/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Final Days

Final Days

Gary Gibson


antiqueGaryGibsonFinal DaysenGaryGibsoncalibre 0.9.219.10.2012ff553fa4-80ad-42cb-b91c-a032d48fbeb91.0

Contents

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

ONE

Gate Delta, Site 17, 1×1014 AD (Home Date: 5 January 2235)

They were making good time along the East Rampart, on their way back to Vault One, when all four life-support indicators for Stone’s team suddenly faded to black. Jeff Cairns came to a halt, his pressure suit informing him, in a soft contralto voice, of a sudden spike in his adrenalin and heart rate.

You don’t fucking say, Jeff thought sourly. He glanced automatically over the ramparts, his eye following the bright parallel lines of the path markers towards the truncated pyramid of Vault Four in the distance. He waited to see if the indicators would flicker back into life, his mouth suddenly dry and sticky.

Three other life-support indicators – representing Eliza Schlegel, Lou Winston and Farad Maalouf – still glowed on the curved interior of his visor. All three, along with Jeff himself, had been assigned to the first and second vaults for the duration of this particular expedition. Other icons – representing suit pressure, air supply and bio-functions – floated near the bottom edge of the visor, registering clearly against the black and starless sky.

Eliza and Lou, who had been walking a couple of metres ahead of Jeff, both came to a stop at the same time, their helmets also turning towards the fourth vault. Jeff listened, over the shared comms, as Eliza tried to raise Mitchell and the others, the strain becoming evident in the sharply clipped tone of her words.

The comms hissed as they all waited in vain for a response.

The East Rampart was one of four hundred-metre-high walls that connected the vaults together, forming a square when seen from above. For safety, the edges of the rampart were illuminated to either side by rows of softly glowing markers placed at regular intervals. It was a long way down if you somehow managed to wander too close to the edge.

Jeff turned to see Farad standing just behind him, his frightened eyes staring back at him through a smeared visor. The fingers of Farad’s gloves were wrapped tightly around the handlebar of a steel containment unit, mounted on four comically bulbous wheels, and his lips were moving silently in what Jeff suspected was a prayer.

‘Maybe we should go look,’ said Lou, sounding like he was thinking aloud.

‘No.’ Eliza’s voice was sharp, decisive. ‘The artefacts are our priority. We have to make our scheduled rendezvous with Hanover’s team at the Tau Ceti gate.’

Jeff turned to look back towards her. ‘We can’t just abandon them,’ he heard himself say.

‘Nobody’s abandoning anyone,’ said Eliza. ‘If something has happened, I don’t want to risk any more lives until we know exactly what we’re dealing with. Besides, it might just be a temporary communications breakdown.’

Might be,’ said Jeff.

Eliza turned and shot a quick, furious look at him. I’m tired of your insubordination, she’d warned him more than once.

‘Maybe Eliza’s right,’ said Lou, his tone conciliatory. ‘We have to be careful.’

‘So just what is it you’re saying we should do if we ;s abandonhear from them?’ Jeff demanded. ‘Just abandon them?’

‘You’re not in charge here,’ said Eliza, ‘and we have our orders from Hanover.’

‘I know we’re expendable,’ said Jeff. ‘I’m under no illusions on that count.’

‘Nobody’s saying anyone is exp—’

‘We can get to Vault Four with time to spare if we start out now,’ Jeff snapped, his fear flowering into sudden anger; all that adrenalin couldn’t go to waste. ‘Fuck the artefacts.’

‘Really?’ said Eliza. ‘Would you like to share that sentiment with Hanover when we get back?’

‘That could be us stuck in there,’ Jeff insisted. ‘If they’re trapped and still alive, a rescue team won’t get here from Tau Ceti for several hours, probably longer. They’d run out of air long before that.’

Eliza’s expression suggested she was contemplating murder. Typical military mindset, he thought, almost able to see the wheels spinning in her head. It wouldn’t be too hard to engineer an accident for him, not with a long, hard drop on either side of them. Unfortunately for her, everything they saw, heard or did was recorded by their suit’s A/V systems.

‘Dan,’ Farad spoke into the sudden silence, ‘his life-support indicator. It’s back online.’

Jeff glanced down and saw that Dan Rush’s icon had indeed flickered back into life, and it was followed a moment later by Lucy Rosenblatt’s. Mitchell Stone’s icon remained dark, however, as did Vogel’s. The suit interfaces felt clumsy and old-fashioned, and again Jeff found himself wishing that a tangle of security precautions didn’t prevent them from using UP-linked contact lenses.

‘Dan, Lucy, can you hear me?’ Eliza shouted into her comms. ‘We lost track of you. Can—?’

She was interrupted by a brief burst of static, followed by a voice.

‘Hey! Hey, is that you?’ Jeff recognized Dan’s voice. He sounded panicked, very nearly hysterical. ‘Mitch and Erich are gone. It’s just Lucy and me. We—’

‘Slow down,’ urged Eliza, as the rest of them listened in silence. ‘Who else is there?’

‘Just Lucy. Mitch and Erich, they . . . they just . . .’

Dan paused, and for a moment they listened to the sound of his amplified breathing, sounding loud and urgent and close within the confines of their helmets.

‘What happened to them?’ asked Eliza.

‘We were up on Level 214. It’s filled with these deep pits, dozens of them. They were down taking a look inside one, while Lucy and me stayed up above. Then it started to fill up with some kind of liquid.’

‘And they didn’t get out again in time?’

For a moment, it sounded like Dan was trying to suppress a sob. ‘Not exactly . . . no. I’ll send a video squirt over, maybe it’s best if you just see what happened for yourselves. And . . . get here soon, okay? The tokamaks packed up all of a sudden, and it’s pitch black in here.’

Jeff found himself watching Eliza as they listened. She had turned away, to look back towards Vault Four, but from where he stood he could still see her face through her visor, and her lips were pressed together in a thin and bloodless line. She clearly didn’t want to have to go into Vault Four, but none of them did, not really, not when there was a chance that whatever had happened to the others might happen to them too. But Jeff knew that didn’t matter. He knew, deep in his gut, that they had to make the attempt, regardless.

‘We’ll be there soon,’ Eliza finally replied, glancing towards Farad’s cart filled with its precious treasures. ‘There’s no way you can find your way back out to us?’

‘No. It’s too dark to avoid the chance of getting lost, and this part of the vault hasn’t been secured yet. We can see some way with our suit lights, but not far enough to be sure exactly where we are. Don’t want to wind up like Rodriguez, right?’

No, thought Jeff with a shiver, nobody wanted to end up like Rodriguez.

Dan’s voice faded for a moment, and then came back. Jeff glanced down and saw the man’s life-support icon flicker in that same moment.

‘Lucy,’ continued Eliza, ‘how about you? Can you hear me?’

‘Yeah.’ Lucy’s voice sounded tense with pain. ‘I’m good.’

‘You don’t sound it.’

‘Hurt my leg,’ she replied. ‘Had a bad fall.’

‘Hang on and we’ll be there soon enough. But send that video squirt over so we can get some idea what we’re dealing with first.’

They watched the A/V from Dan’s suit in silence, projected on to the curved surface of each of their visors.

Standard operating procedure specified that, even once a chamber had been declared safe by the reconnaissance probes, and pressurized prior to a thorough eyeball examination by the artefact recovery teams, pressure suits must be kept on until a team leader was certain there was no danger of contamination or some other, less predictable risk. Mitchell Stone’s team had been tasked with just such an assessfont>

The A/V showed two suited figures, as seen from Dan’s point of view, kneeling at the bottom of a pit that looked about five metres deep, with a series of wide steps cut into the sides. The two men’s helmets almost touched as one pointed at hundreds of indentations drilled into the lower steps, and arranged in stylized, looping patterns. One turned to glance towards Dan, and Jeff saw Mitchell Stone’s face behind the visor.

The video blurred as Dan looked up suddenly at the shallow, copper-coloured dome of the chamber’s ceiling high overhead. Jeff noticed a fourth suited figure waiting up above, and Lucy’s face was visible through the visor: small and imp-like, loose wisps of her blonde hair pressing against the clear polycarbonate.

As Dan clambered up the wide steps, Jeff saw that half a dozen carbon arc lights had been mounted on tripods close to the chamber entrance. They cast incandescent light across dozens of pits, each one only narrowly separated from the next.

Dan then turned to look back down at the suited figures of Mitchell Stone and Erich Vogel, still crouching at the bottom of the pit. Without any warning, a viscous, oil-like substance began to gush out of the indentations, flooding the pit with astonishing speed. Jeff heard Lucy yell a strangled warning, and Stone and Vogel both jerked upright as if they’d been scalded. The liquid was already covering the top of their boots.

It was Rodriguez, all over again.

From the subsequent sudden blurring of the video, it was obvious that Dan had descended into the pit once more, in order to try and reach the two men. Stone and Vogel were already making their way towards the steps but, even as Jeff watched, he saw their movements become slower, as if the oil were congealing around them. By now it was up to their knees.

The oil appeared to defy gravity, racing up the sides of their suits and soon swallowing them both up in a black tide. Stone was the first to collapse, followed by Vogel a moment later. Jeff watched in mounting horror as their suits began to disintegrate, the metal and plastic dissolving and falling away from their bodies with astonishing speed. Jeff had one last glimpse of Stone’s eyes rolling up into the back of his head, before they were both swallowed up by the still-rising tide.

The oil had behaved purposefully, like something alive, which made Jeff think of childhood monsters, of yawning black shadows filled with imaginary horrors. Tears pricked his eyes but he couldn’t bring himself to stop watching.

The video jerked once more as Dan hurried back up and out of the pit, with understandable haste. Jeff saw Lucy step back, her face aghast, then, with a terrified cry, stumble backwards over the lip of an adjacent pit.

Dan said ‘Oh shit’ very softly, and Jeff watched with numb despair as he hurled himself down the steps of the neighbouring pit.

It was clear from the way one of Lucy’s legs was bent under her, as she lay on the floor of the second pit, that she was badly hurt. Dan grabbed her up in a fireman’s lift and rapidly made his ay back to safety. And, even though Jeff could see nothing but the chamber ceiling through Dan’s A/V, he felt an appalling certainty the second pit was already filling with the same deadly black oil.

And then, just as Dan reached the top, the lights went out.

They followed the rampart to where it merged into a tunnel leading deep inside Vault One. They moved on past branching corridors and ramps to either side, each leading up or down to other levels and chambers. The beams projected from their suits flashed reflections off hastily epoxied signs printed with luminescent inks, which were mounted near junctions that had not yet been fully explored. All carried explicit warnings never to leave the already lit paths.

Catching sight of these warnings, Jeff found himself thinking once more about Rodriguez.

David Rodriguez had been an engineer recruited to the ASI’s retrieval-and-research branch several years before to help run the remote reconnaissance probes, but instead had quickly become the stuff of legend for all the wrong reasons. He was the one recruits got told about during their training and orientation, as an example of how not to conduct oneself when exploring the Founder Network.

He had been part of a standard reconnaissance into a then unexplored level of Vault Two, and had ignored the warnings about sticking to the approved paths. Instead, he had wandered into a side chamber, trying to find a probe that had failed to report back.

He had found the probe and, some hours later, his team-mates found him.

Time, it turned out, worked differently in the side chambers of that particular level. It became slower, the farther inside them you got. Rodriguez had discovered this when he stepped up next to the probe, probably thinking it had simply broken down.

He was still there, to this day: right foot raised and looking towards the far wall, his face turned away from the chamber entrance as he headed forward, still clearly oblivious to his fate. That alone was what really sent the shivers down people’s spines; the fact that no one could see his face got their imaginations working overtime.

Rodriguez’s team-mates, when they finally found him, had been a lot more cautious. One had thrown a spanner just to one side of Rodriguez’s frozen figure, from the safety of the chamber entrance. It still hung there now, motionless, caught in the course of its long trajectory through the air, on its way to eventually landing in some future century. The reconnaissance probe – a wheeled platform mounted with cameras and a range of sensitive instrumentation – stood equally immobile nearby.

David Rodriguez, as new recruits to the most secretive department of the UW’s retrieval and assessment bureau were told, had been a fucking idiot. The vaults were filled with unpredictable dangers, which was why they had to stick to the paths already pioneered by the probes. You wandered away from them at your own risk.

The current popular theory was that these slow-time chambers were stasis devices designed for long-term storage. Time-lapse cameras had been set up at the entrance, to try to estimate how long it would take Rodriguez to set his right foot down, turn around and walk back out of the chamber. The best estimates suggested anything up to a thousand years.

Sometimes Jeff woke from nightmares of Rodriguez still standing there, his face turned away, as the years turned into centuries. Sometimes he was Rodriguez, waking to find himself lost in the darkness of some future age, all alone on the wrong side of a wormhole gate that bored its way through time and space very nearly to the end of everything – a hundred trillion years into a future where most stars had turned to ashes, and the skies were filled with the corpses of galaxies.

They re-emerged from Vault One and followed the North Rampart until they reached Vault Four, half an hour after receiving Dan’s distress call.

Beyond the vaults lay nothing but the blasted, airless landscape of a world that had been dead for immeasurable eons. The planet on which the vaults stood orbited a black dwarf: the shrunken, frozen remnant of a once bright and burning star whose furious death had long since stripped away any vestiges of atmosphere.

Dan, who was an expert in such things, had once told Jeff the vaults themselves were tens of billions of years old, meaning they had stood for longer than the entire lifespan of the universe as it had been measured back in their own time. They were constructed, too, from a material that resisted all attempts at analysis. Despite a near-eternity of bombardment by micrometeorites and other debris drawn into the planet’s gravity well, the exterior of the vaults appeared as smooth and pristine as if their construction had just been finished.

Jeff glanced up at the towering slope of Vault Four, at the moment before they passed into its interior. He could hear Eliza talking to Dan and Lucy over the general comms circuit, trying to keep them calm, assuring them that help was almost at hand. He found himself wondering what they’d have to say once they discovered Eliza had been all for abandoning them.

Farad came abreast of him and tapped the side of his helmet: a request for a private link. At least Eliza had let him leave his cart of goodies back at Vault One, rather than wheel them all this distance.

‘I have come to believe,’ Farad told him, his eyes wide and fervent, ‘that God must have abandoned the universe long before this time-period.’

Jeff regarded him in silence, but with a sinking feeling.

‘Do you know what occurred to me when we heard about Stone and Vogel?’ Farad continued, an edge of desperation in his voice. ‘I could not help but wonder what, in the absence of God, happens to their souls.’

This wasn’t a conversation Jeff wanted to be having right now. His feet ached, and the interior of his suit stank from the long hours he’d spent inside it. Stress knotted his muscles into thick ropes of fatigue.

‘Their souls?’

‘This far beyond .

‘I know all this, Farad. They covered it in the orientations.’

‘Yes but, if God is no longer here, what happens if you die here?’ he demanded, his voice full of anguish. ‘Where do you go? There is only one conclusion.’

‘Farad—’

‘Hell is, by its very nature, the absence of God, is it not?’ the other man persisted.

Jeff stopped and put one hand on Farad’s shoulder, finally bringing him to a halt. Farad stared back at him, his nostrils faring.

‘Listen, you need to calm down a little, okay?’ Jeff told him. ‘You’re letting your imagination run away with you.’

Jeff glanced to one side. Eliza and Lou had moved ahead, apparently unaware that the pair had stopped. Up ahead lay a wide atrium, containing electric carts they could use for zipping about the ‘designated safe’ parts of the vaults.

Farad was a large, bluff man with a thick dark moustache, and he sometimes compared his attempts at picking apart the self-adjusting routines controlling the Vaults to a pygmy poking at electronic circuitry with a spear. He was intelligent and sharp, an excellent poker player – as some back at the Tau Ceti station had discovered to their cost – and also in possession of a keen sense of humour. But something about the black, unforgiving void that hung over the vaults, like a funeral shroud, could get to even the best of people.

It seemed to Jeff that the more intelligent people were, the harder it was for them to deal with witnessing a darkened universe far advanced in its long, slow senescence. Self-declared atheists began sporting prayer beads, while the moderately religious either discovered a new fervour for their faith or, more frequently, abandoned it altogether.

Farad refocused on him after a moment, and Jeff could see that his face was slick and damp behind the visor.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Farad after a moment. ‘Sometimes . . .’

‘I know,’ Jeff replied, with as much sympathy as he could muster. ‘But we’ll be home in a few days. Remember, we’ve got a plan.’

‘Yes.’ Farad nodded, his upper lip moist. ‘A plan. Of course.’

‘You just need to hold it together for a little while longer. Okay?’

‘Yes,’ Farad said again, and Jeff could sense he was a little calmer. ‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’

<

Jeff gave him his best winning smile. ‘You already said that.’ He nodded, indicating somewhere further up the corridor. ‘I think we’d better catch up.’

Eliza had glanced back once, but chose to say nothing as the two of them caught up.

They pulled a spare tokamak fusion unit from a pre-fab warehouse established in Vault Four’s primary atrium and loaded it on to the rear of an electric cart, before letting it zip them up a steep incline that switched back and forth the higher they rose. When they reached Level 214, they found the passageways and chambers shrouded in darkness, so had to rely on their suit lights while they swapped the new fusion unit for the failed one. There was no telling why it had shut down, but inexplicable power-outs were far from unusual.

The lights strung along the ceiling flickered back into life, revealing closely cramped walls on either side. An airlock seal had been placed across the passageway, and they stepped through it one by one, emerging into the pressurized area beyond.

Jeff wanted nothing more than to crack open his helmet and breathe air that didn’t taste like his own armpits, but Eliza would have none of it. He understood the reasons for her justifiable caution, but still felt resentful.

When they entered the chamber that Stone’s team had been studying, they found Dan had now managed to drag Lucy on to a narrow strip of ground located between four adjacent pits. The pit that had swallowed up Stone and Vogel was now full to the brim with black oil, its calm stillness looking to Jeff like a black mirror laid flat on the ground. It seemed strange that none of the reconnaissance probes first sent into this chamber had triggered a similar reaction.

The furthest walls of the chamber faded into darkness beyond the pools of light cast by the carbon arc lights. There were hundreds more of the pits, Jeff could see, stretching far out of sight. He watched from the chamber entrance as Eliza guided a limping Lucy back to safety, Dan following close behind. They had to shuffle along sideways, one at a time, wherever the edges of the pits came closest together.

He found himself wondering what purpose these pits might have served for the vault’s architects. A garbage-disposal system, perhaps, the black oil being some universal solvent for breaking down unwanted items? Or perhaps they represented something more inexplicable, a puzzle that could never be solved – like so many of the artefacts that had already been recovered and brought back to their own time . . .

Something suddenly moved just beyond the illuminated part of the chamber, snapping him out of his reverie. Jeff stared hard into the shadows, then stepped forward. Lou and Farad were too busy arguing to have noticed anything, as they discussed how to recover a sample of the black oil, should it prove equally adept at dissolving any type of container they might attempt to collect some in.

‘Did you see that?’ asked Jeff urgently, turning back to look at the two men.

‘See what?’ asked Eliza over the comms, audibly puffing with exion.

Jeff stared into the shadows once more. ‘I’m not sure. Maybe it’s . . .’

Maybe it’s nothing, he thought. The vaults lent themselves effortlessly to the imagination, after all.

But he saw it again; a slight movement almost on the edge of his perception. Lou must have seen it, too, for he stepped up next to Jeff, unclipping a torch from his belt and shining its powerful beam across the chamber.

The torch revealed Mitchell Stone, naked and shivering, kneeling between two empty pits and blinking up into the light.

It’s not possible, thought Jeff, in the shocked silence that followed. But a moment’s reflection suggested otherwise. After all, the lights had failed almost immediately, so Stone might have managed to crawl out of the oil-filled pit, unseen by either Lucy or Dan, and then got lost. But why hadn’t he called out for help?

‘Jesus!’ he heard Eliza exclaim, followed by a muttered prayer from Farad.

Stone raised one hand towards them, and then slumped forward soundlessly.

Without thinking, Jeff stepped forward and began to navigate his way towards him.

TWO

Kepler Colony, Sphere Administrated Development Zone, 15 January 2235

A few hours after emerging from the Copernicus–Kepler gate, moving lightly in the .85 gravity, Saul Dumont stepped out from the lobby of the Heping Plaza Hotel and soon found himself in the heart of one of New Kaiohsung’s busy night markets. He navigated his way through dense crowds of shoppers, the air thick with the smell of barbecuing meat and cho dou fu. Their breath frosted where it emerged from ten thousand throats, while the street vendors were stained with orange light wherever they clustered under the tall municipal heating units rising above their heads.

Saul tilted his head back to catch a glimpse of Kepler’s moon, its fractured outline floating cool and serene far above clustered high-rises and jerkily kinetic video advertisements. He brought his gaze back down, ignoring the occasional stares of passers-by, most of whom were immigrants from China, Korea and other Pan-Asian Congress nations. Saul’s clothes and ebony skin, by contrast, screamed Western Coalition.

It wasn’t long before he found his way to a quiet alleyway where he spotted Jacob Maks sitting in the window of a shui-jiao dian, forking steamed dumplings into his mouth with a pair of chopsticks. A TriView screen, bolted at an angle between the ceiling and rear wall of the eatery, ran news items piped through the local Array from back home.

Jacob looked up, in the middle of chewing a mouthful of peppered meat and cabbage, and started when he saw Saul enter. The new arrival pulledown the hood of his parka, and placed his briefcase on the floor next to Jacob’s table.

Jacob gestured with his chopsticks to the empty seat across from him, the motion quick and birdlike. ‘You want something? I’ll buy.’

‘First,’ Saul replied, his tone even and careful, ‘tell me why we aren’t meeting at the hotel like we were supposed to, Jacob, or I might not be able to resist the urge to break both of your arms.’

Jacob’s hands never remained still, constantly twirling the chopsticks between his fingers or fiddling with the edge of his paper plate. ‘I can always tell when you’re pissed at me, Saul,’ he replied, with a nervous twitch of the mouth.

Saul took the seat opposite, slow and easy as always. Jacob watched him cautiously, as if trying to assess whether he might follow through on his threat.

‘You left me sitting there waiting in the lobby of the Heping for over an hour before you got in contact,’ Saul persisted. ‘I had no idea what was going on. You’re supposed to keep me informed of any last-minute changes, so what the hell happened?’

Jacob cleared his throat. ‘Look,’ he said, putting the chopsticks down, ‘this was a very last-minute change of plan. I couldn’t call you without compromising myself. But, now you’re here, you should know that we aren’t meeting Hsiu-Chuan at the warehouse any more.’

‘No?’ Saul cocked his head, the movement typically slow and deliberate. ‘Why not?’

‘Apparently his security people didn’t think it was secure enough, so they picked another location. Not a damn thing I could do about it. We’re just lucky he didn’t pull out altogether.’ He leaned to one side and looked down at Saul’s briefcase. ‘Is that the bait?’

Saul nodded fractionally. ‘What about Hsingyun? Do you trust him?’

Jacob had the courtesy to look offended. ‘Of course I don’t, but he’s a street soldier looking for a fast promotion, and he’s got too much to gain from helping us to want to screw us over. And remember, he’s still the only real link we have connecting Hsiu-Chuan with the Tian Di Hui.’ The Tian Di Hui, of which Hsingyun was a member, were a loose network of separatist groups that railed against the Western Coalition’s monopoly on the wormhole gates.

‘A pretty tenuous link at that, don’t you think? One seven-second segment of footage showing Hsingyun and Hsiu-Chuan talking together, and that’s it.’

Jacob smiled. ‘Still more than enough to merit us being here, right?’

‘I guess,’ Saul sighed, leaning back. ‘It looks like most of what he’s been telling you checks out anyway.’

‘Who did you talk to? Narendra?’

Saul nodded. ‘I got back from Sophia just this morning. Narendra put out some feelers and, from what he’s heard, the Tian Di Hui are moving on something. Could be big.’ He shrugged. ‘Hard to say just what. But according to Narendra, Hsiu-Chuan is involved, whatever it is.’

Jacob shook his head and chuckled. ‘And you just asked me if I trust Hsingyun? I could ask you the same about Narendra.’

‘And I’d give you the same answer.’

Jacob sighed and sat back. ‘All right, touché. Look, as far as Hsingyun goes, as long as I pour enough booze down his throat, he’s been happy to tell me pretty much anything I want to know. Which, if you’ll remember, is how I managed to set this all up in the first place.’

‘How worried should we be about the last-minute change of venue?’

Jacob shrugged. ‘My gut tells me they’re just being cautious. It took a lot to get someone like Hsiu-Chuan to even entertain the idea of doing business with a couple of strangers.’ He drummed his fingers on the table top and gestured at the unfinished plate of dumplings, a plastic bowl full of chopsticks next to it. ‘Eat something,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be a long night.’

Saul shook his head. ‘Not hungry.’

Jacob sighed. ‘Try not to look so worried.’

‘We really need,’ warned Saul, ‘to not screw this up.’

‘Yes, I know that,’ Jacob snapped, failing to hide his irritation.

Saul nodded, far from mollified. There had been talk about pulling Jacob out of the investigation once it seemed to be going nowhere. Then all of a sudden, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he’d come up with Hsingyun: someone who could finally get them close to Hsiu-Chuan.

The details, long since memorized, span through Saul’s mind like an endless loop. Shih Hsiu-Chuan was a rising star in the Pan-Asian Congress of Pacific Sphere States, popular for his aggressive stance in favour of full independence for the colonies administrated by the Sphere Congress and also the establishment of their own, dedicated network of wormhole gates. There had never been any solid evidence of a direct link between member-nations of the Sphere and the Tian Di Hui – nothing good enough to stand up in the international courts, at any rate – but showing that Hsiu-Chuan had been present at a Tian Di Hui-moderated meeting could change the whole distribution of influence between the power blocs for ever.

‘I want to make sure we’ve got everything straight,’ Saul said, as Jacob finished his meal and pushed his plate to one side. ‘As far as Hsingyun or anyone else is concerned, I’m—’

‘Donald Lassen,’ Jacob interrupted, wiping his mouth with a tissue. ‘You’re an Earth-side broker for a private financial concern with a hefty reputation in the Western Coalition’s underground economy. Your employers moved into the lucrative realm of biotech fencing after the global financial situation took a turn for the worse a few years back. You’re ambitious, and you’re willing to trade an illegally cloned black-box arbitration device, with a solid-gold record in market speculation, in return for becoming the Tian Di Hui’s newest bulk distributor of illicit off-world materials. Have I got it all?’

Saul nodded.

‘And, of course,’ Jacob continued, ‘I’m Victor Cowles, a smalltime operator who runs an import-export company based in Southeast Asia, as a cover for his real business, and who has formed a partnership with Mr Lassen, whom he regards as his ticket to the big time.’

‘Sounds about right, but no more surprises, Jacob, understand? If there’s anything else I need to know, now’s the time. Starting with, where the fuck is the meeting taking place?’

‘At sea,’ Jacob replied, standing up. ‘Offshore.’

Saul stared at him. ‘You’re shitting me.’

Jacob shrugged. ‘Official Sphere jurisdiction stops thirty kilometres off the coast. Beyond that, it’s effectively lawless.’

‘So we’re heading to one of the islands?’ Saul asked, standing as well.

‘Not exactly.’ Jacob pursed his lips in thought for a moment. ‘Well, more like an iceberg, really.’

‘The meeting is on an ice-pharm?’

‘A big one,’ Jacob nodded, ‘with a whole town carved into it.’

They found Lee Hsingyun in a dive bar near the docks, where the stars were far more easily visible than they were in the middle of New Kaiohsung. Saul had read through the names of some of the local constellations in a magazine article back at the hotel, but found he couldn’t recall a single one. Nonetheless, one of those far away speckles of light, hanging over the snow-sprinkled concrete like frozen diamonds, was Sol, all of fifty-five light-years distant.

Hsingyun was small and wiry, with fashionably streaked hair and calculating eyes, and something about his manner made Saul take an instant dislike to him. Hsingyun and Jacob clasped hands like old friends as soon as they arrived there, but Saul still couldn’t shake the feeling of unease that had been plaguing him since he’d first realized Jacob wasn’t going to show up at the hotel.

Hsingyun led them to a private booth at the rear of the bar. From where Saul now sat, he could see another TriView running what might be the same news feed. The sound was inaudible in the noisy bar, but the closed captions running underneath,n both Mandarin and English, followed a story about Galileo. A series of rapidly cut shots, taken more than a decade before, showed separatist graffiti decorating various Galilean settlements, followed by footage of attacks on the ASI forces that had been sent in to quell the unrest.

The captions gave a voice to the images: ‘Nearly a decade after separatist groups affiliated with the Tian Di Hui claimed responsibility for the destruction of Galileo’s CTC gate, Sphere representatives are meeting with leading Coalition member nations in advance of the link’s re-establishment.’

The scene changed to the UN building in Strasbourg. More than half the men and women mingling on a platform before an audience of journalists were from Pan-Asian Sphere nations, and of those the majority were probably representatives of the Chinese Confederacy. The rest came from affiliated nations like Malaysia and Indonesia, along with a smattering of black and brown faces drawn from Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

The commentary switched to cover an interview with a protester whose skin was even darker than Saul’s. ‘All we ask is for the same right to choose our destiny as enjoyed by citizens of the Western Coalition states, and that means full access to the wormhole technology. We should be able to set up our own network of wormhole gates, so that the colonies can link to one another directly, instead of forcing people to pass through the Lunar Array every single time they want to move from colony to colony.’

‘The Coalition States all say the Lunar Array is the only adequate means of providing support and protection to the colonies,’ replied an unseen interviewer.

The protester shook his head. ‘That’s a lie,’ he said angrily. ‘This way, they control access to the colonies, and make them dependent on the Coalition. Everyone knows that what happened to Galileo happened because they tried to push for independence.’

‘But separatist groups are believed to have been responsible for the collapse of the Galileo wormhole,’ suggested the interviewer.

This time the protester laughed out loud. ‘Well, I think it was a cover-up. The ASI did that deliberately, to stop the revolution spreading to the other colonies.’

‘Saul?’

He dropped his gaze back down, to meet Jacob’s. ‘What?’

‘Ignore that bullshit.’ Jacob’s hands tap-tapped on the edge of the table before him. ‘Did you hear what Lee was just telling us about?’ He gave Saul a meaningful look: play along. ‘His new gun fires ice bullets.’

Saul shook his head. ‘It’s pykrete, not ice.’ He had to shout it over the pounding music filling the otherwise empty bar.

‘What the hell is pykrete?’ demanded Jacob.

Saul looked at him with an expression of infinite patience. ‘Ice water mixed with cellulose fibre,’ he replied. ‘The same stuff the ice-pharms are made from.’

Jacob looked surprised. ‘It’s just ice, isn’t it?’

‘Nope.’ Lee shook his head. ‘Pykrete’s hard as steel, makes the pharms extremely resistant to a direct assault. Now, the guns have cooled chambers that—’

Just then a waitress deposited a tall green bottle and three glasses on the table between them. Hsingyun quickly poured them each a shot.

‘A celebration,’ he said, pushing a glass each in front of Saul and Jacob. ‘Tonight we sleep as rich men.’

Saul recognized the brand as one containing a variety of powerful synthetic psycho-actives native to Kepler. He caught Jacob’s eye and nodded at him to come closer.

Jacob leaned over the table towards him and, for once, Saul was glad of the pounding music. ‘Why are we drinking this shit?’ he demanded.

‘It’s not that strong,’ Jacob yelled in his ear. ‘Read the label; it’s a mild derivative at best. You’ll get a bigger hit from the alcohol, I swear.’

‘Mr Lassen,’ Hsingyun raised his glass towards Saul with a smile that sent shivers down his back, ‘if you will.’

Saul picked up his glass, unable to resist a certain fascination at the way the sudden movement made the gene-engineered bioluminescent bacteria within the liquid glow more brightly. He knew the consequences if he failed to drink it.

He shot a quick, angry look at Jacob, when he was sure Hsingyun wouldn’t notice, and swallowed the contents in one go.

‘So this ice-pharm we’re going to,’ Saul asked a little while later, ‘what does it research?’

‘They collect samples of sea-life, mostly microbial,’ said Hsingyun. ‘As I’m sure you’re aware,’ he tapped the rim of his glass with a fingernail, ‘the rewards for finding commercially exploitable gene-sequences are enormous.’

‘And how many of the pharms are doing actual legitimate research, as opposed to just synthesizing illicit drugs?’ asked Saul.

Hsingyun smiled enigmatically. ‘We all need to make a profit to survive, Mr Lassen, whatever rules the Coalition may impose on us.’

Playing his part, Saul patted the briefcase next to his knee and grinned. ‘Couldn’t agree more.’

Hsingyun nodded. ‘Money is the only thing that matters, whatever world you’re on. If you don’t know that, you’re just one of the sheep. Which reminds me.’

He dipped one hand into a pocket.

Saul tensed, but Hsingyun withdrew only a slim roll of pale yellow paper, pulling it open to reveal several tiny powder-blue balls individually wrapped in cellophane, each one stamped with a minuscule portrait of a wolf howling under a full moon. Hsingyun next reached into another pocket and withdrew an inhaler-like device, loading three of the balls of loup-garou into its chamber.

Saul felt as if a yawning chasm had opened up inside his gut.

‘A little confidence boost always helps, yes?’ Hsingyun enquired, glancing between his two companions.

Saul watched dry-mouthed as Jacob took the first hit. The stuff was favoured by street gangs back home, and by Mexical hijacking crews in particular. There were stories that it had achieved near-religious significance amongst the death squads roaming the Russian wastelands. Loup-garou wildly boosted aggressiveness, while reducing the controlling influence of the super ego. It didn’t exactly make you grow fur or sprout fangs, but the feeling it gave you was close enough.

Jacob’s head jerked back as he fired the sweet-smelling smoke down his throat, then laughed as the drug punched its way through the soft tissues of his lungs and into his bloodstream. A thin wisp of smoke curled out of one nostril.

Hsingyun was next, inhaling sharply. Saul knew that, when his own turn came, he had a perfectly good excuse for not indulging. He could tell Hsingyun he wanted to keep his head clear, particularly if they were expecting to engage in serious business. But, as Jacob’s new friend passed him the inhaler, Saul found that all he could really think about was just how good it had felt the last time he’d taken a hit, and wasn’t it a damn shame he’d left it for so long.

He pressed the inhaler against his lips and clicked the igniter button. The acrid smell of burning plastic filled his nostrils, and a moment later smoke tasting faintly of peppermint and ash plunged its way through his lungs.

Saul breathed in deeply. Already he felt sharper, more alert, more in control. His tongue and the back of his throat tingled as he passed the inhaler back over, feeling now like he could handle anything the night could throw at him. He watched with detached amusement as Jacob tipped his head back and howled at the ceiling. Hsingyun laughed in response.

An indeterminate number of drinks later, they stumbled out of the bar and into a taxi that sported an actual human driver. Ten minutes later they found themselves standing on the edge of a bleak-looking airstrip running parallel to a long stretch of shore. A single unmanned drone-copter waited for them on the flat concrete, its blades already slowly rotating in anticipation of their arrival.

While Hsingyun and Jacob argued over who got to pay for their flight, Saul stepped over to the edge of the airstrip nearest the ocean and stared out at the slate-grey sea. His wife and daughter came, unbidden, to mind as a frozen wind pulled at the hood of his heavy parka, and he found himself remembering Deanna and Gwen the way they’d been before they’d left for Galileo, almost a dee before. A feeling of bottomless despair fought its way past the haze of alcohol and narcotics, and gripped his heart in a vice.

A lot could happen in ten years, and Galileo had been caught up in the middle of an uprising when the wormhole gate had collapsed. A starship carrying a new wormhole link was now only months away from achieving orbit around Galileo, but instead of feeling elated, all Saul felt was a numb apprehension. He hoped and prayed they were still alive, but beneath that lay the guilt. If it hadn’t been for him, Deanna would never have taken up that administrative post on Galileo, and never taken their daughter there with her.

He sighted several dark shapes moving against the tide, sinuous, writhing things swimming in parallel. But by the time Jacob yelled over to him to hurry the fuck up and get on board, the black-skinned creatures had slipped back beneath the waves.

The three of them fell into silence once they climbed inside the aircraft’s cramped fuselage. The pitch of its blades rose to a whine as it lifted into the air and headed out over the ocean, dipping occasionally to fight its way past a strong headwind.

Hsingyun dug out his inhaler once more, and offered them another hit. Saul very nearly put his hand out to restrain Jacob as he pressed the device to his lips but, instead, waited until his own turn came, before accepting the device with gratitude.

We’re fucking this up, he thought, pressing the inhaler to his lips. The smoke tasted sweet and sharp in his lungs, and immediately he felt like he’d grown taller and stronger.

Barely twenty minutes after setting out, the ’copter began to drop lower once more. Saul leaned his head against the window, and found himself staring down at a flat white plain that appeared to extend to the horizon on all sides. For a moment he thought they must be back over land, until he caught sight of a line of black water foaming against the expanse of ice.

He knew how big some of the pharms could get, but this had to be one of the largest. He could make out a few dozen pre-fab buildings clustered below, off-white domes and warehouses that nearly merged into the ice itself, distinguishable only by the corporate logos on their roofs and the faint shadows they cast under the moonlight.

Once they had landed, they disembarked into a bitingly cold wind. There was no sense of motion, however, no way to tell that they were standing on a chunk of floating pykrete rather than on solid ground. Saul peered into the distance, but was unable to discern where the ice ended and the water began.

‘What’s to stop the Sphere authorities or anyone else just landing here and storming the place?’ Saul yelled over the sound of the wind.

‘You mean if we weren’t already paying them not to?’ Hsingyun yelled back, withdrawing a small antenna-like device and holding it out in the direction of the nearest dome. ‘Well, since you ask, there are mines buried in the ice all around us. I can find the safe path through the minefield, so just follow behind me and stay close, unless you want to blow yourselves the fuck up.’

The pre-fab buildings proved to be much larger than they had appeared from the air. Many were several storeys in height, and he spotted a few automated vehicles traversing the narrow roads linking buildings and warehouses.

‘Nobody here to greet us?’ Saul asked.

‘Trust me, they know we’re here,’ Hsingyun replied, over his shoulder, before stepping forward cautiously. The antennae device he clutched in his gloved hand gave a beep, and he began to walk more quickly.

As he and Jacob fell in behind him, Saul was not entirely unfamiliar with the technology Hsingyun was using. He knew they were, in fact, stepping directly on top of mines as they approached the dome. The mines communicated with each other by radio frequency, activating or deactivating according to pre-set patterns, meaning that the ‘safe’ path through them could change as often as you programmed it to. You therefore needed something hooked into the same encrypted network in order to find your way through the minefield without getting killed.

Saul caught Jacob’s eye and flashed him a dark look. If this turned out to be a trap and they needed to get out, it was going to be almost impossible to negotiate the minefield without Hsingyun’s device.

We should have said the warehouse, or no deal, Saul wanted to yell.

THREE

Kepler Colony, Sphere Administered Development Zone, 15 January 2235

Hsingyun paused and suddenly changed direction a couple of times as they moved towards the dome, stopping and walking off briefly to the side before moving forward again. Saul and Jacob took care to follow very closely in his footsteps.

The snow crunched beneath Saul’s boots, the cold quickly finding its way through the soles and numbing his toes. His testicles appeared intent on crawling back inside his body every time he saw a dark shape lodged in the ice directly underfoot, and he shuddered with relief when they finally passed through a door leading into the dome’s interior. The air inside felt so warm and thick by comparison that, for a moment, Saul almost couldn’t breathe.

A railing in the centre of the otherwise empty dome surrounded a spiral staircase leading down through a wide shaft cut into the ice. Saul took a firm grip on his briefcase and followed the other two downwards, the steel treads clanging noisily underfoot as they descended.

The interior of the ice-pharm proved to be almost as enormous as the exterior. Saul saw room after room filled with industrial machinery, tended by workers wearing masks and protective gear. The air was filled with the constant thunder of production. To one side, thick sheets of semi-translucent plastic hung to the floor from ceiling-mounted railings, shielding the dim silhouettes of laboratory equipment. This, then, Saul guessed, was where the analysis and gene-splicing took place. Enormous vats, concealed behind a tangle of pipework, wistsed for the mass synthesis of the pharm’s products, prior to shipping to markets in the Sphere and Coalition territories back home.

Not for the first time, Saul felt the weight of knowing just how staggeringly inadequate the ASI was in the face of such mass industry. This was just one single black pharm, but it was filled with more contraband than Array Security and Immigration might hope to seize in any single year. And there were hundreds of pharms just like it, spread out across Kepler’s vast oceans.

Two heavily armed Tian Di Hui street soldiers, identifiable by their nondescript baggy street clothes – perfect for concealing weapons – were waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs.

‘Your contact lenses,’ one of them said to Saul in Mandarin. ‘Take them out.’

Saul glanced at Jacob. ‘I won’t be able to understand one damn word they’re saying if I don’t have my contacts,’ he complained.

‘Just do what they say,’ Jacob muttered under his breath, already pinching his own contacts out. ‘They’re obviously not taking any chances on us recording anything. I can translate for you if I have to; my Mandarin’s pretty good.’

Saul muttered under his breath, then tipped his head back and carefully pinched both of his own contacts out. Their embedded circuitry sparkled silver and gold as he placed them into a silver-plated case he kept for the purpose, tucking it into a pocket. Hsingyun did the same, then the second soldier swiped each of them in turn with a wand before finally patting them down.

As Hsingyun addressed the two soldiers in rapid Mandarin, Saul listened to the up-and-down cadences of their dialogue, unable to understand a word without the benefit of auto-translation. He noticed that the walls were sprayed with some kind of insulating plastic presumably intended to keep the pykrete from melting. Indeed, the factory floor was swelteringly hot, and Saul was already starting to sweat by the time he’d pulled his heavy parka off and clasped it under one arm.

‘They want to see inside your briefcase as well,’ Jacob told him.

One of the soldiers waved Saul towards a series of low trestle tables arranged next to a shoulder-high partition that stood to one side of the metal staircase. Saul kept his expression carefully blank as he placed the briefcase flat on a table and lifted the lid, spinning it around so the soldier could see it contained thick bundles of crisp new black-market currency. A small wooden box, painted matte black, sat on top of these bundles.

The street soldier placed the box to one side and riffled through the notes, bundle by bundle, pushing his hands deep inside the case before pointing at the little box and barking something at Saul.

‘He wants to see inside the box,’ explained Jacob.

Saul nodded and opened it up to show the soldier the arbitration unit nestling within, on a bed of foam plastic. Tiny, silver and featureless, it mit easily have been mistaken for a cigarette lighter. The soldier nodded, and Saul placed the box back inside his briefcase, snapping it shut.

Apparently satisfied, the two street soldiers led the way. Hsingyun chatted with them as they proceeded, their words echoing throughout the station’s interior.

They didn’t have far to go. One of the street soldiers opened a door to one side, and Hsingyun led them through. Saul found himself standing just inside a conference room such as one might find in any of New Kaiohsung’s commercial skyscrapers, except that it had no windows. The walls were panelled with strips of accelerated-growth wood, probably grown in another of the ice-pharms.

The two soldiers followed the three of them inside. The room was long and narrow, and had a table, surrounded by several chairs, standing immediately to the right and dominating the nearer half of the room. Further in, two men – one white, one Asian – sat on a couch facing a TriView screen in the far left-hand corner. Beer and wine bottles, in varying stages of emptiness, were piled on a small coffee table to one side of the couch. The room reeked of loup-garou and other substances.

Saul glanced over at the TriView, and saw images of a man in a leather mask torturing a half-naked woman who was chained to a concrete post. She screamed and begged for mercy as her assailant grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head backwards, bringing a live power drill close to her throat. Even from across the room, Saul could see that her movements were a little too stiff to be real. He guessed she was a Japanese torture doll, one of the high-end models marketed to jaded business executives wherever they weren’t banned.

A third man stood immediately to the right of the couch, watching the TriView with a look of weary indifference, his hands pushed into the pockets of a very expensive-looking suit: Shih Hsiu-Chuan himself.

Saul felt a thrill of anticipation. Hsiu-Chuan glanced slowly in his direction, then back at the screen.

Meanwhile, Saul’s pulse rate began to build, riding on a tide of loup-garou as he followed Jacob and Hsingyun further into the room. The insouciant way in which Hsiu-Chuan held himself, together with that distant, mildly bored expression, suggested that their own presence here was a burden he only barely tolerated.

‘Hey!’ said the white man, leaping up from the couch and stepping around behind it to face them. He wore a long woollen jacket over a stained shirt and overalls, a cloth cap pulled down over his ears. ‘I see we have company.’

Hsingyun moved towards him and they exchanged a few words in Mandarin. ‘This is Ben Tanner,’ Hsingyun explained, looking back towards Saul and Jacob. ‘He runs this station.’

Tanner’s oriental TriView buddy now stood up and eyed Saul critically. ‘Nobody told me he was a hei-gui-zi,’ he remarked in guttural English, also stepping away from the couch.

Even though Saul spoke next to no Mandarin, he knew just enough to recognize the insult.

‘Is that a problem?’ he asked mildly.

‘No problem,’ said Tanner, waving an irritated hand at his companion. Judging by his accent he hailed from the East Coast Republic, maybe New York. He glanced at Saul’s briefcase, still gripped tightly in one hand. ‘And that’s the goods?’

Saul nodded and stepped closer, shaking Tanner’s hand. Hsiu-Chuan gave every impression of ignoring them all, his attention apparently still fixed on the TriView, but Saul wasn’t fooled.

Tanner snapped his fingers at the man who’d been sitting with him on the couch. ‘Kwan here would like to apologize for his racial slur,’ said Tanner, a broad grin on his face. ‘If it makes you feel any better, he calls his dick worse names, when he can find it. Isn’t that right, Kwan?’

Kwan just laughed, and nodded them towards the conference table, before addressing Saul in rapid-fire Mandarin and gesturing at his briefcase.

‘I already opened it,’ said Saul.

‘That was to check for weapons or surveillance devices,’ Tanner replied. ‘This time is for business.’

Saul glanced towards Jacob, who favoured him with an encouraging nod. Feeling the rush of confidence from the loup-garou beginning to slip, he became acutely aware that the two street soldiers who had escorted them were now standing between him and the only exit.

Saul nodded tightly and placed the briefcase on one end of the conference table, clicked it open and turned it around so all the others could see what was inside. He lifted out a couple of bundles of cash, as well as the box containing the arbitration unit. Kwan pushed him to one side, none too gently, and began expertly riffling the notes between his fingers, peering at them closely.

Hsiu-Chuan finally stepped away from the TriView and picked up the box containing the arbitration unit. Nothing else, Saul knew, would have been sufficient to make him risk showing up here.

‘This is a clone, correct?’ Hsiu-Chuan asked, finally acknowledging Saul’s existence. His English was only lightly accented.

‘Of one of the most successful predictive AIs currently operating in the Coalition share markets, yes,’ Saul agreed. ‘It was . . . difficult to obtain.’

‘And you understand,’ Hsiu-Chuan continued, his manner still offhand, ‘what will happen to you personally if it’s a fake or if it fails to live up to expectations?’

‘I do,’ Saul replied levelly.

Hsiu-Chuan nodded, pocketing the unit, then snapped his fingers at Kwan. Kwan responded by tossing a single bundle of cash underhand to one of the two street soldiers. Without another word to Saul or anyone else, Hsiu-Chuan drted the room, followed by the same street soldier.

‘Where have they gone?’ Saul demanded, turning to glare at Tanner.

‘Just making sure everything’s legitimate,’ Tanner replied with an easy shrug. ‘They’ll run some tests, won’t take more than a minute or two. Have a drink while we wait.’

Tanner stepped back over to the couch and fetched a half-bottle of whisky and four glasses. He placed the glasses on the conference table and poured a hefty measure into each. He then put the bottle down and withdrew a pykrete gun from inside his voluminous coat, placing it next to the bottle.

‘What the fuck is that for?’ asked Saul, staring at the gun.

‘That?’ Tanner pretended to be surprised by the question. ‘That is in case your sample of money or your arbitration unit aren’t up to scratch.’ Tanner picked up his whisky, full to the brim, and drank it in one swallow, before slamming down the empty glass. ‘I hope that’s not a problem for you,’ he added, with a thin smile.

‘Not at all,’ Saul muttered, picking up his own glass to try and hide his agitation. He noticed that neither Jacob nor Hsingyun had made any move yet towards their own drinks.

There was just enough loup-garou still left circulating through Saul’s bloodstream to ratchet up his fight-or-flight responses, but he felt his nerves settle a bit as the whisky slithered down his throat. It had a pleasant, slightly honeyed texture.

‘Sometimes,’ said Tanner, refilling his own glass before raising it, as if in salute, ‘I wonder how it ever got to the point where good honest criminals were forced to print their own money.’

‘At least it’s real money,’ muttered Hsingyun, finally picking up his glass and taking a sip. ‘And not just numbers encoded on some fucking computer’s memory.’

‘Ah,’ Tanner nodded, ‘that’s why I came here, to Kepler.’

‘For black-market cash?’ asked Saul.

‘That and freedom, too. Back there,’ he said, waving one hand towards the opposite wall, as if the entire planet Earth were lurking just on the other side of it, ‘there’s none. Back there it’s all invisible credit. But that,’ he gestured with his glass at Saul’s briefcase, ‘that’s real, tangible. You can hold it in your hands. Walk around the street stalls back in the city, you’ll see that stuff getting used. People here trust it more than they ever did UP-linked credit.’

Saul nodded. The cash in the briefcase had been printed on black-market presses that had been impounded long ago by the ASI. They had been obliged to print their own or they’d never have been able to pay the network of informants they maintained throughout a dozen worlds. Tanner was right, of course: back on nd Luna, where the only legal currency had a purely virtual existence, you couldn’t do anything without leaving a trail of information behind you. The underground economy had no choice but to develop its own secret banking and credit system, replete with its very own currency.

Tanner paused, as if about to say something, then withdrew a slim device, placing it against his ear and nodding after a few moments. A telephone, Saul realized with a shock; the kind normally relegated to museums. Tanner really was serious, it seemed, about leaving the old world behind.

‘Verdict’s in,’ said Tanner, returning the device to his pocket. ‘Your arbitration unit is good, and your money is real.’

Saul nodded, fingering the lid of his briefcase as if to close it again. ‘Then we can get started on working out schedules and delivery dates. That means—’

‘Not quite.’ Tanner nudged the gun closer to Saul. ‘Pick it up,’ he said.

Saul stood absolutely stock-still. He could see Hsingyun and Jacob to his left, around the other side of the table, while the remaining street soldier had moved to stand by the wall directly behind Tanner. Kwan stood to Saul’s right, and nobody was paying any attention to the TriView.

‘Why the hell should I?’ asked Saul.

Tanner glanced over his shoulder at the street soldier, and said something to him in rapid Mandarin. The man stepped up behind Jacob, grabbing him by both arms just above the elbow, while Kwan crossed the room in a couple of steps, and pulled one arm right back before punching Jacob hard in the stomach.

Jacob crumpled, wheezing. The street soldier and Kwan took a shoulder each and quickly manoeuvred him into one of the chairs by the table. Saul watched, rooted to the spot, as Kwan pulled plastic restraints from a pocket before expertly securing Jacob’s hands and feet to the chair.

‘Ben,’ Jacob’s voice was cracking, ‘I don’t know why you’re—’

‘Shut up,’ snarled Tanner.

Jacob tried to say something else, but Kwan punched him in the jaw before he could get it out. Jacob’s head snapped back, and he fell silent, although Saul could see he was still just about conscious. A thin trickle of blood emerged from one corner of his mouth.

The seconds seemed to trickle by at an infinitely slow pace. Hsingyun appeared unperturbed by the sudden violence. His eyes met Saul’s, who realized in that moment that they had been compromised since long before he had even arrived on Kepler.

A second weapon had appeared in Tanner’s hand, a Koch flechette pistol. He levelled it at Saul’s chest, and waggled its barrel towards the table.

‘Now pick up the gun, Mr Lassen,’ he said, using Saul’s false identity.

Saul took a deep breath and slowly laid one hand across the pykrete gun’s bulbous coolant chamber, without picking it up. He realized, with a sinking feeling, that the wooden panels on the far wall were rippling gently. That meant the psycho-actives were starting to kick in, and were clearly much more powerful than Jacob had claimed. Everything felt slightly unreal, as if at one remove.

‘Why,’ he asked Tanner, ‘are you doing this?’

‘You say your name is Lassen,’ Tanner replied, then nodded towards Jacob, ‘but I have it on good authority that Mr Cowles here is in fact employed by the ASI. And if he’s ASI, that means you probably are, too. In fact, everything we know about you comes through Cowles, or whatever his fucking name is. That means, if you want to prove yourself, by which I mean, show me you’re legitimate and serious about doing business with the Tian Di Hui, and not just some undercover cocksucker, then you’re going to have to walk the extra mile. Kill Cowles and I’ll believe you really are who you say you are.’

‘If that’s what you think, why not just kill me instead?’ asked Saul, struggling to keep his tone even. ‘Why hand me a gun?’

‘The Tian Di Hui have rules when it comes to dealing with new clients,’ explained Tanner, the barrel of his Koch dipping until it pointed at Saul’s crotch. Saul did his best to ignore the unpleasant tingling suddenly radiating through his loins. ‘We like to know if they’re genuinely committed to a working relationship with us. Now – let’s suppose my information isn’t correct, and you really are who you say you are. Even if that’s the case, the Tian Di Hui will only deal with one person at a time. That means either we deal with Cowles here,’ Tanner nodded over his shoulder towards Jacob, ‘or we deal with you.’ He shook his head slowly. ‘But not both.’

‘So you want me to kill him?’ said Saul. The gun felt solid and heavy beneath his fingers as it rested on the polished wood.

‘If you don’t,’ said Tanner, ‘we very definitely will kill you.’

Saul stared down at the weapon with the fascination of a rabbit confronted by a hungry lion. ‘Is it loaded?’

Tanner shrugged. ‘One way to find out.’

Saul glanced back at Hsingyun, and wondered just how long he had known. It wasn’t too hard to picture Jacob, stoned out of his mind while crammed into a bar much like the one they’d left barely more than half an hour before, letting slip some clue that he was something other than what he seemed. Maybe the answer really was that simple.

Moving slowly, Saul picked up the pykrete gun, feeling the balanced weight of it in his hands. He then considered his options. Terror and fury waged a war inside his head and heart, while sparks of light like fireflies swam at the edges of his vision, leaving phosphorescent blue trails.

Or maybe, he thought, the whole thing was really a kind of carefully staged test. The gun in his hand might, in fact, not be loaded at all. Maybe neither Tanner nor Hsingyun nor anyone else had any idea that he and Jacob were anything other than who they claimed to be. But the surest way to reveal they were ASI would be to refuse to play along.

The knife-edge sharpness from the loup-garou reasserted itself, through the fug of alcohol and hallucinogens. He felt suddenly, supremely confident that everything was going to be just fine; Tanner would never have given him a loaded gun if he really believed he was a cop. Wasn’t that how it always played out in the TriView dramas? The gun was never loaded. Never.

Saul aimed the gun at Jacob’s chest, deliberately fumbling with it to create the impression this was the first time he’d ever held such a weapon.

Jacob tried to struggle out of his chair, and Saul noticed a curious look on Tanner’s face. The street soldier moved to one side of Jacob, while keeping one meaty hand firmly clamped over his mouth.

‘It’s cool,’ Saul said to Jacob, the wood panelling on the walls writhing furiously, like wheat in an autumn gale. ‘They’re just testing us.’

Saul pulled the trigger. The gun made a loud popping sound and a lozenge-sized chunk of pykrete punched a hole through Jacob’s chest. It sounded, thought Saul, not unlike a cork being pulled from a champagne bottle. Jacob jerked back with sufficient violence to tip his chair sideways on to the floor, dead before his cheek touched the carpet.

The sound of the gunshot seemed to resonate through every cell in Saul’s body, startling him into something more closely resembling sobriety.

After a few moments’ prolonged silence, Tanner turned to Kwan with a delighted grin. ‘Well, fuck me, you won that fair and square.’ He turned back to Saul. ‘I’m seriously fucking taken aback. I really, really didn’t think you were going to do it.’

‘Why not?’ Saul managed to croak, his tongue suddenly thick and heavy. He stared down at Jacob’s slumped form in horrified fascination, then noticed, as he brought his gaze back up, that Tanner had momentarily lowered his own weapon until it pointed at the floor.

‘Because we already knew the both of you were fucking cops,’ Tanner replied, levelling his Koch at Saul once more.

Saul reached down with his free hand and grabbed one corner of the open briefcase beside him, whipping it around and up with as much force as he could muster. The briefcase struck Tanner on the side of the head. He dodged back with a yell, arms raised in defence, nearly stumbling over Jacob’s body as loose banknotes went scattering through the air.

Already moving forward, Saul grabbed Tanner by the shoulder, pulling him close and twisting him around before the street soldier, who had been standing directly behind the pharm manager, could get a clear shot at him. He reached down and clasped his hand around Tanner’s fist, where it held the pykrete gun, aiming the weapon at the street soldier and squeezing. As if by magic, a line of fine red dots appeared across the soldier’s neck and chest, and he dropped to his knees with a gurgling sound.

Saul tore the flechette pistol from Tanner’s grasp, then ducked beneath the table before Kwan had a chance to fix him in his sights. He could hear the sound of chunks of compacted cellulose and ice water thudding into the wood a second later.

Kwan dropped on to all fours, to try and take aim a second time. His head flowered red as Saul fired, the flechettes tearing into his vulnerable flesh. Kwan collapsed, his legs and arms twitching spastically.

Tanner stumbled away to hide behind the couch. Saul looked around and saw Hsingyun fumbling desperately with the door, cursing in his panic to get out. Saul fired a stream of flechettes towards his ankles. Two intervening chairs spun away from the side of the table, as if shoved aside by invisible hands, and Hsingyun went down screaming.

Saul darted back out from under the table, and meanwhile glanced towards the couch. Several bottles previously standing on the table next to the TriView rolled noisily across the tiled floor.

‘Tanner,’ Saul shouted hoarsely, ‘if you so much as twitch from where you are, I swear I’ll blow your fucking head off. Do you understand me?’

There was a muffled reply, just audible over the sound of the chainsaw and the combined shrieks of both the torture-doll and Hsingyun.

Saul backed towards the door, and Hsingyun, and a moment later Tanner’s head popped back up over the top of the couch. Saul fired without thinking, the flechettes ripping gouts of foam out of the couch. Tanner made a strangled sound and fell backwards, crashing into the TriView, its sounds of carnage cutting off instantly.

He turned back to Hsingyun and found him slumped half-conscious against the door in an ever-widening pool of blood, his lower legs now a mess of pulverized meat. Saul kept a tight grip on the Koch, and used his free hand to rifle through Hsingyun’s pockets until he located the device that could get him past the minefield.

Now all he needed to do was get to the surface alive – and pray the ’copter was still parked where they’d left it.

And if it wasn’t, he was totally, irretrievably, fucked.

He dragged Hsingyun out of the way and cautiously pulled the door open. When he leaned out, he could see no one bar the distant figures of white-suited workers going about their business.

There was so much noise out there that no one had even heard the fighting.

Saul had got most of the way back to the spiral staircase before someone finally raised the alarm.

A high-pitched whine filled the air, followed by a muffled shout from somewhere nearby. Saul started to rn, and heard shots echoing through the cavernous space behind him. In that moment he remembered that his parka was still back there in the conference room. That was going to be a problem once he got outside.

He reached the stairs and clanged his way up them as fast as he could go: three, four, five steps at a time. There came more shots, one ricocheting off a step ahead of him as he climbed higher. He glanced back to see the street soldier who had departed with Hsiu-Chuan, waving his hands as he yelled at two other men in white worker gear, both with pykrete rifles gripped in their hands.

Saul reached the dome and burst through the outer door and on to the ice. The cold came as a brute physical shock that brought him to a sudden halt, gasping as he filled his lungs with freezing air. Saul was wearing nothing more than a light business suit, barely sufficient to keep him warm on a January afternoon in New York or London, let alone amid Kepler’s half-frozen oceans.

Hands shaking and teeth chattering, he fumbled Hsingyun’s mine detector out of a pocket. Peering across the ice, he felt a surge of overwhelming relief when he saw the ’copter was still exactly where they had left it. He tried to estimate how long it would take him to work his way past the minefield, and how long it would take the men chasing him to catch up. Then he decided to think of something else.

Hsingyun, he remembered, had pressed a red button . . . here.

Ah, thought Saul, as a screen blinked into life on the device, accompanied by a beep. He saw a grid of dots appear on the screen, a blinking zigzag line superimposed over it. A circle at the centre of the grid clearly represented the dome.

He walked a few metres forward, and the zigzag line began to blink faster, finally changing colour as he found himself standing almost directly on top of a buried mine, its dark shape visible just millimetres beneath the ice.

Still grasping the Koch in his other hand, he stepped forward, half convinced he was about to get blown to bits – but nothing happened. He walked faster, then began to run, stopping only when the screen began to blink again.

Hearing shouts from behind, he turned and fired in the direction of the dome, but wide of the mark. Two figures that had just emerged from the dome’s entrance ducked back inside.

It occurred to Saul that if one of his pursuers thought to shoot at the mines to either side of him, that it might just set them off. He crouched low as he ran, filled with an overwhelming sense of urgency, keenly aware of just how good a target his dark suit made him against the ice.

More shots came, and Saul stumbled forward, landing on his knees. For a moment he thought he’d only slipped on the ice, then realized with numb shock that he had been hit in the shoulder. He twisted around, raised the pistol and once again fired towards the dome, but his hands were shaking too badly for him to be able to take proper aim.

Get to the ’copter, you fucking idiot.

T worst thing – the nasty thing – about pykrete bullets was that they melted, leaving a mass of difficult-to-extract and potentially poisonous cellulose fibres buried deep in the tissue of your body. You didn’t need a fatal wound to be in serious trouble.

He pushed himself back upright, ignoring a sudden spell of dizziness that threatened to overcome him. He checked the screen on Hsingyun’s gadget: all he had to do was move three mines to the right, and then it was a straight run all the way to the ’copter.

He glanced back once again, as he loped towards the aircraft, and heard something whine past his ear. He could just make out one of the white-suited men, his head appearing to float above the ice like a ghost, kneeling as he readied for another shot. Saul stopped and took a two-handed grip on the pistol, holding it steady just long enough to empty the rest of its chamber in the direction of his assailant.

He was rewarded by the sight of ice and snow kicking up a flurry directly in front of his target. It wasn’t a direct hit, but his assailant leaped up and darted to one side.

Which turned out to be a bad move. The ice erupted beneath him, and the sound of the accompanying detonation echoed across the flat expanse of the ice-pharm like a peal of thunder, before staining the ice red.

Saul knew it was now or never. He tried to change his grip on the Koch but realized the sheer cold had welded it to the skin of one hand. He turned and ran as fast and as hard as he could, praying he was far away enough now from the dome that the lone remaining gunman would have a hard time taking proper aim. One bullet pinged off the carapace of the aircraft as Saul pulled himself inside it.

‘Police emergency override 256,’ he gasped, collapsing back across the seat as the door automatically slid shut. ‘Officer Dumont, department code six nine zero slash alpha. Take off now.’

‘Please be aware that any attempts to gain control of this craft by the use of illegally acquired overrides may be punishable in a court of law by a fine or a possible jail sentence,’ the ’copter replied, in a smooth tone. ‘If you wish to confirm, please—’

‘Confirmed!’ Saul screamed, realizing that the slick dampness beneath him was his own blood, pouring out of his shoulder wound. ‘Just fucking do it!’ he screamed.

The rotors quickly built up to a high-pitched whine and, as it lifted, the ’copter angled to one side, showing him the flat landscape of the station beneath. One or two faint sparks of light from the direction of the dome told him somebody was still trying to shoot him down.

‘My systems suggest you may be injured,’ the ’copter continued, its tone blandly untroubled. ‘Are you in need of any medical assistance?’

‘Yes, I am,’ Saul replied weakly, aware that dawn was already spreading pale fingers across the sky. ‘I need to get to a hospital.’

He could still feel the Koch cold and hard against his fingers and palm. The ’copter dipped again as it angled across the sky, and Saul felt like he was falling into a grey blank eternity that swallowed up the last of his thoughts, as he finally slipped into unconsciousness.

FOUR

Florida Array Exclusion Zone, East Coast Republic, 18 January 2235

The road stretched ahead, a black asphalt line dividing the world in two, with the APC carrying the rest of the squadron just a couple of dozen metres ahead of him. Monk leaned forward to peer up, past the curve of the truck’s windshield, at black clouds incipient with rain.

He sat back, shifted his grip on the steering wheel and glanced to his side. Naz had placed his taser attachment and extra magazines of ammo on the upper part of the dashboard while he checked and rechecked his Cobra, snapping open the feed assembly and pushing two fingers inside.

Monk studied him with a growing sense of irritation, before turning back to the road. Small drops of moisture landed on the glass, while a sudden wind stirred the tops of the trees lining the ditches on either side of the road.

‘Eyes on the road, Sergeant,’ Naz muttered without looking up.

Insubordinate son of a bitch, thought Monk.

The clouds finally broke and gusts of rain billowed across the expressway. Monk caught a glimpse of a sign telling him that Orlando was fifty kilometres away.

‘How many times have you already checked that damn thing?’ Monk demanded, but Naz only grinned as he snapped the feed assembly shut once more and started to reattach the taser just under the Cobra’s barrel. The Faraday mesh, wrapped around the weapon’s targeting systems, glittered softly.

‘Not enough times, Sergeant,’ Naz replied. ‘Knew a guy back in the day got blown to shit when his gun jammed. Ain’t gonna let the same thing happen to me.’ He slid a magazine into place, studying the weapon with the kind of fascinated admiration that most men Monk knew saved for Orlando’s strip clubs.

‘Islamabad?’ asked Monk.

Another sign, so badly rusted that he could barely make out the words, told him they were coming up on what had been a marsh conservation area. Not that anybody bothered with that kind of thing any more; he checked the local network through his contacts and saw nothing about anything getting conserved. The bushes and cypresses lining the road looked wild and unkempt. The traffic was light: most vehicles on the road this close to the Florida Array were either army or supplies, although they had also passed a few private cars belonging to Array staff.

‘Wasn’t the war, Sergeant,’ Naz replied, settling back to scan the horizon. ‘Was back in LA. Dumb shithead I knew got caught th a house full of pharm goods, and thought he could shoot his way out when the cops turned up on his doorstep. His gun had a systems failure ’cause he didn’t take proper care of it. Had a white coffin at his funeral. Priest in white, wife in white, all three girlfriends and his favourite whore in white. Tackiest shit I’ve seen in my whole life.’

Monk sighed. Naz had wound up working for Array Security and Immigration after spending a year riding shotgun on convoys passing through Pakistan and Mexical, and that only because the alternative had been jail. He wasn’t the kind of guy Monk liked having on his team but, then, Monk didn’t get a say in the matter. So he kept an eye on Naz, waiting for him to make a slip, do or say the wrong thing, anything that might give Monk an excuse to file a report or have the son of a bitch reassigned. But Naz never did give Monk the excuse he needed. He was, to Monk’s boundless irritation, what the military TriView feeds liked to call an ‘exemplary soldier.’

They reached the turn-off to the airfield, a private stretch of road owned by the ASI, and stopped for a couple of moments to let an automated checkpoint remotely query their Ubiquitous Profiles. The truck’s wheels kicked up mud as it pulled off the expressway. A sparkle of light several kilometres ahead betrayed the location of the airfield’s conning tower.

The armoured personnel carrier carrying the rest of the squad had already negotiated the turn-off. Monk knew that in the back of the truck he was driving was a sealed containment unit, newly arrived via the Array from some exotic off-world location. Monk had no idea what might be contained within it, and couldn’t care less. More lichen or mineral samples, probably. Scientist shit, at least. All he’d seen was a steel box with fat wheels and a push-handle, with vacuum seals and hazard warnings printed on all sides. It had been wheeled into the back of the truck by two technicians in hazmat suits.

An icon appeared, floating in the air to Monk’s right, indicating a bright-red alert. He touched it with a finger and information appeared, rendered in chrome letters floating in the air.

‘My UP says there’s been an accident up ahead,’ he muttered, glancing forward. Beyond the APC, the road to the airfield looked empty, but it was hard to be sure with all the rain. ‘About two kilometres up ahead. An automated transport.’

Naz pushed himself up in his seat and peered through the windscreen, his weapon clanking against the glossy black of the dashboard. He cleared his throat noisily, wound the passenger window down and spat out into the rain. ‘I can see all the way to the airfield, Sergeant,’ he replied, ‘and, with all due respect, I don’t see shit.’

‘Maybe there’s a glitch in the monitoring systems,’ Monk muttered, turning the wheel to pull in at the roadside. ‘Call the tower for confirmation. We can wait here till we get the go-ahead.’

‘Confirmation?’ Naz’s expression was incredulous. ‘With all due respect, Sergeant, there’s nothing on the road and I also know you ain’t blind. We need to keep going.’

That was the problem right there, thought Monk; Naz didn’t understand the necessity of sticking to the rules. ‘If the systems says there’s an accident up ahead, then the regulations say we don’t move until told otherwise.’

‘Then the regulations are fucked, Sergeant.’

‘We stay here,’ Monk snapped. ‘Whatever’s up there could be carrying hazardous materials or some other poisonous shit. Search and rescue’ll be here in another couple of minutes, anyway.’

Naz twisted around in his seat to look at him more directly. ‘Look out that window, up ahead of the APC. I know it’s raining, but it ain’t raining that heavily. Between here and the airfield, do you see anything?’

Monk had to admit the road ahead looked empty all the way. He glared at Naz, then reluctantly opened the mike to Rosewood, in the APC, and ordered him to drive up ahead. He watched as the carrier pulled back out into the road and accelerated away.

Despite what he’d said about a glitch, Monk knew the ASI’s mapping satellites were near as damn infallible. If they said there was something blocking the road up ahead, then there was something definitely blocking the road. No surprise if an ex-jailbird grunt like Naz was too dumb to understand that, and yet, as he watched the APC retreat into the distance, Monk couldn’t ignore a growing sense of unease.

It wasn’t like the Mexical ’jacking crews worked this far east, after all. In fact the ASI extended their security envelope far beyond the CTC mass-transit facility, and their present convoy was well within the hundred-kilometre exclusion zone. There were only two tightly controlled air corridors, along with aerial spotter drones programmed to hunt out anyone hiding in the swamps and bayous who shouldn’t be there. Monk himself spent three days a week in charge of a manned ground patrol.

He assuaged his nervousness by checking his armour, layers of Kevlar alternating with artificial spider-silk that could absorb the impact from any number of high-calibre rounds.

Naz muttered something under his breath, clicked his Cobra’s safety off and cracked open the passenger-side door.

‘Hey,’ said Monk, outraged. ‘I didn’t tell you that you could—’

‘This doesn’t feel right,’ Naz snapped back, jumping down to the roadside and taking a two-handed grip on his weapon. ‘I think we should at least rec—’

Monk saw Naz’s eyes widen, and glanced forward just in time to see the APC, a hundred metres up ahead, come crashing back down on to its roof, bodies tumbling out of its rear like broken dolls. The sound of the detonation arrived a moment later, a flat bass thump deadened by the rain, branches and dirt pattering down all around their own truck.

He turned back to speak to Naz, but the man wasn’t there anymore.

It occurred to Monk, in that same moment, that their truck might very well be next. He kicked open the door next to him and threw himself out of the cabin, hitting the ground with his shoulder and rolling away, before picking himself up and making straight for the cover of the trees on the same side of the road Naz had been on.

He slid down an embankment until he came to a stop against a tree, then yanked the safety off his own gun, wishing with a mixture of regret and aggravation that he’d checked it as thoroughly as Naz had his own. He tried to uplink to Command, but the security channels were all blocked.

It looked like they were on their own. He sent a signal to the truck, activating its defence protocols. He heard it shift and rumble as it reconfigured itself accordingly.

Monk waited long, tense seconds, the chirping of cicadas intermingling with the sound of the APC burning. The air meanwhile smelled of mud and burning plastic.

It was starting to look like whoever or whatever had hit the APC wasn’t going to try and blow up the truck, too, which meant they were almost certainly after the containment unit in the rear.

He heard rustling in the bushes, then spotted Naz’s back about twenty metres ahead, moving cautiously through the undergrowth towards the thin trail of greasy black smoke that betrayed the APC’s whereabouts. He was, Monk noted with disgust, intent on being a goddamn hero.

Just as Monk opened his mouth to yell, he heard a low, throbbing buzz like a chainsaw. Something flashed overhead in the same moment that Naz glanced back in Monk’s direction, after presumably hearing the same sound.

Monk instantly dropped down into the long grass and saw an aerial drone flashing through the treetops, heading towards Naz’s location. He raised his Cobra, squinting down the sight, but, before he could fire, the ground beneath Naz erupted and he disappeared in an uprush of dirt and leaves.

Chunks of wood, soil and Naz himself pattered down all around Monk, and he suddenly felt his bowels threaten to loosen.

Keep it together, Monk told himself, once again trying his best to make himself as small a target as possible. But the drone was now moving further away from his location.

Monk let out a silent sigh of relief. If the drone was anything like the ones used by ASI, it would be equipped with IR sensors, and no way was he going to be able to hide from shit like that.

Monk crouched down low, considering his options, then heard a sound he at first took for another car or truck pulling up at the roadside. The sound grew deafeningly loud, and a dark triangular shape dropped down beneath the treetops, rapidly descending towards the road. A VTOL pond-hopper, by the looks of it.

He doubled back the way he’d come, retreating along the ditch and pulling himself up the embankment once more, panting and swearing all the way. The drone had by now passed over to the other side of the road, its rotors buzzing increasingly far away as it hunted for survivors. He’d been lucky, very lucky, not to end up the same way as Naz.

Monk kept himself flat in the long grass bordering the verge of the road, his Cobra in front of him as he looked around. The truck was sitting right where he’d left it, but it had closed its doors and adopted a rounder shape by curling itself up like an armadillo, and then surrounding itself with sheafs of armour plating. He watched as the VTOL – a sleek-bodied machine with the black hawklike appearance of a military unit – sent a furious blast of air rippling across the road and through the surrounding trees, as it dropped down alongside the truck.

Monk batted leaves and grit away from him and waited, as the VTOL’s engines died down to a low hum. Before long a door cranked open in the side of the craft and two men in jumpsuits climbed down. From what he could see out of his vantage point in the long grass, they wore standard ASI air-patrol patches on their shoulders. One headed for the truck, while the other moved towards the rear of the jet.

No way are they ASI, thought Monk, watching them for a moment. The uniforms didn’t look quite right, like they’d been imperfectly faked.

Monk heard the chainsaw buzz of the drone as it circled round towards him, then saw it pass back across the road in his direction. He figured he had maybe thirty seconds before it passed over him a second time, and he was pretty sure that this time it wouldn’t fail to pick out his heat signature.

He scrambled backwards down the embankment, and pushed himself in as far as he could get between the wide, blade-like roots of a banyan tree. With any luck those thick, damp roots would block out his heat signature.

His heart thudding, he watched the drone pass overhead but, instead of blowing him to pieces like it had Naz, it kept going. Monk let his head fall back against the gnarled trunk behind him and groaned with relief. He had two, maybe two and a half minutes tops, before it came back his way a third time.

He quickly crawled back up the embankment and peered through the long grass in time to see one of the two hijackers wheeling the containment unit back over towards the VTOL. The VTOL’s nose section had meanwhile opened up to reveal a ramp, looking like some winged monster with its jaws wide open and its tongue lolling across the road.

Monk glanced beyond the ruined APC, now struggling to push itself the right way up, like some mortally wounded animal, and saw the drone once more pass across the road and into the treetops on the far side. Before he could change his mind, he leaped up and ran, crouching low in order to present as small a target as possible, before dropping to one knee and preparing to open fire.

One of the hijackers spotted him and shouted a warning. Monk instantly let loose a rapid blast of fire from his Cobra, and saw the man collapse with a scream. The second hijacker ran for the cover of the containment unit, and began to return fire.

Monk flattened himself on the road and glanced towards his truck. He had maybe sixty seconds before the drone passed back over the road and spotted him. If he could take out emaining hijacker before then, he could hide under the truck bed, where the drone’s IR sensors wouldn’t be able to distinguish his heat signal from that of the engine.

Monk heard the surviving hijacker reload his weapon, and took it as his cue to again dart forward. A second later, he heard a buzz-saw whine coming from entirely the wrong direction.

He gazed up in stupefaction at a second drone hovering almost directly over the roof of his truck, the downdraft from its rotors scuffing up dirt and leaves from the tarmac as it moved closer. At the same time, he heard the buzz-saw rattle of the first drone returning through the trees.

There’s two of them, Monk realized, with a sudden lurch of terror. Maybe the second one had stayed invisible on the far side of the truck, or maybe he’d activated a motion detector of some kind . . .

The last thing he saw was the flash from an exhaust port as the drone launched a grenade at him.

FIVE

Copernicus City Medical Centre, Luna, 20 January 2235

Saul had been gazing out at the distant cliff walls of Copernicus Crater, when he heard someone enter the observation room from behind him. The Earth hung low above the horizon, the lights of the city blotting out all but the brightest of stars, so that the planet seemed to float in a lightless void.

He reached down and gripped the right-hand wheel of his wheelchair, pushing back on it so that he turned just in time to see one of two men he didn’t recognize close the door, shutting out the constant bustle of the hospital corridor beyond.

Saul cleared his throat. ‘Can I help you?’

The shorter of the two had unkempt, sandy hair, while his companion was thin as a rail, his expression morose. The shorter one stepped up next to Saul and peered out through the window, while his companion eased one buttock on to a side table next to the door, and folded his arms. Both wore dark, conservative suits, while their UPs merely identified them as employees of the ASI.

The shorter man turned back from the window and glanced down at Saul with a smile. ‘Alec Donohue,’ he said, introducing himself. ‘And my friend here is Joshua Sanders,’ he added, nodding towards his companion.

‘Let me guess,’ Saul grunted. ‘Internal Affairs?’

‘We prefer ‘Public Standards Unit,’ Donohue corrected.

After four days in the hospital, Saul had begun to hope against the odds that Public Standards had somehow forgotten about him. He should have known better.

‘So,’ he asked with forced levity, ‘exactly how much trouble am I in?’p>

‘That depends,’ Donohue replied, and nodded towards Saul’s hands, folded in his lap. ‘How’re the grafts working out?’

‘Fine.’ Saul glanced down at the thick swathes of bandage covering his hands. ‘Had some cosmetic work, but they should be back to normal in the next couple of days.’

‘And the shoulder wound?’

Saul shrugged, and felt a sympathetic twinge in the upper part of his back. ‘Didn’t hit anything vital.’

‘Nice.’ Donohue nodded. ‘And, in response to your question, you’re in a shitload of trouble, my friend. One colleague of yours dead, a major undercover operation seriously compromised, not to mention a running gun battle in an economic development zone under foreign jurisdiction. That’s not even to mention the pharmaceutical horn of plenty we found in both yours and Jacob Maks’ bloodstreams. The pair of you practically had the contents of a fucking pharmacy chugging through your veins.’ Donohue leaned back against the window and shook his head, as if in sorrow. ‘All in all, one royal humdinger of a fuck-up.’

Saul stared at him with a venomous expression. ‘How about I throw you a stick, you run and fetch it?’

‘Easy,’ said Sanders from over by the door.

‘First up,’ said Saul, ‘the ice-pharm was out in the middle of a fucking ocean, well outside of anybody’s official jurisdiction.’ He realized with a mounting sense of doom that they must have found some way to recover Jacob’s body from the pharm, otherwise how could they possibly have known so much?

Donohue regarded him with an amused expression. ‘The standard rules of jurisdiction cease to apply when enough people start shooting at each other, at which point the corporations and government interests controlling the legal pharms seek to protect their interests. Coalition peacekeepers were called in to help keep the peace.’

‘I’m sure they were,’ Saul muttered.

‘There’s something I want you to take a look at,’ said Donohue, gesturing to the other agent. Sanders stood up and pulled a folder from inside his jacket, before stepping over. He handed it to Saul, who found it contained nothing more than a single sheet of charged paper.

‘What is this?’ Saul took the sheet out of the folder and regarded it with suspicion.

Sanders leaned down and tapped one corner of the sheet. Dense lines of single-spaced text materialized on its crisp white surface, and Saul recognized it as the incident report he had fled the day after waking up in a Copernican hospital ward.

‘Skip to the end,’ Donohue advised, as Sanders stepped back and out of the way. ‘There’s some additional material you might find of interest.’

Saul found a detailed analysis was tagged on to the end of his own report. It described a covert raid on the ice-pharm, following his escape. There were orbital satellite photos showing it as a misshapen white lump standing stark against the black of Kepler’s largest ocean. Video footage, recorded at extreme magnification, replayed his dash to the helicopter.

‘You were tailing me the whole way,’ Saul muttered, dropping the sheet back into his lap.

‘There were questions about Jacob Maks,’ said Sanders, from beside him, ‘and about the nature of his relationship with Lee Hsingyun. We had reckoned for a while that he might be on the take. Kepler’s black pharms are enormously lucrative, after all, and the Tian Di Hui finances a significant portion of their activities from the proceeds of the pharms they control. Maks wouldn’t be the first to decide that working for them was a better bet than holding out for an ASI pension.’

‘So you think he cut a deal with Hsingyun?’ Saul asked.

Donohue shrugged. ‘That’s what we thought at first. He was spending a lot more money than any field agent might be expected to have, so naturally that raised an immediate flag. You know how the ASI can’t afford to take chances when it comes to compromising our investigations.’

‘So you put him under surveillance.’

‘Both him and you, as a matter of fact. It wasn’t the first time you’d worked together.’

Saul glared at him. ‘And that was reason enough to spy on me, too?’

‘The whole thing was a debacle, Saul. It was a five-year investigation with Shih Hsiu-Chuan as the prize, except you let him get away. At the very least, that makes an internal investigation near-as-damn inevitable. And once that investigation shows how you went into the field with a fair proportion of the narcotics coming out of the ice-pharms stuffed back up your nose, it’s going to be the easiest thing in the world to make you a scapegoat for everything that’s gone wrong. If you’re very, very lucky, you’ll only lose your job.’

‘And it’s not like you’ve had an exemplary record before, either,’ Sanders cut in. ‘At least, not after Galileo. You were nearly kicked out.’

‘I had a breakdown. That’s hardly a secret,’ Saul replied through gritted teeth. ‘I pulled myself together.’

‘Except you haven’t been promoted since,’ Donohue pointed out. ‘You’re still stuck doing the same kind of shitty undercover work, ten years on. However, what the peacekeeper task force found when they got to the ice-pharm raises other, more serious questions.’

Saul caught sight of his own reflection superimposed over the lifeless lunar landscape, and realized how scared he looked. ‘Like?’

‘Jacob Maks was killed by a single shot from a pykrete gun,’ said Sanders, his grin bright and feral. ‘We took prints from that pistol, Saul. Your prints. Your DNA.’

Saul licked suddenly dry lips. ‘It’s more complicated than you think it is.’

‘I’ll bet,’ said Donohue. ‘Did you kill him, Saul?’

Saul felt a sudden flush of rage and waited until it passed. He fantasized about slamming Donohue’s head repeatedly against the floor, but he was so full of painkillers that his body felt like a sack of cotton hanging off his skeleton, leaving him far from capable of giving anyone a beating.

‘I had a gun to my head,’ he replied instead, his voice rasping. ‘They told me if I wanted to prove I really was who I said I was, I was going to have to kill him to prove it.’

‘You killed him to save yourself?’ asked Donohue.

‘No!’ Saul slammed the side of his wheelchair with one hand. ‘They were on to us. It was obvious Tanner wasn’t going to let either of us walk out alive. And Hsingyun . . . something about him bothered me from the moment I met him. He and Jacob acted like they were old friends, but I think Hsingyun had been on to him from the start.’

‘Go on,’ said Donohue.

‘The arbitration unit was bait for Hsiu-Chuan, but it was highly lucrative bait. There’s plenty of motivation, right there, for Hsingyun to string Jacob along until I turned up with the goods. That way he doesn’t just get hold of the arbitration unit, he gets himself closer to Hsiu-Chuan and the financiers behind the pharms. Maybe he thought he could get his own pharming operation out of it.’

‘Nice theory,’ said Sanders, ‘but you still haven’t answered the question. Did you kill Jacob?’

Saul let out a groan. ‘I was convinced the gun wasn’t loaded. I took a gamble they were trying to test us, that there weren’t any bullets in the damn thing. But they already knew exactly who we both were.’

Donohue shook his head. ‘The fact remains, all the evidence says you pulled the trigger, and that’s all any internal investigation would care about. In fact,’ he added, barely repressing a smirk, ‘it might actually have been a lot better for your career if you’d refused, and let them shoot you. No dishonourable discharge, and no possibility of a long jail sentence – and a funeral paid for by the ASI.’

Saul fought back tears of frustration. ‘Fuck you. If you’re going to hang me out to dry, then damn well get on with it.’

‘That isn’t why we’re here,’ said Donohue. ‘And that’ – he waved at the charged sheet still sitting on Sau’s lap – ‘is the only copy of your field report still in existence. All other copies have been deleted.’

Saul stared at him. ‘What exactly is going on?’

Donohue brushed invisible lint off his jacket. ‘Normally, as I say, there’d be an internal tribunal. A proper hearing. There might still be – but not if you don’t want it to.’

Saul thought hard. ‘Are you telling me you want to cover this up?’

Donohue’s smug expression once again made Saul want to drive a fist into his face. Public Standards seemed to attract individuals of such a reptilian nature that it was easier to imagine them lying on sun-baked stones, catching flies with their tongues, than engaging in any kind of normal human interaction.

‘If we open this up to a tribunal, the whole case goes on official records,’ said Donohue. ‘But if we make it look like none of it ever happened, we’ll want you to do something in return.’

Saul imagined Donohue’s mouth opening wide to reveal long rows of glistening fangs. ‘Go on.’

‘Your fuck-up gave us an excuse to send in that task force, and naturally we took an interest in any records we happened to come across.’

‘You found something?’

‘Something even better than Hsiu-Chuan,’ interrupted Sanders, picking up the thread. ‘We said earlier that we were watching Maks because we thought he might be selling information to the Tian Di Hui. Well, it looks like maybe he wasn’t the only one. So, in return for making this whole mess disappear, we want you to accept a temporary reassignment to another ASI task force.’

Saul settled back in his seat. ‘Why?’

‘Because someone in that task force is playing the same game. Public Standards can’t infiltrate the task force, because someone there will recognize who we are, and that means we need someone else who they’re much more likely to know and trust.’

Saul regarded them both with undisguised loathing. ‘So you want me to spy on them? And if I refuse?’

Donohue regarded him unpleasantly. ‘Think about how much you have to lose, Saul. The Galileo link will be re-established in just a couple of month’s time. Do you really want to be stuck inside a cell on charges, just when you have the chance to finally find out if your wife and kid are still alive?’

The man was right, of course, but it didn’t make Saul hate him any less.

‘All right,’ Saul slowly forced the words out, ‘what exactly is it you want me to do?’

‘The task force is by a man named Constantin Hanover. You know him?’

‘Of course.’ Saul nodded. ‘He ran the investigation into the collapse of the Copernicus–Galileo gate.’

Donohue’s eyes gleamed in the dim light of the observation room. ‘There’s a lot we can’t tell you, but you need to be aware that you’re on your own if the mole in Hanover’s team figures out you’re looking for him. There’s only so far we can protect you.’

Saul’s eyes drifted back towards the lunar landscape outside. ‘You’re asking me to make a hard choice, whatever the consequences.’

‘There’s something else you should know,’ said Donohue. ‘We found evidence that could link Hsiu-Chuan not only to the Tian Di Hui, but to the people directly responsible for sabotaging the Galileo gate. And if Hsiu-Chuan is involved, then you can bet the Sphere governments are in deep, as well.’

Saul glanced back at him, startled. ‘We can prove that?’

‘Not quite,’ said Donohue. ‘We need to talk to whoever it is on Hanover’s team that’s been dealing with Hsiu-Chuan, in order to make a solid case, but the point is this could be your chance to find out who’s responsible for Galileo. That’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it?’

Saul nodded slowly. ‘What exactly did you find there on the pharm?’

‘A couple of days ago, a shipment came through the Florida Array from off-world, and got hijacked in broad daylight on its way to an airfield,’ said Sanders. ‘The hijackers managed to get so deep inside the Array’s security zone that they could only have done it with the help of someone on the inside. What we found suggests that the whole operation was planned by Hsiu-Chuan’s people, and that means the whole operation was done with Sphere backing.’

‘What kind of shipment?’

‘Does it matter?’ said Sanders. ‘Take a look at these.’

Saul’s contacts flashed him an alert that Sanders had sent him information. He reached out and touched an icon visible only to himself, then watched as the air rippled, a series of half a dozen photographs materializing around him.

‘It doesn’t look like much,’ he said, after studying them for a moment. ‘Just a big metal box with wheels. How did you swing my secondment with Hanover?’

‘One of his task force’s members got killed in the line of duty,’ Sanders replied. ‘A man named Mitchell Stone, to be exact.’

Saul opened and closed his mouth. ‘You’re shitting me. Mitchell?’

‘I know he was a friend of yours,rsquo; said the agent. ‘I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you.’

Saul had a sudden mental flash of the last time he’d seen Mitchell, years before. They’d been in a bar far up north, near Inuvik, close by the Jupiter platform’s CTC gate. They’d both moved on since then – Saul to police work, Mitchell to off-world security – but they had a shared history that bonded them. He remembered Mitchell, sober and drawn, at his brother’s funeral; then, months later, grinning in a field under a brilliant Arizona sun, tugging off his wing-suit and laughing as Saul clung to the soil as if it were a lover.

‘He was killed serving under Hanover?’

Sanders glanced at Donohue, who replied. ‘He was just coming to the end of a long-term secondment to a high-security research programme when he died, so, strictly speaking, no. He was due to rejoin Hanover’s task force in a couple of weeks. His death makes it easy enough to put you in his place as a temporary replacement. Frankly, the timing couldn’t be better. Hanover’s going to be taking his task force out to follow up the hijack, and we’re going to make sure you go with them. We’re betting that if someone on his team was involved in the snatch, they’re going to show themselves.’

‘Show themselves how?’

‘Put yourself in their shoes, what would you do?’

Saul thought about it. ‘Find any evidence of my involvement and do what I could to destroy it.’

Sanders stepped up close to him. ‘Find our mole, then, Saul,’ he said, ‘and there’s a chance we can figure out who’s responsible for losing Galileo.’

SIX

Copernicus Array Security and Immigration Office, Luna, 21 January 2235

Thomas Fowler checked his reflection in the elevator’s mirrored side walls and saw the face of a man who hadn’t enjoyed a decent night’s sleep in weeks. A course of amphetamines from an understanding physician was helping with that, but he’d been warned more than once there was only so much abuse his body could take. But, then again, a solid night’s sleep was out of the question when you happened to know the world was going to end.

The doors slid open to reveal a busy operations room. While he waited for a guard stationed by the elevator to clear his ID, he counted at least a dozen uniformed ASI staff and a smattering of civilian analysts manning workstations. Dr Amanda Boruzov came towards him, weaving her way through staff and between workstations. The director of research for the Founder Project had skin like porcelain, while small folds around her eyes hinted at an Asiatic inheritance worn smooth over several generations. On this occasion, however, her eyes were rimmed with red, her exhaustion also showing in the way she carried herself.

The pro with women who had skin like porcelain, thought Fowler, was that they always looked like they might easily break.

‘Thomas,’ she said, as the guard gave him the all-clear, ‘I must have just beaten you here. I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to make it, at such short notice.’

Fowler stepped forward, once again struck by the unaccustomed buoyancy of his body. No matter how often he made the trip to Copernicus, he never quite adapted to the sudden drop in gravity once he had passed through the Florida Array. The first-aid clinics that served the tens of thousand of people flowing back and forth through the CTC gates worked twenty-four-seven repairing broken bones and fractured skulls. They’d wound up padding the ceilings of the lunar-transit systems, once they realized most people coming through from Earth kept smacking their heads into them.

Their hands touched as they spoke, the touch lingering. If anyone had been paying attention at that moment, they might have guessed at their relationship.

‘I guess we should get started,’ he said.

He followed her across the busy room, passing wall-mounted TriView panels displaying real-time video of the mass-transit systems connecting Copernicus City to the nearby Lunar Array. They arrived at a second bank of elevators, where another guard checked their UPs for clearance, before allowing them passage.

They both relaxed as soon as the elevator doors closed. Amanda stepped in close to him, her hands taking hold of his lapels and tugging him down towards her, so that he had to bend over, in order to kiss. Fowler reached out and touched a button that halted the elevator between floors.

She pulled back and looked up at him. ‘I think it’s long past the time we started making plans, don’t you?’

He lifted her hands away from his jacket and faked his best smile. ‘Yes, I know. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.’

‘And Marcie?’

‘I already told her lawyer that Marcie’s welcome to the house in New England, if she wants it. She can enjoy it while she has the chance.’

He cleared his throat, suddenly business like once more. ‘Listen, there’s something I need to tell you before we go into this meeting. There’s been a major breakdown in security. We’re working to plug it right now, before it has a chance to go public.’

He saw her eyes widen. ‘What happened?’

He started the elevator moving again, and it jerked slightly before continuing on its way. ‘One of your shipments of Founder artefacts has gone AWOL, grabbed off the road well inside the security perimeter, back in Florida,’ he explained, sending a copy of the latest report to her contacts. ‘We’re still trying to figure out how they managed to fly in a VTOL without us even knowing. That means a very high level of technical access to the er,ter systems.’

She nodded, her eyes becoming unfocused for a moment as she received the report. ‘Inez is in charge of local security there,’ she said. ‘Has he got an explanation?’

Fowler cleared his throat. ‘He realizes his neck is on the line over this, but it’s starting to look very much like an inside job, which takes a little of the pressure off him personally. And even if he has been negligent in some way, we’re still going to need him to protect the Arrays as soon as things start to turn bad. Right now we’re following up some possible leads, but it’s going to take time.’

She nodded, and he could see how the weight of what they were doing oppressed her. They would, after all, be abandoning billions to die; a large enough number to be little more than a comfortable abstraction for some, but not perhaps for Amanda.

She shook her head wearily. ‘It just doesn’t get any better, does it?’

Fowler shook his head. ‘I’m afraid not. But we’ve managed to track down most of your remaining civilian staff.’

He watched her throat bob as she swallowed. ‘And the ones you haven’t found yet?’

He smiled grimly. ‘They’ll be taken care of soon enough.’

‘Please tell me that’s all the bad news you have.’

‘It’s not, I’m sorry to say.’

She sighed and nodded. ‘Can it wait until after the meeting? I’m not sure how much I can take right now.’

She glanced at her own reflection in the elevator’s mirrored wall, reaching up to touch one perfectly shaped eyebrow as if it were somehow out of alignment. He was forced to recall how Amanda had herself been deemed too great a potential security risk to be allowed to seek refuge in the colonies, and that knowledge still left him desolate. It was only meant to be a brief affair, following his divorce, and instead he had developed such complicated feelings for her – feelings that had already compromised his own chances of survival, given one single devastating discovery he had yet to share with her.

But, as she had said herself, there would be time for all that later.

The elevator doors slid open with a faint hiss, and Amanda flashed him a quick, tight smile before stepping out.

Every time he kissed her or felt her smooth milky skin moving against his own, a part of him wanted to shout out his confession to her, and that she knew too much for their masters to ever allow her to live.

And yet, whenever he summoned up the courage to tell her the truth, his tongue turned to lead and the words refused to emerge from his throat.

Tonight, he thought, after the meeting. It had to be then.

‘All right, first of all, let me bring you up to date on the current state of affairs,’ Fowler began, leaning back in his chair and regarding the various faces arranged around the table. ‘I’d like you all to make sure your contacts are live.’

The only visible decoration in the room was a framed photograph of the Copernicus CTC Array, taken from the vantage of a nearby ridge. It showed a sprawling complex that extended for kilometres around part of the crater wall.

Dana Paxton represented the Coalition Space Command Authority, while Hendrik Lagerlöf fulfilled the same role for the Board of Extraterrestrial Affairs. The current border situation with Mexical meant that Jimenez couldn’t be present. Coalition Navy Captain Anton Inez was also there, of course, taking time out from organizing the evacuation of essential personnel via the Florida Array.

Across the table from Amanda, and the two field investigators reporting directly to Fowler, were Mahindra Kaur and Marcus Fairhurst, representing the European Office of Security and the Three Republics Intelligence Office respectively. Fowler had met these last two only briefly in his capacity as the ASI’s Director of Operations, but they were also the reason this meeting was taking place.

A map of the local and interstellar wormhole networks appeared, floating above the table. A single wormhole gate connected the Florida and Lunar Arrays to each other, but the latter facility housed many further wormhole links connecting Earth’s moon to a dozen other star systems, some up to a hundred light-years distant. Galileo’s collapsed and soon-to-be-re-established gate was represented simply by a dotted line.

‘Part of the reason we’re here today,’ continued Fowler, ‘is to do with the consequences of the unique physics existing within the wormholes, and you’re going to have to forgive me if I go over some points you may already be very familiar with. Mr Kaur, Mr Fairhurst, this being your first time here, would you say you’re reasonably au fait with wormhole physics?’

‘In the very broadest details,’ Kaur replied.

Fairhurst laughed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘If I’d known there’d be a test, I’d have done some homework.’

Fowler nodded. ‘I’ll try and keep it simple, then. As you know,’ he glanced quickly around the table, ‘the colonies were founded by starships travelling at close to the speed of light, each carrying inside it one end of a wormhole linking it back here to the Moon. However, the way time flows within the wormholes means we can step through to a new star system within months of launching a starship – even though, within our own time-frame back here at home, that starship hasn’t yet arrived at its destination.’

‘I’ll have to admit I’ve never exactly been clear on just how that works,’ said Fairhurst, leaning forward.

‘The ce is in the name we use to describe the wormholes,’ said Amanda. ‘CTC means “closed timelike curve”, right?’

Fairhurst nodded.

‘Well,’ Amanda continued, ‘CTC is just a fancy word for time travel. When we send one end of a wormhole to another star, time on board the ship carrying it moves extremely slowly, relative to the outside universe. But, because of the wormhole link on board, we can walk through the wormhole and on to the deck of that ship any time we like, throughout the journey, since the flow of time within the wormhole remains contiguous with its point of origin.’

She tapped a finger on the table in front of her. ‘It essentially allows you to step decades into the future, since the time-frame on board the starship is such that anyone who remains on board throughout its journey is going to experience a transit time of only a few months. So long as the far end of the wormhole is moving at relativistic speeds, it’s a time machine as well as a shortcut across the universe.’

Fairhurst nodded uncertainly. ‘I never understood why we can’t see the wormholes from the outside. I mean, if they go all that way across space, we should be able to see them, shouldn’t we?’

Fowler barely managed to suppress a grin at the look on Amanda’s face.

‘That’s because the wormholes don’t pass through the intervening space at all,’ she explained patiently. ‘They tunnel through hyperspace instead, outside of the physical constraints of our universe.’

Fairhurst looked none the wiser. ‘Please tell me all of this has something to do with why we’re here.’

Fowler nodded to Inez. ‘If you would, Anton.’

Inez cleared his throat and leaned forward. They’d already decided the bad news was best coming from him.

‘What I’m about to tell you,’ he began, addressing Kaur and Fairhurst in particular, ‘was known to only a very select group until a few days ago. About fifteen years ago, a standard unmanned reconnaissance of the outer Kepler system stumbled across the first evidence of advanced alien intelligence.’

Fowler watched for any signs betraying that either man might know more than he should. Fairhurst simply looked stunned, but Kaur, before reacting, hesitated just a moment too long to be quite convincing.

The CTC network map was replaced by an image of an irregularly shaped lump of rock, the swirling atmosphere of a gas giant visible behind it. The only thing that suggested it was anything other than a typical fragment of stellar detritus was the gleam of burnished metal dotted about its cratered surface.

‘Specifically, we found an abandoned space station,’ Inez continued. ‘Inside was a wormhole gate connecting to a network of thousands of other wormhole gates that may have been in existence for .well, billions of years. The network also appears to extend across what might be billions of light-years. We’ve been exploring it for some time, and we’ve made some interesting discoveries.’

Understatement of the century, reckoned Fowler.

‘We’ve had research and exploration teams investigating the network ever since,’ continued Inez. ‘We call the hypothetical aliens who built the network “Founders”, for want of a better name. We don’t know what they looked like, where they came from, or whether they even constituted a single species or more than one. If they left any written records – or records of any kind – we haven’t found them yet. All we have are the wormhole gates they left behind and a few recovered artefacts.’

Fairhurst uttered a strangled sound, glancing between Inez and Fowler. ‘Captain Inez,’ he finally managed to say, ‘with all due respect, assuming any of this is true – and I’m not convinced you aren’t pulling my leg – I’m struggling to understand why something like this wasn’t already known to me.’

Inez started to reply, but Fowler cut in, instead.

‘Marcus, we both report to the same people, but not to each other. We’ve managed to keep a very tight lid on this for a long time, and we did it by not sharing information unless it was absolutely necessary. It’s not like there haven’t been rumours for years.’

Fairhurst pursed his lips, clearly unsatisfied. ‘Crackpot rumours, you mean. Are you suggesting that, with our involvement, this information would have been less secure?’ he demanded, his tone noticeably sharp.

‘That decision wasn’t made lightly,’ Fowler replied, ‘nor was it made in isolation. It was deemed strictly need-to-know, all the way to the top.’

‘You mentioned artefacts,’ said Kaur. ‘Are these samples of alien technology?’

‘Yes,’ said Inez. ‘In fact, based on our analyses of some artefacts, we managed to develop a form of faster-than-light quantum-communications device.’

‘I’m not sure I quite understand,’ said Kaur.

Inez spread his hands. ‘Communications instantaneously, without limitations – even across light-years.’

‘So you’ve tested this technology,’ Kaur asked.

‘We did.’ Inez nodded. ‘In fact, we attempted to contact our future selves.’

‘Excuse me?’ said Fairhurst, his expression transforming into outright incredulity.

Fowler realized he had been right to pick Inez for the job. He had an air of authority that made it hard for others to challengeeven the most lunatic-sounding ideas, when they came from him.

‘Specifically,’ Inez continued, his face set like granite, ‘we transported a prototype quantum transceiver to Ptolemy, fifty-five light-years from here. The intention was to communicate with identical transceivers located both here on Luna and on Earth.’

He spread his hands, then clasped them again. ‘Keep in mind that time dilation means Ptolemy, as accessed through the CTC gates, is about sixty years in our future. So when that message was sent from Ptolemy to here, without passing through the gate, it arrived – or, rather, it will arrive – sixty years from now. That means any reply from back here can’t be sent until then.’

‘And?’ asked Kaur, his skin taking on a grey tinge.

‘The only reply we got from our future selves was a montage of video fragments,’ Inez explained. ‘What it showed made us very worried indeed. Once you’ve seen it, it’ll be clear why we need your help.’

Fairhurst made a sound of disgust and leaned back, arms folded, but Inez continued unfazed. ‘Based solely on these video fragments, we made the decision to send a starship carrying a secret wormhole gate back to Earth, from a star system much closer to our own, in order to try and understand what happened.’

‘And this gate arrived back here . . . when?’ asked Kaur.

‘A little over a decade in our future.’ Inez brought up a new set of images that segued from one to the other every few seconds. ‘Before we get to that, you’d better take a look at the video sequence.’

The image of the mottled grey rock changed abruptly to a view from the deck of a ship somewhere on Earth, sailing close to the base of a clearly alien structure rising out of the deep ocean. It looked, at first glance, like some abstract sculpture of a flower rendered in sheet metal and plastic, and painted in gold and silver. Compensation software, built into the contacts of whoever had recorded the footage, reduced natural eyeball jitter.

They watched as the view panned first across and then upwards, thus giving a sense of the staggering scale of the thing. Clouds drifted around its uppermost petals. The view suddenly blurred as whoever was recording it shifted himself to cope with the ship’s rolling motion.

Fowler found his attention drawn to clouds of dark steam shrouding the structure at the point where it rose out of the waters. From what his analysts had been able to tell him, its apparent rate of growth was so great that it might have attained this enormous size within days. There was even reason to believe it had spread roots deep into the Earth’s crust, which might account for the overwhelmingly violent seismic activity that would shortly be contributing to the near-extinction of the human race.

‘There’s nothing like that thing in the oceans anywhere on Earth,’ said Fairhurst, his voice rising.

‘Not yet, no,’ Fowler agreed. ‘Here’s more, recorded by our own sci-eval teams, after they’d passed through the CTC gate leading back to our near future.’

Images now appeared of the airless ruins of Copernicus City, and these were followed by high-definition orbital images of the Earth’s scarred and lifeless surface. Photographs, taken under high magnification from orbit, showed dozens more flower-like structures pushing through the cloud cover over land and sea. Much of the land was wreathed in smoke like ash, and what little remained visible had clearly been scorched empty of life. All in all, it looked like a vision of hell.

‘I still don’t understand,’ said Fairhurst, squinting as if in pain. ‘You’re saying this has already happened?’

‘Is going to happen,’ Inez corrected. The images continued to cycle through, like the holiday snapshots of a dark and vengeful god.

Inez sat back then, and Fowler picked up where he’d left off. ‘Once we’d established the wormhole link back to our own near future, we found no signs of life anywhere on Luna or Earth. Whoever uploaded that montage to the transceivers did it as a warning.’

‘But . . . what could possibly have caused this?’ Fairhurst blurted.

‘To be frank,’ Fowler replied, ‘we have no idea. It seems obvious the growths and the devastation are linked, although we can’t say for certain one caused the other. But it does seem likely.’

‘But how?’ Fairhurst demanded. ‘Was it a meteor, something like that?’

Fowler shook his head. ‘There’s no impact crater, so no. There’s no trace of radioactivity in the near-future atmosphere that might suggest some kind of nuclear bombardment; nothing but the growths, and a lot of ash. Apart from those few slivers of information, we’re as much in the dark as you are. All we know is that the end is coming, far, far sooner than anyone realizes.’

Kaur stared at him, his face pale. ‘So just how long do we have?’ he finally managed to ask.

‘Less than three weeks, possibly only two. Ever since we made these discoveries, we’ve been working on an emergency evacuation programme for essential personnel. If you can help us with certain matters, I can guarantee safe passage for yourselves and your immediate families, at the very least.’

‘I know this is hard for you to take in,’ Dana Paxton spoke up for the first time, ‘but I’ve been through the CTC gate to our future, myself. So has Mr Lagerlöf. There were hundreds of these flower-like growths scattered all across the globe. We dropped a number of winged drones into the atmosphere from orbit, but they always slipped out of contact after just a few minutes.’

‘So whatever did this,’ mumbled Kaur, ‘whatever force brought this about, it’s still down there?’

‘That’s the only reasonable assumption,’ Paxton agreed. ‘We had some of the same problems when it came to exploring the near-future Moon, but we were at least able to investigate the remains of Copernicus City with remote probes. Given the circumstances, you can understand how we were ready to shut down the gate leading back to Tau Ceti the instant we came under attack. Luckily, we never had to. But if you do decide you want to see all this for yourselves first-hand, I’ll be responsible for your safety.’

‘We’re facing an extinction event,’ added Fowler, ‘and if it wasn’t for the existence of the interstellar colonies, the human race would be finished. We can save some of the people back home, and here on the Moon, but not all. Our responsibility from here on is to make sure the colonies survive.’

‘Three weeks?’ echoed Fairhurst, sounding like he was having trouble getting the words out.

Kaur’s skin had taken on a waxen quality. ‘And we’ll be allowed to bring our families through the Array – if we help you in some way?’

Fowler nodded.

‘Surely there must be some way to prevent this,’ Fairhurst protested.

‘Possibly,’ Fowler replied. ‘Or, at least, it would be monstrous of us not to try. Which brings me to my next point: we need your help in locating a missing shipment.’

Fowler held the whisky at the back of his mouth, rolling it around his tongue before finally swallowing it down. Amanda had collapsed into the chair opposite, settling slowly into the cushions under the lunar gravity. Behind her, a window of Fowler’s apartment looked towards the tall peaks rising at the centre of the Copernicus Crater. Much of the city was buried deep beneath the regolith, but a significant number of buildings, whose financiers could afford the extra shielding, rose to a considerable height.

‘I spoke with Anderson at the Coalition Security Council,’ he said, staring out the window. ‘You’ll be thrilled to know he still thinks we can pull a rabbit out of a hat and save the day.’

‘He really thinks we can change what’s already happened?’

He finally glanced over at her. ‘Can you blame him? Look at Fairhurst – he’s probably already convinced himself our meeting never even happened, and both of them are cut from the same cloth.’ He studied the glass in his hand. ‘Even so, the heads of all three Republics have agreed to making some kind of joint public announcement.’

‘When?’

Fowler shrugged. ‘That’s the question, isn’t it? My guess is they’ll wait until it’s obvious to everyone else that something terrible is happening.’ He thought of some of the atmospheric phenomena recorded by the probes studying the devastated future Earth: bright twists of light that some interpreted as distortions of space and time, and others considered as evidence of some non-material intelligence.

He noticed her shiver. ‘Maybe there’s a chance it isn’t too late,’ she said. ‘Maybe we can still stop this from ever happening. Maybe that’s why someone left us that warning, because they knew there was still a way.’

‘How?’ Fowler shook his head. ‘By going back into the past and changing things? Can’t be done. Remember your Novikov.’

‘Yes, I know.’ She sounded irritated. ‘If an event can bring about a paradox—’

‘Then the probability of that event taking place is zero,’ he finished for her. ‘Or were you thinking about alternate timelines? They’re a fiction, and there’s nothing we can do to change the inevitable.’

He quickly drained the last of his whisky; no telling when he’d next get the opportunity for another. To his irritation, the glow of the alcohol failed to chase away the clamminess of his skin.

‘Now for some of that news I’ve been saving,’ he said. ‘We’ve identified your survivor – the one your people brought back from the near future.’

She gripped her glass in both hands, the knuckles turning pale. ‘And?’

‘His name is Mitchell Stone. He used to be under Hanover’s command.’

They’d found him preserved inside an experimental cryogenics unit on Luna, ten years in the future. He’d been the only living thing left alive, and there were many, many questions they wanted to ask him.

‘But he’s—’

‘The same Mitchell Stone who suffered what should have been a fatal accident at Site 17 just a few weeks ago,’ he agreed. ‘And now,’ he arched an eyebrow, ‘thanks to the vagaries of time travel, we have two Mitchell Stones in existence at once, both recovering from separate incidents.’

‘Oh, for . . .’ Amanda put her glass down on a small side table next to her chair, and covered her face with two carefully manicured hands before letting them slide down to cover only her mouth and nose. She peered over her fingertips to regard him with a mixture of horror and awe. ‘The one you brought back here from the near future? The one who was frozen? Is he awake yet?’

‘Yes, and has been awake for a couple of days now. It was touch and go for a while, when it came to reviving him, but we’ve already begun an interrogation. Hopefully he can tell us something about just what it is we’re dealing with now.’

‘And the other one? The one who got swallowed up in that pit?’

‘Still under heavy sedation. Obviously it’s the near-future Mitchell we really need answers from. He must have witnessed everything that’s going to happen.’

He gave her a moment to try and absorb everything he’d told her.

‘Listen,’ she said after a moment. ‘About . . . us.’

He raised both eyebrows.

‘I know we’ve been avoiding discussing any plans about the future,’ she said. ‘It’s not like there was ever a right time to talk about it. I wasn’t sure until now, but . . . I’m not going off to the colonies with the rest of you.’ She cleared her throat. ‘I’m staying here.’

He stared at her wordlessly for a moment, before he could summon a response. ‘I don’t understand.’

She took a deep breath, her shoulders rising and then falling. ‘I don’t know if I want to survive what’s coming, knowing I had a part to play in all . . . all of this.’

In the end of the world, he guessed she meant to say, but couldn’t bring herself to speak the words.

‘You’re serious?’

‘Think of it like the captain going down with the sinking ship after she’s steered it straight into an iceberg, Thomas. I should have listened more to my staff when they warned me not to let those artefacts be brought to Earth until we knew exactly what we were dealing with.’

‘We don’t know that the artefacts are responsible. And you can’t blame yourself for—’

‘Then who do I blame?’ she snapped.

He cleared his throat. ‘There’s no point worrying about what can’t be undone.’

‘If we do follow the rest of them to the colonies, we’ll be cut off from everything we’ve ever known. All of it . . . gone.’ She shuddered. ‘I’d say I can’t even imagine it, but I don’t need to. I’ve seen it.’

She stood up then, smoothing her skirt down over her thighs, her movements slow and fluid in the lower gravity. He had a sudden flash of memory from several nights back, of her laughing and then sighing as he kissed her thighs, pulling himself up and on top of her.

‘Wait,’ he said. ‘Don’t . . .’

She walked over to the door. ‘Don’t even bother trying to convince me, Thomas. I want to see how it ends.’

‘There’s something you need to know,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘About the video message – the warning. You haven’t seen all of it.’

She frowned and let go of the door handle. ‘I haven’t?’

‘I had part of it redacted.’

She regarded him uncertainly. ‘What’s in the bits you took out?’

He got up to fetch himself another drink. He was going to need it to get through this.

‘You are,’ he replied.

SEVEN

Flathead Lake, Montana, 25 January 2235

It took Jeff Cairns nearly six hours to navigate the hire car to his cabin in the Rockies. Early spring rains, bringing the last of the meltwater down from the peaks, had flooded out a bridge and also wiped out a section of road, meaning long detours and one eye kept constantly on the weather feed, throughout his long drive north from Missoula.

As soon as he had left the city limits and the hopper port behind, Jeff took manual control, ignoring the dashboard’s warning that his insurance was void if he didn’t stick to automatic so long as the weather bureau warned of adverse conditions. He took pleasure in the feel of the steering wheel under his hands, despite the periodic squalls of rain that lashed at his windscreen, but after a while the rain faded to a light drizzle and the car altered its configuration, becoming lower and more aerodynamic, and even changing colour according to some pre-programmed algorithm. After a couple of hours, a break in the clouds suddenly appeared, and Jeff soon found himself driving through sunlight of such glorious intensity that it seemed to bore through his eyes to touch against the back of his skull.

He took the off-ramp when the car instructed him to, the roads thereafter becoming gradually steeper, higher and narrower, until finally he followed a series of switchbacks, up the side of a hill above Flathead Lake, to a gravelled driveway fronting a gable-roofed log house.

Jeff climbed out and walked around, stretching his legs after such a long drive, while his car sidled over to the grassy slope, there sucking up leaves and twigs and any other available biomass. He tucked his hands into the pockets of his down jacket, and gazed down the slope of the wooded hill to where the waters of the lake shimmered gold and silver. The evening was drawing in as the sun dipped down towards the peaks on the far side of the lake, the last of the rain clouds evaporating even as their fading shadows drifted across hills dense with larch and aspen.

When he felt ready, he walked around to the rear of the cabin and checked the mini-tokamak that supplied it with power. He next headed over to a tool shed standing below some trees that grew up the slope behind the cabin, where he stepped inside and cleared away a tarpaulin laid across the floor. Beneath was a metal doorspe a combination lock. He rotated it in different directions a couple of times until the lid clicked open, then withdrew a foil blister-pack from inside his jacket and placed it inside the safe, before locking it once more.

As he returned to the car to collect his luggage, Jeff accessed his UP and saw there were new messages waiting for him, all left by Olivia. He left them unopened, afraid that, if he did read them, he might make the mistake of calling her back and telling her all the things he’d struggled to keep hidden from her.

He woke with a start not long after dawn. He had been dreaming of Site 17, of walking through the abyssal dark with lights strung along on either side. Farad had been standing in front of him, his face full of alarm, shouting at him silently through his visor.

Jeff got up, his body stiff and sore, and ate a sparse breakfast before driving the rental downhill to where a trail met the road close by the lake. He still retained vivid memories of hiking along this same trail in what now felt like another lifetime. He’d been working on his graduate thesis the first time he’d come here and, although he’d hiked across other parks and trails in the years since, Flathead Lake still held a special place in his heart. The girl he’d brought with him all those years ago was long gone, but he’d come back almost every year since. The bonuses he and Olivia had received for their work on the Jupiter platform had gone towards the down-payment on the cabin, and they had spent several summers there together, before things had soured.

Later hiking trips, whether with other people or on his own, had taught him that particularly intractable problems – whether related to his work in the University of California’s exobiology department or to his intermittent love life – could often be best solved during his traversing of the trails scattered around the lake. On such occasions, the mountains and sky became a great blank canvas for his thoughts, a cosmic whiteboard that left him feeling he understood the way the world worked just a little bit better than before.

But this time was different. This time he didn’t want to think at all. He wanted to become lost in the scent of budding wildflowers, the sight of whitetail deer or the occasional elk picking their way down forest slopes, or amidst the meltwater cascading down those same slopes in the first weeks of spring.

He pushed himself hard for the first half-dozen kilometres, sweating beneath his down jacket, despite the freezing temperatures, his feet chafing painfully inside stiff new hiking boots. And, for a while, it worked; but the first time he stopped to eat a granola bar and take in the view, looking out across a world he could almost imagine was devoid of people, all he could really see was a great pyramidal mass under a starless sky, squatting on an airless plain in a future he would have found unimaginable if he hadn’t already visited it.

He felt, to his bitter annoyance, lonely. So when an unexpected visitor appeared as if out of nowhere, a few days later, he felt pathetically grateful even while he knew the only reason they could possibly be here was to bring him very bad news.

Jeff squinted into the brilliant morning light, beyond the porch, to see the lean figure of Dan Rush, his long, sallow features and weather-beaten skin somehow more appropriate to an ageing cowboy than a materials analyst.

‘Dan?’ Jeff peered at him groggily, his dressing gown clutched around his shoulders, as he’d slept well past midday. ‘What the fuck are you doing out here?’

Dan rocked from foot to foot on the narrow porch, looking at him expectantly, dressed only in a light sports jacket more suited to visiting a bar than the great outdoors. A second hire car was parked near Jeff’s own, where it shuffled closer to the verge and began tearing up the same patch of grass, sucking the biomass deep into its guts prior to converting it to ethanol.

Jeff glanced down and saw that Dan was wearing dress shoes, even less appropriate to the Rockies, at the tail end of winter.

‘Will you just let me in?’ Dan demanded, shoving his hands into his pockets and shivering. ‘It’s cold as hell out here.’

Jeff pressed the fingers of one hand into the corners of his eyes before stepping to one side, waving for Dan to come in.

Dan headed straight for the fire that Jeff had left smouldering overnight in the hearth. He leaned over it with his collar pulled up, still shivering, rubbing his hands vigorously before the naked heat. He glanced briefly at the dozen beer bottles piled up on a table next to the couch, but elected to say nothing.

‘I’ve got coffee on the go,’ Jeff mumbled, head still throbbing from his night of drinking and channel-surfing. ‘You want some?’

Dan glanced at him and nodded, before returning his attention to the hearth.

Jeff checked the filter had finished dripping the last of the Arabica into a pot, and nuked a packet of frozen waffles while he was at it. Given the long drive to the cabin, he guessed Dan probably hadn’t eaten any breakfast. He then grabbed a couple of mugs and put them on a tray, along with the coffee and waffles. By the time he returned to the living room, Dan had pulled a chair up next to the hearth, and sat there staring contemplatively into the flames.

They ate in silence at first, Jeff watching Dan plough his way through most of the waffles. He seemed twitchy as a bird, tension visible in the set of his jaw and the way he kept massaging his hands in the rare moments they weren’t holding either food or coffee.

‘How did you find me out here?’ Jeff finally asked. ‘I don’t remember telling anyone where I’d be.’

‘We did agree to stay in touch, right?’ said Dan.

‘Yes, but that’s not the same as telling each other where we’d be. Why didn’t you just get in touch the way we agreed, rather than actually hauling your ass all the way out here?’

‘Your ex-wife in Vermont told me where to find you,’ Dan replied. ‘She told me she thought you’d been acting strangely and that, if you’d gone anywhere at all, it was probably here.’

Jeff groaned and leaned back, closing his eyes for a moment. ‘How did you find her?’

‘I met her one time when she came down to Orlando to meet you, remember?’ Dan replied. ‘Right after you got back together with her, and you’d already mentioned she lived in Jacksonville. There’s only one Olivia Jury there. I told her I badly needed to get hold of you.’ He looked around the room. ‘So why did you decide to come all the way out here?’

‘I’ve been hiding in case someone figured out we’d hacked the Tau Ceti databases. I got tired of sleeping in motels and thought I might as well hole up here as anywhere else, at least until I heard from Farad.’

‘And you didn’t bring Olivia with you?’

‘I thought I’d be putting her in danger if I did.’

‘You haven’t told her anything?’

‘No.’ Jeff shook his head. ‘You still haven’t told me why you’re here.’

Dan chewed his food for several long seconds, as he gazed into the flames. ‘I came to tell you Lucy’s dead.’

Jeff stared at him, his hangover suddenly forgotten. He remembered the sight of her crouching by the pit next to Dan, in the moments before they found Mitchell.

‘Police found her in her car in a motel parking lot.’ Dan finally looked back up. ‘She’d been on her way to Miami.’ He took a sip of his coffee and finally met Jeff’s eye. ‘Officially it was a heart attack, but she’d called me the day before and told me she was certain she was being followed. She wanted to know if I’d noticed anything like that myself.’

‘That’s . . . that’s dreadful.’

‘Terrible,’ Dan agreed. ‘And particularly worrying since Lou Winston also appears to have vanished. First thing I did after hearing about Lucy was try to get hold of him. Turns out he has a place on one of those floating platforms just offshore from New Orleans, but his family reported him missing more than a day ago.’

Jeff felt like a cavity had been hollowed out inside his chest. ‘They know about the files, right? And now they’re coming after us.’

Dan shook his head, his expression bleak. ‘Don’t be so certain that’s the reason. I tried to get hold of people from the other sci-eval teams, people who’re supposed to be back home by now, and nobody knows where they are. My guess is Hanover or somebody higher up the food chain – Fowler, maybe, or Borusov – figured the civilian staff were too much of a security risk to be allowed to live.’

Jeff gaped at him. ‘You don’t seriously think they’re all dead?’

Dan shrugged. ‘As far as I’m concerned, we’re all that’s left of the sci-eval teams. If we’re lucky, they don’t even know about the files, but either way they’re still going to come looking for both of us.’

‘How can you be so sure?’

Dan took a sip of his coffee before replying. ‘Where I live in Orlando is right across the street from a hotel. After I heard about Lou, I hired a room there with a good view of the inside of my own apartment. I wasn’t there more than a couple of hours before I saw someone sneaking around inside my place. I grabbed my rucksack and left town as fast as I could.’

‘Maybe we should talk to the police.’

‘What could we tell them? The only thing that connects us to each other is our work on the Founder Network, and officially that doesn’t even exist. They’d have laughed us out of the station as soon as we started saying anything about Founders or ancient alien artefacts.’

Jeff nodded, feeling his heart sink. Everyone on the sci-eval teams based out at Tau Ceti knew that the catastrophe that would wipe out life on Earth was due some time during the next thirty years. They had lodged protests regarding the restriction on their access to the data recovered from the near-future, and it hadn’t helped that the time-stamps had been carefully removed from the few images and scraps of information they were granted access to. Something was being deliberately kept from them and, being scientists, it was only a matter of time before one of them took matters into their own hands.

Stealing a copy of the entire database had been Farad’s idea, and he’d first approached Lucy, since she was the one with the in-depth knowledge of the Tau Ceti station’s security protocols. With her help, and with Jeff and Dan’s more than willing support, they had found a way to hack into the station’s networks and copy the unaltered records recovered from the near future. Unfortunately, the files they had recovered proved to be protected by a particularly impenetrable form of encryption, one that Farad had assured them would take time and considerable skill to break.

The four of them had agreed to return to their respective homes at roughly the same time, Farad volunteering to try and find some way to reverse-engineer the protected files in the meantime. And then, once they had acquired the proof they needed, they would go public.

A sick chill wrapped itself around Jeff’s bones as he poured himself another coffee. He noticed his hands were shaking. ‘Then I guess we’re lucky we managed to stay alive this long.’

Dan shot him an exasperated look and pointed at the cabin’s wall-screen. ‘Don’t count your chickens just yet. Haven’t you seen the news?’

‘I didn’t come here to watch the news. The whole point of a place like this is to avothe outside world.’

‘Right.’ Dan stood and gestured towards the screen. It came to life and he quickly navigated to one of the main news-feeds, in which Jeff saw an aerial view of the ocean. The water was foaming for kilometres around, while a headline caption suggested they might be witnessing an undersea volcano. An inlaid satellite image revealed that the disturbance was taking place a few hundred kilometres north of the Mariana Islands, nearly halfway around the world.

‘It’s already started,’ said Jeff, that sick feeling getting worse.

‘I figure we’ve got no more than a couple of weeks before it’s all over,’ said Dan. ‘You’ve seen the way the ASI and military have been building up reinforcements all around the Florida Array. Training exercise, my ass. They’re trying to tell us the increased security is because of some hijack, but I figure our glorious leaders are going to evacuate themselves to the colonies before things turn really nasty. The last thing they need is us finding proof that they were the ones responsible for all this before they have a chance to make their getaway.’

Jeff swallowed. ‘I guess it’s too late to talk to the press.’

Dan nodded. ‘Even if we did, we’d only be making ourselves easy targets. And we’d have no way of proving what we know – not unless we can find some way inside those encrypted files. You still have your copy of them, right?’

Jeff gave an involuntary glance towards the rear of the cabin. ‘It’s somewhere safe.’

‘Uh-huh. I hope so.’

Jeff rotated his coffee mug between both hands. ‘You really think they’re going to try and take over the colonies by force?’

‘What else are they going to do? Ask them for refugee status?’ Dan barked. ‘Fat chance of that. They’re going to want to run things themselves, and their job’ll be that much easier if they can find a way to convince the people out there they had nothing to do with the end of life on Earth.’ Dan stabbed at his chest with a finger. ‘But we’re the ones who can tell them all what really happened. We’re witnesses to the greatest crime in history. So we’ll make our own escape, and stop these bastards in their tracks.’

‘Escape where?’

‘To the colonies.’

Jeff sighed and put his mug down. ‘You’re not thinking logically. How could you possibly get inside the Array, and past the ASI’s own cops if they’re out looking for us?’

‘I know people in the Florida Array, and up at Copernicus,’ said Dan, his expression fervent. ‘People I trust. They can help us get through safely.’ His hands tightened into fists, his expression intent. Jeff was reminded of a deer standing poised in the long savannah grass, ready to take flight at the first sign of danger.

‘You didn’t say whether anything’s happened to Farad. The files are useless unless he managed to find some way to crack them.’

Dan shook his head. ‘I tried getting hold of him, but he seems to be completely offline. Even if he’s okay, I couldn’t begin to tell you for sure where he is.’

Jeff wondered if that didn’t make him the most sensible out of all of them. ‘He’s on Newton, visiting family – or that’s his cover story, anyway. What if we can’t warn him before the ASI locate him?’

Dan regarded him bleakly. ‘Then we’re screwed, unless we can find a way to hack the database files ourselves. That’s not to mention the risk we’d be taking if we actively went looking for him. We could wind up making it easier for them to catch us, as well as him.’

‘There must be someone else we could send the files to, who could help us?’

Dan sighed and shook his head. ‘Remember, the files are stored in an intelligent format.’

‘Lucy mentioned something about that, but I didn’t quite follow it all.’

‘It’s a compression technology that automatically transmits an alert back to its point of origin whenever it’s sent through any kind of network. And if it doesn’t have explicit permission to be transferred on that network, it tells the ASI exactly where it’s been and where it’s headed, making it even easier to track us down. And assuming we just went ahead and forwarded the information to a news agency or anyone else, there’s a chance the whole package might erase itself if they didn’t use the correct decryption method. That’s why we’re keeping our copies strictly offline.’

Jeff nodded, embarrassed now that he hadn’t paid more attention at the time.

Dan’s expression grew more contemplative. ‘But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t maybe still find a way to break that encryption, if there was someone we know much closer to hand, someone we could trust. I was thinking about Olivia, as a matter of fact. She’s a network-security consultant, isn’t she? Would she be able to do it?’

Jeff felt himself stiffen. ‘I don’t want Olivia involved in any of this.’

‘We’re all involved in this,’ said Dan. ‘Everyone on the whole goddamn planet is involved. Or would you rather just wait a couple of days and let her figure out what’s going on along with the rest of the human race?’

Jeff felt a sudden, desperate need to be with her. ‘It’s not that simple. We were supposed to spend time together after I got home. Instead I barely stopped by long enough to tell her I was going to disappear for a while, but I couldn’t tell her the reason why. I mean, the less she s, the better, right?’ He had tried to assure Olivia that he would explain everything once the time was right, but even as he’d spoken the words, the look on her face had told him how very inadequate they were. ‘Maybe we could just wait and see if Farad tries to get in touch before—’

‘No.’ Dan shook his head firmly. ‘The longer we wait, the more chance that whoever caught up with Lucy and Lou will find us as well.’ He gazed pointedly at Jeff. ‘I had an easy enough time finding you, so how hard do you think the ASI would find it?’

Jeff stared at him, mute with shock.

‘Exactly.’ Dan nodded, half to himself. ‘Your UP can be traced with a court order. Every time you buy something, or rent a car or anything else, your contacts know where you are and when you were there. Same goes for me. All the ASI have to do is prove sufficient cause.’

Jeff swallowed. ‘We could get ourselves new contacts.’

Dan shook his head, ‘Purchasing them legally leaves us right back where we started. No, we need black-market contacts preloaded with fake UPs, the whole works.’

‘I have no idea where to get hold of something like that.’

‘I do, though,’ Dan replied, picking up his rucksack and dropping it on a table standing near the couch. He dug out a slim black rod and then a smaller, metal oblong the size and shape of a credit chip, dumping them next to each other on the table.

He picked up the black rod. ‘I used this to fry every locator node in my hire car and clothing. You’ll need to swipe it down over all your own clothes, as well.’ He put the rod down and picked up the metal oblong. ‘This is what car-jacking crews use to override a vehicle’s locking system.’

‘Where did you get hold of this stuff?’

‘I didn’t,’ Dan said simply. ‘I built it myself. There’s hardly an electronic lock or locator in the world that can stand up to even crude hacks like this one.’

Jeff glanced towards the door. ‘So your car . . . ?’

‘Is stolen,’ Dan confirmed. ‘I also made some enquiries on the way here and found out about a guy in Missoula who can get us untraceable UPs. Nobody will know who we are.’

‘Why not just use unregistered UPs? They’re good enough in an emergency.’

‘But they won’t help us get through Array security, will they? We need complete false identities for that.’

‘Okay.’ Jeff nodded. ‘Do you want me to come to Missoula with you?’

Dan squinted at him. ‘Do people around here know you?’

‘Some of them, yes.’

‘Did you go into town on your way here?’

‘Nope.’

Dan thought for a moment. ‘I need to head down to Lakeside just now, and try and find another car. I can ditch the one I brought while I’m at it, but I think it’s best I do that on my own.’

‘Why?’

‘Nobody there knows who I am, whereas you need to stay out of sight in case someone’s been making enquiries about you. It shouldn’t take me more than a half day, at the most, to track this guy down. If it takes longer, I can sleep in the back of the car and be back here by tomorrow morning. What supplies do you have?’

‘You mean like food, that kind of thing?’ Jeff glanced at the beer bottles piled on the table. ‘That was pretty much it. I meant to pick more supplies up today.’

Dan sighed. ‘Okay, if I’ve got enough time, I’ll grab us something for the trip, but I’d rather not use any rest stops on the way if I can avoid it. You get yourself ready and I’ll be back as soon as I can. Sound like a plan?’

‘Sounds like a plan,’ Jeff agreed. ‘Assuming I still believe we even had this conversation after I have some more coffee.’

Dan nodded towards the wand-like device. ‘Remember to use that on all your clothes as well as your car,’ he advised. ‘Just hold down the button, swipe it over your stuff, and the readout’ll warn you if you missed anything.’

‘And the car-jacker?’

‘Just press it against any car’s ID panel, and you’ll be in after a couple of seconds.’

‘That’s it?’

Dan grinned. ‘I know. Scandalous, isn’t it?’

He walked over to the door, hesitating as he put his hand on the handle. ‘We’re not to blame for all of this, Jeff. We even warned the ones who are. I really don’t know how much more we could have done.’

‘I wish I could feel that sure.’

Dan pulled the door open, letting in a blast of freezing mountain air. ‘I’ll be back as soon as I can.’

‘Okay.’ Jeff pulled his crumpled bathrobe closer around him. ‘If anything happens, should I call you?’

‘If anything happens, it’ll probably be too late.’

‘Right.’ Jeff felt far from reassured. ‘Okay. I’ll be waiting for you.’

EIGHT

Secure Military Facility (location unknown), 28 January 2235

Mitchell Stone awoke to pale-green light filtering through a barred window, high up, the shadows of branches flickering against the wall opposite. He stared up at a ceiling painted yellow, faint lines scarring the plaster, before smoothing both hands across his face and close-cropped scalp. The air smelled of detergent.

The memories slowly trickled back. He remembered being revived in a lunar cryogenics facility, then being transported to a ship carrying a wormhole gate that led back to a time when grey ashen clouds hadn’t yet swept the world clean.

He tested his fingers, wiggling them slightly before raising one arm and bringing it close to his face. He studied the delicate whorls of his fingertips as if he had never seen them before, more memories slowly dripping back into his conscious mind like sticky molasses. With every day that passed, they came back to him a little more quickly – an inevitable side effect, Albright had assured him, of the cryogenics revival process.

Mitchell sat up on the thin mattress, clad only in disposable medical blues, and swung his arm from side to side, slowly at first, then with increasing rapidity, until it moved in a blur of speed. He finally stopped and pressed it close to his chest, gasping at the sudden pain lancing through his muscles.

He looked over at the far wall of his cell, four metres away. He imagined himself there, and—

—he was there, his face pressed to the opposite wall, pinpricks of sweat standing out on his forehead. He groaned as cramp took hold of both his legs, pinpricks of fire spreading simultaneously through his chest and belly. He let himself slide down the wall to rest on his haunches, once more waiting for the pain to diminish. But, with every day that passed, the agony was just that little bit less.

After that, he stood up again, on unsteady legs, and stepped over to the wall immediately beneath the window.

The barred window was tiny, much too small to even contemplate squeezing through. It had also been placed far enough above head height to make it almost impossible to see more than a thin sliver of sky. Mitchell jumped up, and managed to grab hold of two bars, before pulling himself up with a grunt.

On his first day here, he’d been as weak as a fish flopping on a fisherman’s deck, but now his upper-body strength was coming back to him fast. He caught a glimpse of sycamores planted in a line beyond the window, and an airstrip further off. Low one- and two-storey buildings with whitewashed exteriors stood beyond it. He dropped back down, entranced by that vision of blue skies and flourishing grass. Just then, he heard the sound of footsteps approaching his cell door.

The guards were coming for him yet again.

‘All right, interview five,’ began Albright, tapping at the desk between them.

Mitchell guessed his interrogator was in his mid-forties, with hair greying at the temples. He wore the uniform of the Second Republic’s military.

‘Subject is Mitchell Stone. All right, Mitchell,’ said Albright, looking back up. ‘Let’s start from the beginning again. Tell me how you wound up in that cryogenics lab.’

Mitchell shifted in the folding metal chair, to which he was handcuffed on either side, and glanced up at the bouquet of omnidirectional lenses mounted in the ceiling directly overhead. ‘You’ve asked me that same question every single day since I woke up,’ he said, dropping his gaze again. ‘And every single day I give you exactly the same answer.’

Albright’s expression remained stony. ‘Things are going to be a little different this time, Mitchell, so just humour me.’

‘I was trying to reach the colonies,’ Mitchell replied, spreading his hands as far as the handcuffs would allow. ‘By that time the growths were spreading fast back on Earth. I couldn’t get to any of the colony gates in all the panic, so I figured I had at least an outside chance of staying alive in the cryo lab.’ He lowered his hands again. ‘And that’s where you found me, ten years later.’

Albright glanced down and scratched a note into the reflective surface of his desk with a plastic stylus.

Books lined a plywood bookcase set against one wall, next to which stood a hospital gurney equipped with leather restraints and a small medical-supplies cabinet. A window beyond the desk offered a better view of what was undoubtedly one of Array Security and Immigration’s regional admin centres, and Mitchell gazed past Albright’s shoulder and out at the sunlit landscape with longing.

‘Why were you trying to reach the colonies?’ asked Albright.

Mitchell sighed. ‘I didn’t want to die, any more than anyone else did.’

Albright frowned. ‘Are you sure that’s the only reason?’

Mitchell shrugged. ‘I can’t think of any other.’

Albright touched the desk once more, and Mitchell saw icons blink and shift across its surface. Contacts would have made his life much easier, but clearly they weren’t going to trust him with anything like that.

A small TriView screen came to life on the wall behind Albright’s desk. It showed a still image of a man lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by a tangle of machinery and tubes. A figure dressed in a protective suit, face hidden behind a visor, stood by his bedside, taking notes.

This, thought Mitchell, was something new.

‘Do you recognize the man in the bed?’ asked Albright.

Mitchell found he couldn’t drag his eyes away from the image. Intellectually, he’d realized that his younger self was, at that very moment, still recovering from his recent experiences at Site 17, but actually seeing the evidence here was another matter.

‘It’s me,’ he replied. ‘Where are you keeping him?’

Albright smiled. ‘Don’t you remember?’

He did, of course, although the memory only returned to him at that very moment. Mitchell found he couldn’t tear his gaze from his younger self, his features soft and relaxed under the influence of powerful sedatives.

‘Do you actually understand why there are two of you?’ asked Albright.

‘Because when you brought me back here from that cryo lab ten years in the future, you brought me into my own past,’ Mitchell replied, finally looking away from the screen.

He could barely remember the ward they’d put him after Site 17; they’d kept him unconscious almost around the clock. Someone had rescued him – no, would rescue him – by breaking into the ward and half carrying him to safety, but for the moment that rescuer’s face remained an unidentifiable blur. After that Mitchell had woken up in a motel, alongside everything he needed to get himself to Copernicus.

‘You were delirious when they recovered you from the chamber of pits, but Eliza Schlegel made sure everything you said was properly recorded and transcribed.’ Albright glanced again at his desk. ‘Now, apparently you made reference several times to being ‘sent back’ to carry out some task.’ Albright leaned forward. ‘What kind of task?’

Mitchell licked suddenly dry lips. ‘I don’t remember ever saying that.’

‘Really? I can play it back for you right now.’

The picture on the screen changed to show the interior of a medvac unit. He now lay on a palette with an oxygen mask over his mouth, while Lou Winston passed a diagnostics wand over his body. Mitchell watched his younger self suddenly jerk awake on the pallet, ripping the mask from his face in a panic. A rush of words came spilling out, ones he even now couldn’t remember uttering, and his voice was filled with a terrible urgency. He had a sudden vivid recollection of grabbing Dan Rush’s arm, as they lifted him into the unit, but that was all.

Mitchell gripped the arms of his chair tightly, and waited for Albright to switch the recording off. ‘I don’t remember any of that.’

Albright shook his head. ‘We know you’re lying, Mitchell. The effects of long-term cryogenic storage are well known, and full rcovery of memory takes a week at best. You’ve been here longer than that, and perhaps you don’t remember everything, but you’ll still remember enough to answer most of our questions.’

‘Why does it matter to you?’

Albright laughed, shaking his head. ‘Now you’re just being obstructive. We have recordings of you claiming this task was given to you by the Founders. How is that possible?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why don’t you tell me the truth?’

Mitchell leaned back, staring once more up at the small constellation of lenses overhead. ‘How about I answer a question, but only if you answer one of mine. Is that a deal?’

‘We don’t do “deals”, Mitchell.’

Mitchell stared at him and waited.

‘Fine,’ Albright sighed, after more than half a minute had passed. ‘But I’m not making any promises.’

‘I know you sent unmanned probes into the ruins of the near-future Copernicus City, right?’

‘The same probes that recovered you from the lab, yes.’

Mitchell licked his lips, suddenly full of a nervous anxiety. ‘Did you send them into the Lunar Array itself ? Did they tell you if the CTC gates to the colonies were still open?’

Albright regarded him steadily. ‘There hasn’t been the time to make a detailed enough investigation. Certainly the Array looks half ruined but, as to the integrity of the gates, I don’t have enough clearance to know one way or the other. Now it’s my turn,’ he said, pointing a finger towards the screen. ‘How the hell did you get out of that secure ward and find your way to the Moon, in the first place?’

The corner of Mitchell’s mouth twitched. ‘You mean, how am I going to get out of there? That’s what you want to know, isn’t it?’

Albright stood up from behind his desk and walked forward to stand in front of Mitchell, his face red with anger. ‘Stop fucking around. There’s too much at stake, and the people who put me in charge of getting answers from you are starting to get very impatient.’

‘Whatever I tell you doesn’t matter a damn,’ Mitchell rasped. ‘You know why? Because, from my perspective, everything you’re trying to stop has already happened more than ten years in my past. The only reason you’re here, asking me these questions, is because the people you work for are too mentally limited to understand that one simple fact.’

Albright was breathing hard through his nose and, for a moment, Mitchell thoughhe might strike him. But, after a second or two, his interrogator took a step back, wiping his hand across his mouth.

‘You were in charge of interrogations at the Lunar Array, a few years back, weren’t you?’ asked Albright.

‘Sure. Right after the Galileo gate was sabotaged.’

Albright nodded. ‘And how did you know if detainees were telling the truth or not?’

‘We used infra-red cameras to pick up increases in subcutaneous blood flow, and voltage scanners that could remotely map brain wave functions in three dimensions and tell us whether or not they were lying. That the kind of thing you mean?’

‘You’ve already noticed we have the same devices here?’ Albright nodded towards the lenses suspended above Mitchell’s head. ‘You’ve also worked in the ASI long enough to know just what’s going to happen to you if you don’t start telling us the truth.’

Mitchell closed his eyes for a moment, remembering how, after waking in the motel, he’d managed to make his way through the Florida–Copernicus gate, only to be spotted by ASI agents on the lookout for him inside the Lunar Array. He’d found an airlock equipped with pressure suits, and made his escape across the silent lunar landscape, the great crescent shape of the Array rising to one side as he headed for the cryo labs situated further along the crater wall.

‘You want to know the truth?’ he said, opening his eyes again. ‘The learning pools remade me. They pulled me apart and put me together again, better than before.’

Albright frowned. ‘Learning pools?’

‘The pits me and Vogel got caught in.’

He remembered the sense of stark terror as the black, tar-like liquid had started to fill the pit all around them, and then that sense of floating in a timeless void. ‘When Jeff Cairns found me, I was still trying to understand what had happened to me. But one thing above all had changed: I wasn’t afraid of anything any more, not even death.’ He locked eyes with Albright. ‘Or anything you could possibly threaten me with.’

Albright stared at him for several seconds, then stepped back to his desk and swept his hand across it in a practised gesture. The desk’s surface dulled to an inanimate grey.

‘The next time we meet isn’t going to be nearly as civilized,’ said Albright. ‘Because there’s too much at stake. But I want you to think about one thing that’s been puzzling me, before we meet again tomorrow morning.’

‘What?’

‘You were the only thing still alive anywhere on the Moon or Earth, when we found you,’ said Albright. ‘Why you? Why would whatever wiped out every last trace of life everywhere else lve you untouched?’

Mitchell looked towards the window, and said nothing.

NINE

South China Sea Airspace, 28 January 2235

‘Tell me, you ever jump out of a plane? Go parachuting, or anything like that?’

Saul glanced at the man opposite: lean and sharp-faced with deep-set eyes, his head jerking slightly from side to side as the sub-orbital slammed through the stratosphere. Saul’s UP floated a tag next to him, identifying the man as Sefu Nazawi.

‘Once,’ Saul replied. His knuckles shone white where they gripped the padded restraints confining his chest and shoulders.

Up until now, the conversation had been distinctly muted, ever since taking off from an airfield in Germany. Saul didn’t need a degree in psychology to know that he was the reason.

He glanced up front towards Hanover, who was leaning over the pilot’s shoulder. The two men were conferring quietly as the craft angled its nose downwards at a terrifyingly steep angle. They were approaching the endpoint of a sharply curving trajectory that had boosted them to the edge of space, before hurtling them back down towards the South China Seas, and nearly ten thousand kilometres to the east.

Sefu looked sceptical. ‘For real?’

‘Why do you ask?’ Saul replied, doing his best to maintain eye contact while the sub-orbital bucked and shuddered with profound violence.

‘Just in case we have to evacuate.’ Sefu barely suppressed a grin. ‘I mean, we’re a long way up and, with all those storms scattered around, we could get ripped to shreds before we reach the ground. It happens.’

‘Shit, yes,’ said the man next to Sefu. Saul registered that his name was Charlie Foster. ‘Did you ever see the UP footage from that guy who fell out of a sub-orbital? The one that came apart just fifteen minutes after take-off?’

‘I did,’ Sefu replied, turning to Foster with a snap of his fingers. ‘His ’chute failed, right? And his contacts kept recording, the whole way down.’

‘Bullshit,’ said Saul.

Foster nodded enthusiastically, gazing at Saul with an innocent expression. ‘No lie. Bastard screamed like a banshee right up until the end.’

Sefu noisily sucked air through his teeth.

‘Hit the ground so hard his skull wound up lodged in his ass,’ Foster added, shaking his head sadly.

Saul considered a variety of responses, most of them anatomically impossible.

The sub-orbital hit a fresh patch of turbulence, lurching like a truck dropping one of its wheels into a deep pothole. Saul drew in a sharp breath and wished he had something to cling on to, as the turbojets grumbled and whined in preparation for the last stage of their descent.

‘And there’s a reason you’re sharing this with me?’ Saul managed to say.

‘Well,’ Sefu replied, ‘I got the impression you weren’t enjoying the flight, for some reason.’

‘Me, I love turbulence,’ said Foster, his eyes wide and happy. ‘It’s like being rocked to sleep by Mother Nature.’

Text, rendered in silver, floated on the lower right of Saul’s vision, telling him that the sub-orbital was now only seven kilometres above the ground, having already dropped nearly fifteen kilometres in the last few minutes. The external temperature was minus seventy, and the air still thin enough to qualify as vacuum.

‘Now Mitchell,’ Sefu continued, twisting around in his restraints to catch the attention of the rest of Hanover’s task force, ‘that son of a bitch was in fucking love with jumping out of things.’

‘Fuck yeah,’ confirmed a woman further down the two rows of seats facing each other on either side the craft’s interior. Her tag read Helena Bryant. ‘I trained with him this one time, when we had to jump from about twelve kilometres up. He got to within maybe a half-klick of the ground before he even started to pull back up. Scared the shit out of me then, but the man was fucking fearless.’

‘Wing-suit, right?’ Saul guessed.

‘Yeah, that’s right,’ she replied. ‘You know what I’m talking about?’

‘Sure,’ Saul replied, assuming an air of false bravado. ‘I even went on a jump with him once, years ago. He’d been daring me for months.’

‘You knew him?’ interrupted another voice over to his right.

‘We worked together way back when,’ Saul replied. ‘Somehow he . . . talked me into it.’

‘Why’d he have to talk you into it?’ asked Sefu. He was still grinning, but there was a shade more respect in his tone. ‘Because you were too chickenshit?’

‘Too sane, I think,’ Saul replied. ‘The dive was made from low orbit.’

That shut them up.

‘Real orbit, or sub-orbital?’ asked Helena.

Saul grinned. ‘Sub-orbital. I’m not that crazy.’

‘That’s pretty dangerous shit nonetheless,’ someone else said.

‘Sure.’ Saul made a point of shrugging, as if to say no big deal. ‘Maybe one in a thousand orbital divers wind up dead, but Mitch and me did it together, from more than twenty kilometres up. We used foam and Kevlar heat shields for the first five kilometres down, then wing-suits the rest of the way.’

Saul recalled the wide wings embellishing the one-piece flying suit. Rigid stabilizers built into each suit kept them from going into a deadly spin as they dropped down through the thickening atmosphere. At the time, he’d thought the experience might cure him of what had then been nothing more than a mild fear of flying, but instead it had made it much, much worse. He’d never even have agreed to it if Mitchell hadn’t been having such a hard time back then, coping with the death of his brother Danny.

Sefu waved a hand in mock dismissal, and several of the task force laughed. Saul felt himself grinning back.

‘So why the fuck do you look like you’re about to crap yourself?’ prodded Sefu.

‘When you jump, you’re in control,’ Saul explained. ‘Being on a plane isn’t the same, though, since your life’s in someone else’s hands. And anyway, it’s been a long while since I rode in a sub-orbital.’

‘Told you,’ said Sefu, looking around at the rest of them. ‘Chickenshit.’ They all laughed, but when Sefu gave him a grin, Saul could see it was much more friendly than before.

Confirmation of Saul’s temporary transfer had come through a few days after his interrogation by Donohue and Sanders.

Almost a week after his meeting with Donohue and Sanders, he’d made his way back through the Copernicus–Florida gate, reacquainting himself with the tug of full gravity and working at rebuilding his muscle strength in a government gym close by his apartment in Orlando. He scored himself some Bad Puppy – a milder derivative of loup-garou – and used it to steady his nerves and kill some of the pain still seeping through despite the medication he’d been given for his injuries. After that, he had hitched a ride aboard a military cargo hopper to an ASI facility near Berlin, where he’d then undergone a brief interview with Hanover in his office.

‘I realize that you knew Mitchell,’ Hanover had said, an operations room clearly visible through a glass pane behind him. ‘It’s too bad what happened to him. You should remember, however, that there’s a reason this is just a temporary assignment for you. Men like Stone are not easily replaced.’

‘I appreciate how that would be the case, sir,’ Saul had replied. ‘Can I ask just what happened to him? All I was told was that he’d been under some kind of secondment when he—’

Saul nodded perfunctorily. There was something distinctly glacial about Hanover’s manner.

‘Now, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way,’ Hanover continued, ‘but you weren’t actually the first name I had in mind. In fact, why my original request was turned down remains something of a mystery to me.’

‘I can only do my best, sir.’

‘It’s more complicated than that. The members of this task force have a level of clearance that you don’t. They’re often engaged in highly classified work which you don’t need to know the details of.’

Saul guessed Hanover was digging for something. ‘It wasn’t my idea, sir. I was reassigned, and that’s all I can tell you.’

Hanover regarded him in silence for a moment before standing up and pulling open the door leading to the outer office. ‘You should know it’s my intention to file a complaint with your superiors. Not because of anything you’ve done, but because I’m concerned at the lack of explanation.’

‘Sir,’ Saul replied, standing too.

‘You’ll report for a final briefing at 0800 tomorrow morning,’ said Hanover. ‘I believe you’ve already been briefed on the essential details of our mission. We’re to recover ASI cargo hijacked from Florida.’

‘I was briefed, sir. Thank you.’

Hanover nodded, but his eyes glinted with suspicion. ‘Good. For as long as you’re with us, I don’t think you’ll need to worry about a lack of action.’

The sub-orbital started to level out just as an alert sounded. Saul pushed his head back, relying on the padded restraints around his shoulders, neck and waist to keep him from being thrown around the cabin like a rag doll. The back of his mouth felt sticky and hot still, with the memory of the Bad Puppy, and he found himself wondering if anyone else in Hanover’s squad was holding. Before long the engines kicked in, sending powerful vibrations rattling through his bones in the moments just before they made their final approach.

‘Everybody get ready to move out!’ Hanover yelled, pulling himself out of his own restraints before heading for the rear hatch. Saul glanced in the direction of the cockpit and caught sight of jungle silhouetted against star-speckled blackness, as they scrambled to disembark.

They dropped down one by one into humid darkness, milling around the small forest clearing in which the sub-orbital had landed on its powerful VTOL jets. The subtropical heat seeped in through Saul’s suit, enveloping his skin like a warm blanket and carrying with it unidentifiable scents. The black outline of a mountain rose to one side; the gentle rush of a river was audible somewhere se by.

The briefing earlier that morning had involved detailed orbital maps of a region in the central mountains of Taiwan, an island nation south of the coast of mainland China. Dozens of villages lay dotted around the slopes and lowlands, most of them accessible only by narrow, winding roads. Industrial compounds and mining operations, mostly abandoned and half swallowed up by the jungle, stood along the banks of every river. A few had been reclaimed by paramilitary groups left over from the days of the Hong Kong blockades, the majority of which continued to enjoy a profitable business partnership with the Tian Di Hui. Given that they were operating deep inside a Sphere-aligned nation, their mission was by necessity a covert one.

Saul first checked his Cobra’s fire parameters, then adjusted the temperature control of his suit until he felt more comfortable. He wasn’t quite the outright object of suspicion he had been when they set out, but he didn’t let himself forget that whoever had tipped off the hijackers was almost certainly standing just a few feet away.

Hanover called for everyone’s attention. ‘Check your UPs now for an updated overlay of the area with the latest intel.’ Saul watched as a shimmering grid of data positioned itself over the surrounding landscape. He pulled the focus back for a moment, until he could see the surrounding region displayed before him in its entirety, all the peaks and valleys painted in false colours.

‘Our destination,’ Hanover continued, ‘is less than a half kilometre along a footpath running beside the river,’ he told them, pointing beyond the sub-orbital. ‘Make sure you’re all properly networked, or I will be very unhappy if anyone gets lost because they didn’t maintain their uplink.’

Computer systems woven into Saul’s suit kept him in constant touch with the rest of the task force, while his mil-grade contacts could switch easily between active IR and thermal-imaging video feeds that were particularly useful in the middle of a darkened jungle.

He took a moment to test his night vision. The jungle flashed green for a second until his contacts again painted the ground and foliage in a variety of false colours. He glanced at the others around him, their eyes showing up as ghostly black dots floating amid pale and featureless faces.

‘I’m having a problem with my A/V uplink,’ said Saul. His contacts were refusing to connect with the task force’s network.

‘Anyone else?’ asked Hanover.

The rest muttered negatives or shook their heads.

‘Then it’s just you,’ Hanover replied. ‘Could be a software issue. Give it a couple minutes to see if it sorts itself out.’

They moved out, following the river downstream and making their way along a narrow path that had once been asphalt but had long degenerated into loose black grit mixed with thick tufts of wide-bladed grass. The failure of his uplink set Saul’s nerves on edge. He couldn’t rule out the possibility someone had saboed the connection deliberately.

Saul caught sight of a snake slipping off towards the river once it scented their approach. Its scales looked as if they had been painted in hallucinatory colours.

Before long they caught sight of a cooling tower and several low buildings constituting part of an abandoned chemical-processing plant. Hanover called a halt and they gathered around him.

‘Tovey, the path splits just before we reach the fence. Take your men around past the first gate, and you’ll find a second gate round on the far side of the compound.’ Bright neon lines appeared on Saul’s map overlay, winding out of sight through the dense jungle. ‘Wait there until we have some idea what we’re up against, then move in the moment you get the signal. The rest of you follow me – we’ll cut through the fence on this side, and enter that way. The main admin building will be closer to our position, and that’s where the sats tell us the trucks and cars are parked.’ He looked slowly around at them all. ‘Remember, we want them alive if possible. Now move out.’

Tovey muttered a quick yessir, and Saul watched as he and his assigned half of the task force hurried away, hunkering low through tall grass that rustled with their passage. Hanover led the rest of them up to a two-metre-high wire fence surrounding the compound, where Saul watched as Sefu and another soldier, using the pale-blue flame of a plasma torch, sliced their way through the thick mesh steel in just seconds.

There were no lights visible inside the compound. The roofs of several of the buildings had collapsed, while bushes and saplings pushed their way out of windows gaping under a half-moon. Tall weeds had fought their way through the cracked concrete base on which the chemical-processing plant itself stood.

Keeping to the shadows, they spread out. The only vehicles Saul could see had clearly been abandoned for as long as the compound itself.

His contacts dropped icons over every building, including the one housing the administration offices, which constituted their primary target. Hanover continued to lead the way, Saul staying to the rear, as he’d been instructed. They turned a corner and, sitting next to the admin building, saw a flatbed with a portable tokamak mounted on the back with cables leading inside. It appeared just as dark and silent as the rest of the compound.

Saul checked for body-heat with his IR, but got nothing more than a few tiny blips of light that probably indicated rats fleeing from their scent. There came a rustling sound from another building, and moments later a flock of birds spiralled into the night sky, flapping furiously and calling to each other as they rose.

The men entered the admin building via three different entrances. There were five floors in all, and two of them were assigned to each floor. Saul followed a Filipino named Geradz Zurc as he searched the ground floor, poking the barrel of his Cobra into room after darkened room, but there was no one to be found.

The building had, however, clearly been occupied recently. When someone turned on the generator, the rooms were suddenly flooded wih light. Zurc swore, and Saul closed his eyes until he could shut down his night-vision. He heard someone muttering an apology over their shared comms.

When he opened his eyes again, he saw loose papers scattered all about, while empty desks had been pushed up against the walls. Saul tapped at the surface of one and a manufacturer’s logo appeared, slowly spinning above the desktop, glowing faintly under the crackling strip lights. A moment’s exploration showed that all its data had been wiped.

Someone had obviously known they were coming.

‘All clear,’ Zurc called over his link.

Saul followed him back to the central foyer, where other members of the task force soon joined them. Hanover was the last to arrive.

‘This place is empty,’ he confirmed, glancing around. ‘At first sight, anyway. But I don’t think they could have cleared out more than a few hours ago.’

‘What about the others, sir?’ asked Sefu. ‘Tovey and the rest are still sitting out there in the jungle, waiting.’

‘No, I just called them in,’ Hanover replied. ‘They’ll scour the rest of the buildings, see if they can turn anything up. In the meantime, I want the rest of you outside.’ He jerked a thumb towards the stairwell. ‘I’m going to take another quick look around myself, to see if I can find anything before we head home.’

Sefu shrugged in assent, and the rest followed him back out into the hot night air, grumbling amongst themselves. After a couple of hours of being trapped in a sub-orbital with nothing to do but look at each other, Saul could sympathize. He settled against a wall, while the others found places to sit or just squatted on the ground.

Saul recalled what Donohue had told him: whoever on Hanover’s team was responsible for supplying the information that led to the hijacking might also be linked to the terrorist action that had stranded Saul himself eighty light-years away from his family.

He thought of the way Hanover had looked at him during their first meeting. Maybe this was just a very tight-knit squad that didn’t take to strangers.

Or maybe it was something else.

Saul came to a decision. Damned if he was going to figure anything out by squatting here in the dark.

‘Hey, where you going?’ asked Helena as Saul stood up, looking around him.

‘Gotta pee,’ Saul replied.

‘There are bushes out front,’ Sefu advised from nearby. ‘Try not to get caught with your pants down, will you?’

Someone laughed and Saul made himself smile in response before heading around one side of the building. Once he was out of sight, he found his way back inside through a side entrance, then made his way past a row of defunct elevators to the stairwell.

He stared up the central shaft towards the ceiling, the staircase spiralling above him. After a few seconds he caught the flicker of a shadow through an open door somewhere on the top floor, followed by the distinct click of a door being closed. It had to be Hanover.

Saul slung his Cobra over his shoulder and started to climb, his gaze fixed upwards in case Hanover reversed direction and started to make his way down again. Saul wasn’t sure what excuse he might give if that happened, but it was a chance he just had to take.

He rested for a few seconds on reaching the top floor, then gently pulled open the door to reveal a corridor beyond. He glanced back the way he had come and found he had a good view of the rest of the compound through a wide window on the other side of the stairwell. He activated his IR filter and saw flickers of red and yellow in the darkness: presumably Tovey’s team searching the rest of the compound.

Saul stepped into the corridor, closing the door gently behind him, unslinging his Cobra once more before moving forward cautiously.

He found Hanover in the last room on the right, his back facing the doorway. Several steel cabinets stood along one wall, and Hanover was busy pulling thick sheafs of paper out of the drawers of one of them, and dumping them in an untidy pile on the floor. Opposite a window overlooking another part of the compound were a series of security screens, all clearly of much more recent manufacture than anything else contained in the room.

One displayed a live video feed of the stairwell. Hanover had known he was coming.

Hanover paused, a bundle of documents grasped loosely in both arms, and turned to glance backwards at Saul. He shook his head with irritation and turned away again, dumping the documents on top of the rest, before opening another drawer and extracting its contents as well.

‘What are you doing?’ asked Saul.

‘What does it look like I’m doing?’ Hanover replied over his shoulder. ‘I’m destroying evidence.’ He scattered more documents on the floor.

‘I want you to stop,’ Saul replied, taking a firmer grip on the Cobra. Targeting overlays appeared in front of him, flashing red because he was aiming at a friendly target. ‘Right now, sir.’

Hanover paused, then his shoulders rose and fell in a sigh before he turned to face Saul fully. ‘I knew why they sent you the moment I heard you were coming,’ he said, his tone bitter. ‘Do you like playing the part of a spy, Mr Dumont? Is it everything you hoped it would be?’

‘Why are you destroying evidence?’

‘Mitch is a good man,’ Hanover replied. ‘A thousand times better than you could ever hope to be. Poor bastard was just in the wron place at the wrong time. But, I guess, if it wasn’t you coming after me, it would be someone else. I actually let myself think it might not happen, but here we are.’

He held one hand up to Saul, palm facing outwards, while slowly reaching into a breast pocket with his other hand, and withdrawing a slim black oblong.

‘What is that?’ Saul demanded, training his rifle on Hanover’s chest.

‘Fast-acting incendiary,’ Hanover replied. ‘It’ll turn this office into an inferno in seconds. You won’t want to be here when that happens, believe me.’

‘I want you to put it back in your pocket, sir. You won’t be needing it.’

Hanover smiled and flipped the black object into the air, catching it again on its way down a moment later.

Saul’s heart leaped into his mouth, and he took a step back towards the door.

‘You know why you were sent after me?’ Hanover asked, kneeling to place the incendiary on top of the untidy mound of paper. ‘Because the ASI is looking for someone to blame for this whole fucking mess. But I’m not going to be anybody’s scapegoat, when the end comes.’

Saul’s hands felt warm and damp where they gripped the Cobra. ‘If I have to, sir, I will shoot.’

‘I want you to take a message back to whoever’s paying you, and it’s this: as long as they let me and my family go through to the colonies, I won’t tell the Sphere anything about what’s been really going on. Otherwise, I tell them everything I know: about Tau Ceti, the Founders, the Pacific growth . . . everything. They can’t blame me for whatever happened to that shipment, when it should never have been brought to Earth in the first place. Do you understand me?’

Saul frowned. He had no idea what Hanover was talking about.

Hanover held the incendiary delicately at both ends. ‘See this strip of red paper here, on the side?’ he asked, eyeing Saul. ‘Ten-second timer.’ He took hold of one end of the red strip. ‘You just pull it back, then run like hell.’

‘Let go of it and stand up slowly, or I’ll blow your head off your fucking shoulders, sir. That’s a promise.’

Brilliant light flooded in through the window. Saul saw a flare descending from above the treetops, illuminating the compound in lurid orange.

He turned back to Hanover just in time to see him yank at the strip of paper before hurling the incendiary at him.

Saul ducked back and fired his Cobra at the same time, but the shot went wide, digging chunks of plaster out of the ceiling. The incendiary bounced off his chest and fell to the floor.

Suddenly he was face to face with Hanover, and they struggled for a few moments as Saul tried to stop him reaching the entrance. Hanover kicked him in the knee, sending him sprawling on to the dust and scattered paper before ducking out of the office.

Saul heard the rattle of automatic gunfire somewhere close by.

He stumbled upright and followed Hanover back out of the office, just as it exploded with flames behind him, blowing out the window glass. He felt a wave of heat slam into the back of his neck and threw himself to one side of the doorway with a yell, desperate to put distance between himself and the inferno. When he next looked up, he found himself staring along the barrel of a snub-nosed Agnessa pistol.

‘Easy,’ said Saul, spreading his hands wide, and licking his lips. His Cobra lay just out of reach. ‘You’re the reason my uplink isn’t working, right?’

‘Some things are better without witnesses,’ Hanover replied, his nostrils dilating. He stepped slightly to the side and kicked Saul’s rifle back inside the blazing office. Shouts and more gunfire echoed through the compound outside.

‘Maybe you should tell me just what’s going on,’ Saul replied, keeping his voice even.

‘I already explained myself.’

‘And I don’t know what you were talking about. You said you were a scapegoat, but a scapegoat for what?’

Hanover regarded him with obvious disbelief. ‘You really don’t have any idea what’s going on, do you?’

‘I’m guessing you’re the reason that whoever we came looking for had enough advance warning to clear out before we arrived. If that hijacked shipment was ever here, it’s long gone by now, am I right?’

‘Let me give you some idea of how things really stand, Mr Dumont,’ said Hanover, the muscles in his neck rigid with anger. ‘We’re all dead men now. I’ve seen the world covered in ashes and, sometime very soon, the colonies – Kepler, Newton, all of them – are going to be on their own. They’re going to need strong leadership if they’re going to have any chance of surviving.’

Even from a few metres away, the heat was appalling. Smoke billowed along the ceiling of the corridor, until Hanover ducked in order to avoid it.

‘You’re talking about the separatists, right?’ Saul guessed.

Hanover laughed again, louder. ‘No.’ He swallowed, and for a moment Saul thought the man was about to start crying. He watched the barrel of the Agnessa wobble just centimetres away from his face.

‘No,’ Hanover repeated, regaining some of his composure. ‘Now listen to me carefully. Local government forces are storming tund. They’re going to take us into custody. Your job is to go back home with your tail between your legs, and deliver my message. Is that clear?’

He’s crazy, thought Saul, realizing in that moment that he might very well be about to die. He watched with numb fascination as Hanover took a firmer, two-handed grip on his weapon.

‘Sir?’

Hanover twisted around sharply to see Helena Bryant standing at the far end of the corridor, her face smudged and dirty, one hand clutching a wound in her shoulder. From the expression on her face, Saul guessed she’d been standing there long enough to hear most of what Hanover had said.

Hanover brought his pistol around and fired; the bullet caught her in the jaw, ripping bone and flesh away and exiting through the back of her skull. Helena staggered back against the side of the corridor, her body jerking once before slumping lifeless to the floor, like a discarded rag doll.

Hanover quickly brought the Agnessa round to bear on Saul again, motioning him to move back towards the stairwell. Saul complied, crouching to keep his face beneath the billowing smoke and almost stumbling over Helena’s corpse.

‘What’s going to happen to the rest of your people?’ asked Saul, as they entered the stairwell.

‘They’ll die honourably,’ said Hanover. ‘And if you don’t keep moving, you’ll be joining them.’

Saul looked through the window across the stairwell, and spotted yet more flares tumbling down, staining the buildings and surrounding jungle orange. He heard voices calling to each other in Mandarin, then realized the gunfire had ceased.

‘Go on,’ said Hanover, waggling his pistol towards the stairs. ‘Head on down.’

Saul didn’t move.

‘Didn’t you hear me? Get the hell down there,’ Hanover snapped. ‘And when – if – you get back home, take my advice: pack a bag, head for Florida, pick a colony and go there. Any damn one.’

‘I can’t leave until I get some real answers,’ Saul replied.

‘Don’t try me, son,’ Hanover grated. ‘I’ll shoot you, too, if I have to.’

‘But then who’ll deliver your message for you?’ Saul asked, noting there was now barely a metre separating him from the other man. ‘And what exactly is it that you think is going to happen?’

‘I said don’t try my—’

Saul pushed off with his right foot, slamming the heel of one hand into Hanover’s jaw. He saw the other man’s knuckles whiten as they squeezed the trigger, and twisted his body out of the way as the bullets slammed into the floor and the walls.

Hanover grunted and fought back, but Saul had the advantage now. He hit Hanover hard in the belly, and the Agnessa spun out of his hand. Saul dived for it, landing on the floor and twisting around to aim it up at Hanover – only to find him staring back down at him with an expression of infinite contempt.

In that same moment, Saul heard the sound of the safety being taken off several rifles.

He twisted around to see half a dozen Taiwanese soldiers in fatigues, their weapons levelled at him, the red dots from their laser sights dancing across his chest.

‘If I were you,’ Hanover wheezed from behind him, ‘I’d think really hard before moving so much as a fucking muscle.’

TEN

Secure Military Facility (location unknown), 29 January 2235

‘When I said I didn’t have the time to fuck around any more,’ said Albright, his voice flat and emotionless, ‘I meant I really didn’t have the time to fuck around any more.’

Mitchell spat out a mouthful of blood and used his tongue to feel for the gap where one of his teeth had been until a few moments ago. He leaned forward, grunting as he tested the leather straps securing him to the chair, but there was very little give.

Albright paced in front of him, taking short drags on a cigarette. The stink of the tobacco made Mitchell want to sneeze. The third man in the room – Albright had called him Scott – stepped back, massaging the knuckles of one bruised fist while studying Mitchell with a malevolent expression.

They had come for him that morning, using a gun loaded with tranquillizer darts to knock him out before dragging him down to the garage located in the building’s basement. A truck sat on a raised platform towards the rear of the space, tools mounted on racks lining the nearby walls. Mitchell had also noted a work desk littered with drills and hand-held plasma torches, and fervently hoped Albright wasn’t intending to use any of those on him.

The concrete drain in the centre of the floor was still dark from the freezing water they’d hosed him down with after strapping him into the chair. Not that they’d been able to get him into it without a struggle, given that Mitchell had come to just as they’d hustled him down the steps leading to the garage. He had managed to wriggle out of the grasp of the two guards escorting him, but Scott had slammed him face-first on to a workbench, before delivering a roundhouse kick that dropped him to the ground. The guards had then strapped him in while he was still dazed and half-conscious.

‘There has to be some reason why you survived,’ said Albright, his voice thick with impatience. ‘What kept you alive while the rest of the human race died en masse?’

‘I don’t know.’

Scott glanced over his shoulder at Albright, but Albright merely shook his head. The glowing tip of his cigarette painted patterns of light in the dimly lit space, as he took a draw.

‘You want one?’ Albright asked, raising the cigarette when he noticed Mitchell was looking at it. ‘It’s the healthy kind. Lots of antioxidants and anti-cancer agents. My doctor swears by it.’

‘No thanks,’ Mitchell swallowed, tasting his own blood.

Albright came closer, kneeling before Mitchell and regarding him from just a few centimetres away. ‘Here’s what I don’t get,’ he said. ‘Why aren’t you rushing to help us find some way to try and stop this whole terrible tragedy from ever happening?’

Mitchell looked away, his mouth fixed in a tight line, breathing hard in expectation of the next blow. Albright stared at him, waiting for an answer, then straightened up, shaking his head with disgust.

‘There’s something wrong with you – on the inside,’ Albright told him. ‘Did you know that?’

Mitchell looked back at him warily. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘We took you out of your cell, night before last, and ran some deep-tissue scans on you: fMRI, X-ray, the works.’

‘No, you didn’t. I’d have known.’

‘Your evening meal was stuffed with sedatives. Anyway, the results were pretty remarkable. We ran the same tests on the other you, but the physiological changes in your body are significantly more advanced. We also ran a DNA analysis, and found it didn’t quite match the original sample taken when you first started working for the ASI. Not only that, there are structures in your brain we can’t make sense of. Your body temperature is a degree and a half cooler than it should be, and that’s not even mentioning the more extreme physiological changes. I’ve seen surveillance footage of you moving around your cell at a speed no normal human being should be capable of. There’s no conceivable way that even a couple of years in some cryogenics facility could produce changes like that.’

With a sour expression, Albright ground out his cigarette under the heel of one boot. ‘Now, we’ve analysed, frame by frame, the A/V footage from when you and Vogel disappeared into that pit,’ he continued. ‘Both of your suits dissolved and, the instant the black oil touched your flesh, you both lost consciousness and collapsed. Those suits are made from extremely tough materials designed to withstand an enormous range of lethal environments, and yet they came apart like wet tissue paper in a hurricane.’

Albright lit another cigarette and drew on it, stepping away to lean against a nearby workbench. ‘The liquid in those pits clearly acts like a universal solvent. Some of your colleagues tried to bring back samples, but it dissolved everything they tried to put it in. Which all rather begs the question: are you, in fact, the real Mitchell Stone, or are you something else altogether?’

Mitchell shook his head and laughed. ‘You’re out of your fucking mind.’

‘Okay, here’s what we’ve been thinking. Maybe the answer we need is inside you, in some way we can’t decipher just by running non-invasive scans or occasionally bouncing you off the walls. Maybe,’ Albright took another draw, ‘we’re going to have to go a little deeper.’

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Mitchell.

‘Dissection,’ said Albright. ‘Peel back your skin and see what it is that makes you tick. Put your organs in steel trays and pick them apart to see if you’re really human.’

Mitchell felt his insides twist in horror. ‘How the hell is doing that going to tell you anything?’

‘We won’t know until we look, will we?’ said Albright, an unpleasant glint in his eyes. ‘We’ve tried persuasion and reasoning, and look where it got us. But now we’re staring a holocaust in the face and, in the absence of any willing response on your part, do you really think we’d hesitate one Goddamn moment to get the answers we need, by any means necessary?’

No, thought Mitchell, not for one second. ‘There’s nothing you can do to stop what’s coming,’ he insisted, regardless. ‘Don’t you understand that? From where I’m standing, you’ve all been dead for years. You’re a ghost, Albright.’

Albright’s jaw worked like he’d just swallowed something nasty. ‘Let’s be clear on one thing: I’m not interested in this predetermination shit. The future isn’t fixed.’

‘You brought this on yourselves. I saw how the science teams at Tau Ceti were forced to take chances. They were bringing technologies that nobody understood back to Earth without any idea what the consequences might be. The sci-eval staff all fled protests, but nobody listened.’ Mitchell cleared his throat. ‘But I did listen, and I saw how anything that looked like it could turn a profit or win a war was packed into a crate and hauled straight back home.’

Albright stared at him, the cigarette burned down almost to his knuckles.

‘What you don’t seem to understand is that the future is indeterminate, yes,’ Mitchell continued, ‘unless you find your way into it through a wormhole, and then all time between now and then becomes fixed like a fly in amber. It’s like the observer effect: once you see it or touch it, it’s locked in one state for ever. That’s why the Founders disappeared so far into the future, to a point beyond the reach even of the wormholes. It was the only way they could escape predetermination.’

Albright wiped at his mouth with one hand, a frightened look in his eyes. ‘How do you know all this?’

Mitchell let his head fall back, suddenly exhausted. They would be recording this interrogation, the same as all the others, of course. He wondered what his unseen audience were making of it all.

‘I asked you how you could know any of this,’ Albright repeated.

Mitchell brought his head back up. ‘I already told you yesterday, because of the learning pools. When I woke up, I knew things.’

‘What kinds of things?’

Mitchell struggled to find words to describe the vast repository of knowledge now resting inside his brain. He had begun to suspect that this repository somehow existed independently of him – a library inscribed deep in the microscopic foam of reality, at the most minute level, something the black pools had somehow given him the means to tap into.

He shook his head helplessly. ‘Everything,’ he finally replied.

Albright let his cigarette fall to the ground and formed his hands into fists. ‘You’re making this shit up, Goddamn you.’

‘I can tell you what’s going to happen in a thousand years, or a hundred thousand, or ten million – the broad details, anyway. Sometimes . . .’ He closed his eyes tightly for a moment and sensed the repository there, hovering always in the back of his mind, vast and nebulous. ‘Sometimes I try to ignore it, to not always be aware of it, but I can’t. I know so much, from now until so far in the future, you can’t even begin to imagine.’

Albright didn’t say anything else for a moment, and Mitchell could hear the sound of a plane droning somewhere overhead, as well as distant voices, muffled through thick walls, passing by and then fading.

‘Assuming any of this is true, why didn’t you tell me before?’ asked Albright.

‘Because I knew it wouldn’t make any difference,’ Mitchell replied. ‘I’d still wind up here in this garage having the shit beaten out of me, whatever I said.’

Albright nodded. ‘You’re right, I’m afraid.’ He gestured to Scott. ‘Hold him.’

Scott moved behind the chair, Mitchell twisting his head round to try and see him. Albright meanwhile stepped over to a workbench and began to rummage through a bag. As he turned back, he held a syringe in one hand, and a small plastic bottle filled with a clear liquid in the other.

‘What are you doing?’ Mitchell demanded.

‘Something new,’ said Albright. ‘A development from the Kepler pharms. Apparently highly effective.’

Mitchell shook his head, now terrified. ‘You don’t need to do this.’

‘Oh, but we do,’ Albright replied. ‘We were worried about damaging you before, but that’s not such a priority now.’ He came closer, an expression of what looked like genuine sorrow on his face as he approached. ‘I won’t lie to you, Mitchell. This is going to hurt. A lot.’

Mitchell twisted against his restraints, furious and terrified, and filled with a horrid certainty about what was coming next.

Scott came up behind him, wrapping one forearm around his neck and planting the other hand over the top of Mitchell’s head, effectively rendering him immobile. Mitchell struggled as Albright stepped around behind him, and out of sight, but any effort was useless.

‘Please don’t struggle,’ advised Albright. ‘I don’t want to wind up disabling you when I put the needle in.’

The back of the chair was partly open, making it easy for Albright to pull up part of Mitchell’s paper uniform and feel for his spine. A second later Mitchell felt something slide deep inside the thick musculature there.

The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced. Fire spread through his muscles and, as he struggled to escape, he felt as if his bones might snap. Bile surged up the back of his throat and he vomited over Scott’s arm.

After a little while the pain faded. He drifted on a black tide under a starless sky, his skull seeming full of soft cotton wool that scratched against the back of his eyeballs.

Well, he’s still alive, Albright said from somewhere far, far away. Tell me more about the learning pools, Mitchell. Tell me what they told you about the Founders.

Mitchell woke to the dawn light spreading across the upper wall of his cell. He lay there for some minutes without moving, thinking about what it might be like to be strapped to a table and cut apart with scalpels. Albright and the men he worked for were little better than primitive sorcerers, desperate to divine their own fate from his still-warm entrails.

He brought his right hand up close to his face and opened it, keeping it cupped around the thin strip of serrated metal he’d grabbed from the workbench when Scott had taken him down. He could recall only vague snatches of what he had told Albright under the influence of whatever drugs they had pumped into his body, but he was fairly certain he had gone into detail about the Repository, elaborating on the few details he’d already given them.

Mitchell twisted around on his narrow cot until he lay facing the door. If he didn’t escape, he would die – and soon.

Mitchell unfolded himself slowly, grimacing with pain while keeping his fist tight around the blade. Do it now.

He kneeled by the door, pressing one temple against its cool metal, as if momentarily resting h head there. He used one end of the blade like a screwdriver, slowly working out one of the screws securing a thin metal plate to the door frame.

His palm started bleeding where it clutched the serrated length of the blade. He put the strip down and clenched his bleeding hand for several seconds, swearing under his breath until the worst of the pain had passed.

He started working again. It was funny how things turned out, because the locks were cheap and shoddy crap, the result of some budget-cutting exercise. Fortunately for him.

He took a fresh grip on the blade and started working at the screws once more. After fifteen or twenty minutes of labour, he had removed four of them, but the plate wrapped its way around to the other side of the door frame, where it was presumably held in place by more screws.

Mitchell dropped the blade and took a grip on the loosened plate with the fingertips of both hands and started to pull, grunting with the effort. The metal was thin and malleable but even so it took a considerable effort to bend the plate back aside and expose the delicate electronics beneath. He fell back and massaged his injured hand for a minute, before pulling himself up close to the task once more.

He studied the exposed electronics with a practised eye, then, working carefully, used the tip of the blade to tease a single wire loose, the thumping of his heartbeat increasing to a roar between his ears. He meanwhile took extreme care not to touch any of the circuitry connected to the alarm system.

The door clicked loudly, and swung inwards. Mitchell let out his breath in a rush. He hadn’t even realized he was holding it in. He stepped out into the corridor and listened carefully, but there was no sound of anyone approaching. He began to walk, slowly at first, then more quickly, the tiles cold and hard under his bare feet. His injured hand throbbed against his side, the blade held in the other.

Halfway along the corridor, he came to the stairwell leading down to the garage. At the bottom he found a door with a security keypad, where he tapped in a standard override code, then watched with relief as it clicked open.

Mitchell continued down the rest of the stairwell below, noticing the lights were on and the van had been lowered to the ground. A tool bag had been dropped next to one wheel, and the door on the driver’s side stood open. He stopped and listened for a moment, but heard and saw no one. Even so, he ducked down to take a look under the vehicle, in case someone was standing on the far side. Seeing nothing but the other side of the garage, he quickly heaved himself up and climbed inside the van, pulling the door shut.

He barely had time to think any further, when the door was suddenly ripped from his grasp. He heard a muttered curse, in the same instant that a fist struck him on the side of the head. Mitchell raised a hand to try and defend himself, moving with the same inexplicable speed as before. Bright pain flared through his body, leaving him helpless, but out of the corner of his eye he saw that his assailant was Albright’s assistant.

Scott dragged him roughly out of the seat, and Mitchell landed hard on the garage’s ccrete floor. His assailant leaned down and took hold of Mitchell’s head, apparently preparing to smash his skull against the concrete.

It was a sign of how badly the cryogenic process had affected his thought processes that he only now remembered the hacksaw blade still gripped in one hand. He drew it straight across the bridge of Scott’s nose, then watched as the other man screamed and leaped back, his hands clasped to his face.

Mitchell managed to stagger upright and then over to a workbench. Taking hold of a heavy wrench, he gasped as Scott wrapped one arm around his neck from behind. Mitchell swung the wrench wildly around behind him, hearing a wet thud as it buried itself in the side of Scott’s head.

It was Scott’s turn to stagger, collapsing against one side of the van. Mitchell leaned over him, his breath rasping, and struck him a second, then a third time. He was lost in a black fury, and blood and hair spattered across the grey concrete before he finally let go of the wrench. He wiped one trembling hand across his mouth, then forced himself to look away from the devastation that was the remains of Scott’s face.

He headed over to the garage doors and pushed them open, still gasping hoarsely. Brilliant sunlight spilled across the concrete as he gazed out at the same buildings and the airstrip he’d viewed from his cell. The Rockies stood blue and hazy on the horizon beyond the airstrip. He’d never seen anything more beautiful.

The anger had felt good, even cleansing. Mitchell worked at regaining some semblance of calm, all too aware of how lucky he was that nobody had yet noticed his escape from the cell and sounded the alarm.

He stepped back to the van, and rummaged around in the rear until he found a set of overalls. He pulled them on quickly. They were baggy and loose, but a lot better than the paper blues he’d been wearing before.

Mitchell got back in the cabin and touched the dashboard, listening with satisfaction as the van’s engine vibrated with latent power. He tapped a softly glowing panel and the wheel unfolded from its slot, the vehicle reconfiguring itself slightly in order to accommodate his smaller frame. He took a grip on the wheel and steered it, slowly, on to the narrow road that ran beyond the garage.

The other Mitchell, the one who’d been kept under sedation ever since he’d been brought back from Site 17, was still locked away in another facility near Omaha. And the only one who could possibly have got him out of there, he realized at last, was himself.

But first he was going to need some help.

ELEVEN

Flathead Lake, Montana, 29 January 2235

By the time late afternoon of the next day rolled in, there was still no sign of Dan returning. Missoula wasn’t much more than a couple of hour’s drive away, and the spring floods had abated, leaving the roads clear. When e.

He had packed only those items he considered essential into a light backpack he normally used for making short treks. Anything else, he abandoned in the cabin’s bedroom. He passed Dan’s wand over the contents of the backpack several times, listening carefully with satisfaction to the device’s monotone beep every time it fried another locator chip. After that he pulled on his hiking boots and stepped outside to stare across the lake, which was spread out below him like a great dark mirror, bringing back unpleasant memories of Site 17. The sun had finally slipped below the horizon, staining the upper slopes of the mountains across the valley a fiery red. It occurred to him that this might be the last time he would ever set eyes on Flathead Lake.

Whatever might happen next, he wanted to fix this memory in his mind.

Jeff listened to the sound of birds calling to each other across the waters and wondered what he should do next. Besides the crude car-jacker gear Dan had left him with, he had a spare pack of contacts he hadn’t yet registered. He could get by with those for a while, but Dan was right in one regard: they’d never be enough to get him past Array security.

He realized, with a start, that the lights of a car were now moving along a highway running parallel to the far shore of the lake. He watched for a few moments, then activated his UP for maybe the hundredth time, to see if Dan had left any kind of message.

Bright lines of text floated before him, suspended in the night air. There was a message all right, but it wasn’t from Dan. It was, he realized with a shock, from Mitchell Stone.

Jeff swallowed hard. He hadn’t seen or heard from him since Mitchell had been medevaced back to Tau Ceti, disappearing into the ASI’s maw as mysteriously as he’d reappeared in that chamber of pits.

He opened the message and read it: Need to speak with you and any other members of TC sci-eval teams urgently. Am in North Dakota. Where are you?

Indecision flooded over Jeff. Mitchell Stone had been . . . if not exactly a friend, at least someone who had sided so strongly with the sci-eval teams that he’d run the risk of court martial. But he was also part of ASI Security, the same people Dan was sure were trying to kill them. So who to trust?

Jeff hesitated a few moments more, then made a decision.

Near Flathead Lake in Montana, he sent back. Then added, I’m here with Dan Rush.

He waited, but an immediate reply clearly wasn’t forthcoming.

He glanced back down at the lake below, and saw the car had now taken the turn-off from the highway and on to the narrow road that circled the lake, coming his way. Maybe, just maybe, this was Dan.

Jeff tried to follow the progress of the car’s lights as it appeared and disappeared between the tree trunks crowding the slo of the hill beneath him. He could just make out parts of the sharply winding road that switched back and forth up the steep incline towards his cabin. He watched with mounting tension as the headlights approached the nearest switch back turn.

Hope finally gave way to a desperate paranoia. After all this time, the chances were good that this was anyone but Dan.

Jeff pointed his index finger towards the car, thumb cocked, and quickly drew a circle in the air with the moving car roughly at its centre. His contacts responded by projecting a bright pastel circle against the dark outline of the mountain slope, moving along with the headlights despite the intervening trees, while retrieving whatever public information might be available about the vehicle’s occupant or its registration. Nothing came back, but he hadn’t really expected it to.

The best thing to do was not to take any chances, so he hurried back inside the cabin and grabbed hold of the backpack. He could always hide out somewhere nearby until he saw who got out of the car. He hoisted the rucksack over his shoulders, remembering to pick up the car-jacker chip only at the last moment.

The fireplace still glowed fitfully in one corner. He’d added wood to it in just the last hour. If there was anyone inside that car looking to hurt him, they weren’t going to have too hard a time figuring out he’d only just departed. There wasn’t much he could do about that, so he quickly pulled on his gloves and ordered the cabin to turn its lights off, before stepping back out into the frigid evening air.

Jeff jogged along the gravel path fronting the cabin until he reached a flight of steps leading towards the summit of the hill. After ascending the first few dozen steps, he stopped and looked back in time to see the vehicle pull into the driveway.

As two figures got out of the car, Jeff felt a tension at the base of his spine. He reached out again, drawing a circle with them both at its centre. This time he enlarged a single frame of the two men at maximum magnification, until he could see their faces more clearly.

It took a second for his contacts to process the data, and he studied the faces of the two men, who were now approaching his cabin. He recognized neither. One had sandy hair that flew about his forehead when the wind caught it, while his taller companion, thin as a rake, clutched a lightweight suit jacket around his shoulders. Neither of them was dressed for the freezing weather.

Jeff’s teeth chattered, not entirely from the cold. He watched them confer for a moment, before they stepped up to the door of his cabin. The shorter one held in one hand what might be a weapon of some kind.

Jeff continued watching as they stepped inside, light flooding on to the gravel a moment later. With a sudden terrible lurch, he remembered that the contacts containing the stolen database were still hidden in the tool shed behind the cabin.

He gripped the wooden hand railing running alongside the steps, and swore quietly. How could he have been so stupid?

He saw the cabin door swing open once more. After a moment, the bright beam of a torch flicked first across the driveway, then up towards the path on which he stood watching.

Suddenly galvanized, Jeff hurried further up the steps, taking them two or three at a time. After ascending a short way, he came to another trail encircling the summit of the hill. He jogged along this second path until he found another clear view down through the trees, to where he could see a tiny wharf jutting out into the waters of the lake, where some of the local residents kept their boats moored.

He pulled himself up and over the low wooden railing, whose purpose was to keep summer hikers from tumbling down the hillside, and started to make his way down the steep slope, navigating between dense clumps of pine and fir. He could make out the dark masses of granite outcrops to either side, while far below him lay a relatively smooth grassy slope extending most of the way down to the shoreline. Assuming he didn’t take a tumble, he could make it to the wharf in about ten minutes, or fifteen at the outside.

Voices called out to each other from above and behind. Jeff started to move more quickly, grabbing hold of tufts of grass or branches to keep from skidding too fast down the steep gradient. The air smelled of barbecue smoke drifting across the lake from cabins on the far side, as he slid down occasional stretches of snow on his butt.

The clouds passed away from the face of the moon, illuminating the slope beneath him and making the going easier. The ground began to level out, and Jeff started to run. Suddenly a point of red light was visible on a patch of snow a few metres ahead of him. A second later, a thin plume of snow erupted from the same spot, followed by the sound of a gunshot echoing across the valley.

Jeff threw himself towards the relative cover of some bull pine, in his terror almost colliding with a granite boulder. Manoeuvring his way past the boulder, he caught sight of the lakeside road, maybe only forty or fifty metres away. His shoulder blades tingled as he imagined that red dot alighting between them next.

He stumbled over a root, just as the trees began to thin out, and hit the ground hard. He staggered upright, despite the pain, and forced himself to keep moving, pushing through a tangle of brush until he reached the edge of a steep incline overlooking the road. He came to a stop briefly, then darted along the upper edge of the slope until he came across another flight of stone steps leading steeply downwards.

Shit. Jeff stared across the roadway towards the wharf, and suddenly realized there was nothing moored there – nothing he could use to try and get away to safety across the lake. A derelict hut, once home to a diving outfit, stood right next to the wharf, the side of it facing the road adorned with a crude illustration of several divers swimming amidst cartoon bubbles.

As clouds passed across the moon, Jeff grabbed the opportunity and ran across the road, desperate to avoid becoming target to another sniper shot. Glancing to one side, he nearly cried out in relief when he spotted a dinghy pulled up on the shore, quite close to the wharf but just far away enough for him not to have noticed it from the top of the incline. He hurried towards it, the gravelly sand crunching underfoot, and also saw that the dinghy was equipped with a small outboard motor.

He pushed the craft out into the freezing water, getting his ankles thoroughly soaked before he pulled himself inside and settled on the single narrow wooden bench. Jeff touched the engine’s interface, and a menu rendered in softly glowing panels superimposed itself against the night sky. The dinghy was fully juiced up, enough power stored in its battery reserves to keep it going for several days.

At the sound of someone splashing through the water towards him, he reached out in a panic to activate the motor. Just as he began to pull away from the shore, a dark shape threw itself halfway inside the dinghy, making it rock wildly.

Jeff didn’t even have time to feel scared, but he grabbed hold of the bench on either side of him, and used it for leverage as he kicked out with both feet. He heard an oof, and kicked again, as the dinghy began to turn in tight circles. His assailant staggered upright, and Jeff fell backwards against the outboard motor as a fist connected with the side of his head.

His assailant, the tall thin one, had a gun trained on him. Without thinking, Jeff grabbed hold of the tiller and twisted it frantically. The dinghy slewed wildly to one side, and the thin man staggered. Light and sound exploded from the gun, and Jeff felt something hot sear past his cheek. There was a yell, then a splash, as the other man lost his balance and fell back into the freezing water.

Jeff heard another shot, then another, from the direction of the shore. Crouching low, he twisted the tiller back again. Clouds were passing back in front of the moon and, in the pitch darkness, he was unsure where the far side of the lake now lay.

The dinghy jerked, and spun half around, as it smacked violently into something. For one heart-freezing moment, Jeff wondered if he’d somehow run himself aground somewhere alongside the wharf.

Instead, the dinghy continued on its way, its prow cutting cleanly through the water. He saw a dark shape slip past, arms spread out and motionless, and guessed it was the same man who had attacked him.

As the clouds cleared from the face of the moon, he caught sight of another wharf on the far shore, now only a few kilometres away. Shots rang out again, splashing water up on either side of the dinghy. Hoping to make himself a more difficult target, Jeff twisted the tiller frantically from side to side.

He glanced down to see water trickling through a hole just below the waterline, which he was sure hadn’t been there only seconds before. There were further shots behind him, but then no more. Assessing the trickle of water pooling around his boots, he decided it wasn’t likely to become a serious issue before he reached the opposite shore.

Jeff shivered as the wind cut through his soaking-wet clothes. It froze him to the marrow, and he wondered how long he had before hypothermia set in.

He was going to have to find some kind of transport soon. If he tried to hide in the woods or make it to Lakeside on foot, he’d only wind up dead of exposure.

As he sailed on, the dinghy’s motor emitting a barely audible hum, lights became increasingly visible through the trees above the far shore, and music drifted across the still waters. Several minutes later, he finally ran the dinghy up on to the shore, alongside a luxurious-looking motorboat moored to the wharf. He looked back across the lake and saw some headlights suddenly come on close by his cabin. Jeff watched for a few seconds as the same lights headed back down the long switchback road, and he realized he was far from being home and free.

Crossing the road, he soon found himself at the foot of another steep switchback track leading to a cluster of cabins he vaguely recalled were owned by some rental agency in Missoula. He jogged a short way up the road until he came to a cul-de-sac, where he found several private vehicles parked together, some of them busy chewing on bales of leafy biomass. The rear hatch of one car had been left open, revealing the shrink-wrapped cartons of beer stacked inside. Judging by the music, a party was currently in full swing.

Jeff glanced through the trees, and back across the lake, in time to see the headlights descend the final switchback bend in the road. He had five, maybe ten minutes at most, before it circled the lake.

He stepped forward, lifting the cartons of beer out of the rear of the car and dumping them on the grass verge, before crawling inside and pulling the hatch shut behind him. He manoeuvred himself into one of the front seats and tugged his backpack off, dropping it on to the adjacent seat before reaching out to touch the expanse of black glass that constituted the dashboard. He was far from surprised when nothing happened.

He fumbled around inside the backpack until he found Dan’s car-jacker, and pressed it against the dashboard. After a few moments the glass flickered, random lines of code scrolling by at speed. For one awful moment Jeff wondered if he’d managed to fry the car’s brain, but before very long a standard set of options appeared in place of the gibberish.

He closed his eyes in silent relief and let his head tip forward, as if in prayer, before reaching out and tapping the dashboard to select manual drive. The wheel unfolded before him, optional virtual menus materializing to either side.

He heard someone yell and glanced through the rear windscreen to see a figure running down the road leading from the cabins. Clearly, the car’s owner had returned for the rest of his beer.

Jeff gripped the wheel and put the car into reverse. A rear tyre hit a tree root, and one side of the vehicle slammed upwards as he turned it in a tight circle. Fists beat against the door next to him and he found himself staring at an angry face. Jeff hastily engaged the locks before the man could yank the door open, then hit the accelerator hard. The car shot forward, sending its owner tumbling away.

It bounced as it came off the switchback and hit the main road. The wheels spun as Jeff floored the accelerator, the lake sliding past at an ever-increasing speed.

With luck he could reach Lakeside in just another twenty minutes.

He turned up the heating as far as it would goeraut the car back on automatic. The wheel folded itself away again while he stripped off his sodden clothes, throwing them on to the rear seats. He’d stowed a spare change of clothes in the rucksack, but unfortunately it wasn’t waterproof, so he climbed into the back and dug around until he came across an oil-stained T-shirt that at least had the virtue of being dry, even if maybe three sizes too big.

Jeff glanced behind, but couldn’t see any sign of his pursuer’s headlights. The only thing left now, he realized, was to try and find Mitchell. So he accessed his UP and placed a call.

TWELVE

Hong Kong, 30 January 2235

Following his arraignment before a Taiwanese military judge, Saul spent the better part of forty-eight hours in a secure penal facility on the outskirts of Tainan, close to the island’s south coast. On his second morning there, a guard woke him by poking a baton into his ribs, before informing him in broken English that a diplomatic intervention had set him free.

His gaolers had taken his gear and contacts away and, Saul felt sure, were already working hard to extract from them whatever data they could. In exchange he was given a pair of powder-blue trousers that flapped around his ankles, and a short-sleeved maroon shirt with a dark stain on the collar, which he suspected was the original owner’s blood.

They led him out of the prison in handcuffs, and shoved him in the back of a police car. Saul spent the next hour watching the traffic slip by in either direction, before finally they arrived at an airport on the city outskirts, where he was placed directly on to a commercial hopper bound for Hong Kong.

On his arrival there, he was escorted through a restricted part of the main terminal building, still in handcuffs, to a room displaying the universal attributes of every interrogation room he had ever set foot in: a single table with a chipped plastic surface, unforgivably bright strip-lighting, ceiling-mounted scanning gear and a mirror that was almost certainly two-way.

Donohue was waiting for him there, seated on a plastic chair by the table, clutching a paper cup filled with black coffee in one hand. He watched as the two guards removed Saul’s cuffs before they departed.

‘You got here fast,’ said Saul, his voice cracking slightly.

‘You look fucking terrible,’ remarked Donohue, then wrinkled his nose. ‘And you smell worse. Didn’t they give you a shower?’

Saul rubbed his wrists carefully, squinting under the harsh light. ‘I just spent most of two days in a prison cell with twelve other men, and a trough in the floor for a toilet,’ he said. ‘They were out of toilet paper.’

‘There’s a pay-shower somewhere in the terminal,’ Donohue replied. ‘But I’m afraid there probably won’t be time for you to use it before you ve.’

‘Leave?’ Saul echoed.

‘You’re going home,’ Donohue explained. ‘You have a flight to catch in less than an hour. I’m sure you’re glad to hear that.’

Saul nodded, and lowered himself on to a second chair with infinite weariness. ‘Where’s Sanders?’

‘He couldn’t make it,’ Donohue replied, his expression suddenly sour. He sighed and got up, stepping over to a cabinet, where he poured the dregs from a cafetière into another paper cup before placing it in front of Saul. A faint wisp of steam rose up from its tarry black contents, as Saul curled one hand around the cup, feeling the heat work its way through his skin.

Donohue sat down again. ‘I’ve just spent a considerable amount of time and energy trying to find ways to extricate you before the Taiwanese decided you were trying to overthrow their government, and locked you up for the next hundred years. Care to tell me your side of things?’

Saul lifted the coffee to his lips and took a tentative sip. It tasted better than he’d expected.

‘Hanover’s your man,’ he said. ‘He was on to you from the start. Have you got him back yet?’

Donohue shook his head. ‘No, we haven’t, but that little excursion is costing us dearly. There are videos and photos of dead ASI troopers all over the nets.’

‘I found him destroying hard copies – evidence of some kind, I’m guessing. He didn’t even try to hide what he was up to, because he knew he was going to get caught, and made plans to save himself. He did, however, tell me he wanted me to deliver a message.’

‘Go on.’

‘He said that if you don’t guarantee his family safe passage to the colonies, he’ll tell the Sphere everything he knows.’ Saul shrugged. ‘I can’t make any sense of what he told me, but I assume you can.’

‘That’s all he said?’

‘He mentioned some other stuff that didn’t make any more sense to me either. Tau Ceti, and something called a Pacific growth?’ Saul shook his head in puzzlement. ‘I had no idea what he was talking about.’

‘You didn’t ask him to explain?’

Saul gulped more coffee, and winced as it burned its way down his throat. ‘He had a gun to my head, after nearly burning me to death. It didn’t feel like a priority under the circumstances.’

‘I’ll need a full and detailed report.’

Saul shruggeo;There’s not much more to tell, except that Hanover sacrificed his entire squad rather than give himself up to me. Whoever was using that compound must have cleared out just before we arrived, so they’d obviously received plenty of advance warning. It doesn’t take a major leap of intuition to guess that Hanover’s the one who tipped them off.’

He watched Donohue withdraw a narrow, rectangular slip of paper from inside his jacket, then lay it on the table between them. Donohue drew the tip of one finger across it, and, in response, the logo of a major airline appeared on the sheet of paper, as if by magic, along with lines of text rendered in a fine-serif font.

He scooted the live-sheet towards Saul, who stopped it with his fingertips.

‘Diplomatic clearance and your ticket home,’ explained Donohue. ‘All appearances to the contrary, you’ve done good, Saul.’

‘That’s funny, because I could have sworn it was a total fuck-up.’

‘It was,’ Donohue replied. ‘But we already had a pretty good idea that Hanover was our man. We couldn’t prove it, however, unless we found some way to draw him out and catch him in the act.’

‘So I was just bait,’ said Saul, glowering.

Donohue merely smiled, without humour.

‘He sabotaged my A/V uplink,’ Saul continued, leaning forward. ‘That means there’s no proof any of this actually happened. You must know that?’

‘Corporal Helena Bryant’s A/V systems were working just fine,’ Donohue replied. ‘You’ll remember she interrupted your conversation at a particularly crucial juncture. Her contacts had a heavily encrypted satellite uplink, so we’ve got more than enough solid evidence of what took place.’

‘The man is a piece of shit,’ Saul observed. ‘You’re not seriously going to give him what he wants, are you?’

‘That decision’s not up to anyone in this room,’ Donohue replied, standing.

‘You have to give me some idea what’s going on here.’ Saul stared up at him. ‘What the hell was all that stuff he mentioned about the colonies being on their own?’

Donohue gazed down at him with an expression halfway between scorn and pity. ‘I’ve no idea what you mean, Saul. Maybe you need to cut back on some of that loup-garou you love so much.’

‘What about the hijacked shipment? What’s in it that everyone wants so badly?’

Donohue shook his head without answering that, then stepped over to the door and pulled it open. The distant tones of an automated announcement echoed along the corridor. ‘You’ve got just over halfere&rsqur to catch your flight,’ he said.

‘Wait.’ Saul could hear the blood pounding in his head. ‘What did Hanover mean when he said the colonies were going to be all on their own? And what the hell about finding out who destroyed the Galileo wormhole?’ he yelled, anger welling up inside him. ‘Does Hanover know something about it, or was that just some bullshit you concocted?’

Donohue shook his head as if in pity. Saul watched as he stepped towards him, pulling a plastic inhaler out of a pocket and dropping it on the table.

Saul stared down at it. ‘What the hell’s that for?’ he asked.

‘A little pick-me-up,’ Donohue sneered. ‘Had the feeling you might need it.’

‘Fuck you,’ Saul snapped, sweeping the inhaler on to the floor with one hand.

‘You used to be a good agent, Saul,’ said Donohue, stepping back to the door. ‘Maybe you should take Hanover’s advice and have a vacation somewhere off-world. And, when you get there, I’d strongly advise you to stay there.’

Saul stared at the closed door, once Donohue had departed, a hundred more questions remaining stillborn in the back of his throat.

THIRTEEN

Lakeside, Montana, 30 January 2235

Jeff woke up in the back of the car he’d stolen, now parked behind a bar and grill in Lakeside with his down jacket pulled up over his shoulders. He sneezed loudly, though he’d left the heating turned up full all night. The recycled air tasted stale, humid and disgusting.

Pushing himself upright, he found to his relief that the clothes he’d left draped over the backs of the two front seats had mostly dried out. Wincing at the smell, he dragged on his shirt and trousers, then fumbled to open a door before dragging himself out into painfully bright morning sunlight. The car had expanded to allow him the room he needed to sleep, but upon sensing his exit it hummed and creaked as it reassumed its default configuration. A room in a local motel would have been a lot more comfortable, but it had occurred to Jeff that it might well be the first place the surviving assassin would think of looking for him.

He stepped around to the front of the bar, and glanced up and down the single highway running through the small town. He could see two- and three-storey buildings stretching off in either direction, while bull pines spread up the steep slopes rising immediately beyond the rooftops, reaching towards the wisps of cloud streaking an azure sky. Jeff activated his contacts, and a breakfast menu appeared next to the bar’s entrance.

Jeff listened to his stomach grumble, then noted with some misery that the bar wouldn’t open for another couple of hours.

serace="Times New Roman">Something flashed in the corner of his vision and he saw that he’d finally got a reply from Mitchell Stone. He’d tried to get hold of him a dozen times as he fled in the stolen car, before finally giving up, so he opened the message without hesitation. Through his contacts, Stone’s words were projected as thick black letters floating against the brilliant sky.

Need to talk with you urgently, the message read. Bring Dan to these coordinates, and meet me there.

The coordinates were tagged on to the end of the message, which turned out to be someplace in Sioux Falls, the better part of two thousand kilometres to the east.

Sioux Falls, wondered Jeff. What the hell was in Sioux Falls?

He swallowed, his throat dry, and wondered again if looking to Mitchell for help was the right decision. But there were so many questions Jeff wanted to ask him – so many! How on Earth could he have survived, where Vogel hadn’t? And where had Eliza actually had him taken after he was rushed back home?

In that same moment, Jeff became aware of someone watching him from across the road. It was a middle-aged man, in scuffed trousers and work-shirt, leaning against the wall alongside a fabricator kiosk.

Jeff shut down his UP and focused his gaze on the window of the restaurant, as if still consulting its vanished menu. When he turned back to view the street half a minute later, he saw the man was gone, but a light had come on inside the store adjoining the kiosk.

Glancing down the highway to the east, he felt his heart skip a beat when a police car emerged, low and black and shark-like, from a side road and turned in his direction. Jeff ducked back into the alleyway and pulled open his car door, grabbing up his rucksack before hightailing it around the far end of the building that stood across the alley from the bar. After a minute he heard the sound of wheels crunching over gravel as the police car entered the alley.

Jeff peered cautiously around the corner, in time to see the police car pull up next to his own. A uniformed officer stepped out and walked once around the stolen car, before glancing all about. Jeff ducked back out of sight, praying that he hadn’t been spotted.

Long seconds passed, then he heard the sound of a car door opening and closing, followed again by the sound of tyres rolling over gravel. Jeff stepped back out from hiding in time to see his stolen vehicle, now slaved to the police car, following it back out on to the highway, like a new-born calf trailing its mother.

Jeff let out a long groan and wondered what the hell he was going to do next.

He waited another minute before venturing back out on to the highway, glancing warily in both directions. The shops still seemed mostly deserted, though he could hear tinny music from behind one window as he headed a couple of blocks west, keeping an eye out for the cop car. He recollected seeing a bus station a little further along, and before long found himself standing before a parking area containing a half-dozen unmanned buses gathered around a towering stack ofbiomass bales.

Jeff glanced back towards the highway, wondering about using the car-jacker to steal himself another car, but that carried its own risks. If a cop could track down a stolen ride that easily, they’d have no trouble catching him driving on the interstate once the theft had been reported. Carjacking might seem a viable option down Mexical way, but the roads were much better protected this far north.

Really, he knew that the best thing for him to do would be to ditch his current pair of contacts. Except almost anything he might need to do – make a purchase, call Mitchell, anything that might require money – couldn’t be achieved without access to the funds stored in his Ubiquitous Profile, stored in his contacts; his UP was his bank, ID and means of communication all rolled into one. And even if he did buy and register a new pair, he’d still have to transfer his UP to them before he could use them, and then he’d be right back where he started. Dan’s notion of bootleg contacts, complete with their own fake Ubiquitous Profiles, was starting to make a great deal of sense.

Right now, he either risked using his UP or he walked all the way to Sioux Falls.

Sighing heavily, Jeff stepped towards the nearest bus. Its door rattled open at his approach, the hydraulics wheezing slightly. He sat near the back, hunching himself down low in the seat, and purchased a one-way ticket that would take him all the way. He pictured alarms already strobing red in some secret government facility populated by sober-looking men and women dedicated to his immediate demise.

The vehicle was freezing cold, and he wrapped himself tighter in his down jacket. He entertained a brief fantasy of jumping back off, then making his way back to the cabin and the tool-shed to retrieve the contacts containing the stolen database, but a saner part of him knew it would be the best way to wind up dead. And, besides, they’d almost certainly have discovered the safe where he’d hidden them by now.

He pulled the hood of his jacket over his face and rested his head against the cold glass. He then only realized he’d fallen asleep when the bus rumbled into life, bouncing gently as it pulled out on to the highway to follow its pre-programmed route. He coughed and sneezed, and looked around, noticing that he was still the only passenger.

Jeff rode the same bus all the way back to Missoula, passing through several small towns along the way. By now it was picking up and dropping off an endless succession of passengers. A couple of hours later, he disembarked and grabbed a seat on an interstate hopper that flew him over lakes, hills and towns before depositing him on a landing pad just outside the Sioux Falls city limits. It was now nearly seven hours since he’d woken up in the back of the stolen car, and he felt tired, scared and dirty. However, at least he had managed to grab some breakfast from an autocafé during a scheduled stopover.

Jeff let his contacts guide him towards Mitchell’s coordinates, which ominously enough indicated somewhere inside a huge cemetery sprawling across the grassy lower slopes on the far side of town. As he walked along neatly mown paths laid out between the rows of headstones, his contacts identified the coordinates by means of a giant cartoon arrow hovering straightad and pointing downwards. Before long Jeff came to a small fountain, ringed by wooden benches. The arrow remained directly overhead, but there was no sign of anyone else around.

Nearly twenty minutes had passed before he spotted a lone figure making straight towards him down an alternative path, the newcomer’s face largely obscured under the broad hood of a hunting jacket. As he came closer, one grizzled hand reached up to pull the hood back, and Jeff saw that it was Mitchell – looking just as bruised and battered as he himself felt. He swallowed hard, more relieved to recognize the man than he was prepared to admit even to himself.

‘I’ve got to be honest,’ Jeff began, ‘there’s a part of me that’s not sure if you’ve really come here to help me or . . . or to kill me.’

Mitchell regarded him with unwavering pale-blue eyes. ‘Why would I do that?’

‘I’ve learned to become paranoid over the past couple of days.’ Jeff glanced around. ‘Why here? Why a cemetery, for God’s sake?’

Mitchell shrugged. ‘There’s good all-round visibility, and not much in the way of public surveillance. If anyone comes looking for us, we’ll easily see them first.’ He looked around. ‘Where’s Dan?’

‘He . . . Dan’s dead.’

‘Dead?’ Mitchell’s gaze became suspicious. ‘How?’

‘There were people trying to kill us.’

The frown on Mitchell’s face deepened. ‘I don’t understand.’

Jeff quickly explained the events of the last few days. When he got to Lucy’s death, Mitchell closed his eyes and inhaled loudly.

‘And all of this made you think I might want to kill you?’ he asked, opening his eyes again.

‘You’re still part of ASI. And we stole those files.’

Jesus!’ Mitchell clasped his head in a gesture of despair. ‘Who the hell do you think got Lucy access to the security deck in the first place?’

‘I don’t know. I guess I assumed she and Farad found some way of hacking it remotely.’

‘We had a thing together,’ Mitchell replied. ‘Me and Lucy. I guess you didn’t know.’

At first, Jeff couldn’t think what to say. ‘I . . . didn’t,’ he finally stammered.

‘She knew I was sympathetic, and I helped her out. She took a big chance through confiding in me, but I knew how badly things were being run. So I gave her my access privileges – it seemed the right thing to do.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Jeff, his face flushing with embarrassment. ‘You didn’t say anything when I told you Lucy had . . .’ He paused as he remembered the look on Mitchell’s face when he had told him.

‘It’s not the first time I’ve lost someone close to me.’ Mitchell put a hand on Jeff’s shoulder. ‘Look, you’re not the only one on the run. They were planning to take me apart just so they could figure out what happened to me in that pit, and they were very clear about me not being expected to survive the experience. That’s why I contacted you. I badly need your help.’

‘Of course. But you still haven’t told me what exactly happened to you.’

‘When was the last time we spoke to each other, Jeff?’

‘You mean before I met you here?’ Mitchell nodded. ‘I guess . . . back at Tau Ceti, just before we set off for Site 17.’

‘And when was that?’

‘Several weeks ago now.’

‘What would you say if I told you it’s been a lot longer than that for me? More like the better part of a decade?’

Jeff stared at him, clearly perplexed. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘I’ve got a lot to explain once we have the chance.’ Mitchell glanced around. ‘But first we have to do something about your contacts.’ He pulled a foil blister-pack out of a pocket. ‘These are fresh ones, registered with false UPs.’

Jeff stared at the blister-pack. ‘How did you get hold of them?’

‘I worked in security for fifteen years, Jeff, so I know a lot of things you don’t. Now take out your own contacts, before your friends with the guns catch up with us.’

Jeff hesitated, then reached up and delicately pinched the contact out of one eye, dropping it into the palm of his right hand before repeating the operation with his other eye. He then fished out a plastic case with his other hand, and carefully placed the devices inside.

‘You did remember to deactivate your UP before you took them out, right?’

Jeff nodded.

‘Hold on to them,’ advised Mitchell. ‘You might need them later.’

Jeff accepted the blister-pack from Mitchell and popped one of the bubbles open, dipping one finger in to lift out a contact. He leaned his head back and dropped it on to one eye.

‘I’m surrised they haven’t caught up with us already,’ Jeff remarked as he opened the second blister.

‘Trust me, they won’t be far behind. But as long as we don’t use our own UPs for now, it should be a lot easier to stay out of sight.’

Jeff dropped the second contact into position, and blinked a couple of times. A manufacturer’s logo appeared briefly in the lower right of his vision, before fading to nothing.

Instead of asking him to register his current UP, the new contacts informed him that his name was Eric Waites, and he was a native of Connecticut. As info-bubbles popped up here and there, he discovered that Eric possessed a big enough bank balance to keep himself comfortable for at least a couple of weeks.

‘Okay,’ said Mitchell, ‘let’s start walking. The sooner we get out of here, the better. How did you find your way here, exactly?’

‘I had to pay for a bus ticket.’ As they rounded a hedge, Jeff glanced ahead and spotted another exit from the cemetery, not too far ahead.

Mitchell eyed him sharply. ‘Didn’t you tell me you stole a car?’

‘Yeah, to get away from the cabin. But it was just sheer dumb luck I didn’t get caught once they managed to track it down.’

‘Buying a bus ticket made you just as easy to find,’ Mitchell said reproachfully.

‘To hell with that,’ said Jeff, feeling irritated. ‘I’m here now, so the most important thing to worry about is getting back to Montana and retrieving that database.’

‘You’re kidding.’ Mitchell raised an eyebrow. ‘Unless I heard you wrong, you went to hide out in a cabin that you owned under your own name. Could you have made it any easier for them to find you?’

Jeff felt his face burning. ‘I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way.’

Mitchell gestured dismissively. ‘Well, you can forget about going back there. My guess is they’ll have the whole area well covered, in case you try to do exactly that.’

They were almost at the cemetery gates now, Jeff noticed. ‘Then what the hell do we do? What’s the point in even meeting like this if we’re just going to do nothing?’

‘You at least want to stay alive, don’t you? What’s the point of charging back up that mountain, the two of us against the whole ASI? How do you think that would pan out, seeing they’re already hunting you?’

He was right, Jeff realized; but even worse was admitting to himself that Lucy and Dan’s hard work stealing the Tau Ceti databases might well have been for nothing. He stood there, feeling utterly impotent, and for a moment saw himself as Mitchell mus see him: idealistic, naive and foolhardy.

‘The best thing we can do right now,’ Mitchell continued, ‘is just keep ourselves alive. Doesn’t anyone else have a copy of that database?’

Of course. It was something he’d actually forgotten for a moment. ‘Farad . . . Farad has a copy, but none of us had heard from him. I guess I’ve been assuming he was dead too.’

‘But you don’t know for sure?’

Jeff merely shook his head.

‘Then don’t make too many assumptions, okay? You’ll not prove anything if you wind up dead yourself.’

‘So what now?’

‘Now we get ourselves to the Moon, preferably before the first of the growths makes an appearance here. Are you with me on that?’

‘Yes, I . . . guess.’

‘Good.’ Mitchell turned to him just by the gate. ‘But, before we do that, there’s something I need you to do for me. You used to work for Arcorex, didn’t you? Down Omaha way?’

‘Sure.’ Jeff nodded. ‘That’s where they always take the Founder artefacts, after they arrive. Why?’

‘Do you still have clearance? Can you still get inside there?’

Jeff shrugged, looking bewildered. ‘I don’t know, maybe . . . unless it’s been revoked. I wouldn’t know until I tried, but I haven’t been there in a couple of years.’

‘Good.’ Mitchell chewed his lower lip for a moment, then nodded as if coming to a decision. ‘That’s where we’re going next.’

‘Arcorex? What in God’s name could you need from Arcorex?’ Jeff demanded. ‘First you won’t help me recover those files, then you tell me you want us to go to the Moon, and now you want to take a detour via Omaha?’

Mitchell let out a heavy sigh. ‘I swear I’ll explain everything to you on the way. Until then, I just need you to trust me. It’ll all become clear by the time we get there, I promise you.’

Jeff gave a strangled laugh. ‘Maybe you should just tell me now. Why Arcorex?’

‘You sound like you don’t trust me.’

Jeff let his hands flap against his sides, in a gesture of helplessness. ‘I don’t know who to trust, Mitch. I never thought I’d . . .’

‘Screw up this badly?’

Jeff glared at him, his fists bunching.

‘Look,’ said Mitchell, ‘I swear, we’ll talk on the way.’

‘It’s going to have to be a really good explanation.’

‘It is.’

‘All right.’ Jeff managed to push his anger and frustration back down into the same place he’d been keeping them bottled up for the past few days. ‘But I’ve got a condition of my own.’

‘What?’

‘Olivia.’

‘Your ex-wife?’ Mitchell shook his head, clearly confused. ‘What about her?’

‘When we head to the Moon, she’s coming with us.’

Mitchell gaped at him, his mouth hanging open. ‘Jeff—’

‘No.’ The muscles in Jeff’s jaw tightened. ‘That’s not up for negotiation – not if you want me to get you inside Arcorex.’

Mitchell sighed again. ‘It’s going to complicate things, a lot.’

‘Even so.’

Mitchell shook his head wearily. ‘Fine.’ He led Jeff out on to the street. ‘We’ll fetch Olivia, but right now I’ve got a ride waiting for us.’ He pointed to a van with a silver finish parked on the kerb.

‘Tell me what’s in Arcorex,’ Jeff demanded.

‘Somebody we need to rescue.’

‘It’s not a prison, Mitch. They don’t keep people locked up there.’

Mitchell grinned, as if at a private joke. ‘You’re wrong. Somebody’s been held there ever since the incident at Site 17, and we’re going to bust him out.’ Mitchell stepped up to the van, slapping one hand on its ID plate as Jeff stared after him. The door made a clunking sound as it unlocked.

Mitchell looked over at him. ‘Get in the van, will you?’

‘What happened to you in that pit, Mitch?’

Mitchell climbed inside and touched the dashboard, a preprogrammed route springing up in response. Jeff shook his head, and went to get in on the other side.

‘I’ll tell you,’ Mitchell replied, as the van pulled away from the kerb. ‘But I’m wrning you, it’s going to take a lot of explaining.’

FOURTEEN

En route to 94 Aquarii, 1 February 2235

Fowler felt a slight vibration as the rail-mounted shuttle-car transported him across a hundred light-years in an instant.

The roof of the shuttle-car was attached to an overhead track that ran directly through the centre of the wormhole. One mouth of the wormhole was located on Luna, the other on board a star-ship already decelerating on its approach to the Galileo system. It was considerably smaller than the mass-transit models that carried thousands of passengers daily between Luna and the colonies, and existed primarily to transport the engineers and physicists whose job was to maintain the equipment that prevented either mouth of the wormhole from collapsing. Each of the mouths was capped by a vast steel torus containing trace quantities of highly unstable exotic matter, held at bay by enormously powerful magnetic fields, while the surface of the wormhole itself was hidden from sight behind dense layers of machinery and shielding.

Fowler had the sensation of falling for a few moments before he felt his weight return; the starship’s near-1g deceleration allowed him to walk around its interior in relative comfort.

His UP was already active, and he now used it to navigate his way to the observation suite, most often the first stop for documentary makers or politicians wanting to see where all the taxpayer’s money was going. He arrived to find Donohue already there, gazing up at the broad, curving bowl of the main display screen with tired eyes; Fowler guessed he’d only just got back from his trip to the Far East. When Donohue lowered his head, Fowler allowed himself a momentary satisfaction at the look of apprehension on the agent’s face.

‘I’ve read your summary report,’ he began, taking a seat opposite Donohue. ‘Your partner is dead, and you still haven’t found Jeff Cairns. If you’re deliberately trying to display unprecedented levels of incompetence, you’re doing an excellent job.’

Donohue regarded him levelly. ‘Mr Sanders did his best to follow your orders, sir. Maybe if we’d been told we were dealing with quite such resourceful targets, we could have—’

‘Or maybe you’re just not competent enough to do your job,’ Fowler snapped. ‘Please don’t waste my time with excuses. Have you even found Maalouf?’

Donohue cleared his throat. ‘We’ve found him, and he’s still on Newton. However, he’s escorted by armed guards wherever he goes.’

‘In other words, he’s considerably more than just a civilian scientist.’

Donohue nodded. ‘We’ve carried out extensive analysis of his movements prior to being posted to the Founder Project, and we found evidence that he’s had at least some contact with one of the local separatist groups.’

Fowler waved a hand dismissively. ‘We’ll have time to mop up the separatists after the evacuation is over. In the meantime, terminating Maalouf remains a priority. Got that?’

‘Sir.’

‘All right.’ Fowler nodded, still far from mollified. ‘What’s the latest with Hanover?’

‘We’re still in negotiation with the Taiwanese authorities, but we’ve confirmed that he allowed himself to be caught. One of our people managed to get a private interview with him, and he’s still threatening to tell Sphere representatives everything, if we don’t give him what he wants.’

Fowler grunted. ‘Hell of a gamble for him to take.’

‘But one that paid off, at least at first.’ Donohue leaned forward and clasped his hands. ‘We’ve made progress, however. Network forensics show that Hanover opened more than a dozen anonymous accounts over the past several weeks, all with firms specializing in secure data-storage. He’s set the accounts up so that any data held in them will be released and disseminated automatically unless he intervenes at specified times.’

‘In other words, killing him would just make things worse.’

Donohue nodded. ‘And it also puts a time limit on how long we can risk leaving him in foreign custody. However, we’ve put pressure on the owners of the businesses concerned. Several are in non-Coalition treaty territories, which means we don’t have any influence over them directly, but all of them do business within Coalition territories – and it’s business they can’t afford to lose.’

Fowler grunted approval. ‘Go on.’

‘To cut a long story short, we’ve already secured access to most of his accounts, and it won’t take more than another day or so to shut down the rest.’

Fowler nodded. ‘Excellent. Any idea who Hanover’s main Sphere contact is?’

‘Yes, a member of the Beijing diplomatic service, based in New York. We picked him up a few hours ago, along with a couple of other embassy workers we’re pretty sure were involved. That leaves Hanover with no evidence to show, and we’ve already arranged a diplomatic exchange.’ He rubbed his hands on his thighs. ‘Regarding him, do you want me to—?’

‘No.’ Fowler shook his head. ‘No termination. I’m going to let him live – for now, anyway.’

Donohue frowned. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Trust me, he’s going to suffer more than you could imagine. What about the shipment?’

‘We know the hijackers landed at an airfield outside Tegucigalpa, and the shipment was then transferred to a cargo drone belonging to a shell company registered in the Philippines.’ Donohue paused, as if for effect. ‘Which turns out to be owned by a subsidiary of Shang-Gu Tech.’

Fowler could feel all the pieces drop into place. Shih Hsiu-Chuan was the original founder of Shang-Gu Tech, and still maintained a controlling interest in the company.

‘And after that?’

Donohue sat back with a sigh. ‘It’s confirmed that the cargo drone went down north of the Mariana Islands, and took the shipment to the bottom of the Pacific with it. We already knew the exact latitude and longitude of where the first of the growths would appear; by the looks of it, the drone crashed at the precise same coordinates.’

Icy tendrils creeping through his belly, Fowler recalled the recovered footage of the Pacific growth, dipping in and out of sight as the ship rose and fell on the turbulent waters. It had been wrapped in clouds of smoke and steam, big enough already it was almost certainly visible from orbit.

It was one thing, he thought, to have foreknowledge of future events. It was another matter entirely to see them so clearly confirmed.

Following the meeting on Luna, he had shown Amanda the full and unexpurgated video, noticing the way her lips had compressed into a thin white line as she watched it.

The view had swung away from the growth to show Amanda standing by a railing, with the Pacific blue and deep and restless behind her. Her eyes suddenly darted to one side, as if she saw something there that frightened her. After that, the video blurred and jerked rapidly before fading to darkness.

‘It’s going to be hard, you know,’ he remarked, almost to himself.

‘Sir?’

‘The colonial administrations,’ he explained, glancing directly at Donohue. ‘Most of them aren’t going to give up what little power they have without a fight. It might be all over in days, or it might take years – long, hard years.’

‘I understand that, sir.’

Fowler made a sound of irritation, aware that he sounded maudlin. He reminded himself that Donohue was nothing more than a weapon, and almost incapable – if his personnel file was anything to judge by – of anything resembling introspection.

‘Any news on Mitchell Stone?’ asked Fowler. ‘The one we brought back from the future,’ he added, by way of clarification.

‘I’m afraid not, so far. But the instant he shows himself anywhere near the Array, we’ve got him.’

Fowler nond wondered how he had managed to underestimate Stone’s resourcefulness quite so badly. His mistake, he saw now, had been in allowing a military intelligence unit to run the interrogation. His own people, even Donohue, surely couldn’t have made as big a mess.

‘Fine. Let him come to us, then,’ he said, regarding Donohue with a level stare. ‘And let me be perfectly clear on this: screw up again, and I’m going to wonder if you’re really competent of taking care of the tasks I assign you.’

‘Sir,’ said Donohue, standing up.

Once Donohue had left, Fowler leaned back and stared up at the stars displayed across the overhead screen. One of those points of light, he knew, was Galileo, only a few months’ journey away within the frame of reference of the ship and of Earth. Just another couple of weeks of deceleration, and radio communication with it would become possible. By then, however, the Earth would have been reduced to a lifeless wasteland.

And where will I be? Fowler wondered. He was supposed to help rebuild the Coalition, under the light of some other star, but he was all too aware of how much of a liability he already represented to that nascent civilization: useful for facilitating the transition of power, but possessing too much knowledge to comfortably be allowed to live.

And if anyone were to be given the orders to terminate him, it would almost certainly be Donohue.

No, Fowler had already come to his decision: neither Donohue nor anyone else would get the chance to kill him. He would fulfil his duty in the meantime, and give whatever orders proved necessary in order to ensure preparations for the transition went as smoothly as possible. But any lingering doubts about staying behind had vanished in the wake of Amanda’s decision not to seek escape.

After all, as she herself had quickly pointed out, someone had recorded those images of her on that storm-tossed ship, with that incomprehensibly alien structure rising from the deep ocean behind her. And, in his heart, Fowler knew that person could only be himself.

FIFTEEN

Orlando, Florida, 2 February 2235

Not too many hours after Donohue had walked out on him in Hong Kong, Saul woke up in the back seat of a taxi, outside the four-storey walk-up in Orlando he’d called home for the past six years, to the sound of a recorded voice asking him to please get out.

He stumbled out into the night air, feeling bone-crushingly weary, and looked down at the stained shirt and ill-fitting trousers he’d been forced to wear the whole way back from Hong Kong. A woman walking her dog gave him a quick once-over and quickly crossed over to the far side of the street.

Saul tugged the collar of his shirt close to his nose, sniffed and winced, remembering the look on the face of the man forced to sit next to him during the sub-orb fligh

Closing his front door behind him, he activated his UP just long enough to check his mail, and found a message waiting from someone he hadn’t heard from in a very long time. Saul came to an abrupt halt in the narrow hallway, and stared at the name floating next to the message icon.

He resisted the impulse to open and read it immediately. Whatever Olivia had to say, it almost certainly wasn’t anything he wanted to hear.

At least, not right now.

He instructed the house to run him a bath and meanwhile waited in the kitchen, dumping the clothes he’d been provided in the waste-disposal unit and pulling on a bathrobe. He ate half a tin of ravioli straight from the fridge, his gaze lingering on an old picture of Deanna and their daughter Gwen, until the house informed him ten minutes later that the bath was ready. He ordered a suit from a local fab-shop before easing himself into the warm water, some of the weight of the past few days sloughing away as he submerged.

He lay staring up at the bathroom ceiling, Olivia’s message occupying his thoughts far more than he wanted it to.

I could just delete it, he thought. Reading it had every chance of making his life a lot more complicated than it already was.

When he finally emerged from the bathroom half an hour later, the house informed him that a shrink-wrapped package was waiting by the front door. He opened it, pulling out a jacket and a pair of trousers cut from soft dark cloth, and also a grey silk shirt. They hadn’t been cheap but, after what he’d been through the last few days, Saul really wasn’t inclined to give a damn.

He got dressed and checked himself out in the bedroom mirror, but something still didn’t feel right. Saul felt twitchy and on edge. Maybe a little loup-garou, he thought, remembering that he had some stuffed in a coffee jar at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards . . .

No. He remembered the look of contempt on Donohue’s face, Jacob’s body slumped in a chair. He turned away from the mirror, suddenly feeling ashamed, and left the house.

As he bought himself a steak dinner at a local eatery, thoughts of Olivia continued to nag at him, making him feel lonely even at the one time he felt he needed most of all to be on his own. By the time he’d finished eating and was on his way to Christy’s to get good and drunk, he’d noticed a second message had arrived.

Saul abruptly came to a halt, realizing he was only delaying the inevitable. After reading both messages, he changed direction and headed for another bar, one he hadn’t stepped inside for several years.

Some of the tension he’d worked so hard at shedding was starting to creep back. By the time he arrived at Harry’s Bar and Diner, Olivia was already sitting waiting for him by the bar.

It was early enough for the place to still be fairly quiet, no more than a half dozen people scattered around the tables. Pebbled-glass windows splashed diffused streetlight across leather couches and dark varnished wood.

Saul climbed on to the stool next to Olivia’s. ‘This was my plan for tonight,’ he said, resting his arms on the counter. ‘I was going to get drunk and maybe make up some bullshit about the hard week I’ve just had, for the benefit of anyone who would listen, then let them call me a ride home when I couldn’t stand up any longer. A simple, yet effective strategy, and now you’ve gone and messed it all up.’

Olivia set her drink down – it came in a tall narrow glass and struck him as an unhealthy shade of pink – and glanced at him sideways in amusement. She had wide dark eyes and black hair that fell across her shoulders, and her features revealed a complex ethnic heritage that included a Seminole father and Korean grandmother.

‘As soon as I sat down here, it brought back a whole lot of memories, Saul. Not all bad ones, either, but, if it makes you feel any better, that’s not why I’m here.’

Saul ordered himself a drink. ‘So why are you here?’

‘Actually, it has to do with Jeff.’

‘Your ex-husband?’

‘Do you know any other Jeffs?’

‘I guess not.’

The barman deposited a Drambuie on the rocks in front of Saul. Even after so many years, the details of their past affair remained fresh in his mind. Olivia and Jeff Cairns had already been separated by the time she’d started sleeping with Saul – not that this had offered any great reassurance to his wife at the time. However, he’d been well on the road to patching things up with Deanna when the Galileo gate had collapsed.

‘Hey, look at you.’ She leaned forward to examine him under the overhead lights, and he could tell, from the way her eyes moved, that she was studying the bruises on his face. ‘What the hell happened to you?’

He took a sip of the Drambuie. ‘All in the line of duty, ma’am.’

Her expression by now was a mixture of pity and horror. ‘Still trying to get yourself killed?’

‘Still playing amateur psychologist?’

‘Only a couple more months, and you’ll know if Deanna and your daughter are still alive, Saul.’

‘And if they’re not?’

She sighed, and shot a glance at her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. ‘It doesn’t take a shrink to figure you out, Saul. First you let Mitchell talk you into that insane orbital jump, then you started drinking too much, like you were deliberately trying to kill yourself.&rsququo

He glared at her. ‘I was not trying to get myself killed,’ he snapped, a little too loudly. Seeing the barman glance their way, he lowered his voice. ‘It’s just . . .’

‘Just what?’

He fingered his drink and, noticing the way she looked at it, gulped it down as if in defiance. It coated his tongue with a sticky numb fieriness.

‘There was more to the jump we made than that,’ he said firmly. ‘You remember Mitch’s brother?’

She nodded. ‘Danny? I only met him once.’

‘You know he died?’

She nodded.

‘Mitchell blamed himself for it,’ Saul continued. ‘Felt he hadn’t been there for him. Do you know the actual details?’

She hesitated. ‘In the sketchiest sense, yes. But all of that happened after . . . after us. After you’d moved on from the Jupiter station.’

Saul had first met Olivia on being assigned, along with Mitchell, to security on the Jupiter orbital platform. The station had been huge even then, constantly growing as pre-assembled units were shipped there via the Inuvik gate back on Earth. Her husband, Jeff, had worked on experimental helium-dredges dropped into the Jovian atmosphere, while Olivia herself had served as the platform’s communications specialist. The sheer scale of the station made it easy for the couple to avoid each other once they’d decided to separate.

‘Mitchell and Danny both grew up near the DMZ in post-partition Chicago,’ Saul went on, and Olivia nodded to signify that this much she knew. ‘It was still a pretty rough place, even a couple of decades after the war. Mitch joined the ASI just to get away from the gangs, but . . .’

‘Danny didn’t?’

‘No.’ Saul could feel a sour taste building in the back of his throat. ‘Danny disappeared, and Mitchell was frantic. He asked me to help try and find him. I was already doing undercover work, so had an idea how to track him down. To cut a long story short, I was the one who found him.’

Olivia had that faraway look that told Saul she was accessing public records on the incident. ‘He got himself involved with traffickers,’ she said, glancing back at Saul a moment later. It was a statement, not a question.

‘I eventually found him in an illegal gene-lab that had been set up in an abandoned apartment building. The traffickers Danny had been working for were all long gone when I discovered him.’

‘They killed him?’

‘That’s whatthe coroner’s report said.’ He could clearly picture Danny’s lifeless face, still twisted up in anger. ‘The lab had been developing customized embryos for unregulated off-world labour markets. Slaves, essentially.’

‘Jesus. And you’ve no idea why they killed him?’

Saul shook his head. ‘Let’s just say it was all pretty rough on Mitchell, so when he said he wanted me to go along on that jump, six months later, I didn’t really feel up to saying no.’

‘I had no idea.’

‘Yeah, well, it’s like you said. We were all moving in different circles by then.’

Saul stood up and gazed down at her. ‘Look, I’m sorry about the way things worked out for us both, but talking to you this way brings back too many bad memories. Deanna would never have gone to live on Galileo if it hadn’t been for us two.’

‘Saul—’

‘Please,’ he insisted, ‘just hurry the hell up and tell me whatever it is you came here to say, otherwise I’m gone.’

She crumpled slightly, and he could see lines around her eyes showing how much older she’d become since he’d last set eyes on her.

‘Just give me one minute.’ She patted his vacated stool.

He slid back down on to the seat with evident reluctance, keeping one foot planted on the floor. ‘Make it quick.’

‘Like I said, I’m here because of Jeff. We had a reconciliation, just in the last year or two.’

Saul couldn’t hide his surprise. ‘Seriously?’

‘I know.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Took both of us by surprise, too. Most of that time he’s been involved in some kind of off-world research that takes him away for weeks or even months at a stretch, so it’s not like we really get to see that much of each other.’ She licked her lips and took a deep breath. ‘The thing is, now he’s disappeared.’

‘Disappeared?’

‘More than a week ago. I knew for a good long while that there was something on his mind, something to do with his work, but he wouldn’t talk about it.’

‘Maybe he couldn’t talk about it? The ASI had him working on a lot of high-security research projects, didn’t they?’

She shrugged. ‘I guess so. Thing is, we’d planned on spending some time together when he got back from his last trip out. Instead he cancelled everything and told me he was heading off somewhere on his own. He wouldn’t tell me whygood long I could tell that something bad had happened.’

Saul finally lifted his foot off the floor, and shifted himself into a more comfortable position. He was curious, despite himself. ‘And you haven’t heard from him since?’

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘Here’s the thing, though. Two different people contacted me since he vanished, both desperate to find him. The way they talked made me sure he was in some kind of trouble.’

‘Olivia,’ he spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness, ‘I don’t mean to sound callous, but I’m not sure what any of this has to do with me.’

She gave him an angry look. ‘Jesus, Saul, he’s your friend.’

Was my friend, until I started sleeping with his ex-wife.’

She stared back at him in silence.

‘All right,’ he raised his hands, ‘I’m sorry. Don’t you have any idea where he might have gone?’

Olivia shook her head. ‘Before I tell you anything else, there’s something you need to see.’

Saul’s UP informed him that she had just sent him a video file.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘Just take a look.’ She rolled her eyes.

Saul pushed his glass to one side, then tapped the four corners of an imaginary square on the bar counter with one finger. His contacts responded by projecting the clip she had sent within the confines of the same square.

It turned out to be something snatched from one of the main news feeds. He saw men in diving suits falling backwards off a boat into the waters of a lake, snow-capped hills dense with pine visible beyond the shore.

He glanced at Olivia, as the video clip remained locked to the counter. ‘What is this?’ he asked.

‘They dredged Jeff’s body out of that lake yesterday morning. We have a cabin up in Montana, where we used to spend our summers. There was a local news report saying it was suicide.’

Saul swallowed. ‘Shit, Olivia, I’m so sorry.’

‘No, don’t be. I don’t believe it.’

‘Don’t believe what?’

‘That it was suicide.’

He gave her an appraising stare.

‘I’m not out of my head, all right?’ she snapped. ‘It just . . . not something he would do.’

‘You can’t possibly know that, Olivia.’

Tendons stood out on her neck as she replied. ‘I know him, Saul, and I know he wouldn’t drown himself deliberately. I think somebody killed him.’

‘Does this have anything to do with the people that were looking for him? Who exactly were they?’

‘One was a guy called Dan Rush who’d worked with Jeff. The other was Mitch.’

Saul shook his head. ‘Mitch?’

‘Mitchell Stone.’ She peered at him like he’d lost his mind. ‘We were just talking about him, remember?’

Saul froze, with one hand clasped around his second Drambuie. He nodded slowly, his expression impassive.

‘He called you during the last couple of days? What day was it exactly?’

She thought for a moment. ‘It would have been the 29th.’

‘Of January?’

She nodded. ‘The other man, Rush, called me a few days before that.’

Four days ago, Saul realized. ‘I need you to be sure about that.’

She gave him a reproachful glare. ‘Jesus, Saul, of course I’m sure.’

He picked up his drink and took his time with it in order to give himself some more room to think. Donohue and Sanders had told him about Mitchell’s supposed death on the 20th – which was more than a week ago.

‘This guy, Rush, you ever met him?’

‘Just once, not long after I and Jeff got back together. So I already knew they were colleagues. When he called, he told me Jeff was in some kind of trouble.’ She pushed her hair back from her face. ‘I had a feeling Jeff might have gone up to the cabin, but he never replied to my messages. I was going to drive up there to try and see if I could find him for myself, but then I heard about him on the news.’

‘About Mitchell,’ said Saul, ‘I don’t want to sound like I’m doubting you, but are you sure it was really him?’

She looked at him. ‘Why wouldn’t I be? Besides, I know his voice. Why?’

Saul thought for a moment. ‘Okay, let me ask you this. Is there a reason you’re talking to me, and not the police?’

&lsquI already spoke to them, soon as I heard about Jeff being dredged out of the lake. They said there was no evidence of foul play and they didn’t even sound very interested in what I had to say. In fact, they treated me,’ she said, with a touch of venom, ‘like they thought I was crazy.’

‘But did you explain to them that you thought he might have been in some kind of trouble?’

‘Sure, except as soon as I mentioned that he worked for ASI’s research wing, they said I had to talk to the ASI instead.’

‘And?’

She shrugged. ‘So I talked to them as well, and they gave me exactly the same kind of brush-off.’ She smiled uncertainly. ‘After that, I figured that if anyone was in a position to look into things, it would be you.’

Saul nodded and smiled to hide the tension gripping him like steel. If what Olivia was telling him was true, then not only had Hanover lied about Mitch being dead, but Donohue and Sanders had done so also.

He guessed Olivia must have misinterpreted his sudden silence as reluctance, as she reached out and laid a hand over his. ‘I know you think I’m out of my mind, Saul, but I’ve never been more sane. I know I can’t ask this of you lightly.’ She smiled again, and he realized her confidence in him was genuine.

If only you knew the mess I’ve been making of things, he thought.

His mind whirred with possible connections. Mitchell had originally been a member of Hanover’s team, and Saul could see no direct connection between his reported death and the shipment hijack, but if he could be lied to about Mitchell’s death, what else might have been kept from him?

He thought back on the failures of the past several days – Jacob’s death, Hsiu-Chuan, Hanover – and felt the same anger that had been simmering inside him all throughout the long flight home start to rise up again like a hot tide. Donohue had used Galileo to bait him into volunteering for a risky mission, then discarded him without explanation as soon as he’d ceased to be of any use.

He’d find out why – whatever it took.

Saul reached out, touching two fingers to Olivia’s elbow. ‘I’ll check it out,’ he said, struggling to keep his voice level. ‘It’s the least I can do.’

SIXTEEN

Lakeside, Montana, 3 February 2235

Early the next morning, Saul caught a red-eye hopper to Montana, then fell asleep in the back of a hire car as it carried him towards Flathead Lake. By the time he woke again, cramped and hungry, mountains that had been a distant blue at the start of his journey now rose all around him, their grassy slopes dense with forest and spotted with clumps of snow.

He pulled in at an autocafé, less than fifty kilometres from his destination. Breakfast consisted of paste sandwiches and coffee with a faintly metallic taste, and he sat by the window, browsing local news feeds in case he could discover anything more about Jeff’s supposed suicide. Once he’d finished his coffee, he placed a call to the police station in Lakeside. He soon found himself talking with the sheriff there, a man by the name of Waldo Gibbs, who agreed to meet him when he arrived.

Just over an hour later, Saul pulled up outside the police station in Lakeside, a two-storey brick building with an open garage next door, crammed with trucks and cars built for the mountainous terrain. Gibbs stood waiting for him on the steps. Saul guessed he was in his mid-fifties, with a weather-beaten face beneath a fur-lined hat, and he looked like the type who preferred a life outdoors. Saul made sure to activate his UP so the sheriff could confirm his identity, as they shook hands.

‘Mr Dumont. I’m a little unclear why the ASI has been showing so much interest in Cairns. Did your boys forget something before they left?’

Saul kept his face impassive. He’d had no idea ASI agents had been involved in the investigation. ‘When exactly were they here?’

Gibbs squinted at him in the early afternoon sun. ‘Just this morning, but I’m afraid you’ve missed them. I’m sorry if that means you’ve had a wasted journey.’

‘I’m here to follow up on some things,’ Saul improvised. ‘Were you present when they pulled his body out of the lake?’

Gibbs nodded. ‘I was there all right, and I told your boys they had the wrong man, but they didn’t seem interested in listening to me. Now they’ve gone and put it out that Cairns is dead, when I know for a fact he ain’t.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘What I’m saying is, the man we dredged out of that lake was not Jeff Cairns. But, the way you guys act, it’s like you don’t give a damn.’

‘Then . . . in that case, who was it?’

Gibbs led him round one side of the station to a one-storey extension at the rear. ‘This is our morgue,’ he explained. ‘You wouldn’t think we’d need one this big for a town this small, but our catchment area covers a good chunk of the Rockies. If somebody’s got a body needs putting on ice, they either fly ’em in or drive ’em here.’ Gibbs pushed his way through a swing-door, and Saul followed him inside. ‘If a pathologist needs to see them, then they go on to Miles City.’

Saul noticed a lab assistant sitting at a live-desk. ‘How did you know for sure it wasn’t Jeff Cairns?’

‘We didn’t know who the hell he was, when we pulled him outrsquo; said Gibbs. ‘He was wearing contacts, but they’ve got some kind of heavy-duty encryption on them that we can’t break.’

‘You still have them?’

‘Nope.’ Gibbs shook his head. ‘ASI took them. You’re lucky you got here when you did. They told us to cremate the body straight away. As it happens, it’s still waiting to be picked up.’

Gibbs stepped over to a wall of metal drawers and pulled one open. Saul stepped up alongside him and watched as the policeman pulled the sheet back off the corpse contained within.

Saul found himself staring down at Sanders, Donohue’s partner. One side of his skull had been caved in.

‘His head—?’

‘He got run over by a motorboat,’ said Gibbs, ‘which we later found abandoned and half sunk on the far side of the lake. With bullet holes in it, I should add. Now, Jeff Cairns has been coming up to Lakeside for some years, Mr Dumont,’ Gibbs continued, ‘and I’m sure you’ve noticed this isn’t a very big town.’ Saul stepped back from the drawer as Gibbs slid it shut. ‘I knew we had the wrong guy, soon as I set eyes on him,’ Gibbs continued, ‘and I told your people that. Except next time I watch the news they’re claiming it’s Cairns that’s dead.’ Gibbs made a helpless gesture. ‘Whoever that is, we can’t even trace him through the tags in his clothes.’

‘Why not?’

‘There just aren’t any. Looks like he didn’t want anyone being able to track him.’

Saul nodded slowly. ‘So any idea what happened to the real Cairns?’

‘None,’ said Gibbs, ‘and I already asked your people that same question. Now, you have to understand that whenever shit like this happens in my own backyard, I take a considerable interest in it – not that your people were exactly forthcoming when it came to sharing information. When you told me you were on your way, I hoped you might be a little more open with us than that other guy.’

That other guy. ‘Was his name Donohue?’ asked Saul, taking a chance.

‘Yeah, that’s the one.’ Gibbs’ face screwed up like he’d eaten something sour. ‘Is there anything else you need from me?’

‘If you don’t mind,’ said Saul, ‘I’d like to take a quick look at Cairns’ cabin.’

Gibbs guided the truck around the first of several switchbacks ascending a hill dense with forest. The sheriff clearly had a taste for driving on manual, and had complained, before setting out, that the auto-drive function in most vehicles wasn’t up to the mountainous terrain surrounding the lake.

Saul caught flickering glimpses of the lake itself through a tangle of trees and brush, while he thought about everything Gibbs had told him during their drive here to the lake.

‘So whoever stole the motorboat also stole the car?’

Gibbs glanced at him and shrugged. ‘Makes sense to me. I figure it must have been Cairns. He drove down to the lakeside, grabbed the boat, made his way to the far shore and stole a car, making mincemeat out of our friend there in the morgue on the way. Seems to me that whatever kind of trouble he was running from had caught up with him.’

‘Did he seem to you the kind of guy to get himself mixed up in something like this?’

Gibbs thought for a moment before replying. ‘Depends on what you mean by “this”. But, y’know, not really. Not if you’re talking organized crime or whatever.’

‘Right.’

‘But sometimes people get out of their depth, without even knowing it. Next thing you know, there’s bodies everywhere.’

‘I guess.’

‘Why ask me anyway?’ said Gibbs. ‘You wouldn’t be here unless you were looking for something. Maybe you should be telling me what Cairns was involved in?’

Saul smiled. ‘That’s not something I can talk about, sorry.’

‘Fuckin’ ASI.’ Gibbs shook his head. ‘Ever thought about cooperating once in a while?’

Saul shrugged, as if to say, What can you do?

The sheriff sighed heavily. ‘Do you need to see the incident report?’

Saul nodded. ‘I’d appreciate that.’

A moment later, a copy of the report appeared within Saul’s vision. He focused on the dashboard, thus projecting the report’s contents on to it. He quickly shuffled through several UP-generated video-files of Sanders’ bedraggled form being pulled from the water, along with several still shots of the motorboat and the bullet-holes drilled through its hull. He next skimmed the text, trying to build a picture in his mind of events as Gibbs had already described them.

Glancing away from the dashboard, Saul saw they had almost reached the cabin.

‘I figure the dead guy and one other chased your man Cairns down to the lake, meaning to kill him,’ said Gibbs. ‘Maybe they meant to shoot him out in the middle of the lake, where it’d be easier for them to dump the body. Except Cairns got away and took the boat for himself – which would at least explain the bullet holes.’

‘Two men chased him? Do you have any evidence for that?’

‘It’s as clear as daylight if you take a good look at the hillside up there. You’ll find a shitload of skidding footprints and broken branches. There were two of them all right.’

Saul nodded. ‘And you reckon your dead guy shot at him from the shore, then waded out into the water, and got hit on the head by the motorboat?’

Gibbs took one hand off the wheel and waved it in the air. ‘Something like that. I don’t have any better ideas at any rate.’

Maybe Sanders had been in the boat along with Jeff, thought Saul, while the third man was waiting on the shore. Sanders had fallen out, and got himself rammed in the head, then the third man had tried to shoot Jeff before he could get away. And if Sanders had been present, did that make Donohue the third man?

‘Look, I’m dying of fucking curiosity here,’ said Gibbs, ‘but I know I shouldn’t stick my nose in where it doesn’t belong. The important thing is that you make sure ASI understands the victim’s body has been misidentified. Cairns is still out there somewhere.’

And somebody doesn’t want me, or anyone else, to know that either Jeff or Mitchell are still alive, thought Saul. Both of them worked for the ASI . . . and now Donohue or someone else was trying their damnedest to cover something up.

As the truck lurched around a corner, Saul saw the cabin itself for the first time. Gibbs parked close to the edge of the wooded slope out front, and they climbed out. Mountains rose beyond the far side of the lake, and the air was startlingly cold as Saul drew it into his lungs. He walked over to the edge of the driveway and peered down through the trees towards the lakeshore, to where he could just make out a wharf and a boarded-up hut.

‘Let’s take a look inside,’ he suggested.

Gibbs led him over to the cabin, and Saul followed him inside, wondering what the hell benefit anyone got from sitting halfway up the side of a mountain with no one to talk to and the nearest bar a half hour’s drive away.

Gibbs closed the door behind them and Saul gazed around. The place seemed comfortable enough, and less primitive than he’d expected. There was even a TriView that responded to his contacts. All in all, it looked quite cosy. There were ashes in the hearth, and the bedroom was visible through a half-open door. The way things were scattered about made it clear that either Jeff Cairns had left in a great hurry or someone had recently turned the place over.

Gibbs waited by the fireplace while Saul stepped through into the bedroom. He glanced under the bed and behind some mementoes gathering dust on a single shelf alongside the window. After that, he proceeded to check out the bathroom and the kitchen.

‘Forensics boys already been over the whole place,’ said Gibbs when Saul rejoined him a few minutes later.

p height="0" width="1em">‘I guess,’ said Saul, checking the time: almost four. Maybe it was time to give Olivia a call. He made an excuse to Gibbs and stepped out on to the veranda, pulling his jacket close around him as he walked on across the driveway towards the trees.

Olivia answered after just a few seconds. ‘You were more than right,’ he said. ‘I’m at the cabin right now, and they pulled someone out of the lake, but it wasn’t Jeff.’

She made a small sound in the back of her throat, followed by a stifled sob. From background noise, it sounded like she was somewhere in town. After a moment the traffic noise faded, and he guessed she’d found somewhere quieter.

‘Then Jeff’s still alive?’ she asked.

‘Well, all I can say for sure is that you were right about him being in some kind of trouble. I’m still not sure just what kind.’

‘Do you think you can find him?’

‘That depends.’

‘On what?’

He headed closer to the trees. ‘I need you to be absolutely straight with me, Olivia. If you’ve been holding anything back, now’s the time to tell me.’

‘Saul, I swear I haven’t, and I wish I could tell you more. I tried so many times to get him to tell me whatever the hell was bothering him, but he just wouldn’t open up. And if he is still alive, there’s a part of me wants to wring his neck for not being straight with me.’

Saul chuckled. ‘I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes, in that case. Look, from what I can tell, the police have already been over the whole place thoroughly. If there was ever anything here that might tell us where Jeff’s gone, it’s not here any more.’

‘Did you check the tool shed?’ she asked suddenly.

‘Tool shed?’

‘It’s around the back of the cabin, just where the trees start. There’s a safe embedded in the floor.’

Saul glanced back towards the cabin and saw Gibbs peering out of the window towards him. Saul smiled and raised a hand. Gibbs nodded grudgingly, then moved back out of sight.

Saul ran a quick search of the report Gibbs had given him earlier, for any mention of a tool shed, but found nothing. ‘Hang on while I take a look myself,’ he muttered, then headed around behind the cabin, where the trees resumed four or five metres to the rear.

He looked around. ‘I’m here,’ he told her quietly, wary of Gibbs overhearing him. ‘I don’t see anything.’

‘It’s quite well hidden,’ she explained. ‘Look to your left, away from the cabin . . . there’s a boulder and some bushes. See them?’

Saul glanced to his left. ‘I see them.’

Then he spotted the shed, almost out of sight beyond the boulder. It was painted green, so nearly invisible among the tangled undergrowth.

The structure was in a semi-derelict state, leaning slightly to one side, and he pulled the door open only with some difficulty. Various tools hung from hooks, and the disassembled parts of a chainsaw lay scattered on a tarpaulin spread across the floor, so that he had barely enough room to squeeze inside and close the door behind him.

‘What am I looking for?’ he asked next.

‘All I know is that he kept some stuff in a floor-safe there. Maybe there’ll be something there to tell you where he’s gone.’

Saul bent down and quickly moved some of the chainsaw parts aside, then hauled away the tarpaulin to reveal a flat steel panel embedded in the concrete floor. ‘I’ve got it,’ he told her, ‘but there’s no external lock.’ Doubtless it needed a UP-coded password before it would open up. ‘Short of digging it out of the concrete, I can’t see any way to get inside.’

‘Maybe you won’t need to,’ she replied.

‘How so?’

‘Because if he was going to store anything in there, it would probably be a set of contacts, or the like.’

‘Yes, but if I can’t open the safe, I can’t get to them.’

‘Remember how there are back doors built into a lot of the commercial contacts. Maybe I can get you in through one of those. Are you physically close to the safe?’

‘I’m kneeling right over it, Olivia.’

‘Okay, I’ve got a data key that should do the trick, and I’m sending it to you now.’

An icon suddenly materialized, looking bright and cheery against the drab browns and greys inside the shed.

‘Got it. What next?’ he asked.

‘All you need to do is run it. If there are any contacts, or anything UP-compatible, in there, then they should open right up.’

Saul did as instructed, and a bright blue bubble popped into existence, hovering just above the floor-safe door.

‘I see something.’ He was suddenly excited. ‘Looks like you were right on the money.’

He touched the bubble and it expanded into a three-dimensional image of a filing cabinet. The wall of the shed cut through one side of it, shattering any illusion of solidity.

Saul pushed the shed door back open and peered in the direction of the cabin. Gibbs must be wondering where he’d got to by now.

He touched one finger to a drawer marked ALL, and it took mere moments to copy the complete contents of whatever data device was hidden in the safe over to his own contacts. Once he’d disengaged, the filing cabinet abruptly vanished in a cloud of animated smoke.

‘Thanks,’ he said, as he exited the shed.

‘Did you get anything?’ she asked.

‘I copied some data across, but I can’t check it out just yet. I’ll let you know what I’ve got later.’

He walked back around the front of the cabin and almost ran into Sheriff Gibbs, who had evidently come outside looking for him.

‘Find anything useful?’ the sheriff asked.

Saul gave him a sheepish grin. ‘Not a damn thing.’

Gibbs squinted at him, then scanned the line of trees amongst which the tool shed was hidden. ‘Are you sure you don’t want to tell me just exactly what it is you’re looking for?’

‘If I already knew that,’ Saul replied, ‘I wouldn’t need to be here at all.’

Gibbs gave him a frank stare, his whole demeanour radiating suspicion. ‘Yeah,’ he replied, ‘I guess not.’

That evening Saul checked into a Lakeside motel with a fine view of the mountains. He closed the blinds with a single spoken command, before summoning up the same filing cabinet he’d discovered in the tool shed. Some of its drawers refused to open, so he guessed they had been provided with extra security to guard whatever they might contain. Other, more easily accessible drawers contained merely junk: copies of scientific papers and back issues of journals, along with the random bureaucratic detritus of a lifetime.

Saul sat down on the edge of his bed, unable to fight a sense of disappointment. It wasn’t hard to guess that if there was anything that might help him find Jeff, it was hidden in one of the restricted drawers. He called Olivia and explained the problem.

‘Maybe you could forward the files to me?’ she eventually suggested.

Having sent them over, and now feeling obliged to wait for her to get back to him, he pulled on his shoes, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try and walk off some of his pent-up frustration.

The air outside was chill and sharp but, to his surprise, Saul found himself enjoying it. His mind felt clearer, more focused as he breathed in the fresh mountain air. He walked a few blocks until he came to the start of a nature trail, little info-bubbles popping up along its length as he approached. A faint white line joined the bubbles together, snaking upwards and over the crest of a hill.

He had supper later that evening in the hotel’s restaurant, where a TriView provided him with a selection of UP-compatible news feeds. Most were focused on volcanic activity near the Mariana Islands out in the Far East.

Olivia got back to him before he could watch any more. ‘I’m stumped,’ she told him, as he made his way back up to his room. ‘Whoever set up the encryption, they did a scarily good job. This is military-level work.’

‘You sound hurt.’

‘I am hurt,’ she replied. ‘It makes me feel like he didn’t trust me.’

Or maybe, thought Saul, he was trying to protect you. ‘Don’t you have any more keys or whatever that you can use?’

‘The tools I’d need to get past encryption that strong could only come from the ASI, and everything I can access from the work servers is tracked and tagged. My own security protocols would flag an unauthorized action and sound an alert.’

‘It’s funny how you’re suddenly worried about attracting the ASI’s attention, but just a little while ago you were feeling frustrated because you couldn’t get them involved.’

‘Yeah, well . . .’ She paused. ‘It’s different now. Now that I’m sure he’s alive.’

Her breathing had turned coarse and ragged as she made this last statement, and Saul guessed she was weeping.

‘Olivia?’

‘I’m sorry, Saul.’ She cleared her throat and, when she spoke again, she sounded a little calmer. ‘Looking at what you sent me reminded me of a detail I’d almost forgotten. I’m sorry I didn’t mention it before.’

‘Go on.’

‘There’s a man called Farad Maalouf,’ she explained. ‘When Jeff wouldn’t tell me where he was going, before he disappeared, he told me he’d make up for it. He said that, once he’d done whatever it is he had to do, he was going to take me to Newton, to see Farad. He said Farad had family there – and that we’d both be safe.’

‘Safe from what?’

‘I don’t know, Saul. I’m not really sure I even want to know.’

‘This Farad guy, do you know who he is?’

‘I met him about the same time I met Dan Rush, back at the Florida Array. He was another of Jeff ’s colleagues.’ She paused. ‘The thing that made me remember Maalouf just now is that he’s an encryption specialist. He’s well known in certain specialized technical fields. I couldn’t think at first why Jeff would need to hide something with military-grade locks on it, but then I remembered him talking about Maalouf and Newton and, with everything else going on, I wondered if maybe there was some connection with the files. It seemed strange he’d bring up Maalouf, of all people. And, even if there isn’t a connection, if there’s anyone that could break the encryption on those files, my guess is it would be Maalouf.’

‘And that’s everything you know? Are you absolutely sure there isn’t anything else you need to remember?’

‘Nothing, I swear.’

Saul found it hard to hide his irritation. ‘Jesus, Olivia, military-grade encryption? What exactly is it you think Jeff’s got himself involved in?’

‘I already told you I don’t know,’ she said, her voice taking on a ragged edge once more. ‘I just want to know he’s safe.’

Saul was surprised at how much her last words cut him. He’d thought he’d left his feelings for her far behind him, but it looked like he’d been wrong.

He sighed and fell back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. ‘What makes you so sure this Maalouf guy could get inside those files?’

‘He’s got a fearsome reputation. He’s published a few articles, most of it pretty arcane stuff. If you want to build an encryption system, he’s the man you call up.’

‘Too arcane even for a dedicated systems specialist like yourself?’

She laughed. ‘Even for me.’

‘Say I managed to get hold of him, how do we know we can trust him?’

‘Well, he did work with Jeff,’ she said tentatively, ‘and I had the definite sense they were friends – maybe even close friends. That must count for something.’

‘D’you think he might know where Jeff is?’

‘It’s possible. Maybe I should try and get in touch with Maalouf myself. I know I’ve asked too much of you already.’

‘No,’ he said, sitting up, ‘I don’t want you getting any more involved than you already are.’ He had a mental image of dark figures struggling by a moonlit shore, shots ringing out. ‘I can start by taking a look in the ASI’s personnel databases – see what I can find about him from there.’

She let out a sigh that was comprised in equal parts of relief and worry. ‘Thank you, Saul, from the bottom of my heart. Really.’

‘There’s a lot more going on here than just one missing scientist,’ he said. ‘I assume you realize that by now.’

‘I do.’

‘If nothing else, I can go to Newton and track Maalouf down in person – or at least try to find out where he might be.’

And maybe he can tell me just what the hell is going on, he thought.

Once she had signed off, Saul found himself reliving his memories of her body, the way she had whispered his name over and over as he moved inside her, all those many years ago. It had been hard sitting next to her the day before in the bar, wanting to reach out and touch her but keeping his distance nonetheless.

He sighed and pulled himself off the bed, striding across the darkened room. Sleep clearly wasn’t coming any time soon. He dropped himself into an armchair by the window and linked into the ASI’s security databases, and from there to its personnel files.

He paused before bringing up Farad Maalouf ’s data. What he was doing now had gone beyond just helping a friend, and he knew as well as Olivia that he’d be leaving a data trail that might trigger an alert, should someone else have already linked Maalouf’s ASI files to Jeff’s. But his anger at the way Donohue had treated him drove him on, regardless.

What little information he found on Farad Maalouf proved to be out of date. The most recent records were more than a year old, at which point Maalouf had presumably ceased to be employed by the ASI. Then Saul found something that puzzled him. He should have been able to find information on where Maalouf had gone after departing the ASI, but instead there was nothing. It was as if he’d simply vanished for the better part of a year.

Saul felt a prickling sensation throughout his body when he found the situation was much the same with Jeff Cairn’s own personnel records. The curious gaps in the data trail for both men might be explained by their working off-world but, if so, there was no official record showing their time of departure. And hadn’t Olivia told him that Jeff had returned from his work only a few days ago? Again, there was no evidence, either way, that he had passed through the Array.

Of course, Olivia had pointed out that Jeff was working on some secret project for the ASI, therefore it was entirely conceivable it had been secret enough for the security services to want to conceal both men’s movements.

He next checked Dan Rush’s files, and felt little surprise when it turned out to be the same story all over again. He subsequently ran a side-by-side comparison, and found they had all ceased to be in the official employ of the ASI on the exact same date, two years previously.

He lastly checked Mitchell’s records. His death was recorded as having taken place a month earlier, but wen Saul tried to pull up the post-mortem report, he quickly discovered even his own security clearance wasn’t high enough to let him see it.

He woke several hours later, still sprawled in the armchair, to find another call alert waiting for him.

‘Saul,’ Olivia sounded breathless, when he returned her call, ‘have you seen the news?’

Saul pulled his rumpled form upright, the muscles in the back of his neck protesting at the awkward angle they’d been forced into for much of the night. It was still dark outside.

He glanced at the wall-mounted TriView at the other end of the room. ‘Why?’ he mumbled.

‘Just turn it on, Saul. Turn it on right now. Then get back to me.’

He disconnected and watched the news, while he waited for the room to make him some coffee. By the time it was ready, the first glimmer of dawn had started to push its way above the mountains.

Everything else in the news – even the border incidents down Mexical way – had been pushed to one side by the appearance of what some people described as an artificial island, and a few others were even calling an alien invasion.

Endless aerial shots paraded across the screen, one after the other, of a vast flower-like growth rising out of the Pacific Ocean near the Mariana Islands. There were reports of loud booms being heard and seismic activity within the vicinity, which some claimed were both connected to the rash of earthquakes that had already claimed thousands of lives throughout the Asian Pacific region in just the last few days. Saul struggled to take any of it seriously, deciding it was too much like some overwrought science-fiction drama to be remotely believable.

He pulled up other news feeds, expecting to find nothing but the usual sober mix about politicians and murder hunts. Instead he saw those very same politicians being forced to admit they had no idea what was happening out in the Pacific.

It dawned on him gradually that what he was seeing was real – and now, it seemed, there were more of them pushing up from the deep rock-bed of the ocean floor, scattered at distances from the first growth of up to a few thousand kilometres.

Badly shaken, Saul kept a news feed running as his car pulled back out on to the road an hour later, heading south-west. A tsunami had just hit the south-west coast of Japan, and news of further quakes was coming in from other parts of the world. Two talking heads argued over whether or not those things were powering their massive growth with thermal energy drawn from the Earth’s deep crust, which just might explain the unprecedented build-up in seismic activity. By the time the interview ended, the two of them were nearly coming to blows.

He switched to another feed, and listened to a Harvard biotechnology specialist suggesting that the booming sounds were the result of that same furious rate of growth. At the rate the first ‘growth’ was expanding, it would reach more than a kilometre in hight within a few days.

Saul shut down the feed, his skin coated in a cold sweat, and thought of weeds infesting a garden. He leaned back, the seat adjusting to his new position, and watched the mountains slide past under a dawn sky, as the hire car sped him towards a regional hopper port.

Something above and beyond the sheer preposterousness of that thing growing in the Pacific niggled at him, until he realized, with a cold clenching in his gut, that it wasn’t located so very far from the shores of Taiwan.

SEVENTEEN

Arcorex Facility, Omaha, 4 February 2235

The Arcorex facility was located in a business park just outside the Omaha city limits, and consisted of half a dozen three- and four-storey buildings gathered around manicured lawns and picnic areas, their pale walls now gleaming dully in the moonlight.

‘Their tags claim they’re a toy manufacturer,’ muttered Mitchell, frowning, as he peered through the forward windscreen. They were parked on the opposite side of the road, only a short distance from the main gate.

Jeff shook his head. ‘Trust me when I say they aren’t.’ He removed the fake contacts Mitchell had given him, the corporate logos floating above the buildings vanishing from sight for a few moments while he swapped them for his own. He would need to have access to his own Ubiquitous Profile if he was going to have any chance at all of getting past building security.

‘You ready?’ asked Mitchell, as Jeff blinked his contacts into place.

Jeff shrugged and gave him a look that said ready as I’ll ever be.

Mitchell touched the dashboard, which lit up beneath his fingers, and the van started to move back out on to the road. They drove straight on past the Arcorex lot before turning off into a car park adjacent to it.

Jeff stared out at his old workplace as they came to a halt once more. ‘I’m still struggling to get my head around everything you’ve told me,’ he said, ‘but I guess you know that.’

‘I do.’ Mitchell nodded towards Arcorex. ‘By the way, I didn’t get a chance to thank you for helping me.’

‘For what – listening to your insane plan? Remind me again why you’re so sure it’s even going to work.’

‘It already did work, or I wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. And you’re the one who got me out of there.’

Jeff gave a laugh, but it came out half-strangled. ‘You mean will get you out of there.’

&uoI swear, it’s going to be fine.’ Mitchell gave him a look that was undoubtedly meant to be reassuring, then pushed the van’s door open and jumped down. ‘We’ll drop him off at the motel, and he’ll make his own way to the Moon,’ he said, looking back up at Jeff. ‘And then we—’

‘Stop.’ Jeff put out a hand. Two Mitchells? It was almost more than his mind could deal with. ‘No more. I’m doing it.’ His skin felt slick with sweat, despite the cool February air.

‘Okay.’ Mitchell stepped back and glanced around. ‘Time to find a new ride out of here. Maybe that one.’ He gestured towards a four-door sedan quietly grazing on some bales of biomass towards the far end of the car park.

‘Good luck,’ said Jeff.

Mitchell silently nodded, then slammed the passenger door shut. Shuffling sideways into the driver’s seat, Jeff took manual control, guiding the van back out of the car park. He glanced in the rear-view mirror, to see Mitchell making his way over to the sedan.

Jeff parked alongside the gates, just next to the short driveway leading up to Arcorex’s main entrance. He got out and walked the rest of the way, trying not to think about the gasoline canisters Mitchell had wired up in the back of the van. Floating in the air before him, a message appeared as he approached the entrance, warning him to comply at all times or risk facing unspecified countermeasures. His contacts chose the same moment to let him know he was being remotely scanned. Jeff tried hard to relax, to avoid looking as scared as he felt, but in truth he was rigid with fear.

Another message appeared, telling him he was clear to go forward. He felt his shoulders sag with relief, and he walked on at a brisker pace. He really hadn’t believed until that moment that he would still be listed as an active member of staff.

Just then he saw a beam of light flicker between two buildings as Arcorex’s armed security made their regular patrol. He wondered if anyone from the neighbouring businesses had ever paused to wonder just why a toy manufacturer needed countermeasure warnings and guards armed with Cobras.

He thrust his hands deep in his pockets and pushed on through the entrance. At least it was the kind of operation where people often put in very irregular hours, which meant being here so late at night did not, in itself, imply suspicious activity.

Jeff had spent much of the last four days helping Mitchell prepare his elaborate plan. Whatever time hadn’t been spent sleeping or hiding in the back of whichever van, car or truck they’d stolen that day had been spent driving around Omaha, trying to locate supplies and looking for what Mitchell called the ‘right’ motel.

‘That’s it, right there,’ Mitchell had gestured through the windscreen towards a nondescript two-storey building set back on the other side of a wide lawn.

‘You’re sure that’s where we took you?’

‘Yeah,’ Mitchell nodded, still staring out at the motel. After a moment, his shoulders lifted and he let out a heavy sigh. ‘That’s the place, all right. I remember it distinctly.’

‘Has it occurred to you,’ asked Jeff, ‘that you’re caught up in a temporal loop?’

‘How do you mean?’ Mitchell had asked, as he guided them to a stop.

‘We’re about to help the other you escape from Arcorex, so he can make his way to the Moon, where he’ll get caught. Except – if I’ve got this right – he’ll escape, and wind up putting himself in cryogenic suspension, until a team from Tau Ceti arrives through a wormhole link sometime in the near-future. Yes?’

Mitchell had nodded. ‘Right so far.’

‘That team brought him – and by him, I mean you – back through the gates, back through time to the present, and now there’s two of you. And now you’re trying to make sure the Mitch I knew from Site 17 makes it to the Moon, so he can escape to that same cryogenics lab and become you. It’s just . . . mind-boggling.’

Mitchell nodded, his expression distracted, as he walked around to the rear of the van. He had opened it and lifted out a couple of shopping bags full of clothes that had been stowed in next to the cans of gasoline they’d purchased at such exorbitant cost.

‘Shouldn’t you book the room first?’ Jeff had enquired.

‘Did it right there, while you were talking,’ Mitchell replied, slamming the doors shut again.

The motel was self-service, and had therefore scanned their UPs before allowing them access to the vestibule. Directions appeared in the air; they followed them up a stairwell and along a cramped corridor. The door of the room Mitchell had booked swung open at their approach.

A TriView opposite the single tiny bed came alive as they entered. It was tuned to a news feed revealing how more growths had been detected, in the Antarctic and North Atlantic respectively, a long, long way from where the first of their kind had appeared.

They two men had glanced at each other wordlessly, then Jeff fell into a chair to watch the rest of the report, while Mitchell ripped open several vacuum-wrapped packs of freshly fabbed clothing, before dumping them on top of a cheap dresser.

‘I already kept an eye on the news while you were sleeping on the way here,’ Mitchell had explained, after glancing briefly up at the screen. ‘There’ve been a lot more bad quakes occurring in the Asian Pacific.’

‘Are those growths the reason?’ asked Jeff.

‘Not exactly,’ Mitchell replied. ‘More of a side-effect.’

‘Side-effect of what, exactly?’

‘They need a lot of power to be able to grow the way they are. What they can’t get from the sun, they get by tapping into geothermal energy in the very deep crust.’

Jeff had frowned at that. ‘Are they really capable of digging that deep? They look just like big flowers. Terrifying, alien, monstrously huge flowers, but still . . .’

Mitchell had smiled thinly. ‘You really don’t want to know how much they’re capable of.’

After that, they had left the motel and headed for an autocafé, where Mitchell told him more of what had happened to him following his return from Site 17.

‘No,’ Mitchell had concurred, shaking his head. ‘I can barely remember anything from those first couple of hours after you pulled me out of the pit chamber. The first thing I can remember clearly is being taken off heavy sedation, days later.’

‘You said they kept you under sedation at Arcorex, too?’

Mitchell had nodded. ‘After that, they kept me deliberately unconscious a lot of the time. I have vague recollections of being prodded by lots of people in biohazard suits.’

‘They were worried you might be carrying something, right?’

‘I suppose. Some kind of future-tech plague, or whatever they thought I might be carrying inside me.’

‘And you say you woke up with all this . . . this alien information in your head?’

Mitchell nodded. ‘What you have to understand is, those pits were helping me and Vogel, and not killing us. They actually remade us: no more diseases or ill-health. I might even live for ever. And I learned so much from them . . .’ His voice grew distant for a moment. ‘It’s hard to even know where to start.’

Jeff’s coffee had rested untouched and forgotten in his hands as he listened.

‘The Founders weren’t a single race,’ Mitchell had explained. ‘There were many of them, machine as well as biological intelligences, and a kind of hybrid of the two that’s difficult to explain.’ He paused and cracked a smile. ‘Jesus, I could tell you about things that haven’t happened yet, that won’t happen until our own sun’s cold and dark and black.’

Jeff had licked his lips. ‘Try me.’

‘There’s a war being fought, right now. It’s been going on for countless aeons and it’ll continue for countless more.’ He took a sip at his own coffee. ‘Really, it’s more like thousands of individual conflicts, all through this galaxy and a myriad others. But they’re all being fought otedme thing.’

‘The Founder Network?’

Mitchell nodded and grinned, almost shyly. ‘It sounds like bullshit, right? Like I made this all up. But you’ve been there too, under that night with no stars, a hundred trillion years in the future. You’ve been to Site 17, so you know I’m telling the truth.’

‘Yeah, I guess I do.’ Jeff’s voice had cracked slightly. He remembered the coffee and gulped it, to wash a dry stickiness out of his mouth. ‘But it’s going to take time to get my head around all of this.’

‘Not too much time,’ Mitchell had replied, nodding at a screen mounted at an angle over in one corner.

It seemed like every channel and feed was running the same footage of the Pacific growth. Wreathed in steam, it had already reached hundreds of metres in height, and was still rising out of the ocean at an accelerating rate. Warships could be seen in its shadow, each of them utterly dwarfed by its broadening petals. Helicopters buzzed around it like so many mosquitoes, while various talking heads debated whether or not the Sphere or the Western Coalition were going to try to nuke it, or any of the others now sprouting all around the globe.

‘I feel like I want to get up and yell at everyone we meet,’ Jeff had declared. ‘Just to warn them to get away.’ He had glanced around the autocafé at the lone drivers or tight family groups, all of them undoubtedly talking about nothing but the growths. ‘When I think about what’s going to happen, I feel . . . paralysed.’

Mitchell’s response had been to shake his head. ‘There’s nothing you can do for any of them. Your best strategy is to just focus on what we have to do.’

‘I understand that. I just don’t know . . .’ He paused and glanced down at his half-finished coffee, struggling to control the sudden upwelling of emotion deep within his chest ‘I don’t know that I deserve to survive what’s coming. You understand that, right?’ His tone had been plaintive, almost childlike.

‘Jeff, listen. I could tell you to try and hold it together, but I already know that you will. I was there in Arcorex – am there in Arcorex – and one thing I do remember is when you turned up and got me out of there.’

Jeff had felt a chill running down his spine. ‘But what if this time I decide not to? What if I just walked out of here right now and—’

‘No, Jeff.’ Mitchell shook his head, speaking slowly, as if to a child. ‘You’re talking about a paradox, but time paradoxes are impossible. Look . . . think of it this way. You won’t walk away without helping me, because history already shows that you didn’t. If you had, I wouldn’t be here; but I am here; ergo you did help me.’

‘You’re saying we don’t possess free will. That our actions are pretermined.’

Mitchell had given him a strange look. ‘That’s true, but it’s not the way it has to be.’

Jeff couldn’t hide his confusion. ‘What do you mean?’

Mitchell had a look on his face like he was making his mind up whether or not to tell him something. ‘If I tried to explain it right now, it would complicate things more than they really need to be. All you need to remember is that, from my perspective, you’ve already gone into Arcorex and pulled me out.’

Jeff had shaken his head in irritation. ‘Okay, okay. I get it. It’s just hard to remember sometimes that all of this has already happened for you.’

‘Once we’ve got him out, you and me are going to take him back to the motel, and leave him everything he’ll be needing to get himself to Copernicus.’

Jeff had finished the last of his coffee and realized his hands were shaking. The whole thing sounded absurd beyond words, yet one glance at the TriView was all he needed to know otherwise. He looked back at Mitchell, and felt as if the whole universe had somehow shrunk to encompass only the Formica-topped table at which they sat, while the rest of the world had been reduced to a blurred video loop running almost forgotten in the background.

‘That simple?’ said Jeff, with a slight twist of his lips.

‘I remember waking up in that motel room,’ Mitchell had continued, clearly not appreciating the joke. ‘I headed straight for Florida, because I could see from the news feeds what was coming. I spent – will spend – a couple of days setting up a false ID, so I could get past Copernicus’s security. That’s one reason I was able to get fake UPs for both of us as quickly as I did.’

‘You said something went wrong,’ Jeff queried.

‘Getting to the Florida Array was more difficult than you can imagine,’ said Mitchell. ‘By that time vast crowds were already gathering there, but I managed to make it through them. I faked my way past the security cordons, and all the way through to the Lunar Array, except ASI agents arrested me soon after I got there. But I managed to escape, stole a spacesuit and made my way out on to the surface. By then things were starting to change fast. The face of the Earth was becoming blanketed beneath dense grey clouds. I managed to get to one of the R&D labs in the middle of all the panic, and sealed myself inside one of the cryogenic units.’

Jeff had shivered at the look on Mitchell’s face. Even though he was describing the end of the world, his expression remained soft, almost dreamy.

‘And that’s what saved your life, while every other living thing on the Moon and Earth was wiped out?’

‘Maybe.’ Mitchell shrugged. ‘At least I can’t think of any other explanation. The next thing I remembr is being revived, and I couldn’t believe it when I learned I’d been brought back into my own past. I remember staring through the window at things I was sure I’d never see again – things like trees, birds, grass. They started interrogating me straight away, but there wasn’t much I could tell them.’

‘Then you broke out?’

‘I had to, because by then I’d started to remember things. After that, it was just a matter of time before I figured a way out.’

‘And then you came looking for me,’ said Jeff.

Mitchell smiled softly. ‘And then I came looking for you.’

Jeff had hugged himself, as if warding off a chill.

A metal panel, set into Arcorex’s main entrance, flashed from red to green as Jeff approached. He half expected alarms to begin blaring the moment he crossed the threshold, but, once again, nothing happened.

Get a grip, he told himself. As far as anyone else was concerned, he was just another member of staff coming in for an all-nighter.

Jeff swiftly crossed an atrium, partly lit by moonlight spilling down through angled panes of glass, and walked past a reception area, where a single security guard sat on a mesh-backed chair. The man flicked his eyes towards the new arrival for a moment, then returned his attention to a bank of screens. Jeff gave him a bare nod and continued across the expanse of polished marble until he arrived at a row of elevators.

As the elevator carried him below ground level, his UP began flashing a standard warning that he was now entering a high-security area. When the doors hissed open, he found himself at one end of a whitewashed corridor that was bleakly illuminated by strip lights. Mitchell had said he remembered seeing the letters B3 painted on one wall, which would mean he had been held in the lowest basement level, where all artefacts from Site 17, and other far-future locations, were analysed under strictly controlled conditions.

He moved further down the corridor, peering in through windows at labs where often incomprehensible alien machinery was X-rayed, chemically tested, blasted with radiation or simply picked apart by teams of engineers. He finally stopped and looked around, feeling frustrated. There was nowhere they could possibly be keeping Mitchell down here. In that case, how could he . . . ?

Of course. How could he have forgotten? Beyond the labs, there was an emergency ward at the very far end of the corridor; but, given Arcorex’s excellent safety record, the ward had never been used – at least until now. If they were going to keep Mitchell anywhere, it would be there.

He turned a corner and kept walking, until he reached a door where the corridor ended. Looking in through a window, he spotted four hospital-style beds, all of them vacant, but noticed an airlock at the far end of the ward that clearly led into a separate isolation unit. He entered the room, squeezed inside the tiny airlock, before using a standard staff-access code to unlock the door beyond.

He found the other Mitchell lying there on a single-size cot, various pieces of medical equipment arranged around him and an intravenous tube taped to one wrist. Jeff half expected him to open his eyes and say Gotcha. It was exactly the same man he’d left waiting for him outside – but, at the same time, it wasn’t.

It was at that moment he decided to think of the man lying on the cot as ‘Present-Mitchell’. Working carefully, he pulled the tube loose from Present-Mitchell’s wrist. Present-Mitchell moaned and shifted in response.

‘Okay, Mitch, got to wake up.’ Present-Mitchell grunted and tried to push Jeff away with weak hands, as he tried to persuade him to sit up. The man’s eyes flickered open, but failed to focus on Jeff’s face. His paper pyjamas crinkled noisily as Jeff finally dragged him upright, and he nearly slid to the floor while being helped off the cot.

‘Hey . . .’ Present-Mitchell finally mumbled, looking around himself. ‘What . . . ?’

‘C’mon,’ Jeff urged. ‘Time to get moving.’ He propped Present-Mitchell up against one wall, then slapped him hard on the cheek, desperate to get him to focus. It wouldn’t be too long before those security teams he’d seen patrolling the grounds eventually worked their way round to the basement area.

Jeff pulled his hand back to deliver another slap, but Present-Mitchell reached out and grabbed hold of his wrist, spinning him around and locking one arm around his neck like a vice. Jeff was far too startled to resist.

‘What . . . ?’ Mitchell’s voice wavered, but his grip was remarkably strong, despite the drugs ‘. . . what the fuck are you doing with me?’

His grip suddenly loosened, and Jeff pulled free as Present-Mitchell crumpled to the floor, muttering something incomprehensible under his breath.

Jeff stepped around behind him, pulling him up under the shoulders. Present-Mitchell seemed to come awake once more, and feebly reached out in an attempt to steady himself. He didn’t resist this time, as Jeff helped him get upright, with one arm flung around Jeff’s shoulders.

‘Okay,’ Jeff gasped, turning them both around until they faced the airlock. ‘We’re getting out of here. You ready?’

Present-Mitchell shook his head like a man in a trance. ‘Jeff,’ he mumbled, ‘it’s you, isn’t it? What the fuck are you doing here?’

‘Getting you out of here. Weren’t you listening?’

‘Out?’ Mitchell coughed, then sneezed wetly. ‘Okay, good. But I need to lie down first . . .’

‘No!’ Jeff saw Present-Mitchell’s eyes start sliding shut again. As he dragg

Just then, Future-Mitchell contacted him from outside. ‘You got him?’

‘Yeah, I got him,’ Jeff replied. ‘You sure all that shit in the back of the van is wired up right?’

‘Who are you talking to?’ mumbled Present-Mitchell, hearing only Jeff’s side of the conversation.

‘You,’ Jeff replied curtly.

‘It’s wired up just fine,’ Future-Mitchell assured him. ‘Do you want me to send the van in now?’

‘In a couple of minutes,’ Jeff replied, then cut the connection.

‘Hey,’ Present-Mitchell seemed suddenly more alert, ‘what’s going on?’

‘We’re getting you out of here, remember?’

Present-Mitchell grabbed one of Jeff’s hands. ‘First you tell me where the fuck we are, Jeff. Then you tell me what’s going on.’

‘I’m here to rescue you, you dumb bucket of shit,’ Jeff snapped. ‘They brought you here all the way from Site 17 and, unless you do what I say, they’re either going to keep you in here for ever or cut you open to try and figure out how you survived. Now, come on.’

This time, Present-Mitchell didn’t resist as Jeff dragged him out into the corridor. But an alarm began to wail, the sound of it loud and abrasive, before they were even halfway to the elevator.

Jeff felt his insides turn to ice water. That was it. They were screwed.

‘I can walk,’ Present-Mitchell slurred, trying to push him away.

‘No, you can’t,’ Jeff snapped. ‘But just try and stay awake.’

He hauled him inside the elevator, the sound of the alarm becoming more muted once the doors closed and the car began to rise. He then pushed the semi-comatose man against one wall, holding him upright.

‘I’m fine,’ Present-Mitchell mumbled. Jeff peered into his eyes and saw that he did, in fact, look a little more awake than just a few moments before. He stepped away and this time Present-Mitchell managed to stay upright without any help.

The doors slid open and Jeff found himself staring down the barrels of three Cobras aimed at their heads. He reached out to hit the close button, but one of the three guards stepped forward, jamming his boot against the door before it could slide all the way shut.

The next minute passed in a blur. One of the guads reached inside and grabbed Jeff by the shoulder, before dragging him out of the elevator and pushing him face-first down against the polished marble floor. As his arms were wrenched behind his back, he was conscious of the alarm still braying discordantly. Jeff glanced to one side to see another guard securing Present-Mitchell similarly, while the third one kept his Cobra trained on them both.

Light flickered across the polished marble, and Jeff lifted his head slightly to glance at the glass doors at the main entrance. He saw Future-Mitchell’s van accelerating straight towards them, flames billowing out of its open windows.

Someone shouted a strangled warning just before the driverless vehicle rammed through the double doors in a shower of glass, then continued on across the atrium before ramming into the reception desk. The sound of the impact was loud enough to drown out even the wail of the alarm.

Jeff felt the intense pressure on his back suddenly relax. The three guards seemingly had forgotten them, and were firing wildly at the van, while backing away from it. Clouds of choking black smoke spilled out of the van’s windows and began to fill the entire atrium. Though several large windows shattered under the impact of stray bullets, it was a still and windless night, so the smoke lingered, quickly reducing visibility to barely more than a few metres in any direction.

Jeff scrambled upright, while Present-Mitchell simply stared around in abject confusion. Whatever they’d been pumping into his veins, Jeff reckoned, it must have been powerful stuff. He leaped up, and once again helped the other man to his feet. They then stumbled out through a shattered floor-to-ceiling window, and into the cold night air, coughing desperately.

Jeff heard the screech of rubber on tarmac, and turned to see the sedan that Mitchell had stolen come bumping down the manicured slope separating the Arcorex building from its car park. It swerved to avoid several bushes, then crashed to a halt at the foot of the slope. Future-Mitchell leaned out of the driver’s window, gesturing frantically.

While Jeff dragged his half-comatose ward after him, Future-Mitchell jumped out and took hold of his doppelgänger’s other arm, helping Jeff guide him into the back seat, where he slumped with a groan. Shouting erupted from behind.

Future-Mitchell slid back behind the wheel and reversed hard, before Jeff had a chance to pull himself fully on to the front passenger seat. The sedan accelerated backwards, at an angle, up the landscaped slope, and Jeff managed to haul himself all the way inside just as the vehicle came crashing down level again at the top of the slope. Gunfire sliced the chill air, and a rear passenger window exploded to his right. Jeff immediately ducked, the side door still swinging open as Future-Mitchell spun the vehicle through a hundred and eighty degrees.

‘Keep your fucking heads down!’ he screamed, twisting the wheel.

The sedan rammed into something Jeff couldn’t see, slewed around, then accelerated away once more. As the door swung back towards Jeff, he managed to grab hold of it, finally pulling it shut as further shots echoed around them. He hunched over, paralysed with fear, as he imagined those bulles tearing into his own soft and vulnerable flesh.

The car screeched to a sudden halt, then accelerated once more. Jeff pulled himself slowly upright, to see they were back on the highway.

‘I think we’re out of range now,’ announced Future-Mitchell, with a look of grim determination. ‘How is he?’

A total of three windows had been blown out, and there were also several large holes in the sedan’s roof. Jeff squeezed the upper half of his body between the two front seats, the sedan reconfiguring itself, and becoming slightly wider, in order to allow him more room. He glanced back at Present-Mitchell, who still lay sprawled on the rear seat. His eyes were closed, but his lips moved, and Jeff could hear him mumbling incoherently.

‘Well?’ asked Future-Mitchell, sounding tense. ‘Is he okay?’

‘Why? Don’t you remember?’

Future-Mitchell grunted. ‘Point taken.’

Jeff glanced through the shattered rear window to see that Arcorex had already vanished into the distance. ‘Can they catch us, do you reckon?’

‘I don’t know,’ Future-Mitchell replied, as he swung the sedan on to a turn-off leading back towards Omaha. ‘They’ll know who we are as soon as they check the surveillance recordings. What happens after that depends on whether they choose to tell the police or not. Personally, I’m guessing not.’ He glanced over his shoulder at his doppelgänger. ‘Is he still unconscious?’

‘Completely.’ Jeff nodded. ‘He’ll probably sleep for a day before he even begins to wake up again.’

It wasn’t long before they arrived back at the motel, where Future-Mitchell helped Jeff haul their unconscious charge up to the room. They dumped him on the bed, and Jeff glanced back and forth between his two companions.

‘No matter what you tell me, or how much you try to explain,’ said Jeff, gazing down at the prone figure sprawled on the bed, ‘this does not get any less weird.’

Future-Mitchell nodded. ‘Imagine how I feel.’

The man on the bed snorted and his eyes briefly flickered open. He mumbled something, and made motions as if he was about to sit up, but his eyes slowly slid shut again and soon he resumed snoring.

‘Okay,’ said Jeff, nodding towards the door. ‘I guess that’s it. Now we go get Olivia, then head for Florida and the Array.’

Something in the look on the other man’s face brought him to a halt.

Future-Mitchell shook his head slowly. ‘We’re not going to the Florida Array. It’s like hat aid yourself, they’ll be expecting us to try and make our way there.’

Jeff’s expression turned incredulous. ‘What, you mean you were lying to me?’

‘No.’ Mitchell shook his head again, ‘I wasn’t lying. We’ll go get Olivia, like I said, and then we’ll head for the Moon. But I don’t want to try and get there via the Array. I already learned the hard way it’s too risky.’

‘Mitchell,’ said Jeff, his voice cold and flat, ‘you’d better tell me right now what the fuck it is you’ve got in mind.’

‘Do you remember when me and Saul did that space-dive? All the way down from near-Earth orbit just in glider-suits? You were the one who put me in touch with the company that runs the flights, I seem to recall.’

‘Yeah,’ Jeff nodded, ‘what about it?’

Mitchell studied him for a moment. ‘Something bothering you?’

‘Apart from the fact that I have no idea why you’re bringing this up, no.’

‘Bullshit.’ The other man gave him a knowing look. ‘It’s because I mentioned Saul, right?’

Jeff made a sound of irritation. ‘For Christ’s sake, Mitchell. The guy had an affair with my wife, is all.’

‘Your ex-wife,’ Mitchell reminded him. ‘And it’s still bothering you?’

‘Maybe not so much recently,’ said Jeff, knowing that it was a lie. ‘It was a long time ago but, ever since me and Olivia got back together . . .’

Future-Mitchell nodded like he understood. ‘Sure.’

Jeff sucked in air, then expelled it in a rush. ‘Anyway, what about the space-dive?’

‘Your friends at the company, they also run flights to the Moon for rich idiots, am I right?’

‘Sure, on replicas of the original Apollo rockets, that kind of thing, along with the standard VASIMRs.’

‘“VASIMRs”?’

‘Variable impulse plasma ships,’ Jeff explained. ‘They can get to the Moon an awful lot faster than . . .’ Jeff paused, his eyes widening. ‘Fuck me, are you suggesting what I think you are?’

Mitchell nodded. ‘You need to get in touch with them right away, find out if they’re willing to take us up to Copernicus on board one of their ships.’ He stepped over to the door and pulled it open. ‘We might not get ourselves to the Moon the same wa as most people, but we sure as hell can fly there if we want to.’

EIGHTEEN

En Route to Florida Array, 4 February 2235

By the time Saul’s car made its way out of the hopper’s belly and joined a networked convoy heading for Florida, the news feeds were running rumours that what people were starting to call ‘the Pacific growths’ had been imported to Earth through the Array. There were also fresh satellite images of thermal activity on the deep ocean floor, while the hastily recruited oceanographers from Woods Hole, brought in to try and explain it all, soon sounded like they were way out of their depth.

The ‘Pacific’ prefix became less and less apt as more growths were discovered at further and further removes from the first one. The booming sound produced by that first growth had now been linked to seed-like projectiles fired from its apex, rising on long, curving trajectories that carried them close to the very edge of space before dropping back down at least several hundreds of kilometres distant.

The second growth had been discovered near Vladivostok, quickly followed by two more off the coasts of New Guinea and Malaysia, respectively. Saul happened to see some wobbly footage of the Vladivostok growth pushing out of an austere-looking landscape at what was clearly a phenomenal rate. A camera crew panned up the growth’s already considerable height, showing its upper parts rising out of a haze of debris that permanently clouded its base. He watched with a kind of numb dread that he felt deep inside his chest.

The route to the Array, dense with traffic at the best of times, soon became more crowded than Saul remembered ever seeing it. The cars moved along in tight columns, almost bumper-to-bumper, with tailbacks that stretched for several kilometres.

Saul figured, if it was going to take as long as he suspected to get to the Array, he might as well eat something first. He pulled in at a roadside steakhouse, and left his car to graze on compacted biomass. Being part of a popular chain that made a point of using live staff, the steakhouse was packed to the gills.

He managed to find himself a window seat and soon placed his order with a florid-faced waitress with a decidedly harried expression.

‘I’m guessing it isn’t usually this busy?’ he remarked.

‘Hell, no,’ she laughed. ‘This is the busiest it’s been since we opened the place, and that was fifteen years ago.’

Saul glanced around, noticing that many of the other customer’s faces were tight with worry.

‘Looks like they’re all headed for the Array,’ he observed.

The waitress shrugged. ‘Looks like,’ she agreed. ‘Bunch of idiots all running scared from something they saw on those damn news fds.’

‘You don’t think it’s anything to worry about?’

She gave him a scornful glance. ‘Hell, no, I don’t believe a word of it. Some damn fools made it all up, and now they’re rolling about on their asses, laughing at us. I stopped believing anything I saw on the news a long time ago.’

Saul forced a smile as the waitress left him, and he looked around the diner a second time. Instead of the usual tourists or migrants, on their way to new lives under new suns, everyone he saw here looked like a refugee – like the family of seven huddled together around one small table, their heavy suitcases piled all around them. It wasn’t hard to guess what everybody was running away from, and he imagined what would happen once they all showed up, demanding passage, at the Array at the same time. The sense of despair was palpable.

By the time his food arrived, his appetite had vanished. He left most of it untouched and returned to his car, soon rejoining the thousands of other vehicles on the highway.

He found he couldn’t stop brooding on Taiwan and the missing shipment. That the growths were alien rather than man-made seemed obvious yet, in all the years since the first interstellar colonies had been founded, no one had found any evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth. Now the more he learned, the more it seemed evident that the ASI had discovered something out there amongst the stars – and brought it back. And even though he had no evidence to link them together, he felt increasingly sure there was some connection between the growths and his search for the missing shipment.

It was purest supposition, of course, and entirely baseless, yet the idea stubbornly refused to go away. He felt an urge to find a bar somewhere – anywhere he might get a quick shot of rum on the rocks – but something about the density of traffic and the borderline panic he’d sensed in the steakhouse filled him with a sense of urgency, as if time was running out.

The convoy of traffic his car had joined slowed to a near-crawl. He glanced out of a window and saw to his shock that there were hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of people walking along on foot on either side of the highway. Old women, young women, children, men carrying backpacks; they were all trudging south.

Winding down the window, he thrust his head and shoulders out of the car to see more clearly. Way up ahead, the lines of pedestrians spilled on to the highway, crowds of them picking their way between lines of vehicles that were barely inching forward.

It took another full hour before Saul finally caught sight of the main dome of the Florida Array, glistening under the early afternoon sun. The crowds had by now swelled from a river into a torrent. He was intrigued to see what looked like a real fire-and-brimstone religious service taking place in a lay-by, with dozens of people gathered reverentially outside a marquee tent. Most of them carried handmade signs proclaiming things like: ‘JESUS IS COMING TO GETCHA.’

Saul swore in irritation and checked the feeds for the thousandth time that day. Another growthad n sighted, pushing up from the seabed a couple of hundred kilometres west of Hawaii. There were unconfirmed reports of dozens more in locations scattered all around the globe. A giant tsunami had struck Sapporo, Sri Lanka and Karachi, with death tolls estimated in the thousands. Minor quakes had struck Sicily, Bangladesh and the Dominican Republic, amongst other places – all far too diverse to be blamed any more on natural causes.

He looked around in surprise as his car suddenly rolled to a halt.

A message had appeared on the dashboard: We are dealing with extremely heavy traffic conditions on all approaches to the Florida Array Facility. Please note that, due to prevailing circumstances, all those without a previously booked passage to a major extrasolar destination should now return home. Please . . .

Something thumped against the side of the car. Saul jerked around, startled, and saw a uniformed ASI cop pushing a middle-aged woman with a hand-painted sign up against a window. Some of the participants in the religious service came running down the shallow embankment towards them, till Saul found himself surrounded by angrily shouting people. Sensing things might turn genuinely ugly, he pushed open the door and clambered out. Someone grabbed hold of him immediately, and Saul stumbled and nearly fell.

He twisted out of his assailant’s grasp and simultaneously lashed out with his fist, making contact with something soft amid the press of bodies all around. He ducked away from his car and ran off down the highway, between the rows of stalled vehicles, as he tried to put some distance between himself and what was starting to look like a full-scale riot. Several people stepped out of their cars, pointing beyond him, and he turned to see a phalanx of uniformed cops, wearing face-shields and wielding batons, come pouring down the opposite embankment. Soon he could hear screams, and the sound of batons striking unprotected flesh.

He stopped to catch his breath, and Saul realized that he was almost certainly going to cover the last dozen kilometres to the Array on foot.

He suddenly recalled, with a sense of longing, the tiny wrap of loup-garou still sitting in the coffee jar back home. Except you swore the damn stuff off, he reminded himself, seeing in his mind’s eye the look of contempt on Donohue’s face.

He turned his back on his car and started walking, squeezing between two vehicles and making for the verge. Other people also were abandoning their cars in large numbers. Saul heard a roar, and glanced up just as three jets flashed by overhead. They were flying towards the Array, their silver carapaces glittering in the sunlight.

He started to wonder if Farad Maalouf might be able to tell him a lot more than just where to find Jeff Cairns.

Pulling off his jacket, Saul kept moving through the tens of thousands of others who crowded the stalled highway or made their way along the tops of the neighbouring embankments. After a couple of hours of steady progress, he glanced ahead and saw where the highway divided into filter lanes leading to different sections of the Array. Aerial drones buzzed like mosquitoes overhead in the distance. He moved to higher ground so he could see more clearly which way he should be heading.

Eventually he came to a stop, and gazed down towards the highway in front. From this higher vantage point, he could make out how tangled coils of barbed wire and steel barricades had been placed across the highway a bit closer to the Array. Judging from the sheer number of people marching in that direction, he reckoned they were going to need a lot more than wire and barricades to bring that mob to a halt. The wind carried the sound of voices from the Array itself, sounding loud and abrasive over what appeared to be a tannoy system, but still too distant for the words to be clearly identified.

Just walking straight in clearly wasn’t going to work, not if he had to compete with ten thousand frightened fugitives all seeking entry as well. Fortunately, there were other options open to him, since access to the Array would be available to those with the right authorization. He picked up his pace, overtaking people who looked even more tired, hungry and dehydrated than he himself felt. Another day or two, he felt sure, and they’d be hungry and thirsty enough for the soldiers guarding the Array to be forced into using extreme measures to hold them off.

He summoned up a map of the Array, so it floated over to one side of him. Seen from above, it looked not unlike an octopus pinned to the ground, with its tentacles extended. Built of glass, steel and concrete, the central dome contained the wormhole gate linking Earth to the Moon, along with a few secondary gates that connected to other destinations on Mars. Airport-style terminals radiated outwards from the centre, while a twelve-lane ring road girdled the entire complex.

Saul studied the map closely and soon located the entrance nearest to a network of service tunnels that threaded the ground beneath his feet. He would still need to do a fair bit more walking to reach it, however, so he started moving once again, but this time leaving the highway far behind. He finally saw a low concrete bunker in the distance. A final glance to one side revealed at least a dozen tanks with crowd-control turrets rolling up to the makeshift barricades, supported by nearly twice that number of Black Dogs, four-legged multi-terrain weapons platforms laden with riot countermeasures.

He heard a chainsaw-like buzz overhead, and looked up to see a drone moving rapidly towards him. It looked like a metal doughnut, with blades whirring noisily in the centre. Saul shielded his eyes to make sure his UP was active, even as it dropped lower to intercept him.

‘I’m with Array Security and Immigration,’ he called up to the device. ‘I urgently need to get inside the Array.’

‘I can see your authorization, sir,’ boomed a voice from a hidden microphone. ‘I’m sorry, but I thought maybe you were part of that mob.’

‘They’re frightened people, not a mob,’ Saul shouted back. ‘What the hell is going on here?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ the operator’s voice replied. ‘I just know we’re not supposed to let anybody inside.’

‘Except me, right? I plan to use one of the bunker entrances.’

‘That’s fine, but all active personnel have to report in immediately and help protect the Array.’

‘Protect it from what?’ Saul yelled back. But, before the operator could respond, a crackle of gunfire erupted from the direction he’d just come.

He glanced around and saw a crowd of desperate people converging on the barricades. The drone rose into the air and zoomed in their direction without another word from its operator. Saul stared after it, noticing dozens of other drones also converging there. He forced himself to turn away and keep walking until he finally reached the bunker. A single unmarked steel door in its side swung open as he approached.

Once he was inside, a warning light flashed, and a kind of manhole cover in the floor slid aside, revealing a shaft beneath, and a single ladder extending downwards for about six metres.

Before long, Saul was heading along an echoing, empty corridor, in the direction of the central dome.

NINETEEN

Florida Array, 4 February 2235

Saul continued through stark concrete corridors until he came to a service elevator that carried him back upwards, and into the main Array building. To his shock, it was very nearly deserted, emptier than he had ever known it to be; so the only conclusion he could come to was that gate-travel had been suspended altogether.

Before long, he encountered a small unit of ASI personnel. The three men carrying Cobras were dressed in matte-black armour, and accompanied by a Black Dog whose four thick legs whirred and clanked rhythmically as it trailed after them, its armour-plated torso laden with sonar cannons. The squad was led by a lieutenant named David Murakami, who insisted on checking Saul’s credentials.

‘Sorry,’ Murakami apologized, ‘got to check everyone’s clearance. And I mean everyone’s.’

‘I was forced to walk here from the highway after the traffic snarled up, and it looks like half of Florida is heading for this place. Any idea what the hell is going on out there?’

Murakami let out a heavy sigh. ‘Sir, I’ve been trying to find someone who can give me a straight explanation. You’re from Investigations, so I was kind of hoping you’d be the one to set me straight.’

Saul shook his head ruefully. ‘Sorry.’

‘Yeah, me too,’ Murakami replied, clearly far from happy at that reply. ‘Between you and me, though, I’d swear on my mother’s tits it’s all to do with those things out in the ocean.’

‘Yeah,’ said one of his squad, with a UP tag bearing the name Hall. ‘Tere’s people out there on the other side of the barricades who think it’s the End Times, except far as I can see they’d all rather run for the colonies than wait around for Jesus to come haul their asses to the big fire.’

Some of the others chuckled. ‘Guess they had second thoughts about Jesus being in a forgiving mood,’ said one.

Saul turned to Murakami. ‘Have they shut off access to Copernicus?’

‘Nope.’ Murakami shook his head. ‘I know it looks empty around here, but there’s still a hell of a lot of traffic heading for Luna. Hopper-loads of people have been flying in here twenty-four hours a day for the past couple of days and being sent straight through with no delay.’

Saul frowned. ‘Who?’

Murakami shrugged. ‘Again, sir, I was hoping you could tell me. Civilians mostly, from what I’ve seen.’

‘It’s the government,’ said Hall, with an expression of disgust on his face, ‘They’re getting their own people out and leaving the rest of us here to rot.’

Saul looked over at him. ‘You know that for a fact?’

‘All I can tell you is there are whole families arriving here, and they’re all being escorted by Special Ops types using heavy gear like Fido here.’ He nodded towards the Black Dog. ‘It’s like the lieutenant says. They’ve been bringing them in to the Florida Array day and night and shipping them through the gates to Copernicus as fast as they can.’

‘Special Ops, you said?’

‘Hundreds of them,’ said the soldier. ‘Look to me like they’re armed heavily enough to start a war somewhere. And here’s the other thing,’ he stabbed the air with one finger. ‘Nobody, but nobody, is coming back through, the other way. What the hell’s that about?’

After he left them, Saul signed into the main security database, downloading anything he could on Farad Maalouf that he hadn’t discovered already. At the same time, he continued making his way across one of the huge concourses.

The concourse was eerily silent. Enormous animated advertisements hung in the air, while an electronic display above the immigration checkpoints indicated a variety of off-world destinations. None of the usual civilian staff was visible, and so Saul passed unchallenged through a security gate and entered a transfer station that on any normal day would be processing a couple of hundred passengers at a time on to the shuttle-cars. During peak hours, each transfer station could handle close on three hundred people every seven minutes, both coming and going.

There were further squads of troopers guarding the transfer station, their Black Dogs pounding up and down across the concourse on sturdy steel legs. One swivelled its head towards Saul as he moved towards a shuttle-car, turning away again as soon as its onboard AI registered the newcomer’s clearance.

‘Hey!’

Saul turned to see a man wearing the uniform of a security commander hurrying towards him. ‘Your clearance doesn’t allow you through here,’ the man told him.

‘If it doesn’t,’ Saul replied, ‘that’s a first.’

The commander studied Saul’s UP clearance for a moment, then rolled his eyes in evident irritation. ‘Great, more screw-ups,’ he muttered. ‘Where exactly are you headed?’

‘Newton.’

‘Why?’

Saul forced a laugh, deciding the commander didn’t really need to know. ‘Sorry, sir,’ he replied. ‘I’m really not at liberty to discuss that.’

He watched the other man consider this for a moment, before shaking his head slowly. ‘That’s not good enough. So long as we’re under a state of emergency, you’re going to need to get fresh authorization. Maybe—’

‘Sir!’ A trooper came running up to them just then. ‘We’ve got sixty or more people just broke through a cordon near the secure runway, where we’re expecting another hopper to arrive in the next ten minutes. Johnson wants to know what his orders are.’

‘Shit,’ the commander swore under his breath. ‘All right,’ he instructed the trooper, ‘tell him to use any force necessary to clear the intruders away from the runway. Any force, is that understood?’

‘Sir.’ The trooper nodded, before jogging back the way he’d come.

‘As for you,’ the commander turned back to Saul, ‘I don’t have the time for this. Get into a shuttle-car right now before I change my mind.’

Saul stared after the retreating trooper. ‘Did I really hear you give that order? You’re firing on civilians now?’

The commander’s face reddened. ‘I already told you I don’t have time for this.’

Saul raised both hands in mock surrender, before quickly boarding the nearest shuttle-car. It shuddered as the hydraulic clamps released it and it began to move forward, gradually picking up speed. Saul took a window-seat and watched as the concourse slid out of sight and the shuttle-car was carried into one of several tunnels running parallel to each other, the walls crammed with coolant pipes, radiation feedback buffers and shielding.

Before long he was being transported across the dozen metres of the wormhole itself, as four-fifths of his weight dropped away.

<"Times New Roman">The Lunar Array proved to be just as eerily quiet as its earthbound counterpart, which struck Saul as remarkable, given it was several times larger. Where the Florida Array existed primarily to shuttle people backwards and forwards between Earth and the Moon, its lunar equivalent also provided access to a dozen interstellar destinations. The entire facility sprawled over nearly fifteen square kilometres, challenging even the nearby city in terms of sheer scale.

Saul made it through a series of impromptu checkpoints, with the help of some constructive lying, and soon learned that he was right in guessing that all incoming traffic from the colonies had been suspended, for the duration of an as yet unspecified emergency. But while he waited at one checkpoint in particular, a group of tired and harried-looking travellers were guided past by a phalanx of the Special Ops soldiers Murakami had mentioned earlier. Those they were escorting were clearly civilians, yet no one at the checkpoint attempted to confirm their credentials, or even find out by what authority they were being allowed to pass into areas that even Saul struggled to reach. As they passed close enough, he could see from their tags that every one of them had all-areas clearance. Even the troopers questioning him didn’t possess that level of clearance.

Somehow, he got through. Saul jumped on a robot bus empty of passengers, which carried him all the rest of the way to the Copernicus–Newton gate. There he once again found himself forced to do some fast talking in order to continue on his way. His weight increased again, once he had passed through the wormhole, but not to Earth-normal, for Newton was slightly smaller, and less dense. Finally, after yet more clearance checks and terse questioning upon his arrival, Saul looked around to find himself riding on a train passing through the shrouded city of Sophia, beneath an alien sky.

Dense, greenish-black vegetation smothered the valley walls that rose above the tented fabric containing the city’s human-breathable atmosphere. As Saul disembarked at the central rail terminus, the air was alive with the scents of sweet tea and roasting chestnuts, and Al-Khiba floated far above, with bands of dark orange and brown girdling its equator. One of the gas giant’s other moons was moving with stately grace across the sky, appearing tiny through distance, yet so clear and sharp that Saul almost imagined he could reach up and pluck it out of the air like some fulvous jewel.

It rapidly became clear that many of Newton’s public information services had either been reduced in operation or shut down altogether. Saul jumped on to an open-topped maglev bus that smelled of apples and rotting fish, closer to the centre of town, and gazed around as it carried him through the narrow, winding streets. Most of the people he saw wore business suits, or else the same casual clothing people tended to wear almost everywhere throughout the colonies. But the farther out he travelled, the more frequently he saw men wearing keffiyahs or taqiyah caps, some of them accompanied by women in chadors.

According to the scant information he’d been able to scrape out of the ASI’s databases, Farad’s brother lived in the north-eastern section of Sophia, not too far from where the city’s all-covering roof met the upper slopes of the valley. Saul had a distinct feeling, however, that actually finding Farad was going to prove to be a bitch.

It was already getting late Alcal businesses were starting to wind down for the night. Saul yawned involuntarily, and realized just how much this long and terrible day had taken out of him. He let his eyelids droop for a moment, but all he saw behind them were scared and hungry people struggling along under a noonday sun, or those echoing concourses populated by nervous troopers following orders they didn’t understand.

Disembarking eventually in a part of town where he knew he could find a family-run hotel that he’d used before, he headed past a variety of small coffee shops clustered around one of the massive pillars that supported the city’s roof. Choosing a café, he ordered coffee and sweet pastries, and when the coffee arrived it proved so thick and bitter as to be almost undrinkable. But he persevered, and before long the caffeine began to work its magic, filling him with a temporary but nonetheless welcome sense of well-being. By the time he moved on, brushing through softly glowing adverts for baklava or Turkish tea, he was feeling a little more alert.

It didn’t take long for Saul to realize he was being followed, even though the streets were still busy with both pedestrians and road traffic. He stopped from time to time, as if to watch the sun slipping behind the gas-giant, and when he glanced back the way he’d come he spotted a couple of faces familiar from the café, but now mingling in with the crowds. He kept his eyes fixed on them, until it became clear they were trying just a bit too hard not to look his way.