/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space / Series: Shoal

Stealing Light

Gary Gibson


Gary Gibson

Stealing Light

Part One

One

Standard Consortium Date: 03.06.2538

25 kilometres south of Port Gabriel, Redstone Colony

Port Gabriel Incident +45 minutes

It was like waking up and finding you’d just sleepwalked through the gates of hell.

Dakota drew in a sharp breath, feeling like she’d first awakened into existence only a moment before. She stood stock still for several seconds, the touch of freezing rain clear and sharp on her skin.

Trying to take it all in.

Bodies were scattered all around her, under a slate-grey sky from which snow fell in sporadic squalls. Most had been cut down as they ran for safety. It was a scene of appalling carnage.

She remembered with dazzling clarity what it had felt like to kill them.

Her hands hung limply by her sides, Consortium-issue assault pistol still held in one fist. Fat-bellied Consortium transports rumbled far overhead, dropping down from orbit, looking to salvage something-anything-from the disaster of the assault.

The worst thing was that she remembered so much. Every moment, every scream, every death: it was something she was going to have to live with for the rest of her life.

That made the decision to kill herself a lot easier.

Dakota wandered away from the transport and the bodies of the Freeholder refugees it had been carrying, walking along the side of the highway and seeing where bodies had slumped into the snow-filled ditch running parallel to it.

A woman had died tangled up in the thick, hardy roots and foliage of a jugleaf bush. Dakota pulled her free, ignoring the plant’s sharp barbs that tore at her skin and survival suit. She laid the woman down on the side of the road, peering into her face. Middle-aged, motherly looking, a few strands of grey among the black roots on her scalp.

Dakota closed the dead eyes and remained kneeling by the corpse for a minute or so.

Finally she stood and looked around, listening to the rasp of freezing air coursing through the filtration systems in her breather mask, and felt her lungs heave into a scream that felt like it would never end.

Eventually her chest began to hurt from the exertion of screaming, and she stopped.

She started walking again, stripping off her survival suit bit by bit as she went. She dumped the suit in the roadside ditch, then pulled off her insulated undergarments, until she stood naked under the Redstone morning sky.

The subzero temperature was instantly numbing. She kept her breather mask on, however, because a quick death by asphyxiation in this alien atmosphere somehow felt too easy an end. Flecks of snow danced over the soft pale flesh of her bare shoulders, and against the close-cropped stubble of her scalp.

Dakota managed to stumble a few more steps, her vision blurring as she stared over towards the trucks and buses and long-distance haulers that had been carrying the refugees to safety. Some of them were burning, staining the Redstone sky with oily smoke.

She collapsed beside the statue of Belle Trevois, the Uchidan child-martyr, that stood in eternal vigil by the roadside. Its arms reached up into the air in a gesture that seemed all the more forlorn in such a lonely and desolate spot. The plinth was stained with ugly Freeholder graffiti.

Dakota realized death was very close, and curled up in a ball beneath the statue’s feet. From there she gazed up at its blank features.

Inside her head she could still hear the sound of running feet, the sound of the refugees’ screams as they burned.

Then she heard other voices-soldiers shouting to each other, coming closer.

Coming to rescue her.

* * * *

Two

City of Erkinning, Bellhaven Colony

Consortium Standard Date: 03.02.2536

Two years prior to Port Gabriel Incident

Dakota stared out over the distant rooftops of the shanties clustering beyond the city’s grim stone walls. The seven stars of evening shone down on her like an Elder’s blessing.

The instant she glanced up at the night sky, her new Ghost circuitry-freshly installed within her skull -unloaded a deluge of mostly useless information into her thoughts: without any effort she knew instantly how far away each star was, its declination in respect to the galactic equator, and how many planets and dark companions orbited each of them. A rich cornucopia of similar detail in relation to thousands of other stars, all scattered within a sphere hundreds of light years across and centred on Bellhaven, waited on the fringe of her mind. She imagined she was a spider at the centre of some vast cybernetic web, her implants like thousands of dainty multiple limbs that could reach out and tug suns and moons out of the sky for her to play with.

She pulled her gaze back down, her breath frosting in the cold night air after escaping from under the scarf wrapped tight up around her mouth and throat. A chill winter wind whipped across her freshly shaven skull where it emerged, exposed, from beneath the protection of the thick leather cap she had pulled over her head and ears. She glanced behind her to see Tutor Langley standing only a short distance away.

Langley wore a small goatee beard against his dark skin, and his long black coat resembled that of a preacher from some past century, its high stiff short collar pressing tight around his neck, while its skirt fluttered around his boots. It was a uniform intended to remind citizens of the authority of the City Elder’s controlling religious oligarchy.

Dakota noticed the expression on his face and flashed him a grin. She didn’t mind that her shaven scalp still looked bruised and battered from the surgeon’s intrusions.

In the streets far below the Garrison, on whose roof she stood, she could see people clustering at food stalls lining a busy crossroads she had wandered past a thousand times. She could just make out their faces gathered in a few small patches of light. Snatches of their conversation drifted up to her, along with the smell of cooking, making her hungry.

Dakota was suddenly aware how easily these odours could be broken down into specific categories. Words like hydrofysates, esters and caramelized sugars popped into her head, broken down into percentages that changed with each sudden gust of wind. Far below, people hid from the winter cold and rain under sheet-metal awnings, or warmed themselves around communal fusion heaters set up at each corner of the crossroads.

Jesus, Uchida, Buddha; these and a dozen more effigies glowed in incandescent hallucinatory colours from dozens of niches as they did in so many other parts of the city. They bestowed their luminous blessings on the fossilized layers of posters and public notices pasted over and over again on every available flat surface.

Just then she realized Marlie had joined her by the railing, her mouth wide in a grin under dark eyes.

‘Did you hear the latest about Banville? Now they’re saying he’s defected, gone over to the Uchidans, and abandoned his family in the process.’

‘Are you sure?’ Dakota replied. ‘Last I heard, they were claiming he was kidnapped.’

This was significant news. Banville was the scientist personally responsible for much of the cutting-edge Ghost tech on which the world of Bellhaven had long built its scientific reputation. Both Marlie and Dakota, and everyone else with Ghost implants, carried a piece of Banville’s work inside them.

Marlie shrugged happily. She had a way of smiling completely regardless of what she was actually saying, which indicated a lifelong-and to Dakota deeply irritating-dedication to perkiness beyond reason. ‘I picked up a City Bulletin just before I got here. Looks like he left voluntarily, after all, and the Elders are going crazy because of it.’

Dakota nodded. The news of Banville’s disappearance had already inspired riots in the Grover Communities, as the Elders preferred to call them. Shanties would have been a better word-they’d been growing out beyond the city walls for three years now, packed as they were with refugees flooding in from the failed Grover colony a thousand miles further north.

Dakota quickly performed the visualization routines that opened her subconscious to a flood of data and news from the local tach-net. Her eyes widened in shock as a torrent of new information was dumped into her skull: Banville had disappeared less than a day before, but within the past few minutes a recorded message had surfaced in which he claimed to have joined the Oratory of Uchida willingly, and had left Bellhaven for ever.

She looked over at Marlie, knowing instantly that she was getting the exact same information.

‘This is bad,’ Dakota said unnecessarily.

Marlie nodded. ‘Yes, Dakota, it’s very bad.’

* * * *

There were reports of a dozen more riots erupting across the globe as the shock revelation of Banville’s defection spread. Dakota watched a pall of smoke rising from two different sectors of the Grover camps as she stood on the flat roof of the Garrison’s East Quadrant Tower, the perimeter of which was ringed with ancient battlements. Steel and ceramic mountings for pulse weapons, which had defended Erkinning during the First Civil War, lay pitted and rusted from a century and a half of neglect.

Given the current circumstances, the celebrations surrounding Dakota’s graduation were a touch muted. Still, as the night wore on, Langley had set up his telescope as he’d promised, upon this selfsame rooftop, so they could all take a look at the new supernova sliding towards the horizon as dawn approached.

The telescope looked positively medieval to Dakota, a fat tube of gleaming copper and brass mounted on a rotating equatorial base, as if some machine-arachnid invader from beyond the known worlds were stalking the city rooftops.

‘Did you say something, Dakota?’ Langley peered over towards her.

She gestured upwards with her chin, indicating the supernova. ‘I said, I’d like to go someplace like that some day, and see what a dying star looks like up close.’

Her gaze met Aiden’s and she faltered, her pale skin flushing red as she recalled their fumbled intimacies in the dormitories.

‘You’re kidding, right?’ said Aiden, a touch the worse for wear from drinking. ‘Go visit the supernova?’ he laughed, eliciting nervous chuckles from any remaining students who were still awake and hadn’t already passed out. Marlie sat cross-legged, ignoring the damp tiles under her as she fixed her attention on Langley, who in turn was fully aware of her unrequited longing. Martens’ owlish features were distracted by some personal reverie, lost to the world around him. Otterich and Spezo looked bored and tired, while the rest had since made their apologies and retired for the night. Exploding stars didn’t hold much interest for some students.

Langley himself flashed Aiden a warning look. Then he glanced at Dakota, apparently satisfied at last with the minute adjustments he had been making to the telescope. ‘I share the sentiment, but the Large Magellanic Cloud is a little further away than the Shoal are prepared to transport either you or anyone else.’

‘Yeah, what is it again?’ sneered Aiden. ‘Hundred and sixty thousand light years, right?’ He flashed Dakota a grin, and she shot him back a look of pure hatred. ‘So we’re seeing an event from about the time the Shoal first developed faster-than-light technology. Loooong way away, right?’

The first supernova had appeared six years before, early in the autumn, and just a couple of days after Dakota’s sixteenth birthday. It had blossomed like cold fire, briefly one of the brightest elements in the night sky, before gradually fading out over the following weeks. Then, over the next several years, dozens more had appeared at irregular intervals, shining brightly for a few brief weeks before again fading back into stellar anonymity. And all this had occurred within a relatively tiny sector of a neighbouring galaxy.

‘What you’re all forgetting,’ Langley told them in his soft-spoken way, ‘is that these novae still represent a mystery. And there’s nothing people like more than a mystery. It’s in our nature.’

He stepped back from the telescope and rested one hand gently on its glinting carapace. ‘Martens, since you’ve been studying the novae, why don’t you remind us of some of the background detail? What is it that’s so remarkable and unusual about them?’

Martens wasn’t entirely sober himself, and he blinked and stuttered, caught unawares by the Tutor’s potentially dangerous line of enquiry. ‘Uh, Sir, up until now our understanding was that most stars that go nova are part of a double-star system.’ His foot kicked over an unfinished bottle of beer that sat forgotten by his foot. He reached for it, but changed his mind halfway. Dakota caught the look on Aiden’s face, and even he suddenly looked a lot more sober. ‘One of these stars sucks up material from its companion, and as a result you get a stellar detonation. But, as far as anyone can tell, none of these new novae was either massive enough to go nova, or even part of a double-star system.’

‘And there’s also the double neutrino bursts,’ Dakota added impulsively, whereupon Martens looked grateful not to have to say any more. Langley turned to her with a look of appreciation, even admiration, which made her blush.

‘Deep space scanners have always recorded a neutrino surge occurring a few minutes before any visual observation is made,’ she continued. ‘But every one of the recent Magellan novae has been preceded by a neutrino echo: not one but two neutrino bursts, separated by a few seconds, followed by the normal visual confirmation. Yet that should be impossible. Maybe a couple of novae appear every century in our own galaxy, but now there’s a couple of dozen occurring in a neighbouring galaxy made up of only a tenth as many stars as our own Milky Way. That’s in the space of a few years, and almost literally next door to each other. It just doesn’t make sense.’

Langley smiled. ‘See, that’s a girl with genuine curiosity, Aiden. She likes to ask questions, while you just sit around and complain.’

There was nervous laughter from Martens, which Otterich joined in with after a moment. Aiden forced a smile as if to say You win, and Dakota suddenly found it hard to remember what it was she’d liked about him enough to let him climb on top of her not so long ago. She put it down to a combination of alcohol and the undeniable fact that he was far from unattractive.

She sighed and pulled her thoughts away from the memory of their bodies tangled together between warm sheets. It was one thing for them to climb up here on a frozen rooftop because yet another new star had appeared in the sky, but even coming close to asking the reason why could, in some quarters, lead to problems.

When those first novae had appeared, the City Elders, who ruled Erkinning and all the other cities of the Free States, had been quick to label such stellar manifestations as part of God’s Ineffable Purpose, and, therefore, not open to scientific or indeed any other kind of speculation.

The Consortium-the name by which the administrative and military body that controlled human-occupied space was known-had little interest in local politics, yet the fact remained that of Bellhaven’s several different nations, the Free States had been heavily invested in by the Consortium itself due to the remarkable advances that technicians in Erkinning and certain other Free State cities had achieved in developing Ghost technology. Under the circumstances, this clampdown on public speculation over the novae was little more than sabre-rattling: an attempt by the Elders to show they remained the real authority in Erkinning, when everyone knew otherwise.

Aiden looked grim. He had an uncle sitting on the Council of Elders, and getting involved in this kind of speculation wasn’t going to help advance his career. Dakota’s next words came out in a rush, lest Aiden accuse Langley of deliberately courting heresy.

‘The supernovae have thrown everything we thought we knew about stellar mechanics out the window, but the Shoal won’t even discuss them, which makes everyone think they’re hiding something.’

For a moment, there was only silence, and the sound of the night wind blowing across the parapets.

‘All right, then,’ said Langley, unable to suppress a grin. ‘I brought this telescope out here for a reason. The Consortium expects a good return on its investment, so you have to understand just how much you’ll still need to learn after all your studies here are just distant memories-and by then, you won’t have to worry about the Elders telling you what you can or can’t think.’

He tapped the side of his head with one finger. ‘Nothing ever happens without a reason, and that includes a neighbouring galaxy lighting up like an explosion in a fireworks factory. So here’s a question to consider. Assuming some as yet unknown force has caused a considerable number of very distant stars to detonate, despite apparently lacking sufficient mass, does that suggest the same thing could eventually happen here?’

‘But that’s an unanswerable question,’ Aiden protested, a touch of defensiveness now apparent in his voice. ‘Even the Shoal’s ships would take centuries to get there and investigate, and whatever happened there, it happened when we were still swinging around in the trees back on Earth. There’s no point in speculating if we’ll never be in a position to find out the answer.’

Langley closed his eyes for a moment, and Dakota thought she heard him swear quietly under his breath. When he opened his eyes again he looked over at Dakota and motioned to her.

‘Dakota, would you like to be first to take a look?’

She stepped forward, bending over to peer through the telescope’s viewfinder. Clearly, Langley hadn’t responded to Aiden’s statement because what he had said was true. The only reason humans had ever reached the stars had been down to the help of the Shoal. Twenty-second century experiments in long-distance quantum entanglement had resulted in tach-transmission, a form of instantaneous communication already long put in use by the Shoal’s vast interstellar fleets of core-ships. Among all those millions of inhabited star systems, they claimed to be the only race who had developed a faster-than-light drive, and in return for a promise that humanity would never attempt to replicate this technology, mankind would be allowed to colonize other planets within a specified bubble of space approximately three hundred light years in diameter.

It was an offer that couldn’t be refused, but there had been stories and rumours of subsequent human attempts to replicate the transluminal drive, regardless of the Shoal’s original threats. But all those attempts had apparently ended in abject failure. Similarly, there was never any public admission that human governments used covert satellites and remote observation technologies to constantly observe Shoal coreships in those vital moments before they translated into transluminal space, yet it was widely believed to be the case.

Without the Shoal, therefore, there would now be no colonies, no interstellar trade, no carefully licensed alien technologies provided by the Shoal’s other client races, and certainly no original colonists to build Erkinning, the Free States, and all the other human cultures here on Bellhaven.

Without the magnanimity of the Shoal, none of this would ever have happened.

Dakota pressed closer against the telescope’s view-finder, feeling the cool circle of plastic against her eyebrow and cheek. Points of light then jumped into sharp contrast. Once again she was made very aware of details concerning the stars she now viewed that she couldn’t possibly have registered without the aid of her implants. But her Ghost was already learning to anticipate her desires, so the information evaporated as quickly as it had appeared.

It was true that orbital telescopes and distributed radio scanning networks were far more accurate for the business of stargazing, but there was still a visceral rush in the physical act of peering through a simple lens. It made her feel like Galileo looking at the moons of Jupiter for the first time.

‘Maybe somebody blew them up,’ Dakota muttered. ‘The Magellanic stars, I mean.’

Aiden laughed uproariously, and Dakota’s face grew hot with embarrassment.

‘If you’ve got any better ideas, feel free to share,’ she snapped. At that point, Marlie, clearly embarrassed by the sniping, stepped forward to take her turn in peering through the telescope.

Langley’s features had reverted to their usual granitelike impassivity, but he was doubtless taking in every word they said.

‘You know, Aiden,’ he said at last, ‘it’s entirely true that the Shoal have us over a barrel. There’s thousands of other species out there, we’re told, but we’ve so far only ever encountered the Bandati and one or two others. But you never know. Maybe it won’t always be that way.’

Aiden smirked, but Dakota could see he wasn’t so sure of himself anymore. ‘Tutor, those are dangerous words in some places,’ he said quietly.

Langley’s stony features didn’t even flicker. ‘Then let’s just say that once you, too, realize just how many restrictions the human race labours under, then you’ll know how it feels to dream of changing the status quo. Then you’ll know how frustrating it is to get only so far, and be told you can go no further.’

‘Well, it’s still far enough, isn’t it?’ Aiden replied, looking slightly bewildered. ‘I mean,’ he continued, a cocky grin now tugging up one corner of his mouth, ‘it’s still better than sticking around here for the rest of our lives.’

Dakota caught the look on Langley’s face, even if Aiden was oblivious to it.

‘You have,’ Langley muttered, each word rasping as it emerged from his throat, ‘a worrying lack of adventure.’

* * * *

Three

Shoal Homeworld, Perseus Arm

Consortium Standard Date: 01.02.2542

The creature’s name was Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals, and he fell from orbit, contained within a field-protected bubble of brackish fluid, towards an unending expanse of blue.

Far above him, only a very few stars shone down. During its long and lonely flight, the Shoal homeworld had been lost in a dense cloud of interstellar dust for almost ten millennia, and was not expected to emerge from the other side for another millennium at least.

The part of the homeworld towards which Trader descended was currently in day, the requisite heat and light providing life given not by the long-departed star under which Trader’s kind had first evolved, but instead by a myriad of field-suspended fusion globes arranged in a tight grid hanging a few thousand kilometres above the planet surface.

The homeworld moved alone through the vast expanse of the Milky Way, heading for the relatively empty spaces between its great spiral arms. There, at least, might be found safety from the war that would surely come one day.

Oh woe, thought Trader, as the watery surface of the homeworld approached at an alarming speed, that we should ever reach our fabled destination! His manipulator tentacles writhed under his body in an approximation of grim humour, snatching wriggling live-foods from his briny encasement and slipping them into his quivering jaws. Ten thousand years travelling and, with any luck, ten thousand years more, and another ten thousand years after that, and after that, and after…

The world of Trader’s birth was an ocean world. A long time ago there had been continents, too, but careful management of the natural tectonic system had lowered these continental surfaces until they could be safely drowned beneath the life-giving waters. Now all was ocean, for ever and ever, except where carefully shaped energy fields cut great holes down through the surface of the waters: gaping abyssal spaces into which the vast pressures of the ocean yearned to plunge. These fields sliced high up into the atmosphere, generating vast areas of vacuum that led all the way down to the seabed, and even further.

It was to one of these tunnels running through the world that Trader dropped, his enormous blank eyes staring out from the skull of his piscine form, but safe within his protective bubble.

The ocean rushed towards Trader and then past, as the creature dropped down one of the vacuum shafts, the blue surrounding waters rapidly turning black as he descended, leaving just a bright circle of light far above to mark his point of entry.

In the fraction of a moment it took Trader to twitch one of his palpebra, he was plunged into darkness except where the occasional fusion globe hovered in defiance of the laws of nature. These lit the way into sub-aquatic portals where a Shoal-member might pass at last from deadly vacuum and into the slippery embrace of Mother Ocean.

Down, down, down. Trader fell yet further, then twisted to one side with impossible speed in his inertia-free bubble, a fusion marker reduced to a fleeting point of incandescence as he sped by it in a flash. Then he was deep within the healing waters of Mother Ocean.

This was the place where the Deep Dreamers dwelt, in unending blackness at the very bottom of the world.

The decision to remove the Shoal homeworld from its orbit around the star that had birthed it had been made long before Trader had come into existence. But Trader himself was very, very old. He had employed a thousand names but, when he came to dealing with the humans who were his current area of interest and employment, the sobriquet Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals had seemed apposite.

It was a joke between Trader and the humans, some of whom found the honorific deeply offensive while knowing there was literally nothing they could do about it.

And neither they nor any other client race had the faintest notion of the deep rifts that ran through Shoal society. Nor would they, ever, if Trader and those of similar employ had anything to do with it.

Trader drifted further across the sandy ocean floor, where the vast watery spaces were broken into distinct regions by field projections. Massive buildings and administrative blocks grown out of ancient coral rose above the seabed like living colossi, though this was a region to which few were allowed access. Other Shoal-members darted about, following their own paths, busy in the gigantic task of administering to the Dreamers’ needs -feeding and caring for them, aeon after aeon, on and on into a future which the Dreamers had been specifically engineered to detect and analyse.

The landscape was marked by yet more fusion globes that cast a luminescence over the chillingly vast shapes scattered across the face of the abyss. The Deep Dreamers would be aware of Trader’s approach, as they were aware of so much else in their godlike capacity to see where the roots of coming events lay within the present. Trader drifted on over the edge of a precipice, and then spotted the Dreamers directly ahead, great bulbous shapes with sightless eyes, their gargantuan tentacles draped across and dwarfing the smooth hummocks of what had once been an undersea mountain range.

The land for hundreds of kilometres around the Deep Dreamers was devoted to sea farms that generated the thousands of tonnes of food necessary to feed them. Hundreds of tenders constantly roamed around the Dreamers, like acolytes waiting to be consumed by vast and terrible black gods.

* * * *

‘If you go among the Deep Dreamers,’ Trader’s superior had warned several days before, ‘it’s very likely an agent of the Mother Star Faction will seek to destroy you.’

They had met at an arranged rendezvous in an orbital park, a water-filled environment constructed partly from physical materials and partly from shaped energy fields. The homeworld had been visible far below, its waters wreathed in summer storms, lightning flickering across the southern hemisphere where a hurricane raged, whipping the surface waters into foam-capped waves beneath a tight curl of coriolis.

Above the atmosphere, and beyond the warming light of the fusion globes that surrounded it, the planet was ringed from longitude to latitude by glittering silver bands like a jeweller’s cage. These were manifestations of certain fundamental energies that allowed the Shoal homeworld to be guided through the depths of interstellar space, keeping as far as possible from any neighbouring star systems.

Trader and his superior-an ancient, leather-skinned individual known to him only as Desire-For-Violent-Rendering, a title reflecting his past involvement in the messier and bloodier affairs of government-had swum in parallel course through the public space, appearing to any casual observer as merely two ancient fish lost in their reminiscences of times long past.

‘It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve tried, I assure you,’ Trader had replied. His answer had been enunciated as a cascade of watery clicks generated by its secondary mouth. ‘I know how to handle myself.’

Desire-For-Violent-Rendering had clicked assent, but Trader could discern the other’s nervousness manifest from the way he twisted his manipulator tentacles.

‘Attention has been drawn to your working methods within higher levels of government,’ Desire continued. ‘Officially of course you are a free agent, long retired from active service. Nevertheless…’

Nevertheless. Trader had felt a certain wry humour listening to Desire’s carefully phrased statement. Even an old murderer like Desire got the shits in Trader’s presence. But as far as Trader was concerned, given that their ultimate purpose was to guarantee the continued survival of their species against so many enemies, real and potential, any successful approach was the right approach.

‘You think me amoral and careless?’ Trader had replied casually. ‘Yet if I had not acted in the past according to my own judgement, the outcome might well have been far more terrible than some of our cadre frankly are capable of comprehending. This agent of the pro-solar faction, would its name be Squat-Devourer-Of-Enemy-Corpses, by any chance?’

Desire-For-Violent-Rendering fell silent, and Trader enjoyed a small flush of triumph at this response.

General Squat was a Shoal-member with a reputation even more terrifying than that of Desire, who had been taking charge of many a military campaign since long before many of the Shoal’s client species had been huddling around their first self-made fires. Yet Squat seemed to have grown weaker with old age, more… liberal.

At that point, Trader had shot out a tentacle and snatched up a mollusc swimming by, ripping its shell open and stuffing the contents into his primary mouth with particular force. Even thinking about Squat provoked strong feelings of anger.

‘Squat is close to the truth,’ Desire-For-Violent-Rendering then warned Trader. ‘We know the General was approached by Mother Star representatives, after making some enquiries of his own, and has since been recruited to their cause. Do not underestimate either the power or the influence that-’

‘With respect, I am hardly to be underestimated myself.’

‘But you are becoming careless, I think,’ had been Desire’s instant reply. ‘You wouldn’t be the first agent to get swallowed up by his own hubris. This name you have chosen for yourself…’

‘Trader- In-Faecal-Matter-Of- Animals?’

‘Yes.’ Desire-For-Violent-Rendering’s distaste had become clear in the writhing of his manipulator tentacles. ‘A joke for a name, a very human joke at that. You have, I think, spent too long around those wretched creatures. Not only that, your methodology has become eccentric, for want of a better word. As if you’re testing fate by giving those you seek to manipulate the opportunity to uncover your very manipulation. One might believe you to be suffering a certain, well, existential despair, as is not unprecedented amongst agents of the Dreamers.’

Desire had halted close to the border of a vacuum shaft, clearly waiting for a reply.

Trader’s own manipulators had writhed in amusement. ‘Are you suggesting I retire?’

‘Perhaps not immediately,’ Desire had conceded, ‘since the Deep Dreamers appear to confirm the central nature of your role in coming events. Do you intend to visit them soon?’

‘Yes, very soon. I will… have to deal with the General, it appears.’

‘If word got out of the Great Secret, of the true reason for abandoning our home star and carrying our homeworld so far from any other solar body…’

‘I understand.’

Desire appeared satisfied with this reply. ‘It seems more than likely the General will approach you during your visit to the Dreamers, since you’re otherwise unlikely to return to the homeworld again for some time. A meeting there would be… efficacious.’

Trader had flicked his massive eyes to either side of them out of habit. A multitude of peripheral devices scattered throughout the length and breadth of the park made it clear, however, that no one was in a position to overhear anything they said to each other.

* * * *

The Deep Dreamers were the result of tens of millennia of selective breeding and genetic manipulation that had resulted in creatures as near to immortal as could be imagined, even by the standards of the exceedingly long-lived Shoal. The Dreamers’ biological neural networks constituted a massive engine of quantum parallel-processing designed to navigate the chaotic foaming surf of the very near future, and thereby discern the rough shape of coming events. They could sift through near-infinite numbers of conflicting and competing quantum uncertainties, and predict where certain trends might bear fruit, or where certain historical processes might either grow in impetus or grind to a halt. They were also one of the Shoal’s best kept secrets.

Generally, the Dreamers’ predictions produced relatively few real surprises. Trader had long known that the war they all feared was an historical inevitability, something to be postponed as long as possible rather than entirely avoided. Nevertheless, the Dreamers could often produce remarkable-if occasionally unreliable -results on a far more basic and personal level.

It was for this reason Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals had chosen to make this personal trip to visit the Deep Dreamers for the first time in centuries. Extremely secret communiquйs had predicted his prominent role in certain worryingly apocalyptic visions recently generated by the Deep Dreamers.

Never one happy to accept information at second hand, Trader had naturally requested a direct audition with the Dreamers, in order more accurately to decipher his role in coming events.

This close to them, it would have been easy to mistake the vast undulating shapes of the Deep Dreamers for a particularly sinuous and disturbingly organic-appearing range of hills and valleys. Hills that, from time to time, moved.

Occasional tiny sparks of bright energy fizzed around the surface of Trader’s protective field bubble, as it adjusted to a soul-crushing pressure far higher than that in which Trader’s species had first evolved. Other bubbles of bright energy, each containing a Shoal-member, rose up towards Trader from the direction of the Dreamers. These were the priest-geneticists that spent their lives tending and guarding their mountainous oracles here in endless, solemn darkness.

Trader soon became aware of the presence of another, approaching him rapidly from another direction. Trader slowed, allowing General Squat-Devourer-Of-Enemy-Corpses to come parallel with him. They swam on together, progressing in the direction of the Dreamers.

‘There you are!’ cried the General with forced joviality. ‘Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals, eh?’ His manipulators rattled together with a series of clicking sounds, the Shoal equivalent of raucous laughter.

Trader suffered a momentary frisson of panic. Could the approaching priest-geneticists be fully trusted in their imminent dealings with the General? They were all, supposedly, insiders, loyal to Desire-For-Violent-Rendering’s decision to suppress the unpalatable truth from the likes of General Squat.

But what if Desire had in fact already betrayed Trader? What if Desire’s warning about Trader’s working methods had really been a kind of ultimatum?

What if? What if?

Trader scolded himself even for such a momentary lapse of faith. If death came this day, he would die with the knowledge he had served the Shoal Hegemony far longer than most. There was grace and nobility in that thought for, after all, the notion of dying a natural death seemed preposterous.

And if not this day, then he would die on another. So be it.

Trader ceased his worrying. He cast a sideways glance at Squat, noting what an ugly brute the General was, his scaly hide scarred and weather-beaten. One eye-albeit easily repairable-was milky-white and blind, with a visible rent in its surface. A formidable opponent indeed, but Trader had faced worse.

General Squat rammed his field bubble into Trader’s, and the water around them boiled as their energies clashed. Trader rapidly skipped his protective field away from the General, taking a moment to realize Squat was not in fact attempting to kill him.

‘General-’

‘Caught you there, eh?’ The General came rushing back up, ancillary mouth snapping and tentacles writhing. ‘Need to stay sharp! Never know when you might get a knife between the fins.’

‘And you, General’-Trader was regaining some of his composure-‘what brings you to the Deep Dreamers?’

‘Well, you see, the future’s been rather on my mind of late too,’ Squat replied.

At this comment, Trader kept his tentacles noncommittally bundled.

Something very like a human shrug rippled across the General’s scarred exterior. ‘There are rumours… very dark rumours, my friend.’

‘I had no idea,’ Trader replied.

‘I hate to listen to unfounded gossip, but you’d be amazed the things that are presently being muttered in some very high-ranking circles.’

‘Such as?’

Trader looked askance at his companion. They were close enough now to the Dreamers to see the sheer scale of the beasts; each tentacle-sucker could easily consume a hundred Shoal-members all at once. They were deep within the Dreamer’s influence now, caught in the eddying tide of the very near future, even as it prepared to crash into the present.

‘Well, I wouldn’t care to elaborate,’ Squat replied in a conspiratorial tone. ‘And if I did, I might subsequently be forced to kill you.’ The General’s tentacles swirled around with humourless mirth.

‘I have heard rumours myself,’ Trader replied, ‘that the Dreamers all predict a war is coming.’

‘Yes!’ The General seized upon this. ‘Now don’t get me wrong, war is a wonderful thing-in the right context, with the right enemy, and as long as you win. But these rumours, they concern an unwinnable war, as preposterous as that notion seems. Unwinnable?’

‘Perhaps some of our associates have been talking too freely, General. It really wouldn’t do to frighten the ordinary population.’

‘Indeed,’ the General replied.

Trader glanced ahead and noticed the priest-geneticists were almost upon them.

‘Have you heard about old Rigor-Mortis?’ asked Squat. ‘Dead, I’m afraid.’

‘Is that so?’

Trader failed to conceal his surprise. Rigor-Mortis had long been a prime mover among those who, like Trader, were privy to the Great Secret.

‘Yes. Rigor gave himself to the Dreamers not so long ago, apparently unable to bear the burden of some preposterous secret he had carried all his life. Or so the old fool told me, before he became voluntary squid food.’

‘I see. And what might this secret be?’

‘Preposterous nonsense, obviously. But I wanted to ask you about it, considering you were close pals with old Rigor for, oh, so many centuries. He claimed he knew the real reason we’ve been fleeing our own sun for so long. What he said was… remarkable. Of course, if you were to lend credence to such stories, it would raise rather a whole slew of other questions, wouldn’t it?’

Trader steeled himself. ‘I wouldn’t know, General. What secret? Which questions?’

‘Officially, the decision to remove our world from the original home system was due to inherent instabilities within our own star, which were likely to result in particularly destructive solar flares. Correct?’

‘This is old news, General.’

‘For this reason,’ Squat blithely continued, ‘we have since been travelling through the eternal darkness of space at a sublight crawl for millennia. Yet there are plenty of viable and stable star systems we could have guided our world toward before now. But we haven’t done so. Why?’

‘General-’

The General ignored Trader and continued. ‘Yet we continue eternally on this quixotic quest, believing misguidedly that it wouldn’t possibly occur to any of the tens of billions of Shoal-members living today that this story doesn’t hold up nearly as well as a bucket of fish guts on the sunniest day of the year. Otherwise, why would the Mother Star Faction have gathered so much support for the idea of simply finding a viable star and going there! And then, of course, there remains the question of why we don’t simply construct the biggest transluminal drive in the galaxy, and just fly this bloody great mudball to some other perfectly compatible star in an instant. Oh, so many questions, my dear Trader. And yet old Rigor seemed remarkably certain he had all the real answers.’

‘General, Rigor believed in a lot of things, but his mind became increasingly addled since he was forced to retire. You’ll recall he was captured in some middle-of-nowhere conflict and came very close to being made into a stew’

‘Be that as it may, everything the General told me made perfect sense. And don’t keep trying to play the innocent, Trader. Your own name turned up often enough during his confessions.’

Trader sighed inwardly, and mentally prepared himself to murder General Squat at the nearest convenient moment. Now, however, he would have to listen to his idiotic heresies for a few minutes more, until the priest-geneticists were close enough for Trader to flash them the prearranged signal.

Squat continued in his blustering way. ‘Remarkable, Rigor’s revelations, particularly his suggestion that our faster-than-light technology was in fact stolen from another species.’

‘General, would you really see the Shoal Hegemony collapse after half a million years? Is that what you’re seeking? Would you still be proud of giving away the secrets of some dried-out old idiot too tired of life to stick around to see what damage he could do before he died?’

‘Of course not. The days of our earliest interstellar travels are now long ago and half-forgotten. And, as we know, the few records that still exist are sketchy at best. Yet he didn’t stop there. According to Rigor, the transluminal technology has other uses so remarkable that merely possessing the knowledge of it would entirely explain our long flight from the home star…’

The dozen priest-geneticists, in their bright, colour-coded pressurized bubbles, were almost upon them, feigning as if to pass on by in the opposite direction. Trader watched the General glance towards them, and struggled not to do the same.

‘All right, General, tell me what your price is. Please don’t tell me it’s anything as banal as power and influence. I’d be disappointed.’

‘Half a million years of unbroken rule would hardly become unbalanced by a more candid attitude towards our fellow citizens,’ came Squat’s immediate reply. ‘If the Mother Star Faction’s demands can’t be met, then at least give them a reasonable explanation of why they can’t.’

‘That won’t happen, General. Those to whom I answer will have none of it.’

‘Then you’re facing the risk of revolution, Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals,’ came General Squat’s immediate reply. ‘Now that I think of it, perhaps your chosen ambassadorial name sounds more appropriate than I realized. Most Shoal-members live far from the homeworld, but they would all rather see it orbiting securely around a stable star than lost for ever in a frozen dust cloud. Otherwise…’

Otherwise, what? was Trader’s unvoiced reply. It was clear the General was not going to listen to reason.

‘Otherwise,’ General Squat concluded after a pause, ‘others like me will be sure to disseminate the truth -particularly if anything drastic were to happen to me.’

Trader gave the signal. Suddenly the dozen priest-geneticists came rushing forward. Their energy bubbles flashed as they collided with the General’s, while Trader himself retreated to a safe distance.

Thirteen balls of coloured light suddenly merged into one, with General Squat caught in the middle. The priest-geneticists now fell on the old warrior-fish, their tentacles ready-tipped with diamond-edged blades. The General fought valiantly, but he was old, and had been taken by surprise.

Your agents, dear General, are compromised, Trader thought to himself. Squat’s plans stank of rank amateurism.

It was over so quickly. After a few moments the priest-geneticists fell away from the General’s ripped-up corpse, which began spiralling down towards the seabed, preceded by a field disrupter weapon the old fool had kept concealed about his person.

‘Feed the General’s remains to the Dreamers,’ Trader instructed one of the priests, a near-albino known as Keeper-Of-Intimate-Secrets-Of-The-Unwittingly-Compromised. ‘They can enjoy his memories.’

Keeper blinked his massive eyes at this request. ‘If we submit the General’s remains to the Deep Dreamers, his once-conscious matrix will merge with and further inform the Dreamers. The memory of what has happened here would survive and, so long as it remains within the matrix of the Dreamers, what he knew at the time of his death might be rediscovered by others.’

Trader sighed, emitting a long stream of bubbles. ‘And it is your duty to sift through, interpret and censor such information as it comes to light, is it not? Rigor-Mortis gave himself to the Deep Dreamers precisely because he believed the truth would emerge just as you describe, and it’s your duty to ensure this never happens. Is that understood?’

‘Understood, yes,’ the priest-geneticist replied, with a rapid string of clicks.

‘Very good. Now take me to the Deep Dreamers.’

* * * *

For some reason, some of the priests-including Keeper-Of-Secrets-appeared to regard Trader as almost as much of an oracle as the Deep Dreamers themselves.

‘And you truly believe the war to end all wars is upon us?’ Keeper-Of-Secrets asked yet again, as General Squat’s body was delivered to the vast spirochetes of the nearest of the Dreamers.

Trader’s reply was dismissive. ‘What the Dreamers tell us is… well, it’s rarely conclusive, is it? Sometimes, sad to say, it’s even useless.’

Keeper was clearly scandalized by this suggestion, but Trader blithely continued: ‘Instead the Dreamers give us clues vague enough to appear to mean one thing, then turn out to have a wildly different interpretation once it’s too late to influence the course of events. Keeper, I think we rely on them too much. They’re just a convenience the Hegemony can point to so they can abdicate all responsibility for their own actions. Look, they just say the Deep Dreamers predicted this, and the outcome was inevitable, whatever they might have done.’

Trader flicked his tentacles in a shrug. ‘So ultimately that means an unfortunate few like myself are forced to take on responsibility for what must be done, and divert the flow of history.’

‘Perhaps, but it must be…’ Keeper hesitated.

‘Continue.’

‘I’m afraid of speaking out of turn.’

‘You have my permission.’

‘It strikes me as a lonely and thankless occupation,’ Keeper-Of-Secrets continued. ‘So few are permitted to know that such as yourself must manipulate events throughout the galaxy for the general benefit of our species. Yet, since such manipulations are based on the Dreamer’s own predictions, and you appear not to think highly of the Dreamers…’

‘I couldn’t live with myself, if I thought any inaction on my part led to our destruction,’ Trader replied. ‘So, you see, to act is morally unavoidable, whatever the source of the intelligence.’

They had by now almost reached the first of the Dreaming Temples-a hovering robot submarine that granted the privileged few the means to interface directly with the Dreamers.

Trader made his farewells to his new partners in murder before finally slipping into the wet embrace of the Temple. The machine’s innards opened up automatically at his approach, mechanical mandibles reaching out and securing his field bubble, which merged on contact with the Temple’s own energy fields.

Trader found himself in absolute darkness, greater even than that prevailing beyond the Temple’s hull. This hiatus lasted only seconds, however, before the Temple made contact with the Dreamer’s collective consciousness.

Trader felt as if his mind had expanded to encompass the entire galaxy within a matter of seconds. Powerful images and sensations assailed his mind, far stronger than those faint intimations he had sensed on his journey here. He witnessed a hundred stars blossoming in deadly fire across the greater night of the Milky Way, a wave of bright destruction unparalleled in all of Shoal history, outside of the Great Expulsion.

Trader felt sickening despair. This was the worst possible outcome: a seething wave of carnage sweeping the Shoal Hegemony into dusty history. To become a had-been and never-would-be-again civilization, forgotten in the annals of the greater history of the cosmos.

Yet hope could still be detected even in the face of apparently unavoidable doom. Over the next few hours, working within the Temple, Trader was able to identify potential key factors: individuals, places and dates that might well influence the initiation of the conflict.

And even if war could not be prevented, it might still be reduced in the scale of its destructive impact. With gentle manipulation, it might even be contained, rendered harmless: turned into a historical footnote rather than a final chapter.

Sometimes, Trader had found, fate really did lie in the hands of a few sentients such as himself.

He began to make plans to ensure he would always be present in the right places to witness-and influence-these pivotal events. And perhaps even divert them away from an astonishingly destructive war that otherwise threatened to erase life from the galaxy.

* * * *

Four

Trans-Jovian Space, Sol System

The Present

Warm, naked, her muscles tense with anticipation, Dakota floated in the cocoon warmth of the Piri Reis and waited for the inevitable.

Ever since she’d departed Sant’Arcangelo, the ship had gone crazy at precise thirteen-hour intervals: lights dimmed, communications systems scrambled and rebooted, and even her Ghost circuits suffered a brief dose of amnesia, while heavy, bulkhead-rattling vibrations rolled through the hull.

Every incidence was worse than the last. And every time it happened, Dakota thought of jettisoning the unknown contents of her cargo hold, only to end up reminding herself just why that was a really bad idea.

Twenty seconds to go. She put down her rehydrated black bean soup and flicked a glance in the direction of the main console. Streams of numbers and graphs appeared in the air, along with the image of a clock counting down the last few seconds. She stared at the numbers, feeling the same flood of despair she’d felt every other time this disruption had happened.

Deliver the cargo. Ignore any alerts. Don’t interfere with either the cargo bay or its contents. That’s what Dakota had been instructed, and that was exactly what she intended to do.

Absolutely.

‘Piri,’ she said aloud, ‘tell me what’s causing this.’

‹I’m afraid I can’t›, the ship replied in tireless response to a question she’d already asked a dozen times, ‹without violating the terms of your current contract. Would you like me to analyse the contents of the cargo bay anyway? ›

Yes. ‘No.’ This wasn’t the way her life was meant to work out. ‘Just leave it.’

The clock hit zero, and a sonorous, grating vibration rolled through the cabin. Floating ‘alert’ messages stained the air red. Meanwhile her Ghost implants made it eminently clear the source of the vibrations was the cargo bay. ‘Alerts off,’ she snapped.

Everything went dark.

Piri?

No answer.

Oh crap. Dakota waited several more seconds, feeling a rush of cold up her spine. She tried calling out to the ship again, but it didn’t respond.

She felt her way across the command module in absolute darkness, guided by the technological intuition her Ghost implants granted her, pulling herself along solely by her hands, while her feet floated out behind her. The bulkheads and surfaces were all covered with smooth velvet and fur that was easy to grip. Cushions, meal containers and pieces of discarded clothing whirled in eddies created by her passage, colliding with her suddenly and unavoidably in the darkness.

The only sound Dakota could hear was her own panicked breathing, matched by the adrenaline thud of her heart. Convinced the life support was about to collapse, she activated her filmsuit. It spilled out of her skin from dozens of artificial pores, a flood of black ink that cocooned and protected her inside her own liquid spacesuit, growing transparent over her eyes so as to display the darkened space around her in infrared.

Instrument panels glowed eerily with residual heat, and she saw hotspots where her naked flesh had touched heat-retaining surfaces, making it easier for her mind to wander into fantasies of being trapped on a deserted, haunted ship.

She found herself at the rear of the command module. Three metres behind her lay its cramped sleeping quarters, two metres to the right, the head. Nine metres in any direction, the infinity of space beyond the hull. She ducked aft, into the narrow access tube leading to the overrides.

Piri?

She tried switching to a different comms channel but still couldn’t get an answer.

‘Fucking asshole Quill!’ she shouted into the darkness, her fear rapidly transmuting into anger. At least her Ghost circuits were still functioning: she let them flood her brain with empathogens and phenylethylamine, brightening her mood and keeping outright terror at bay.

Dakota started to breathe more easily. It was only a minor emergency, an easily fixable systems fault. She soon found the first of several manual override switches and punched it a lot harder than necessary. Emergency lights flickered on, and a single klaxon alert began to sound from the direction of the command module. The life support, however, remained resolutely inactive.

One thing she was certain of. Whatever the source of her present troubles, it was surely within the cargo bay.

* * * *

‘I can’t take that kind of chance,’ Dakota had warned Quill several days earlier.

The asteroid Sant’Arcangelo’s central commercial complex was visible through the panoramic window filling one wall of the shipping agent’s office. Vehicles slid constantly along cables slung across between the two sides of a mountainous crack cutting deep into the crust of the Shoal-boosted asteroid. Birds flew in dizzy flocks through air so thick and honeyed you could almost drink it, while trees sprouted from slopes as broken and jagged as they’d been on the day of creation. On either side, both slopes were festooned with buildings and shopping complexes that literally hung suspended from tens of thousands of unbreakable cables criss-crossing the enormous void.

Just a few hundred metres above this city of Roke’s Folly, the narrow wrapping of atmosphere ceased abruptly at the perimeter of the containment field wrapped around Sant’Arcangelo. Beyond that lay the cold wastes of the asteroid belt.

‘Dakota.’ When he spoke, Quill combined all the verbal qualities of a stern teacher and a favourite uncle. ‘There is no risk involved. What could be simpler? My client loads an unspecified cargo into your ship. You fly your ship to Bourdain’s Rock, where you then allow my client to retrieve his cargo and go on his way. Where’s the risk in that?’

Quill shook his head, apparently incredulous. ‘Look. If it weren’t for the fact I’m not a pilot with a reputation as good as yours used to be, I’d do the job myself.’ He moved over from where he’d been standing next to the window, and sat down opposite Dakota. ‘So tell me how it’s taking a chance.’

She stared at Quill and laughed. ‘For a start, you can stop pretending I don’t know that we’re talking about Alexander Bourdain himself. I know things about Bourdain that would make the hair stand up and creep off your head. I’ve dealt with him a couple of times before, and I’d rather take my chances stark naked in a cage full of hungry wolves. And, on top of that, I won’t even know what it is I’ll be delivering to him?’ Dakota shook her head. ‘Gangsters like Bourdain-’

‘Wrong,’ Quill interrupted. ‘He’s not a gangster.’ He glanced back towards the window, momentarily hiding his face from her. ‘All those charges were dropped, remember?’

She wanted to take Quill by the throat and ram his head against the window behind him. It took an extreme effort of will not to start shouting at him. ‘Well, I heard how one witness died mysteriously in an accident, and by remarkable coincidence all the others changed their testimony within a couple of days of that. Excuse me if I don’t feel totally convinced.’

Quill returned his gaze to her briefly. Then he walked over to the door of his office and opened it. ‘You, I think, need to get some trust into your life.’ He gestured her out of the door with his head. ‘Or are you telling me you don’t need this job so badly anymore?’

‘Shut the door. I haven’t changed my mind.’

Quill closed the door and went to stand over her, arms folded. Just then Dakota felt like she’d never hated anyone more in her whole life. ‘But it’s… it’s too much of a risk shipping something when I don’t even know what it is I’m delivering. That’s just asking for trouble!’

Quill pursed his lips. ‘You’ve still got some time to think about it: another eight hours before they need a definite answer. Though I should add, he’s … my client is in a hurry to finalize arrangements. Maybe I’d be better off getting someone else to-’

Dakota shook her head, suddenly weary. She was just making a fool of herself pretending to Quill she might have any choice. If she didn’t do this job for Quill, she’d forfeit her ship the Piri Reis to him. He’d been responsible for acquiring much of the highly illegal counter-surveillance and black ops devices now installed on the vessel, and Dakota still owed him for that equipment.

‘No. I’ll do it.’

‘Maybe I’ll-’

‘No.’

‘All right, then.’ Quill nodded and sat down again behind the low marble desk where he did much of his business. ‘We won’t need to worry too much about official channels, since I’ll be providing a manifest detailing something entirely innocuous-’

‘Don’t,’ she said sharply, cutting Quill off. ‘Just leave it. Load the cargo, tell the Consortium whatever you like, and just let me do the job. I don’t want to know anything more than I absolutely have to. I don’t even want to be having this conversation.’

Quill gazed at her blankly for a moment, then a small smile twitched at one corner of his mouth.

‘You know, you wouldn’t be stuck like this if you hadn’t messed up that job out at Corkscrew. Way I heard it, you were lucky the Bandati didn’t dump you in a hive and feed you to their grubs. They like doing that kind of thing, I hear.’

‘I delivered-but the people I was delivering to tried to kill me rather than pay me.’ Dakota’s voice rose in pitch. ‘I’m a machine-head, yes, but I’m not a fucking psychic. I didn’t know what they were going to try.’

‘Shame Bourdain’s now got you running jobs like this as penance, I guess.’ Quill smiled, watching Dakota rage in impotent silence, then gave her the details.

‘Okay, you’re going to have to rendezvous with another ship at these coordinates…’

* * * *

A few minutes after the Piri Reis’s systems had ceased functioning, Dakota stepped into space and secured herself using intelligent lanyards. These snaked out of a belt she wore around her waist, and embedded themselves in the hull, constantly retracting and shooting out again to attach to a new point as she pushed herself on around the hull in the direction of the cargo bay.

She was still getting used to the filmsuit she’d stolen from the Bandati during her visit to Corkscrew. It coated her naked flesh just like a thick layer of dark chocolate, protecting her from the vacuum and radiation just millimetres from her skin. It smoothed out her features, making her appear, to any potential observer, like an animated doll. Her lungs were stilled, their function temporarily taken over by microscopic battery units she’d had implanted in her spinal column. She was, in effect, a one-woman spaceship, though there was a clear limit to just how long the suit would keep functioning before the batteries needed recharging.

But if by some miracle this trip to the Rock worked out, it would have been worth the deception-and worth her botching the Corkscrew delivery.

The vibrations had faded by the time Dakota exited the ship. But when her Ghost suddenly fired a pulse of nervous attentiveness into the middle of her thoughts, she braced automatically, and a moment later the ship had jerked hard enough to propel her away from the hull. She drifted a couple of metres away before the lanyards roughly yanked her back.

That’s it, she thought. Screw Quill, and screw Bourdain. I’m going in to look.

She found her way to the cargo bay’s external airlock. The crew of the ship she’d rendezvoused with for the pickup had spent a busy hour installing security devices inside the cargo bay, while she herself waited inside the command module.

Dakota reached up and pulled the manual override key, which she wasn’t supposed to possess, off the narrow wire she’d loosely strung around her neck. Bourdain’s installed security was good-the best money could buy-but it was off-the-shelf, and could be circumvented.

She adjusted her position, tightening the lanyard until her feet were firmly planted on the hull, and with one hand took hold of one of the hand-grips extending from the airlock door, still clutching the key in her other hand. She held this position for a minute, recalling her conversation with Quill, thinking about the risk she was about to put herself at.

If I do this and Bourdain finds out, losing the money and the Piri’ll be the least of my problems. Maybe it’s not worth it.

She reached out with the override key, and paused again.

But then again, I have no idea what it is I’m transporting. What if those vibrations get worse? What if it’s something that could destroy the Piri itself?

She tried to imagine a new life without the Piri Reis, her only home for several years now, and found she couldn’t.

Once more she reached out with the key. Once more she paused.

On the other hand, with the life-support apparently irretrievably down, she couldn’t even hide in the Piri’s medbox until she made it to the Rock, nor would her filmsuit last long enough to keep her alive in the meantime. Her only other option was the tiny one-man lifeboat she always kept on board, but it also had limited air and battery power.

Fuck that, she thought, and started to insert the key, just as she felt a familiar tingling at the top of her spine.

‹Dakota?›

Piri?!

She froze, the key still poised in one hand. For a moment she thought she’d only imagined the ship’s voice inside her mind. A wave of exhausted relief flooded through her.

Piri, what happened to you? You were out of contact for, for-

‹Approximately twenty minutes, Dakota. Life-support systems have been reactivated. I have no records relating to the downtime.›

Dakota let go of the key. Then her eyes closed for several moments behind their slippery film, and she sent out a fervent prayer to no one in particular. It was over.

* * * *

Aboard the Piri, she lowered the lights and crawled exhausted into her sleeping space. She’d have to clean up before disembarking on the Rock. That meant goodbye to now familiar body odour: regular hygiene was easy to forget in the long, lonely weeks between departure and arrival. She barely noticed the random detritus of her hermetical existence that now floated in freefall throughout the living space, even drawing a kind of comfort from it.

As so often these days, loneliness and depression swept over Dakota, lying alone in the dark. The ship’s soft fur felt warm under her skin, yet something was missing.

It didn’t take long for the Piri to respond to her unspoken need.

She was facing the wrong way to see a familiar shape detach itself from one wall, but she could imagine it easily. A tall, warm-bodied effigy of a man, its face as smooth and bland as its artificial flesh, its machine eyes imbued with fake emotion.

In the dim red light seeping through from the command module, she saw the silhouette of its smooth curved buttocks as it kneeled over her, soft moist lips kissing her gently on her naked belly.

‘Dakota?’

Her ship spoke to her through the lips of the effigy. It had soft brown hair, almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Cables like umbilicals ran from its spine and into the wall-slot where it spent most of its existence-her ship made flesh.

She was so used to it now, it was beginning to feel natural.

‘Dakota, your nervous system is again flooded with high-grade Samadhi neural boosters. Perhaps you are over-indulging-’

‘Don’t lecture me, Piri.’ Dakota smiled, both her thoughts and body warm and fuzzy.

‘Yes, Dakota. However, it does concern me that-’

That I’m not dealing properly with my past. Dakota felt a surge of anger, but it was soon gone under a flood of neurochem that washed the bad feelings away. If you were really intelligent and not just doing a remarkable imitation of sentience, I’d-

Dakota wasn’t sure what she would do, but it would be mean. Mean and nasty. She smiled as she felt the effigy press down on her, smooth and soft and almost indistinguishable from the real thing in the warm dark.

* * * *

Bourdain’s Rock measured fifteen kilometres along its widest axis, eight along its narrowest. Before Concorrant Industries had drilled out the asteroid’s core and plugged a planet engine into its empty centre, it had drifted for the better part of a billion years on a looping elliptical orbit, taking it close to the edge of the heliosphere before circling back in past Jupiter and Saturn. Several years before, Concorrant-built fusion jets had manoeuvred the asteroid into a permanent, stable orbit out beyond the most remote of Jupiter’s native moons.

Dakota had seen pictures of the asteroid before Alexander Bourdain had paid the Shoal to work their magic on it. The images had then reminded her of a fossilized turd she had once seen on display in a museum. To some extent it still looked like a fossilized turd, but one that had been sculpted with explosive nuclear chisels until its shape approximated that of a rough-edged flattened sphere. Its surface was still cratered with deep cracks running along one side, but had now been transformed into a chiaroscuro of blues and greens, like a child’s drawing of a tiny world with exaggerated people and buildings towering over its minuscule surface area.

The planet engine created a field of gravity by some arcane trick of physics that still baffled those human scientists who took it upon themselves to try and figure out the Shoal super-science behind it. The engine also generated a series of shaped fields that surrounded the asteroid, containing a pressurized atmosphere that extended no more than a few hundred metres beyond the asteroid’s surface while also filtering out radiation and retaining heat. It was a grand, baroque gesture on the part of a man who had inherited a fortune reaped from the helium-three mining operations at the heart of Jovian industry. More, it was a demonstration of the power the outer-system civilizations now wielded.

Once the gravity field and atmosphere were in place-the latter drawn from the substance of the asteroid itself-Bourdain had clearly spared little expense furnishing his new world with a complete flora and fauna, all prevented by Shoal magic from spontaneously floating away into interplanetary space.

Like Sant’Arcangelo, Bourdain’s Rock looked like a god’s discarded toy. Some of the buildings on the asteroid were tall enough to push through the atmosphere-containment fields like fingers poked through a soap bubble.

The Piri Reis had been decelerating for half an hour now, its engines pointing towards the asteroid in a braking manoeuvre. Strapped into an acceleration couch, Dakota looked up at a viewscreen showing densely wooded forests that fell away into deep crevasses. A herd of deer moved past grey cliffs, while the distant face of Jupiter was reflected in the crystal waters of a lake.

Light came from incandescent fusion units mounted on poles that also extended out above the thin cladding of air. She watched the Rock turn before the ever-watching eye of Jupiter, banks of lights strung along the asteroid’s longitude winked out to create a simulated night across one misshapen hemisphere.

It was utterly beautiful.

* * * *

It took Dakota a while to find her way from the docking bays, across the asteroid surface and into the Great Hall. Enormous deerhounds ran past as she entered its vast space, their claws skittering and slipping on the polished mirror-like sheen of the marble flooring. The Rock’s gravity had been set to about two-thirds Earth-normal. Beyond, in the distance, the sound of revelry echoed from the curved stone buttresses of a cathedral-like ceiling that looked at least a thousand years old, but had actually been in place less than five.

In the distance she saw two Shoal-members, each floating in their separate water-filled containment fields, each bubble supported by tiny anti-grav units. A retinue of Consortium bodyguards accompanied each of the creatures at a distance. Long tables held food and drink, all served by human waiting staff.

Dakota had dressed quickly, in loose light multi-pocketed trousers, and the one clean t-shirt she’d been able to find in a frenzied search through the zero-gravity maelstrom of her ship in the moments prior to docking.

She’d waited for several minutes in the antechamber that led into the main hall itself, composing herself and trying to quell the hammering in her chest. She had nothing to worry about, not really. Bourdain would be busy throwing endless parties in order to attract new investors, but she hadn’t expected to find herself attending any of these lavish dos.

All she wanted to do was sort out her payment, then leave immediately, and start a new life somewhere very far away.

Nothing could be simpler.

‘Piri, can you hear me?’ Dakota asked the air, unnecessarily.

‹Loud and clear,› the Piri Reis responded. ‹System response at maximum. Further directions?›

The computer’s voice was sharp and masculine, and Dakota had a mental flash of Piri’s effigy. Piri wasn’t really intelligent, of course, any more than her Ghost implants: that latter technology had been created in response to humanity’s failure to yet develop anything close to true artificial intelligence. But, even so, there were times when it felt close enough.

None, Dakota sub-vocalized, stepping forward into the noise and light of the party. Just keep an eye on things.

Sheets of transparent crystal allowed her to look up between the vast stone buttresses of the hall towards the black sky above. For the next few hours, it would be night on Bourdain’s Rock. Beyond the windows she could see where a sheet of rock rose sharply to a knife-edge peak, its vertiginous incline dripping with mosses and blue flowers. Everything she saw had been designed for maximum impact.

There must have been several hundred people at this particular gathering, but even they managed to look a little lost in such a vast interior space. She was very conscious of the clack of her boot heels as she crossed the marble floor.

The noise of the party grew louder, with a full-blown live orchestra, positioned on a raised dais, playing light classical music. Parakeets and finches flew overhead, darting towards nests built in carefully sculpted twists of ivy that grew up the walls. Unlike the Sant’Arcangelo asteroid, which had been designed as a financial centre for the outer-systems mining industry, Bourdain’s Rock was developed solely as a theme park for the obscenely rich.

Apart from the two Shoal-members, almost all the guests present were human. A couple of dark-furred Bandati had settled down on various perches just above the milling heads of the guests below, their vast roseate wings twitching above their tiny bodies while they conversed, via translator devices, with a group of men and women who had the hard-faced look of deep-space miners.

Dakota felt a small thrill of nerves when she saw the Bandati, but the chances they might have any idea who she was, or that she had stolen something from them, were vanishingly tiny…

‘Miss Merrick?’

She turned to see a gaunt-faced man in a formal suit, his hands clasped in front of him. She’d met Hugh Moss before on previous trips to the Rock, yet every time she managed to forget how badly he creeped her out. He had, as ever, the demeanour of a bloodless corpse that had been resurrected on a mortuary slab less than five minutes before and already regarded the experience with a warm nostalgic glow.

‘Miss Merrick,’ he repeated, in a voice drier than a desert grave. ‘If you’d care to follow me, Mr Bourdain is waiting for you.’ He gestured towards a door set into one wall, and began to turn away.

‘Wait a minute.’ She put up both hands as if physically trying to stop him. He halted and regarded her with a baleful eye. ‘I don’t have any intention of going anywhere unless it’s absolutely necessary. I’ve done my job. Just pay me now so I can get out of here.’

Moss smiled, revealing a row of yellowing tombstone teeth. ‘It seems Mr Bourdain wants to talk with you first.’

Dakota chuckled nervously. ‘C’mon, what for? He must have a hundred cargo shipments coming in here every day. What’s to discuss?’

‘That’s a matter for yourself and Mr Bourdain.’

Dakota studied him for a moment. ‘Is there some problem?’

Moss shook his head. ‘No problem.’

‘But there’s no point in my meeting him now I’ve done my job, right? I could just get paid and go. How does that sound?’

Moss regarded her silently for several moments, then shook his head slowly. ‘Speaking to Mr Bourdain is now a condition of payment’-that tombstone smile again -’and then you can be on your way.’

Dakota thought for several seconds, the sudden pounding of her heart merging with the sounds of the party around them. ‘I’m going to tell you right now, I don’t like this.’

One corner of Moss’s mouth curled upwards. ‘Nonetheless.’

Dakota made an exasperated noise, shook her head and waved a hand at Moss. Go on, then. He started moving towards the door again, and she followed him.

* * * *

They passed a whole circus of people in their progress. There were at least a dozen Catholic priests standing together in a loose knot, a few of them engrossed in conversation with an entirely human Imam wearing the gold earring of the Ministry of Islam. She caught a glimpse of a woman in a long dark gown, her hair pulled back in a tight bun-one of the many avatars of Pope Eliza, who stood in the centre of this gaggle of metal-skinned priests. Perhaps they were explaining to the Imam how they were free of sin because they were free of corruptible flesh.

Gas paintings partitioned the hall into sections, forming curtains of dry ice that trailed down from the ceiling, with images of mythical beasts projected on them, creating the illusion of ghostly monsters rampaging high overhead or wheeling through arched spaces on vast ribbed wings. In the centre of the hall a small artificial lake lapped at shores of finely crumbled marble, again creating the impression that the walls around it had stood here for millennia.

Mosses and vines wreathed the statues scattered here and there around the perimeter of the miniature lake, while clearly non-Terran shapes moved through its waters, sending up spumes of water from their blowholes as they surged from one side to the other. Hidden holo-projectors painted the air with abstract patterns of light through which guests passed as they walked from one fresh attraction to the next. Significantly, each constantly evolving pattern was based around the logo for Concorrant Industries.

Despite her qualms, Dakota felt a tug of excitement at the sight, mingled with deep unease. There was no doubt that Sant’Arcangelo was impressive, being one of the first asteroids to be equipped with a planet engine, but this one had it solidly beat.

But a darker side to Bourdain’s Rock quickly became evident. She followed Moss through the door, and then along a corridor opening into an enfilade of cavernous spaces that managed to make her feel claustrophobic after the sheer epic scale of the Great Hall behind them.

There were even more guests gathered here, but their activities were rather less salubrious. In a pit a pair of mogs-half-human, half-dog hybrids-fought with steel-tipped claws, while a crowd cheered and jeered encouragement from above. The beasts were vicious, lupine things, their human element barely recognizable in the dull vacancy of their eyes.

Even by the relatively lawless standards of the outer solar system, for all its lawlessness, breeding mogs was stunningly illegal. By such a display, Bourdain was openly flaunting his power and influence in the face of the Consortium.

Moss led her along past the edge of the pit and she glanced down on hearing an agonized howl. Just then one of the mogs collapsed, bright red blood gushing from its eviscerated torso.

The next cavern they entered was given over to the darkest sexual desires. There were mogs here too, hairless muzzled bitches with perfumed bodies, caged and set on plinths and awaiting the attentions of those whose tastes were so inclined.

Moss led her blithely through this cavern and on into the next, where human whores cavorted or copulated or danced with their clients, many glassy-eyed from the skin euphorics Bourdain’s employees had painted on their flesh. None of this would have bothered Dakota, except that some of these whores, male and female alike, were bead-zombies.

Moss escorted her through a final door, and into a large office space so relatively mundane that it took Dakota a moment to adjust. Subdued lighting cast gloomy shadows across expensively upholstered couches and chairs arranged casually around coffee tables. Bourdain had clearly been waiting for her. He stood up from behind a vast desk made of dark wood and stepped forward to greet her, instantly recognizable from a thousand newscasts and any number of scandals reported in the media.

‘Dakota, I’m delighted you made it to my little party.’ He smiled, revealing a row of expensive teeth. ‘Go on, admit you’re impressed,’ he continued, his smile broadening as if he meant to take a bite out of her.

She glanced around and noticed that Moss had taken up a position by the door, as if to block her exit, his hands folded casually in front of him.

‘If I have to be honest, I’m a little surprised you wanted to see me in person,’ Dakota replied, not able to keep a quaver out of her voice. ‘If there’s anything wrong with the consignment, it’s nothing to do with me, I assure you.’

Bourdain perched on the edge of his desk, with his arms folded in front of him, and gestured with a nod towards one of the visitor’s chairs near by.

‘Sit down, Dakota. I promise this won’t take long. I just want to clear up one or two small things, and then you can be on your way.’

Dakota stared at him, not moving. She heard Moss step up behind her.

Piri? Are you there?

Only silence. She felt the first swellings of real panic.

‘I can’t contact my ship.’

Bourdain shrugged. ‘Sorry about that, but I’d like anything we say here to remain private. Now, the sooner this is over the better, so please do sit down.’

Dakota obeyed with a show of reluctance. ‘All right, tell me what’s wrong, Mr Bourdain.’

‘Nothing,’ interrupted Moss from behind her. Dakota twisted her head to study him, and then realized Moss had been addressing Bourdain. ‘No scanning devices, recorders, weapons, nothing inside or outside of her body apart from her black-market machine-head implants. And we’re blocking them, of course.’

‘Nothing’s necessarily wrong’ Bourdain finally said in reply to her question. He hadn’t even glanced at his subordinate when he spoke. ‘But I’d like to know for sure if, at any point, you carried out a remote scan of the contents of your ship’s cargo hold.’

‘Never.’ Dakota shook her head. ‘I’ve got no idea what you’ve got in there.’

‘You were involved in the Port Gabriel massacre, am I correct?’ A fresh grin spread across Bourdain’s face. ‘Don’t look so startled, your secret’s safe with me, Dakota. You see, I don’t like too many surprises.’

She stared at him, for a moment more surprised than afraid. ‘That’s none of your business,’ she snapped. ‘I…’

Bourdain laughed as Dakota faltered, then he flashed a look at Moss. Dakota glanced to the side and saw the corner of Moss’s mouth twitch upward again in an attempt at a smile. Watching it made her think of a corpse exhibiting the first symptoms of rigor mortis.

‘You were subsequently tried for war crimes,’ Bourdain added. ‘That’s one hell of a thing to have in your resume.’

‘Wait a minute.’ Surprise gave way to renewed anger. ‘What does any of this have to do with me being here?’

Bourdain leaned forward. ‘I want you to realize there’s nothing you can tell me that I don’t already know. All I’m asking now is that you tell the truth. Did you ever try to find out what was in the cargo hold of your ship?’

‘No, of course I didn’t. I-’

Moss grabbed her head in two vice-like hands. She struggled desperately, but he was deceptively strong.

Then her sense of survival kicked in, and she let herself suddenly relax. As she felt Moss’s hold on her ease marginally, she thrust herself away from him and towards Bourdain.

Two strong arms yanked her back down into her seat, and held her there. Moss’s fingers dug hard into her flesh, Dakota screaming as overwhelming pain ran through her entire body.

She glanced down at Moss’s hands where they held her, and she saw he was now wearing insulated gloves coated in fine metal mesh.

Lightning gloves.

Dakota tasted blood and realized she’d bitten her tongue. Bourdain continued looking at her as if nothing had happened. Somewhere behind him a concealed door slid quietly open and two ambulatory nightmares stepped into the room: bead-zombies.

The door closed silently behind them, and they stood behind Bourdain, awaiting orders.

Bourdain was speaking again. ‘Port Gabriel was, what, almost a decade ago? Now look at you. Scraping a living in a stripped-down cargo ship that can barely haul itself from one lump of space-borne slag to another. And then this unfortunate business with the Bandati on Corkscrew?’ Bourdain shook his head, and looked almost sympathetic. ‘I heard a little rumour you took something from them, and didn’t tell me. Now, what kind of way to do business is that?’

Quill.

How else could Bourdain have found out so much about her?

The first thing she was going to do, if she ever got out of this, was find Quill-and kill him.

‘Fuck you,’ she swore weakly ‘I don’t respond too well to torture, so fuck you. Just tell me what you want and let me go.’

‘Not the answer I was looking for.’ Bourdain turned to the two bead-zombies, each of which came around opposite ends of the desk to stand on either side of Dakota. One male, one female, both tawny-skinned. Dakota wondered who they’d been when they were still alive, and why Bourdain had them killed.

Their heads had been surgically removed, and then cloned skin grown over the neck wound. Tiny low-level control beads implanted into the top of each of their truncated spinal cords allowed the bodies to respond to external orders, as well as controlling the basic functioning of the body and acting as a guidance system hooked into the local computer networks. Their bodies had been steroid-pumped, the skin shining and glossy. Each was dressed in a complex arrangement of fetishistic leather straps wrapped over their shoulders and under and around their groins, barely concealing the naked flesh underneath.

Bourdain nodded to Moss. Dakota gritted her teeth and heard herself scream when a high voltage current ripped through her once more.

Once it passed-surely the jolt had lasted only a second or two, but it was starting to feel like she’d been in Bourdain’s office for a couple of hours-the power of speech took a moment to return to her.

‘I don’t know what’s in the cargo hold,’ Dakota croaked, with such an overwhelming sincerity in her voice it surprised even her.

Bourdain stood up and went to kneel next to Dakota’s chair, laying one hand on her thigh in an almost paternal gesture.

‘Let’s get it straight exactly how much shit you’re in right now, Dakota.’ His hand slid up closer to her crotch and she tried to jerk away, but it was impossible with Moss holding her so tightly. ‘If you’re legitimate, you walk away. That’s the truth. If I’m anything, I’m fair. But if you’re lying’-he looked up, nodding at each of the headless monstrosities on either side of them-‘this is what Hugh’s going to do to you, too. That right, Hugh?’

A breathy sound from behind her, like air escaping from a flatulent corpse. It was too easy to picture those greasy yellow teeth bared expectantly.

‘So I think you’ll agree, Dakota, that doing what I want you to is really going to be in your best interests.’ He stood and looked down at her with what appeared to be real sorrow. ‘I hate this kind of situation because it’s so distasteful, you know? But that’s business.’

‘I haven’t done anything!’ she screamed. ‘And, besides, the cargo is still in my ship, Bourdain. You can’t get hold of it without my say-so, you understand me? If you go near it-’

Bourdain shook his head sadly, cutting her off. ‘I own you, Miss Merrick, same as I own Quill. We know that someone or something probed your ship, and also probed the control systems for the cargo. Maybe you knew about it, maybe you didn’t. If you didn’t, I’m sorry, but I just can’t afford to take any chances. Hugh, let her speak to her ship for a second, then…’ He waved a hand towards her. ‘Then find out what you can. Just make sure you clean the place up before I get back.’

Moss nodded as Bourdain walked out of the room, before leaning down to whisper in her ear.

‘My dear Dakota, it’s so good to be alone together at last. I can’t tell you how much I’m going to enjoy you, after I remove your head.’

‹Dakota?›

Piri!

Panic-stricken relief swept through her. She probably only had a few moments before Moss managed to close the connection again.

I need you to get me out of here.

‹I am afraid to inform you that as you are no longer the registered owner of the Piri Reis, I am obliged to refuse you command as of seventy-five seconds ago.›

What? Override that, Piri.

‹Only the appropriate personnel can permit overrides. ›

Dakota twisted around to face Moss, seeing the look of triumph on his face. It was the same look she’d seen on Quill’s face once she’d agreed to take this job. Who else would have been able to supply Bourdain with the necessary overrides?

What ‘appropriate personnel’?

‹Mr Alexander Bourdain is the registered majority shareholder in Quill Shippings

Dakota closed her eyes, opened them again. Moss chuckled quietly.

‘You and I are now going to have a long talk, Miss Merrick.’ He deliberately drawled the word long.

Emergency systems override, Piri.

‹Emergency systems overrides can only be facilitated by the appropriate registered senior personnel. Please note that-›

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, she subvocalized, rattling the words together in her panic.

‹I am registering a stage-one intrusion alert.›

Remember me to one who lives there, she continued.

Somewhere inside the Piri, carefully hidden higher-level systems were coming alive as Dakota spoke her own secret code phrases.

‹Second-stage intrusion alert: I am alerting the appropriate registered senior personnel. Further intrusions on higher-level autonomous functions will be severely-›

She once was a true love of mine, Dakota finished in a blur as Moss leaned in towards her ear.

‘Your connection’s cut,’ he said. ‘Now it’s just you and me.’

‹Hello, Dakota.›

Dakota’s heart skipped a beat.

Create a distraction, Piri. Anything.

One of Moss’s fingers stroked her ear, and she winced at the stench of his breath. Then he suddenly stood bolt upright, but kept one hand resting on her shoulder.

‘Sir?’

Dakota twisted around further and saw Moss seemed to be talking to the air, one finger to an earlobe. She guessed he was speaking to Bourdain.

‘I just received an automatic alert, sir. Comms report receiving warning of a terrorist threat through a secure police channel.’

Moss nodded to the empty air. Dakota could almost hear the sound of her heart trying to bludgeon its way through her ribcage, her hands gripping the chair.

‘It’s a secure channel routed through the Consortium Outer System Patrol offices,’ Moss continued, for the benefit of his invisible employer. ‘They’re claiming an unmanned helium dredge has been programmed to alter course and hit the Rock within the hour. No details beyond that, at the moment. And given the number of guests we now have in the Great Hall…’

‹Dakota, I have generated a false police warning and routed it through the Rock’s alert systems.›

Piri, I love you.

‹You’re welcome. Does that mean you would like me to fuck you on your return?›

Please.

Bourdain reappeared a moment later, so clearly he hadn’t gone far.

‘It’s still only an automated alert,’ Bourdain snapped. ‘I need someone human to tell me what’s going on.’ He reached up and tapped his earlobe, looking over Dakota’s shoulder. His eyes gradually unfocused, and she guessed he was seeing and hearing someone on his technical staff as if they were standing next to him.

‘Tell me what’s happening,’ he suddenly demanded of the empty air. His expression got grimmer. After a moment, Bourdain shook his head, clearly unhappy.

He appeared to suddenly notice her, as if he’d forgotten what had only just taken place in his office. ‘This isn’t over,’ he told her, venom in his voice. ‘Hugh, come with me.’

She heard Moss shift away from behind her. ‘Stay here,’ he warned her. ‘Don’t make it any worse for yourself than it already is.’

They left, closing the door as they exited.

She was on her own.

Almost.

The bead-zombies remained standing on either side of her, like frighteningly detailed statues. Dakota realized, with a start, that neither Moss nor Bourdain had yet given them any orders, and without directions they were about as dangerous as a pair of well-muscled vegetables. She sat there frozen for a couple of seconds more, filled with sick fascination at the steady rise and fall of the zombies’ chests as they hovered beside her. As they would wait, for ever, or until instructed to go elsewhere.

Dakota stood up carefully, ready to bolt if either of them so much as twitched a non-sentient muscle in her direction. A wave of nausea swept over her and she leaned against the back of her chair just in time to stop herself from collapsing.

‹Systems indicate,› the Piri Reis informed her, ‹that you might require medical attention.›

The bead-zombies remained as impassive as ever.

Thank you, Piri. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You saved my life.

‹Comment noted.›

Can you please, please get me out of here?

‹It may take several seconds. The local security systems have a high level of encryptions

Somewhere inside Bourdain’s Rock, the Piri’s offensive routines were subordinating the systems that ran the asteroid’s primary computer networks, forcing them to channel erroneous information to Bourdain’s technical staff.

Even so, it wouldn’t take Bourdain long to realize that Dakota was the cause of it all.

She went to the door and tugged at it experimentally, unsurprised to find it locked. Come on, Piri.

‹Please wait. Please wait. Please-›

She rattled the handle for the tenth time in as many seconds, and suddenly the door swung open. She peered out into the corridor beyond, knowing her problems were far from over. All she’d done was find her way out of his office. Now she had to get past Bourdain’s security set-up, and safely off the asteroid itself, and that was going to be an entirely different challenge.

She touched her lips and her hand came away sticky with blood. Dakota closed her eyes and thought hard. If she tried to find her way back to Piri in her present battered state, she’d just be making herself easier for Bourdain’s security to spot.

A frantic search located a bathroom some way along the corridor outside Bourdain’s office, but fresh despair filled her when she saw herself in one of the mirrors. Blood smeared her mouth and chin from having bitten her tongue.

She grabbed a wad of toilet paper and soaked it under a tap, then began cleaning the gore off her face, her hands shaking so badly she kept dropping the tissue, cursing as she bent down to retrieve it. And all the while, she pictured Bourdain or Moss coming back to look for her, while she stood here defenceless.

A few moments of effort and she still looked deathly pale. Not the best image to present, but it would have to do. Fortunately her dark t-shirt made the bloodstains less noticeable.

She edged through the door at the far end of the corridor and found the party was still in full swing. She waited a moment, composing herself, then stepped forward, fresh neurochem flooding into her bloodstream. By a miracle there was no obvious sign of either Bourdain or Moss.

She cut a straight line through the first of the sequence of caverns, heading for the Great Hall and the antechamber beyond, and after that the docking bays.

Can you locate Bourdain?

‹Yes.› There was a pause as Piri negotiated the Rock’s databases. ‹He is at the very far end of the Great Hall from your current location.›

What’s he doing right now?

‹He is speaking with the man named Hugh Moss. Wait. Wait. They are now returning. They will reach your current location in approximately two minutes.›

Dakota found her way past a group of whores cavorting lasciviously in a cushioned depression in the floor, busily servicing a dozen male guests. Meanwhile, harsh and brutal music pounded from hidden speakers. She picked up traces of euphorics from the sweat of the onlookers around her each time one of them brushed against her bare arms. This contact generated tiny, unwanted bursts of pleasure in her body as she passed by.

Two inebriated men lurched eagerly towards her. One of them she decked without warning, pausing just long enough to grab the other on either side of his head, before lowering him to the ground and kneeing him hard in the stomach. He curled into a foetal ball and twisted away from her, gasping in agony.

She was only distantly aware of drunken cheering in her wake; the euphorics were starting to affect her senses. Got to get out of here.

She hurried on into the next chamber, where the female mogs were located. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a male whore copulating with one of the caged creatures on its plinth, for the benefit of a roaring crowd. The sight goaded her on with renewed and grim determination.

Dakota emerged at last into the Great Hall, but didn’t pause for a second. She brusquely pushed her way into the deepest, densest part of the crowd in search of cover, ignoring the startled stares her passage provoked and a few knowing looks cast toward the door she’d just come through.

‘Welcoming hello, meeting you please?’

Dakota stumbled to a halt, as one of the Shoal-members drifted up close to her. None of its human, Consortium bodyguards were anywhere in sight.

She blinked in surprise, studying the creature more closely. The bubble of water in which it floated extended perhaps two metres in width, and the anti-grav units holding it above the marble floor took the form of tiny metal discs placed at equidistant points around the containment field.

The Shoal-member itself possessed about half the body mass of a human, but its shape was that of a large chondrichthian fish. Rainbow-hued fins and tail wafted within the surrounding waters, and the several tentacles it used for manipulation extended downwards from its belly region, while the gills appeared as long dark slashes halfway along its torso.

Other, much tinier, non-sentient fish darted around it and, as Dakota watched, a few of the creature’s tentacles lashed out to ensnare a clutch of them, stuffing them greedily into its ancillary mouth. The alien’s translation and communications systems failed to disguise the cracking and chewing sounds as the fish were messily ingested.

‘Pleased to meet you too,’ Dakota said insincerely. She glanced around to see if she could catch sight of either Moss or Bourdain. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me-’

‘Miss Dakota Merrick?’

The Shoal-member had her full attention now. It wasn’t conceivable the thing was working for Bourdain rather than the other way around-or was it?

No, of course not. Concorrant Industries couldn’t survive a day without the beneficence of the Shoal’s technology and expertise.

‘Hungry fish swimming for minnows,’ the Shoal-member’s translation software informed her, more than a little obscurely. ‘A shallow pond. Mr Bourdain seems unhappy. Safety in numbers. Co-operation is key.’

She didn’t have the time for alien riddles.

‘I’m sorry, I really am in a hurry.’ She began to move away.

‘Small and alone in deep water, more likely to be consumed by predators,’ continued the alien, rather less obscurely, floating along beside her as she strode rapidly through the hall. ‘A free lunch. Some feed from skin of larger fish, live. Safety in numbers, in survival strategies. Two is better company than one.’

‘You…?’ She had the uncanny sense the creature was offering to help her. ‘How did you know my name?’

‘Shoal know all,’ the alien replied mysteriously. ‘What is dark to you is light to us. Clarity itself. Shoal hold open book of dreams, waiting to be read. All locks are broken with Shoal science, all secrets laid bare. You dart through deep waters with Mr Bourdain, yes? He attempts to force words from your head. Where Mr Bourdain is concerned, many smaller fish get eaten, and much blood is spilt.’

Dakota finally caught sight of Bourdain and his sidekick out of the corner of her eye, and she quickly ducked around the other side of the alien’s floating bubble. She was pretty sure they hadn’t seen her yet. The creature inside it swivelled to face her once more, while the bubble itself floated along by her side, matching her steady progress towards the main exit.

She knew it was impossible to read human emotion into the alien’s face, but she couldn’t help but believe that it looked amused, somehow.

‘You know what happened to me in Bourdain’s office?’ she enquired, then started to move faster, almost breaking into a jog. People around them stared as they passed. ‘Is that what you’re telling me? How do you know?’

‘Affirmation most appropriate answer. Shoal know all.’

‘Look, Bourdain is out to kill me, and I don’t know why.’

‘Shoal is thinking affirmation. Much tail-thrashing, much gnawing at deep waters. Query, Miss Merrick…’

It took her a moment to realize it wanted to ask her a question. She kept darting glances from side to side, feeling deeply vulnerable from the lack of anything even resembling a weapon with which she could defend herself. It took a great effort of will not to make a dash for the antechamber; with the alien floating along beside her, she was drawing too much attention to herself.

‘What?’ she snapped, wondering if she should simply make a break for it. But Bourdain would surely have placed security teams at every access point to the docking bays. Yet she saw nothing menacing as the tall archway leading out of the Great Hall drew closer.

But of course, she thought furiously: mounting an impromptu security operation to catch her right in the middle of a public extravaganza like this would draw far too much attention for Bourdain’s comfort, especially after all his recent legal troubles. And with so many witnesses…

She had to remain calm. She kept moving forward, briskly. Her arms and neck were already damp with sweat.

‹Dakota, I am being scanned by the primary local defence systems.›

Can you deal with it?

‹For the moment.›

Keep me updated and prep for launch. I’m on my way.

She quickened her pace again, willing herself not to start running. In the meantime, the alien kept pace with her, which had her cursing under her breath. It was as good as having a giant flashing arrow pointing straight towards her, for the benefit of the dozens of people already watching their progress with bewilderment or amusement.

‘Late to explain sorry sincerely. Embarrassment, as of revelling in self-fouled waters. Query: your craft is filled to capsizing with darkly operating systems, all unheard and invisible to dry-floating-island’s listening machines. If discovered by your Consortium, these non-legal modifications would consign you to ocean-bottom darkness for eternity, far from the common shoal, and with the loss of your craft. Follow?’

Darkly operating systems? And then it hit her what the Shoal-member was telling her. It knew the Piri was rigged with illegal black-ops modifications.

‹I am registering massive systems intrusions. Initiating defensive measures.›

‘What are they doing to my ship?’ she demanded of the alien.

‘Please to be curious,’ the creature replied. ‘This Shoal-member’s scent glands recognize the presence of much else that is questionable recently residing within the belly of your craft. For instance, to be enquiring as to means whereby Miss Merrick came into possession of GiantKiller?’

‘I don’t…’ Dakota’s mouth worked uselessly for a moment and she almost stumbled. ‘Did you say GiantKiller?’

‘Pleased to be affirming this.’

For the briefest moment she forgot about Moss and Bourdain. ‘You’re telling me I had a fucking GiantKiller on my ship?’

‘Shoal is pleased to note contrition arising from this unfortunate issue. Much unpleasantness. Human phrase “children playing with matches”, curiously apposite, with apologies and humour. Dealing in such non-leased, highly restricted goods is most non-Consortium behaviour, resulting in banishment for all concerned far from surface waters, chained upside-down in deepwater cell for eternity. A sorry end.’

Shit. ‘I didn’t know,’ she stammered. Somehow she found the strength of will to keep moving, despite a sudden weakness in her legs. ‘I swear, I didn’t know.’

But then, she reminded herself, she hadn’t wanted to know. She’d deliberately and carefully avoided so much as speculating what might be contained within the Piri’s cargo hold. Which was exactly why she’d spent the long days and nights of transit between Sant’Arcangelo and Bourdain’s Rock in a state of sustained borderline panic.

Dakota enjoyed a moment of personal re-evaluation, as if she could step outside herself and witness the events of the past several months for the very first time. And in that instant, she knew she was back where she’d started, that all her efforts had come to nothing, and she would never receive the rest of her much-needed money, ever, from Bourdain.

She balled her hands into fists, forcing the nails hard into the flesh of her palms, finding some kind of solace in the sudden flash of pain it brought to her.

Piri? What’s happening?

‹I have initiated further emergency defensive software protocols. I am awaiting further instructions.›

‘Shoal-member has suggestion.’

Dakota stared at the huge, fish-like creature floating in its ball of brine and wondered again if she could read amusement in its bulging black eyes.

‘Suggest away.’

‘Safety in numbers.’

‘You said that already,’ she snapped.

‘We will move as a shoal, towards the shelter of caves. In meantime, would like to suggest acceptance of gift.’

‘Gift?’

‘Precisely.’

Dakota glanced around the side of the Shoal’s bubble and saw, with a start, that Moss and Bourdain were staring straight towards her from nearby, but were still keeping their distance. After all, the alien was one of Bourdain’s clients, one of his primary sources of income.

The alien floated closer to the archway, and Dakota hurried to keep up with it. She understood that the longer she stayed beside it, the longer she was likely to stay alive. She noticed it now held something in its tentacles. A box.

The tentacles holding the box flicked outwards to the rim of its encompassing briny bubble. Dakota watched as the water first swirled around its restraining fields, then began to pitter-patter down onto the marble tiles as a small puncture appeared in one side of the bubble, just wide enough for the alien to push the box through. As it clattered to the ground, the restraining field healed itself immediately.

Dakota stared at the box stupidly for a moment before realizing she was meant to pick it up. She snatched it up and turned back towards the exit.

Bourdain stared towards her balefully and she turned away from him, feeling more naked and alone and frightened than she had since the ordeal in Port Gabriel. She clutched the alien’s gift in one hand as, breathing hard, they arrived at the archway.

‘OK, what is this thing?’ she asked the alien.

‘A gift. Accepting this, yes?’

‘I’m not sure. Why should I?’ she replied, with a stab of alarm. ‘What’s inside?’

‘If Miss Merrick accepts gift, Shoal-member will endeavour to restrain Mr Bourdain from eating Miss Merrick. Shoal-member will also instigate legal reparations against Mr Bourdain for suspected illegal acquisition of non-leased technology, most specifically aforementioned GiantKiller. This in turn will allow Miss Merrick opportunity to sail for safer shores, facilitating hopefully rapid escape.’

Dakota opened her mouth, closed it again, opened it again. ‘Why?’

‘Beneficence of Shoal-member,’ the creature replied. ‘Much of existence is mysterious. Accept fate as fickle -or determined by whim. To gift Miss Merrick is pleasing.’

Dakota felt the cool texture of the gift wrapping against her hand, slick and waterproof. ‘And in return-you’re going to help me to escape?’

‘Affirmation with pleasure.’

As soon as she passed through the archway the alien halted, placing itself between Dakota and her pursuers.

‘I don’t understand any of this,’ she said. ‘What’s in this box?’

‘A gift,’ the alien replied obtusely.

She heard shouts from somewhere beyond the antechamber, echoing in the complex of tunnels and caverns that threaded their way through the immensity of Bourdain’s Rock. The alien was clearly going no further.

Run. Run now. She stuffed the box in a convenient pocket and fled, soon leaving the Shoal-member in its containment field far behind her.

* * * *

A minute or two later Dakota found herself in a crystal-roofed forest, under a starry night. Winding paths cut lazily through dense green foliage and between vast tree trunks with a too-regular mottled bark that indicated high-speed vat growth. Her Ghost circuits guided her back along the exact route she’d followed on her way to meet Bourdain, and she jogged down a lane that snaked between tall trunks looming on either side.

It didn’t take long for her to sense that someone was coming after her. She could hear the twigs snapping underfoot as an unseen pursuer moved towards her at an angle through swaying grasses, but avoiding the path itself and staying out of sight.

Birds suddenly scattered in an explosion of wings, vanishing far above Dakota’s head as they sought new perches higher up. She pushed between a couple of benches and darted aside, behind the cover of some high bushes, crouching there in the grass and peering through dense foliage back the way she had come.

Moss emerged a moment later from the depths of a copse, and began looking around wildly. Blue flashes flickered around his lightning gloves, starkly visible in the artificial night of the surrounding forest. It lent him the appearance of some primeval nightmare god of electricity.

By the faint glow of his eyes, Dakota could tell his sight had been artificially enhanced. She watched as he scanned the trail just a few metres away from her, and when his eyes locked on the bushes that concealed her, it was as if nothing stood between them.

‘Come out, Miss Merrick,’ he ordered calmly.

She was so distracted she almost didn’t hear someone else sneaking up on her from behind.

She stood, turned and kicked hard, catching the side of a helmet as one of Bourdain’s security men moved towards her in a crouch. Burning pain flashed up her leg and she yelled out loud. The guard leapt forward and made a grab for Dakota. Ghost-boosted instinct caused her to let herself fall backwards as he slammed into her, his own forward momentum sending the guard sailing over her head.

She rolled back on to her feet by the edge of the path, almost colliding with one of the benches. She watched the guard as he crashed into his superior. Moss clutched at the tumbling man in surprise, and lightning snapped from his steel-meshed fingers. The guard screamed hideously, and Dakota caught the unmistakable stench of burning flesh.

She turned and dived along a different path, running blind now. As more shouting erupted nearby, she could hear Moss scream and curse somewhere behind her.

A moment later she realized that the local net was denying her Ghost access. And she was lost.

Piri, I need you to get me out of here.

‹I have you on the live security feed. Proceed directly ahead and enter the third access tunnel on your right. This will return you to the docking bays via the shortest possible route.›

The forest gave way to an arcade of empty shop fronts strung along a wide walkway that eventually disappeared out of sight as it followed the natural curve of the asteroid’s circumference. It was like a street constructed up and over the summit of a rounded hill.

Shots whined from somewhere behind her, sending more birds flying upwards in panic from their nesting places in numerous sculpted nooks. She heard the sound of running feet, coming from the far end of the arcade that was still hidden from her by the curve of the asteroid.

She slid into deep shadow between two shop fronts, then noticed that it was the mouth of a narrow alleyway. She ran further into it, and paused.

‘Get the lights up!’ somebody yelled. ‘Get them up now!’

Panting hard, Dakota crouched with hands on knees. She guessed they were trying to get the main lights of the arcade switched on: the only illumination at present came from faintly glowing globes placed at discreet intervals, and which were clearly intended to be decorative rather than practical.

With one hand, she touched the alien’s gift in her pocket.

Piri, why can’t they turn the main lights on? Are you the reason?

‹Yes.›

Then she noticed Moss’s eyes flickering, luminous and satanic, in the dim light of the arcade beyond. They turned in her direction and he started straight towards her.

Dakota hauled herself back upright, wondering how much longer she could keep going like this, and why she was even bothered to try. They’d never allow her to get near the docks. Never.

At its far end the alleyway opened on to a covered plaza. This wide open space was filled with yet more trees whose dense foliage reached up towards narrow walkways that ringed the lofty surrounding walls. Drunk on adrenalin, she scrambled up a tree trunk, and then dropped off a branch and on to one of these walkways, water dripping on her from the wet leaves surrounding her. She hurriedly looked around, her head spinning from so much physical effort.

Muffled shouts as figures began to emerge at the far end of the plaza below. A sudden shot whined off the stonework of the wall, just inches from her head.

There’s something I want you to do, so listen carefully, Piri. Apparently we were carrying a GiantKiller in the hold.

‹Understood. Initial scans indicate there are restricted classified files in regards to their operation currently stored within local databases. Do you wish me to attempt to access them in full?›

Yes! I need to know if there’s a way we can trigger it. Can you trace the GiantKiller itself, since it was unloaded?

‹Affirmative. I have its location.›

She continued at a crouch towards the far end of the walkway, then saw to her horror that Moss was already waiting for her there. Torchlight flickered below, its narrow beam shining in her eyes for a moment. She ducked away from it, desperate to find some kind of cover.

Ahead of her, Moss held his hands out and blue sparks flickered through the gloom, crossing and spitting between the lightning gloves. His enhanced eyes glowed as dim ovals in the dark silhouette of his face.

He started towards Dakota, moving fast. She scrambled back the way she had come, then pulled herself up a stairway towards the roof. It brought her to the entrance of a wide gazebo set astride the wall at one corner of the plaza. Below its roof stood an intricate water sculpture.

Water gushed from the mouth of a marble dolphin set high on a plinth of finely sculpted rock, tinkling as it descended and splashed into a wide but shallow pool through which myriad finned shapes darted incessantly. Grassy ferns and occasional palm trees surrounded the fountain, dripping water like rain on to the sculpture so that it constantly glistened.

There were no other exits from the gazebo. Dakota turned to see Moss appear at the entrance, his unnaturally illuminated eyes finding her instantly in the dim half-light. She felt a sudden, terrible despair flood through her. She was trapped.

‹I have located the protocols required to activate the GiantKiller, but it will take considerable time to fully decrypt and implement them.›

How long exactly?

‹I estimate between twenty hours and fifteen days, Dakota. ›

Dakota felt all hope evaporate. She’d been planning on a complex bluff, in case Bourdain might back down if she threatened to set off the device.

Someone else, she didn’t doubt, had scanned the contents of the Piri’s cargo hold on its voyage to Bourdain’s Rock. The critical question now was, who?

It had to be the same Shoal-member that had spoken to her in the Great Hall. How else could it have known what was inside her ship?

GiantKillers were a near-mythical technology, supposedly originating from a Shoal client race somewhere else in the galaxy, which humanity hadn’t yet been allowed to come into contact with. It was a tool of reportedly enormous destructive power, supposedly designed to reduce large bodies-such as asteroids, heavy with valuable mineral resources-to dust within mere minutes. Her Ghost’s knowledge stacks were filled with a century of wild speculation concerning how such a technology might work.

As Moss moved slowly toward her, she decided to take a chance.

‘Back off!’ she yelled. ‘Let me through to the dock or, I swear on the Pope’s tits, I’ll activate the GiantKiller from here!’

Moss paused. ‘Nice bluff, but it really won’t work.’

‘I mean it!’ she yelled in terrible despair. ‘I’ve got the activation protocols uploaded to my Ghost circuits,’ she lied. ‘I can read every last fucking one of them back to you right now, or I can blow the shit out of this asteroid. Got a preference?’

‘Lying slut, I’ll open you from neck to navel and devour your innards while you watch.’ Deadly blue sparks leapt lazily from one hand to the other as he again moved cautiously forward.

‘Do you really want to try me, Moss?’ she screamed, backing around the fountain, away from him. ‘Seriously?’

Then something remarkable happened.

* * * *

The GiantKiller had already been moved to its new home in a secure storage facility deep inside the body of the asteroid, several kilometres below its outer surface. The Piri Reis had meanwhile been monitoring the Rock’s communication channels, disguising its presence from moment to moment by simulating any one of thousands of maintenance programs, with a degree of sophistication equal to the covert systems used on board many of the Consortium’s finest military vessels.

Suddenly, the Piri was no longer alone in its explorations. Something vast came crashing through the Rock’s data stacks, devouring information like a lumbering virtual behemoth. For a few moments the Piri became deaf, dumb and blind as this new presence swept through the Rock’s computer systems with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer being used to smash a doll’s house.

By the time Dakota’s ship recovered, the Giant-Killer’s protocols had been wiped clean from the records. Alarm circuits blazed throughout the asteroid.

In appearance, the GiantKiller itself was little more than a mottled silver ball several centimetres in diameter, still held in the same field containment chamber it had been placed in prior to its trip aboard the Piri Reis. A casual observer might notice that this silver ball appeared to be flickering in and out of existence from moment to moment. But, rather than flickering, this was in reality a series of rapid expansions and contractions occurring almost too fast to register with the human eye. The GiantKiller was in fact testing its prison walls, lashing out in its pre-programmed desire to consume.

A microscopic analysis of the GiantKiller’s surface would reveal something very like capillaries inside an organic body, channelling resources and information through a highly complex bundle of exotic matter held in check only by the shaped fields that contained it.

Without warning, the shaped fields that surrounded the GiantKiller vanished, and the silver ball now dropped to the floor of its containment chamber deep within the heart of Bourdain’s Rock.

That same microscopic analysis would have then revealed those containment fields dissipating without warning, allowing a torrent of programmed matter to crack through the dense walls of the chamber, in just a few millionths of a second.

It was exactly as if a bomb had gone off.

The alien device underwent explosive decompression, extending microscopic feelers deep into the ancient flesh of the asteroid, spreading and dissolving the molecular bonds of almost everything it touched, reducing the solid matter of Bourdain’s vast, pressurized folly to dust and gravel in an instant.

The irony was that the GiantKiller had been intended as a practical resource for mining rather than as a weapon. And now it was transforming the asteroid into essential components that could, under more typical circumstances, be more easily collected by mining ships.

* * * *

Dakota kept edging backwards, keeping the fountain between her and Moss. She was pretty sure he’d be careful about getting too close to running water while he was wearing…

And then it came to her. Everything here, the trees above, the ground under her feet, was wet, so there must be some kind of sprinkler system, some method of generating artificial rain…

Piri! If there’s any way to turn the water on in here, do it now!

In response, Piri fired fresh instructions into the local network, again feeding false information to the asteroid’s computer systems.

Dakota hauled herself up over the lip of the fountain and dropped into the pool, standing up again next to the splashing foam emerging from the dolphin’s mouth. Moss stood scowling at her, but kept his distance.

Something rattled and spat in the dimness overhead.

They both glanced up.

All at once, throughout the entire Rock, it began to rain from ten thousand steel nozzles.

A torrent descended from the dome above, soaking them both immediately. Dakota propelled herself instantly away from the fountain and hit the ground rolling. Moss began screaming as the artificial rain shorted his lightning gloves, and she almost gagged from the awful stink as he jerked and writhed in an expanding cloud of steam. Fresh torrents continued to drench him from above.

The stricken man staggered blindly towards her, and then he fell face-forward right into the pool.

Just then a sonorous boom sounded from somewhere deep within the asteroid, so faint at first that Dakota wondered if she’d imagined it.

But more, heavier vibrations followed, rippling underfoot in regular pulses, each growing slightly stronger than the last. She heard yelling, and voices calling to each other, back in the general direction of the plaza. But then the voices faded, as if moving further away.

Then there was a sound like the sudden onrush of an ocean tide. It lasted several seconds, before silence fell again.

Dakota remained rooted to the spot for another few moments, desperately wondering what the hell was going on.

She then crept back along the walkway leading to the plaza, noticing how the lush, damp grass below her now-shone with thousands of fragments of shattered crystal from the gazebo roof. Without warning, the entire plaza shook so hard she was almost sent tumbling over the railing to the ground some metres below.

No wonder Bourdain’s soldiers had fled. Whatever was going on here, Dakota wasn’t their priority any more.

The rumbling faded as quickly as it had started, whereupon Dakota made her way down to the ground level as fast as she could. She was conscious of glass crunching noisily underfoot, but that hardly mattered now there was no one around to hear.

Or so she at first thought. Two security personnel, their weapons already raised, emerged from where they’d taken cover under the dense foliage. Dakota gave a shriek and dived out of the way just as bullets whined off the tree trunks right next to her.

The ground rolled and rumbled beneath her with considerably more violence. Then it tipped sideways, suddenly transforming into a vertical plane.

Dakota went tumbling into some bushes, her senses spinning with the sudden shift in gravity. Her stomach twisted with a surge of nausea, and she desperately grabbed some branches, her legs dangling in empty air. The sidewall of the plaza was now several metres beneath her swinging feet.

Something was very, very wrong with the planet engine.

One of the two security men had grabbed hold of a tree trunk somewhere above her, then lost his grip and plummeted past her with a yell. He crashed into a concrete pillar supporting one of the walkways, his neck twisting at a sickening angle. His companion already lay dead nearby.

A steady shower of broken glass fell past her and on to the two corpses, but fortunately the dense foliage of the bushes sheltered her from most of the tumbling shards.

Then gravity began to right itself, just as she could feel her grip starting to weaken. A few seconds later the world had returned to normal, and Dakota found herself kneeling on the soft, wet grass again.

It took her a while to find the courage to stand upright.

Someone had clearly activated the GiantKiller.

Someone who wasn’t her.

There came another series of dull booms from far beneath Dakota’s feet, each one sounding closer than the last. Cracks began to appear in the nearby walls and in the grass. The plaza suddenly split into two halves, drawing away from each other. Dakota threw herself over the yawning chasm, landing safely on the other side, and ran for her life back the way she had come.

The constant tug of the Rock’s artificial gravity began to fade. Suddenly Dakota was swimming through the air, carried forward by her own momentum. A howling maelstrom of escaping atmosphere roared up from the lower levels of the Rock, spilling out through the yawning crack in the plaza’s floor and rushing upwards through the shattered roof.

Dakota activated her filmsuit and, under her clothes, it coated her bare flesh within moments. Her lungs shut down automatically and, as always, it took her a moment to get over the sensation that she was suffocating.

She then hurriedly discarded everything she was wearing, wanting to move as freely as possible. But first she removed the Shoal’s gift from the pocket it nestled in, and clutched it firmly in one night-black hand.

Unfortunately for them, nobody else on the Rock enjoyed the benefit of stolen Bandati technology such as her filmsuit. Most of those guests she’d seen in the Great Hall earlier were either already dead or very soon would be. The only others likely to survive were the Shoal-members and the occasional Bandati she’d seen there. The priests she’d spied with their Pope-avatar were vacuum-proofed and radiation shielded, of course, as all their kind were. But whether they were alive or not in the first place was a matter of conjecture and religious inclination.

Now the only thought in Dakota’s mind was how to escape.

* * * *

‘What did you say to her?’ Bourdain demanded from inside his own protective bubble of shaped fields. In a corridor filled with people desperate to find a way out, he’d caught up with the Shoal-member that had spoken with Dakota earlier. ‘How could you let her go?’ he screamed. ‘For God’s sake, look at what she’s done!’

There was no sign of Moss, but Bourdain had received a verbal report from one of the squad he’d sent after her of how she’d threatened to activate the GiantKiller. Bourdain raged at the thought of her actually following through, and right behind that thought came the appalling awareness that he had so badly underestimated her.

As soon as he had things under control, he was going to hunt that murderous little bitch down remorselessly. And when he had her-well, he was going to take his time over what happened then. It would require time and imagination.

‘Simple enquiry made concerning Dakota’s cargo, nature of,’ the Shoal-member that called himself Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals replied. ‘Perhaps to peruse Mr Bourdain’s thoughts concerning aforementioned matter?’

Anarchy now reigned throughout the ruins of the Great Hall. One of the ceiling buttresses had given way during the initial panic, sending a mighty spray of water across the cavernous space as the structure began to tumble into the artificial lake. Small decorative fish twisted frenetically in air that was misty with water now free of gravity’s grip.

Like Bourdain, a very few humans were wealthy enough to afford personal shaped field technology. Those had long fled, along with anyone else who had been able to reach the docks before the atmosphere gave out. But most of the rest hadn’t got that far, and their corpses littered the air all around.

Trader recognized that Bourdain was angry. It was very amusing to observe.

‘Your planet engines are guaranteed never to fail,’ Bourdain bellowed, his eyes showing white around the rims.

A strong gust of wind whipped constantly past them, rapidly increasing in intensity.

‘I’ll rip your fucking fish guts out in court. I’ll see you in hell. I’ll-’

‘Terrifying power of the most illegal variety has been unleashed, a much prized and non-leased technology, most dangerous in hands of irresponsible species. A GiantKiller, I believe you would phrase it.’

Bourdain sucked in a deep breath, and his eyes narrowed. ‘Prove it.’

‘With ease. But also note that planet engine fully operational under normal optimal circumstances, such circumstances invalidated by presence of activated GiantKiller. Therefore the Shoal can accept no blame.’

‘I should never have done business with your fucking kind,’ Bourdain snarled. ‘Really, outside of your box of magic tricks, all you lot are fucking tubeworms with attitude.’

‘Correct surmise,’ the Shoal replied. ‘But very powerful, very wealthy tubeworms. Note also that safety lies within personal protective bubble, as world dissolves like salt. Mr Bourdain advised to make use of such tube-worm technology by way of escape. Should reparations be sought, if still unhappy after conclusion of this sad woeful day, honourable tubeworm suggests further thoughts concerning embarrassment of criminal charges for procuring GiantKiller. Non-loss of species access to leased technologies in the face of such criminal acts might be considered extremely lenient.’

Bourdain was starting to say something else, but Trader failed to catch it as a vast crack rent the Great Hall totally asunder, rapidly opening out into a chasm below them.

Trader propelled himself upwards as the roof collapsed, revealing the stars beyond. He left Bourdain to find his own exit, ignoring his continuing protests over their shared comms band.

Trader’s human bodyguards were long gone in search of safety, and, truth be told, they were only there for show. If Trader had one real skill-beyond subterfuge and deceit-it would be a knack for survival.

He nimbly skirted a great section of the roof as it tumbled towards him, then navigated past several other sizeable chunks of falling debris as he made his way to safety far from the disintegrating asteroid.

Light sparkled from far above as the atmosphere’s retaining field vainly attempted to repair itself before finally giving out completely. Now he was well out of danger, Trader glanced down for the rare privilege of watching an entire world-however tiny-disintegrate before its eyes.

The ambassadorial cruiser had departed the Rock the instant the first signs of catastrophic engine failure had manifested. Any sooner and Trader would have run the risk of arousing suspicion during any subsequent investigation.

‘Please to be estimating surviving population of Bourdain’s Rock,’ Trader messaged his human staff aboard the cruiser.

‘Of two thousand, two hundred and thirteen individuals, of which two hundred and thirty-five were registered staff, there’s an early estimate of just seventy-five survivors, Ambassador.’

What would happen next depended on how much Trader chose to trust the information provided by the Deep Dreamers. Prior experience had taught the alien that the chances of someone successfully following a predicted course of action could be improved by narrowing down the alternative options.

So far, the Dreamers had been entirely accurate in their predictions of key events. In some way as yet unfathomable to Trader, the woman Dakota Merrick now stood at the beginning of a path that, without judicious interference, would lead to the most terrible war the galaxy had ever witnessed.

Now Trader’s priority task was to make sure of staying with her every step of the way, until the root cause of that impending conflict could be discerned-and then carefully eradicated.

* * * *

Before blacking out, the last thing Dakota remembered was a wall of rock rushing straight towards her. As she awoke, she was therefore considerably surprised to find she was still alive.

She remembered the plaza ripping apart down the middle, with a sound like an army of gods grinding their teeth in unison. She recalled seeing rivers of silver work their way through the ancient exposed rock, as she’d been carried upwards in a rushing tornado of air. Then a chunk of mountain had come flying towards her, lines of silver spreading through that too, before it visibly dissolved into gravel before her eyes.

The filmsuit, she knew, had kept her alive. She’d been aware that it could absorb kinetic energy to some fantastic degree, but ensuring her survival after colliding with a mountain was on a whole new level of scary

A section of slowly tumbling debris about the size of a stadium came rushing up towards her. There was no way she could avoid it, but she braced herself nevertheless, hoping against hope.

She came into contact with the hurtling debris at bowel-emptying speed, yet she felt nothing. For a few moments, her filmsuit glowed a dull red while the rock underfoot began steaming and cracking. It seemed the filmsuit could somehow reflect the enormous kinetic energy of the impact back into itself.

Dumbfounded at this knowledge, Dakota bent her knees and kicked, pushing herself away from the shattered asteroid fragment. Her filmsuit slowly faded to its usual black, any remaining energy radiating back into space. It was hard to believe the Bandati liquid shield could be capable of so much.

Gradually she built up a momentum taking her away from Bourdain’s Rock by pushing herself off other chunks of passing debris. Once she was far enough away, she finally took the opportunity to look back. Patches of dying forest were still visible, clinging to shattered asteroid-fragments that spun slowly away from each other or else collided and continued to disintegrate.

Dakota didn’t even want to think about what had happened to the people left behind.

As she watched, a huge chunk of the Rock’s shattered horizon split apart in a shower of grey and black dust. Trees and lichens still clung to one segment and, against all the odds, some localized emergency power circuits were still functioning, illuminating the interiors of ripped-open corridors, equipment bays and living quarters. Combined with the glow of sporadic electrical fires here and there, these lights gave the impression of a hellish grotto. She caught glimpses of the flash-frozen corpses of deer and horses floating near by, then they were gone, caught in a disintegrating maelstrom of dust and rock that was likely to grind them down to nothing.

Piri was feeding her news reports of the disaster, as local ships escaping from the Rock continued firing live feeds into the local tach-nets. Her Ghost subsequently picked out a description of a woman urgently being sought for questioning. A woman carrying illegal machine-head implants.

But I didn’t do anything, she protested within the safety of her own thoughts. Maybe they were talking about some other machine-head.

They were going to kill me. I had no choice…

But no choice as to what? She hadn’t followed through on her threat. She’d tried to bluff Moss, and failed pathetically.

But someone had followed through. She had absolutely no doubt the Rock had been destroyed by the same GiantKiller she’d transported here earlier.

The appalling notion that she had been set up oozed into Dakota’s thoughts like a pool of coagulating blood. People were looking for her, people who thought she was responsible for this outrage.

But who could be easier to blame than a machine-head, an illegal?

Old anger and frustration flared deep inside her thoughts. She remembered all too clearly the day they’d forcibly removed her original Ghost implants, after the fatal flaw in the technology had become clear. Just as vivid was the memory of her subsequent near-suicidal depression, a bleak period that had lasted several months. Then came her decision to acquire some crude black-market clones, furtively installed in a backstreet surgery, before slowly starting to piece her life back together.

Without doubt she was the perfect scapegoat, for no one really trusted machine-heads. Not after…

For a long moment, Dakota imagined her broken and beaten body being tossed aloft by a jeering mob.

Come and get me, Piri.

‹I am already on the way, Dakota. It may take me some time to reach you, however, due to the risk of compromising hull integrity through further impacts. It is therefore advisable for you to maximize distance between yourself and any debris.›

That’s fine, Piri. Just make sure you get here before my filmsuit runs out of juice.

She was drifting towards a boulder measuring about a hundred metres across. As she got closer, she recognized the tiles adorning part of its surface: it was a fragment of the Great Hall. Both she and it were moving in the same direction at roughly similar velocities, so she managed to land on it gently. She was about to push away again when she caught sight of a human body floating nearby-a partly naked woman, with the few remaining scraps of an evening dress still straggling from her torso.

The corpse’s eyes were glassy and frozen, the mouth open in a soundless scream. Dakota recognized her as the avatar of Pope Eliza.

As Dakota finally pushed off into the darkness her Ghost circuits tugged her gaze in a particular direction, where she saw light glinting from the rapidly approaching shape of the Piri Reis.

It would take days for her to shake the hideous memory of the avatar’s corpse from her restless dreams.

The Piri hove closer, changing from a dull silhouette barely visible against the stars to a grey hull comprised of three joined-up sections. From a distance it resembled a fat metallic insect. From the ship’s underbelly, a forest of grapples extended, seeking her out.

Dakota fell into her ship’s machine embrace, like a swaddled child falling into the arms of its mother. At that moment she became aware of the Shoal’s gift still clutched, by some miracle, in one black-slicked hand.

* * * *

Five

Freehold Democratic State

Redstone Colony, 82 Eridani

Lucas Corso blinked, trying to stay alert, and focused again on the bleak landscape beyond the windscreen. He was getting tired after the long drive, the snowy vastness merging into an unending pale void as he aimed the tractor transport at a point midway between two distant volcanic peaks from which thin trails of smoke dribbled.

Fire Lake was visible to the east, spreading beyond the horizon, its icy foam-topped water crashing against a desolate shore. Canopy trees towered in the near distance, like black umbrellas sprouting from the corpses of buried giants. The largest and oldest of them easily reached fifty or sixty metres into the air. One-wings circled around the high, veined shrouds of the trees, their organic photovoltaic upper-wing surfaces sparkling as they circled in the fading light.

Corso checked the co-ordinates they’d been given: almost there now.

Sal was asleep beside him in the passenger seat, arms folded over his chest, head back, occasionally blinking awake and peering around for a few moments as they trundled across the frozen landscape. He’d long since given up arguing with Corso, of trying to prevent him -as Sal put it-from committing suicide.

‘Nothing you do will bring Cara back or get your father out of jail,’ Sal had repeated for the hundredth time. ‘Not even murdering Bull Northcutt. God knows I’d like to see the psychotic son of a bitch dead and skewered, but the fact is, if either one of you is going to wind up in a coffin, it’s probably not going to be him.’

Corso had slammed the wheel with the heel of his hand, angry at Sal, but also with himself for letting Bull manipulate him so transparently. Bull had murdered his fiancйe, knowing Lucas would inevitably call him out on a challenge. Lucas Corso, the son of a liberal Senator who’d renounced the whole system of challenges, before expediency and war had forced the Senate to outlaw them anyway.

Cara had disappeared on her way back from the medical facility in a small mining community south of Fontaine, where she’d been working on loan. A few weeks later, her remains had been found in the burned-out wreck of a short-haul landhopper on the road to Carndyne Valley. Her teeth had been pulled out and her fingers cut off-the trademark of Senator Gregor Arbenz’s death squads. Her face had been so badly mutilated they’d had to identify her from DNA records.

It was all Corso had been able to think of for a month now, that same floating image imposed between his eyes and the rest of the world: his Cara, not smiling but mutilated, torn, destroyed.

He couldn’t prove that Bull Northcutt had done it, but Bull liked to boast. And Senator Northcutt’s son was widely known to be in charge of one of the death squads.

Then one day a few weeks before, Corso had been on his way back from the research library in Carndyne Valley’s East Tent and come across Bull Northcutt lounging outside the hydro farm with several other off-duty police, standing around a couple of tractor vans, getting drunk.

Corso kept walking, and tried to ignore the leering, grinning faces that turned to follow his progress. There was no one else around. They were here solely because they knew he came this way, every day. They fell silent, while watching him pass.

‘By the time it was my turn to stick my dick in her,’ Corso heard Bull say loud and clear, ‘she was pretty good and loose. I don’t think she’d ever been fucked properly in her life. What do you think, Corso?’

Corso had stopped, fists clenching at his sides, any last remaining scrap of doubt concerning the identity of Cara’s murderer suddenly vanished. That was when he had challenged Bull. They could have easily arrested him there and then: since the Freehold had found a real enemy to fight in the Uchidans, the challenges had been outlawed. Too many soldiers were dying in duels when they were needed on the front.

But Bull had just kept grinning, and accepted.

* * * *

Sal snapped awake as the tractor rolled down and then back up the banks of a stream, before Corso finally hit the brakes.

‘Oh shit, I’m still here,’ Sal yawned, blinking sleepily and staring around. ‘Guess that means you’re still going to get yourself killed, huh?’

Corso shot him a sharp glance, and Sal shrugged, turning to look out at the lakeshore, falling silent again.

Senator Northcutt, Bull’s father, was in charge of the Senate investigation against Lucas’s father, Senator Corso. Murdering Cara was Senator Northcutt’s way of sending a violent message, not just to Lucas but also to his old man. Witnesses had already been bribed or coerced into claiming Senator Corso had organized secret meetings with the Uchidans; that he’d supplied them with vital military information and worked against the Freehold in order to destroy it; that he’d kidnapped Freehold children, handing them over to the Uchidans for mind-control experiments.

Men and women, friends and confidants, all frightened, all bruised and bloodied from long, violent hours in Kieran Mansell’s police cells. All had testified against Senator Corso and his supporters, before the assembled Senate.

Lies, all lies.

A brief squall of icy rain spattered across the windscreen. Corso peered into the distance, and saw a couple of black dots standing around another tractor, a couple of flares driven into the hard icy soil, marking the site of the challenge by the shores of the lake.

‘We’re here,’ Corso muttered, surprised at how calm he sounded.

* * * *

Corso pulled on his winter gear before following Sal from the cabin, dropping several metres down the ladder to snow churned up by the tractor’s tracks. He checked the seal around his breather mask one last time, then looked around. They stood on loose shale and rock dotted with tiny green and blue growths that pushed through the permafrost. The cold burned his skin wherever it was exposed, 82 Eridani’s orange-red orb dropping towards the horizon as evening descended on Redstone.

Corso rubbed at the red fuzz of his beard where it was uncovered by his breather mask. Its protection was essential because the partial pressure of the nitrogen in the air was enough to cause a potentially fatal case of the bends after just a few moments of unaided respiration. It was possible to talk through the mask, which had built-in electronics that processed the voice, but what emerged sounded flat and metallic, like a robot speaking.

Harsh laughter, faint and distant, carried towards them from the other tractor. Corso clenched his fists tightly, anger reasserting itself under a black tide of adrenalin.

‘Lucas. Listen to me. Remember what I suggested? Just walk in there, accept the challenge, and surrender without fighting. Then you can walk away with honour-and with your life. According to the code of conduct he has to accept that or he loses his honour, right?’

‘No, Sal, I need to kill him. If I don’t, they don’t get the message. They’ll go on thinking we’ll never fight back.’

Sal then lost his temper. ‘For God’s sake, even if you won, that doesn’t make you a Citizen! Challenges are illegal.’

‘I’ll present it to the Senate as a fait accompli. They’ll arrest me, sure, but I’ll go on fighting from inside prison until they take notice. Things have got to change here. Arbenz himself wants to re-legalize challenges. If I win and he still refuses to recognize me as a Citizen, he’d be committing political suicide.’

Sal snorted. ‘Yeah, and either way, you’re committing real suicide.’

* * * *

The Freehold was based on ancient ideals. To become a Citizen-to enjoy certain privileges, to be able to vote -you had to be prepared to fight on its behalf. This inherently warlike philosophy had seen the Freehold forced out of colony after colony until the Consortium had relented and granted them a development contract for Redstone. With no actual enemies to fight, at least until the arrival of the Uchidans, and comfortably far from Sol and the bulk of the Consortium, the system of challenges had developed there.

But times were changing and, increasingly, only extremists like Arbenz and his gang of followers held up the old principles. The fact they were losing the war with the Uchidans, a constant tit-for-tat exchange of guerrilla fighting along a constantly fluctuating border, made the ground on which the old guard stood even less sure.

Six bright flares shone around a circle demarcated by stones carefully selected from the nearby shore. In the flickering light, Corso noted the same faces he’d seen that day outside the hydro tents when he had issued his challenge. Drunken cheers went up as he and Sal approached the base of the two-storey transport Northcutt and his cronies had arrived in earlier.

‘All right,’ Sal said, exhaling long and slow, as if he’d just come to a momentous decision. ‘So you’re really doing this.’

Corso nodded, without even glancing at his friend. ‘I’m doing this.’

* * * *

Eduardo Jones was Bull’s right-hand man, and the last of Northcutt’s crew to swing himself down from the lofty transport’s cabin, agilely stepping down the ladder with practised ease. From the lake, a warm breeze blew over them, tinged with sulphur from the hot springs a couple of kilometres further along the shore.

‘Hey!’ he shouted as Corso and Sal drew closer. Jones began playing the hard man, pushing his breather mask up on top of his head and briefly sucking in the raw, nitrogen-heavy air like there was no tomorrow. ‘What’s this shit about you challenging a real man, Corso?’ he yelled, after dropping his mask back down, so his voice emerged as a metallic rattle. ‘Don’t you know the rules-don’t pee in your own bed, don’t screw your sister, and don’t get into a fight you know you can’t win?’

One or two others chuckled. Bull Northcutt laughed the loudest. His face was twisted in an arrogant sneer above his powerful shoulders, eyes bright from heavy military-grade neurochem abuse.

‘This is bullshit,’ Sal yelled back to Corso’s amazement. ‘This isn’t a fair challenge. There’s not one of you,’ he shouted, anger emerging from him in waves as his voice rose, ‘that doesn’t know it.’

Northcutt burst out laughing. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ he spat, in a voice filled with ugly derision. ‘Corso, right after you’re dead, I’ve got a date with that sister of yours. Figure she could entertain me, and all my friends here, yeah? How’d you like that, you fucking piece of shit!’

A few of Northcutt’s crew cheered, passing a bottle around and yanking their masks down to take quick pulls like they were celebrating a winning bet. Corso had no doubt every one of them had participated in Cara’s murder. And, before Cara, others too.

And now they were gathered to watch him die.

Sal, as Corso had realized some time earlier, was deep in denial. He believed he could appeal to Northcutt’s basic humanity, but Corso had seen Cara’s body lying in the morgue and wasn’t under any illusion he was dealing with normal human beings here.

If he was going to die, he’d rather go out fighting and do his damnedest to take Northcutt with him. Northcutt, who stood waiting, his eyes bright with enhancement drugs that ate away at his brain and nervous system, year after year after year.

Corso noticed the way Bull Northcutt’s hands trembled uncontrollably, the fingers jerking slightly, the slight tremble in the muscles under his chin. Fighting Bull would be dangerous, very dangerous, but Corso’s opponent wasn’t as young as he had been.

Men like Bull rarely survived to grow old, because they got called out again and again, till they made mistakes, got slow.

Feeling momentarily light-headed, Corso closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he stared out over the shores of the lake, thinking, If this is the day I die, then fine.

* * * *

Two long, double-edged knives with carbon steel blades already lay crossed in the centre of the circle where the challenge would take place. Corso watched as Senator Northcutt’s son began to strip off his outer layers of protective gear, revealing a physique that was tall, lean and muscled. He stared slack-jawed as Northcutt continued to strip right down until he was bare-chested, though his skin was slathered in some kind of insulating grease. One of his crew threw a heated blanket around his shoulders, holding it in place.

‘He’s trying to psych you out,’ Sal whispered, one arm resting on Corso’s shoulder. ‘It’s his way of saying the fight’s going to be over long before he’ll freeze to death.’

Which would usually take no more than a minute or two, so if Corso could draw things out, Bull would get dramatically weaker. But clearly Bull was assuming his opponent would be an easy kill.

Corso had kept his inner insulating layers on, suddenly aware how much they restricted his mobility compared to that of his opponent. He kept himself in shape, but Northcutt resembled some kind of barely human predator, sleek, wiry and feral.

Jones stood in the centre of the combat circle and gestured for them to take their positions. ‘Time’s here,’ he announced, and Northcutt’s crew cheered, while Bull himself paused on the edge of the circle of stones, staring, unblinking, at Corso.

‘Last chance to back out,’ Jones taunted Lucas, with a grin.

‘Fuck you,’ Corso shouted back at him.

Jones turned in a slow circle. How long are they going to delay this? Corso wondered. With Northcutt half-naked, if they waited much longer, there wouldn’t be any challenge to fight.

‘Whoever wins will either attain or retain their citizenship, and as such he can then in turn be challenged by any non-Citizen who chooses. This is ordained under the eyes of the Most Holy, our Lord and Saviour, current fucking legalities regardless. Amen.’ Jones then trotted out of the circle.

Corso had only half-listened, surprised and shocked by the sense of keen excitement welling in him, a surge of fire that spread through his chest, making every breath deeper and harder. Blood pounded in his skull like the roar of an ocean.

* * * *

They stepped into the circle from opposite sides. Northcutt made the first move, darting like lightning towards the crossed knives.

Corso was big enough and strong enough to take Northcutt on, but Northcutt moved with an unnerving, fluid grace. Corso got to the knives a fraction of a moment after the other man, in his haste slamming into Northcutt’s shoulder as they each grabbed a weapon. He felt something hot flash against his upper arm, followed by the splash of his own blood on the frosty ground.

Corso scrambled out of reach, quickly pulling himself upright just inside the circle, but now feeling the reassuring weight of the steel knife with its rubber grip in his right hand. They prowled around opposite extremes of the challenge perimeter, waiting to see who moved first.

‘Fucker,’ Corso swore under his breath, and kept swapping his knife from hand to hand, in an attempt to confuse his opponent.

With a shriek, Northcutt came running straight at him, his blade weaving patterns in front of his naked chest. He kept shifting from side to side so Corso couldn’t be sure which way to head in order to evade him.

They slammed into each other, Corso grabbing the wrist of Northcutt’s knife arm, feeling taut muscles tremble under the frozen skin. He twisted aside, attempting to slash up at his enemy’s jugular, but Northcutt floored him with a single kick.

Northcutt moved in fast, intent on making his killing blow while Corso lay prone. Without any protective gear, he could move far faster than Corso could respond.

But Northcutt had clearly expected to make a faster job of it: Corso wasn’t a trained killer like his opponent, but that didn’t mean he was unable to defend himself. If the contest didn’t end within the next few seconds, Northcutt was going to be in serious trouble from hypothermia. Corso could see how the other man was getting slower, even as he towered over him.

Without thinking, Corso brought his knee up, slamming it hard into Northcutt’s testicles. Northcutt lost his balance, sliding to one side…

… red flared across Corso’s vision and he felt the hot flow of fresh blood across his cheek. He blinked, suddenly light-headed, then tried to lift himself up, but slipped on the ice.

There was a lot of blood on the ground nearby. His blood.

Northcutt straddled him, his blade held vertically over Corso’s chest, while his free hand pressed down on Corso’s ribcage.

‘Time to-’ Northcutt started to say, before bright lights suddenly flared across them, accompanied by the deafening whup-whup of ‘copter blades.

Two helicopters dropped down next to the combat circle, while Northcutt’s crew looked around, stunned. Forgetting about Corso for the moment, Northcutt yanked himself upright and moved rapidly over to the perimeter.

Corso meanwhile rolled over and on to his knees. Panting wildly, he glanced over towards Sal, standing just beyond the circle with a hopeless expression on his face. Northcutt’s crew began running around, shouting; rifles had magically appeared in the hands of most of them. Jones was already conversing with someone who had just stepped down from the nearest helicopter.

Corso looked over and recognized him as Kieran Mansell, Senator Arbenz’s right-hand man.

‘Hey!’ Sal began shouting at Northcutt, who seemed just about to step out of the ring of stones. ‘You can’t leave the circle, Northcutt!’ he yelled. ‘That’s quitting!’

Shit. Sal was right, Corso realized. Whatever the circumstances, leaving the circle amounted to surrender. Because challenges were illegal, Northcutt wouldn’t actually forfeit his place in the lower Senate, but word of his shame would get around. Meanwhile his crew couldn’t even toss him a blanket to keep warm, because outside help was strictly forbidden under the traditions of challenge.

Corso pulled himself upright and gasped as he felt the deep wound. It made him feel sick and weak to touch it, but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t be enough to kill him.

Another couple of minutes spent out here in the freezing cold would do that just fine.

Mansell was escorted by heavily armed military clad in white and grey camouflage gear. Northcutt’s crew began to raise angry voices. Mansell strode on straight past Bull Northcutt and into the centre of the combat circle, sparing Corso himself only the most cursory of glances.

Corso hauled himself into a sitting position, still clutching his chest. He noticed that Mansell was wearing body armour under his long overcoat, his hair like a stiff blond brush above the square-jawed face. There was something pitiless and inhuman about the man’s eyes. Meanwhile the soldiers who had accompanied him began fanning out across the icy beach, their weapons lowered but at the ready.

‘You all know who I am’-Mansell’s voice was rough-edged and coarse-‘and I’m here on Senate authority. This challenge is illegal, and is over as of now. You’-he lifted one gloved hand to point at Northcutt-‘need to get inside. Now.’

‘I’ll kill you,’ snarled Northcutt, simply but clearly. ‘You’re inside the circle, and that means you’re taking up the challenge yourself. First I’ll kill you-and then I’ll kill him,’ he added, with a brief nod towards Corso.

Mansell glanced back at him with a derisive expression, while Northcutt’s crew remained silent. Corso saw that Bull was now becoming irrational from whatever warrior drugs he’d been taking. For a moment he thought Mansell’s security team might intervene, then he saw the man make a hand gesture, and the soldiers remained where they were.

‘I’ll forget you said that, son,’ Mansell replied finally. ‘Go join your crew. Normally I wouldn’t want to interfere, but I’m here on government business, and that makes all the difference. Got that?’

As he said these words, he turned and fixed Corso with a steady gaze.

He’s here because of me, thought Corso with a start. He could see Sal still hovering on the edge of the circle, wanting to run over and help his wounded friend, but unable or unwilling to risk taking on Bull.

‘No.’ Northcutt was shivering violently now, his neck muscles outlined like steel cables under his skin. He moved towards Mansell. ‘I don’t give a fuck who you are. This is a challenge. You wouldn’t be where you are now if you hadn’t killed the right people. That’s how we do things, right? There’s precedent. You enter somebody else’s challenge, that makes you fair game.’

‘Go home, Northcutt.’ Mansell sounded bored. ‘You’re not fit to talk.’

Corso felt a wash of dizziness pass through him. Northcutt was holding his blade out threateningly towards Mansell.

‘I’ve never lost a challenge yet,’ Bull snarled, moving closer to Mansell, who remained stock-still. ‘And I won’t start now.’

What happened next, happened fast.

Bull pushed himself forward in a series of motions that appeared almost ballet-like to Corso. Then it was over so quickly it took him long seconds to understand what had in fact happened.

Mansell turned a little to the side so that, as Northcutt moved in fast for a stabbing blow, the other man appeared to embrace Northcutt around the shoulders, as easily as if Northcutt were a life-size rag doll being tossed towards him.

Corso heard a pitiless crack and it was over. Mansell lowered Northcutt’s suddenly lifeless body to the ice, the latter’s head lolling at a sickening angle.

Corso glanced over at Northcutt’s crew, still scattered around the perimeter of the combat circle. Some of them looked like they were thinking of using their weapons in retaliation. Mansell’s men dropped their own guns off their shoulders, and for a moment Corso thought things might end in a bloodbath.

‘Stop right there,’ said Mansell, addressing Northcutt’s followers. ‘The challenge is now over. He took me on and I won fair and square. Any of you care to disagree with that?’

A pair of hands began to pull Corso upright. He turned and realized it was Sal. Corso draped one arm over his friend’s neck and together they staggered out of the circle.

It’s really over, Corso realized, and I’m still alive.

Sal, with the help of one of Mansell’s soldiers, carried him over and heaved him up into the back of one of the ‘copters. Corso stared up at the rotating blades above his head, feeling curiously calm as other faces moved above him, their silhouettes blocking out the stars.

Another soldier bent over Corso and touched the side of his bare neck with something icy. A few moments later the ice spread through his thoughts, numbing him. Corso grinned, and started to laugh. Mansell meanwhile pulled himself inside the same ‘copter just as it began to lift from the ground, leaving Sal behind them.

Corso looked down and saw the same hopeless look still on his friend’s face, as the shoreline dwindled with distance.

* * * *

The next thing he knew, he was strapped into a webbed seat in the rear cabin of the ‘copter, staring up at the aircraft’s ribbed steel interior. Some internal clock told him hours had passed meanwhile.

‘Feeling better?’ Mansell was eyeing him intently.

‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ Corso’s clothing had been cut away around his heavily bandaged wounds. ‘I need to get back,’ he muttered weakly. ‘My family…’

‘Your family are fine, for now,’ Mansell reassured him. ‘But that’s one of the things we need to talk about.’

‘I really didn’t think…’ Corso trailed off, staring at Mansell.

‘Really didn’t think you’d still be alive?’ he finished for him, a sour grin flickering across his curiously square features. ‘If I hadn’t turned up, you wouldn’t be. Bull Northcutt was one of the best fighters in the Freehold before he turned into a liability.’

Corso shook his head. ‘I don’t understand any of this. Where are we going?’

‘Tell me,’ Mansell asked as if by way of reply, ‘what do you think our chances are of winning this war with the Uchidans?’

Corso felt his stomach tighten. ‘Why do you care what I think?’

‘Speak freely. I’m being serious,’ Mansell reassured him, noting his disbelieving expression. ‘It’s one of the reasons you’re still alive.’

‘In that case, perhaps you ought to speak to my father, Senator Corso. Assuming your boss drops those false charges against him.’

‘Unfortunately, your father doesn’t share your particular area of expertise.’

Corso opened and closed his mouth. ‘Excuse me?’

‘You’re a scholar, not a fighter,’ Mansell continued. ‘Not hard to tell from that shambles of a fight back there. You’re a specialist in alien programming languages.’

Corso squinted at the man, now completely confused.

‘Shoal communications protocols,’ Mansell prompted. ‘Correct?’

Corso nodded dumbly. His area of expertise was ancient alien languages, going back possibly hundreds of thousands of years: part of the constant human effort to pick apart the available knowledge base of the Shoal Hegemony, trying to find the magic key that might open a world of infinite knowledge and power.

No one had ever come close to succeeding, however. Corso had merely expected a quiet life working away at the University with the help of a Consortium grant.

‘Senator Arbenz is going to ask you to do something that will very likely affect the entire future of the Freehold, and you’re going to say yes to him, because “no” isn’t an option. Do this for us, and all the current charges against your father will be dropped, nor will the rest of your family be forced into indentured labour. You have my word on this, and the Senator’s word, too.’

‘And if I say no?’

Mansell’s smile showed all his teeth. Corso looked away from him, feeling a deep chill settle around his heart that had nothing to do with the frozen air surrounding the helicopter.

‘You’re going to help secure an absolute victory for the Freehold over the Uchidans and rid them from Redstone for ever,’ Mansell continued. ‘But we don’t have much time. You’re being taken off-world, first to the Sol System, then to another location. We have been given command of a frigate called the Hyperion, for this express purpose, and we’ll be rendezvousing with it in less than twenty-four hours.’

Corso struggled to take all this in, and his fit of shivers was not entirely due to the lack of heat in the tiny cabin. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you? And this has something to do with my research? We’re talking some pretty obscure academic material there, you know.’

‘I need your answer, Mr Corso.’

Corso reviewed his options and realized there weren’t any. He had no doubt that his refusal would result in a bullet through the head and his body being tossed down on to the icy wastes below. ‘All right. Whatever it is, yes. But I need to-’

‘No buts. Consider your position, Mr Corso – and remember my reputation. I don’t enjoy wasting time on arguments. You’ll do as your world requires.’

‘But what exactly am I meant to do?’

‘The trip on the Hyperion shouldn’t last more than a few weeks, and then we’ll rendezvous with the nearest coreship heading to our final destination,’ Mansell continued, ignoring his question. ‘Don’t even think about asking where it is we’re going. We’ll be joined by Senator Arbenz along the way. I believe you’ve already met him?’

Corso blinked several times. For the first time since he had been a very young child, he longed for the power to make his troubles go away simply by closing his eyes very tightly. ‘You could say that. So Arbenz is responsible for…this?’

Mansell smiled again, and Corso really wished he hadn’t.

‘He needs your help, Mr Corso.’

‘And in return?’

‘Do this for us and you could wind up a hero-a war hero. That’s better than getting a knife in the back for betraying your own people, wouldn’t you say?’

* * * *

Six

Redstone Colony

Consortium Standard Date: 28.05.2538

5 Days to Port Gabriel Incident

Dakota’s shuttle fell out of the infinite night, dropping from orbit in a graceful arc towards a white and blue streaked pearl set against starry velvet.

Until that moment lost in the complex approach vectors her Ghost was channelling through her fore-brain, she glanced back at her sole passenger. ‘Sorry, did you say something?’

Severn had a look on his face like he was waiting for an answer. He popped into his mouth a narrow-bladed green leaf that had the unmistakable patterning of Redstone flora and began to chew on it. The Freeholders had given this mildly narcotic plant the remarkably original name ‘chewleaf’. It seemed to be available everywhere on board the orbital Consortium ships, even though they’d only been in-system for a matter of days. Too little time for anyone with enough authority to get round to banning it.

‘I was saying it feels good, yeah?’ Severn repeated. His face betrayed a Mediterranean ancestry by its pale-olive skin.

Beyond the necessary details of their rapid descent to the planet surface below and the constant dialogue of traffic control, Dakota’s thoughts had been focused on the ice-locked continents below, increasingly visible through the craft’s windscreen. But she didn’t complain about Severn’s interruption. Every now and then, the way she saw it, there were moments when you realized something that was happening was really happening: like a kind of epiphany. This felt like one of those moments.

Shit, I’m really here-and it isn’t all just in my head. That was what she had been thinking: how Bellhaven was a long way away and, even though unfathomable reaches of interstellar space had been crossed, somehow it seemed as if she was only now really coming to terms with the decisions, the life choices that had led to her being here in this place, and at this time.

Dakota shook her head. ‘Sorry?’

Severn sighed dramatically. The craft shuddered around them and Dakota tensed automatically: they were skimming the atmosphere now, surfing the upper levels of the stratosphere at several thousand kilometres per hour, like a skipping stone skimmed expertly across the surface of a lake.

‘I said, it’s good when you finally get to go down below, get walking around on solid ground and, OK, maybe not breathing fresh air, but it’s a lot better than being stuck on a fucking rock for years on end, y’know?’

Severn grinned and reached out with a fist to wallop the bulkhead next to his acceleration couch, presumably in order to emphasize this slice of homespun philosophy. Most of the way down, he’d been talking about the interior of Dakota’s shuttle.

She had decorated the cabin of the little craft with small items originating from the Grover shanties back home. Fetish dolls hung from different points around the cabin. Dakota was hardly the religious type, yet the Revised Catholic icons epoxied on to a shelf above the entrance to the aft bay reminded her strongly of her own formative years in Erkinning-effigies of Peter, Anthony, Theresa, Presley and Autonomous Ethical Device Model 209, all rendered in gaudy clashing colours, their features beatific and childlike.

‘You should know I’m not a Rocker, I’m from Bellhaven,’ Dakota told him. ‘Life on the boosted asteroids isn’t so bad. Is it?’

‘Yeah? Well, the kinds of places I grew up, they don’t have the time or resources for fancy shit like field-retention atmospheres or artificial gravity.’

Dakota shrugged in response, twitching the control stick as the craft juddered. She could have guided the ship down using only her Ghost implants, but the general practice was to keep things reasonably physical. Even with implants, the mind could wander.

She’d left Bellhaven for the very first time three months before, and she was still learning just how adaptive the technology inside her skull could be. Already her ship was starting to feel like an extension of her body.

When it became clear, by the end of the twenty-first century, that anything resembling true artificial intelligence was still a long way off, scientific research had shifted instead to a far greater emphasis on mind-machine interfaces. Dakota’s implants were learning how her mind worked equally as she was learning just how they worked. It was like possessing a backup subconscious-something that could almost anticipate what you were thinking, thus allowing a degree of control and flexibility verging on the superhuman. An extra ghost in the machine.

They had a name for people like her: machine-heads.

‘You’re new to all this, aren’t you?’ Severn asked.

‘Thought we were all new here.’ The shuttle bumped and rattled as it came into closer contact with the atmosphere, the view beyond the windscreen fading as the optical niters reacted to the blazing heat of reentry. A break in the cloud cover far below revealed the ruins of the town that surrounded the Redstone skyhook: this had spent half a year under bombardment by Uchidan forces, using conventional explosives before they’d scraped together enough resources for a couple of nukes.

The nukes had been high in radiation yield, but low in destructive capacity, insufficient to seriously damage the skyhook’s structural integrity. Nevertheless, only the arrival of the Consortium had prevented the Uchidans making one last push and taking away the Freehold’s only remaining link to the rest of the universe.

Dakota flashed a smile over her shoulder. ‘You’re a machine-head too, right?’

‘Wow, how could you tell?’ he replied in mock amazement. ‘Worse. I’m a pilot as well, though this is gonna be the first time I do my job inside an atmosphere. Maybe you should hold my hand ‘case it gets rough on the way down?’ he leered, brushing a hand across the rough stubble of his scalp.

Dakota grinned and shook her head. Severn laughed at his own wit, and she noted they’d be landing in just under thirteen minutes, give or take the vagaries of ground control, and whether they’d managed to find enough secure landing spots for all the hardware currently on its way down from orbit. It would have been easier to ride down on the skyhook, but there was no telling whether the Uchidans might strike again with more nuclear mortar fire. Apparently there were still one or two pockets of resistance holed up down below.

‘I’m Dakota.’ She shoved one hand behind her seat for him to shake, and felt Severn grasp it after a moment’s hesitation. ‘Dakota Merrick.’

‘Chris Severn.’

‘Yeah, you see I knew that.’

‘Mind reader.’

‘Manifest reader.’ She tapped the readout screen printed on the thigh of her trousers. ‘Same thing, just more boring.’

‘Lean forward again so I can see more of your butt, and then I’ll stay interested.’

‘I could tell from how much your hands are sweating. Hang on.’

During the final descent, tortured air ripped around the tiny craft as she manoeuvred them into a tight spiral that factored in Ghost-fed random shifts designed to make it harder for any enemy forces to target them on their approach. She’d heard rumours that the Consortium were bargaining with the Shoal to acquire the same kind of inertialess technology they used on the coreships that had brought her and the rest of the fleet to Redstone, and fervently wished they’d get the hell on with the deal as her insides rattled in their bony cage.

‘Listen, I got a confession to make. This is my first time on the surface,’ Severn murmured.

Dakota took a moment to process this information before it made sense to her.

‘On a planet, you mean?’

Severn nodded.

‘Ever?’

‘Ever,’ he repeated excitedly, a grin spreading across his face. ‘Seventh-generation Rocker. My daddy never set foot on nothing more Earthlike than Mesa Verde. Said he didn’t like the smell of the place. Figured anything green that grew outside of a hydroponics tank wasn’t natural.’

Dakota merely nodded, and sank once more into the multiple Ghost-mediated conversations flowing between herself and traffic control, and included several other pilots at once. Sometimes a dozen separate strands of conversation would merge for a few moments into one babbling cacophony, at other times unravelling and becoming more distinct, the words flowing like some arcane magical tongue.

‹Sittin’ steady guys, can you give me an update on local conditions?›

‹Roger that, your delta vee is good by the way. Patching in weather feed-uh oh…›

‹їCuбl es йl?›

This last from Severn who, Dakota had not noticed until that moment, was hooked into her comms feed. She could hear the tension in his voice, and she realized his Ghost must have picked up on the weather feed reference, subsequently pulling fresh data from a string of appropriated local weather sats.

‹Got converging thermals off the coast,› came the report from Kirov, one of the traffic control staff. Projections show a storm is likely by 1400 hours local time. You’ll be here way before, but we might suggest some course corrections just to stay on the safe side.›

‹Roger that, thanks for the info.›

‹Hey Dakota, last time I saw you you looked like you stuck your head up a bear’s butt and fell asleep-›

‹Fuck you too, you lousy shit,› this followed by a braying laugh from Kirov that made her smile. ‹That was your mother’s butt.›

‹Yeah, you need to stop drinking so much, we’re taking bets down here how many bits we find by the time you hit the ground.›

The ride got yet bumpier, the craft tilting nose-up as her Ghost (or was it her? It was almost impossible now to tell the difference) implemented the re-entry procedures. The glow beyond the windscreen brightened, then darkened again as the filters compensated once more: the ship was slicing through the atmosphere at an increasingly sharp angle. Dakota pictured themselves as they might appear from the surface, burning their way across the sky in a fiery hypersonic parabola.

A few moments later heat shields slid down over the windscreen, cutting off any view of the landscape or sky beyond.

* * * *

Smoke trails bled across the sky around the base of the skyhook, which rose into the blue exactly like a neverending tower. Dakota had been warned that following it with your eyes up and up to its visible vanishing point could make you dizzy. She brought her gaze back down: the advice had been sound. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed more or less on the horizon, where the building housing the lower end of the skyhook-until recently a major military target for the Uchidans-took centre stage. Distant mountains were painted white with snow; even the winters on Bellhaven couldn’t have prepared her for the arctic blast of the Redstone winds or the sheer size of the distant canopy trees, towering over the landscape stretching beyond the buildings and streets.

Severn had called for transport, and Dakota followed him on board an automated vehicle that pulled up next to them. He looked distinctly wobbly from all the chem they’d provided to help him adjust to planetary gravity.

‘Some sight,’ said Dakota, nodding towards the skyhook. Her breather mask felt heavy and uncomfortable. Worse, the relatively higher density of the atmosphere made their voices, as they emerged, sound unnaturally low-pitched. In fact they both sounded ridiculous, which didn’t encourage elaborate conversation.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ Severn replied tightly, his knuckles white as they gripped a handhold next to their seats, the ground rolling past them at about forty klicks an hour. Command control lay somewhere up ahead, in a warren of emergency bunkers the Freehold had built beneath the skyhook.

‘Problem?’ asked Dakota.

Severn nodded stiffly. ‘Too big.’

‘What is?’

‘Everything.’ He scowled at her. ‘Why’s it so cold when the atmosphere’s so dense? Shouldn’t that make it warmer?’

Dakota glanced up and saw some kind of vast bird flapping its way slowly across the sky-a one-wing, her Ghost informed her, its vast bulk supported solely by the dense atmosphere.

‘Lots of volcanoes here,’ she replied. ‘All that activity spews ash into the air, and that counterbalances the warming effect of a thick atmosphere, stopping too much heat getting to the ground. So it’s never likely to get very warm.’

* * * *

Several minutes later they passed through a complex of airlocks and into the command centre itself, which looked like it had started life as a storage facility of some kind, judging by the signs still on the walls. Propaganda posters displayed cartoons of enormous muscular men carrying guns, who were standing in defiant protection of equally idealized homesteads. One such slogan read: ‘Citizenship Is Worth Fighting For’.

And these, she thought with a sour feeling in her gut, are the people we’re supposed to be helping.

The corridors were busy with Consortium staff moving about purposefully. Three separate groups of guards checked their IDs at different checkpoints. Dakota wondered if the paranoia levels normally ran so high.

Severn squinted at her. ‘Banville, he came from your world, right?’

‘Worked on the latest generation of Ghost implants, then lit out. You know the story.’

‘The twist would be if it turned out he went off of his own free will, don’t you think?’

Dakota shook her head. ‘No, that would simply make him a traitor.’

Severn laughed. ‘Guess we’re doing the right thing, then.’

‘Maybe. It’s just that…’

They both paused, as a piece of information entered their minds simultaneously via their Ghost implants. They turned to look at each other.

Severn now wore a shit-eating grin. ‘Josef Marados is in charge of our debriefing, then? Guess you’d better keep your legs closed tight.’

‘Why?’

‘Guy’s got a reputation, is all.’

Dakota held Severn’s gaze. ‘You sound jealous.’

He gave her a long look up and down, as they resumed walking. ‘He gets anywhere near you, damn right I’ll be jealous.’

* * * *

Seven

En route to Sol System from Redstone, aboard Freehold frigate Hyperion

Lucas Corso moved about cautiously in his diving gear, while skirting the edges of a hydrothermal vent in the ocean floor, trying to remember that hundreds of tonnes of simulated liquid pressure were meant to be bearing down on him. The brilliant lights built into his suit blazed through the abyssal darkness, illuminating the ridge ahead.

He shuffled towards the edge of this ridge, noting the way the alien derelict teetered on the edge of an abyss that fell away into bottomless depths. The derelict, he thought, looked like some sculptor’s impressionistic rendition of a giant squid, with long spines curving out from a relatively smaller central body. But even that core part of the derelict loomed several storeys above his vantage point.

Some of the spines looked badly damaged, presumably by the impact of landing. Where the hull material had been torn away from their tips, a bone-like structural latticework was visible beneath.

Peering down over the side of the ridge and into the depths beyond-or as far as he could see, before the range of his lights gave out-set Corso’s stomach churning. He was clearly standing at the mouth of a deep vent that had probably been in place for several million years. And if the calculations were correct, the real derelict-as opposed to this onboard simulation-had rested by the vent for over a hundred and sixty thousand years.

Yet it was still intact, and according to Kieran Mansell at least, defensive systems were still running somewhere inside it.

The ocean above him only existed because the moon on which the derelict had been found orbited a Jovian-scale gas-giant, accompanied by a score of similar bodies ranging in size from mere boulders all the way up to minor planets. The magnetic field of the moon interacted with that of its gas-giant parent like a colossal dynamo, heating the moon enough to keep its ocean liquid under a dense cap of ice several kilometres thick.

A good hiding place, he reckoned, for the last surviving secrets of a dying race.

Kieran’s voice came through to him via the comm.

‘Quite something, isn’t it? Observe that line of lights just ahead of you. They’re there to guide you into the derelict’s entrance. But I’m afraid the way in is a little close to the drop.’

Corso saw that the airlock-flush with the derelict’s hull-had been installed on a tiny overhang above the precipice, with a frail-looking ladder leading up to it. Simulation or not, his legs had decided they didn’t want to get any closer.

‘So I see. Is it safe?’

‘This is a training simulation, Mr Corso.’ There was something taunting in Kieran’s voice. ‘Relax, you wouldn’t really fall. Besides, we should have a pressurized tunnel in place by the time we get to go on board the real thing. Then we won’t have to worry about being swept over the edge.’

‘Then why the hell do I need to wear this damn suit?’

‘Because I say so.’

Corso cursed silently, picturing a thousand unpleasant deaths for Kieran Mansell. He dug up the nerve to shuffle closer to the edge, feeling the deadly mental pull of that bottomless hole. Where does it come from, that urge to jump into an abyss?

He tried his best to keep his eyes on the rock beneath the feet of his powered pressure suit, but in his mind’s eye all he could see was the eternal blackness below.

* * * *

It had taken a few days for Corso to orient himself to his sudden change in status from embattled Freeholder to temporary resident of a craft designed to travel from star to star. The Hyperion was vast, large enough to carry whole populations-which it had done, centuries before, when his people had first fled to Redstone at the height of the Migration Century. Of those original five colony ships, only three now remained-the Hyperion, and two others.

It soon became clear that the Hyperion had seen better days. Rather than deal with the time and cost of making repairs, large sections of the frigate had been closed down and depressurized. The crew was minimal, a half-dozen individuals put in charge of the maintenance of a behemoth craft that had once ferried thousands across unimaginable light years. Corso saw very little of them, as Kieran insisted on keeping them apart for what he deemed security reasons.

However, it became rapidly obvious that, unlike much of the rest of the craft, the weapons systems had been kept thoroughly up to date. The Hyperion was bristling with guns and automated defensive systems. Yet the Shoal-members who crewed the coreship, in which the Hyperion was currently cradled for its long voyage to the home system, appeared to be unconcerned with the presence of this heavily armed warship within their vessel’s interior.

‘All you need to know right now,’ Kieran had explained curtly, ‘is that the craft we found is a derelict of unknown origin. And very old, we assume.’

‘But how old?’ Corso had asked, standing there in the room Kieran had taken for his quarters. Some of the furniture looked like it might even date from before the Freehold migration but, apart from that, the adornments were pretty much what Corso would expect from a member of the Senate’s security team. There were swords mounted on a wall, citations of honour bestowed during the perpetual war with the Uchidans, paintings of ancient battles dating from Ancient Greece right up to the present.

Kieran’s face had remained expressionless, but his irritation with Corso’s constant questioning was evident in the way he studied the blade of a wicked-looking knife he kept, turning it in the light and occasionally stroking along its length with an oiled cloth. ‘Just old,’ he growled dismissively.

‘And I’m not allowed to know which system it’s located in? But it’s in human space, right?’

Before Corso had been brought into matters, those few who’d known about this derelict had begun referring to its builders as the ‘Magi’, after it became clear that it almost certainly predated the existence of the Shoal Hegemony. Even from the little he’d witnessed so far of the derelict’s secrets, Corso had to admit that the name fitted.

‘Of course,’ came the firm reply. ‘But the less people know about it the better. If the Shoal got wind of its existence…’ Kieran shrugged, then opened a lined case and carefully placed the dagger back inside, before closing the lid. ‘You understand me?’ he added, staring back up at Corso.

‘But we’ll still have to hitch a lift on a coreship even to get there, and that means the Shoal will know exactly where we are anyway.’

Kieran clearly wasn’t a man used to having to provide explanations. ‘That’s only partly true,’ he replied, now affecting an air of infinite patience. ‘The Shoal know where we’re going, but they don’t know the real reason. They don’t know about the derelict. You need to know about the derelict, and what we’ve discovered there so far, because you need to be as ready as possible by the time you actually go on board.’

‘All right,’ said Corso, raising both hands in a placatory gesture. ‘The only reason I ask is because anything else you can tell me might have some impact on what I can find out there.’

‘Not likely.’ Kieran shook his head. ‘Just be happy you’re helping your people overcome the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced.’

* * * *

As flawless as the simulated environment was, Corso noted, the suit he himself wore-entirely real-lent a certain Veritas to the proceedings by virtue of being heavy, uncomfortable and smelling like it hadn’t been washed since worn by its last dozen users.

‘You said something about a particular discovery on board the derelict,’ Corso commented, his voice sounding dull and hollow to him inside the helmet.

Kieran’s voice floated back a moment later. ‘I want you to discover it the way we did. In context, you might say.’

Corso nodded resignedly. His progress across the ledge was hard work. Even though the suit had been set up to respond to his movements as if he were in a low-gravity environment, the extreme pressure of the simulated ocean waters made the going extremely difficult, power-assist or no.

He could see how it wouldn’t take a huge effort to tip the derelict entirely over the edge of the ridge and into oblivion. Some conventional explosives would probably manage that. Probably, the flow and ebb of the chaotic tides inside the vent had slowly pushed it closer and closer to the abyss over many millennia. It would be just his luck for it to finally slide over the ledge the moment he got inside the real craft.

Despite his nervousness, and his resentment of men like Kieran Mansell and Senator Arbenz, Corso had felt a growing sense of excitement ever since he’d realized what he was being asked to do.

Several tiny robot submarines lifted themselves from a charging unit held in a rack mounted next to the airlock. These floated towards Corso, lighting his path as he drew closer to the derelict.

And it really did look like some ancient beast of the deep; it was gigantic. The curving spines rising high overhead bore a clear resemblance to the drive spines that protruded from the hulls of Shoal coreships, too much so for it to be a coincidence.

Any remaining doubts Corso had about whether the derelict was once capable of travelling faster than light finally vanished. He felt a chill rush through his bones: the implications of what he was seeing were staggering.

The robots now swarmed around him, lighting his way towards the airlock that had been welded on to the derelict’s exterior. He clambered up the ladder and stepped inside, allowing himself no pause to think about the vertiginous drop barely a hand-reach away. He waited while pumps noisily laboured to extract the freezing cold water out of the lock.

Once the airlock was fully pressurized, its inner door swung open, and Corso peered inside the derelict itself. The robot submarines had accompanied him into the airlock. They now raised themselves up on insect-like legs and scampered into the darkness ahead, their light revealing a sinuous corridor that twisted out of sight. The robot’s lights then flickered off, and Corso could now see perfectly clearly all the way down the corridor, yet strangely there was no apparent source of light.

He pulled off his suit and dropped it next to the inner airlock, sucking in air that tasted entirely dry. It was the same air as the Hyperion’s environment chamber, since there were, after all, physical limitations to even the most sophisticated holographic projection systems. He found this oddly reassuring.

‘Straight ahead,’ Kieran urged over the comms link. ‘Follow the ‘bots.’

The ‘bots were waiting at the far end of the corridor. He stepped towards them and they again scampered ahead, stopping only to look back towards him once they got a certain distance ahead, like hounds devoted to the chase.

Corso cleared his throat. ‘Those spines projecting out of the hull, they reminded me a lot of-’

‘I know what they reminded you of,’ Kieran interrupted. ‘You wouldn’t be the first to make that comparison.’

‘So do we know for certain…?’

‘Not for certain, no. For that, we’ll need to extract a lot more information from the craft’s data stacks.’

Corso sighed. ‘The reason I’m here, right?’

‘Entirely correct. I’m hoping we’ll have found proof that this derelict contains a salvageable transluminal drive before we bring Senator Arbenz himself on board.’

Corso shook his head, not quite able to believe what Mansell had just said. A transluminal drive. That meant faster-than-light travel. It was like stumbling into some ancient king’s tomb, or finding a lost city: the stuff of boyhood dreams.

He continued onwards, finally finding himself in a room with a ceiling so low he was forced to crouch.

Senator Arbenz’s face kept intruding on his thoughts. Somehow, this far, he’d managed to push that face to the back of his thoughts. The man who imprisoned his father was behind the killing of Cara, whether that happened on his direct orders or not.

And here he was, Lucas Corso, working for the very devil himself. How the hell did that happen?

‘There’s something weird about everything in here,’ said Corso tightly. ‘Everything looks too new. Is that something to do with the simulation?’

‘If you mean a fault in the projection, no. We think the ship is able to renew itself, or parts of itself, anyway. Clearly it can’t entirely fix itself, judging by the broken spines.’

A wall had been torn open to reveal a mess of alien circuitry into which human computer equipment and screens had been wired. This in turn was connected to an interface chair that had been bolted to the floor. Its dark metal petals were neatly folded at its base.

‘What about the bends?’ Corso asked. ‘We’ll be going up and down from the derelict a lot.’

‘We’re already adjusting the atmospheric pressure on board the Hyperion to match that inside the derelict,’ Kieran replied, ‘so nitrogen narcosis shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, the moon we found this derelict on is small, with low gravity. The atmospheric pressure, even under several kilometres of water and ice, is correspondingly lower.’

‘So all I need to do is wander on board the real thing, type in some commands, figure out how to fly it, and away we go. Right?’

Silence.

‘I can tell you’re holding something back from me,’ Corso spoke into the empty air. ‘And I’ll take a guess I won’t like it very much.’

‘Previous attempts to penetrate deeper into the derelict have been… turned back. We had to overcome certain automated defensive systems in order to construct the interfaces you see before you. That came at the cost of some lives. Even so, we only gained limited access to the derelict’s core systems. Finding a way to actually control the craft, to make it follow our orders -well, that’s another matter entirely.’

‘Right.’ Corso clambered laboriously into the newly installed seat and studied the displays in front of him. He noted a series of familiar-looking glyphs aligned in a row on one screen. ‘I recognize these.’

‘Outmoded Shoal protocols. I believe they haven’t been used, according to our available information, since-’

‘Since the earliest days of the Shoal Hegemony-at least according to their own records,’ Corso finished for him, feeling suddenly light-headed. He touched each glyph in turn, watching as submenus sprang into existence. ‘And here they are on a ship that might just have been constructed at some period before the Shoal say they developed transluminal technology-am I right?’

‘That’s the current conjecture.’

Corso blinked several times, a chill of excitement shooting up his spine. An ancient spacecraft capable of travelling between the stars in the blink of an eye, but not of Shoal manufacture. Obviously the Shoal had no idea of the derelict’s existence, or they would never have agreed to deliver the Hyperion to its ultimate destination.

‘You understand what this means,’ said Kieran.

‘Everything changes.’ Corso nodded, thinking along several strands at once as he studied the interfaces.

Senator Arbenz’s researchers had discovered an alien Rosetta Stone inside the least well defended of the derelict’s stacks. The craft had turned out to have dual systems that allowed communication between their own computers and those belonging to the Shoal. Studying those communication protocols-protocols in which Corso was an expert-would allow him to work out how to communicate with the derelict, and ultimately to control it.

But it would take time. Even with the weeks they spent travelling, first to rendezvous with the hated Arbenz and then on to whichever benighted system the derelict actually resided in, he could not be sure how long the task would take him.

He thought of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and receiving an eternal punishment for his efforts. The Shoal weren’t gods but they were close enough, in terms of their knowledge and power.

Corso leaned back, thinking aloud. ‘What if we get caught?’

‘Caught?’ Kieran’s voice was full of derision. ‘We are the Freehold, morally superior to any other civilization in human space. Failure is not an option.’

Corso immediately thought of the Uchidans, and the struggle of always pushing them back and back and back, on a world that had once belonged in its entirety to the Freehold.

‘Everyone knows what happens if we try and acquire technology the Shoal don’t want us to have,’ he insisted. ‘Total revocation of every colonial contract-it’s an impossible risk. Maybe we should…’

‘Should what, Mr Corso?’ came the reply in a menacing tone.

Every human-occupied- world stranded from each other for ever without the benefit of Shoal coreships shuttling between them, if we’re discovered.

Even if they weren’t discovered, and all went to plan, the Shoal would surely know if the Freehold were constructing a fleet of starships. What then? War with the Shoal? It would be like an army of ants taking on an orbital nuclear bomber. The risks were too enormous, too overwhelming.

‘How do we know no one else knows about this derelict? What if it’s a trick of some kind?’

Corso had voiced this last possibility despite its wildly paranoid tone. But Kieran’s rapid response suggested it had already been carefully considered.

‘A honey trap left by the Shoal, you mean?’ Kieran laughed with a harsh, rasping sound. ‘So they can catch us in the act and revoke their contracts with us? No, Mr Corso, it’s really not very likely.’

A wave of embarrassment washed over Corso and he stared mutely at the screens before him. ‘But there are risks. Unimaginable risks.’

‘Which is exactly why the Freehold are so well placed to deal with this discovery. It’s in our human nature to take risks, isn’t it? The manifestation of our warrior spirit? I’ll remind you, Mr Corso, that if all comes out well-and it will-you’ll be a member of the Senate, as well as a declared Hero who can decline to participate in the challenge system if he chooses and still retain his status as a Citizen.’

Corso nodded. ‘OK, another thing. Interface chairs are generally intended for use by machine-head pilots. So what’s it doing here?’

‘There’s a good chance a human machine-head will be able to interface with the derelict’s controls in the way a normal human cannot, once we have broken through the security blocks and into the ship’s core systems. Bellhaven Ghost technology appears to have close parallels with the means used by the Magi for piloting their craft.’

It took a moment for Corso to absorb this. ‘Let me get this straight. Are you telling me you’re intending to find yourselves a machine-head to fly this thing out from where you found it?’

‘Correct, Mr Corso. There isn’t the time to circumnavigate the derelict’s systems to allow a normal pilot to control it, but extreme circumstances require radical thinking, wouldn’t you agree?’

‘I’m just finding it hard to accept the idea of a man like Senator Arbenz actually hiring a machine-head to work for him. It’s… rather ironic, given recent history, wouldn’t you say?’

Corso could almost feel the anger and irritation coming at him down the comms link. ‘This is far from a laughing matter, Mr Corso. So just concentrate on the task at hand.’

‘How much are you going to tell the poor bastard anyway? What if he doesn’t want to do it?’

‘Leave that to us.’

Corso shook his head and bent down to peer again at the chair’s readouts. His mind whirled: a machine-head?

Whoever ended up piloting the derelict was going to find it about as pleasurable as walking into a nest of angry snakes.

And if Kieran’s reputation was all he had heard, there was every chance the experience might be deadly, too.

* * * *

Eight

Trans-Jovian Space, Sol System, en route to Mesa Verde

A long, long time later, Dakota came to realize her biggest mistake had been opening the alien’s gift.

Whatever she’d expected to find when she investigated the box the Shoal-member had passed her, she hadn’t thought she would find herself holding a tiny and entirely anthropomorphic figurine handcrafted of wood and silver wire.

As she touched it for the first time, a slight stab of pain in the back of her head heralded the arrival of a severe headache. The pain was so sharp she even imagined she saw a spark of light, out of the corner of one eye.

She returned her attention to the figurine she held, trying to work out what seemed so dauntingly familiar about it, so much so it gave her a curiously queasy sensation in the pit of her stomach. Fine pieces of patterned paper surrounded the head and hips of a matchstick figure, suggesting a headscarf and skirt. The tiny, delicate arms were raised up as if in alarm, and the figure itself was mounted on a cross-shaped base.

It looked just like the kind of cheap folk art people bought on holiday, then left forgotten on some dusty shelf. For the life of her, Dakota could not begin to understand what significance the figurine might hold for the Shoal-member, or what significance the alien believed it might hold for her.

She placed the object on the instrument board in the command module of the Piri Reis, and stared at it for a while longer. Despite its innocuous appearance, something about it still chilled her.

Finally Dakota grew bored trying to understand it. As her Ghost tugged at her senses, she flicked over to an external view. A message icon was currently flashing over a display of Mesa Verde, another Shoal-boosted asteroid much like Bourdain’s Rock.

She put the message on display over the expanse of infinite black space extending beyond her ship, and felt a surge of relief at what she read there.

* * * *

A long time ago (Dakota recalled) Mesa Verde had been a prison of sorts, one part of a loose confederation of human communities scattered throughout the asteroid belt and outer solar system. In the dark days before the invention of tachyon transmission and the subsequent first contact with the Shoal, people serving penal sentences had been exploited as cheap labour in mining operations. The mining still continued, of course-the need for raw ores was greater than ever. But the quality of life for most humans in the outer solar system had improved immeasurably, and Mesa Verde hadn’t been a prison for a long time.

The asteroid had instead become a centre of commerce and shipbuilding, mostly unmanned ore-freighters. In the pre-Shoal days, the asteroid had floated naked to the vacuum, its surface riddled with slag and excavation mounds left over from the construction of internalized living quarters. Or so Dakota was informed by the moodily grey and black images hanging on the walls of the tube leading from Mesa Verde’s docking ports as the spoken testimonials of long-gone prisoners whispered out from hidden circuitry in the picture frames.

The asteroid’s surface was visible all around through panoramic windows. Palms waved in an artificially induced breeze stirring up the air that wrapped around Mesa Verde’s mottled surface like a blanket. Multiple tiny suns shone down through the containment fields, their light and warmth falling on tended gardens and open plazas.

Dakota focused on keeping calm. There were hidden security devices everywhere, scanning her inside and out every step of the way. Lenses the size of dust-motes, and recording devices invisible to the naked eye, moved around her in a cloud, even probing beneath her skin to verify her ID.

Her new ID, she remembered. She wasn’t Dakota Merrick any more, and wouldn’t be for a long while. Her Ghost worked overtime balancing out her internal neuro-pharmacology, suppressing any detectable signs of anxiety-anything that might lead Mesa Verde’s security to suspect she might, say, be carrying a mini nuke in her gullet, or a timed virus woven into her DNA.

Dakota’s Ghost also worked overtime in order to disguise its own existence. She could sense it hovering in her mental background, calculating risks and strategies nanosecond by nanosecond.

All of this was good, but it was nice to have a little extra too: like someone on the inside of Mesa Verde’s administrative body helping her out, invisibly altering records and allowing her to pass through security procedures without unnecessary altercation.

Dakota was making good on old contacts.

What neither she nor her Ghost had predicted, though, was the presence of real, live, human customs officers. That was entirely unexpected.

On encountering them, Dakota hesitated only for a moment, before pushing on with a determined stride. The two men wore the uniforms of the Consortium military detachment permanently stationed on Mesa Verde, and each had a force stick holstered on his hip. They were talking with a pair of priests who had obviously also just disembarked.

As Dakota approached the gathered figures she heard the artificial tones of the priests’ voices, and noticed the bright lights of the corridor gleaming off their metallic skins. They moved on after a moment, having obviously satisfied the guards of the nature of their visit. The long dark vestments swished on the floor of the walkway as they headed towards the atrium beyond.

Dakota produced her credentials and handed them over. ‘Mala Oorthaus,’ one of them muttered, studying them. ‘What’s your business here?’

‘Real live humans?’ Dakota said in mock surprise, giving them each a grin. ‘What’s wrong with an ordinary scan-and-sweep?’

‘You’ll have heard about what happened at the Rock.’ The guard didn’t smile back as he replied. ‘What’re you here for?’

‘Independent shipping contractor.’ She held his gaze for a moment. ‘Just hoping to drum up some business here.’

She had used the cosmetic software in Piri’s surgical unit to puff out her cheeks a little. Her lips looked correspondingly thinner than usual, and her hair was shorter and darker than it had been. Her skin, too, was darker, and a couple of days in the medbox had swelled her hips, building up and slightly altering her skeletal structure while she lay in dreamless sleep. Her face itself was smaller, rounder, her eyes wider with a hint of epicanthic fold.

The guard glanced to one side, studying a report Dakota couldn’t see clearly from where she stood, but she caught a glimpse of an image of the inside of her skull displayed in real-time, as hidden devices analysed the interior of her body.

She tried not to moan with relief when she saw that her implants weren’t showing up.

After a moment he waved her on. Several steps on, and she remembered to start breathing again.

* * * *

She found Josef Marados in a tall building whose uppermost floors pushed out through the thin envelope of atmosphere surrounding Mesa Verde. Judging by the size of his office, she figured he’d done well for himself in the years since Redstone.

‘God damn, even with the alterations, you’re still a sight for sore eyes,’ he began, coming over to her with a grin. There was a hint here of the effusive manner Dakota remembered from years ago, but this was otherwise an altogether much more sombre individual than the man she’d known.

‘How long, Dakota? How long has it been?’

‘Not so long,’ she replied, pulling him into a brief, tentative hug. He’d lost weight over the years, perhaps too much given his large frame. ‘It’s only been a few years since-’

‘Yeah, since.’ He nodded into her sudden silence. ‘Feels like a lifetime though, don’t it?’

Dakota nodded in return. It did.

* * * *

The few illegal machine-heads still in existence in the home system had their own methods of staying in touch. Moreover, Ghost implants were designed to be mutually detectable-two machine-heads could sense each other’s presence once they were within several kilometres’ range of each other. So if Josef had still possessed his implants, she’d have sensed him at a considerable distance beforehand.

At first, Dakota thought Josef merely worked for Black Rock Ore. Instead, it turned out that he owned it.

Black Rock Ore had once specialized in the exploitation of carbonaceous asteroids. Nowadays, under Josef’s administration, they skipped doing the dirty work themselves by financing other small, independent contractors to mine the asteroid belt for its precious metals, and then raked in a very profitable percentage.

Now here she was, sitting on one of a pair of couches, facing the man who had been her sometime lover in those few, brief years before her previous life had ended.

He studied her and smiled. ‘So, Bourdain’s Rock. Care to tell me what happened back there?’

Dakota felt her jaw tighten.

‘Room’s clean,’ Josef assured her. ‘No bugs. Glass is one-way and tuned to randomize vibrations, so we can see out, but no one on the outside will be able to see or hear anything. The Aligned Worlds Federal Treaty gets a bit vague on business practices, so industrial espionage is just part of the landscape around here. But all that really means,’ he said, a grin spreading across his face, ‘is you need to make sure your counter-espionage is more effective than their snooping.’

‘I didn’t mention anything about the Rock. How did you know?’

‘Apart from the fact you just told me? Come on. First, a terrorist attack on a major populated asteroid so spectacular the footage’ll be bouncing around the Consortium networks until kingdom come. Then, on top of all that, you appear out of nowhere begging for my help.’

Josef leaned forward and poured her a cup of coffee, stained pink to denote the form and quantity of legalized narcotics it contained. Dakota glanced behind him and saw, to her distaste, a Freehold challenge blade had been mounted on the wall near the door.

She responded with silence.

‘Dak, this isn’t a set-up. Alexander Bourdain is a snake, a piece of shit. The entire outer system would be a lot better off with him dead. And I know you, you’re no mass murderer.’

‘He’s still alive?’

‘So I hear,’ Josef replied, noting the frightened expression on her face. ‘He’s lying low right now, my guess being that he’s taking the opportunity to arrange a fast escape out of the home system in case he needs it. So what happened there?’

‘Someone blew up Bourdain’s Rock, and I was made to look responsible. But it wasn’t me.’

Josef blinked. ‘Seriously?’

‘My shipping agent-my previous shipping agent -fixed me up with a no-questions-asked delivery job to the Rock. It should have gone smoothly, but there were some unforeseen problems with the cargo.’

Josef was staring at her like he’d never set eyes on her before. ‘I guess we’re not talking about a shipment of toilet paper, then, are we?’

Dakota looked at him askance. He merely shrugged, and she continued. ‘My ship suffered major systems failures the whole way there, sometimes even total shutdown of life-support systems. All I could figure out was it had something to do with the cargo I was carrying to Bourdain, but it was part of the arrangement that I wasn’t allowed to even know what I was actually carrying.’

‘You must have been pretty desperate, taking on a job like that.’

Dakota shook her head. ‘Don’t even ask. Every time this disruption happened, the systems always came back online eventually. To cut a long story short, it turned out I was fetching Bourdain a GiantKiller.’

Josef’s eyes were just about popping out of his head by this point. ‘You’re shitting me,’ he said, after a moment. ‘A GiantKiller? Those things are supposed to be only a rumour. So they really exist? And that’s what ripped up Bourdain’s pride and joy?’

‘Yeah, but not before he grabbed me and started torturing me, since he seemed to think I’d sneaked a look at his cargo and figured out what it actually was.’

‘Wait a minute.’ Josef put up a hand. ‘So you didn’t know what you were delivering. But you just said it was a GiantKiller. Who told you that-Bourdain?’

‘No.’ Dakota thought fast for a moment, but a sense of self-preservation kept her from mentioning the Shoal-member. ‘I kind of read between the lines when something started eating the asteroid. I witnessed the whole thing, after the atmosphere gave out and I managed to escape. If it is a GiantKiller, your guess is as good as mine as to what made it go off.’

‘So, what, you think it self-activated? Or someone else set it off?’

‘Why not? Think how many enemies Bourdain must have. Think how much sense that would make. I deliver the GiantKiller, and somebody else detonates it. Who gets the blame? Me. When this all blows over-if it ever does-the first thing I’ll do is find the shipping agent who acted as the go-between in all this. That’s where I’ll get some answers, I’m sure of it.’

‘This shipping agent. Anyone I know?’

‘Constantin Quill, based in-’

‘I know of him. Or at least I do now. He’s dead.’

Dakota started. ‘He-?’

‘Don’t know the circumstances, but apparently what was left of him was pretty messy. Somebody put him in the same room as a couple of half-starved Mogs. That’s not official news, but you get to hear things on the grapevine.’

‘Great.’ Dakota lowered her gaze and sighed. She then accepted a glass of the pink coffee and tasted it, feeling a warming numbness slide down her throat and into her stomach. She began to relax despite herself. ‘Nice to know the kind of future I’ve got to look forward to myself, then.’

‘If Bourdain’s responsible for Quill’s murder, then it means he’s covering his tracks. Losing the Rock is a major blow for him, but if it gets found out he was involved in acquiring illegal alien technology like a GiantKiller…’

Josef let the words trail off and fixed her with an inquisitorial gaze. ‘Okay, now you get to tell me what you want from me.’

‘I know you don’t owe me anything.’

‘You get special dispensation. We had something going, the two of us, even if it was a long time ago.’

The coffee was making it harder for Dakota to stay focused. She put down the empty glass and pushed it away with unsteady fingers. ‘You were always particularly good with contacts.’

‘Rich family, generations of businessmen. It helps.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Where do you want to go now, Dakota? Somewhere far away?’

‘The further the better. For a long, long time.’

Josef shook his head. ‘I’ll try, but it isn’t going to be easy.’

‘How so?’

‘You’re being blamed for the destruction of a minor world. A couple of thousand people are dead, and you’re the prime suspect for their mass murder. Worse, you’re a machine-head, directly implicated in the Port Gabriel massacre. How long was it before you got yourself black-market implants?’

‘Why do you care?’

‘Humour me.’

‘I survived OK for about six months after they let us all out of internment. Then they took away our Ghosts, and I wanted to die. I had new implants put in as soon as humanly possible. Pretty well immediately.’

‘How about countermeasures?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Sure you do.’ Josef chuckled. ‘I’m talking about methods to survive your implants being compromised.’

‘Everybody has their own way of dealing with that possibility.’

‘And what’s yours? Some means of wiping or disabling your own implants, maybe a coded message?’

‘That sounds like suicide.’

‘But better than the alternative, like losing your mind to outside control, don’t you think?’

‘I guess. And even if I did-’

‘You wouldn’t tell me? Fine. And there’s nothing else you want to tell me?’ Josef’s eyes were searching her face.

‘Perhaps…’

‘Yes?’

‘No, Josef, there’s nothing else I can think of.’

He obviously wasn’t satisfied with this answer, but she couldn’t find any real reason to burden him with the truth. Assuming he would even believe her, which struck Dakota as unlikely.

‘OK,’ he said at length. ‘I can’t help thinking I might come to regret this, but I’ll see what I can do for you.’

She tried not to look too obviously relieved.

* * * *

Dakota woke from a dream-filled sleep to find that already fourteen hours had passed since her meeting with Josef.

In the meantime she’d found herself a room-cell would be a more accurate description-in an echoing warren of twenty-four hour rentals that accepted anonymous payment. She could have stayed on the Piri Reis, of course, but Mesa Verde’s docks would be Bourdain’s first port of call if he came looking for her.

When she woke, it was from a nightmare of being incarcerated in a tiny space at the centre of Bourdain’s Rock that got steadily smaller and hotter, squeezing in around her until she couldn’t breathe. The room she’d hired was too small to stand up in, and for a few moments she panted asthmatically, staring up at a ceiling that was far too close, until she got her bearings.

Her thoughts smoothed out as her implants soothed her jagged brain waves, and she began to breathe more easily. Her Ghost informed her that Josef wanted her to return to his office. Apparently he’d found something suitable for her.

The dream had felt so real she felt half-sure she’d find the door out of her rented room locked when she tried to open it. Crouching to stop her head bumping against the ridiculously low ceiling, she felt an irrational wave of relief when the door opened smoothly on to a busy public corridor.

* * * *

‘My name is Gardner. David Gardner.’

Gardner stood up and nodded politely to Dakota as she entered Josef’s office. He had close-cropped hair that she suspected he’d allowed to grow grey just enough to lend him a certain air of authority, and his dress was just this side of conservative. She thought there was something cold in the way his pale, milky eyes appraised her.

‘I’ve already explained how you’re looking for work, Mala.’ Josef took her by the elbow and guided her to one of the couches directly facing Gardner as he resumed his seat.

Dakota noticed the way Josef was subtly deferential towards the other man, the way Gardner sat with his arms draped across the back of his chair in a pose making him seem so much at home. It was as if they were in Gardner’s office, rather than Josef’s.

‘You’re a machine-head,’ Gardner stated flatly.

Dakota glanced at Josef, who nodded go on to her as he took a seat to one side of them.

‘Yes.’

Gardner nodded thoughtfully, as if carefully considering this information. ‘Josefs explained to me you weren’t anywhere near Redstone when those massacres took place. Nevertheless, I’m sure you understand why it’s important I ask you how well your artificial immune system can be trusted to protect you.’

Dakota knew Gardner was referring to her Ghost’s ability to react to and then prevent hostile intrusions. She glanced sideways at Josef, but he was carefully avoiding her gaze. She wondered how worried that should make her.

‘It’s the best available,’ she replied. ‘That’s all you need to know.’

Dakota wondered if she saw a glint of amusement in Gardner’s eyes. ‘Yet there are never total guarantees, are there? History can repeat itself.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Dakota said, turning towards Josef, ‘but who the hell is this?’

Josef leaned over and put a hand on her arm. ‘Just listen to him.’

Gardner continued as if she had said nothing. ‘There must be very few people, apart from others like yourself, whom you can fully trust. I gather it’s quite a wrenching experience to lose your Ghost implants.’

‘It is,’ Dakota replied levelly. ‘It’s the worst thing you could imagine.’

Gardner chuckled and glanced at Josef, who smiled tightly. Internal alarm bells that had nothing to do with her Ghost circuits were starting to clamour inside Dakota’s head.

Gardner leaned forward. ‘Let’s not beat about the bush here, Miss Oorthaus. I understand you are used to dangerous work, and the job I specifically require a machine-head for may prove very dangerous indeed. But ultimately extremely profitable.’

‘I appreciate that, Mr Gardner, and my piloting skills are the best. But you’re going to have to tell me just what it is you need me to do.’

‘You are familiar with colonial surveys?’

Ah, that was it.

Because humanity, in the form of the Consortium, was restricted by the Shoal to travel only within a bubble of space a few hundred light years across, potentially habitable worlds within that bubble were becoming a precious and dwindling resource. In fact, most of the systems to be found within that bubble of space did not contain any Earth-like worlds. In those systems that did, few of the worlds were life-bearing, and even fewer of those were capable of supporting human beings unaided.

Competition for such limited resources was subsequently extremely fierce-and occasionally deadly.

It was not unknown for claim-jumping to take place. Rival groups chasing after the gradually dwindling number of colonial contracts could separately find their way to a promising system via coreship and, by the force of arms, prevent another colony from being set up there. The Shoal appeared to care little whether such armies were carried across space in the Shoal coreships so long as they themselves were not threatened.

Most such incidents of colonial rivalry ended in decades of litigation, while Consortium warships remained in orbit above those barely habitable worlds until such time as the courts decided who should get which contract. The origins of the Consortium itself lay in arbitrating such conflicts: disparate private enterprises had been merged under a general UN charter, and an administrative Council set up to oversee exploration and exploitation in an attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic interstellar land-rush.

The precursors to such contracts were colonial surveys, whereby the potential colonists could raise funds to send ships and survey teams to assess the likely costs and time-scales for establishing viable settlements. Such expeditions were particularly prone to piracy.

‘I’ve never taken part in a colonial survey, but…’

‘Yes?’ Gardner raised his eyebrows.

Careful, thought Dakota: she’d almost mentioned Redstone. She had been there, but Mala hadn’t.

‘But I’m more than aware of the dangers involved. Particularly after the Freehold-Uchidan conflict.’

‘So can I assume you’re at least familiar with events on Redstone?’

Another quick glance at Josef, but his face was impossible to read. She looked back to Gardner. ‘It would be extremely hard to be a machine-head and not be familiar with what happened there, Mr Gardner.’

Gardner smiled, looking pleased. ‘Quite right, quite right. The reason I’m here involves the Freehold, as a matter of fact.’

‘It does?’ A trickle of ice began gliding down the length of Dakota’s spine.

‘Yes. But anything I tell you from now is on the condition that you have agreed to take on this job. Josef here can assure you the money you’ll be paid is very, very generous.’

She glanced to one side and saw Josef’s head bob energetically.

‘As I understand it so far, you’re surveying a new system, and you need a machine-head pilot who knows how to keep her mouth shut,’ Dakota announced flatly. ‘That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it?’

Gardner nodded. ‘That about sums it up. Now tell me if you want the job.’

Dakota nodded tightly, trying hard not to let Gardner see the emotional turmoil she was in. ‘I do, Mr Gardner. You have a pilot. But what I don’t understand is why the Freehold would specifically want to hire a machine-head? What do they need me for-target practice?’

Gardner just stared at her.

‘Easy, Mala,’ Josef muttered. ‘It took a lot to set this up, and you owe me.’

‘Miss Oorthaus, you weren’t on Redstone when the tragedy at Port Gabriel took place. There’s still a lot of bad feeling there, that’s true, but the Freehold Senate understands that the machine-heads present on Redstone were… subverted? Is that the right word?’

‘Good enough,’ Dakota replied.

‘The truth is the Freehold are losing their war with the Uchidans. Because of this, the Freehold are in the market for a new homeworld, and they currently have a new charter up for consideration by the Consortium. The system in question is already under survey, but the Freehold’s military resources have been badly stretched by the war on Redstone. They lost a lot of their capability during the Port Gabriel fiasco, and a good deal since. They have only three orbital warships left, all centuries old, and they need this colonial charter because, frankly, they’re history without it.’

‘You’re saying these ships are old enough they’re still set up for navigation by machine-head pilots, right? Aren’t they worried the Uchidans could pull the same trick again if I was allowed to pilot one of their ships?’

‘It’s a good question, but they don’t actually consider the Uchidans a major threat to the survey expedition. If it proved successful, and the Freehold won themselves a new colonial contract, the Uchidans would end up getting Redstone all to themselves. The main worry involves other, outside interests-other colonies, potential or real, prepared to go to war over an uninhabited world. Plus, the Freehold can’t pilot their ships as well as a machine-head could. The frigate they’ll be sending to this system would be at a disadvantage if it encountered any opposition unafraid of hiring someone like yourself. You’d be an essential part of their inventory, regardless of the past.’

Dakota leaned back, thinking hard. ‘I hope that money you mentioned is really, really good.’

‘Better than good.’ Josef laughed and shook his head. ‘The kind of money they’re offering, you or I could find a rock and stick a planet engine in it and call it home. Let your Ghost talk to the Black Rock systems and see if it isn’t true.’

Dakota’s Ghost instantaneously flashed up the details of the pending financial transaction, and the arcane financial trickery that was meant to disguise where it had come from and who exactly was going to benefit from it. Half the money, for both Josef and Dakota, had already been deposited. But even with that first payment alone, she was already set to be very, very rich.

Gardner smiled. ‘You can’t deny it’s generous.’

Dakota felt dizzy, and tried hard to keep her face impassive at the sheer number of zeroes she’d just seen marching across her mind’s eye.

‘And what about you, Mr Gardner? What do you get out of this? You’re not part of the Freehold, are you?’

‘No, but I represent outside investments that allow this expedition to happen at all. A business can make a great deal out of a successful colony, if it invests in it early.’

Good enough, Dakota decided. Good enough because there wasn’t anywhere else to go.

* * * *

‘If you’re screwing me over, Josef, I’d appreciate knowing just how much before I jump in the fire. What exactly did you tell him about me?’

Josef carefully placed a hand over Dakota’s, where it had balled up around a fistful of his shirt just before shoving him up against a wall. Gardner had left them a few minutes before.

‘Let go, Dakota,’ Josef said, adopting a reasonable tone.

‘You’re asking me to stick myself inside a locked steel box for maybe several months, among a bunch of people with every reason to want to see someone like me dead. So if you’re missing anything out, anything at all, I swear the last thing that pretty face of yours will ever see will be me pulling the trigger right before I blow your head off.’

Josef coughed out a horrified laugh, and Dakota released the pressure a little. ‘Dakota, you came to me, remember? You asked for my help. Or maybe’-his voice took on a more accusatory tone-‘it’s more convenient for you to forget that.’

‘I didn’t forget,’ Dakota mumbled, and finally let him go. ‘I just hate being in any situation where I don’t feel in control.’

She slumped back on Josef’s couch, and a few moments later felt him place a hand on her shoulder as he stepped up behind her. ‘Once this is all over, you’ll be right back on top. You’ll have the money to do what you like-or even not do anything at all for the rest of your life.’

Dakota cast him a dubious look.

‘This is a routine operation,’ Josef insisted. ‘I’m not saying Gardner’s an angel, but the money’s real enough, and I’ve dealt with him in the past. But, while we’re at it, there is one other thing I wanted to bring up with you, and you’re probably not going to like it.’

Dakota stroked her brow with one hand. ‘Thanks for leaving it till last,’ she deadpanned.

‘You’re going to have to leave your ship behind.’

Dakota’s eyes snapped open, staring at Josef in disbelief. ‘You mean in storage?’

He sighed and sat down next to her. ‘Dakota, right now that ship of yours is like a big glowing arrow pointing at your head saying “dangerous criminal here”. Anyone who wants to find you just needs to look for your ship. Yourself you can disguise, but not the… what’s it called?’

‘The Piri Reis.’

‘Yeah, that. I set tracer systems on the Piri, to keep an eye on it, and it responded by attacking our databases. Where the hell did you get that ship?’

‘It’s a very valuable piece of hardware, Josef, and that’s all you need to know. That, and the fact there’s absolutely no way I’m going to leave it in storage. I can stow it in the cargo hold of whatever ship I’m piloting to this Freehold system.’

‘Uh-uh.’ Josef shook his head. ‘In case I wasn’t sufficiently clear, I mean you have to destroy it, Dak.’

‘Fuck you.’

‘And fuck you too,’ Josef echoed back at her. ‘You’ll leave it here, and it’s going straight to scrap. Stop!’ he yelled, as Dakota pulled herself up, her mouth open to argue. ‘Just think for once in your life. Right now you’re public enemy number one-and I mean that literally. Right now I’m the only bridge you haven’t completely burned, and the Piri Reis is going to lead everyone straight to you. You take that ship along with you, when you’ll be spending probably weeks on board a coreship, that’s plenty of time for Bourdain and the Consortium to set their bloodhounds on your trail. And believe me, every coreship leaving this system for months to come is going to be filled with agents looking for you.’

Dakota stood up and pulled on her coat. ‘I don’t like it,’ she protested weakly.

Josef shrugged and spread his hands. ‘I’m open to alternative suggestions.’

Dakota responded with silence.

* * * *

Several hours later, when she found herself back on board the Piri Reis, it felt like attending a wake.

She had Piri knock together something warm and alcoholic for her in the kitchenette, something loaded with the kind of neuro-adjusters she normally derived from her implants. As the shaking she had felt build up in her hands edged off, she began to feel better.

Here’s to you, Piri, she toasted.

The possibility that she might have to ditch her ship after the destruction of Bourdain’s Rock had always been there in her mind. But she felt like a hermit forced to leave her cave after a lifetime of solitude-and ever since Port Gabriel, the Piri Reis had been a pretty good substitute for a hermit’s cave.

She curled up against the warm fur inlay that coated the interior of her ship and felt like an agoraphobic who’d just woken to find someone had strapped a parachute to her back and thrown her out of an aircraft.

‘Dakota?’ She heard the effigy calling her name softly. She stood up and walked through into the welcome darkness of her sleeping quarters, and let the effigy slide its warm, flesh-like arms around her. Its fingers pried at her clothes, gently peeling them away before tugging her downwards and planting soft, dry kisses on her belly and breasts.

She stroked the smooth, hairless dome of its head as it pulled itself up and slid her arms around its shoulders, feeling its weight press down on her. All the while she couldn’t help thinking that there had to be a way to get around Josef’s demands.

It was her they were hunting for, not the Piri Reis.

When the solution finally came to her, she had to wonder why it took her so long to think of it.

* * * *

Nine

Redstone Colony

Consortium Standard Date: 01.06.2538

3 Days to Port Gabriel Incident

An arrhythmic thump beat a tattoo inside Dakota’s head, and she closed her eyes until its migraine-like effect passed. It was still the middle of the night, but the street lighting beyond the window projected dappled stripes through the blinds of her quarters, painting them across the wall opposite.

Chris Severn shifted beside her. ‘What’s up?’ he asked sleepily, shifting naked beside her in the narrow cot. She watched fascinated as the tattoos covering his back twisted like something alive, animated by the shifting of the muscles beneath. Along with a lot of the other machine-heads, they had been put up in a building originally intended to house the maintenance staff for the skyhook. ‘Headache again?’

Dakota nodded, unwilling to speak in case it brought back the pain. It felt like a bad hangover, except she hadn’t been drinking.

It was obvious from the pained look on his face that Severn was suffering in precisely the same way. This worried her, even though that kind of synchronicity between machine-heads wasn’t so unusual: get enough machine-heads together in one room, and it was like being stuck in the middle of an electronic shouting match. Their Ghosts remained in continuous intercommunication, even when they themselves were asleep. This constant sharing of information and data sometimes manifested as shared minor tics or physical reactions amongst machine-heads in close proximity.

But one advantage lay in the fact that whatever one of them learned, pretty much all the rest would know, or could be granted access to. It was the development of technologies such as these that had helped make Bellhaven-and a man like Howard Banville-so very essential to the Consortium.

And if Severn was suffering in the same way as she was, it was reasonable to conjecture that everyone else in the building would be too.

Dakota was about to slide back down alongside his lithe nakedness when she heard voices from somewhere outside. So instead she slid out of the cot and stepped over to the window, whereupon Severn grunted in annoyance and twisted around until he faced the wall, burying his head in a pillow.

From the outside their building was an unremarkable grey concrete block set in a radial street a kilometre or so from the skyhook’s main base. Peering out, she saw two groups of men standing together at the junction with a side street about fifty metres away. Something about their gestures made it clear they were involved in some kind of argument with each other.

‘They’re crazy, you know,’ muttered Severn from somewhere behind her, his voice muffled by the pillow. ‘Totally fucking nuts.’

‘How do you know it’s Freeholders out there?’

‘Who the fuck else is it going to be?’ he mumbled.

Dakota scanned the network of active Ghost circuits throughout the town and noted that the Consortium security services were already aware of the gathering. She’d been initially worried about Uchidan infiltrators, and had immediately glanced round to locate her side-arm, but it looked like this disturbance was something relatively innocuous.

She watched as one man from each group stepped forward, until the pair of them stood face to face. They gesticulated wildly, faces distorted with fury. Their compatriots meanwhile stood in a loose circle around them under the street lights, wearing the heavy gear essential to surviving the freezing cold.

Dakota watched as one of the two men at the heart of the exchange slapped the other hard across the face, dislodging his breather mask. The sound of mocking laughter reached her ears.

Severn finally got up out of the cot. With an exaggerated sigh, he leant his chin on her shoulder, following her gaze. ‘You can see why Commander Marados doesn’t want the Freehold involved in this operation at all, can’t you?’

Dakota nodded, only half-listening to him. She’d heard about the death-matches the Freehold favoured. The whole notion was simultaneously barbaric and ludicrous, and it was a reminder of just why their bizarre society had been shuffled from port to port before finding its way here.

‘What’s the point in all this fighting?’ she asked. ‘They’ve already got an enemy to contend with.’

Severn pressed himself up behind her, his hands sliding around her waist and up towards her breasts, making her smile. But, despite what she thought were her better instincts, she wanted to see what might happen outside. If this was more than some minor street brawl-if this really was a challenge, as she suspected (hoped?), what would happen?

Dakota was shocked to discover her throat was dry with the anticipation of bloodshed.

Severn’s fingers began to drift downwards, but Dakota failed to respond. After a few more seconds he finally got the message and pulled back with another sigh.

‘Bloodthirsty, ain’tcha?’ he said, patting her on the shoulder.

Her skin prickled with the cold. Everywhere on Redstone was cold. She suspected that in some warped way it was a reason why the Freeholders wanted to live here. They didn’t seem the kind of people who would thrive in a tropical, sunny environment.

‘Hey, not bloodthirsty. Just curious.’

The Freehold was scheduled to lead an assault on Cardinal Point, a highly fortified Uchidan settlement about two thousand kilometres north-west of the skyhook, where it was believed Banville was currently being held captive. The Consortium were technically present here in a purely advisory role, but the Freeholder troops would be flown in aboard Consortium craft, piloted by Consortium military staff, with orbital reconnaissance and support from the Consortium also.

Less than three days from now, Dakota would be piloting one of a dozen dropships in towards Cardinal Point for the rescue attempt.

Over the past several days they’d received an intensive briefing on the nature of the conflict. Because Dakota came from the same world as Banville, a lot of it was old news to her but, even so, she hadn’t been aware of much of the historical background.

* * * *

Koti Uchida, more than two centuries before, had been a planetary genetics specialist on a research team evaluating a likely terraforming candidate in the Onada 125 system, thirty-seven light years from Earth. When a relief crew from Mann-Kolbert Geophysical Evaluations had arrived at the planet six months later, they’d found their predecessors wiped out by a crudely altered virus originally intended to modify carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Near catatonic with shock, Uchida was the only survivor, holed up alone in an airtight hut with its own air supply while the corpses of his fellow researchers rotted nearby.

They got him transported back out on the next crew rotation, and the subsequent investigation turned up evidence of latent psychosis that Uchida had somehow kept hidden throughout the standard psych-evaluation tests. There was even the suspicion Uchida had been responsible for altering the virus that then wiped out his compatriots, but that could never be proved.

Uchida was subsequently removed from his position, and disappeared off the general radar for a while.

He resurfaced three years later, claiming he’d spent most of this time in his lonely hut taking dictation from a disembodied alien spirit that preached salvation through technology. Only once every human being could see the universe as God saw it, Uchida claimed, would a new age of peace and understanding come about. He began preaching his peculiar new gospel on the streets of the Mound, a city on the world of Fullstop, long famous for its surfeit of wild-eyed prophets.

The book Uchida claimed to have taken down during his long solitude became known as the Oratory. In time, he gained followers. Only sixty years after his death, Oratory temples could be found on a dozen worlds throughout Consortium space. They all offered the same route to instant karma: a skull implant-a primitive forerunner of Ghost technology-that tapped directly into the temporal lobes of the human brain, long associated with religious epiphany, thereby generating a supposedly unending neurological state of transcendent consciousness.

Follow Uchida, potential converts were told, and you will experience God for ever.

There was no lack of takers for Uchida’s instant salvation. But then came the accusations that these implants had been placed inside the heads of less than willing converts. Eventually, the notorious debacle involving Belle Trevois pushed the Uchidans into even harder times.

The riots breaking out on half a dozen Consortium worlds, after Belle’s death, helped push through approval for a long-standing application by the Uchidans for a colonial charter. They wanted to set up their own world-and, in order to get rid of them, the Consortium was more than happy to grant their request.

The Uchidans were given a desolate, near-uninhabitable ball of rock with a thin veil of poisonous atmosphere, located in a system on the furthest edge of Consortium space. There they dug in, pressurizing caverns and boring tunnels for miles beneath the surface.

Fifteen years passed before the Shoal suddenly invoked Clause Six in the Uchidans’ contract, and reclaimed the entire system without explanation.

The Shoal Hegemony controlled a constantly shifting web of trade routes plied by their coreships, and they reserved the right to reoccupy any colonized system for their own purposes, so long as the colony in question had been in existence for less than twenty standard years. It proved the single most contentious item in the ongoing relationship between humanity and the Shoal. Concessions had been made in other areas, but on this one issue the Hegemony remained resolute.

No one had seriously anticipated that the Shoal might ever actually invoke Clause Six and, as the centuries passed, it had looked less and less likely they ever would.

Everyone, however, was proved wrong.

Slews of civil servants and politicians, all the way up to the highest ranks of the Consortium, fell by the wayside in the ensuing chaos. Fledgling colonies within a three hundred light year radius of Earth hurriedly reexamined their own charters in a panic.

Over the next several years, the Uchidans were rescued from their failed colony and shipped instead to Redstone. But that planet was already home to the Freehold, who were no strangers to controversy themselves. Extreme libertarians with a bent for violence, the Consortium had been equally happy to see the Freehold occupying their own inhospitable ball of mud somewhere far away from the centre of human affairs.

On Redstone, the Uchidans had occupied the deserted continent of Agrona, a token Consortium military force remaining in orbit for a couple of decades in order to maintain peace between the two groups now inhabiting the planet.

Eventually they left, and such co-existence might even have proved ultimately acceptable if the Uchidans had not then begun work on altering Redstone’s biosphere-with potentially disastrous consequences for the Freehold colony.

The ensuing war had remained in a state of detente for decades, a constant tit-for-tat struggle along fluctuating borders, until the Consortium uncovered evidence that the Uchidans had meanwhile smuggled Howard Banville to Redstone on board one of the Shoal Hegemony’s coreships. As a result, the Freehold were suddenly granted Consortium military support.

And that was why Dakota and Severn and all the rest were now here on this desolate world, so far from home.

* * * *

Below, the Freeholder whose breather mask had been displaced snapped it back into place, then pulled out some kind of weapon. It was a short, nasty-looking blade which he began to wave in the face of his assailant, who retreated quickly. There was something showy about the motions: as if he were playing to an audience, and Dakota felt she was witnessing some secret ritual.

‘See, most Freeholders tend to stay right here,’ Severn explained. ‘Redstone’s a fair distance away from all the normal coreship routes, so you’ll get one coming through here only once or twice a year. But every now and then some of these people find their way in among the human communities on the coreships, and put on a show for them, fighting to the death for a paying audience. There’s big money in it, from what I hear-for the survivor, anyway.’

‘Shit, really?’ Dakota shivered again, not entirely from the cold this time.

‘Yeah, but they’re still playing within their own rules. The winner still gains in social status here, but also becomes wealthy in the process.’

Dakota turned to look at Severn. ‘You’ve seen one of these fights before, haven’t you? I can tell from the sound of your voice.’

‘Once,’ he admitted, ‘when I was barely more than a kid. Nasty. Never, ever again.’

The fight was now being broken up. Freehold military police in dark uniforms arrived, flashing torches and wielding clubs, and soon the adversaries were pulled apart. Yet there was still that sense they-she, Severn, the Consortium-had been deliberately made spectators to an aspect of Freehold life few outsiders rarely got to see. As if this was some kind of warning, that the Freehold were not to be treated lightly.

‘So how come you never told me about you and Marados?’ Severn asked.

‘Wasn’t any of your business,’ Dakota replied, turning back to him with a smile. ‘It was never anything serious.’

‘None of my business, like you said. But not serious, right?’

She shrugged. ‘I’m here, aren’t I?’

Severn shook his head and pulled her back towards the cot. They tumbled onto it together, burying themselves under the warm blankets.

Some time later Dakota woke to see grey dawn light seeping through the blinds, and carefully touched her temple, where she could still feel the painful throb of her headache.

* * * *

Ten

Trans-Jovian Space, Mesa Verde

As far as Josef Marados was concerned, the Piri Reis would be scrapped and reduced to its essential components within forty-eight hours of her boarding the Freehold frigate Hyperion. But then Dakota had made some enquiries of Mesa Verde’s stacks, and found that the type of vessel used by the Freehold had an overall cargo capacity of one hundred and eighty thousand cubic metres-allowing more than enough room to hide something the size of her little ship.

Even better, the Hyperion itself was old, the ageing military legacy of a backwater colony. Subverting its security systems surely couldn’t be that difficult.

While she worked desperately on finding a way to keep the Piri intact, she had it display streaming news reports, the bright logo of the Ceres News Service flashing endlessly within the cramped space of the command module. They were still running images of Bourdain’s Rock disintegrating into gravel.

The news services on Ceres were airing a series of back-to-back interviews with anyone who had the remotest connection with Bourdain’s Rock. To her horror, at one point a commentator raised the possibility that the Rock had been destroyed by a rogue machine-head, someone programmed to infiltrate the asteroid and then destroy it.

Security clampdowns were being enforced system-wide, and it became rapidly clear to Dakota how lucky she had been to get inside Mesa Verde at all. Only a few days ago, the scale of the disaster hadn’t been fully absorbed, but now, the entire outer solar system was at a state of high alert.

It was a reminder, as if she needed one, of how badly she needed to get herself very far away, and very fast.

Ready, Piri?

‹All details are logged as planned.›

As she left the Piri Reis, probably for the last time, she felt a deep ache in her chest. But if anything went to plan, she might still come out on top.

* * * *

The Hyperion started talking to Dakota even as she and Josef were making their way towards Black Rock’s private docking area. It began as a gentle buzz in the background of her thoughts-like hearing an auditorium filling up from down the far end of a corridor. But before long a familiar flood of information descended on her, every scrap of data demanding equal attention: hull stresses, systems integration failures, and a seemingly infinite queue of process queries.

Her Ghost handled this onslaught with practised ease, bringing to her conscious attention only those items that were most genuinely urgent. Although she didn’t yet have physical control over the Freehold ship, it felt a little like slipping on unfamiliar clothes that then grew more comfortable with every passing moment.

She focused her attention on the Hyperion’s cargo hold, but the fresh map data she uploaded from the frigate became blurry once she tried to see what was carried within it.

She realized Josef was saying something to her.

‘… all the security and guidance systems remain in lockdown until you’re ready to take the helm. The passengers themselves will be telling you where to go, but you-Mala Oorthaus, that is-will still have the usual legal right of override. So if they order you to dive into the atmosphere of a star, you can stick them in the brig and still get paid. That kind of thing.’

‘But dumping them into space as soon as we get there and lighting off on my own isn’t approved behaviour, either?’

Josef grinned, but Dakota was pleased to see an edge of nervousness there too.

‘Everything I need is right here.’ She indicated a small bag by her foot.

Josef shrugged gamely as they arrived at the mass transit elevators leading down to the docks. ‘Guess this is it, Dakota,’ he said, coming to a halt. ‘Anything else you need to know?’

Dakota stretched languorously, tired after her long bout of reprogramming the Piri Reis, and enjoyed the way Josef’s eyes took in the shape of her under her clothes.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘What are the chances of them figuring out who I really am?’

Josef smiled reassuringly. ‘Your identity is secure, I can assure you.’

She shook her head. ‘I’m glad you’ve helped me, when I really don’t think you needed to’-Josef started to speak, but she put up a hand to shush him-‘but the Freehold hiring a machine-head for any reason at all kind of stretches credulity, doesn’t it?’

‘What’s your point?’

‘I’m saying perhaps they’re holding something back, something they’re not mentioning. I’ve seen these people in action, Josef. They’d rather go down in flames than face the dishonour of using someone like me as an ally, even as a paid ally.’

‘Look, all I know is that careful enquiries were being made about machine-head pilots, starting maybe a few weeks ago. Not through official channels, obviously. Then you came along looking for a way out, and it just seemed’-he shrugged heavily-‘fortuitous, I guess. Outside of Gardner and the people on board that ship, nobody but me knows about you. That’s all that matters.’

‘Thank you.’

She glanced at him and saw a tiny pinprick of light appear, somewhere above his left shoulder, just on the edge of her perception.

Piri, run a scan on my implants. I’m getting some very minor visual distortions showing up-like a spark of light.

‹Your Ghost systems are running at optimal, Dakota, but I will be vigilant.›

Thank you.

She had the overwhelming sensation there was some kind of unfinished business she still had to take care of, but she couldn’t quite remember what it was.

A little while later, just as she was about to board the shuttle that would take her to the Hyperion, it came to her.

* * * *

Things didn’t look much better inside the Hyperion than they had from the outside.

The frigate was a dart-shaped missile more than a thousand metres in length that flared out to the aft, where a fusion propulsion system powerful enough to push it across a solar system in no more than a few days of heavy acceleration was located. A heavily armoured gravity ring, where the command bridge was located, slowly revolved towards the ship’s fore. Yet there were museum pieces docked in some of the Consortium’s grandest orbital cities at Tau Ceti that looked in better shape than the Hyperion did.

Every few minutes a fresh cascade of systems-failure notifications came crashing down into Dakota’s thoughts like an all-consuming tidal wave of information, before being near-instantaneously tidied away by her Ghost, and becoming once again reduced to little more than a vaguely distracting background hum tinged with the machine equivalent of hysteria. It was easy to picture the Hyperion as a wounded dog howling its distress through a broad-spectrum network.

‘Quarters,’ Dakota-who was now Mala-muttered out loud, hanging on to a rung at the junction of two of the Hyperion’s access corridors, one of which plummeted away into what would have been terrifying depths if there had been any gravity present in this part of the ship. There was a barely perceptible-and therefore worrying-pause before glittering icons appeared in Dakota’s vision, leading the way.

If the ship had been up to date, finding her way around it would have been second nature: with the information already uploaded into her back-brain, it would feel as if she had been finding her way around the Hyperion for decades. As it was, too many data systems were either damaged or corrupted through lack of maintenance. Even the icon-projections reminded her just how old this frigate was.

‘Bridge,’ she said next.

In response, the first set of icons vanished, to be replaced by another.

She sighed. This was still better than nothing. She pushed herself forward, floating along a corridor, and watching the icons flicker into a new configuration as she came to a y-junction.

Halfway to the command bridge, her Ghost allowed Dakota to sense the presence of several people up ahead. Her employers.

* * * *

Initially, Lucas Corso wasn’t sure what to make of the woman as she entered the bridge for the first time. Short dark hair curled around her ears. Her face was small and round, her frame slight and gamine. This is what the Freehold are meant to be scared of?

Perversely, he was nonetheless relieved to see her. He didn’t enjoy spending any more time in the company of Senator Arbenz and his cronies than he absolutely had to, but the request for his presence on the bridge had been unambiguous.

With any luck, this would be over quickly, and then he could return to the safety of his research, as far from the Senator as possible.

He glanced over at a bank of dataflow indicators and was shocked to realize how much information was passing between this initially unremarkable-looking woman and the Hyperion, as if she were a black hole drifting through the digital corona of the frigate’s star, bending and warping computer systems to her will.

‘Miss Oorthaus.’ Gardner guided the machine-head woman towards Senator Arbenz.

All Corso knew about Gardner came from random snatches of overheard conversation, most frequently between Arbenz and Gardner himself, but also from casual jokes and disparaging comments shared between Arbenz and his two bodyguards, the brothers Kieran and Udo Mansell. From this it was clear neither the Senator nor the two brothers had much respect for David Gardner: he was an outsider, not part of the Freehold, a resident of the old, impure world the Freehold were supposed to have left behind and which had resolutely failed to destroy itself in the centuries since. Gardner, then, was a necessary evil, as much as the machine-head woman-a businessman, free of honour and morality, but able to part-finance such an enormous undertaking as a planetary survey.

Oorthaus’s expression remained wary as she came face to face with Arbenz, like she was expecting something to rear up and bite her. After only a few weeks on board with only the two Mansells for company, Corso could hardly blame her.

Gardner directed her towards the Senator. ‘This is Senator Arbenz,’ Gardner continued. ‘The man in charge of this operation. I-’

‘You may call me Gregor,’ Arbenz offered, cutting him off. ‘I’m glad you could join us on our little adventure.’ Grasping both her hands with his own, Arbenz smiled, for all the world like a kindly uncle welcoming a long-lost niece.

Oorthaus nodded politely, although her stiff smile made it clear she felt less than comfortable. Corso had to suppress a smile creeping up one side of his face: the newcomer clearly had good survival instincts.

‘I know it must have been a hard decision for you, in agreeing to work with Freeholders,’ Arbenz continued smoothly. The two Mansell brothers watched, stony-faced, with arms folded. Corso had a pretty good idea of the thoughts going through their heads, and if Arbenz had any sense, he’d keep them and Oorthaus apart. ‘But I gather you weren’t a part of what happened on Redstone.’

‘No, I can be grateful for that.’

‘Yet here you are,’ Arbenz continued, ‘a machine-head again. Forgive me, but I must ask, was it really so terrible losing those head-implants the first time round?’

She hesitated a moment. ‘I…’As she looked around, Corso had the sense she hadn’t spent a lot of time around other people. ‘It was difficult, yes. A lot of machine-heads…’ She paused and shook her head.

‘Committed suicide?’ Udo Mansell supplied in a deep rumble. An awkward silence followed. Out of sight of the woman, Gardner shot the two bodyguards an angry glance.

Arbenz turned to the two men. ‘Udo, Kieran, I want you to double-check those inventories. I’ll see you later.’

As the two men left, Corso felt himself relax a little. ‘I’m sorry about that, Miss Oorthaus, but the brothers lost family during the war.’

‘That’s OK,’ Oorthaus replied. ‘As long as they don’t try to get in my way.’

Arbenz smiled as if appreciating a point well made. ‘They won’t, of course, but they’re here as shipboard security, so you’ll be expected to work with them.’

‘Look, Senator-’

‘Gregor, please.’

‘Senator Arbenz, do you want me to do this job or not? If I have to deal with people hostile towards me because of what I am, that’s going to compromise the safety of your ship and of your expedition.’

‘Mr Gardner’-Corso noticed, as he spoke, how the Senator briefly caught the other man’s eye-‘has a longstanding relationship with Josef Marados. I trust David Gardner, he trusts Josef, and Josef in turn trusts you. You, therefore, can also trust me. Udo and Kieran work for me, and they won’t do anything to compromise the survey. A large part of the Freehold’s remaining funds will go towards paying the Shoal a truly exorbitant price in exchange for taking one of their coreships on a detour in order to drop us off at this new system. You can imagine how eager we are to get this just right.’

‘But the way Josef put it,’ Oorthaus continued, ‘you stand to become very, very rich if and when the Shoal make this new system a permanent part of one of the new cross-galactic trade routes they’re planning for their coreships.’ She made a pretence of thinking hard for a moment. ‘Are you sure you’re paying me enough?’ Again, Corso had to struggle not to grin openly.

* * * *

‹Investigating local systems,› the Piri Reis whispered in her ear.

Just hearing her craft’s familiar machine tones made Dakota feel more secure.

She was alone on the Hyperion’s bridge, surrounded by the lotus-like petals of the interface chair. Once inside the chair, she was blind, deaf and dumb in terms of her normal senses, but the Hyperion constantly funnelled a torrent of information into her mind via her Ghost. She ‘saw’ the holos and viewscreens around the bridge spiking bright white, one after the other, as the Piri Reis simultaneously and covertly ransacked the frigate’s data stacks.

How long till we rendezvous with the coreship?

‹Locating,› Piri replied. ‹Signature brane topology distortions indicate it has just re-emerged from transluminal space. Estimated time of rendezvous between three and five hours.›

After she’d had her new Ghost implants installed, Dakota had spent a year serving aboard a coreship very like the one they were now approaching. There were entire branches of human science devoted to studying the vast spacecraft despite the Shoal’s strict limitations on such observations. Tiny probes would scan their drive spines, measuring and recording the exotic energies the coreships left in their wake, across every possible wavelength and spectrum. These Shoal craft truly were worlds unto themselves, enormous environments in which a dozen different species could be contained at once, yet kept entirely separate in their own carefully constructed habitats.

‹I am now fully integrated with local systems,› Piri reported. ‹Currently investigating prior software alterations and other data relevant to navigation and security. ›

How many people are currently on board the Hyperion? Dakota asked.

‹Six, present company included. Records indicate that a crew of similar number are remaining behind at Mesa Verde, after travelling here on board. ›

We’re going to have to find a vacant slot to put you in.

And, she wondered, could she really be sure of stowing her ship in the cargo bay without anyone finding it?

Piri, have you managed to scan the current contents of the cargo bay yet?

‹Yes. It primarily consists of short-range manned rovers, weapon-equipped surface-to-orbit two-person scooters and emergency vehicles, plus standard exploration and survival gear for planetary exploration as listed on the current manifest. There are also approximately three thousand remote-analysis drones developed by Black Rock Industries for detection of exploitable interplanetary resources.›

Meaning asteroids, Dakota concluded.

‹Some other items will require potentially risky work on their encryption systems before their exact nature can be determined. The encryption methods, however, imply a military origin.›

Then make sure your encryption is even better, and find yourself a good hiding place while you’re at it.

* * * *

Dakota’s next stop was the airlock complex located towards the aft. As she crossed the Hyperion, her Ghost generated a mental image of the coreship with which they would be rendezvousing. Intense bursts of radiation indicated where the alien craft had emerged outside of Neptune’s orbit, signifying a mortal clash between normal space-time and the complex multi-brane spatial geometries the craft was believed to generate in order to jump across light years.

Dakota entered an airlock and shed all her clothes, placing them in a satchel before slinging it over her bare shoulders. Her filmsuit then emerged and coated her flesh. Once it had sealed her lungs, anus, vagina and nasal cavities, she began to run the depressurization cycle. A few moments later a deep silence fell, then the external door swung open to reveal the vast emptiness beyond the Hyperion’s hull.

Protective molecular niters formed themselves out of the filmsuit and coalesced over her irises, momentarily magnifying the distant bright mass of faraway Mesa Verde until surface details stood out in near-hallucinatory detail before they balanced out. The stars looked like a fine dusting of diamonds across the universe.

Dakota took a firm hold on an exterior rung and swung herself out and onto the surface of the hull itself. She pushed herself off, glimpsing the airlock door silently cycle shut once more. Floating free of the Hyperion, she began moving further and further away with every passing second.

When she was thirty or forty metres distant, Dakota reached inside her satchel and withdrew a kinetic pistol, taking care to wrap a thick cable that extruded from its grip around both of her wrists.

Ready, she informed Piri.

She then aimed the pistol towards the behemoth bulk of the frigate, both hands firm on its grip. Several seconds passed in silence.

‹On my count…› Piri began counting down from five. ‹Now.›

She squeezed the trigger. The pistol jerked in her grip, and bright flame jetted from its wide nozzle. Suddenly the Hyperion started to move away at an increasing rate.

OK. Did anybody pick that up?

‹Three automatic traffic sensors in orbit around Mesa Verde detected the flare.›

What about the Hyperion?

‹The Hyperion’s external sensors remained locked down and blind, as expected, at the time the pistol was fired. The ship’s main systems have so far failed to recognize any discrepancies. I am now thirty kilometres away and accelerating to match velocity. Estimated arrival is in approximately twelve minutes.›

What does the Hyperion think you are? Dakota queried.

‹An automated refuelling pod registered to Black Rock Ore. There is some risk in this strategy-›

I’m aware of that.

Dakota waited several long, tense minutes until she picked out a course-correction flare from the approaching Piri Reis, stars winking out of view as they were occluded by its dark bulk. Dakota herself was now some distance from the Hyperion, moving towards the rendezvous point with her old ship.

The Piri made its final velocity-matching corrections: now it was moving at exactly the same speed as the Hyperion, both craft thereby appearing stationary in relation to each other. Dakota then boosted herself over to the Piri’s airlock.

Information flowed in a cascade between Dakota and the two ships, the murmur of data transfer like a distant waterfall in her thoughts, but one where she could still pick out the sound of every droplet as it tumbled.

A fat chunk of her initial payment from the Freehold had gone into reacquiring the Piri from the salvage firm it had been sold to, and then paying the necessary bribes to make sure the transaction stayed off the official records. The counter-intelligence ordnance on board the Piri Reis being superior to the sum total carried by the Hyperion, the Piri Reis was to all intents and purposes invisible, slipping past the Freehold ship’s detection systems like an unseen wraith passing through a wall.

Dakota swam into the heart of the Piri Reis, the lights low and the air warm.

Take us in, Piri.

Heavy doors rumbled apart just fore of the Hyperion’s engines. The Piri Reis slipped through them like a minnow catching a ride in a whale’s belly.

From the inside, the cargo bay area formed a hexagonal tube extending almost a third of the way into the hull’s interior. Shield generators and massive docking frames of strengthened alloy were arrayed at regular spaces, half of them already occupied by equipment crates. The Piri Reis manoeuvred itself into an empty slot and field generators flickered on automatically, binding it against the cargo bay’s interior wall.

Dakota waited. She really expected alarms and flashing lights, but there was only empty silence.

* * * *

Reactivating her filmsuit, she exited her ship again, and entered the depressurized space of the cargo bay. Her implants meanwhile twisted the data topography of the Hyperion’s surveillance systems into knots, rendering her undetectable to any cameras or detection systems. She next floated into an airlock, letting her filmsuit evaporate before unslinging the satchel and hurriedly pulling her clothes out of it, as soon as the airlock had repressurized.

A few moments later there was a ping, and a door swung open to reveal a corridor with signs pointing towards the engine maintenance systems. Inhaling deeply, she pulled her now empty satchel back over her shoulder and stepped out into the corridor.

Against all rationality, she’d almost convinced herself someone would be waiting for her there. Surely someone must have spotted her, and would have figured out what she was up to. Instead it looked like she was completely alone.

Dakota leant her forehead against the cool metal of the wall and forced herself to relax, taking slow, deep breaths. She started to laugh, but it came out more like a half-sob. She was clearly letting her worst fears get to her.

* * * *

Eleven

Trans-Jovian Space

Gregor Arbenz studied the projection floating a few centimetres in front of his nose, but failed to make any sense of it whatsoever. Numbers and decimal points fluttered like brightly lit confetti in the air above the conference table. But the one thing he did understand -that the projection now ably demonstrated-was the degree of control that the machine-head had over their ship. For the Senator, it made for less than comfortable viewing.

He didn’t look up when both Kieran and Udo Mansell entered, moving towards seats at the far end of the table. Instead he continued to stare intently at the display, imagining he might come to a greater understanding of the Hyperion’s highly complex systems if he simply looked long enough.

But in truth, there were other things currently on his mind.

Udo, in his typical pig-headed and insolent way, swung his feet on to the table as he sat down. Really, if it were not for Kieran’s controlling influence, Arbenz would have found a way of losing Udo in some challenge years ago. The security man was unpredictable, volatile and prone to irrational tempers.

His brother Kieran, by contrast, was calm, calculating, and by far the more dangerous of the two. He sat with his hands clasped before him, a knowing half-smile on his face. It was a smile that seemed to imply a commonality between Kieran and the Senator, a shared world-view born of experience, of having honourable blood on their hands, and of being forced to deal with an equal share of idiots. Kieran glanced towards Udo before shrugging at the Senator as if to say, What can you do?

Arbenz struggled to control his contempt. He could not be sure either one of the brothers was not secretly reporting to other members of the pro-war faction back on Redstone. Senator Abigail Muller, for one, resented his leadership, and she had openly voiced her disagreement to the way he was handling the retrieval of the derelict.

The time would come when Senator Muller would have to suffer an accident, but that would need to wait until his triumphant return to Redstone aboard a functioning starship.

‘I’m concerned about this woman Oorthaus,’ said Kieran in his typical clipped tones. ‘Something doesn’t feel right about her.’

Gregor shook his head and waved a hand dismissively, before turning the display off. ‘That’s it? That’s your report?’

Kieran shot him a dark look. ‘It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but she’s keeping something from us. I’m sure of it.’

‘Another one of your “feelings”, Kieran? And she’s a machine-head, remember, so of course she’s keeping something from us. It’s called maintaining a sense of self-preservation. Or are you talking about something more significant?’

‘I’m talking about us allowing her so much control-’

‘No, Kieran,’ Gregor cut him off abruptly, ‘we’ve been over this and it’s not your decision.’

‘But you are supervising this expedition,’ Mansell reminded him. ‘That gives you some leeway, depending on circumstances.’

‘Enough, Kieran, unless you can give me something more concrete.’

Udo swung his feet off the table and leaned forward dramatically. ‘We only have this man Marados’s word for it that she is who she says she is.’ His sibling nodded emphatically in agreement.

‘More than just his word,’ Arbenz argued, addressing Kieran. ‘Everything checks out. You did some of the checking, as I recall.’

‘Yes, but one way or another, ultimately everything we need to know about her comes through channels of information controlled by Marados’s company. Remember, Black Rock just about owns Mesa Verde, so this is an unacceptable risk.’

‘Yes, I’m aware of that, but there aren’t any alternatives-not given our current time frame. We’re taking a chance that the Shoal, or anyone else, won’t stumble on our secret. We’re also taking a chance that the Uchidans won’t attempt to disrupt our survey. If they or anyone else cause us problems, we’re going to need Oorthaus to do the job she thinks we hired her for to help defend us. So unless you can find much more solid ground for your concerns, I don’t want to hear any more about this. Is that understood?’

Udo remained silent, but his lips were pursed in anger. ‘We’ll keep our eyes and ears open,’ Kieran said at length, nodding gravely.

Yes, you will, thought Arbenz, and felt something very like a flash of pity for Oorthaus. If there were anything irregular in her history, anything that might negatively affect the outcome of this expedition, the Mansells would be particularly vicious when it came to dealing with her.

Even by the standards of a society that selected its voting citizens through the challenge system or from the active military, the two brothers’ mutual taste for violence was unpalatable. Now the Senate had been battered by defeat after defeat in the Freehold’s war of attrition with the Uchidans, more liberal voices were speaking out. Several, like Senator Corso, had dared speak openly against the challenge system itself.

Arbenz had long ago decided that Freehold was in danger of absolute collapse unless he and Abigail Muller and the other members of the pro-war faction reestablished absolute moral authority back home-and recovering this derelict alien craft would surely represent an enormous step towards reversing those fortunes. With luck, the Freehold could become infinitely more powerful than its founding members ever dared to dream.

The Mansells’ death squads had certainly helped hold back the rot, but the brothers had started to become careless. There had been witnesses to some of their recent atrocities, and Arbenz and his supporters were not yet strong enough to survive any proven link between themselves and the recent wave of brutal arrests and assassinations. But at least out here, so far from home, he could keep an eye on the two brothers.

‘All right,’ said Arbenz, moving on to the next item of business. ‘You told me you had some information on our friend Mr Gardner.’

Kieran nodded, leaning forward. ‘We’ve looked a little deeper into his previous dealings, and there may be some connection between him and Alexander Bourdain, and therefore with whatever destroyed that asteroid.’

Arbenz nodded, impressed by this news. Spectacular footage of that boosted world disintegrating had been playing non-stop for weeks across every media platform imaginable. ‘Now that is interesting.’

Kieran continued: ‘His family’s been closely tied into the Mars-Jupiter mining industries since the 2100s. So we’re talking old, old money here. But that took a hard knock when the Shoal turned up. The Gardners are still wealthy, still highly respected in the business community and in the Consortium, but over time their fortunes have been dropping lower and lower. I believe Mr Gardner’s been recently trying to revive those fortunes in ways he’s neglected to mention to us.’

Arbenz nodded, already aware that Gardner’s dissipating fortunes were the impetus for his involvement in the new colony. The businessman had lost his majority ownership in Minsk-Adler Propulsions several years ago, following an investigation into serious financial misdealing. That hadn’t been enough to put him permanently out of business, but it had certainly encouraged him to get involved in financing grey-market investments like planetary surveys.

Unfortunately, the Freehold needed Gardner and his not inconsiderable financial resources just as badly as he clearly needed them. The Freehold was now almost bankrupt, despite the Redstone system’s enormous mineral wealth. The never-ending war had seen to that.

‘So what’s he been up to?’

‘He’s clearly involved in smuggling off-limits alien technology. It’s likely that some kind of weapon, possibly Shoal in origin, was used to destroy Bourdain’s Rock.’

Arbenz nodded, not entirely surprised by this news. It was unlikely any conventional weapon could have been used to take Bourdain’s Rock apart so quickly. Secretly, he wanted to bless the man or woman responsible; it was, after all, a victory for common sense. The culture he had briefly witnessed on Earth had been everything he’d been warned it would be: depraved, corrupt and morally backward. Yet long before its completion, Bourdain’s Rock had already become notorious even there.

‘Then I suppose it’s reasonable to assume the Rock was destroyed deliberately.’ Concorrant Industries had since been claiming the asteroid’s destruction was the result of an industrial accident.

Kieran sniggered. ‘Whatever Bourdain says, I don’t think anyone believes for a moment what happened there was an accident.’

‘It might also then explain why Gardner was suddenly so keen to invest in an expedition that would take him a long way from Earth,’ Udo added.

Arbenz nodded, pleased. ‘Good work, Udo, Kieran. How’re things progressing with Lucas Corso?’

Udo made a snort of contempt. He’d never attempted to hide his distaste for the young man and his liberal views.

Kieran answered. ‘There is already definite headway in penetrating the derelict’s systems.’

‘I’m concerned that Corso might reveal to Oorthaus that we intend for her to pilot the derelict.’

Udo shrugged. ‘We could simply just keep them apart.’

Arbenz shook his head. ‘That’s not an option. They’ll need to work together eventually, once Corso finds a way to get control of the derelict.’

Udo looked up with an innocent expression. ‘And if, when the time comes, she objects to piloting the derelict?’

‘For her sake, she’d better not,’ Kieran growled.

Arbenz nodded. ‘She’s an illegal, and she’s clearly far from squeamish when it comes to dealing in the black-market and smuggling operations that, so I understand from Gardner, are her main forte.’ He allowed himself a small smile. ‘You should remember her only way out of the Nova Arctis system, once we reach it, would be through us.’

‘Or she could simply hijack the Hyperion from us,’ Udo commented. ‘Or the derelict, for that matter.’

Arbenz’s smile grew more fixed. ‘An interface chair has been set up on board the derelict to allow her to communicate with it. Corso is meanwhile installing fail-safes in the same chair that will allow us to override her control. Each of us will have a way of activating that override, using a handheld unit, if at any time she tries to work against us. Think of it as an insurance policy, in case she doesn’t work out the way we hope.’

Udo looked impressed, but Kieran less so. A cautious man indeed, the Senator noted. Much of that caution doubtless grew out of his clear disapproval of this expedition in the first place. In truth Arbenz could sympathize with him, because carrying out a planetary survey was as good as admitting they were getting ready to hand Redstone over to the Uchidans.

Until the discovery of the derelict, the Senator himself would have stood shoulder to shoulder with Kieran on that particular issue. It was their moral duty to protect Redstone, their home planet, to the death. But now… now, everything was different. With a functioning transluminal drive, there was no limit to what the Freehold might become capable of. The stars would quite literally be within their grasp.

But that was where Gardner, with his innumerable connections and illegal research facilities, came in.

It was an awesome vision, one Arbenz felt sure they could pull off. The Shoal’s long-term claim had been that they themselves had somehow developed a technology beyond the scope of any other species encountered within a galaxy comprising a hundred billion stars. The discovery of the derelict had put the lie to that claim.

If Arbenz was sure of one thing, it was that humanity was destined to roam those same stars, perhaps even to conquer them.

Or rather, he reminded himself, the Freehold were meant to conquer. By the divine right of genetic imperative, they would find their destiny in the high yonder-from the furthest reaches of the spiral arms to the very heart of the galaxy itself.

And all they had to do was seize this God-given opportunity.

Arbenz smiled to himself, imagining himself repeating these very same words to a massed audience after they returned home in triumph with a captured starship. He toyed with his failsafe for a moment, sliding it between his fingers, then dropped it back in his pocket.

* * * *

Again and again, Dakota’s thoughts came back to the figurine.

Ever since she’d first handled it-opened up the delicate wrapping in which the alien had placed it, then turning it over in her hands, studying its outstretched hands-the awareness that she had previously encountered this very same figure had been constantly in her mind. Yet the memory of exactly where she had encountered it remained maddeningly distant.

But the memory simply wouldn’t come.

The Piri Reis had been trying hard to break the cargo bay’s encryption, so that she could ascertain just what the other sealed units within it contained. But, given the nature of what she’d uncovered so far, it was probably something pretty nasty. She’d already identified robotic phage-delivery systems: long-range hunter-seekers designed to worm their way inside a ship’s hull and deliver a deadly cargo of engineered virals into its life-support system. There were also knife-sharks-vile little things that whirred through the air, seeking organic life to slice into, like airborne shredders. There were other items that Dakota did not yet have the stomach to analyse too closely.

Her Ghost allowed her to sense the Shoal coreship as it decelerated rapidly towards Jupiter’s orbit. Once she’d brought the Piri Reis on board the Hyperion, Dakota had returned to the quarters allotted to her there, resting in her cot while the Hyperion continued to funnel a storm of data through her implants.

At that very moment, her Ghost tagged and flagged a news item originating from Mesa Verde. It took only a moment for her to absorb the information it contained.

She pushed herself upright, suddenly feeling alert. A moment later a screen came to life, in response to her unspoken command. The flagged news item appeared there, bearing the Mesa Verde tach-net ident.

Josef?

Josef was dead.

For all their sophistication, Ghost implants could sometimes produce unexpected results, varying from individual to individual. In a few very extreme cases they had been known to subtly twist the perceptions of those who possessed them. In such cases the subconscious began to manifest itself in unexpected ways, via the artificial conduit of the implants.

This was why Dakota at first fervently hoped she had only imagined the flagged news item. But hope rapidly gave way to a bottomless despair as she stared miserably at the information now on the screen before her.

Josef Marados, late of Black Rock Ore Industries, had been found dead, apparently murdered. Unpleasant images of a vicious murder scene-Josef’s office, and a brief glimpse of a body that was hard to reconcile with Dakota’s memories of the living, breathing man -flashed before her in gory detail.

I should go back, she thought miserably. But who could have done it?

Bourdain.

Who else? It had to be Bourdain. He was still alive, and hot on her trail. Josef’s only reward for helping her had been his own murder.

After a few minutes, good sense prevailed. Under the circumstances, returning to Mesa Verde now would be tantamount to suicide. With Josef gone, there was no one there to protect her any more.

Then she had a better idea. She could lose herself somewhere on the coreship they were now rushing to meet.

The alien starship continually sent out informational ripples that lapped upon the shore of Dakota’s boosted consciousness. Any ship Bourdain sent after her would never be able to catch up with the Hyperion, but it might still be able to rendezvous with the Shoal coreship before it departed the solar system.

At least once the Hyperion had rendezvoused with the coreship, she herself could disappear into the throng of humans who made their lives there, then keep moving, boarding other coreships for as long as it took for Bourdain either to give up or lose interest. It was a worst-case scenario-and one that would guarantee her the additional enmity of the Freehold-but if things really were as bad as she thought, any other options were seriously limited.

Paranoia began to spin new webs inside her mind. The alien had given her the statuette while she was still on board Bourdain’s Rock. Was it possible, she wondered, that the statuette might contain something within it that allowed Bourdain to keep track of her?

No, too paranoid, she thought, shaking her head. The concept of an alien collaborating with Bourdain in some way raised a thousand more questions than it provided answers. And yet…

And then she remembered noticing an imager on the bridge of the Hyperion.

If there was anything hidden inside the figurine, then that would be the best way to find it. The easier solution would be simply to destroy or get rid of it, but that overwhelming feeling there was something desperately important about the object continued to haunt her.

She cursed herself as an idiot for not considering an imager scan earlier. At the very least doing so would keep her preoccupied until she had a better idea what exactly had happened back on Mesa Verde.

She stepped through the door of her quarters into the corridor beyond, the figurine squeezed securely into a jacket pocket.

* * * *

Twelve

Redstone Colony

Consortium Standard Date: 01.06.2538

3 Days to Port Gabriel Incident

Dakota snapped awake to hear the duty klaxon blaring like Satan’s own alarm clock. She stumbled out of her cot-Severn mumbling behind her, only just beginning to stir-and collapsed to her knees beneath the window, gripping her head in her hands until the pain of the headache began to ebb. The last lingering fragments of her dream faded with it.

Frequent migraines were a worrying sign. They could get worse, much worse, and sometimes the only cure for a machine-head was to have the implants removed altogether. The idea of life without her Ghost was already unthinkable.

Finally, as the pain faded to nothing, Dakota stood up and let her forehead touch the icy windowpane. She stared outside to the spot where the altercation had taken place the night before. Fresh snow had fallen, obliterating any history.

Then the second klaxon sounded, and Severn finally jerked upright with a surprised snort.

* * * *

Less than twenty minutes later, Dakota felt another sharp stab of pain in her temple as they both made their way to the mess hall. It felt like tiny, fire-breathing dragons were rampaging through her skull, but there and gone in an instant.

‘Shit. Dak, you OK?’ Severn put a hand on her shoulder as she leaned her head against a wall.

‘No… I don’t know, Chris. I think I need to see someone.’

He offered to accompany her to the medical labs, but she waved him off, suddenly not wanting any company at all. She was nervous enough about this morning’s mission, and didn’t feel too much like breakfast anyway.

* * * *

‘Sounds like a standard circuit-induced migraine to me.’

The doctor was a youngish man with dark curly hair. Her Ghost informed her his name was O’Neill. She lay back in something that looked like Hieronymous Bosch’s idea of a dentist’s chair, staring up at the ceiling beyond the curving plastic of the scan unit. The chair was angled so far back, she suspected she might slide right out of it and headfirst on to the floor, had she not been tightly strapped in place. Her head was held immobilized as tiny, needle-like devices rotated on well-oiled arms around her scalp, interrogating her implants. Ultrasound images were projected on a nearby wall.

‘Well, it felt worse than any fucking circuit headache I’ve ever had before,’ Dakota complained bitterly.

O’Neill shook his head. ‘See, this is exactly why they should keep machine-heads apart as long as possible. With so many of you gathered together like this, if one’s got any kind of a problem, the rest of them will pick it up in no time.’

‘I know Chris Severn’s been having the same problem. Anyone else?’

O’Neill hit a button and the chair back rolled up with a soft hum. ‘You’re not the first this morning,’ he agreed, while a nurse undid the straps and helped her down.

Dakota watched him carefully, noting his tight-lipped expression. ‘Then is it safe to go ahead with our scheduled missions? Shouldn’t we be investigating this?’

‘Yeah, we should. But there’ll be shit to pay if we have to pull back now. We’ll be losing a vital “window of opportunity”, as they like to say upstairs.’

Dakota was scandalized. ‘And this comes from Commander Marados?’

O’Neill paused for a moment with his mouth open. ‘No, higher, I think,’ he finally admitted.

‘It just seems a bit dubious.’

‘Well,’ O’Neill touched her elbow to lead her out the room, ‘that’s the military for you. One big, happy, bureaucratic family. If anything goes wrong, it’s always somebody else’s fault.’

Dakota stopped at the door and glared back at him accusingly.

‘Look,’ said O’Neill, ‘there’s really nothing to worry about, OK? Otherwise orders would have come down from Command to postpone the mission. If they’re happy, we’re happy.’

Perhaps, Dakota thought, as she walked away, she should have mentioned the hallucinations as well.

She had dreamed of angels with wings. They had drifted down to alight in the centre of a town marketplace she remembered from her childhood. Warmth and beauty and a sense of welcoming had been carried in the opalescent radiance of their perfect golden skin. One, a woman with long flowing hair and an expression so kind that Dakota had wept even in her sleep, floated just millimetres above the cobbled ground, regarding her with infinite compassion.

The angel had spoken to her in some strange, incomprehensible dialect that somehow translated into perfect meaning the instant she heard it.

On waking that morning, she hadn’t been able to recall a single word the angel had said. But the sense of having been somewhere real was sufficiently strong to leave her with an overwhelming sense of loss.

Dakota hesitated, and thought about turning back. But what exactly could she tell O’Neill? That she had experienced a particularly vivid dream? She would only be making a fool of herself.

Instead she continued on her way. O’Neill surely knew what he was doing, and orders were indeed orders. The med-tech would have just reprimanded her for wasting his time. The dream itself was only that, a dream-perhaps brought about by her general state of anxiety in the run-up to the assault on Cardinal Point.

* * * *

On her way to that morning’s briefing, Dakota passed through a wide circular room that had been nicknamed the Circus Ring. This had become the centre of operations for the Consortium’s ground command, and a huge array of communications and data systems had been set up all around the Ring’s perimeter.

There, the general air of tension had been given an overnight boost by a threefold increase in the number of staff now wandering the corridors. The briefings were being run constantly, along with endless strategy meetings and drills. Within just a few hours, the arrival and departure of orbital personnel carriers and dropships had become a constant background roar that was expected to continue for several days and nights.

Dakota stood on a walkway running around the Circus Ring’s circumference and looked down at a group of Freehold commanders talking with their Consortium equivalents. There seemed something peculiarly archaic about the Freeholders’ uniforms, as one of them stood with hands planted imperiously on hips.

After a moment, Dakota noticed the Freeholder was talking with Josef Marados, whose face was red and angry She felt a stab of sympathy for him, having already heard numerous stories of such encounters with arrogant Freeholders making extraordinary demands of the people there to help them win their war. The calm of Consortium staffers moving past the tense knot of Freeholders made for a stark contrast.

The Freeholders were a joke, and they didn’t even know it.

Then she noticed the alien for the first time, gliding like a watery phantasm across the central space of the Ring.

Shoal-members were generally about as easy to miss as an elephant in a tuxedo playing the flute. A few of its tentacles regularly shot out from underneath its body, grabbing at smaller creatures swimming within its gravity-suspended ball of water, and drawing them rapidly in towards it and out of sight. A few moments later, tiny pieces of bloody cartilage and bone spewed out from the creature’s underside, staining the water.

Josef broke off from his argument with the Freeholders and went immediately over to the alien, followed by his suborn, Ulmer. The alien was already accompanied by a phalanx of black-armoured Consortium elite security.

Dakota recalled something Severn had said the night before: one of these days, someone’s going to figure out how a bunch of fish ended up ruling the galaxy without learning how to make fire.

This increased entourage swept across the Circus Ring, before disappearing through a door leading into a part of the complex for which Dakota didn’t have clearance.

It was the first time she’d ever seen one of the Shoal in the flesh.

She’d heard arguments day and night throughout the mess halls and these temporary barracks about how none of them would be here at all if it were not for the Shoal’s restrictive colonial contracts. There had been something terrifyingly random, even meaningless, about the expulsion of the Uchidans from their original colony, so it was far easier to blame the Shoal for the current unhappy state of affairs than anything else.

She recognized the guard posted outside the doorway Josef had just passed through along with the alien. She’d met him at a drinking session, just before dropping down from orbit, and recalled his name was Milner. He had made the mistake of trying to match her, and three others, shot for shot before he wound up comatose under a bar table.

He grinned as she came up to him. ‘Merrick, right? And my head still hurts.’

‘Call me Dakota,’ she said, then, ‘What’s with the alien?’ nodding towards the door he was guarding.

Milner shrugged. ‘Beats me why that thing’s here. And even if I knew…’ he shrugged.

‘Yeah, yeah, I know, you couldn’t tell me. I wasn’t asking you for any secrets, I was just wondering if I’d missed something in the briefings this morning. I had to go to see the doctor.’

‘It’s here just to observe,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Like maybe it’s curious to see how we handle these things, but I don’t think anybody really knows.’

* * * *

Part Two

* * * *

Thirteen

Dakota was relieved to find no one else on the bridge of the Hyperion when she got there.

For a sophisticated piece of technology, an imaging plate didn’t look like much. Just a circular platform: you took an object, stuck it on the plate, and waited while the item was scanned. That simple.

Except, it wasn’t really so simple as that. Placing her figurine on the plate wouldn’t just return data concerning the raw composition of the materials comprising it. If the imager’s database was up to date, it could also return a whole slew of information about the figurine’s probable cultural origin and significance, and maybe even the name of whoever had created it. Beyond that it could also return reams of forensic data, including the DNA traces of every human-or non-human-who had ever handled it.

Accordingly, any number of artefacts-jewellery, mementos, even works of art-had been designed specifically with imager technology in mind. A ring placed on such a plate might generate a wide-band artificial sensorium representing the sight, sound, memory and tactile experience of an associated loved one. The pornographic potential of this technology had therefore been explored for centuries. On top of which, plate-readable data could be encoded into almost any substrate, and often was.

Perhaps this, then, was why the alien had handed her the figurine-because it contained some form of encoded data.

She had muttered curses at the empty corridors as she passed through them on her way across the ship, wondering why she’d taken so long for this to occur to her.

She pushed back the cover over the imager, a horizontal flat black disc set into a wall recess. Dakota pulled the figurine out of her pocket, placed it on the plate and stepped back. A few seconds passed and nothing happened.

She began to wonder if she’d been wrong after all.

‹Dakota…›

The Hyperion shuddered and the bridge lights flickered.

Piri! What was that?

‹I am investigating. ›

A light blinked and she realized the imager had begun its scan, although it was taking a lot longer to do so than normally. Numerical and compositional data began to spill across the imager’s screen:

COMPOSITION

88% ferric alloy, 10% organic matter, 2% other factors

*

ORIGIN OF COMPOSITE ELEMENTS

unknown/not on record. Phylogenetic analysis of organic materials suggests: Indonesian maize hybrid.

MICROSCOPIC SOIL TRACES DETECTED

(‹0.0002% of overall composition): ORIGIN: unknown.

GENERAL TACH-NET ENTRIES None

MANUFACTURED BY Unknown

PRIOR OR PRESENT OWNERSHIP Unknown

INTERACTIVITY INDEX Zero/not known

*

SAVE SUMMARY OR RE-SCAN?

‹No system errors or malfunctions detected. ›

Piri, I felt something happen almost the instant I put that statuette on the imaging plate. There’s no way that’s a coincidence.

‹No system errors or malfunctions detected,› the machine repeated pedantically. Dakota quelled her frustration and picked up the figurine, stashing it out of sight behind a panel.

She turned and saw several message icons were now flashing on screens and in the air. It appeared her passengers, too, were concerned at this fresh turn of events.

* * * *

‘Look, I don’t have a fucking clue what just happened. You ever flown a ship before?’

‘A low-orbit glider,’ Gardner replied, studying Dakota with eagle eyes. ‘That isn’t the point.’

‘Well, my point is, this isn’t a glider,’ Dakota snapped back. ‘I need to check every system is functioning, and that’s what I’ve been doing. So frankly, if the lights go dim or the ship shakes again, don’t be too surprised-’

‘I’m not happy about this, Miss Oorthaus,’ Gardner replied, glowering at her.

‘Fine.’ Dakota folded her arms. ‘Want to find another pilot? Go ahead.’

Gardner stared at her in silence for long seconds then let out a long sigh. ‘Mala, the Senator and the rest of them here aren’t nearly as reasonable as I can be. When things go wrong, they tend to react badly.’

He spoke quietly, leaning in towards her as if sharing the details of some secret indiscretion. ‘Josef Marados assured us you were one of the very best. If you’re not being straight with me now, we can trace the source of the incident through the stack records. After that it’s in the Senator’s hands.’

She gazed into Gardner’s eyes and suddenly felt sure he had no idea what had happened to Josef Marados. But surely he knew? How could any of them not know?

But Gardner wasn’t questioning her about Marados’s death. He was concerned about the sudden, violent spike in the Hyperion’s computer systems while she’d been on the bridge on her own.

‘I am,’ she told him fervently, ‘one of the best. I can take you through the necessary protocols and show you everything I’ve done since I came on board. And the fact remains that this ship’s been quietly falling apart in orbit for the best part of a century. It’s like a three-legged dog. That they’ve managed to keep the thing flying at ail is remarkable.’

Gardner put his hands up. ‘That won’t be necessary. I’m going to go talk to Senator Arbenz now, and I can guarantee he’ll run an independent systems analysis. Is there anything else you want to add?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, holding his gaze, and injecting what she hoped was just the right mixture of irritation and outrage into her response. ‘This vessel is a shit-can. If you don’t let me do things my way and it ends up dumping the internal atmosphere because I wasn’t allowed to fully test the systems, it won’t be my fault. Otherwise, I need to know how it works and what holds it together, and that means running checks on systems that haven’t been properly maintained in a very long time.’

‘All right, but if there’s any chance whatsoever of any further disruptions occurring, I want you to clear it with me first. Understood?’

Dakota nodded her assent and watched Gardner depart.

Piri, who else has been reading the news reports coming out of Mesa Verde?

‹Dakota, both Senator Arbenz and David Gardner have been reading news reports received from Mesa Verde. ›

She then had the Piri Reis recheck the Mesa Verde bulletins and found to her amazement that the news item about Marados’s death had been erased. She had her ship backtrack, but the original item Dakota had read no longer existed. There was no longer any evidence it had even been picked up by the Hyperion’s tach-net monitors.

Dakota found herself gripped by an overwhelming sense of paranoia, a feeling that her grip on reality had become deeply tenuous. Dakota had read one thing… and, somehow, Gardner and the Freeholders had read another.

Either she was going crazy and she’d imagined it all, and Josef was still alive back on Mesa Verde, or someone on board the Hyperion had reprogrammed the tach-net transponders to exclude any mention of his murder.

She turned and glanced behind her. ‘You can come out now, Udo.’

Udo Mansell emerged from the shadows to the rear of the bridge like a looming ghost.

‘Very good,’ said the Freeholder, stepping towards her. ‘How long did you know?’

‘Ever since you arrived through the service hatch. I know where everything is on this ship, at all times.’ She reached up and tapped the side of her head. ‘Remember?’

He kept coming forward until he was peering down at her from his imposing height. He reached out to touch her cheek. She flinched, then stepped back till she had put a work console between them.

‘Why afraid?’ he asked her.

‘Who says I’m afraid?’

‘The problem with your kind is you don’t know how to talk to normal human beings. You’re all so busy being wired into each other’s brains, you’ve forgotten all the subtleties of normal human interaction. I’m sure you can’t be beaten when it comes to operating machinery like on this vessel, but when it comes to deception, you’re more of an open book than most. That’s how I can tell when you’re lying.’

He kept moving closer to her, and Dakota found herself being gradually forced back towards the entrance to the bridge. At the last moment, Udo stepped around her, putting himself between her and the exit. She tried to push past him and he reached for her shoulder.

She brought her fist up in instinctive response, aiming for his head. But he caught it with ease, as if she’d perfectly telegraphed the motion in advance. Her arm trembled under his grip as he forced it back down to her side. She yanked herself free and again put distance between them.

Udo moved towards her once more, grinning widely. ‘Let’s look at some facts. We need you to perform a specific and important task. You obviously need us too, as you’re an illegal. It’s like that idiot Gardner said-the very fact you’re working for us makes you by definition a liar, because it’s the lies you tell that keep you alive. We both know that, right?’

She went on the offensive as he reached out to her again. She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards her, but again he anticipated the move, and pushed down on her chest with his free arm.

It would have been easier if the Hyperion’s bridge hadn’t been under spin, but instead provided anyone on the ship’s central ring with a close to Earth-normal gravity. She was always a better fighter in zero gee.

She hit the floor hard, Udo twisting her arm so she was forced into a prone position beneath him, her face to the floor. A long, wicked-looking knife appeared in his free hand as he kneeled over her. Her throat constricted with horror as he brought the serrated edge close to her neck.

She could smell the rank stink of his breath over her shoulder. She tried to push herself back up with her free hand and felt an explosion of pain in her other shoulder.

‘See that?’ he muttered, bringing the blade up closer to her face so she could see it more clearly. ‘Maybe you’d like to know how many throats it’s cut.’

Dakota said nothing, her breaths erupting in short tight gasps.

‘Let’s get this straight,’ Udo continued. ‘I don’t like your kind. I saw what happened at Port Gabriel, and I don’t buy this crap about how it wasn’t really any of their fault. You’re all a bunch of untrustworthy walking fucking time bombs. That’s bad enough, but you-you like being that way. You like it so much, you’ve still got those chips in your head. What the fuck is that about, huh?’

‘I wasn’t there,’ Dakota gasped.

‘I really hope so,’ Udo snarled. ‘Because if you had been, you’d already be dead and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Gardner’s a businessman, he avoids seeing the messy side of things. Even the Senator and my brother have to play by certain rules. That’s how things are for them. Me, I prefer to get straight to the point and fuck the politics. So let’s be clear on this, Mala. I’ll be watching. Closely. The instant you screw up and I think it’s deliberate, or I think you’ve been lying to us, you’re dead.’

‘Well, you’re going to have a hell of a time steering this ship without me,’ she spat back.

Udo laughed, and there was a momentary relaxation of pressure. ‘Steering this ship? If you only knew. Maybe it’s time you did.’

‘Hey, let her go.’

She didn’t recognize the voice. With her arm twisted back and bent over, all she could see was the floor beneath her.

‘Hey. I said let her go.’

The pressure on Dakota’s back relented momentarily, presumably because Udo was distracted by the sudden interruption. She took the opportunity to twist free of the Freeholder’s grasp, rolling over to one side as fast as she could move. He mumbled profanities and aimed a hefty kick at her: his boot struck home and sharp pain lanced through her hip. She yelped, and a moment later Udo had her by her hair.

She caught sight of Lucas Corso, who stepped forward and locked one arm around Udo’s neck and tried to pull him away. Udo responded by reaching behind himself and grabbing at Corso’s shirt. He had to let go of her again to do this, and she took the opportunity to twist round and punch him hard in the stomach.

Dakota scuttled out of Udo’s reach and watched as Corso tumbled to the floor of the bridge, winded by a blow. But Udo had his back to her for the moment, and Dakota’s military training kicked back in. She locked one arm around his neck, delivering a series of rapid punches to the side of the man’s head.

It had almost no effect, and felt like punching hard granite. Her knuckles ached from the effort.

‘Stop this. Stop this now.’

Dakota looked up to see Gardner had returned.

‘Udo. I’ll want to speak to you later. In the meantime, get the fuck off of the bridge.’

For a moment, Dakota wondered if the Freeholder was going to do what he was told or if he’d attack Gardner as well. She could see the businessman had his own doubts, judging by the pallor of his skin, but he held his ground.

‘I’m telling you now, Udo,’ Gardner repeated, his voice pitched higher than usual, ‘I don’t want to see anything like this again. If Senator Arbenz has any sense, he’ll have you thrown out of the nearest airlock the instant he gets wind of this. Until then, return to your quarters.’

Udo Mansell stood like a statue, a solid carved block of hatred focused on Gardner. Then he relaxed, and smiled, as if he’d just lost a friendly game of cards.

‘I think you’ll find my approach to shipboard security tends to produce high dividends,’ he replied, his voice suddenly sounding breezy and relaxed. ‘Catch you all later,’ he added, and stepped past Gardner and off the bridge.

Gardner closed his eyes for a second or two, as if steadying his breathing. Corso sat quietly where he was, one hand pressed against his belly.

‘How did you know to come back?’ Dakota croaked. She let herself slide to the floor with her back resting against a console.

Gardner shrugged. ‘I’ve only known Udo a little while, but he tends to be extremely predictable. Besides, I’m keen to protect my investments.’

‘And is it really worth it?’ Dakota asked, keeping her eye on Corso who was, after all, a Freeholder like the others. ‘Working with people like that, I mean?’

‘Just remember you’re on their territory here, and we all know why a lot of them don’t trust machine-heads.’

Dakota laughed incredulously. ‘Then why hire me?’

‘If we don’t secure our tender, we don’t have the option of returning home,’ Corso explained. ‘Losing the new colony would be more than our lives are worth. That kind of thing tends to make a man like Udo edgy.’

Dakota looked to both of them, one after the other. ‘Let’s get this straight. If he tries something like that again, I’ll kill him. Got that?’

Gardner’s expression was weary as he moved towards the exit. ‘Then you’d better watch yourself carefully,’ he replied. ‘Do your job, and try and keep the surprises to a minimum. For the sake of my health, too, not just yours.’

Dakota stared at the exit for several seconds after Gardner had gone. To her annoyance Corso now had a wide grin on his face.

‘What’s so funny?’ she demanded, picking herself up.

‘Nothing, really. I just have a habit of getting into fights I can’t win.’

She found herself at a momentary loss of what else to say or do before anger took over. ‘How am I supposed to do anything if I have to constantly worry about being attacked by you people? Give me a reason why I should even stick around after what just happened!’

Corso eyed her thoughtfully and shrugged. ‘So why are you sticking around?’

Dakota struggled to find an answer and instead felt an intense wave of embarrassment wash over her. She stepped over to Corso and offered him a hand. ‘Thanks,’ she mumbled.

Corso took the proffered hand and stood up laboriously, wincing as he pressed several fingers to his belly. ‘Forget it,’ he replied. ‘Udo’s a moron. As far as I’m concerned, he shouldn’t even be on this ship.’

‘So…’ she shrugged, ‘why did you help me?’

Corso shot her a curious glance. ‘Why wouldn’t I?’

She gave him a bewildered look. ‘You’re on the same side as them.’

‘You think we’re allies?’ Corso laughed. ‘Anything but. These people are my enemies.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘You couldn’t have known,’ Corso replied, making to leave the bridge.

‘Wait.’ She put out a hand and stopped him. ‘Should you even have told me that?’

He looked back at her. ‘You mean, will it get me into trouble? Maybe. But I can’t do my job for them if they cut out my tongue.’

She gripped his arm hard. ‘Look, maybe you could tell me some things…’

Corso’s grin lacked sympathy. ‘Just do your job, Mala. Stay out of the way of the two Mansells. They’re killers.’

He made for the exit.

‘Udo said something, just before you walked in on us,’ Dakota called after him in desperation. ‘That if I only knew. Like there was something I haven’t been told about this expedition.’

Corso turned, his face as unrevealing as a mask. ‘Then he was speaking out of turn.’

He exited the bridge and Dakota stood there in silence for several minutes, filled with an unpleasantly familiar sense of foreboding.

* * * *

Corso found his way partly along a corridor before stopping and leaning his back against a wall with a groan. His whole body hurt.

It was bad enough he was trapped on the Hyperion with men like Senator Arbenz and Kieran Mansell. Now he’d managed to make a deadly enemy of Udo as well. Perhaps I’ve just got a suicidal streak. Well, at least that would explain some things.

People back home were depending on him to do whatever it took, within the bounds of honour, to save them from a very unpleasant fate. Getting into a fight with Udo wasn’t helping them any. He’d acted without thinking…

Face it, you’d have intervened anyway.

He pushed himself away from the wall with a groan, and stared bleakly up and down the corridor. More than any other time since they’d left Redstone, he wanted to be back home.

Every day that passed made it clearer to him just how much Udo was a liability. Only now, he’d as good as told Oorthaus they’d hired her for a job other than the one they’d told her about. And that on top of threatening to kill her. That just made it even more likely she’d try and disappear once they got to the coreship. And then… well, then they’d either have to find another machine-head stupid or desperate enough to accept their terms, or try and figure out some other way of salvaging the Magi derelict when the time came.

And Corso had already learnt enough about the derelict to be certain their chances of salvaging it without Mala were close to nothing.

* * * *

Still shaking, Dakota found her way back to her quarters, where she dimmed the lights and let her Ghost start to calm and soothe her with a steady trickle of empathogens into her cerebral tissues. Then she slept for a little while, curled up in her cot like a child, lost in the warm ocean tides of her back brain.

After a little while, the Piri Reis came to her, a soft, comforting presence in her thoughts.

‹Dakota, I have made progress in breaking some of the more difficult encryptions used within the shipboard data stacks. I can now make more information available to you concerning the background of the other passengers. However, please note this information is by necessity incomplete due to the nature of the encryptions

Good enough for me, Dakota replied silently.

Fresh knowledge started thudding into her forebrain, in sufficient quantity to overwhelm her Ghost and leave her momentarily disoriented.

According to what Piri had discovered, Lucas Corso was some kind of historian. A ‘xeno-data archaeologist’, to be precise, though she wasn’t at all sure what that was…

Her Ghost obligingly filled her in: xeno-data archaeologists attempted to glean understanding of Shoal super-science, usually by remote analysis. It was often, by necessity, an extremely covert science. In particular, Corso picked apart pieces of programming languages used by the Shoal.

Which sounded dull enough, but Dakota couldn’t begin to imagine what it had to do with exploring a new solar system. Yet she was sure that contained somewhere in this nugget of information lay a clue to what Udo had almost let slip earlier.

What was it he’d said? ‘If you only knew.’

Maybe, Dakota decided, she really didn’t want to know.

What she needed more immediately was something concrete against the Mansells-Udo, in particular. Halfheartedly, she had her Ghost circuits scan the morass of new data in the faint hope of finding something usable. At the very least she could find out more about how to deal with Udo the next time he-

‘Oh shit,’ she said aloud, though her voice sounded muffled in the cramped space of her cabin. ‘You have to be kidding me.’

‹Breaking the encryption on this particular data was surprisingly easy,› the Piri Reis informed her. ‹Please note that it concerns open financial transactions between Udo Mansell and a specific establishment on board the coreship we are currently approaching.›

Dakota couldn’t figure out if she was appalled or elated. Probably both. I thought those two were supposed to be running a security operation. So how did-

‹The encryption methods used by Udo Mansell in particular are out of date,› Piri explained. ‹This is likely more a result of limited resources available to the Freehold authorities on Redstone than to specific negligence on his part. However-›

Yeah, yeah. I get it. They have to make do with what they can get. But you’d at least think he could keep it in his pants for the duration of the expedition, rather than take the chance of someone digging this up.

She couldn’t keep the huge grin off her face. If anyone had been watching her at that moment in the privacy of her cabin, they’d have thought she’d completely lost it.

She scanned rapidly through more of the information, finding other pieces of electronic mail also using out-of-date encryption methods. Udo, Udo, Udo.

‹I draw your attention to a note alluding to reprimands relating to Udo Mansell.›

Dakota’s Ghost worked overtime cross-referencing the decrypted messages with other items stored in the Hyperion’s data stacks. They were as good as transparent. Yet for all that, neither she nor Piri could find anything that might explain what Udo had said to her on the bridge. Nor could she find details of the system they were intending to visit-not even its name.

The feeling that she’d walked into something bad all over again had been growing ever since she’d boarded the Hyperion, and with Josef’s apparent murder her fears had taken an exponential leap into the unknown.

Cross-reference, Piri. What would happen to Udo if any of this became known back on Redstone?

Piri just then dumped another mountain of data into her Ghost circuits. A growing awareness of the complexities of Freehold society spread through her mind.

‹Note the highly stratified nature of the Freehold social structure and honour code,› Piri added.

Dakota nodded, biting the corner of her lip and barely able to suppress a giggle. Udo hadn’t struck her as quite so… kinky. If she had it right, if what she had just found out about Udo Mansell became public knowledge among the Freehold, not only was he finished, but so was anyone associated with him.

The Senator would certainly be tainted by any of this information if it became public knowledge.

This, Dakota thought with a deep sense of satisfaction, is what I call real leverage.

* * * *

Fourteen

A day later, they finally rendezvoused with the coreship.

As they made their approach, its bulk filled every available screen on board the Hyperion. Dakota sat in the interface chair on the bridge, her Ghost channelling to her reams of data concerning the energies flickering in great sheets around the Shoal vessel.

The coreship itself was spherical in shape, perhaps a hundred kilometres in circumference, like a world in itself. Its surface was pockmarked with gaping holes through which the hollow interior could be glimpsed. Beneath the vessel’s vast curving roof, supported by huge pillars a kilometre thick, could be found a far greater habitable environment surrounding the central core. And deep within that core could be found the mysterious transluminal drive that pushed the craft through space at enormous multiples of the speed of light.

Rumour had it the core contained a liquid environment-a lightness, abyssal ocean in which resided the craft’s Shoal crew. Some trick of its planet engine prevented it from exerting any significant gravitational pull on the Hyperion as Dakota followed a standard docking manoeuvre.

Even though she couldn’t see them directly through the interface chair’s petals, Dakota was nonetheless aware of Arbenz and Gardner paying close attention to the bridge’s monitors while she focused on the multi-layered data passing through her implants.

She could feel the weight of their attention being focused on her through the petals, judging and appraising her piloting skill. If she screwed up in any way, automated guidance systems would kick in and dock the Hyperion automatically.

But she wasn’t about to let that happen.

She merged with the Hyperion’s primitive intelligence and guided the frigate’s vast bulk through one of the kilometre-wide apertures in the coreship’s hull. The bridge was temporarily under zero gee, the gravity wheel having been stopped for the duration of their voyage aboard the coreship. The bridge now sat at the bottom of the stilled wheel.

Dense layers of rock and compacted alloys appeared to rush towards and then past her on either side. A moment later the curving interior surface rose above her viewpoint, and the Hyperion was falling, on a cushion of shaped fields, towards the outskirts of a sprawling city.

A flicker of warning data -

A burst of violent energy shot through one of the aft drive bays like a muscle spasm, pre-ignition processes flickering with exotic fire deep within the engine cores.

Not good. Not good at all.

Dakota fully melded with her Ghost, making full use of its intuitive algorithms as a heavy, rattling vibration passed through the frigate. She was distantly aware of Gardner cursing and muttering somewhere beyond the petals of the chair.

There, she had it: a software failure. Something Dakota couldn’t possibly have missed, unless…

The Hyperion was starting to push against the shaped fields that bore it downwards, as the main drive threatened to self-activate, the hull screaming in protest at the unexpected stresses. Dakota rerouted fresh instructions past the problem-a kind of logjam of erroneous data -and the drive finally powered down. Then it was a natter of clever calculations and sheer guesswork to steady the Freehold vessel as it continued to descend.

Whatever had gone wrong, at least it was over. Dakota finally let out a long, shuddering sigh, and tasted the sweat on her upper lip.

The Hyperion continued to drop slowly down towards a landing cradle, from which grasping, cilia-like constructs reached upwards like hungry anemones. The frigate rumbled again as the cilia moulded around its hull, cradling it with ease. One or two other ships-not quite on the same, grandiose, old-fashioned scale as the Hyperion-were similarly cradled a few kilometres distant.

Dakota shut off her dataflow and stared into the darkness surrounding her. Throughout the whole docking procedure, the Hyperion had practically become an extension of her body. It would have taken a crew of at least half a dozen non-machine-head technicians and engineers to carry out the same rendezvous, but Dakota had done it on her own without so much as moving a muscle.

She reached up with one hand and tapped the manual release button, standing as the petals surrounding the interface chair unfolded around her to reveal the bridge.

‘Did you cause that glitch?’ she asked the Senator. ‘Or do you let just anyone mess with the engine systems?’

Arbenz grinned. ‘You coped very well.’

‘Do you have any idea how dangerous it is, altering base routines like that?’

‘There were backups, just in case. I could have shut the engines down in a moment, no harm done.’

‘Because you wanted to see if I screwed up?’

Arbenz shrugged, looking smug and self-satisfied. Dakota felt a deep urge to violence.

‘But you didn’t screw up,’ said Arbenz. ‘You did very well. I’d even say you’re about as good as Josef Marados said you were.’

‘Don’t ever try something like that again,’ she spat at him. Gardner listened impassively to their exchange, with arms folded.

Arbenz spread his hands in an open gesture. ‘No more surprises, I promise.’

She nodded in silence. As satisfied as Arbenz seemed with her performance, she would have loved to be able to see the look on his face when he realized she wasn’t going to stick around.

* * * *

‘Let me get this clear,’ Dakota railed, several hours later. ‘Unless I heard you wrong, I can’t leave the Hyperion at all for as long as we’re on board this coreship?’

She had tracked Gardner down in one of the mess halls in the gravity wheel, where he’d been engaged in conversation with the Senator while Ascension news feeds scrolled down one wall. The other walls of the mess were decorated with Spartan images of valour that fitted in appropriately with the whole Freehold value system. Broadswords certainly appeared to be a popular motif.

Gardner looked up at her with the kind of expression normally reserved for unruly children. ‘We made it clear from the start that we’re on very sensitive business. As long as we’re on board this coreship we’re wide open to the outside scrutiny of anyone who’s curious to know what we’re up to. Remember, there are mercenary fleets who specialize in jumping contract claims by keeping tabs on the movements of frigates like this.’

‘So you need to keep me locked up in here, because that way there’s less chance they’ll figure out what you’re up to when they see a giant fucking warship sitting on the horizon.’

Gardner’s face was blank for a moment, while Arbenz merely chuckled without looking up.

‘Listen,’ Gardner replied angrily. ‘You’re a valuable asset, one we paid a lot of money for. There are people out there who’ll happily snatch you off the streets of Ascension and take your skull apart to find out what you already know about us. We also paid to have this core-ship make a special diversion to our destination, which is as good as advertising the fact we’re trying to set up a new colonial contract. Do you have any idea how expensive all this has been? How much it cost me personally, and also the Freehold?’ Gardner waved at Arbenz with a fork. ‘It’s your job to protect us against anyone who gets too interested.’

‘Then perhaps you’d care to tell me exactly where it is we’re going? Or are you saving that for a birthday surprise?’

Gardner glared at her. ‘You’re just being dramatic.’

‘I’ve just found out I’m being literally held prisoner here, and you’re surprised by my reaction?’

‘Miss Oorthaus, you’re not a prisoner,’ said Arbenz mildly, finally putting down his fork and leaning back.

‘Then why did Kieran Mansell just stop me on my way to the airlocks, and tell me I’m not allowed to leave the ship?’

Gardner wiped his mouth with a cloth and pushed his plate to one side. ‘Look-’

‘No, it’s all right,’ said Arbenz, studying Dakota keenly. ‘You can go-but not alone.’

Gardner turned red. ‘Senator-’

‘No, Mr Gardner. We’ll attract even more attention by never disembarking at all. Are there other machine-heads here, Mala?’

‘Yes.’

‘Because you can sense them from a distance, and they can sense you?’

Gardner looked nonplussed.

‘So really, anyone who wants to know we have a machine-head pilot on board already knows. Our secret is already out, Mr Gardner.’

Gardner remained unpersuaded. ‘It feels like too much of a risk.’

‘Only if she goes out alone.’ Arbenz turned back to Dakota. ‘Yes, you can go, but only with Kieran. We’ll all be operating under a strict curfew when it comes to departing this vessel. I have some business to conduct here too.’

‘Udo, not Kieran,’ she insisted.

Arbenz held her gaze for several seconds. ‘Any reason for the preference?’

‘He’s marginally less ugly.’

‘I’m surprised by that.’

‘Why?’ Dakota replied.

‘I heard about what happened on the bridge.’

‘I don’t recall receiving an apology from any of you.’

Gardner leaned forward. ‘If you’re thinking of trying to get back at him for attacking you, then I’m afraid it’s not up to you to decide what-’

Arbenz put up his hand to shush Gardner, an amused look on his face. He thinks this is funny, Dakota reflected: Udo getting into fights with some skinny little girl.

‘No, it’s not her decision,’ Arbenz agreed, without even looking at Gardner. ‘But it would be good to have Udo off the ship for a while, don’t you agree?’

Gardner looked caught. ‘What exactly is your business in Ascension, anyway?’ he asked her.

‘I’m going to see an old friend. Another machine-head. If I don’t show my face at all, he’ll start wondering why I never leave the Hyperion. Given it’s owned by the Freehold,’ she continued with a shrug, ‘any machine-heads in Ascension might draw the conclusion I’m being held prisoner, don’t you think?’

* * * *

She got her way.

Dakota immediately made her way straight back to the aft airlocks. The frigate had been designed with coreships in mind: a wide lip had extruded itself from the hull, below the airlock, so passengers could simply step outside and feel a fresh breeze against their skin.

It was like standing inside a roofed canyon the size of a continent. As she looked up, Dakota saw fusion globes dotting the underside of the coreship’s outer crust. A couple of dozen metres below where she stood, a floor carpeted with grassland extended all the way to the outer suburbs of the city of Ascension, a sprawling metropolis that filled half of the space allocated to humanity. But instead of solid walls separating them from the rest of the vessel’s interior, there were instead sheets of faintly flickering semi-opaque energy that were anchored beneath the ceiling’s massive supporting pillars.

She turned to see Udo step out through the airlock, accompanied by Lucas Corso.

‘I want to take a look at Ascension,’ Corso explained, on seeing Dakota’s annoyed expression. ‘I didn’t even get the opportunity to explore the last coreship I was in.’

Dakota cocked her head to one side, puzzled. ‘Why not?’

Corso shrugged, and she guessed he wasn’t comfortable talking about himself. ‘Too busy with my work.’

And wouldn’t I like to know just exactly what you’re doing here, Mr Data. Archaeologist.

‘Your first time anywhere other than your homeworld, and you were too busy?’

Corso flicked a glance towards Udo, who glared back at him in response. Neither of them replied.

‘I don’t have time to play tourist guide,’ Dakota snapped at Corso. ‘I have…’ Further words stalled in her throat.

Udo gave her a toothy smile. ‘People to see? Places to go?’

Fuck you. ‘What do you think I’m going to do then, run away?’

‘You could, but I can run faster.’ Udo laughed at his own bad joke. ‘What’ve you got against my brother, anyway?’ he added. ‘Seeing as you asked for me specially.’

‘How does it feel being such a shithead, Udo?’

‘It feels great, Mala.’

‘You’ve visited this particular coreship before?’ Corso asked her, clearly trying to break the current thread of conversation.

‘I’ve been in Ascension a few times in the past, yeah.’

And I’m not the only one who’s familiar with this place, she thought, shooting a glance at Udo and remembering what she’d discovered.

She spared him a thin smile.

* * * *

An air taxi had been hovering in the vicinity of the Hyperion ever since it had docked. Udo beckoned it down, and made a show of getting in first and taking the front seat directly behind the dashboard unit that housed the craft’s cheaply manufactured brain. He wasn’t as subtle as Kieran, either, Dakota reflected. There was too much of a swagger in Udo Mansell.

Ascension was soon spread out below them in all its seedy blackened glory. If the view from a couple of hundred metres up was anything to judge by, it had changed little since her last visit there.

She surveyed a landscape of grey and black concrete interspersed with open areas of patchy green-fire zones from the civil war of fifty years before. In the further distance the city came to an abrupt halt against the shaped fields that kept humanity separate from other species inhabiting the coreship, but with different atmospheric and gravitational requirements.

These days, two-thirds of the city was back under Consortium control, while a few remaining warlords still claimed control over a few outlying districts. The Shoal didn’t appear to give a damn what went on inside their coreships, at least up to a certain point. Fission weapons remained a big no-no, even though there were a thousand urban myths about people somehow stumbling into otherwise forbidden alien sectors of the coreships and finding there only sterile, irradiated ruins.

Some humans lived their entire lives on board a core-ship, never seeing beyond these narrow slivers of apportioned living space. The coreship might travel the length and breadth of the galaxy, but once it left the minuscule portion of the Milky Way humanity was permitted to see, the surface ports were sealed until it returned to within Consortium space. Whatever lay beyond would therefore always remain a mystery even to its most long-term inhabitants.

‘What happened to this place?’ asked Corso in awe, peering down through the taxi’s wraparound windscreen. They were passing over occasional pockets of devastation, now half overgrown with weeds.

‘Power struggle,’ Dakota replied. ‘The Consortium won, but only just.’

‘So the Consortium is still in charge here?’

Dakota shrugged. ‘Nobody’s strictly in charge. It depends which part of the city you’re in.’

Corso looked disbelieving. ‘But someone must be in charge of keeping this place in order-the Shoal at the very least. It’s their ship, so where are they anyway?’

‘Corso, they don’t care about anything but their trade agreements.’

‘Well, then-’

‘No one is in charge here,’ Udo muttered, his voice full of distaste, ‘because no one here has the honour or strength to do something about it. This whole place is a monument to the very worst aspects of human nature.’

‘-what exactly do the Shoal get out of all this?’ Corso continued, despite Udo’s interruption. ‘With all their technology, all their advanced might-as-well-be-magic science, what do we have they could possibly want from us?’

‘That’s the eternal question, Corso,’ Dakota answered. ‘Nobody knows, and the Shoal aren’t telling. Maybe they just like being in charge, full stop.’

‘But they’re just, just… fish!’ Corso cried. ‘How in God’s name do fish come up with all this?’

Dakota shrugged again, but offered him a small smile. ‘Same answer.’

The air taxi had now dropped below the level of the tallest buildings surrounding the city centre. The rooftops of some of these buildings stretched all the way to the coreship ceiling, where they were securely anchored. Dakota noted some of the lower structures still retained Consortium gun posts on their rooftops, their weapons aimed permanently towards the rebel districts beyond. The momentary brush of their security systems against her implants came to her like a faint mental tickle.

Severn. She sensed him again, as she had ever since they’d docked, somewhere out there among the grimy streets and half-rotted buildings of downtown-the site of much of the worst devastation from the civil war. He’d have sensed her too, of course. It was all part of the eternal joy of being a machine-head.

The air taxi changed course, obeying Dakota’s unspoken command. At this, Udo looked around wildly for a moment before his gaze finally settled on her.

‘I’m in charge of this craft,’ Udo snapped. ‘Relinquish your control.’

‘You’re here to keep us safe,’ Dakota snapped back. ‘Not to tell me what to do.’

Corso sat to one side of Dakota, looking baffled by their argument. The air taxi began to drift downwards on its cushion of energy. ‘You’re taking us outside of the Consortium-controlled sector of Ascension,’ Udo hissed tightly. ‘This is a lawless area.’

‘Anyone looking for trouble isn’t going to be swayed by whichever part of town we land in. And there’s someone here I haven’t seen in a long time.’

She spared a quick glance at Corso, remembering their conversation after Udo had attacked her. Corso was still part of the Freehold, and there wasn’t any reason to believe for one second he’d be anything but loyal to Senator Arbenz. But what he’d said to her on the bridge had nevertheless appeared to contradict that.

The taxi settled down with a soft thump near an open marketplace. As soon as Udo cracked open the taxi’s hatch, the smell of cooking assailed Dakota’s senses: tear-inducing spices mixed with the smell of roasting meat and the fresh smell of newly cut vegetables. Animal brains sizzled in pans suspended above smoking braziers, while dogs whined and barked in cages next to an open-air restaurant, awaiting their turn for slaughter.

Messages flashed through the air in a dozen languages, letters rearranging themselves into Chinese dragons above one establishment, or fat-bellied smiling chefs above another. An Atn-its enormous metal carapace painted with symbols and scratchy alien art -lumbered its way through the throng of pedestrians crowding the walkways, its thick metal legs moving with almost liquid slowness. People automatically gave it a wide berth, knowing the creatures stopped for nothing.

Hunger hit Dakota with appalling ferocity as they stepped out of the taxi. Udo looked twitchy enough to try and down anyone who so much as glanced in his direction. Corso seemed a little dazed. She’d brought them to Chondrite Avenue, a long thoroughfare that traversed the eastern district, filled with a dense population of squatters and refugees from a dozen Consortium-space conflicts, many of them sleeping and living directly off the street. During the civil war it had been a sniper’s alley no one dared enter, unless suicide was high on their agenda. But those days were long gone, hopefully.

Dakota headed straight for a roadside grill, and a few moments later returned to join Corso and Udo, chewing at a kebab of peppered meat dripping with grease. She grinned at them widely, pleased to see Udo looking seriously pissed off.

Corso took her by the arm, leaned in towards her and whispered quietly enough not to be heard over the hubbub: ‘Mala, I can tell you’re up to something. Whatever it is, please don’t.’

Dakota just gave him a quizzical smile as if she had no idea what he was talking about. ‘C’mon,’ she said, taking Corso’s arm, and pointedly ignoring Udo, ‘we’re both a long way from home, and we’ve got a lot of time ahead of us. How about I play tourist guide after all?’

And maybe you can answer some questions.

* * * *

Dakota made sure to stay in the lead, pushing past Udo who was doing an excellent job of radiating menace at other pedestrians. She tried to ignore the queasy, nervous feeling building up inside her ever since she’d decided that making a break for it was her best chance of survival. So very much could still go wrong.

She led them away from Chondrite and down Yolande, a narrow alley between walls still pocked with bullet holes. Banners declaring allegiance to General Peralta hung down from windows and balconies all round, some of them trailing in the mud underfoot. Flies and the smell of rotting food filled the air. She kept expecting Udo’s hand to reach out to restrain her, and almost gave in to the urge to turn round and check out the expression on his face.

But she didn’t dare. Not yet. Instead she kept going, adrenalin pumping through her bloodstream. By now he had to have guessed where she was leading them.

The alley widened suddenly and became quieter. Up ahead was a dead-end, with a door set in one wall. It was plain, unassuming and unmarked. Several armed men stood before it as they habitually did and, as ever, they wore Peralta’s colours on their arms, scarves tightly knotted around the biceps.

Finally, she felt Udo’s hand clamp down on to her shoulder. She turned at last.

‘This stops here,’ he hissed. ‘We are not going inside.’ He nodded towards the guarded entrance.

‘Going where?’ Dakota asked him with faked innocence.

For a moment she thought Udo was going to deck her; he trembled with barely suppressed rage, then spoke again, clearly forcing himself to remain calm. ‘We are going to turn around now, and-’

‘No, Udo. I know all about you. And don’t dare ask how.’

‘I’m warning you-’

‘But you won’t do anything, will you? I know you need me for much more than just piloting your ship. You just about said so yourself. “If I only knew”: remember?’ She leaned towards the Freeholder, relishing the strangled look on his face. ‘That means you don’t dare let anything happen to me.’

She turned and moved towards the door.

‘Stop-’

Udo reached towards her. The men guarding the entrance tensed in response. Dakota prayed Udo wasn’t quite as stupid as he sometimes acted. Loud music thudded from beyond the door.

He pulled back his hand, eyes fixed on the guards, his face full of contempt and hate.

One of the guards, a heavily muscled individual with a shaven head, pulled the door open with a nod. The music soared to ear-splitting levels.

‘Severn’s expecting you,’ he bellowed in Dakota’s ear, barely audible over the racket.

‘I know,’ she yelled back, and stepped inside.

Severn’s bar had remained intact through the civil war, surviving under Peralta’s patronage. The interior was dark, apart from the lights above the counter, and illuminated cages against a far wall in which forms more animal than human moved and howled. Men and women sat in deeply shadowed alcoves all around, their faces glistening occasionally in seamy light. She didn’t need to turn around to know that both Corso and Udo were right behind her.

Dakota felt a light pressure against her thigh. Udo had angled his body, leaning in against her, so the knife that had suddenly appeared in his hand remained almost invisible.

‘There are a thousand ways I could kill you right now and nobody would even guess,’ he hissed in her ear. ‘Tell me what you’re trying to do.’

‘I know you come here for the mogs,’ Dakota replied, her voice tight with terror. ‘I know all about it. I want to know where the Hyperion is going, and why.’

The pressure increased. She imagined the wickedly sharp blade cutting through her flesh. Udo’s other hand gripped her shoulder like a steel vice.

‘And in return, you don’t talk? Is that your deal? Let’s sit down then,’ Udo hissed, guiding her towards an empty alcove. Corso followed, looking bewildered.

Severn was close, very close. As she sat down, she could sense him somewhere nearby. She glanced around and spotted him standing behind the bar counter, only a few metres away. He stood with his muscled arms folded, an amused expression on his face. He tilted his head and raised his eyebrows as if asking a question: Dakota responded by shaking her head. Not yet.

Severn had acquired more tattoos since the last time she’d seen him, a few years after the incident at Port Gabriel. They now spread up his shoulders, across his chest where they were clearly visible beneath his shirt, and then curled around his neck.

Unlike many others, he chose not to hide the fact he was a machine-head. His scalp was still shaven, the skin on the back of his head tattooed with diagrams that mirrored the machinery that lay hidden underneath the flesh and bone.

Looking at his skull and face, only an expert would have been able to recognize the reconstructive work done after he’d shot himself, long ago, as Dakota had watched.

Yet despite being one of the most easily recognizable human beings alive, almost no one outside of a very exclusive clientele had even heard of him.

Corso sat down facing the pair of them in the alcove, his hands tightly gripping the edge of the table. ‘Please tell me what’s going on here,’ he urged quietly.

Dakota ignored him. ‘Udo, listen to me. I know the man who runs this place. He’s a machine-head, same as me. We look out for each other. Anything happens to me now, I can guarantee you won’t walk out of here alive.’

Udo glanced over and caught Severn’s eye. The bar owner held Udo’s gaze and moved his head slowly from side to side.

Dakota wondered if she’d pushed the Freeholder too far. ‘Udo, I don’t give a damn what you do in your private life. But you and the rest of the people on that ship sure as fuck don’t do a great job of securing private data.’

‘You have no right looking into those files-’

‘Udo, it’s hard not to look at the files. You’ve been caught before. There was nearly a scandal back on Redstone. We both know just how nasty it’d get for you back home if the truth ever got out.’

Udo pulled his knife back a little, but kept it angled towards her thigh. She was entirely aware that if he cut her the right way, she’d be dead in seconds from blood loss.

‘The only reason you’re still alive,’ he growled, ‘is because it’s my job to keep you alive for as long as we need you.’ The knife twitched against her thigh and Dakota suppressed a gasp. ‘But accidents happen.’ He laughed, the sound not entirely sane. ‘What the fuck made you think you could blackmail me?’

‘Udo.’ It was Corso. He’d seen what Mansell hadn’t. ‘Udo, put the knife away.’

‘Stay out of this,’ Udo snapped back. ‘Or I’ll skewer you where you sit.’

‘Udo, look behind you.’ Corso nodded over Mansell’s left shoulder.

Udo turned his head slightly and stiffened at the sight of the rifle barrel aimed at a spot just below his left ear. One of Severn’s men was standing diagonally right behind him.

‘Evening,’ murmured the guard.

Udo turned back around and gave Dakota a look of baleful hatred.

‘I’m sorry, Lucas,’ said Dakota. ‘But I’m going to have to ask you if there’s anything concerning your expedition I might not already be familiar with.’

Corso sighed as if a burden had settled on his shoulders. ‘Planetary exploration.’

‘And?’

‘And that’s it.’

She turned to Udo, who shook his head. ‘I’ve been threatened by people a lot more dangerous than you,’ he said slowly.

Dakota turned back to Corso with a smile. ‘Did you know your friend here likes to fuck mogs?’

Corso looked between the two of them, as if not quite sure what he’d just heard. ‘Excuse me, what are…?’ he shrugged without finishing, clearly baffled.

‘Udo here has a thing for mogs,’ Dakota repeated, nodding towards the lupine shapes writhing in cages at the far end of the bar.

Corso flipped his gaze between the cages, Dakota and Udo, opening and closing his mouth several times. ‘What… are those things mogs?’

‘It’s a nasty little fetish,’ Dakota added. ‘Not quite bestiality, but close enough.’

‘Not quite? They’re animals, right?’ Corso demanded, his voice rising. ‘Or… what else are they?’

Beside Dakota, Udo sat stock-still. The knife now lay on the table before him, and both his hands were placed palms-down on the tabletop.

‘They’re illegal half-human gene-jobs,’ she explained. ‘Low intelligence, vicious, dumber than an ape but smarter than a dog. There’re a lot of cross-species hacks out there, but that’s the most popular by a long shot. Some are made for fighting, some for sex. In a place like this it’s mostly sex.’

Corso studied Udo with a distinctly different expression from that of a moment before. Dakota was no expert on Freehold culture, but she knew they were deeply conservative in most respects. On Redstone, homosexuality was punishable by a violent death, and the vast majority of art created by the human race throughout its long history was considered part of the corruption the Freehold had set out to escape.

But when it came to a fully fledged Citizen copulating with half-human monsters, Dakota didn’t even want to think what Udo’s own people would do to punish him.

Corso looked like he was turning green. ‘And the Consortium allows this?’

‘Of course not.’ Dakota sighed. ‘But we’re not in Consortium-controlled territory right now. The warlord who rules this district turns a blind eye to certain practices if there’s an advantage to it.’

Corso shook his head. ‘I can’t believe this. It’s… there aren’t words. I can’t even begin to think…’

‘Even if you could prove a word of this,’ Udo snarled, his eyes now drilling into Dakota’s, ‘who would believe you?’

‘I already told you that I know the owner of this place. Severn, right?’

Udo nodded, clearly recognizing the name.

‘Well, he’s a machine-head, you idiot. Our kind stick together, remember? I mean, how do you think he managed to stay alive this long out in the open, if it wasn’t by keeping records on everyone who walks in here?’

Dakota had a strong sense that she could only push Udo so far before his instinct for vengeance would outweigh his sense of self-preservation. His nostrils flared with every breath, and his entire body was trembling with rage.

‘Now here’s the deal,’ she said, glancing at both Freeholders in turn. ‘Tell me the truth, right now, or I walk out of here and neither you nor anyone else on the Hyperion will ever see me again. And I’m prepared to bet you don’t want that.’

They remained mute, so Dakota stood up slowly, making sure Severn’s men could clearly see she was unarmed. ‘Then it’s goodbye, gentlemen.’

‘Wait.’ Udo put up a hand. ‘There’s nowhere you can go, Oorthaus.’

Dakota laughed. ‘Yes there is, Udo. I could jump ship a dozen times and you’d never find me. The Freehold are a spent force, and half the Consortium is going to breathe a sigh of relief when you’re relegated to history. Your own people have got better things to do than come after someone like me.’

‘We found something,’ said Corso, so quietly it took Dakota a moment to register that he’d actually spoken.

Severn stepped across to the alcove, leaning over the table to speak to her, pointedly ignoring the others. ‘You know, whatever favours I owe you-and there’s a lot of them, don’t think I ever forgot-I just paid every one of them back twice over, starting from about five seconds after you walked through that door.’

Udo started to jerk up out of his seat. The guard behind him pulled back his weapon and slammed the stock of it into the back of the Freeholder’s head. Udo’s head twisted around under the impact and he slid over to one side, one hand pressing down against the seat.

Severn stood back and nodded in his direction. ‘What’s your friend’s name?’

‘Udo Mansell. And he isn’t a friend. The other one’s Lucas. I reckon he’s harmless.’

Severn stared down at Udo, who was slowly pushing himself back upright, his eyes focused somewhere far beyond Dakota’s hovering presence. ‘Udo, I want you to stay here for now. Me and…’

He looked at Dakota.

‘Mala,’ she replied.

‘Me and Mala are going to have a little talk. Next time you try something, Grigori here will use the end of his gun that shoots bullets.’

Dakota slid out of the alcove, following Severn as he made his way through a door at the far end of the main bar and into an anteroom beyond. She could hear the sound of mogs yelping and of people yelling beyond another door ahead of them, all mixed up with the loud throb of angry, discordant music. This was where the mog pits lay-and where Severn did his real business.

The instant the door had closed behind them, Severn turned and slammed her against a wall.

‘Whatever the fuck this is all about, Dakota, start from the beginning and don’t leave anything out.’

‘Nice to see you, Chris. How long’s it been?’

‘Not nearly long enough, judging by that little scene. What in the name of all the stars in the sky made you think you could pick my establishment to start a flicking war in?’

‘I didn’t have a choice. The one called Udo-’

‘I know who he is, Dakota!’ Severn bellowed. The rage seemed to go out of him a little then, and he took a step back, rubbing his face with his hands. When he next spoke, he sounded calmer.

‘If people think they can’t come here and be safe, then every machine-head within a couple of hundred light years has a serious fucking problem. You know that, don’t you? I’ve gone to a lot of time and effort to make sure this is one of the few safe places all of us can go-’

‘I’m in trouble,’ Dakota told him baldly.

‘Aren’t we all.’ Severn nodded. ‘Want to tell me how?’

‘You really don’t want to know’

Severn shook his head. ‘Just as much of a fuck-up as you ever were, then.’

‘Look, I got hired by a bunch of Freeholders. They want me to pilot their ship-that frigate that just docked a few hours ago. They told me it’s a standard system evaluation, but I don’t believe them. They won’t tell me where we’re going, and I know they’re hiding something.’

‘Freeholders?’ Severn stared at her disbelievingly. ‘Freeholders hired a machine-head?’

‘The one who’s been here before, I mean Udo, if it came out he likes mogs, he’s a dead man back on Redstone. I needed to get some leverage on him to find out what they’re really up to.’

‘And so you thought it’d be a really good idea to bring him here, because then he’d crumble and confess everything. So tell me, how’s that little plan working out?’

‘Not so well, because neither of them will talk,’ Dakota admitted. ‘I drink my only real option is to disappear.’

Severn looked at her with pity. ‘You’ve sunk a long way, Dak.’

‘I know.’ She grimaced. ‘You don’t need to tell me.’

‘But you’re still not telling me something.’ He stepped closer to her, almost trapping her against the wall. She put one hand on his chest as if in warning, the blood thrumming in her veins.

He continued: ‘The last I heard you were running illegal shipments in the home system. Now you’re here, trying to ditch the Freehold. Were you there on Bourdain’s Rock when it blew up?’

‘I…’ Dakota felt the blood rise to her face and knew she’d given herself away.

‘Shit.’ Severn stepped back and stared at her like he’d never seen her before. ‘Jesus, Dak, I heard they were out looking for a machine-head. They’re going to kill you, you know that?’

‘I had nothing to do with what happened to Bourdain’s Rock, I swear,’ she said, her voice trembling, ‘but I don’t think Bourdain’s the type that goes for rational argument. The Freehold needed a pilot and for some reason they were desperate enough to use a machine-head. But now I know I’m walking into something bad all over again. I’ve been trying to ignore my instincts, and my instincts tell me they’re up to a lot more than they’re admitting.’

Severn nodded, then glanced off to one side. She could tell from his expression he was receiving a communication.

He raised one hand, palm facing towards her. ‘Wait here,’ he instructed. ‘I need to speak to someone. I’ll be right back, OK?’

‘OK,’ she said miserably.

Severn pushed through the far door leading to the mog pits.

A minute passed, and then another. Then waiting any longer became impossible for Dakota. Her life was at stake here.

She went through the same door to look for Severn. The space beyond was not unlike the bar where they had left Udo and Corso, except that a raised catwalk sliced the room almost in half, and there were more barred cages set into recesses high up on the walls to either side.

Below these were more seating alcoves, full of customers. There were far more mogs evident in this part of the building, and she was mildly shocked to see some being led on leashes along the catwalk by bead zombies. She hadn’t ever thought Severn was the type to use zombies, and wondered just how much he’d changed since the last time she’d encountered him. The sight of those headless monstrosities made her queasy in the pit of her stomach.

The mogs on parade had been trained to walk on their hind legs. Most displayed only a hint of human intelligence in their wide dark eyes set above compact, abbreviated snouts. Harsh spotlights glistened on their polished claws and on the metal studs of their leather collars. Some looked considerably more human than any other mogs Dakota had seen before-which made it all seem so much worse.

Severn’s clientele remained mostly out of plain sight, their faces veiled in shadows within the alcoves they occupied. On the far side of the catwalk various doors led to secure rooms where those same clients could enjoy a few purchased hours with a gene-job-or alternatively go and place a bet in the mog fighting pits beyond.

Then Dakota saw just exactly who Severn was talking to.

Moss.

Dakota stepped back into the shadows, neither of them having yet seen her. They seemed to be arguing, and from the look on Severn’s face she guessed Moss was being threatening in some way.

She had recognized Moss almost immediately despite his changed appearance. A large part of his face looked parboiled, the skin on it blotchy red, stretched and twisted like plastic. All his hair was missing above one ear, and the overall effect was monstrous.

It was the kind of disfigurement that might have been fixed by a week spent inside a medbox, but that was clearly an option Moss had foregone. Perhaps he wanted that hideous face to be the last thing she saw before he killed her.

Finally Moss looked over in her direction and almost did a double take.

Shit. She’d forgotten about his visual augmentations. Hiding here in the shadows wasn’t any use: she might as well be standing face to face with him in broad daylight. His eyes glowed dully, his smile twisting like an open wound.

She slammed back through the door into the anteroom, and then found her way back into the front bar. There was just the chance Severn wouldn’t let anything drastic happen here, in public, or in any place that might hurt his lucrative business.

Udo and Corso were still waiting in their alcove, their faces tense and drawn. Their expressions told her that those few minutes they’d been left alone together had turned into some of the longest in either of their lives.

She heard a commotion from the room behind her, then shots followed by the sound of splintering wood, and something heavy being repeatedly slammed against a wall. Customers looked around wildly, and the murmur of conversation around the bar subsided. Udo started to stand up…

The door Dakota had just come through thudded loudly, and she stepped away from it quickly. She now picked up the alarm and rage that was radiating from Severn’s Ghost, and even caught flashes of what he was actually seeing and hearing. For a moment, it felt like she was in two places at once.

He’s warning me, she realized, but with that warning came the knowledge of just how deeply he’d betrayed her. All in a moment’s mind-to-mind data transfer. It was like hearing his confession just prior to execution.

Moss had got here twenty-four hours ahead of the Hyperion, the coreship having seemed a likely means of escape for Dakota. So from the moment of his arrival, Bourdain’s pet killer had tracked down every possible contact she might have here, and had lucked out with Severn. The deal was simple: all Severn had to do was lull her into a false sense of security, and he got to keep his job, his bar and his life.

Except Moss wasn’t really that subtle in the art of negotiation, and Severn had made the mistake of trying to stop him once it became clear that Moss was hellbent on starting a shooting match. The slamming sound Dakota had heard was from Severn’s body being repeatedly thrown against a wall.

The door in front of her suddenly flew open and she found herself almost face to face with Moss. Lightning gloves in place, his hands were outstretched, sparks dancing between his splayed fingers.

Before Dakota had time to react further, she heard an explosion of sound, and Moss staggered back towards the gaping doorway as a red spray erupted from the side of his skull. She instinctively dropped on to the floor, and began to crawl in the direction of the bar’s entrance. All around her Severn’s clientele were screaming and fighting to get out of the way, the sound of their panic mingling with the still-deafening music and the howls of frightened mogs.

Dakota stopped crawling and looked behind her. To her horror, Moss was starting to get up again, having apparently only received a flesh wound. One of his ears was partly ripped away, and blood oozed down the side of his face.

Despite his injuries, Moss threw himself with inhuman speed right past her, swatting at Grigori with a lightning glove before Severn’s chief guard could fire off another shot. Grigori screamed, and then bullets filled the air as the guards by the entrance opened up. Moss pulled the dying guard in front of him, using his twitching half-cooked corpse as a shield.

Hands grabbed at Dakota. Udo and Corso began dragging her towards the far end of the bar, where the mog cages stood. Those customers who hadn’t yet managed to flee cowered behind the meagre shelter of tables and chairs.

Bourdain was a powerful man with vast resources, and he’d clearly had no problem figuring out where she might run to. She’d been fooling herself in thinking she could get out of trouble that easily.

Whatever the Freehold had in store for her, she understood, it couldn’t be any worse than what she’d have to face if she went on the run.

Dakota twisted around and saw Moss stagger back under a fresh hail of bullets, but rather than falling under the onslaught, he leapt on the three armed men crowding around the main entrance, even as they continued to fire bullet after bullet into his body. Either he was wearing armour of some kind, or he’d undergone the kind of extreme body modification that hardened flesh and bones.

Behind her, Dakota saw Udo was now kneeling by one of the mog cages, studying its lock mechanism. His knife was again gripped in a fist. The cages stood on a raised platform, and she watched as the mogs within them howled and snapped and raged, their claws flashing mere millimetres away from her beyond the transparent cage walls.

As she watched, it became obvious that Udo’s knife was a far from ordinary weapon. Its blade shimmered as he touched it to a lock, the metal casing melting like butter. It wasn’t hard to imagine what a weapon like that could to do to a human being.

Dakota felt a thrill of terror when she realized he was trying to free the mogs, even as she understood why he was doing so. Howling in high-pitched anguish, the creatures inside continued to scratch at the transparent walls of their prisons with their long vicious claws.

The first cage door flew open a moment later, and a mog leapt howling over the tops of their heads, and shot straight towards Moss. Udo moved quickly on, destroying the lock mechanisms on five other cages within moments. Each time, a frightened, angry mog headed straight for the entrance, ignoring them.

The only thing between them and their freedom was Moss who, against all odds, was slowly staggering upright again, shoving aside the crumpled corpses of the guards.

Glassy-eyed, his mouth twisted in a frown, he went down under a deluge of sleek fur and snapping jaws. A moment later came a series of high-pitched screams, sounding far more animal than human, as Moss remained invisible beneath the scrabbling mound of fur.

‘Move!’ Udo yelled, and all three of them stumbled past the frenzied scene.

Any normal human would be dead by now, but Dakota felt aware of Moss following her with his eyes as they fled past.

She collapsed in agony and retched violently as a surge of pain shot through her body. Moss had snagged her ankle with a lightning glove as she stumbled past.

Udo came back and kicked out at Moss’s head. Moss responded by letting go of Dakota and grabbing Udo’s leg instead. The Freeholder crumpled to his knees with a shriek, while Moss used his hold on Udo’s body to pull himself out from under the piled corpses of the gene-jobs.

Events felt as if they were occurring at one remove, and Dakota realized her Ghost had taken over. She was distantly aware of her own body lifting itself on all fours to begin crawling towards the entrance.

She glanced behind her and saw Moss staring after her, his face a demon’s mask of fresh blood. She couldn’t determine if Udo was alive or dead.

Despite his near-supernatural capacity for survival, Moss looked like he was about to run out of lives. Like some half-crippled angel of death, he started to drag his broken body towards Dakota, one arm pressed protectively against his side where he’d clearly been badly mauled.

She had not been consciously aware of Udo’s knife lying nearby, half hidden under the warm corpse of a mog, jaws wide and vicious-looking even in death. Under the control of her implants her hand reached out and took a firm grip of the weapon. A violent vibration surged through its handle and rolled up Dakota’s arm, making her teeth rattle.

Moss was almost on her. He saw the knife too late. Dakota twisted on to her back as Moss hauled himself on top of her. Splaying her fingers across the twisted ruins of his face, she slid the blade cleanly across his exposed neck. A fountain of blood spilled over her.

She had barely applied any pressure to it, yet Udo’s weapon had very nearly severed Moss’s head from his neck. His body slumped immediately, without even a twitch, his gloves sparking and flaring as they came into contact with the damp floor. Dakota gasped and twisted in terror, trying to get away from them.

She started to shake uncontrollably, feeling her body come back under her own control. The music had long stopped playing.

‘Mala?’ It was Corso, dragging her away from the carnage, the sleeves of his jacket splashed red with blood. ‘Are you OK?’

Dakota made a noise that was halfway to a laugh.

‘That man that tried to kill you? Who the fuck was he?’

‘An old friend,’ Dakota gasped. ‘Where’s Udo?’

‘He’s not in good shape, but it looks like he’s still breathing.’

Dakota’s breath grew steadier as her Ghost smoothed out her brain waves, taking control of her nervous system so as to keep her from slipping into shock.

‘Lucas, I have to tell you. I have enemies.’

‘You don’t say.’

‘But so do you, right? That’s what you said earlier, or have I got that wrong? You’re not on this expedition just because you want to be. You said there were people on Redstone…’

The last few of Severn’s clientele had fled, along with those few of his guards who were still standing. They’d pulled the entrance door closed, and Dakota guessed it was almost certainly now locked. She managed to stagger to her feet with Corso’s help.

As he took her by the shoulders, she stared dazedly into his frightened eyes. At some point he’d taken the knife from her without her noticing.

‘Let’s be clear on this, Mala,’ he croaked. ‘I’d rather kill you than see you renege on your deal with us. Arbenz is nothing better than an opportunist using our war with the Uchidans to make his grab for power. But the fact remains he’s in a position to hurt people I care about, so for the moment I really, really want to give him exactly what he wants. Understand me?’

She turned away from him and went to kneel down beside Udo. The stricken man’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, but he looked bad. As she peeled back one of his eyelids, the pupil shrank in response to the meagre light illuminating the bar.

Probably no serious brain damage, she decided. At least, no more than before.

‘I think he’ll survive.’ She slumped back on her heels. ‘And I’m not going anywhere, Corso.’

‘But you said-’

‘All I want is the truth. The only person who’s come near to providing that is you. Besides, someone’s going to have to tell me eventually-right?’

Corso swallowed. ‘Fine. It was a standard system reconnaissance, at least at first, but… we found something there we didn’t expect to find.’

‘Found what exactly?’

‘Not here.’ Corso shook his head. He looked frightened.

A hand brushed against Dakota’s shin and she nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked down in horror to find Udo’s eyes fixed on her.

‘Mala. Oorthaus.’ His voice was dry and cracked, like a desert rock that had suddenly developed the ability to speak. ‘I challenge you. To the death.’

Dakota started to speak, but Udo shook his head slowly and she fell silent.

‘But not yet. For now I will say nothing. But one day I will meet you with equal arms, and I will kill you.’ He coughed with considerable effort. ‘We were attacked by Uchidan agents. That’s our story, do you understand? Betray me, and I betray you.’

Udo’s head slumped back, a long guttural sigh escaping from his throat as he passed out again.

‘You know,’ Dakota said to Corso a moment later, ‘he meant you as well. He’ll kill you if you talk about what you know.’

‘And what about you, Dakota? Would you kill me if I told Arbenz what really took place here?’

She looked away for a moment, caught in indecision.

The need once again to put her trust in someone reasserted itself. Just holding herself together like this -amid the ineffable loneliness and constant terror of her predicament-was pushing her to the edge of sanity.

Dead, Lucas Corso would be one less witness. The same went for Udo, now prone on the floor. But if she were the only survivor among these three, who would ever believe her story?

‘The man who tried to kill me is called Moss,’ she informed Corso.

He looked like he was waiting to hear more, but she was saved by the sound of voices shouting in the alley outside. Dakota grabbed Corso’s arm and started to tug him back towards the rear door leading into the anteroom. Perhaps they could find a way out through the rear of the building.

Corso followed her, apparently in too much of a daze to resist. ‘I don’t know if I can believe anything you say,’ he muttered.

‘I don’t know how much I can trust you either but, for what it’s worth, right now I’m probably a lot safer on board the Hyperion than anywhere else.’

There was a bright burst of light, and the entrance door blew inwards. Smoke started billowing and tall shapes entered the bar. Kieran Mansell stepped out of the smoke first, closely followed by armed men and women wearing Peralta’s colours.

He surveyed the destruction with a candid eye. ‘Somebody,’ he grated, ‘has one fuck of a lot of explaining to do.’

* * * *

The post-mortem interrogations took the better part of two days.

Arbenz had meanwhile confined everyone to the Hyperion until the ‘nature of the threat’ could be assessed. Whatever presence the Consortium maintained on board the giant coreship remained noticeably quiet. But, from what Corso understood, the local Consortium officers were adept at turning a blind eye to any activities involving Peralta.

Contrary to his own orders, Arbenz subsequently himself spent a great deal of time away from the Hyperion. Nobody seemed in a hurry to tell Corso what was going on but, from what he gathered, the Senator was busy in some form of negotiations with Peralta, probably by way of damage limitation.

In the meantime Corso paced around inside his quarters, avoiding Arbenz’s cronies as far as humanly possible. He kept his thoughts from loneliness and frequent bouts of despair by diving deep into his research.

It was becoming clear that whoever or whatever the Magi had been, they’d been in contact with the Shoal for at least a couple of thousand years before their sudden disappearance. Contained within the codes recovered from the Magi derelict were tantalizing clues, random hints that might finally reveal where the strange craft had originated.

But so far, these were only hints-barely enough to let Corso make some tentative guesses.

He discovered that the derelict had, for some reason, been fleeing the Shoal when it had crash-landed on the icy moon of a gas-giant-where it had recently come to light. Had the Magi therefore been rivals to the Shoal, a star-faring race that also shared the secret of faster-than -light travel?

Anything seemed possible as he explored further, but all Corso really had so far was speculation.

‘My brother is under deep sedation,’ Kieran Mansell explained to Corso during a lengthy interrogation in private. Kieran paced constantly, hands folded behind his back, while Corso sat on a low chair that forced him to look up at his questioner. ‘He’ll probably remain in a medbox for a few weeks, as the damage to his nervous system is particularly severe. That means he may not regain full use of his faculties for some time, and he didn’t manage to say much before he went under sedation. But what he did have to say was… contradictory. For now, all we have to go on is the joint testimony supplied by you and the woman Mala Oorthaus.’

Corso had become aware that a large part of Arbenz’s current negotiations with Peralta were over the General’s refusal to allow him access to Severn’s surveillance records.

‘Remind me again why you decided to go to that particular establishment.’ Kieran hovered over Corso, violence implicit in his gaze.

‘I… told you, Mala led us to it. It was because she knew a machine-head she expected to be there.’

The disbelieving look Kieran gave him went on for ever. ‘Do you know how very easy it is to tell when someone is lying? My brother, my own brother, lied to me. He told me the man who attacked you was a Uchidan agent.’ Kieran pounded his chest with his fist as he yelled the words. ‘You know,’ he screamed, one gloved finger pointed at Corso cowering in his seat, ‘how important this expedition is to us all. Just one deception could bring all this crashing down.’

Kieran paused and stared at him like he was looking for confirmation.

‘If Udo said he was a Uchidan agent… then I guess maybe he was,’ Corso stuttered.

Face turning red, Kieran took a few steps forward and kicked Corso’s chair over, sending the younger man sprawling. Corso yelled as he hit the floor and put up his hands to protect himself. Mansell stood over him, fists knotted, nostrils flaring. Then he seemed to get a hold on himself and righted the chair, before walking to the far end of the room. Arms folded, he stood staring at the wall as if answers might spontaneously materialize out of its smooth grey surface.

‘Whoever the attacker in that bar turns out to be, it appears his boarding of this coreship was effectively invisible-which implies very powerful contacts. But this… incident has already attracted us too much attention. We’ve been noticed.’

‘What about Mala? What happens to her?’

‘I notice you’re on first-name terms now,’ Kieran sneered, glancing back over his shoulder. ‘What about her? She’s a means to an end, nothing more. But you have your own duty to the Freehold. And to your family.’

A means to an end. As Corso listened to the words he understood the greater meaning implicit in them. He himself was no more important than Mala was in the Senator’s grand plan to save the Freehold.

And he knew there was no reason to think either of them would be allowed to live, once their usefulness was gone.

* * * *

Fifteen

In a few days’ time, the coreship would reach what Lucas Corso now knew to be the Nova Arctis system. The great vessel would make the briefest stop to unload them, barely braking as it momentarily dropped out of transluminal space. From that point on, the Hyperion would use up a sizeable fraction of its remaining fuel in the process of decelerating from a significant percentage of the speed of light, until they reached their target.

Corso had endured sleepless nights, and longer days, sustained only by his work. He fell into a rhythm, leaving his quarters within the Hyperion’s gravity wheel only when absolutely necessary.

One evening he came across Mala by chance in another part of the ship, and he faltered, unsure what to say to her.

The best course of action, he’d already decided, following his first interrogation, would be to maintain a discreet and polite distance from her, if humanly possible. Several days after the incident in Severn’s bar, relationships on board the Hyperion were at best tense, at worst edging towards violence.

She brushed straight by him and-since they were in a part of the ship that didn’t benefit from centrifugal gravity-continued floating down the corridor as if she hadn’t seen him. Corso had no idea what to think of that: part of him felt intensely relieved, but a larger part was annoyed as hell. Surely he deserved a bit more consideration?

Maybe he was suffering from a crisis of conscience. He’d stood by and watched as his own worst enemies had hired her, an outsider, under false pretences. Did that make himself and Mala allies by default-or, at best, potential co-conspirators?

Rather than deal with such complex considerations, Corso dived back into his research work: endlessly investigating, teasing information apart, driving himself to understand, to see into the mind of a species so long departed from the galaxy.

And then the first of two strange events occurred.

Within the bridge was a planetarium simulator, a piece of equipment a lot more recent than almost anything else on board the ship. Even better, its databases were well up to date. That day he was intending to make use of it to check and double-check the fragments of the drive records aboard the derelict spacecraft which hinted at an extra-galactic origin.

Corso arrived at the entrance to the bridge only to find Mala already seated in the interface chair, running the same planetarium program. The chair’s petals were neatly folded up at the base of the chair. She was facing away from him, so wouldn’t have seen him enter.

The program had meanwhile transformed the bridge into a god’s eye view of the Milky Way. Images of star clusters slid past Corso’s nose as they rotated across Dakota’s viewpoint. The images filled the entire chamber.

As he watched, the Milky Way suddenly shrank, Dakota’s viewpoint zooming outwards, until the two dwarf Magellan galaxies accompanying the Milky Way suddenly hove into view. Corso was startled to see lines of trajectory suddenly flare out from the larger of these dwarf galaxies, multiplying until thousands upon thousands of such lines reached deep into the heart of the Milky Way.

He stepped forward, fascinated. This wasn’t so far from his own speculations regarding the derelict craft’s origins.

And yet…

This couldn’t possibly be a coincidence: there was no way Mala could have already discovered the derelict’s existence, or become aware of Corso’s carefully accumulated researches.

But the evidence was there in front of him, arcing across the curving empty space of the bridge.

The simulation suddenly shut down, reverting the bridge to all its mundane normality. Corso moved forward around one side of the interface chair, where…

He took a step back.

Mala lay slumped in the seat, her head lolling against the headrest, her jaw slack and drooling, as if she had completely lost her mind. Her eyes had rolled up in their sockets, apparently seeing nothing. He stared down at her, dumbfounded.

Then, as her eyes suddenly focused on him, Corso had the eerie sensation that something inhuman was staring back at him. When he had time to think about it later, it was as if some subtle shift had taken place in the way her face muscles moved. As if someone or something else briefly inhabited her skin.

Of course, he could have merely imagined it, the impression was so fleeting. Yet he couldn’t rid himself of the eerie sensation he’d seen something he wasn’t meant to see.

Then Mala’s eyes cleared and her head straightened up as if she’d just awoken. She blinked and gave him a curious smile, as if pleasantly surprised to find him standing there.

‘What were you doing just then?’ Corso asked her, keeping his tone casual. It was the most he’d managed to say to her in several days.

‘I…’ Her face clouded for a moment as if trying hard to remember. ‘Just routine stuff. I was reconfiguring some of the ship’s systems.’

‘And nothing else?’ Corso could feel his heart hammering. ‘What about the planetarium program?’

‘What about it?’

‘You were running it just now.’

Mala gave him a blank look. ‘I told you what I’ve been doing. I don’t have time for this. You look like you’re accusing me of something.’

Corso felt his frustration grow, yet she appeared genuinely to have no idea what he was talking about.

‘Does Arbenz know you’re here?’

Mala looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. ‘Corso, being here is my job. There’s no point in my being on board if I’m not.’

* * * *

His second bizarre encounter with her took place a day or two later.

They were within a few hours of the Hyperion’s departure from the coreship. Arbenz’s frequent trips into Ascension had meanwhile begun to tail off. Kieran Mansell ran continuous, obsessive security checks that required frequent attendance from everyone on board -more for Kieran’s own peace of mind than anything else, Corso suspected.

Udo, meantime, floated dreamless and insensate within his medbox, as his flesh repaired itself with the help of cloned grafts and neuro-enhancements. The worst part for them all was the waiting. Udo was unpredictable enough already, and Corso had no real idea what the man might say once he regained consciousness. But good sense seemed to prevail in the end, and Mala had been right in suggesting Udo would have too much to lose in speaking out against her.

Corso finally tired of the claustrophobic confines of his quarters and would go for long tours through the ship, wandering its deserted corridors and drop shafts. Part of the Hyperion’s zero-gee environment, the drop shafts had been transformed into vertical wells by the coreship’s induced gravity. Pulling himself up and down the rungs was hard work, but it served to take his mind off his other worries.

Ever since he had found Mala in the interface chair surrounded by images of the Magellanic Clouds, Corso had been working hard on all the data assembled, increasingly convinced, no matter how impossible it appeared, that the key to the derelict’s final secrets lay in the images he had seen so briefly there on the bridge.

During his wanderings, in the final few hours before their departure from the coreship, Corso had again found his way aft when he heard the distinctive whine of the airlock servos in operation. He had previously been delivering a verbal progress report to Gardner, the Senator, and Kieran Mansell, so knew that none of them was likely to be down this way.

Puzzled, he made his way towards the airlocks: they were the same ones they’d used on exiting the Hyperion for their trip into Ascension. But when he got there moments later, he found no one in sight. So what had he heard just a few moments before?

Then he heard a clang of metal coming from not so far away, and followed the sound fruitlessly down a passageway. He suspected it could only have been caused by Mala, but there was no sign of her.

By chance he glanced up, and caught sight of her lithe form clambering silently up the rungs of a drop shaft. She swiftly hoisted herself into the corridor of the next level up and disappeared from view.

‘Hey!’ Corso shouted.

Moving fast, he pulled himself up after her, breathing hard by the time he reached the top. He emerged into the same corridor only to catch sight of her rapidly retreating figure.

‘Hey!’ he shouted again, and began running after her. Dakota kept moving as if she hadn’t heard him.

He caught up with her and grabbed her arm, pulling her around. She blinked in surprise and seemed to recognize him only after a long moment.

‘What? What is it?’ She sounded flustered.

‘Where were you?’ Corso gasped. ‘I heard the airlock working, and… were you outside the ship?’

Mala stared at him like he was mad. ‘No, I was right here, checking the manual systems prior to launch.’

‘Mala, I heard the airlock closing. That means somebody came in from outside, and you’re the only one around. If it wasn’t you, who was it, then?’

She shook her head like she was tired of talking. ‘You’re getting paranoid, Lucas. It wasn’t me. Go check the onboard records if you like.’

When he did so, what he found there was frustrating-and worrying.

The security logs showed his recent encounter with Mala, but that was all. There was nothing to suggest anyone apart from Arbenz had either entered or departed the Hyperion for days. Mala was clearly shown walking directly from her quarters towards the aft engines and right past the airlocks. Three of the others were already accounted for, while Udo remained lost to the world in his chemically induced sleep within the medical bay.

But he’d definitely heard the airlock mechanisms operating, whatever the security records showed. That wasn’t the kind of thing you could imagine.

There was something too convenient about it all. Was it possible, he wondered, for the logs to be faked? Or was he himself simply descending into irretrievable paranoia and madness?

Corso debated taking his doubts to Arbenz, but decided against that. Despite everything, Mala Oorthaus was not his real enemy here. She was not in any way responsible for the predicament facing his family, and he was increasingly ashamed to acknowledge how thoroughly complicit he had been in sealing her fate in a way not likely to be pleasant. In truth, he was no better than Senator Arbenz.

True, she was strange, but Freehold society placed clear formal limits on any social contact between men and women, so for him there was something brazenly different about Mala that made her seem far more attractive than any of the Freehold women Corso was used to.

Her obvious terror of what secrets Arbenz might be keeping from her had awoken within Corso an increasing awareness of their joint insignificance in the scheme of things. Once Arbenz and Gardner had achieved what they wanted, he himself would become an unwanted witness to a crime as yet uncommitted. Yet they meanwhile depended on him to open the treasure box.

What to do then, Corso wondered? Was the Senator a man he could trust to keep his word and give him as well as his family their freedom? Or was holding on to that belief just a way to keep himself sane?

And so he decided to remain silent, and bide his time.

* * * *

Sixteen

Corso watched from his seat as Arbenz and Gardner stood in mumbled conversation by the meeting room’s doorway. In the past he had often entered this same room to find the two of them already in heated argument.

Each time, as Corso took his seat ready to give his daily briefing on the derelict, their voices would suddenly drop to low whispers, broken by sudden pauses, while they would both cast sideways glances towards him. If Corso hadn’t been so busy wishing the pair of them dead, it would have been comical.

But this time, they didn’t seem so concerned about Corso overhearing them.

A fresh news squirt from Redstone, picked up only a few hours ago, brought the news that Aguirre, a Freehold city on the coast of the Mount Mor peninsula, had surrendered to Uchidan military forces after a long siege. The siege itself was almost certainly in reprisal for bombing raids against Uchidan damming operations on the Ka River.

At almost the same time, disruptor probes had nearly destroyed the Freehold orbital frigate Rorqual Maru. With this grim news came the inevitable, though unfounded, rumours that the Consortium was engaged in talks about intervening on the Freehold’s side, but Corso remained sceptical that any such intervention would ever happen. After all, there were no valuable scientists like Banville for the Consortium to try and recover this time.

Corso had belatedly come to accept that Arbenz might be right in believing the Freehold’s only real hope of continued survival lay somewhere inside the derelict. That the Senator should represent the best hope of achieving that salvation was, to his mind, the greatest tragedy of all.

With the disastrous loss of Aguirre to the enemy, Arbenz had been torn over whether he himself should continue on to Nova Arctis, or instead make his way back to Redstone via the coreship. That would have meant leaving Kieran in charge of the recovery operation, a concept that understandably infuriated Gardner.

‘It’s an intolerable idea,’ Gardner now raged. ‘There is absolutely no excuse for you to simply walk away!’

‘David-’

‘I am not going to be left on my own to deal with Kieran or his appalling brother,’ Gardner spat. ‘Why, Senator, are they even here?’

‘They’re here because I trust them,’ Arbenz replied just as heatedly.

Gardner laughed in disbelief. ‘Look me in the eye, Senator, and tell me how much you really want either Kieran or Udo making decisions over how we handle the derelict. As talking guard dogs they’re great, but do you seriously want to give them that much responsibility? Do you?’

Arbenz opened his mouth to reply, then seemed to think better of it. The other man’s argument had clearly hit home to some extent. He shook his head angrily and took a seat at the table across from Corso, without another word.

‘He’s far too much of a wild card to be left in charge of something this vital,’ Gardner added as he took his own seat, though sounding more even-tempered now he’d made his point. ‘Retrieving the derelict, winning your war-they’re the same thing, Senator. One secures you the other, and you’ll do much more good for the Freehold here than back on Redstone.’

Without being asked, Corso activated the holo display, bringing up an image of their destination. Planets and gas-giants hovered in the air above the table, woven together by bright lines of plotted trajectory.

At that moment Kieran entered the room, as ever the last to arrive. He took a seat at the table.

‘Base Camp on the moon Theona reports no new systems activity on board the derelict since we delineated the parameters of its defence grids,’ Kieran informed them without delay. ‘We were worried it might be transmitting some kind of distress signal after we screwed up getting on board the first time, but it looks like it was just a glitch in our own monitoring systems.’

‘Good.’ Gardner folded his arms, looking pleased. ‘The last thing we want is it broadcasting anything the Shoal can pick up.’

Arbenz nodded to Corso. ‘I believe we’ve been making good progress in reverse-engineering the derelict’s computer systems?’

‘Based on the available simulations, yes,’ Corso replied.

Gardner leaned forward. ‘Is the machine-head interface aboard the derelict ready?’

‘Pretty much, though I’m still running tests. But we can’t be sure how well it’s going to work until we actually plug Mala into it. The problem is that a large part of the simulation I’ve been working with is, by necessity, constructed mainly from best guesses. Until we actually get there, it’s all we’ve got.’

‘You understand, don’t you,’ Gardner pointed out, ‘that there’s absolutely no room for error.’

‘Look, we already know the derelict is extremely sophisticated when it comes to defending itself,’ Corso replied. ‘Two of the investigative teams you’ve already sent in vanished without a trace before you finally got even a part of it under control. But when we activate the real interface, I know for a fact we’re going to open up areas of the derelict a lot deeper than anything you’ve managed yet. And, yes, I feel pretty confident that what I’ve put together will work. But the fact remains, until we switch the chair on, with Mala sitting in it, whatever happens next is anybody’s guess.’

Corso chose his next words carefully. ‘Senator, I have a question, if I may speak freely?’

Arbenz nodded.

‘Assuming we’re successful in extracting a working star drive from the derelict… what happens next? What are the long-term plans, beyond winning the war against the Uchidans? Do we keep the technology, or share it with the Consortium?’

Arbenz grinned.

‘You have no right whatsoever to ask that question,’ Kieran interrupted flatly. ‘Your job is to-’

Arbenz gestured Kieran to silence and turned back to Corso. ‘Imagine the glorious future for the Freehold when it can go anywhere in the galaxy it chooses, Corso. We could conquer whole worlds, recruit vast armies to support our expansion. I see no reason why the Shoal wouldn’t eventually succumb before us, given time. The entire galaxy would fall before us. Picture it: a human hegemony, spread across the face of the Milky Way. A glorious, wonderful future for us all, if we only have the courage to seize the prize before us.’

Corso forced a smile and nodded with feigned approval, but his heart wasn’t in it. This was the same attitude that had confined the Freehold in a desolate corner of human space, the same attitude that was now losing them a war. He knew he didn’t have the courage to tell any of them what he really thought: that if the Consortium didn’t crush them once they knew what the Freehold had acquired-if they could extract the drive engines, if they could reproduce the technology, if, if- then the Shoal would certainly do the job instead.

‘That’s exactly what I was thinking,’ he lied.

Kieran changed the subject. ‘We have to discuss the machine-head pilot. I’m concerned about the degree of control we’ve already given her over the Hyperion. I’m far from comfortable about giving her even a fraction as much control over the derelict.’

‘You’ll recall the failsafes, Kieran.’

‘Senator,’ Kieran continued, ‘were you anywhere near Port Gabriel during the atrocities that occurred there?’

Arbenz raised an eyebrow, looking suddenly unhappy at Kieran’s new line of questioning. ‘No.’

‘Well, I was, and the machine-heads killed everyone they came into contact with. No-more than that: they tore them apart. They decorated the streets of the city with the corpses of women and children. They carved the Uchidan symbol of unity into the bodies of infants and then put them back in the arms of their dying parents.’

‘Whatever your point is,’ said the Senator, between gritted teeth, ‘hurry up and make it.’

‘I’m not convinced that Oorthaus won’t find some way to circumvent Corso’s failsafes. It’s easy to underestimate what any human being with Ghost implants can do.’

‘The machine-heads who took part in the massacre weren’t responsible for what they did, Kieran,’ Gardner pointed out. ‘It was a failure of the technology, not the people using it.’

‘Machine-heads are outlawed because they’re uniquely vulnerable to outside control,’ Kieran bristled. ‘We have no guarantees this woman isn’t really a Trojan horse under the control of our enemies!’

‘Kieran,’ Arbenz’s tone was rising, ‘right now, whether we like it or not, we need her, and our window of opportunity is narrow. Every one of our scientific advisers has agreed it will take a machine-head interface to control the derelict. We are therefore not going to discuss the pros and cons of this any further.’

Corso’s own grandfather, Silas, had been working at the university in Port Gabriel when the massacre there took place. A Consortium ship had come thudding down in the Square of Heroes, a few blocks from the campus. They’d had to identify him later from DNA analysis of his remains, after they finished digging through the rubble. Silas wasn’t the only person Corso had known who had died during the horrific assault. Most people belonging to the Freehold knew someone, or was related to someone, who’d been injured or killed at that time.

Images of the dropships falling on Port Gabriel, like avenging angels, had played on Freehold news networks for months afterward, entirely uncensored.

An angry silence passed between the two men, before Kieran finally sucked it up. ‘I apologize, Senator. I didn’t mean to question your authority.’

‘Accepted. But your point is taken.’

‘Actually,’ said Gardner, speaking into the silence that followed, ‘while we’re on the subject, I’ve been looking further into what happened in that mog bar.’

Arbenz groaned. ‘We’ve been over this, David.’

‘Well, I’ve been making my own enquiries, Senator. I’ve managed to identify the man who attacked Udo.’

Arbenz looked disbelieving. ‘I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out everything I can about him, but none of the General’s people could discover anything.’

‘I have my own sources,’ Gardner continued, ‘and it seems the assassin’s name was Hugh Moss, an employee of Alexander Bourdain.’

Corso looked down at his hands where they were clenched together on the tabletop, and saw his knuckles were white with tension.

A look flashed between Kieran and Arbenz. ‘How did you come by this?’ demanded the Senator, turning back to Gardner.

Gardner smiled tightly. ‘I had my own suspicions, and I’ve friends in the Consortium Legislate who owe me favours. It turns out the General has a profitable long-term working relationship with Bourdain, based on the trade and gene-cultivation of mogs, so it’s hardly surprising he didn’t want to tell you anything that might compromise his relationship with one of his best customers.’

‘But why would Bourdain send someone to try and stop us?’ said Kieran, gripping the edge of the table with both hands. ‘Or are you telling us Bourdain already knows about the derelict?’

Gardner shook his head. ‘You’re looking for the wrong answers. Let’s recap on some recent events: first, Bourdain’s new world detonated in an act of apparent terrorism. Then Mala Oorthaus showed up looking for work that would take her safely out of the Sol System.’

Arbenz didn’t look convinced. ‘You were the one responsible for hiring her, David. Why didn’t you check all this out back then?’

‘I did,’ Gardner stated flatly. ‘But we were pressed for time, and machine-heads aren’t easy to come by any more, remember? All I knew about her came through Josef Marados, and it turns out he was murdered just before our departure from Mesa Ver