had not helped matters at all. The horrific images that had been appearing on every screen in the station and the sounds issuing from the public-address system were bad enough, but this time the spiderguns went into alert mode, one of them even firing on and destroying a small construction robot, while the proctors had just frozen where they were and howled for a full three minutes, before then moving on as if nothing at all had happened. It was madness, and the only way to keep it from affecting them too deeply was to stick to the practicalities.

The structures she was studying were rather like the cageway she and her companions now stood in, but with numerous bulky objects attached, and some seriously heavy cables snaking into those from newly relocated reactors. Three months it had taken to build them, three months since that particular meeting.

Le Roque had come to it, and so had Langstrom, who was no longer wearing his sidearm and, like all station police not engaged in searching for the Messina clones, was once again carrying just an ionic taser. The two men had both seemed subdued, but had their input once they realized Hannah would not allow this meeting to degenerate into recriminations.

‘We build railguns, we ramp up the output of the collision lasers, we build beam weapons and we turn this station into a fortress,’ Brigitta had asserted, at one point.

‘Apposite observation,’ Le Roque replied. ‘We are therefore just like a fortress in that we are a totally static target.’

They had all seen the figures and could do little to gainsay him, though Pike and Leeran took the opportunity to make some barbed comments about his defeatism.

The programming was available: tactical planning for space warfare – all the modelling they required. All the modelling to cover what they could make, what they could jury-rig, and all the modelling to cover whatever the Scourge carried. And yet nothing worked.

A total of three railguns could be built in the time available, and plentiful iron slugs smelted from the Argus asteroid. The collision lasers were juiced up and, quite possibly, could burn up a good proportion of what the Scourge could throw at them. It was also the case that the station’s EM field would negate the Scourge’s EM pulse weapons. However, manoeuvrability was where it all fell down. The Scourge could detect and avoid railgun fusillades. Here on Argus they could certainly detect them, but could not get the station out of the way in time. Stuff would get through, the station would be stripped of its armament, then the Scourge would dock and spew out its thousands of troops.

According to the models.

What gave Hannah hope was the maser, for the model had discounted it as an option. However, the Saberhagens had cracked that one with some quite brilliant and original ideas, so there was still reason for hope.

Hannah continued making her way along one of the cageways leading to the station rim, a spidergun scouting out the course ahead of her – a robot that Paul now insisted should accompany her everywhere – and with Brigitta and Pike hurrying to catch up.

‘So when did this happen?’ Hannah asked over her suit radio.

‘I’ve been checking program logs,’ Brigitta replied. ‘It started two months ago, directly after the last enclosure hull plates were welded in place, and has been going on ever since.’

‘So let me get this straight,’ replied Hannah. ‘Every time a robot finishes a programmed task here,’ she gestured to the big railguns, ‘or anywhere else on the station, for that matter, rather than go somnolent, it heads out to the station rim, and you never noticed until now?’

‘There’s more to it than that,’ interjected Pike. ‘Furnace-production and factory-component stats haven’t been adding up either. I thought it was all down to the damage we received out there. I didn’t find out the truth until after we started going into serious solar die-off and had to start pulling more power from station reactors.’

This was one of the many problems they now faced. As they moved further away from the sun, the solar mirrors – even complemented by the additional mirrors they had manufactured – weren’t providing as much heat as they could manage before, and so the reactors were under an increasingly heavy drain. In fact it had been necessary to take all the spares out of storage and put them online too.

‘So someone or something has not only infiltrated the robots, but our metals plants as well?’

‘Damned right,’ said Pike. ‘I started checking yesterday and found large quantities of components being delivered to various points on the outer ring. A lot of the stuff is similar to the electromagnets and superconductive wiring Brigitta is using, hence my not noticing before. But, since checking, I’ve seen some weirdly designed electromagnets and other stuff I haven’t even been able to identify. There’re also lots of sections of titanium-alloy cylinders with an internal silicon dioxide hex-chain carbon finish – as near to zero-coefficient of friction as we can get. Christ knows what they’re for. I’ve seen nothing like them before.’

Hannah gazed ahead towards the outer ring. Someone or something . . . Had those clones of Messina’s managed a successful and thorough penetration of the station’s computer systems? It seemed highly unlikely. Was this some kind of project worked out between Langstrom and Le Roque? They had seemed to acquiesce to her leadership, but that could have just been a front. But, even then, she doubted they had the ability and resources to manage something quite like this. That just left Alan and his machines – an idea that scared her thoroughly. All the station machines, including the proctors, were still connected to Alan’s sleeping mind – a mind which, from the images all had seen and the sounds all had heard from the station system, seemed to be experiencing hellish nightmares. It was a mind that dwelt within a human brain – with additions – that seemed to be taking on a shape beyond any analysis.

The cageway was attached alongside one of the ore-transport tubes that led from the asteroid to the rim, where one of the big sun smelters and factory plants extended out into space. It was along this tube that raw materials were transported out from the asteroid to the processing plants, and back along which the finished products were conveyed. Glancing back, Hannah noticed that the asteroid had grown visibly smaller, such was the material that had already gone into enclosure, the weapons and now, it seemed, whatever the robots were building in the rim. Reaching the inner face of the rim, she walked up along it on her gecko boots, as if along some massive highway curving up into a metal forest. It occurred to her, even as she walked, that the enclosure hadn’t made a huge difference to the view. True, they could no longer see any stars from inside the station, but the thousands of LED lights scattered through that vast internal space did look remarkably like