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

The Thousand Emperors

Gary Gibson


antiqueGaryGibsonThe Thousand EmperorsenGaryGibsoncalibre 0.9.219.10.20122998c630-c4b6-4336-b64c-38f516e5fc381.0

Contents

PROLOGUE

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

EPILOGUE

In brief, then, human history can be split into two parts: the period occurring before the destruction of all life on Earth in the year 2235 C.E., and that following those terrible, final days.

At the time, a network of wormhole connections or ‘transfer gates’ linked Earth via its moon to its interstellar colonies, though few were aware that secret exploratory missions had uncovered the existence of a second, incomparably vast wormhole network, created by aliens we now call the Founders. Certain Founder artefacts were brought back to Earth with devastating results when one was somehow activated, leading to the sterilization of the Earth within days. If not for the deliberate destruction of the Lunar Gate Array, the same fate might also have been visited upon the colonies. It is this period we now call the Abandonment. The Western Coalition, as it was then known, having recognized that the Earth was doomed, initiated a rapid and successful military takeover of every colony apart from Galileo.

The decades following the Abandonment were hard, lean times, but barely half a century later starships carrying new, retro-engineered transfer gates were already being sent out to reconnect the colonies one to another. It is in this period that the template for the modern political order was laid down.

Although the Western Coalition – by this time, simply the Coalition – had seized political and military control of the colonial governments, the general populations of those worlds had been predominantly drawn from member nations of the former Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Coalition–Sphere relations were already deeply antagonistic prior to the Abandonment, and became more so, inevitably flowering into a full-fledged revolt a century after the Coalition’s takeover.

The uprising proved to be bitter and protracted, but ended with several worlds finally achieving autonomy from Coalition rule. These worlds – Da Vinci (now Benares), Newton (now New Samarkand), Franklin (now Temur), Galileo (now Novaya Zvezda), Yue Shijie, and Acamar – became known collectively as the Tian Di, and were ruled from Temur by a council of revolutionary leaders numbering nearly a thousand. Although far from being a democracy, this Temur Council provided much-needed stability in the post-revolutionary period.

While the Tian Di and the Coalition co-existed in relative peace over the next several decades, they rapidly diverged both culturally and technologically. The Coalition first renewed and then stepped up its exploration of the Founder Network, despite increasingly alarmed protests from the Temur Council, whose members were afraid of a repeat of the events leading to the Abandonment.

It is undoubted that the Temur Council lacked for effective leadership in the years immediately preceding what we now call the Schism, and the power vacuum following Salomón Lintz’s forced resignation as the Council’s Chairman offered a clear opportunity for a man as ruthlessly determined as Joseph Cheng. Cheng soon swept to power on the wave of a popular coup, and the promise that he would sever all transfer gates linking to the Coalition to prevent any possible repeat of the Abandonment.

Cheng soon fulfilled his promise and, within days of becoming Permanent Chairman of the Temur Council, the human race was effectively split in two. Those few members of the Temur Council who had openly opposed Cheng’s rise to power, including, most prominently, myself and Winchell Antonov, were either imprisoned, forced into exile, or executed on trumped-up charges.

It cannot be denied that the period immediately following the Schism was marked by unprecedented peace throughout the Tian Di. The quality of life for our citizens improved by such leaps and bounds that there was, for a long time, little to no demand throughout the Tian Di for moves towards more democratic representation. The one real exception, of course, was Benares – a world of limited resources, cruelly under-represented within the Council. It was on Benares that Winchell Antonov, having escaped his imprisonment, founded the Black Lotus organization. Antonov is also credited with giving Cheng’s Council the less than flattering sobriquet The Thousand Emperors.

At the time of writing, the Council continues to enjoy privileges unavailable to the wider population, most notably the instantiation lattices that grant them effective immortality through mind-state backups and cloned bodies. It is becoming harder for them to justify this exclusivity, now that the hardship of the post-Abandonment period and the violence of the Schism are little more than history lessons to the majority of the Tian Di’s citizens. At the same time, calls for greater public participation in the running of the Tian Di are slowly beginning to grow, even on Temur. There are even calls to reunite with the Coalition which, expectations to the contrary, appears from our limited communications with them to have flourished in the intervening two centuries.

Such calls have long gone unanswered. Cheng has meanwhile begun to retreat more and more from public view, surrounding himself with a circle of trusted advisors known as the Eighty-Five, from whom little is heard bar the occasional official pronouncement.

To this day, there is much concerning Cheng’s past that is dangerous to speak of publicly. The Council has worked hard to alter the facts of the past to suit its vision of our future, making it at times extraordinarily difficult to separate truth from fiction.

I write these words with no certainty that they will ever be read. But I am an optimist, even here in my prison, and it remains my hope that I can present to you, the reader – when or wheresoever you might be – some approximation of our true history in the following pages.

Excerpt from A History of the Tian Di: Volume 1 – From Abandonment to Schism by Javier Maxwell.

ONE

‘Gabion.’

Luc turned to see Marroqui stabbing a finger at him from across the hold, his face dimly visible within his helmet.

‘Close your visor, Goddamn it,’ said Marroqui, his voice flat and dull in the cramped confines of the hold. ‘Depressurization in less than thirty seconds. We’re landing.’

Luc reached up and snapped his helmet’s visor into place, ignoring the smirking expressions of the armour-suited Sandoz warriors arrayed in crash couches around him. They were crammed in close to each other, bathed in red light.

An alarm sounded at the same moment that the lander carrying them began to jerk with abrupt and sudden violence. Marroqui had warned him about this, explaining that the lander had been programmed with evasive routines designed to reduce the chances of their being shot down by hidden ordnance. Even so, the breath caught in Luc’s throat, and he pictured the craft slamming into Aeschere’s pockmarked face at a thousand kilometres an hour, scattering their shredded remains far and wide. But the shaking soon subsided, and he finally remembered to exhale, although his hands appeared unwilling to release their death-grip on the armrests of his couch.

The lander lurched gently, and the alarm stopped as suddenly as it had begun. They were down.

A ceiling-mounted readout showed the air pressure in the lander dropping to zero. The rumbling sounds of the craft’s internal workings soon faded away, leaving Luc with nothing but the sound of his own half-panicked breath.

Their harnesses parted all at once, sliding into hidden recesses as one wall of the hold dropped down, becoming a ramp leading onto the moon’s surface. Thick dust, kicked up by their landing, swirled into the hold as the suited figures surrounding Luc climbed out of their couches, looking like an army of armoured bipedal insects as they moved down the ramp with practised efficiency.

The hydraulics in Luc’s suit whined faintly as he followed, stepping onto the dusty floor of a crater about thirty kilometres across. He glanced back in time to see the lander leap upwards before its ramp had time to fully snap back into place, quickly receding to a distant dark spot against Grendel’s cloudscape.

Luc hastened to keep up with the Sandoz warriors hustling towards the wall of the crater just a few hundred metres away. All around him he could see dozens of black hemispheres scattered across the crater floor.

Several black spheres thudded into the dust not far from him, dropped from orbit by some unmanned Sandoz scout ship. He saw one crack in half like an egg, disgorging a metal-limbed mechant barely larger than his fist. The machine span in a half-circle until it had acquired its target, then rushed ahead of him in a flurry of fast-moving limbs.

Being this up close and personal with a Sandoz Clan reminded Luc just how little he’d enjoyed the experience on every previous occasion he’d had the privilege. It was like bathing in an ocean of testosterone and barely suppressed rage. He saw the way they looked at him: a mere Archivist, for God’s sake, some kind of jumped-up librarian from one of SecInt’s less glamorous divisions and, worse, a civilian.

It was a common fallacy. He could have pointed out that rather than being a librarian, he was instead a fully accredited investigative agent, and that rather than being some minor part of SecInt, Archives was in fact that organization’s primary intelligence-gathering resource. But it would just have been one more opportunity for Marroqui to bitch about having him tag along.

He had to remind himself that the Sandoz Clans looked down on everyone, not just him. Each Clan operated more like a family than anything resembling a traditional military unit, borne as they were out of a strange amalgam of religion, gene-tweaking and asceticism. They all spent their formative years training in the combat temples of Temur’s equatorial jungles, and took advantage of instantiation technology otherwise reserved for members of the Temur Council. That, plus their unwavering and very nearly fanatical devotion to Father Cheng, made them close to unstoppable.

Luc’s CogNet informed him that sunrise was less than one hundred and eight seconds away. Marroqui was cutting it close.

He stared ahead towards the crater wall, and the monastery entrance set into it. His eyes automatically moved up to regard the crater’s rim, already incandescent from the approaching dawn. Grendel rose above Aeschere’s horizon to the west, thick bands of methane and hydrogen wrapped around the gas giant’s equator, glowing with the reflected heat of the star it orbited at a distance of just a few million kilometres. The sight of it made his skin crawl.

<Mr Gabion,> Marroqui scripted at him, <unless you’ve ever wondered what being cremated feels like, I wouldn’t linger.>

And fuck you too, thought Luc, picking up the pace and racing to catch up with the rest. Grey dust like funeral ashes puffed up with every step.

It had all started with Luc’s discovery of an insurgent data-cache in a vault on Jannah, an uninhabitable world of perpetual storms in the Yue Shijie system. Finding it had taken months of careful work, requiring the assembly of a team of specialists with experience in Black Lotus cryptanalysis. Before long a horde of Archivists had descended on the vault, and the information contained therein had led Luc finally to Grendel and Beowulf, two Hot Jupiters in the New Samarkand system.

He remembered running through Archives and almost colliding with Offenbach, the look of confusion on the Senior Archivist’s face changing to one of delight once he realized Antonov had finally been cornered.

Within days, Father Cheng had ordered Sandoz forces to Grendel and Beowulf. They found Black Lotus weapons fabricants seeded throughout Grendel’s sixteen moons, and machine had fought machine in a terrible war of attrition lasting months. Black Lotus’s own fabricants had been unable, however, to produce defensive mechants in sufficient numbers to stand against a nearly endless stream of Sandoz hunter-seekers.

Luc was close enough now to the monastery entrance to see that its airlock had been blasted open, debris from the explosion fanning out across the crater floor. A long time ago, the complex on the far side of that airlock had been nothing more than a research installation. Much later, during the turmoil of revolution, it had been a prison, and finally a Lamasery in the peace that followed. The monks had called it Wutái Shan. Following that, it had been abandoned – or so it had been believed, until very recently.

<Sunrise in less than one minute,> Marroqui sent over the CogNet. Luc thought he sounded preternaturally calm, given they were seconds away from being burned alive. <Is the airlock definitely clear?>

<Mosquitoes demolished it,> someone else replied. <Whole upper level is depressurized. Mosquitoes report nothing moving on the next several levels down, either.>

<And below that?>

<Can’t confirm, sir. Some ‘skeets stopped responding. It might be solar interference with our comms, or they might have run into something unexpected. Can’t say otherwise until we get inside and take a look.>

<Fine,> Marroqui replied. <Everyone in, on the double. Sunrise in just over thirty seconds.>

Luc’s suit carried him through the blasted airlock with long, loping strides, then down a shadow-filled corridor. A few seconds later incandescent light flared behind him as 55 Cancri finally rose over the crater’s lip.

Luc’s CogNet displayed the passageway in bright false colours, making the mandalas carved into the walls on either side appear lurid and disturbing. As he made his way further along, he saw that the mandalas alternated with blank-eyed statues set into recesses. Behind him, the corridor grew sufficiently bright that his suit’s filters were nearly overwhelmed. The outside temperature had just jumped by several hundred degrees.

Dead bodies loomed out of the dark, frozen in their final death-spasms, mouths open to the vacuum. Luc saw they had died just short of a pressure-field stretching across the passageway. Its soap-bubble surface trembled as he passed through it and into pressurized atmosphere.

He found Marroqui and the rest inside a derelict prayer hall. A golden-skinned Buddha sat cross-legged on a plinth at one end, holographic clouds drifting around its feet. A lotus blossom shimmered and unfolded in the statue’s outstretched hand. Dusty prayer wheels still stood in their holders, listless tapestries hanging on the walls. The air appeared to be a standard breathable mix, with no detectable toxins or phages.

Marroqui was the first to retract his visor, soon followed by the rest. Luc breathed in freezing-cold air underlaid by a hint of sulphur. It wasn’t hard to imagine the hall as it had been, filled with droning chants and the scent of sandalwood. Marroqui addressed his Clan-members in a Slavic dialect far removed from Luc’s native Northam, his CogNet earpiece seamlessly auto-translating everything.

Luc meanwhile called up a three-dimensional map of the entire complex and saw it was composed of nine levels, each portrayed as a flat grey rectangle connected to the rest by cylindrical shafts of varying length. A pair of shafts located at opposite ends of this top level linked it to the next two down, while a second and third pair of shafts laced the middle and bottom three levels together respectively.

Luc dismissed the map once Marroqui had finished speaking to his troops. ‘Can the mosquitoes tell us if Antonov is still alive?’ he asked the Clan-leader.

Marroqui turned to regard him with undisguised irritation. ‘They haven’t given us visual confirmation one way or the other, if that’s what you mean. Are you sure he’s even here?’

‘Quite sure,’ Luc said stiffly.

Marroqui half-turned to look at his fellow Clan-members with a raised eyebrow and an expression of frank disbelief. Luc heard someone snicker.

‘Well, what the mosquitoes can tell us is that we hit this complex a lot harder and faster than either Antonov or any of his Black Lotus fighters were clearly expecting,’ said Marroqui, turning back to face Luc fully. ‘Chances are we stepped over his corpse on the way in here. If you really want to be of help, you should stay behind and see if one of these bodies is his. The rest of us meanwhile can scout out the lower levels, and maybe figure out where those missing mosquitoes went to.’

Luc felt his face colour. You can stay behind and clear up the litter while we do the real work, was what Marroqui really meant.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out he was desperately unwelcome. His temporary promotion to expedition leader had, he gathered, gone down very badly with Sandoz Command. But without his presence here, SecInt’s role in tracking Antonov down would be reduced to not much more than a footnote.

And that would never do.

‘Isn’t assuming Antonov’s already dead something of a dangerous assumption?’ asked Luc.

‘Haven’t you seen how badly the ‘skeets tore this place up?’ Marroqui protested. ‘Look – even if he somehow survived the initial assault, he’s powerless. All his men are dead, and we’ve shattered his defences. Whether he’s alive or not, you need to stay back here, and let us take care of things from here on in.’

Luc fought to keep his voice steady. ‘You weren’t at Puerto Isabel. I was there, with another Sandoz Clan. We had Antonov cornered, along with several Black Lotus agents. I made the mistake of listening to someone just like you telling me to step back and let them take care of things.’

Marroqui stared back at him with dagger eyes. ‘And your point is?’

‘That he got away,’ said Luc, enunciating the words as if speaking to a recalcitrant child. ‘I’m not going to make that mistake a second time.’

‘If I’d been in charge of that raid, there wouldn’t have been any screw-ups.’

‘That’s funny, because I’m getting a powerful sense of déjà vu every time you open your mouth,’ Luc spat back.

‘You’re not seriously suggesting Antonov could escape?’

‘Master Marroqui, I’ve spent half my damn life trying to find Winchell Antonov, and there’s no way he’d wind up here without some kind of an exit strategy in place. Right now, my guess is that your missing mosquitoes have something to do with it.’

Marroqui’s expression became incredulous. Exit strategy? Luc could almost hear him thinking. Exit to where? Snoop hunters hid in Aeschere’s shadow cone, ready to challenge anything emerging from the moon’s surface, while a fat-bellied intercept platform orbited above Grendel’s dark side, its deep-range scanners sweeping the whole of 55 Cancri’s inner system. And that wasn’t even counting the autonomous units scattered throughout the rest of Grendel’s moons.

And yet the fact remained that Antonov had managed to evade capture or assassination for nearly two centuries. Luc wanted desperately to be the one who finally caught the Tian Di’s greatest fugitive, but the defeats and setbacks he had suffered over the years had taught him the value of caution.

‘That’s ridiculous,’ Marroqui said quietly. ‘Of course we can’t hear from all of the ‘skeets; solar storm’s fucking our comms up.’

Which was entirely possible, and yet Luc couldn’t avoid a nagging doubt that lingered in the pit of his stomach. It might have been safer for all concerned to pull back to the intercept platform and wait the storm out, but Luc felt sure that Antonov, if he was still alive, was waiting for just such an opportunity to slip past them. They had to make their move sometime in the next twenty hours, then escape before the storm reached its peak and lashed Grendel and its moons with fiery whips billions of kilometres in length.

It was Luc’s call, of course, as expeditionary leader. If he was wrong, he’d pay for it with his career.

‘It’s going to be most of a day before the storm reaches its peak,’ said Luc. ‘If we’ve hit him as hard as you say, then we still have time to figure out why we’re having comms problems before we go any further.’

Marroqui stepped up close enough to Luc that their noses were almost touching. ‘You’re just a bureaucrat,’ he said, his voice soft. ‘No, less than that: a glorified clerk. I have the safety and the honour of my Clan to consider. I say we go ahead and clear this damn place out now.’

‘If you go against my orders,’ Luc replied, ‘you’re going to find yourself in a shitstorm of trouble.’

‘Like I give a damn,’ Marroqui snapped, turning back to his soldiers and ordering them to split into separate teams, each to make its way down a different shaft before meeting up again at the reactor room.

Most of the soldiers voiced their affirmatives and made their way back out of the prayer hall, while a few stayed behind. Luc’s hands tightened into fists by his sides, the frustration pooling inside him like a hot lava tide.

‘How many of our ‘skeets are primed with explosives?’ Marroqui asked his second-in-command, a pale-skinned woman with a scar on one side of her nose.

‘We’ve used up two, but we still have three left,’ the woman replied.

‘Fine. Once we’ve established line-of-sight with those missing ‘skeets, let’s send those three all the way down to the bottom and have them focus on taking out any automated defences or hunter-killers Antonov might have left waiting for us.’

Marroqui glanced back at Luc. ‘You’ll wait here, Mr Gabion. Someone has to monitor the uplink with the lander.’

‘Your mosquitoes can monitor things just fine without my help. I’m coming with you and your men.’

Marroqui regarded him with distaste. ‘You’re from Benares, right?’

Luc stared back at him. In that moment, he finally understood the reason for Marroqui’s unrelenting hostility. It had nothing to do with the rivalry between the Sandoz and SecInt; it was because he came from Benares.

‘I don’t know what they taught you in those combat temples they trained you in, Master Marroqui, but coming from Benares doesn’t make me a traitor.’

‘I never said—’

‘So you can either take me down there with you,’ Luc continued regardless, ‘or take the risk of having to explain to our superiors why you let Antonov escape a second time, right on the eve of Reunification. Your choice.’

A muscle in one of Marroqui’s cheeks twitched. For a moment Luc thought the Clan-leader might strike him, but instead the other man nodded curtly, his face impassive.

‘You follow every order I give you while we’re down there, instantly, and without question, until the moment the lander comes back to pick us up. Is that clear?’

Luc nodded. ‘As crystal.’

‘Shit. We’ve lost another mosquito,’ said Marroqui’s second in command, waiting by the entrance. ‘No, hang on . . . that’s another three out of contact, all in just the last minute.’

‘What about the rest of the ‘skeets?’ asked Marroqui.

‘They all check out,’ she replied.

‘We’d better get moving,’ said Marroqui, abruptly businesslike. ‘Anything out of the ordinary’ – and with this, he glanced reflexively towards Luc – ‘report it immediately.’

The entire complex turned out to still be pressurized. By the time they reached one of the shafts, mandalas and statues had given way to rough undecorated surfaces barely visible in the near-lightless gloom. Luc’s IR filters showed an open elevator platform dead ahead, ringed by a steel rail. According to the map, the shaft went straight down for almost a kilometre. A faint breeze drifted up from below.

‘How come these are working when the power’s out?’ he asked.

‘They run on localized emergency power supplies,’ said Marroqui. ‘They have to, or there’s no way out during a power failure. We shouldn’t have to worry about getting down or back up.’ He nodded to another woman, with chestnut skin, who had bent down on one knee to examine the interior of a control panel embedded into the wall close by the rail. ‘How’s it looking, Triskia?’

The woman made some final adjustment and snapped the panel shut before standing once more, her suit’s servos whining faintly. ‘It checks out, sir. No sabotage. We’re good to go.’

Luc tried not to think about the Stygian depths beneath them as he followed Marroqui and four others onto the elevator platform. Even so, his heart nearly skipped a beat when the platform began its descent with a sudden, jerking motion.

Halfway to the next level down, updates from the mosquitoes flowed in through Luc’s CogNet interface. His maps automatically reconfigured themselves according to their incoming data, displaying rooms and corridors that had clearly not been part of the original complex.

‘Any idea what Antonov might have been building down there?’ Marroqui asked, referring to the new layout.

‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ Luc replied.

‘Could be weapons caches,’ suggested the woman called Triskia. ‘Maybe he’s still planning on fighting his way past us.’

Marroqui shook his head. ‘I don’t think so. He’d need bigger fabricants than the ones our mosquitoes have seen so far. If he’s still alive, he’s down to light weapons, nothing more.’

‘Two of the other teams just called in, sir,’ said one of Marroqui’s men. ‘They’ve reconnoitred at the reactor room, so they should be able to get the power going any—’

As if in answer, rows of lights stretching the length of the shaft blinked into sudden life. Luc squinted, bright phantoms chasing each other across the back of his eyelids. The next time he managed to open them properly, Marroqui and the rest were grinning and chuckling. As far as they were concerned, this was going to be a cakewalk.

The platform slowed, and Luc felt a tightening in his chest. He had the uncanny sense they had passed beyond some undefined point of no return. He glanced down through the metal grille beneath his feet, seeing twin rows of lights racing to meet each other in the shaft’s murky depths.

They disembarked into a corridor leading deep inside Aeschere’s bowels. Something whirred past Luc, and he jerked around in time to see a mosquito come to a nimble landing on the floor a metre or so from him.

As he watched, translucent plastic wings retracted into the machine’s carapace. It turned this way and that, its movements jerky and curiously comical.

‘It’s one of ours,’ he heard Triskia say. ‘Why’s it—?’

Triskia never got to finish her sentence. Luc watched with horrified anguish as she staggered, blood and bone misting the air as the back of her helmet exploded outwards.

Luc kicked out at the mosquito with one booted foot, sending it crashing into a wall. Marroqui screamed an order, and the air filled with noise and fury as his remaining men opened fire on the machine. By the time it was over, the mosquito lay still, its mirrored carapace blackened and ruined.

Marroqui knelt down beside the dead woman’s prone form, swearing under his breath. He passed a finger over her forehead and muttered something that sounded like a prayer. One of the Sandoz’s endless rituals, Luc guessed.

‘Shig,’ said Marroqui, looking back up at one of his men, ‘what the hell just happened? Was that one of our ‘skeets?’

‘It was,’ Shig replied, his face pale with shock. ‘I don’t understand why it . . .’

His voice trailed off.

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ said Marroqui, standing back up and looking around. His previous swaggering bravado had all but deserted him now. ‘There’s no way Antonov could have compromised our comms encryption . . . is there?’

‘It might explain why you lost contact with some of your mosquitoes,’ said Luc, his voice cracking slightly.

Marroqui’s hands twitched spasmodically at his sides. ‘Impossible.’

Luc nodded down at Triskia’s still form. ‘Ask her if she agrees.’

‘Ramp up your personal countermeasures,’ said Marroqui, his voice edged with steel. ‘Fire on anything that comes within range.’

‘I think,’ said Luc, ‘this might be a good time to reconsider falling back. We can work out a new strategy—’

Marroqui turned to regard Luc, his nostrils flaring. ‘No, Mr Gabion. We’re Sandoz. Turning back at this point isn’t an option.’

‘Even if it means refusing my orders again?’

‘Even then,’ Marroqui muttered, hoisting his weapon and motioning to his Clan-members to move on.

Luc recalled what little he knew of the Sandoz credo, especially their refusal to surrender. It was going to be the death of them all.

Within the space of a few moments, the shadows and long, bleak reaches of the tunnels beneath Aeschere’s surface had become infinitely more menacing. They passed shadowed cells, the walls around them marked with ancient graffiti. Despite the occasional distant buzz of plastic wings, the mosquitoes kept their distance.

Communications with the rest of the Clan, scattered throughout the complex, became increasingly sporadic. At one point they all heard a momentary burst of static from their comms, interspersed with screaming and what sounded like heavy weapons fire. After that, silence.

Marroqui still refused to turn back. They moved rapidly, reaching the fusion plant just a few minutes later. Once there, Luc almost stumbled over the corpse of another of Marroqui’s men. The rest lay scattered around, their bodies and the walls surrounding them blackened from plasma fire.

‘I still can’t raise anyone else,’ said a man with freckled skin, looking pale and terrified. Alert symbols drifted on the periphery of Luc’s vision as he spoke.

‘Is there any way we can reboot communications?’ asked Marroqui. ‘Or maybe reroute them?’ His voice had become flat and emotionless, and Luc suspected this was the first time the Clan-leader had ever tasted defeat.

The other man laughed shrilly. ‘Sure – standard operative procedure in a scenario like this is to route all our comms through the mosquitoes, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea.’

‘One of us could still head back up top,’ suggested one of the others. ‘That way we could try and contact the lander by line-of-sight and ask for help.’

Marroqui shook his head wearily. ‘It’s a good idea, except that you’d have to wait for nightfall, and that isn’t due for a few more hours.’ He glanced at Luc. ‘On the other hand, Mr Gabion, you really might be better off out of this. I could have one of my people escort you back up there and you can wait it out in that prayer room. I can’t make any guarantees it’s going to be any safer up there, but it might.’

Luc shook his head. ‘I have to be there when you find Antonov.’

The Clan-leader’s face reddened. ‘The situation’s changed, can’t you see that? We’re professionals, we know how to deal with this kind of situation. If you get killed down here, you’re dead forever.’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Luc replied, holding the other man’s gaze until Marroqui finally looked away, shaking his head.

‘The control room for the entire complex is right below us on the next level down,’ said one of the soldiers. ‘Before they dropped out of contact, the ‘skeets reported Antonov was using it as a command hub.’

‘If someone’s controlling our mosquitoes, that must mean there’s someone still alive down there,’ said another.

‘Not necessarily,’ said Marroqui. ‘We can’t rule out the possibility they’re just running on automatic.’

‘Or maybe your mosquitoes were compromised from the moment we walked in here,’ Luc suggested.

They all stared at each other.

‘Fuck it,’ said Marroqui, breaking the silence and stepping over one of the blackened corpses on his way back into the corridor. ‘There’s only one way to find out.’

They made for another elevator platform, checked it for possible sabotage, and then climbed on board, riding it down in silence before disembarking on the next level down. Luc glanced over at one of Marroqui’s squadron, hearing him mutter something repeatedly under his breath that sounded a lot like a prayer.

Marroqui had Luc keep to the rear as they advanced down a high-ceilinged passageway lined with tables and benches. They saw the bodies of more Black Lotus fighters, slumped across tables or curled up on the ground as if they were sleeping. The first wave of mosquitoes had killed them all.

They crowded through a narrow doorway and into the control room. An isometric plan of the entire complex hovered above a dais at the room’s centre. All it took was a quick glance to see that it matched the updated version they had received from the mosquitoes.

The bodies of more of Marroqui’s men were scattered around the dais, their faces contorted in death. Luc tasted the acid rush of bile as it surged up the back of his throat.

He glanced down, seeing through the steel grid flooring on which they stood that another room lay immediately below this one. Just visible were cryogenic pods of a design he recognized, lined against a wall: emergency medical units, designed for deep-space retrieval; almost tiny spaceships in their own right. Their status lights were dark, indicating they were empty. Clearly, Antonov’s men had been slaughtered with such rapid efficiency, they had not even had time to place any of their injured inside the units.

They all heard the faint echo of something scuttling along the corridor beyond the control room entrance. Luc watched as Shig ducked outside for a look.

‘Here they come!’ Shig yelled, pulling the lower half of his body back around the door frame, then leaning out into the corridor and opening fire. A moment later he made a grunting noise, his feet giving way beneath him as he flopped backwards in the low gravity, red mist staining the air behind him.

Luc twisted around in mindless desperation, searching for another exit. He glanced back down through the thick metal grille and saw a ladder reaching down to the floor of the room below. Dropping to all fours, he peered through the grille. The top of the ladder terminated somewhere on the far side of the control room, hidden behind tall banks of equipment.

He ran past the dais and around the side of a tall steel cabinet in the same moment that Marroqui and his surviving Clan-members opened fire on something behind him. Set into the floor above the ladder was a flat metal hatch, but before he could reach down to pry it open, something picked him up and slammed him against the nearest wall.

He hit the floor a moment later, ears ringing, and felt it lurch beneath him like the deck of a ship caught in a storm. He had just enough time to work out there had been an explosion before the steel panels comprising the floor came apart from one another, sending him tumbling down into the room below, along with the contents of the control room. He just barely managed to scrabble out of the way of the steel cabinet before it landed on him. Someone’s torso, still encased in plastic and metal armour, rolled and bounced as it hit the ground, coming to a halt just centimetres from his nose.

When he looked back up at the ceiling of the ruined control room, he saw several mosquitoes gazing back down at him with insect-like eyes.

Managing to pull himself upright, he stumbled towards dim light spilling through a nearby doorway, squeezed past the dais from the upper floor, which had landed on its side, then ran blindly down a passageway until he stumbled across another elevator platform. He slammed the control panel with his fist and gripped the railing like a man adrift in a storm as it carried him down to the lowest level.

The platform came to a jerky halt at the bottom of the shaft, two rough-walled tunnels angling away from it in different directions. Luc headed down one at random, but didn’t get far before more mosquitoes emerged from the gloom, tick-tacking through the still silence towards him. He retreated back the way he’d come and headed down the other tunnel instead, with the uncanny sense that he was being herded in one particular direction – proof, if any were still needed, that Antonov must still be alive.

‘I’m here, Antonov!’ he shouted, and heard the hysteria creeping into his voice. Grabbing a metal bar from a pile of junk, he wielded it like a weapon, then laughed at the ridiculousness of it. He couldn’t possibly defend himself from mosquitoes while armed with nothing more than a chunk of scrap metal, but there was something comforting about the feel of it gripped in his armoured fist nonetheless.

More mosquitoes emerged from the gloom up ahead, but they scuttled backwards at his approach, clearing the way.

‘Are you there?’ Luc shouted again. ‘Show yourself, Goddamn it! Show your fucking face!’

Turning a corner, he found himself at the entrance to a cavern dug out of the rock, a deactivated digging machine at the far end sitting next to a mound of excavated rubble. He swallowed in the dry air, then set his eyes on something that took his breath away.

A transfer gate, embedded into one wall of the cavern.

At first Luc couldn’t quite convince himself it was real. A thick metal torus surrounded the mouth of what might otherwise have been nothing more than the entrance to a passageway, leading him to wonder if it had only been tricked up to look like the mouth of a transfer gate. Any other conclusion meant accepting the notion that Black Lotus now had access to the kind of technology that permitted the construction of stable, linked wormhole pairs – the same technology that enabled passage between the worlds of the Tian Di.

He stepped up to the gate and saw it consisted of a short cylindrical passageway, no more than a couple of metres in length, a metal walkway suspended over its floor. He gazed into the interior of a room on the far side. The floor of the room was at an angle with respect to the cavern in which he stood, indicating that the gate and its opposite end had not been correctly aligned. Dense metal plating hid the wormhole’s horizon, the tori ringing each mouth of the gate shielding a core of highly exotic matter without which the wormhole could not exist. And if all that wasn’t evidence enough, he could feel the hairs on his arms and scalp standing up, an epiphenomenon caused by inadequate shielding on the containment fields.

It was real, all right. That room might be located in another part of the complex, or might be light-years away, in some entirely different star system. There was, after all, no limit to how widely separated the two mouths of a wormhole could be.

Luc stepped onto the walkway and felt even Aeschere’s minimal gravity drop away once he was halfway across, meaning the far end of the gate was almost certainly on board a spacecraft of some kind. He stepped off the walkway at the far end, drifting through the air until he came to a stop against the wall opposite.

This, then, was Antonov’s exit strategy. Luc couldn’t help but feel a little awed at the scale of the man’s planning.

He heard laboured breathing from behind, and turned to find Winchell Antonov propped against a bulkhead to one side of the gate entrance, one of his hands pressed over a dreadful chest-wound, his skin pale and waxy. His breath came in long, drawn-out gasps, and his thick, dark beard glistened with sweat.

‘I’m impressed,’ he grunted, fixing his gaze on Luc. ‘Really, I am.’

Winchell Antonov: once the Governor of Benares, later the leader of Black Lotus, the single greatest threat the Temur Council had ever faced. In that moment he looked small, despite his nearly six and a half foot frame.

‘It’s over, Antonov,’ Luc heard himself say, his voice ragged. ‘It’s time to give up.’

Antonov chuckled, then drew his breath in sharply, squeezing his eyes shut and clutching at his wound.

Something click-clacked from nearby. Luc turned to see that several mosquitoes had hopped onto the walkway bridging the wormhole, their tiny needle-like weapons aimed towards him.

‘I fear,’ grunted Antonov, ‘that we find ourselves at a mutual impasse.’

‘There’s nothing left to fight for,’ said Luc. ‘Even if you kill me, the Sandoz are going to tear this place apart until they find you.’

Antonov squinted up at him, one corner of his mouth twitching upwards in a grin. ‘Aren’t you the least bit curious why you’re still alive?’

‘You want to know what I care about?’ asked Luc. ‘I’m from Benares. Black Lotus carried out an orbital assault on Tian Di forces stationed there on your orders.’

‘Ah.’ Antonov nodded. ‘The Battle of Sunderland, you mean.’

‘That decision wiped out half a continent. My parents, my brother and sister – they all died in that attack, along with almost everything I’d ever known. Since then, the only thing I ever really gave a damn about was finding you. You took my life away.’

‘Then you might be interested to know that Black Lotus never carried out that assault,’ said Antonov, his voice growing weak. ‘Father Cheng ordered that attack, and blamed it on us.’

Luc wanted to tear that deathless smirk off Antonov’s face with his bare hands. He was the devil made flesh, the Prince of Lies embodied in a man who’d been on the run for longer than Luc had even been alive.

Again, the metallic click of a mosquito manoeuvring on some surface.

He glanced up to see his own face staring back at him from the mirrored carapace of a mosquito clinging to the ceiling overhead with needle-like limbs.

Something stung his neck and he reached up to slap it. A moment later he felt a sudden, numbing coolness spread across his chest, quickly penetrating his skull.

The room reeled about him, his legs giving way beneath him as he collapsed.

Luc opened his eyes to the harsh actinic glare of overhead lights and found himself bound by a length of cord into a chair on the spacecraft’s bridge. He had been stripped of his powered suit, and wore only the thin cloth one-piece overall given him by Sandoz technicians prior to boarding the lander. Projections hovered in the air all around him, and when he tried to move, his body obeyed only with extreme sluggishness. Whatever drug he’d been shot full of was clearly still working its magic on him.

Antonov stood by the chair, one hand still clutched to his injured chest as he gazed down at Luc. Even so, Antonov didn’t look nearly as weak as he had in the moments before Luc had lost consciousness.

Behind Antonov, Luc could see a single mosquito, balanced on a railing on the opposite side of the bridge, peering back at him with mindless intent.

‘What are you doing?’ he demanded through lips that were half-numb.

‘Quiet now,’ Antonov muttered, leaning in towards him. Luc saw for the first time that the Black Lotus leader was clutching something in his free hand that squirmed as if alive. ‘This is going to be tricky.’

Antonov lifted his other hand away from his chest wound and winced, then used it to tug Luc’s head back against the chair’s headrest, holding it there. Luc found himself staring almost straight up at the ceiling of the bridge.

Breathing hard, afraid of whatever it was Antonov was about to do to him, Luc twisted his hands and feet in their restraints to no avail. However, he had the sense that whatever paralytic Antonov had hit him with was slowly starting to wear off.

‘Careful now,’ Antonov warned, giving him a reproachful glare. ‘I can knock you out again if you keep struggling, but you really need to be conscious during this. Otherwise there’s a serious risk of brain damage.’

Brain damage? Panic tightened Luc’s chest. He could just about see the squirming thing in Antonov’s hand from out of the corner of one eye, struggling to escape. It was clearly a mechant of some kind, not unlike a segmented worm in appearance but barely the length of a finger. Its body glittered in the light.

‘What the fuck is that?’ Luc managed to gasp.

‘This,’ said Antonov, with apparent pride, ‘is a delivery system for the greatest gift I could possibly give you.’

Luc had a sudden intuition of what Antonov might be about to do to him, and tried to twist free. The heavy cord binding him to the chair creaked loudly, but did not give.

Antonov slapped him hard across the face, and Luc grunted with shock.

‘I told you,’ said Antonov, ‘keep still. For your own sake, do not struggle.’

Antonov next stepped behind Luc, wrapping one meaty forearm around his head and rendering him more thoroughly immobile. Luc’s nostrils filled with the scent of the other man’s unwashed skin, and he wondered how a man so badly injured could still have so much strength.

Something cold squirmed against Luc’s upper lip, then jammed itself hard inside his right nostril.

The pain that followed was indescribable. He could hear a sound like chewing, as if something were forcing its way through the gristle and bone of his skull. He screamed, jerking and twisting in his restraints, jaw locked in a rictus grin of terror.

As terrible as it was, the pain faded to a numb ache after another minute. His body spasmed a few times, then became still. Sweat cascaded across Luc’s skin, his chest rising and falling with the nervous energy of a hummingbird.

Antonov stepped back in front of him, looking noticeably paler than he had a few moments before. ‘I suppose you’re wondering just what a transfer gate’s doing here,’ he said, and let out a weak chuckle. ‘That’s the understatement of the year, right? Well, now that we’re the only ones left alive down here, I don’t see any reason not to tell you why.’

Antonov moved to lean against a nearby console, his face very nearly bone-white. ‘We’re on board a spaceship, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now. We kept it in close orbit around 55 Cancri, since the photosphere of a star often proves to be a good hiding place. Once we knew the Sandoz were on their way here, we plotted a course to slingshot this ship towards the outer system, but even that wasn’t enough to give us the velocity we needed to get out of range of your intercept missiles. They’re chasing us right now, and they’ll catch us sooner or later.’

‘Where’ – Luc swallowed, feeling like he hadn’t uttered a word in a thousand years – ‘where are you taking this ship?’

‘We have other redoubts,’ Antonov replied, ‘scattered throughout this system and in others. We would have severed the wormhole link once we were all on board except now, it appears, I’m the only one left alive.’

‘Then it’s over,’ Luc managed to croak. ‘This isn’t how you want it to end, Winchell.’

Antonov shook his head with evident amusement. ‘What’s the alternative? Surrender myself to you, so Father Cheng can orchestrate my execution on the eve of our glorious Reunification with the Coalition? I’d rather choose my own fate – and with that in mind, you might care to know I’ve set the ship on a course that will send it plunging back into the heart of the star it so recently orbited.’

Luc stared at him, speechless.

‘Now, I don’t know just how au fait you are with wormhole physics,’ Antonov continued, his face twisting up in pain as he spoke, ‘but they’re surprisingly robust under certain conditions. Once this ship’s descended far enough into 55 Cancri’s photosphere, the shielding will give way and the transfer gate linking it back to Aeschere will be destroyed. However – and this is the theory – the wormhole should maintain coherence just long enough for a great deal of superheated plasma to come rushing into the complex.’

‘Why? Why not just . . . surrender?’

‘For many reasons, Mr Gabion, but chiefly because Cheng would never let me live, knowing the things that I know.’

Luc shook his head in incomprehension. The inside of his head felt as if it had been hollowed out. ‘What things?’

Antonov chuckled. ‘You need,’ he said, ‘to make your way back up to that control room where you left your friends, back on the other side of the transfer gate. There are cryogenic units there – do you understand?’

‘No. No, I don’t.’

‘Oh, but I think you do. Get yourself inside one of those units, and you should have a decent chance of surviving the inferno.’

‘But why?’ Luc demanded. ‘Why—’

But before he could say anything further, Antonov reached out to touch the side of his neck with something cold and sharp, and he lost consciousness once more.

Listen to me, Luc. You’re still asleep.

Antonov’s voice sounded like it came from everywhere and nowhere. Luc found himself afloat in a dreamless void, unable to determine where he was, or how long it had been since he had been knocked out. His limbs felt like a distant memory.

You’re going to wake up soon, he heard Antonov continue. There’s a lot you don’t understand yet, but you will, given time. But first, you must deliver a message for me.

What message? Luc tried to say, but he couldn’t feel his lips or his tongue.

The answer came a moment later:

After they come and rescue you, I want you to access Archives through your CogNet link. Then open a record with the following reference: Thorne, 51 Alpha, Code Yellow. Do you understand?

No, Luc answered. I

Once you’ve done that, add the following statement to the text file contained within it: ‘I’m calling in my favour.’ Five words, Luc. That’s all I ask.

I don’t understand, Luc shouted into the abyss.

Someone did something a long time ago they shouldn’t have, said Antonov, his voice slowly fading. And now they’re going to repay me for keeping it quiet all these years. Remember what I said, Luc: ‘I’m calling in my favour.’

As if a switch had been thrown, Luc had control of his limbs once more, and could feel something hard beneath his back. His eyes flickered open in the same moment he realized his CogNet link was live once more, and he discovered more than four hours had passed since he had first entered the complex in the company of an entire squadron of Sandoz. Night would by now have fallen across the crater, meaning it was safe to go back out onto the surface.

Even more importantly, he was free. The tangled loops of cord that had bound him now floated loose around the chair in which he was still slumped.

Reaching up, he tentatively touched his head, exploring the contours of his skull. There had been something dreamlike about the whole encounter with Antonov, as if it hadn’t really happened, but when he touched fingers to his nose he found it crusted with dried blood.

Updates flooded in through his now-active CogNet: he learned that two more Sandoz squadrons had already entered the complex’s top level, and were working their way down towards him without meeting any resistance, machine or otherwise.

Luc pulled himself out of the chair, then stopped, seeing Antonov slumped against the railing on the far side of the bridge, head bowed forward. Luc kneeled before him and touched fingers to the rebel leader’s wrist. Dead.

Then he glanced towards the main display and felt a chill form around his heart.

<This is Luc Gabion,> he sent via the CogNet. <Can anyone hear me?>

<This is Master Siedzik here,> someone replied. <You’re the only one whose vital signs are showing, Mr Gabion. Where are Marroqui and the rest of his Clan?>

<They’re all dead,> Luc responded. <I’m the only survivor.>

Siedzik didn’t reply for some time, and Luc guessed he was conferring with his superiors on the orbital platform.

<Where exactly are you?> Siedzik sent back. <We can’t get a location fix on you.>

That, Luc knew, was because he was no longer beneath the surface of Aeschere, but on board a starship some millions of kilometres distant. The only reason they could converse at all was because the ship’s communication network was automatically bouncing his CogNet link back through the connecting gate. But there wasn’t the time to try and explain all that to Siedzik, even assuming he’d believe one word of the explanation.

<I’m on the lowest level,> Luc replied after a pause. <Antonov compromised our mosquitoes and set them to attack Marroqui and the rest of his Clan. Antonov’s here, but he’s dead. I don’t know if that means the mosquitoes still down here won’t attack you, but I’d urge being extremely fucking cautious one way or the other.>

<Stay where you are,> Siedzik commanded. <We’ll be with you shortly.>

<No,> Luc sent back. <You need to head back up to the surface. I think Antonov’s set some kind of a booby-trap.>

<What kind of—>

<I’ll let you know when I find out,> Luc replied, cutting the connection before Siedzik could demand any more details.

He pulled himself into a navigation booth surrounded by interface and astrogation gear. The ship linked into his CogNet just long enough for it to work out he didn’t know how to operate the navigational systems, and replaced most of the scrolling data surrounding him with a series of simplified questions and help menus.

It didn’t take long for Luc to work out that Antonov had not, in fact, been lying: the ship had already dipped into the turbulent upper reaches of 55 Cancri’s photosphere, and the external temperature was already a couple of thousand degrees beyond the craft’s design parameters. He had minutes, perhaps only seconds, before it shattered under the strain.

He stood jerkily, skin clammy with sweat, and pushed himself towards the exit from the bridge. It took another couple of minutes of fumbling and swearing in the zero gee before he managed to navigate his way back to the bay containing the transfer gate.

Luc sailed through the gate and back into Aeschere’s hollowed-out heart, sidestepping millions of kilometres in the blink of an eye. The little moon’s gravity took hold of him as soon as he was through, tugging him down towards the dusty floor of the cavern. Without the benefit of his spacesuit, it was numbingly cold, every breath filling his lungs with icy daggers.

An icon blinked in the corner of one eye: Siedzik.

<Gabion. We’ve got a fix on you now and we’re on our way to your current location,> Siedzik sent as soon as Luc activated the link. <Stay right where you are.>

<Get out,> Luc sent back. <I told you to head for the surface. You need to get out now.>

Luc caught a brief flash of Siedzik’s visual feed, and saw Siedzik and several more Sandoz warriors making their way towards an elevator platform at the far end of the complex.

<I am not of a mind to accept orders from civilians,> Siedzik responded. <So when I tell you—>

<Screw your stupid fucking rules! I said this place might be booby-trapped, and it is. It’s going to go up any minute.>

He stumbled back the way he had come, towards the nearest shaft and another elevator platform. His legs were still half-numb from Antonov’s paralytic, making it hard to run, and he caught sight of several mosquitoes lying inactive in the dust, their legs neatly folded beneath their tiny bodies.

The air misted white as he panted for breath, the cold sinking deeper and deeper into his flesh. It was almost funny; even if he managed to avoid being engulfed in white-hot plasma, he’d still be running a serious risk of hypothermia.

Reaching the platform, he slammed its control panel with one hand, then collapsed onto all fours, hooking his fingers through the metal grille as he was carried back up. It clanged to a stop a minute later, and Luc ran as best he could, until he was back at the control room where Marroqui and his Clan-members had died.

At the same moment he reached the threshold of the control room, the ground beneath his feet began to tremble, at first gently but then with greater violence. A deep bass murmur rolled up from the depths of the complex.

He was out of time.

Most of the cryogenic pods that hadn’t been buried beneath falling debris had clearly suffered massive damage from the explosion that had devastated the control room. Only one appeared to have escaped unscathed – unlike the rest, its control panel still glowed softly in the dust-filled darkness.

Luc headed straight for it, the rumbling all the while growing louder and closer. He tore the lid open and climbed inside, listening to the exhausted rattle of his own breath as he lay back.

The lid clicked back into place above him. An internal light came on, low and red. Icons and menus appeared around him, filling the coffin-like space.

He selected an option marked Critical Emergency, bypassing everything else. A soft hiss began from somewhere just above his head, and he became drowsy within moments.

The roaring grew in volume. Hammer blows began to rain down on the pod at the same moment that a deep chill spread through his bones.

He tried to take a breath, and then another. On the third try, the breath froze in his lungs, and for the third time that day he sank into bottomless darkness.

TWO

Luc dreamed.

He was six years old again, running through a field beneath a curving transparent dome, the sun dropping towards the peak of Razorback Mountain and dazzling his eyes. His hands brushed against stalks of wheat as he ran, ignoring the field-mechant that kept pace with him, warning of the consequences of trespassing.

Something huge flitted through the sky above the biome’s ceiling, moving so fast he barely had time to register its passage. He stopped to stare, seeing the dark silhouettes of Council stinger-drones following in close pursuit. A copse of seaweed bushes beyond the biome’s transparent wall stirred beneath a sudden breeze, sending startled lizard-wings spinning upwards from their perches to scatter across the sky.

Light flared on the horizon, a second sun rising to meet the first. He saw the peak of Razorback Mountain melting as the firestorm engulfed it.

The ground beneath Luc’s feet shook, and he turned to run back the other way, back to the safety of home.

Luc became aware of bright smears of light that made his eyes hurt. Round, pink blobs that might have been faces hovered indistinctly before him. He took a breath, and realized his lungs were filled with some form of liquid, thick and viscous. Panic seized him until he realized he wasn’t drowning. Someone had put him into a recovery tank.

I’m still alive, he realized. The dream was still fresh in his mind. It was an old one, but it had never happened in reality. If he’d really been home on Benares during the Battle of Sunderland, he’d have died along with millions of others.

He could make out just enough of his reflection in the tank’s transparent wall to see that something was terribly wrong.

<Antonov. Where . . . ?>

One of the pink blobs came closer, resolving into a sallow-faced man with a close-shaved skull, wearing the uniform of a Temur medician.

<Good. You’re responding.>

Luc twisted his head back, seeing bright lights shimmering overhead. <Aeschere. I need to know what—>

<There’ll be time for that later,> the medician scripted in reply, then turned to someone behind him. <Put him back under.>

<No, wait—>

Any further protests died on Luc’s lips.

There were several more such brief episodes of lucidity, each one slightly longer than the last, including one in which Luc found himself being questioned by a medician who never bothered to give his name. He showed Luc CogNet-mediated video of his extraction from the twisted wreckage of the cryogenic unit that had saved his life, but only just.

He couldn’t recognize the raw, burned slab of meat in the video, couldn’t connect it to himself. The medician allowed him to see himself through the eyes of lenses dotted around the recovery room. He was submerged in a fluorocarbon-rich gel, his body half-hidden amongst a tangle of sensor leads, his flesh burned and flayed. Shoals of tiny black things like tadpoles swarmed around his legs and lower back with apparent purpose, while his face had been reduced to little more than sheets of exposed muscle laid over the skull beneath.

The medician asked questions that Luc tried to answer, sticking to script-speak since Luc’s newly-grown throat and larynx hadn’t quite finished healing. He learned the cryo-unit had put most of its energy into protecting his head and brain once the temperature of the plasma began to push it beyond its operational parameters. As a result, many of Luc’s organs and muscles had been replaced using fast-track tissue work. Even so, the work was going fast, and it might only be another day or two before they were able to lift him out of the tank.

The medician departed, and Luc soon drifted back into a drug-induced sleep. A new dream came to him, disturbing because it felt more like a memory than anything else. He found himself staring into a convex mirror surrounded by folds of dark cloth, but instead of his own face, he saw that of Winchell Antonov reflected there. Antonov’s lips moved in silence, his expression full of bitter anger.

The rapidity with which they healed him was astonishing. Each time the medicians brought him back to consciousness, Luc found the pain was a little less than it had been, until finally it was reduced to not much more than a dull ache.

The Chief Medician had Luc decanted from his tank and moved to a room with an actual bed. His new skin felt ridiculously soft and delicate, as insubstantial as rice-paper origami that might come undone in the slightest breeze. The sensation of soft linens against his body was a wonder in itself.

It wasn’t long before he got his first visitors. Eleanor Jaq walked into the room, her lithe form wrapped in a SecInt uniform, long brown hair tucked into a small bun at the back of her head. The last time he’d seen her, she’d told him they were finished, and so her arrival was more than a little unexpected.

She wasn’t alone. Her companion was Isaak Lethe, SecInt’s Director of Operations, his brow marked by worry-lines. He took a seat to one side of Luc’s bed, the corners of his mouth jerking up in a half-smile as if this were the same as any other debriefing. Eleanor remained standing, her expression carefully neutral.

‘Mr Gabion,’ said Lethe. ‘You’re looking a lot better than you did when they first brought you in here.’

‘I’ve had better days,’ Luc croaked, his voice scraping like rusted razors. He tried to catch Eleanor’s eye, but she glanced away. ‘Just how long have I been here?’

‘You got back to Temur just a couple of days ago,’ Lethe replied. ‘Medician Merlino told me how much work they had to do on you.’

‘Apparently,’ said Luc, ‘they had to replace pretty much everything.’

‘They also rolled your age back about a half-decade or so. My understanding is that made things easier for them.’

‘You were lucky,’ said Eleanor, eyes finally settling on him. Her nostrils flared slightly, a sure sign she was still angry at him, despite everything he’d been through. ‘Really lucky.’

‘I know you’re only just out of the tank, but I need to talk to you about what happened on Aeschere,’ said Lethe, his expression becoming apologetic. ‘I know you probably don’t feel ready for it.’

Luc shook his head. ‘It’s fine. What do you need to know?’

‘Sandoz Command are facing questions over how they managed to lose an entire Clan on what should have been a straightforward operation. And it’s not like we can ask Marroqui or any of the rest of them what happened.’

‘Why not? They’ll be re-instantiated, won’t they?’

‘Yes, and Karlmann Sandoz has already given the order to prep their clone bodies. Unfortunately, since the explosion that destroyed the complex left no trace of them . . .’ Lethe regarded him from beneath shaggy eyebrows.

Meaning, Luc guessed, that their instantiation lattices had also been destroyed. ‘So they won’t be able to reboot them from the point when they were actually killed,’ Luc finished for him. ‘I get it.’

‘Which makes you our only material witness to what happened down there,’ Lethe continued. ‘The version of Master Marroqui they’re about to shovel into a new body hasn’t even heard of you. That means at some point you’re going to find yourself standing in front of an investigative committee, possibly several of them. And they’re all going to ask difficult questions.’

‘And that’s why you’re here?’

Lethe smiled stiffly. ‘Actually, it concerns Antonov. You told a Sandoz investigator he was still alive when you reached the lowest level of the complex.’

Luc shook his head. ‘I don’t recall speaking to anyone from the Sandoz.’

‘They sent one of their own here to interrogate you without getting our clearance first,’ Lethe explained. ‘You were still only half-conscious at the time. One of the medicians told me it’s unlikely you’d recall any of it. I filed a protest and managed to get the details of what you told the investigator. So Antonov – was he still alive?’

Luc nodded. ‘He was, yes.’

‘You also told him Antonov compromised Marroqui’s mosquitoes.’

‘Also correct.’

Mostly correct. It turns out those mosquitoes were still transmitting some data back to the orbital platform parked around Grendel.’

Luc sat up with extreme care. ‘So you managed to recover at least some data?’

Lethe nodded. ‘Enough to prove your version of events. Up to a point.’

Up to a point. ‘Go on,’ said Luc, sensing Lethe was leading up to something.

‘Your CogNet link stopped recording just before you reached the lowest level of the complex, and didn’t start again until you contacted Master Siedzik. That means we have no idea what happened during the period it wasn’t functioning.’

‘You think Antonov compromised it in some way?’

Lethe ignored the question. ‘Apparently you told this investigator that after your encounter with Antonov, you headed straight for the cryo units, but not before sending a warning to Siedzik. Why?’

‘Antonov told me he was going to destroy the complex. He even told me the cryogenic pods were my best bet at staying alive.’

‘Let me just be clear on this. Antonov told you he was going to trigger a detonation?’ asked Lethe.

Luc shook his head. ‘It wasn’t a bomb or anything like that. Antonov had a transfer gate set up down there on the lowest level, connected to a ship orbiting close to 55 Cancri’s photosphere. He set the ship to dive into the sun before knocking me out. When I woke up he was dead, and I checked the readings in one of the navigation booths for just long enough to see he hadn’t been lying.’

They both stared at him like he’d started barking profanities.

‘Didn’t I tell the investigator . . . ?’

‘No, you didn’t,’ said Lethe, looking outraged. ‘A transfer gate? How the hell could Antonov get his hands on technology like that?’

‘I have no idea,’ said Luc, ‘but I swear to you it’s the truth. He was badly wounded, dying.’

Luc stopped, his head throbbing with sudden, unexpected pain. It wasn’t hard to guess Lethe didn’t believe a word.

‘How badly wounded?’ asked the Director.

Luc swallowed with some difficulty. Sharp spikes of pain radiated from inside his skull, getting worse with every passing second. ‘He had a deep chest wound. At first I thought he was too weak to be any danger. But he fooled me. He managed to dose me, then drag me through to the ship’s bridge.’

‘Why in Heaven didn’t Antonov just kill you?’ asked Lethe. He had a look on his face like a man trying to figure out a particularly intractable puzzle, one he was sure contained some central flaw that, once identified, would cause all the rest to fall apart.

‘I don’t know. By the time I came to, he was dead and the ship was locked into its course. All I could do was get the hell out. I made my way back through the gate and up to the higher levels.’

‘And the rest of Antonov’s people?’ asked Eleanor. ‘The Black Lotus insurgents?’

Antonov put something inside my head, Luc wanted to say, but as soon as the thought crossed his mind, sweat burst out all over his newly-minted skin, the pain in his skull doubling.

It felt almost like something was trying to stop him talking about it. He gripped the bed sheets, twisting the soft cotton around his fingers.

‘Are you okay?’ asked Eleanor, stepping around the side of his bed and placing one hand on his upper arm. The sensation of her fingers against his skin was almost unbearably sensual. She glanced back at Lethe. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t . . .’

‘No,’ Luc gasped. ‘It’ll pass.’

He saw Eleanor and Lethe exchange a look.

‘Look,’ said Lethe, ‘if we go to an investigative committee and try and tell them Antonov had transfer gate technology without any proof, there’s going to be hell to pay. There are already questions about how badly you might have been affected by the trauma of what happened to you.’

‘You don’t believe me,’ Luc said hollowly.

Lethe sighed. ‘It’s not a question of whether I believe you or not.’

‘Just other people.’

‘Even if there really was a transfer gate down there, Aeschere’s got a low enough average density that the explosion, or whatever the hell it was, brought the roof down on half the complex. It’d take months, maybe years to dig down far enough before we could even begin to verify your story. Come to think of it, it was probably sheer damn luck you didn’t wind up buried under half a million tons of rock along with everything else.’

‘So you think Antonov was never there, that I hallucinated the whole damn thing. Is that it?’

‘No, he was definitely there,’ Lethe replied. ‘We managed to get visual corroboration of that much, at least, from Black Lotus’s own security networks just prior to the raid. It looks like he died there as well. Whether I believe there was a transfer gate or not doesn’t really matter, not without hard evidence. With no CogNet data and no proof to the contrary, any committee you wind up in front of is going to dismiss every word that comes out of your mouth.’

Luc opened his mouth to protest, but then realized that if their roles had been reversed, he’d have said exactly the same damn thing. He’d have assumed the story about the transfer gate was a delusion, triggered by the dreadful trauma of having half his body burned away.

But it had been real. He could feel it, deep in his bones. The proof was in his skull, put there by Antonov. All he had to do was tell them, but even the thought of doing so filled his head with a furious ache.

‘I was pretty torn up, right?’ Luc managed to blurt. ‘When they pulled me out of that cryo unit, they must have scanned me pretty thoroughly, inside and out.’

Lethe frowned, then gestured at something behind him. A mechant drifted forward until it hovered just centimetres above the bed, its sensors directed at Luc.

The ache grew worse. It took all Luc’s strength just to force the next words out.

‘Listen to me,’ he gasped. ‘In my head. Antonov put—’

The pain escalated beyond all endurance. His body snapped rigid as something tore at the inside of his head. He was vaguely aware through the haze of agony that two human orderlies had come rushing into the room.

The mechant reached out and did something to his arm where it lay on top of the sheets. Everything began to recede, as if he were seeing the hospital room and its occupants from down the far end of a long, dark tunnel. The pain wasn’t any less, but he found he no longer cared about it.

He experienced a kind of fugue, and the next thing he knew lights were slipping by overhead as he was taken somewhere else. Then there were more mechants, and other, unfamiliar faces, and finally another room where he was given into the care of a machine that pressed in close all around him.

Whatever they’d pumped into his veins, it felt good.

He came to, and saw Eleanor standing by a window, staring out across the rooftops of Ulugh Beg. Night had fallen. There was no sign of Lethe.

‘What . . .’

She turned and blinked red-rimmed eyes at him, almost as if she’d forgotten he was there.

‘. . . the fuck?’ he finished, his voice a harsh croak.

She came over to him. ‘You had some kind of seizure. They’re still not sure what happened.’

He managed to push himself upright in the bed, and saw he was back in the same room as before. ‘Well, that’s less than reassuring.’

‘They ran a bunch of scans on you to see what triggered it, but they didn’t find anything.’

Luc stared at her in disbelief. ‘What kind of scans?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘You’d have to ask one of the mechants.’ She nodded towards one that hovered inconspicuously by the door.

Luc did. ‘Deep tissue and tomographic scans were carried out,’ it replied, drifting closer. ‘No lesions or other possible causes of a cerebral seizure were found.’

‘What about Merlino, the medician?’ Luc asked, turning back to Eleanor. ‘What exactly did he say?’

‘He said they can’t be sure of anything until they carry out further tests. He didn’t exactly say it, but from what I can tell they don’t have the faintest idea just what happened to you.’

‘But the scans must have found something,’ Luc demanded, turning his attention back to the mechant.

‘Nothing of note was found,’ the machine replied, its voice soft and neutral.

He turned back to Eleanor. ‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s not possible.’

She stared at him uncomprehendingly. ‘Luc . . . what else should there be?’

‘Antonov put something inside my skull,’ he replied, then halted in amazement. The last time he’d tried to say those same exact words, he had been subjected to more pain than he thought was possible. It didn’t make sense.

He told her everything he remembered about his encounter with Antonov, leaving nothing out this time, and she listened with one hand over her mouth. It felt like cauterizing a wound. Once he’d finished, she called the mechant back over and asked it more questions of her own.

In response, it displayed projections of the interior of his skull. Beyond some minor lesions that might have triggered a grand mal fit, nothing untoward or unexpected had been found.

Luc listened in grim silence, and began to wonder if perhaps he really had imagined the whole thing.

‘If you think I’m crazy,’ he said after she had sent the mechant away, ‘try and keep it to yourself, will you?’

She regarded him with something like pity. ‘You mean, no crazier than you were before?’

He sighed. ‘What happened to Lethe?’

‘I told him I’d stay with you and let him know once you came to.’

‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘For what?’

He shrugged. ‘For scaring you like that.’

She nodded, reaching out to brush her fingers across the new fuzz of hair growing on his scalp. ‘You scared us both pretty badly.’

He squinted at her. ‘But do you believe me?’

She hesitated. ‘I don’t know,’ she said truthfully. ‘You saw those scans. Do you believe what happened was real?’

‘I don’t know any more. Still . . . I’m glad you came.’

‘Why? You thought I wouldn’t?’

He laughed softly. ‘After that argument we had?’

‘Luc, it wasn’t because my feelings for you had changed. You know that. But you were taking unnecessary risks, walking into a Black Lotus stronghold.’

‘Yeah, but in the company of an entire squadron of—’

‘Stop.’ She pulled her hand back. ‘I saw you, when they brought you back from Grendel. I couldn’t even recognize you.’ A brittle edge crept into her voice. ‘Sandoz warriors can be re-instantiated, but you can’t, Luc. There’s only ever going to be one of you. That’s why I didn’t want you to go.’

But I didn’t have a choice, he remembered saying to her just a few days before, and that was all it had taken for things between them to start unravelling.

‘I’ll be honest with you,’ said Eleanor, breaking what had become an awkward silence, ‘Lethe thinks he might have to discount your evidence concerning what happened on Aeschere. He’s not sure an investigation would accept your story about a transfer gate without solid proof.’

‘Then what am I supposed to tell people?’ he asked. ‘Maybe I can’t prove it, El, but you’ve got to believe me when I tell you that the transfer gate was real. All of it was real.’

She sighed and sank down onto the edge of the bed, spreading her long fingers on the blankets. ‘Let’s say it’s all real, then. Remember what Lethe asked you – why didn’t Antonov just kill you?’

‘I don’t know,’ Luc replied truthfully, then remembered what Antonov had said: Access Archives, then open a record with the following reference – Thorne, 51 Alpha, Code Yellow. ‘I’m calling in my favour.’

It occurred to him that there was a way to prove his story was true. But if he really had imagined it all . . .

‘There must have been some reason,’ she insisted.

‘If I could give you an answer that made any sense, I would.’

If that record really did exist, he’d find it in his own time. He decided not to say anything until he was sure one way or the other.

Eleanor shook her head and stood. ‘I need to go. Lethe says the Temur Council are snapping at Karlmann Sandoz’s heels, wanting to know how things could have gone so badly wrong. As you can imagine, Lethe’s pretty happy about that.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Aeschere was a fucking disaster for the Sandoz. And that’s good for SecInt.’

‘Technically, I was in charge of that expedition,’ Luc reminded her. ‘They could blame me too.’

She shook her head. ‘The comms records they managed to retrieve show that Master Marroqui went out of his way to countermand your orders every step of the way. He kept pushing to go deeper into the complex when you said it might be safer to pull back until you knew what had happened to those mosquitoes.’

‘So I guess we’re in the clear.’

Eleanor regarded him with pity. ‘I don’t understand you. Lethe only put you in nominal charge of that expedition so the Sandoz wouldn’t grab all the glory. He didn’t care about the danger he was putting you in. And yet you jumped at the chance like a puppy that doesn’t know it’s about to be drowned.’

Luc bristled. ‘I knew the risks going in. It was still something I had to do.’

If you aren’t there, Lethe had said, no one’s going to remember all the work you did finding Antonov.

‘And that’s why I said what I said to you before. You don’t even care when you’re being used.’

‘I was using Lethe just as much as he was using me.’

‘Did nothing I say get through to you?’ she shot back. ‘You’re filled with survivor guilt. You wanted to get killed on that damn mission, just so you could feel better about not dying along with the rest of your family.’

He stared at her, shocked at what she had said. She reached up to pat the bun at the back of her head as if she wasn’t quite sure what to do with her hands, her expression flustered and her chest rising and falling from barely suppressed emotion.

‘I’m going to retire,’ he said abruptly.

Her eyes widened.

‘From active service, at least,’ he continued. ‘I’m serious. With Antonov gone, there’s no reason not to let other people deal with whatever’s left of Black Lotus.’

‘You never said anything about this before.’

‘Because I didn’t know just what was going to happen on Aeschere. I couldn’t discount the possibility I was wrong, that Antonov wouldn’t be there.’ He looked at her and smiled. ‘But he was.’

‘Then . . . you’re serious? No more risking your neck?’

‘I’ll stay on in Archives, but if I do any more field-work, I’ll stick to the kind of low-risk background investigations you and me used to do. But nothing like Aeschere,’ he added, shaking his head. ‘That was more than enough for this lifetime.’

Eleanor looked almost dizzy with relief. ‘I can hardly believe you’re saying this. You were always so’ – she searched for the right word – ‘driven.’

Monomaniacal, he remembered her screaming at him once. Obsessed. He couldn’t really deny the charge.

‘All I’m saying,’ he said, reaching out for her hand, ‘is that things are going to be different from now on.’

He half expected her to pull away from him, but instead she laced her fingers through his. Luc felt like a weight had been lifted from his chest.

‘There was another reason Lethe came here,’ she said. ‘You’ve been invited to the White Palace for a ceremony.’

‘Ceremony?’

‘They want to make you a Master of Archives, Luc.’

He blinked at her in confusion and surprise. ‘Seriously?’

‘Director Lethe thought you might like to hear it coming from me. Assuming you’ll actually accept a promotion this time.’

Well, I’ll be damned, thought Luc. ‘The last time they tried to give me a promotion was different. They wanted to boot me up to the Security Division.’

‘But this time,’ she said, her mouth softening into a smile, ’you get to stay where you want to be.’

It took time for Luc to learn how to control his freshly grafted muscles, but progress was fast. Further treatments sped up the reconnection of nervous tissues, and simple tasks that at first represented an enormous struggle rapidly became smooth and natural. Even the food Luc ate tasted different. After just a couple of days his skin had lost much of its patchwork appearance, and the next time he looked in a mirror, he saw someone who appeared to have suffered nothing more than mild sunburn. He touched his new face, marvelling at the wonder of it all.

On the day his treatments came to an end, he made his way along a series of narrow paths that sliced through a small courtyard at the centre of the hospital grounds. The courtyard was filled with small patches of greenery interspersed with koi ponds, their waters glittering under a noon sun. At first a mechant trailed after him, but he shooed it away.

He sat on a concrete bench and took a small case from out of a jacket pocket, opening it and extracting a new Archives CogNet earpiece. He fitted it carefully to the lobe of one ear. During his therapy, he’d been forced to rely on a general-purpose piece rather than the secure model normally used by Archives staff.

He activated it, immediately sensing the pulse of humanity in the streets beyond the hospital’s perimeter, and soon found himself deluged with data-ghosted messages from colleagues and well-wishers in Archives, including Offenbach and Hetaera. There were so many that their animated images jostled for space around him, some appearing to hover above the nearby koi ponds. He listened to a few before dismissing them all. He’d have plenty of opportunity to go through them all later.

And besides, what he had in mind might be better done without witnesses.

Linking into Archives for the first time since his return from Aeschere, he ran a search for any files with the reference Thorne, 51 Alpha, Code Yellow – and stared numbly at the fish circling in the pond before him when the search returned an immediate hit.

It was real.

The file in question contained a report detailing an incident on Thorne more than 125 years before. Out of all the worlds of the Tian Di, Thorne was both the least hospitable and the most recently colonized, a scrap of rock with a few bare lichens to its name orbiting on the outer edge of a red dwarf star’s habitable zone. It was a far from suitable candidate for terraforming, but a penal colony had been set up there following the Schism, and later a series of biological research stations had also been established there. That community of scientists, along with those unlucky enough to be sent there to live out their sentences, huddled in shielded biomes or in deep sheltered caves.

The report detailed the accidental deaths of hundreds of prisoners following a containment breach in a biotech station, but any more specific details had been flagged as restricted. The only name he even vaguely recognized amongst those attached to the incident was that of Zelia de Almeida – a minor member of the Temur Council who had, at the time, been Thorne’s Director of Policy.

The report also mentioned that de Almeida had been removed from her post following the incident, while an investigation blamed the whole incident on criminal negligence. There was nothing to connect any of it with Winchell Antonov; nothing to explain why he had asked Luc – in a dream, of all things – to come looking for this particular file.

Or maybe he’d come across the file in the past and forgotten about it, until he had incorporated it into a trauma-induced fantasy about secret transfer gates.

He stared hard at the report, visible only to him where it hovered in the air. You have a choice, he told himself. You can either decide the dream was just that, or you can act like it meant something real.

Luc stared past the report and at the upwards-thrusting skyline of Ulugh Beg, feeling as if he were balanced on the edge of a precipice. He had requested, and been granted, further scans, but there was nothing inside his skull that shouldn’t have been there. If there ever had been, it was long gone.

He reached out, meaning to dismiss the record. Instead he opened it for editing, adding in five words: I’m calling in my favour.

He saved and dismissed it, feeling like a fool. With any luck, he’d never have to think about it ever again.

Luc found himself back home within another few days, staring around his apartment like he’d never seen it before. It might as well have been a million years since he’d last stood upon its threshold.

He ordered the blinds to open. They parted to reveal the city spread out before him, the fat spindle of the White Palace dominating the evening skies where it floated above Chandrakant Lu Park. The Palace itself was constructed from a series of stacked tiers, with a number of biomes arranged around its upper surface, each filled with the native flora and fauna of any one of a dozen worlds. The whole thing hovered above the park on enormous AG pods. Few people outside of the Temur Council were granted the opportunity to visit the White Palace, and fewer still got to pass through the private transfer gates in its upper levels that led to Vanaheim, an entire world reserved for the sole use of the Council.

Further out from Chandrakant Lu, bridges like spun diamond straddled Pioneer Gorge and the small, cramped buildings from the original, pre-terraforming settlement that had once been located there. People came from all corners of the Tian Di just to see a view like this.

Even though Reunification was still a few weeks away, holographic images of dragons and other mythical beasts were already being projected into the void of air surrounding the White Palace, along with images of the orbiting Coalition contact-ship that carried aboard it a transfer gate linking back to the Coalition world of Darwin. The park beneath was already a hive of activity as final preparations for the gate’s ceremonial opening were carried out.

The world had changed while he’d been looking the other way. Antonov was dead, and two centuries of enforced isolationism were coming to an end with the official sanctioning of this single, tentative but nonetheless permanent wormhole link with the Coalition.

Of all the times he wanted Eleanor with him, this was it. But this close to Reunification, everyone in SecInt was working overtime, including her. So Luc had his apartment form a chair facing towards the Palace, and collapsed into it, staring out into the early evening sky and wondering if the rest of his life was going to feel as much of an anti-climax as he was beginning to suspect it might.

Stop being so morose, he chided himself, and asked the house mechant to bring him a glass of warm kavamilch, sipping at it until he drifted off into an exhausted sleep.

He came awake sometime in the early morning, and realized he wasn’t alone.

‘You look surprisingly well for a man who’s been burned alive,’ said a voice from behind him.

The house had dimmed the lights some time after he had fallen asleep. He brought them back up, twisting round in his seat to see a man with short-cropped hair standing facing him in the middle of the room, his face maddeningly familiar.

Luc stared at him. ‘Who . . .’

‘I’m disappointed,’ said the man. ‘You don’t recognize me. Bailey Cripps.’

‘Bailey . . .’

‘I’m here on behalf of the Eighty-Five, Mr Gabion.’

The Eighty-Five. Father Cheng’s inner circle within the Temur Council, all of whom had been by his side since the days of the Schism.

Luc squinted. He could just about see the hair-thin line of rainbow interference surrounding Cripps like a halo that indicated he was talking to a data-ghost – nothing more than a projection, but an unauthorized intrusion for all that. Anger began to overwhelm his initial feelings of shock.

Luc stood, flustered, and turned to face him. ‘Of course I recognize you. You chair the Council’s Defence Subcommittee. But I have a right to privacy, even from—’

‘Sit back down,’ Cripps ordered him. ‘I’m here to ask you some questions, Mr Gabion. Necessary questions.’

Luc held his ground and remained upright. ‘If you wanted to talk to me, you could have just arranged an interview through SecInt.’

‘That isn’t possible,’ Cripps replied. ‘This meeting has to be strictly off the record.’

‘Why?’

Cripps’ eyes narrowed. ‘I think you’re forgetting your place, Archivist. I came here to ask you questions, not the other way around.’

‘How do I know you really are who you say you are? I could be speaking to anyone behind that data-ghost.’

Cripps nodded as if satisfied. ‘An excellent point. Feel free to check.’

Luc asked his house to trace the source of the projection, and soon learned that it originated from somewhere deep inside the White Palace itself. Further, the signal had been processed via a channel used exclusively by high-ranking members of the Council’s vast bureaucracy.

The chair reformed around Luc as he sat back down, facing Cripps. ‘Okay. You check out. So what exactly is it that’s so damned important you’d come into my house uninvited?’

‘I want you to tell me,’ said Cripps, ‘whether you think the Thousand Emperors should be in power.’

Luc felt his face grow red. ‘You mean the Temur Council, don’t you?’

Cripps raised an eyebrow. ‘Does the name bother you?’

‘It’s a highly pejorative term, used in Black Lotus propaganda.’

‘You still haven’t answered the question,’ Cripps replied, his eyes hard. ‘There are people, and not just Black Lotus supporters, who claim the Council has been running affairs throughout the Tian Di for much too long. Is that a view you agree with?’

Luc felt his stomach curl into a tight knot. ‘Have there been questions over my loyalty, Mr Cripps?’

‘You come from Benares, I understand.’ The way he said it, it sounded more like an accusation than a polite enquiry.

‘I think,’ Luc replied, struggling for calm, ‘that what I did on Aeschere proves where my loyalties lie.’

Cripps gave him a humourless smile. ‘That doesn’t answer my question,’ he said. ‘That whole mess left more than a dozen Sandoz dead, their supposedly secure network compromised. Then there’s you, the sole survivor, with your miraculous escape and no clear explanation for just what happened to you while you were down in that complex. Given your background, it’s inevitable that people are going to start wondering if perhaps you were in league with Antonov in some way.’

‘If you want to ask me any more questions,’ Luc replied, his fingers gripping his knees, ‘you can do it in the presence of Director Lethe of Security and Intelligence.’

‘Let’s leave SecInt out of it and think of this as just being between friends. Haven’t you ever thought maybe the Council’s been in power too long? It’s been more than two centuries, now. Don’t you feel it’s time for some new kind of government to be put in their place?’

‘What I think, Mr Cripps, is that you’re testing me for some reason I don’t understand. I lost my family to Black Lotus when I was very young, so you’re out of your mind if you think I’m an agent for them. Go read my SecInt file. The word “exemplary” gets used a lot.’

‘That file also tells me the majority of people in the part of Benares you came from had sympathies for Black Lotus. When you came to Temur as a refugee, you lived in a part of Ulugh Beg with a strong Black Lotus presence.’

‘Black Lotus murdered a couple of million Benareans in a sustained assault that devastated half a continent. Believe me, Mr Cripps, I’ve got more reason than most to hate Winchell Antonov. Besides, everyone in SecInt gets psych-profiled to find out where their loyalties lie. So why are you really here?’

There was a reptilian quality to Cripps’ gaze, something in the way the skin wrinkled around the corners of his eyes that made Luc think of a predator half-submerged in some watering-hole beneath a baking sun.

‘Two reasons,’ Cripps responded. ‘For one, a couple of years ago you were given the chance at a promotion to SecInt’s security division, but you didn’t take it. Why?’

‘Because it would have taken me out of the Archives division, and away from my intelligence work,’ Luc replied immediately. ‘The job was mostly bureaucratic. If I’d accepted it, I might never have tracked Antonov down. I told Director Lethe that at the time, and he had no problem with my reasoning.’

‘Except that promotion would also have given you the authority to influence Archives’ lines of investigation,’ Cripps countered. ‘That could have made a lot of difference – maybe enough so that we wouldn’t be forced to re-instantiate an entire Sandoz Clan.’

‘You said there was a second point?’ Luc snapped, barely able to contain himself any longer.

‘I don’t think you have any more love for the Temur Council and Father Cheng than Winchell Antonov ever did,’ Cripps replied, a glint in his eyes. He nodded past Luc, towards the White Palace hovering in the air beyond the window. ‘Who’s to say you aren’t a sleeper agent, placed deep inside Archives, and who’s to say Antonov’s death wasn’t faked in some way? No body was recovered, and all we have is your unlikely testimony, delivered to a Sandoz investigator, which can’t possibly be corroborated since no CogNet records of your encounter with Antonov exists!’

‘With all due respect, sir,’ Luc spat back, ‘you don’t know shit.’

Cripps’ shoulders jerked briefly in a laugh. ‘Things are going to be very different from now on, Mr Gabion. I’m going to be keeping a very close eye on you. Remember that, when you start your investigation.’

Luc stared at him, baffled. ‘My what?’

‘We’ll meet again shortly. Just remember, in the coming days, that you are as much a suspect as anyone else.’

‘Suspect in what?’ Luc shook his head in befuddlement. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking ab—’

Cripps’ data-ghost vanished while he was still mid-sentence, leaving him staring at an empty room.

An investigation, Cripps had said. What kind of investigation?

He pushed both hands across his head, wondering if he hadn’t just imagined the whole thing. After everything he’d been through, he couldn’t even be sure how much he could trust his own senses. Maybe he was losing his mind. Maybe it was really that simple.

‘House,’ he asked, ‘was anyone else just here?’

‘Senator Bailey Cripps, by remote data-presence,’ the house replied.

He closed his eyes in silent relief and sank back into the chair, but soon found himself staring back out at the Palace, feeling nothing but a premonitory chill.

The next morning a mechant guided Luc from the metro station at the edge of the park and along a pathway that skirted the bronzed statue of Chandrakant Lu. The White Palace’s architect had been depicted with one hand reaching upwards, as if to catch the vast edifice floating half a kilometre above the city. He saw innumerable fliers arriving to decant yet more people to join the hundreds already milling about, a considerable number of whom wore the formal work clothes of Council bureaucrats, while the rest sported the uniforms of either SecInt or Sandoz.

Mechants, most of them conspicuously armed and bearing Sandoz markings, darted through the air, almost outnumbering the crowds. Their carapaces glittered under the bright arc lights that substituted for sunlight beneath the Palace’s vast bulk.

The mechant guided him towards an open plaza near the park’s centre. He felt a rush of pleasure when he sighted Eleanor standing amidst a gaggle of several other SecInt agents. The agents were gathered around an olive-skinned man wearing a long formal jacket; Luc immediately recognized him as Mehmood Garda, Director of Policy for Benares, and himself a member of the Eighty-Five.

The crowds moved and shifted, and a moment later Luc also caught sight of Vincent Hetaera, his immediate superior in Archives, engaged in what looked like an in-depth discussion with several of his junior research staff.

‘Mr Gabion!’ Garda exclaimed as Luc approached, stepping forward to clap him on the shoulder and pump his hand at the same time. ‘Congratulations on your success at Aeschere. I believe we all owe you a debt of gratitude.’

His voice boomed over even the noise of the crowded plaza. Several security-mechants clearly tasked with guarding Director Garda aimed their machine-gaze at Luc.

‘I appreciate that.’ Luc almost had to shout the words over the cacophony. He’d heard rumours Garda had participated in the torture and execution of Black Lotus agents, particularly when those agents had been female.

Garda lifted his chin towards the Palace. ‘You must be full of anticipation. This is the first time you’ve been invited into the Palace?’

‘It is,’ Luc shouted back. ‘To be honest, I think I’ll be glad just to get this over with,’ he added.

Garda drew himself up to his full six-foot-plus height, this time placing both hands on Luc’s shoulders and clapping one of them hard. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I can’t think of anyone who could possibly deserve what’s coming to you any more than you do.’

Luc caught sight of Eleanor from out of the corner of his eye. ‘It’s certainly an honour,’ he replied.

‘And after this?’ asked Garda. ‘Black Lotus aren’t finished just because Antonov is dead. Are you going to help us wipe the rest of them out?’

‘I think that remains to be—’

To Luc’s considerable relief, one of Garda’s entourage approached, whispering in the Director’s ear.

‘I look forward to seeing you receive your honours in the Palace,’ said Garda, briefly turning back to Luc, but it was clear his mind was already somewhere else. ‘Affairs of state, I’m afraid.’

Luc nodded, and watched the Director step away and greet someone else.

‘Feel like washing your hands?’ asked Eleanor, moving up next to him.

Luc suppressed a grimace. ‘I guess I should have expected him to be here.’

‘You had a look on your face like you’d just drunk your own piss. To be honest, I think he noticed.’

‘If he did, I don’t think it bothered him a great deal.’

‘First Lethe, now Garda. Just when you thought you’d be able to relax a little.’

Luc shook his head wearily. ‘Fuck assholes like Garda. There’ll always be people like him.’ He reached out and took her hand. ‘I need to see you. Soon.’

She nodded. ‘Look, I’m sorry about last night, it’s just—’

‘It’s okay,’ he said, stopping her. ‘I seem to be about the only person in all of SecInt who isn’t on active duty right now.’ He shrugged. ‘And maybe it’s not such a bad thing that you weren’t there.’

‘Why not?’

He hesitated, wondering how she’d react to what he was about to tell her.

They had become lovers the year before, on a joint trip to Yue Shijie in the 94 Aquarii system to try and track down one of Black Lotus’s many sources of funding.

Like Aeschere, Yue Shijie orbited a gas giant, but unlike that desolate moon, Yue Shijie was well within its system’s habitable zone, and large enough to support a habitable biosphere. He remembered standing with Eleanor on the balcony of a ziggurat-like building that, like much of the rest of that world’s capital city, rose out of dense jungle stretching to the horizon in all directions. He remembered looking up to see the gas giant’s streaked atmosphere, marked here and there by outpourings from Helium 3 factories ploughing through its upper reaches.

They had been stuck there for the better part of a month, chasing after lines of enquiry that led nowhere. Demonstrations and riots stirred up by Black Lotus had made the city streets too dangerous to venture onto. Boredom and alcohol had combined with inevitable effect.

He recalled in vivid detail the curve of her small, high breasts beneath the thin blouse she wore that evening, the curve of her spine when she leaned against the railing beside him. Falling into bed had seemed the obvious thing to do on such a long and lonely night, but neither of them had anticipated how quickly and how deeply their feelings for each other would develop. He wanted to keep her at a safe distance from anything that involved Cripps, yet at the same time, he knew there was no one he could trust more than Eleanor.

‘I had a visitor yesterday evening,’ he told her. ‘Bailey Cripps. He spent the whole time quizzing me about my loyalties.’

Her eyes became round and she stepped back a little. ‘Bailey Cripps? Visited you where, here?’

‘He turned up in my home.’

She had a look in her eyes like she wasn’t quite sure she could believe him.

‘Listen, I swear on Cheng’s teeth he was there,’ Luc insisted.

‘He doesn’t strike me as the type to make impromptu house calls.’

‘There was nothing impromptu about it. He data-ghosted into my apartment without any warning. I guess Council privileges extend to home security overrides.’

‘He questioned your loyalties?’ Her eyes darted to the side and then back again, and he guessed what she was about to ask. ‘Are you sure it was really him?’

‘I checked. It was him, all right. He seemed to think I couldn’t be trusted because I’m from Benares. He also mentioned something about an investigation, but I have no idea what investigation he was talking about.’

Her expression became more alarmed. ‘Investigation? Into what? Aeschere?’

‘No, he seemed to mean something else, but he didn’t seem interested in telling me precisely what.’

‘We need to tell someone about this.’

He shook his head. ‘No.’

She shook her head in disbelief. ‘For God’s sake, why not?’

‘This is Bailey Cripps we’re talking about. There has to be a reason he approached me directly, instead of going through Lethe or Hetaera. If I tell them or anyone else, I might not get to find out what that reason is.’

She sighed, tilting her head back to stare up at the Palace’s illuminated underside. ‘I don’t like this,’ she said, bringing her gaze back down. ‘You should tell someone.’

‘I’m telling you, aren’t I?’

She shook her head in exasperation. ‘Don’t you think you’ve been through enough already?’

‘Look, maybe Cripps came to me in the way he did because he knows something about Black Lotus. Besides . . . he’s one of the Eighty-Five. What they want, they get.’

‘There are some members of the Council,’ she said, speaking to him as if he were dim-witted, ‘you don’t want to get tangled up with.’ Her eyes slid to one side, and he followed the direction of her gaze until he alighted on Garda, still working the crowd.

‘I just want to find out what Cripps wants. Then I’ll go talk to Lethe.’

He could sense the anger brewing behind her thinned lips. ‘Is that a promise?’

He nodded. ‘Yes.’

‘Good,’ she replied, ‘because this is starting to feel like Aeschere all over again.’

Garda mounted a stage set up at the centre of the plaza and began to speak, while mechants from half a dozen different news agencies buzzed through the air, jostling for the best vantage point.

Luc’s attention soon drifted back to the Palace floating overhead. Something about the sight of all those millions of tons of metal floating unsupported in the air always felt like a test of one’s faith in technology. He wondered, not for the first time, just how many seconds he’d have left to live should the AG pods holding it in place suddenly fail to function.

Glancing at Eleanor beside him, he saw she had an expression like she’d swallowed something nasty. She hadn’t taken the news about Cripps well. But during his recovery, left with little to do but think, it had come to Luc that so much of his life had been devoted to finding Antonov that there hadn’t been room left for much else. He’d sometimes wondered what kind of life he might have led if the Battle of Sunderland hadn’t brought everything to a crashing halt at such a young age.

Maybe now was the time to find out. And as much as he hated to admit it even to himself, Cripps’ vague allusion to an unspecified investigation had awoken within him a sense of purpose he had not felt since his departure for Aeschere.

Garda’s speech finally came to an end, and Luc realized he hadn’t taken in a single word. Two massive doors in the Palace’s underside, positioned directly above the plaza, slowly swung apart on cue. All around the park, fliers thrummed into life while low, sonorous music flowed out of hidden speakers.

The interior of a docking bay became visible beyond the doors. Dozens of mechants rose towards it, as if the Palace were in actuality a moon, the mechants drawn upwards by the tug of its gravity.

‘This is it,’ said Eleanor, taking his arm and flashing him a smile that looked only half-genuine.

A mechant approached and asked them to follow it. They trailed after it towards a sleek-looking craft onto which at least a dozen other people were already filing.

They boarded and took their seats, Eleanor taking his hand and holding it tightly.

‘Nervous?’ she asked.

‘A little,’ he admitted. He wondered if Cripps would be present during the ceremony. He leaned back, half-listening to the people chattering around them as the flier waited for clearance. Most of them were ordinary citizens, on their way to be granted privileges and rewards for services rendered. It was all part of the Temur Council’s unceasing public relations campaign designed to remind people how good life was under Father Cheng.

The upper part of the hull was transparent, and Luc watched as other fliers scattered around the plaza took off, one after the other, rising straight up and disappearing into the blaze of the docking bay’s lights. Then, finally, they were on their way, landing inside the Palace after a trip that lasted barely a minute.

Once they disembarked, more mechants, decorated in the gold and blue livery of the Temur Council, took care of guiding the flier’s passengers towards an auditorium located on the Palace’s lowest tier. One of the mechants flew towards Luc and Eleanor, coming to a halt immediately before them and bringing them to a startled halt.

‘Mr Gabion,’ said the mechant in a smooth contralto. ‘If you would follow me, please.’

Luc saw the curious glances of the other passengers as they passed by. He felt strangely embarrassed, as if he’d been caught gatecrashing.

‘Why?’

‘It concerns a matter of the utmost seriousness,’ the mechant informed him. ‘One that requires your absolute discretion.’

‘Required by whom?’ asked Eleanor.

‘I am not at liberty to say, but the request comes from within the Temur Council.’

‘Then we’ll both come,’ said Eleanor.

The mechant’s AG fields buzzed quietly for a moment before it answered. ‘I’m afraid this is a matter for Mr Gabion only, Miss Jaq. Director Lethe has been informed of your necessary absence from the ceremony. Mr Gabion, please follow me.’

Eleanor opened and closed her mouth, then stared at Luc with a concerned expression.

‘I don’t like it,’ she finally said in a low voice. ‘Why now, of all times?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ he said, reaching out to squeeze her arm.

She tried to force a smile, but the strain was clear on her face.

He nodded to the mechant and it led the way, gliding towards an AG platform at the far end of the bay. The platform began to accelerate upwards as soon as he stepped onto it, the mechant rising at the same rate in order to keep even with him. He glanced down once to see Eleanor looking back up at him, and tried to ignore the deep unease lurking at the back of his thoughts.

The platform kept rising, and Luc realized with a shock it was going all the way to the top, to the Hall of Gates. He made a point of not stepping too close to the edge of the platform. Its AG fields would prevent him from falling off, but he had little desire to see just how far he had risen.

‘The matter for which your presence has been requested rates a C category under the Security review of 285 P.A.,’ said the mechant, turning towards him as the platform began to decelerate. ‘You may not disclose the nature, location or any other pertinent aspect of your final destination to anyone with a less than C-category security rating, under penalty of the permanent loss of all granted privileges, and possible detention or permanent discorporation at the pleasure of a court assembled from select members of the Temur Council. The same penalties also apply to anyone with whom you share this information, and anyone amongst their immediate family, social or work groups suspected of coming into possession of this information.’

Luc nodded dumbly, thinking: a C-level security rating. There weren’t many that were higher.

‘Please acknowledge, before we reach our destination, that you understand and accept these terms,’ the mechant finished.

‘I don’t have the rank for that level of security rating,’ said Luc. ‘I’m not sure I’ve even met anyone who does.’ Outside of members of the Council, anyway.

‘You have been granted a temporary C-rating security clearance,’ the mechant replied. ‘Do you agree to the stated terms?’

Luc stared at the machine. ‘I do.’

The platform passed through a circular opening in the atrium’s ceiling before finally coming to a halt at the centre of a low-ceilinged circular hall. Luc saw more than a dozen transfer gates spaced equidistant from each other set into the walls: private transfer gates, each one leading to a major Tian Di colony and reserved for the sole use of members of the Temur Council. One other gate led to Vanaheim.

The mechant moved towards the Vanaheim gate. Luc hesitated once he realized where it was leading him.

‘I just want to be clear on this,’ he called after the machine. ‘I’ve been requested to travel to Vanaheim?’

‘Yes,’ the mechant confirmed, pausing briefly before gliding onwards and through the gate. Luc followed, feeling increasingly out of his depth.

He felt some of his weight fall away when he stepped through a pressure-field on the far side of the gate. Vanaheim’s gravity was almost a fifth less than that of Temur.

He had never been to Vanaheim before; few outside of the Temur Council ever had. The air felt dense, almost soupy, and had a curiously honeyed scent to it. He glanced back through the gate to the interior of the White Palace, thinking of his home somewhere on the far side, so very close and yet so very far away. Then he turned around to regard the concourse on which he now found himself, and the greenish-blue sky visible through a curved glass ceiling several metres overhead.

There was no sign of anyone else.

The complex of which the concourse was part stood on raised ground on one slope of a river valley that was home to Liebenau, the single largest settlement on the entire planet. Luc saw a Gothic mansion at the centre of a vast, rolling estate, bordering what appeared to be an ancient Hindu temple; there were other buildings of varying and clashing architectural styles, most drawn from old Earth, although a cluster of grey-and-brown, utilitarian-looking structures were clearly inspired by post-Abandonment biome architecture. A few crystalline towers, not so different from those found on Temur and the capitals of other Tian Di colonies, rose towards the sky like upright spears.

Most of these were the homes of Cheng’s inner circle, the Eighty-Five; they all orbited a single, vast complex of ancient-looking buildings, which were in turn surrounded by a high, rectangular wall topped at each corner by pagoda-style roofs. A moat surrounded this wall. Extensive gardens helped to further separate and distinguish the Red Palace – as it was known – from the rest of the settlement. It had been modelled, he vaguely recalled, on a palace built on Earth many centuries before the Abandonment.

The mechant moved ahead of him and towards a single flier parked just beyond an exit. A door in the craft’s side swung open as they approached.

‘Now we’re here,’ he called after the mechant, ‘would you mind at least giving me some idea what the hell this is about?’

‘You are required,’ the mechant informed him, coming to a halt next to the flier, ‘to assist in the investigation of a murder.’

THREE

His name was Jacob Moreland, and he was a spy.

His mission had begun seventy-four years before, when he had been placed into a one-man craft launched from a Sandoz platform in orbit around Novaya Zvezda. Along with an armada of identical craft, each carrying a lone passenger, the ship carrying Jacob had accelerated rapidly out of the system, reaching eighty per cent of light-speed within half a year. The star around which Novaya Zvezda itself orbited soon became just one more exquisitely jewel-like point of light amongst countless others.

Jacob slept unawares, his body buffered by impact-gels and cooled by onboard cryogenics.

For a very long time, Jacob Moreland was, by any objective measure, dead. The instantiation lattice within his skull had encoded much of the fleeting data that made up his conscious mind, while more specialized structures did their best to repair the unavoidable damage done to his delicate human tissues by prolonged deep-space flight.

Attrition soon took its toll, as some of the craft accompanying Jacob on his long journey were destroyed by micrometeorite impacts. It had proven necessary to provide each ship with relatively low-grade shielding, since this increased their chances of evading detection by the Coalition’s deep-space monitors. That a certain number of craft were likely to be lost had been taken into account during the mission’s planning stages. It was an unfortunate, but ultimately necessary, sacrifice.

A few other of the ships suffered fatal systems failures, victims of high-energy particle impacts that interfered with their delicate circuitry. The rest continued on their long flight across the light-years, their onboard computers communicating with each other via encrypted channels, aware within their limited intelligence that, as time progressed, their numbers were steadily dwindling, although not yet below mission-critical levels.

At the apex of their journey, the armada was moving at just a shade over 97 per cent of light-speed. Time-dilation slowed the pace at which the attritions of age and radiation damage wore away at their passengers. The onboard medical systems did their best but, inevitably, there were further casualties: those ships bearing the irretrievably dead automatically shut themselves down and fell behind the rest, to drift between the stars forever.

The years passed, and the ships flew on. They did not begin to decelerate until the last decade of their voyage, finally braking into the 36 Ophiuchi system, deep within Coalition territory.

Automated defences patrolling the outer worlds of 36 Ophiuchi detected a number of the approaching ships, analysing their trajectories and responding by moving hunter-killer mechants into intercept patterns. The craft came under fire from kinetic weapons that sent chunks of asteroid slag curving in towards them along gravity-assist paths.

Attrition once more took its toll as the majority of incoming craft were destroyed, and the survival rate of the spy-ships finally teetered towards mission-critical levels. The computers on board the ships risked data-bursts between each other, readjusting their shared flight plans according to decades-old algorithms: if only a few of them managed to reach their destinations, the project set in motion so very long ago might yet have a chance of succeeding.

The survivors lost themselves amidst the rubble of a dead world, long ago drawn into a belt of debris a billion kilometres beyond 36 Ophiuchi’s habitable zone. Only half a dozen of the spy-ships now remained.

Each took it in turn to accelerate towards the inner system, matching courses with cometary bodies and asteroids in order to disguise themselves, drifting sometimes for months before finally manoeuvring into new trajectories that would carry them all the way to Darwin, the system’s sole inhabited world.

It wasn’t long before Jacob’s turn came.

For the first time in several decades, he began to dream, his core body temperature slowly rising as complex cryoprotectant solutions were leached from his bloodstream. His heart began to beat, falteringly at first and then with added strength. Nutrients entered his body via a complex of hollow fibres inserted into his spine, while invisibly tiny microchines worked hard at repairing the inevitable cellular and neural damage sustained during the voyage. Some minimal damage had also been sustained by his instantiation lattice.

Jacob Moreland would live, but some of his memories were gone forever. This much, too, had been anticipated.

Networked autonomous security devices parked in Trojan orbits, balanced between the blue-green world they guarded and the star it orbited, detected the majority of the surviving spy-ships and swiftly destroyed them. Only Jacob’s ship escaped, by wrapping itself within a hastily improvised informational cocoon that made it appear to be little more than an unmanned reconnaissance vehicle on a registered mission. It had been lucky, matching the trajectory of a cluster of supply drones, returning from the A-M refineries orbiting just inside 36 Ophiuchi’s solar corona.

Jacob Moreland drew breath and gasped, his lungs still filled to capacity with breathable nutrient gels that tasted vaguely of mint and antiseptic. A moment later, he remembered his name.

He became more fully conscious during the final stages of atmospheric re-entry. Fresh data flowered in his mind, generated by the instantiation lattices riddling his cerebral cortex and nearly indistinguishable from his own, entirely natural thoughts.

Plasma cannons, designed to destroy random garbage falling from the orbital wheel that encircled Darwin, burned his craft as it dropped towards the upper layers of that world’s atmosphere. It responded by releasing a burst of chaff that fooled the cannons into thinking their target had been destroyed. The ship then dipped lower into the atmosphere, burning off its ablative surface before dropping towards the cloud level.

Jacob’s pulse began to quicken as he remembered not only who, but what, he was. Upon his request, sensors embedded in the craft’s skin relayed to him images of the night-time landscape towards which he was falling. He saw deep valleys, ancient mountains rising above shallow seas, and glistening salt-flats that stretched across continents. He saw cities like brilliant kaleidoscopes of light, dense conurbations that reached silver fingers far above the planet’s atmosphere, linking into the world-wheel dotted with countless antimatter forges and industrial complexes.

This, then, was Darwin, a world that had become the economic and cultural heart of the Coalition following the Abandonment.

His craft bucked as it passed through the turbulent layers of air at the edge of a high-pressure zone, then dropped towards a ragged and apparently unpopulated coastline, minuscule thrusters slowing the ship’s rate of descent in the last moments of its flight. Seconds before the ship finally touched down, Jacob caught sight of green and violet-leaved flora growing amidst spongy-looking trees that bowed under the weight of their broad, finger-like branches.

He staggered out of the blackened shell of his craft in time to see the first fingers of dawn colouring the night sky. He coughed and retched, his lungs and throat still carrying traces of suspension fluids from his long voyage. Cold air whipped against his naked skin. Feeling weak and helpless, he sagged to his knees, pushing both hands deep into gritty soil as a deep and ravenous hunger gripped him.

His instantiation lattice fed data to his conscious mind as he kneeled. He learned that he was the only survivor out of the nearly forty men and women who had been launched from the Tian Di so many years before. Despite the deprivations of his voyage, he found that he could still remember most of their faces and names, having come to know nearly all of them over the course of the year they had spent training for this mission. They had all known how high the risks were. Even so, he was appalled to find he was the only one left.

And if he failed, the mission failed with him.

Staggering back over to the craft, he quickly retrieved a one-piece combat suit, pulling it on before he could freeze to death in the chilly air. He next retrieved a case, then stepped quickly away from the craft as his lattice flashed him an alert.

From a safe distance, he watched as the ship that had carried him so far immolated itself, its hull collapsing into sections that burned with a pungent smell. Flames flickered inside the craft’s interior, reaching up past bone-like spurs that would crumble away to nothing within just a few days. In time, the only evidence that there had ever been a craft here capable of travelling between the stars would be unusually high trace amounts of rare minerals in the soil, along with a marginally higher than normal level of background radioactivity. But one would have to look very, very carefully indeed.

Jacob stood watching for over an hour as the ship continued crumbling into gently steaming ashes that filled the night air with a scent like burning grass. Something about it filled him with a curious sense of loss, which was strange, given that he had been placed in suspension prior to being loaded aboard the craft. Nevertheless, on some deep level, a part of him recognized that this had been his home for long decades, and so it felt strange to finally leave it behind.

From this point on, there was only one way left for him to return home to the Tian Di – and doing so would constitute a major part of his mission.

When he felt ready, Jacob reached into a pocket of his combat suit, retrieving a device small enough to nestle almost invisibly in the palm of his hand: a pin-sized transceiver. He activated it, and even though there was no reason to think it might malfunction, he nonetheless felt a palpable sense of relief when it proved fully operational.

His journey across the light-years had all been just a prelude to this, the moment when his mission truly began. His first step would be to make contact with Tian Di agents who had been in place on Darwin since before he had even set out. Once their own transceivers notified them of his arrival, they would find him and aid him in fulfilling his mission.

It might have taken him decades to reach this world, but the return journey would take, quite literally, no time at all.

FOUR

The flier carrying Luc and the mechant that had fetched him from Temur dropped below cloud-level a few hours after it had set out, and he got his first glimpse of a small island situated no more than a couple of kilometres from a coastline of high cliffs dense with reddish-green forest. The island didn’t appear to be much more than a stub of grassy rock sticking out of the ocean. Tall waves crashed against its shore, and as the flier dropped down he saw a number of brick and stone buildings clustered close together on its grassy slopes, a few of them topped by gold and silver onion domes that glittered beneath Vanaheim’s sun. The flier canted to one side, shuddering slightly as its broad dark wings cut through a strong wind that tore foam from the peaks of the waves.

Now do you mind telling me where the hell we are?’ Luc demanded, staring down through the transparent hull.

The mechant had disappeared into a slot in one wall of the cabin as soon as they had boarded. ‘We are approaching the residence of Sevgeny Vasili,’ it explained from within its nook. ‘We will disembark in the next few minutes.’

Sevgeny Vasili. Until now, the mechant had refused to tell him anything beyond that single, cryptic reference to a murder enquiry. It hadn’t even been willing to tell him who was supposed to be dead.

He reviewed what little he knew of Sevgeny Vasili. Like Cripps and Garda both, Vasili was a long-standing member of the Eighty-Five, and had been since the very earliest days of the Temur Council. He was also aware that Vasili had been central to the negotiation process with the Coalition that had led directly to the Reunification.

The flier dropped to a silent landing in a walled courtyard on that part of the island facing towards the mainland. Luc saw as he disembarked that several other craft were already parked there. The air tasted cold and clear, and he shivered. His Archives uniform was far from adequate in such chill air.

Whatever was going on, he had the distinct feeling he was the last to arrive.

The mechant emerged once more and led him through a brick arch that exited the courtyard, and then along a shrub-lined path that terminated before a broad, wooden door that swung inwards at their approach. Luc found himself inside a high-ceilinged hall that might easily have passed for a throne-room in some ancient Earthly kingdom. Carved wooden columns reached up to a beamed roof, while a fireplace at the far end looked just about big enough to fit a whole flier within it. The flagstones beneath his feet seemed to have been worn smooth with age, while the air within the hall smelled of damp and mould. The only light came through narrow windows set close to the ceiling.

Much of this Luc noticed only peripherally, his attention being otherwise taken up entirely by the half-dozen men and women clustered together in the best lit part of the hall beneath a leaded window. Not only did he see Bailey Cripps amongst their number, but also Joseph Cheng – the Benevolent Archon himself, Permanent Chairman of the Temur Council, and certainly the most powerful man in all of the Tian Di.

He paused at the gathering before him, almost frozen to the spot.

‘Is that him?’ spat a man next to Cripps.

Luc stared at the man who had spoken before suddenly realizing who he was: Victor Begum, one of the two founders of the Sandoz Clans along with old Karlmann Sandoz. He was as muscled and intimidating as Marroqui or any other Clan-leader Luc had ever encountered.

‘Easy, Victor,’ said one of the two women amongst the group, thick dark hair spilling like a wave across her shoulders. ‘You are Luc Gabion?’ she asked, glancing towards him.

‘I . . . yes,’ Luc managed to say. ‘Yes, I am. I’m not sure why I’ve been brought here.’

He heard the door swing shut behind him, the sound echoing through the hall with all the finality of an executioner’s axe. For some reason, his feet had become unwilling to carry him any further into the room.

‘Did the mechant that brought you here tell you nothing?’ asked the same woman.

‘No, except that there had been a – a murder,’ he replied, his voice pinching off slightly.

A small, balding man with round cheeks made a barking sound, his face contorted in anger. He took a step towards the dark-haired woman, who turned to face him, raising one hand as if to ward him off.

<This was a bad idea, Zelia,> the balding man scripted, glaring over at Luc as he did so. <He doesn’t belong here.>

Zelia. Luc stared at the woman, remembering the details of the Archival record he had altered back at the hospital. She had to be Zelia de Almeida, formerly Thorne’s Director of Policy.

<Ruy, I asked you to avoid using script-speak while Gabion was here,> de Almeida sent.

<Now that I think about it, I’m not so sure you belong here, either, Zelia,> said the man called Ruy, staring furiously at Luc the whole time. <You can expect me to lodge a formal protest as soon as we’re finished here.>

It took Luc a moment to understand that he was privy to a conversation he shouldn’t even have been aware was taking place; the permission flags surrounding Ruy and de Almeida’s words made it entirely clear their conversation was intended to be private, and yet Luc was able to pick up every word.

<Maybe you could explain why you’re here, Ruy?>, de Almeida sent in response, her eyes fixed on Luc as she scripted. <I don’t recall asking you here.>

There was something calculating in her gaze, and Luc felt a flash of guilt that made him look away, as if he had done something wrong.

<I don’t need your permission,> Ruy scripted back at her, growing ever more red-faced. <Joe asked me to be here.>

Joe. Luc blinked, realizing with a start Ruy must be referring to Joseph Cheng. It felt strange to hear a man of such enormous power referred to in so avuncular a fashion.

‘Mr Gabion is here because Zelia made an excellent case why he should be present, Mr Borges,’ said Cheng, opting to speak out loud. ‘I hope you’re not questioning my judgement in this matter?’

Ruy Borges’s face went from red to white in a matter of moments. He turned towards Cheng, first glancing quickly at Luc with the expression of a man who had just trod on something unpleasant.

‘My apologies,’ Borges said to Cheng. <I shouldn’t have spoken out of turn,> he added.

<I’ll also ask you to avoid script-speak from now on,> Cheng replied. <Gabion must be allowed to see and hear everything we do or say.>

Borges nodded, suddenly submissive where he had been demanding. <Then may I at least ask why he’s here?>

De Almeida turned to Luc. ‘Mr Borges is curious to know why I had you brought here,’ she told him. ‘I’m sorry for bringing you here with such little warning, but I’m sure you understand why it was necessary.’

‘The victim – was it a member of the Council?’

‘It was, yes. A man called Sevgeny Vasili. Are you familiar with the name?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I assume you also understand what would happen to you if anyone outside of this room were ever to discover the purpose or details of our meeting here?’

Luc nodded uneasily and swallowed. ‘I can make an educated guess.’

No one is allowed on to Vanaheim except for members of the Council and their guests, all of whom are strictly vetted and closely watched at all times. You can understand this presents us with some difficulties when it comes to figuring out who might be responsible for Sevgeny’s murder.’

‘You mentioned “guests” – are there any on Vanaheim at the moment?’

‘Apart from yourself?’ asked de Almeida. ‘A few, all of whom are being detained until we can be absolutely certain they were not involved in any way. No one apart from yourself is being allowed to pass through the Hall of Gates. Even so, the circumstances of Sevgeny’s death mean that we’ve been forced to some uncomfortable conclusions.’

Luc met her eyes, and had a fleeting mental image of something dark and winged, with outstretched talons, swooping down from out of the sky. ‘You think Vasili was killed by another Councillor?’

‘No.’ Victor Begum stepped forward. ‘It’s ridiculous to suggest any one of us could have done such a thing to one of our own. It has to be someone from outside the Council.’

<Please, Victor,> de Almeida scripted, her tone weary. <We can’t make exceptions for ourselves if we’re going to work out what happened here.>

Somewhere beyond the high narrow windows, Luc could hear waves crashing on the island’s shore. His lungs felt like they had turned to granite in his chest, fear sharpening his senses. He was unpleasantly aware that any one of the men and women before him could order his death, without reprisal or consequences, and at a moment’s notice, if he failed to satisfy them.

‘Excuse me,’ he said.

They all looked over at him.

If I were to hazard a guess,’ he said, feeling cool sweat trickle past one eyebrow despite the chill air, ‘I’d say your biggest worry is whether you can trust each other since, technically, any one of you could be responsible for Vasili’s murder.’

There; he’d said it. He waited, breath catching in his throat, fully expecting to die at any moment for words that sounded wildly heretical even as they emerged from his mouth.

‘He’s right,’ said de Almeida, turning to the rest. ‘This is why Father Cheng agreed to my proposal – we need the perspective of someone from outside of the Council, someone who couldn’t possibly have an axe to grind with the victim.’

‘Yes, all very good,’ said Ruy Borges irritably, ‘but why him?’

Good question, thought Luc, turning his gaze back to de Almeida.

‘Luc Gabion has entirely proven his loyalty, and his skill, by almost single-handedly apprehending the criminal Winchell Antonov,’ she replied.

‘Oh,’ said Borges, regarding Luc with new eyes and nodding slowly. ‘Him.’

Cheng clapped his hands together, almost as if he were hosting a dinner party. ‘I think it’s about time we took a look at the deceased, don’t you?’

Luc’s feeling of being out of his depth intensified as de Almeida beckoned him through a side-door. The smell of putrefaction, mixed with the scent of smoke, hit Luc as soon as he passed through it. Sevgeny Vasili’s death had clearly not been a recent one.

Luc found himself standing inside the entrance to a library filled with two rows of tall bookcases. The shelves of the bookcases were lined with actual physical, bound volumes, and each bookcase rose to well above head height, terminating just beneath a ceiling four or five metres overhead. Reading tables and thickly upholstered furniture on ragged and dusty-looking rugs filled the space between the two rows, while the walls of the library appeared to have been cut from the same unadorned stone as the hall.

A body lay slumped a few metres from a pair of glass-panelled doors at the far end of the library, beyond which lay an outside patio with a view over the rest of the island. Two mechants hovered near the corpse, presumably set there to guard it.

Luc stepped forward, then glanced back to see Zelia de Almeida and the rest of the Councillors gathered by the entrance to the library. De Almeida fluttered one hand towards Vasili’s inert form as if to say go on.

Luc stepped around the body where it lay sprawled across a patterned rug. Part of Vasili’s head, along with much of his torso and almost the entire pelvic region, had been burned to ashes. The rug beneath the body was crisped black.

Luc tried to keep his breathing shallow as he knelt on one knee by Vasili’s remains. He glanced toward the patio doors, thinking.

Vasili had hit the floor face-down, but the blackened remains of one arm reached towards the patio. Luc put one hand on the scorched rug near what remained of the head, then leaned down until his cheek almost touched the floor, trying to get a better look at the dead man’s face without disturbing the body. One side of the skull had melted, exposing the brain, but the side of the face that had been facing away from the blast that killed him was recognizably that of Sevgeny Vasili. That, at least, removed any doubts about who had been killed.

Luc sat back up and looked towards the patio doors, noting that the glass panels nearest the ground had melted and shattered.

He glanced back down at Vasili, and spotted something he’d missed at first glance. Leaning down again, he saw that a book lay wedged just beneath the body, and by some miracle appeared to be intact. It lay partly open beneath Vasili’s chest, and what pages Luc could see had a slight metallic lustre to them, as if they were formed from sheets of some metallic composite instead of paper. That, at least, might explain why the book had survived as well as it had.

He reached down to see if it was possible to carefully tug the book out from under the body without disturbing it too much. As he did so, his fingers brushed the edge of one page, and what happened next took his breath away.

He stumbled into the library, frightened and alone. Beyond the patio, the sun cast long streaks of fire across the evening sky as it sank towards the horizon. He searched frantically for what he needed.

There. He raced towards a shelf and picked out the book, catching sight of the lettering on the spine: A History of the Tian Di, by Javier Maxwell.

Stepping towards the glass doors, he peered out to see a flier drop towards the courtyard outside. Fear clutched at his heart, but then he took a deep breath, pressing trembling fingers against the pages, desperate to record one last message . . .

‘Winchell,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘I was wrong, so very wrong. I see that now.’

Luc gasped, and rocked back onto his haunches, pulling his fingers away from the book and pressing them against his chest as if he had been scalded.

Just for a moment, he had been Sevgeny Vasili.

‘Mr Gabion? Are you all right?’

Luc turned to see Cheng standing halfway between the entrance to the library and the corpse. The rest remained huddled together by the door.

Luc glanced down at Vasili’s body, the book still mostly hidden beneath it. From where he stood, Cheng couldn’t see it.

‘I’m sorry, I guess this is all just a little . . .’ Luc shook his head, struggling to regain his composure and unsure what to say. Some instinct prevented him from mentioning anything about the book.

<And this is the man you’re hoping will exonerate you, Zelia?> jeered Borges.

‘Did you note anything of interest?’ Cheng pressed.

Yes. ‘If I may speak candidly once more . . . ?’

‘You may,’ Cheng rumbled, regarding him curiously.

‘Forensic investigation isn’t exactly my forte,’ he explained. ‘I’m not sure just how much good I can do you here without the help of someone who might be better qualified.’

Cheng regarded him with mild amusement. ‘Zelia showed me the details of your record of service for Security and Intelligence’s Archives Division, Mr Gabion. It was all very impressive. As Zelia already pointed out, you managed to track Winchell down essentially single-handed, not even counting several other lesser but nonetheless equally impressive triumphs earlier in your career. Under the circumstances, I think she’s entirely right to think you’re more than sufficiently qualified to give us an objective opinion regarding what took place here.’

It further occurred to Luc that if Vasili’s killer really was a member of the Temur Council, he could well be amongst those standing arrayed behind Father Cheng. And given the power of life or death any one of them had over him – or, indeed, over almost anyone throughout the worlds of the Tian Di – there was a real chance he’d be putting his own life in serious danger if he did mention the book. Nor had he missed Ruy Borges’s comment about Zelia’s need to be exonerated – but exonerated from what? From suspicion of murdering Vasili, or something completely unrelated?

Whoever turned out to have killed Vasili, the last thing he wanted to do, should the killer prove to be present, was blurt out that he’d found a piece of evidence. For the moment it was best to leave the book where he had found it, tucked out of sight beneath Vasili’s corpse. Fortunately, none of those present appeared to have the least interest in getting close enough to the body to see the book wedged beneath it.

‘Those mechants,’ said Luc, nodding up at the machines floating just overhead. ‘Did they belong to Vasili?’

‘They did,’ said de Almeida, stepping up beside Cheng, one hand covering her mouth and nose. ‘They’re linked into the security network for the whole island.’

‘Any sign of them having been compromised?’

Zelia nodded. ‘Someone figured out how to erase the house records going back for some days. The mechants’ memories are linked into those records, so any data that might have told us who’s responsible for this was also wiped.’

‘Why haven’t you just gone ahead and re-instantiated Vasili from his backups?’ asked Luc. ‘Surely you could just ask him who did this?’

Zelia’s lips tightened. ‘All his backups were erased remotely, presumably by whoever was responsible for his murder.’

Luc stared back at her, shocked. ‘Would that have been easy to do?’ he asked carefully.

‘No,’ she replied, shaking her head. ‘Not easy at all.’

Luc glanced at the Councillors clustered by the entrance. All of them, except for Cheng and Cripps, the latter regarding him with an openly malevolent expression, looked scared. Instantiation technology had kept them all alive for centuries, but when Vasili had died, he had died forever, and none of them wanted to share in his fate.

‘Are the backups centrally located?’ he asked.

‘No, they’re widely distributed,’ Zelia replied. ‘Their locations are a carefully kept secret, for obvious reasons.’

‘But somebody must know where they’re all located.’

Zelia sighed and shook her head again. ‘No, I’m afraid not. We programmed AIs to take care of placing them in secure but unknown locations. Nobody has the right to know where anyone else’s instantiation backups are located. The only thing I can tell you is that as far as I know, they’re all located somewhere in this star system, but not necessarily on Vanaheim itself.’

‘Whoever did this, then,’ said Luc, ‘must have had an unprecedented level of access to your security systems.’

‘I think,’ muttered Cripps, ‘that’s what I’d call stating the fucking obvious.’

Borges sniggered. ‘Any other incisive observations you’d like to make, Mr Gabion?’

Luc felt heat rise in his face, but knew the danger of responding directly to such an insult. ‘Vasili was running away from something when he died,’ he said, turning his attention back towards the corpse and pointing towards the glass doors. ‘He was running from someone standing at the entrance to the library. As for the murder weapon, it’s pretty obvious it was a plasma beam of some type, set to tight focus.’

<This is ridiculous,> Borges scripted. <Any one of us could have said as much. I—>

Cheng threw a fierce look at Borges, who fell immediately silent.

‘Please continue,’ said Cheng, turning back to Luc.

‘If the weapon used to kill Vasili had been set to wide-focus, or aimed at him while he was standing, it would have shattered the rest of the glass in those doors,’ he said, nodding towards the patio. ‘The angle of the scorch-marks shows the weapon was aimed downwards. Vasili was already on the ground when he died, although it’s anyone’s guess whether he fell or was pushed down.’ He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘Did anyone find a weapon?’

‘No, but the radiation levels in here are sky-high,’ said the second, unnamed woman in the group. ‘We’re all going to need immediate cell-regeneration therapy. I can arrange for you to receive medical attention before you return to Temur.’

‘An excellent suggestion, Alicia,’ said Cheng. ‘Is there anything else you can tell us?’ he asked Luc.

Luc tried not to think about the deadly radiation already seeping into his bones and muscles. ‘Has anything been touched or moved since he was found here?’

Victor Begum spoke up. ‘Not a thing. Zelia can vouch for that.’

‘Who actually found him?’

‘No one,’ said Zelia. ‘His home security network alerted us, but only once it rebooted itself a little over two days ago.’

Two days ago? ‘And that’s how long he’s been lying here? Two days?’

‘Criminal investigations are not our area of expertise,’ said the woman named Alicia. ‘Given the sensitive nature of things, it took us . . . some time to reach a collective agreement on a way forward.’

Luc stared at her. In other words, they’d spent the past forty-eight hours squabbling about what to do before bringing him here.

‘So far I’d say he’s making a better initial assessment than your own, Bailey,’ said Cheng, with an air of joviality that seemed misplaced given the surroundings. ‘Maybe we should give Mr Gabion your job?’

Nothing like making a very dangerous enemy, thought Luc, as Cripps’ hawk-like glare settled on him once again. The sweat had dried on his skin, coating him in a chill clamminess.

Luc glanced towards the nearest bookshelf, as much to avoid looking at Cripps as anything else. Many of the volumes there had become spotted with ash. He reached out and touched the spine of one, his fingertips black when he studied them.

‘Did the house put the blaze out?’ he asked.

‘Obviously,’ snapped Cripps.

<Bailey, I’ll have no more interruptions from you,> Cheng scripted.

‘How could it do that, if the house’s AI systems had been shut down?’ asked Luc.

‘Only the house’s higher cognitive functions were affected,’ Zelia explained. ‘Something like the sprinkler system wouldn’t have been affected by the sabotage.’

‘Would the killer have known that?’ he asked.

‘Why do you ask?’ Cripps demanded, his voice taut.

‘Maybe whoever did this meant for the library to burn down,’ said Luc. ‘Maybe they thought that when they disabled the house’s systems, that would stop it putting the fire out.’ Luc’s eyes darted nervously towards Cheng, then away again.

‘Why would they want to do that?’ asked Cheng.

‘If it looked like Vasili had just died of an accident, it might have taken you a lot longer to work out he’d been murdered.’

‘This is idle speculation,’ Cripps protested.

‘But very interesting idle speculation,’ said Cheng, eyeing Cripps carefully. ‘Surely,’ he said, turning back to Luc, ‘there would be no point to covering up Sevgeny’s murder, since we would inevitably have discovered both the sabotage to the house AI and to his instantiation backups?’

‘There’s no point,’ Luc agreed, ‘unless the killer was operating under a time restriction. For some reason, he or she wanted to delay the discovery that Sevgeny had been murdered.’

‘And why in God’s name would they do that?’ Cripps protested.

Luc forced himself to meet the man’s eyes. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘But it’s worth thinking about.’

It occurred to Luc that Cheng and his cronies could decide to blame him for Vasili’s murder, and no one would ever dare challenge it or demand supporting evidence of any kind. The idea squeezed his lungs like a steel vice, making it hard to breathe.

‘Before I go any further,’ he said, ‘I need to know who you think could have done this, whether or not you think you can prove it?’

It was almost comical, the way they regarded each other furtively.

‘That’s a very nearly endless list,’ said Zelia, her voice impatient. ‘Enmities can run pretty deep here.’

‘Zelia,’ said Karlmann Sandoz, a note of warning in his voice. ‘He’s a stranger here.’

‘He needs to know these things if he’s to do his job properly,’ Zelia snapped.

<Your pet detective’s clearly not up to the challenge,> Borges scripted. <Look at him, he’s terrified of us. You should dispose of him, Zelia, before he tells everyone he knows about what he’s seen here. Perhaps then you could make him into one of your little projects.>

<Enough.> This again from Cheng.

Luc tried not to think about what would happen if she and the rest of them realized he was entirely aware of everything they were scripting to each other. ‘Councilman Begum suggested Vasili might have been killed by someone outside of the Council,’ said Luc. ‘Is there any way someone could sneak through the Hall of Gates without being detected?’

‘To say that would be impossible is not an exaggeration,’ de Almeida replied firmly.

‘Who’s in charge of security?’

‘Planetary security is the responsibility of Miss de Almeida,’ Cheng informed him.

‘Which is why,’ Zelia added, ‘I’m qualified to know what I’m talking about. Anyone invited to Vanaheim who isn’t a member of the Council gets assigned their own dedicated mechant, all of which report directly to me – including the one that brought you here.’

‘But who else is involved in the security operation?’

‘Only me,’ Zelia replied, one of her cheek muscles twitching. ‘Everything runs on dedicated AI systems coordinated through my lattice.’

‘Surely that’s a lot of responsibility for just one person?’

‘Mr Gabion,’ Alicia interjected, ‘Vanaheim is our model for the future – the way every world in the Tian Di will be, one day. Maintaining surveillance on a whole world isn’t so hard for even just one person, if you have access to Council-approved levels of technology, and the systems Zelia controls are sufficiently transparent they only rarely require direct or even conscious intervention.’

‘But it’s clearly not infallible,’ Luc pointed out.

Alicia’s smile faltered slightly, and she glanced towards Father Cheng. ‘Perhaps not entirely, no,’ she admitted after a moment’s hesitation.

‘Let’s not discount the possibility,’ grated Cripps, ‘that there’s nothing wrong with the surveillance systems whatsoever.’

Luc saw de Almeida’s nostrils flare. ‘This is why I wanted someone outside of the Council here,’ she said, her voice strained. ‘We’re already descending into making accusations against each other without proof, and this close to Reunification we have better things to do than use Sevgeny’s murder as an excuse to settle old grudges. I’ll tell you one thing – whoever is responsible for this had a solid working knowledge of the planet-wide security networks. And they spent a lot of time in preparation – video loops and false data were fed into this house’s memory, making it appear as if everything were normal.’

Luc studied de Almeida’s features, seeing the mask-like tightness of her face as she spoke. She surely must have realized her high-level access to Vanaheim’s security networks made her a strikingly obvious suspect.

‘If I may,’ asked Luc, speaking up as de Almeida fell silent, ‘did no one notice that Vasili was missing?’

‘They had noticed,’ said Alicia. ‘But Sevgeny had become something of a loner over the past several decades. He was closely involved in preparations for Reunification, so when he failed to turn up for a few meetings, it didn’t really seem all that unusual.’ She swallowed. ‘I know this must seem strange to you, that no one thought to fly out here and see if he was all right, but you must understand that all of us within the Council have lived very, very long lives, and one thing you learn to do over such long periods of time is to leave each other alone. With his mechants, his own security and Zelia’s networks to protect him as well as the rest of us, there was no reason to be alarmed . . . until now.’

A short silence fell, finally broken by Father Cheng. ‘Is there anything else you would like to ask us, Mr Gabion?’

‘Not at the moment, thank you, Father Cheng,’ Luc replied. ‘But perhaps if I could take a look around, if that’s all right by you . . . ?’

‘Of course,’ said Cheng, nodding. ‘But do remember,’ he added, ‘that I would be far from happy if you were to discuss what you’ve learned today outside of our present company.’

‘Of course,’ Luc nodded.

Cheng turned to the rest. ‘As badly as I feel for poor Sevgeny,’ he said, ‘I think we might also consider this a test for our collective wills, so close to our Reunification with the Coalition. One day, when Black Lotus are finally vanquished and our society reaches a state of true social harmony, everyone in the Tian Di will live the way all of us here do.’

He glanced first at Cripps, and then Luc, before continuing. ‘Please don’t allow me, or anyone else, to unduly influence your opinion when it comes to identifying the responsible party, but I must confess that I find it less than credible that one member of the Temur Council would willingly take the life of another. Despite Zelia’s certainty to the contrary, that leads us to an apparent impossibility – that someone from outside our closed ranks perpetuated the crime. At the very least, this implies a serious flaw in our security arrangements – one that must be taken care of immediately.’

Cheng never once glanced towards de Almeida as he made this final remark, but Luc did not fail to notice the way her cheek once again spasmed as the Permanent Chairman of the Temur Council effectively accused her of sleeping on the job.

‘We’re eventually going to have to tell the rest of the Council what happened to Sevgeny,’ said Borges. ‘That’s going to cause an almighty ruckus.’

‘Not to mention we have only a couple of weeks before the official opening of the Darwin–Temur gate,’ added Begum.

‘That’s where you come in, Mr Gabion,’ said de Almeida, clearly fighting to maintain her composure. ‘Father Cheng has agreed to allow you limited access to Vanaheim’s resources, under my custodianship, until we’ve completed this investigation. We can start immediately.’

Your custodianship?’ scoffed Borges, who stepped forward until he was facing Cheng. ‘Surely, with so much access to our security networks, Zelia had the most opportunity to kill Sevgeny!’

‘That assumes,’ Zelia spat back, ‘you can identify a motive on my part. I’m sure when it comes to motives, Ruy, nobody here would lack for recognizing a serious fucking desire on your part to see Sevgeny dead.’

<How dare you?>

<I will not warn you again,> Cheng scripted, and the flow of words fell away.

‘Without wanting to distract you from your purpose here, Mr Gabion,’ said Cheng, ‘I understand you’re something of an expert on Black Lotus. Perhaps I could ask you for your opinion concerning them?’

‘Of course, Father Cheng.’

‘How much, if at all, have Black Lotus been harmed by Winchell Antonov’s death?’

‘There are still too many variables as yet to be able to say in the short-term, Father Cheng,’ Luc replied. ‘At the very least, Aeschere constitutes a major propaganda coup for us.’

‘And in the long-term?’

‘In the long-term, I don’t think they can really survive without his guidance.’

‘Yet Black Lotus retains considerable popular support on both Benares and Acamar. In the days following the announcement of Antonov’s demise, fresh atrocities were carried out against Sandoz peacekeeping forces on both worlds. The reports I receive from SecInt tell me that new Black Lotus cells are popping up all across Temur at an increasing rate, some within view of the White Palace itself. What would you say if I were to suggest that they are, in fact, stronger than they have ever been?’

‘Father Cheng, this man does not have clearance to be cognisant of the full facts concerning—’

Cheng shot an angry glare at Karlmann Sandoz, who had spoken up. ‘I want his answer, Karlmann,’ Cheng snapped, interrupting him. ‘Do you have an objection?’

Karlmann shook his head and said no more.

‘Well, Mr Gabion?’ Cheng continued. ‘I’m concerned that Antonov’s death has done nothing more than turn him into a martyr.’

Luc ran his tongue around his lips. ‘The problem lies in the underlying root causes of the dissatisfaction that Black Lotus feeds on,’ he said. ‘The unrest on Benares, the failure of the artificial ecosystem on Acamar . . . people want someone to blame.’

Luc felt suddenly dizzy, and stepped closer to one of the bookcases in order to support himself. Everything was turning bright, while a tiny point of fire in the centre of his skull slowly expanded outwards.

‘Surely the fact that we’ve enjoyed unprecedented peace for centuries counts for more,’ Cheng demanded.

‘I . . .’

‘Mr Gabion?’ Zelia stepped forward and grabbed his arm. ‘Are you all right?’

‘I’m not sure. I . . .’

The fire expanded to fill the interior of his skull. He lurched, feeling a surge of bile rush up the back of his throat.

Not now. He reached out to the bookcase, trying to steady himself. His hand clutched at several heavy volumes, and they clattered to the floor around him as he sank to his knees.

<It’s that damn radiation,> Alicia scripted.

<No, this is too soon,> Zelia replied.

‘Gabion?’

He opened his eyes and saw de Almeida kneeling beside him, a look of alarm on her face.

This can’t be happening again, he thought. Somewhere inside him, something was seriously wrong.

FIVE

The next few hours passed in a blur. Luc had a vague recollection of being lifted out of the building by the two mechants set to guard Vasili’s body. After that there had been a journey by flier, during which he drifted in and out of consciousness.

The next time he really became aware of his surroundings, he found himself looking up at the high ceiling of a circular room that had to be at least thirty metres across. The ceiling was decorated with highly stylized depictions of astronomical symbols and of several Tian Di worlds, all wheeling around a stone pillar at the room’s centre. An iron stairway twisted around the pillar like a braid, rising through an aperture in the ceiling to another floor above. Bright sunlight spilled through an open doorway at the far end of the room, through which he could make out bristling reddish-green flora. Steps nearby led down, perhaps to some basement level.

Luc sat up with a groan, supporting himself with one hand, and found he had been placed on a broad, raised slab. A small wheeled trolley, loaded with trays of sharp-looking surgical instruments, had been placed next to him.

The rest of the room was crammed with cabinets of various shapes and sizes, and pieces of mostly unidentifiable equipment and machinery, as well as an industrial-sized fabricant that took up nearly a third of the room. A mechant hovered by the fabricant’s control panel, suggesting it was engaged in manufacturing its own replacement components.

The rush of agony that had overwhelmed him back in Vasili’s library had now faded to little more than a faint and distant throb. He swung his legs off the slab and the room reeled around him. Catching hold of the edge of the slab, he waited until the worst of the dizziness had passed, then lowered his feet to the ground and stood gently.

He felt too light to be back on Temur. More than likely, he was still on Vanaheim. But wherever he was, the climate was much warmer than it had been on Vasili’s island.

Something went thump on the far side of the room.

Luc tensed, listening, then heard the same sound again after an interval of maybe twenty seconds. It sounded like someone dropping a sack of grain onto the room’s tiled floor.

He moved with caution in the direction the sound had come from, keeping one hand out in case he took another dizzy turn. He stepped past a cabinet at the other side of the room, not far from the exit, and found himself looking at a shaven-headed man standing facing the wall, bent-over as if studying something lying on the floor. His arms hung straight down, knuckles nearly grazing the tiles.

‘Hello?’ Luc asked uncertainly.

No answer.

The man wore a shapeless and filthy smock that reached down to his bare feet, and stood perfectly still, as if his bones had locked into place and he could no longer stand straight.

‘Hello?’ Luc asked again. ‘Can you tell me where I am?’

No answer. Somehow he hadn’t really expected one.

He watched as the bent figure took a sudden step forward, banging his head into the wall with some force.

Despite a burgeoning sense of dread, Luc stepped closer, putting one hand on the man’s shoulder and pulling him around. Instead of eyes, grey metal ovals studded with pin-like extensions protruded from between the man’s eyelids, while much of his lower jaw had been removed entirely and replaced with some kind of machinery with a steel grille built into the front. His flesh was mottled and twisted where it had been fused to plastic and metal.

A moan emerged from the creature’s mouth-grille, full of terrible pain and unfathomable anguish.

Luc stumbled backwards, his heart hammering with shock. The misshapen figure turned away from him once more and resumed ramming its head against the wall.

Luc fled, running through the sunlit exit, desperate to get away from the misshapen creature. But rather than finding himself outside as he had expected, he instead found himself standing at one end of a greenhouse filled with a stunning variety of flora. The air tasted moist and peaty.

He shaded his eyes against the sunlight streaming in through the panes overhead and saw Zelia de Almeida standing further down a narrow path. A mechant hovered by her side, a straw basket incongruously clutched in one of its many manipulators. He watched as de Almeida took a small cutting from the branch of a tree, placing it in the basket.

The tree shivered in response, its lower branches weaving in slow patterns that somehow suggested distress. De Almeida reached out again, grasping hold of a slim branch. It tried to pull away from her, but she had too firm a hold on it. He watched as she snipped the branch off with a small pair of secateurs.

The tree shivered more violently than before, and Zelia murmured something inaudible to the mechant. In that same moment, another faceless monstrosity, identical to the one Luc had just encountered, appeared at the far end of the path, another straw basket clutched in its hand.

Luc watched dry-mouthed as the figure shambled along a connecting path, and out of sight.

‘Ah, there you are.’

He looked back at Zelia. She was peeling off a pair of gloves, dropping them into the mechant’s basket.

‘Where am I?’ he asked.

Zelia gestured to the mechant, and it moved down the path away from him. ‘I brought you to my home,’ she replied, stepping towards him. ‘Call me paranoid, but I didn’t want to take a chance somebody might have interfered with you.’

She placed one hand on his shoulder and guided him back through to the circular room he had just come from.

‘Back up, please,’ she said, leading him back over to the raised slab. Her manner was brisk and business-like.

Another thump echoed from across the room, but Zelia showed no sign of even being aware of it.

‘What the hell is that thing?’ Luc demanded, unable to hide his revulsion.

‘What thing?’ asked Zelia.

‘The man with no eyes.’

She glanced behind her with mild puzzlement, then back at him. ‘Ah,’ she said, nodding. ‘Nothing to worry about. Just an experiment.’

‘An experiment,’ Luc repeated. ‘What kind of experiment?’

‘One that needn’t concern you,’ she replied briskly. ‘You’ll be pleased to know I’ve already treated us both for radiation damage.’

He gestured back in the direction of the eyeless thing. ‘But . . .’

She flashed him an angry look. ‘We’re not here to discuss my private research,’ she snapped. ‘I want to find out what happened to you back there at Vasili’s. How much do you remember, from when you collapsed?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘One minute everything was fine, the next . . .’ He shrugged. ‘I’ve never experienced anything like it.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Well . . . something like it happened to me back on Temur, just after they brought me back from Aeschere.’

She nodded, as if this had been the answer she had been expecting. ‘I checked your records as soon as I had the chance, but the medicians attending to you couldn’t identify a cause for that first seizure. Is that correct?’

He nodded.

<But before we discuss anything else,> she scripted at him, her gaze unblinking, <tell me if you can understand what I’m saying.>

Luc stared at her, unsure how to respond.

A look of grim satisfaction spread across her face. <Just what I thought. You did know what we were all saying to each other back in Vasili’s library, didn’t you?>

Luc swallowed. <Scripting is fairly common, last thing I heard.>

<Except that was a private conversation, mediated through lattices, and using compression and encryption techniques far beyond anything a mere CogNet unit like the one you own could possibly handle. You shouldn’t have had any idea what we were discussing amongst ourselves. Just how much did you overhear?>

Luc felt his shoulders sag. ‘Pretty much all of it,’ he said out loud.

She stared at him with frightening intensity. ‘I could have you killed. Tell me, how did you do it?’

‘I don’t know. I just . . . picked up everything. It wasn’t anything I did, it just happened.’

‘I felt sure of it, from the moment you stepped inside that miserable hovel of Sevgeny’s.’

‘You already said your security networks might have been compromised in some way,’ he reminded her. ‘Maybe that’s got something to do with it?’

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘That’s not it.’

Luc made an exasperated sound. ‘Look, I have no idea how I could have picked up what you were all scripting to each other. I mean, I realized I wasn’t meant to at the time, but how could I have told any of you? I was too . . .’ Too frightened.

‘I believe you,’ she said. ‘But only because I’m scanning you on a number of levels right now, all of which tell me you’re not deliberately obfuscating the truth.’

‘Okay then, so how could I have picked up everything you were saying?’

She raised both eyebrows. ‘That’s a question that can’t have anything but an interesting answer. For instance, would you care to tell me exactly who put an instantiation lattice inside your skull?’

Luc gaped at her dumbly before answering. ‘No one. I don’t have any such thing.’

She smiled enigmatically. ‘Oh, but you do, Mr Gabion. Look.’

Images of the interior of a skull – his skull, he guessed – blossomed in the air around them. One showed a lump of pinkish-grey flesh encased in fine silvery lines, while another depicted a messy tangle of pulsing blue light rendered in three dimensions, overlaid with a secondary, more orderly grid of red.

‘That,’ said Zelia, ‘is what an instantiation lattice looks like, in the very early stages of settling into its owner’s cortex – your cortex, to be precise. I had my house AI remotely analyse the inside of your head as soon as I realized what you had in there. But there are differences between this and any other kind of lattice I’ve ever seen.’

‘Differences?’

‘What you’ve got in there, unless my AIs are sorely mistaken, is more advanced than anything used even by the members of the Council, including myself. It has . . . functions I can’t begin to decipher.’ She took a deep breath and shook her head, her eyes bright and feral. ‘The question, then, is how the hell did it get inside your head?’

Antonov.

Luc’s blood ran cold and he knew, in that instant, that everything he remembered from Aeschere was real, and not a hallucination. Antonov had done something to him: booby-trapped him in some way, placed a ticking bomb inside his head for reasons he hadn’t bothered to explain beyond a few cryptic statements.

He shuddered to think of what might have happened to him if he’d fallen into the hands of Victor Begum or Karlmann Sandoz following his seizure in the library or – even worse – Cripps. He might well have disappeared into some Sandoz stronghold, never to be seen again.

Not that he was necessarily any safer in de Almeida’s hands, he reminded himself. Unlike Cripps or Karlmann Sandoz, she was still an unknown quantity.

‘I swear to you, I have no idea,’ Luc replied, almost begging.

Zelia glanced towards the projections as he spoke, her lips twisting into a thin line. ‘Now you are lying, Mr Gabion: it’s all there in the flow of blood in your capillaries, and the unconscious reactions of your autonomic nervous system.’ She studied him with angry eyes. ‘If you lie to me again, I’ll know straight away. Think you can get that through your head?’

‘Yes,’ he replied carefully.

‘Good.’ Her shoulders relaxed a little. ‘Now tell me how this came about.’

‘Antonov implanted it inside me. We were on Aeschere hunting for him, when our mosquitoes turned on us, killing all of—’

‘Yes, yes,’ she snapped, interrupting him. ‘I’m already familiar with everything that took place on Aeschere.’

‘Not everything that happened is in the official report.’

She frowned. ‘What do you mean?’

Luc took a deep breath. ‘When I told Director Lethe of SecInt what really happened, he warned me he was going to leave some of the details out of the official report.’

‘Why?’

‘He was worried that what I told him might give an investigative committee reason to call my sanity into question, especially since I couldn’t prove much of what I said happened down there.’

She folded her arms. ‘Then I take it back. Start from the beginning, and tell me what really happened.’

He told her everything that had taken place after he had found his way to the lowest level of the Aeschere complex, leaving nothing out.

‘And when you encountered Antonov on the ship, he was still alive?’

Luc nodded. ‘He managed to take me by surprise and knocked me out. When I came to, he was in the process of putting some kind of mechant inside me.’ He shuddered at the memory. ‘It was tiny, like a metal worm. It crawled in through my nose and dug its way through my skull.’

She arched an eyebrow. ‘Delightful.’

‘So what happens after I finish telling you all this?’ asked Luc miserably. ‘Are you going to hand me over to the Sandoz for more questioning?’

‘Let’s just keep all this between the two of us for now.’ She paused, looking thoughtful. ‘What happened next?’

Luc remembered terrible pain. ‘As soon as he was done, Antonov put me back under. The next time I came to, he was dead. I did what I had to do in order to get out of the complex and save my own life.’

‘And then they brought you to Temur, where they found no trace of your instantiation lattice?’

Luc nodded.

Zelia regarded him speculatively, then made a gesture. In response, the floating images around them blurred and shifted, and were replaced by new ones, this time of Luc’s body in the hospital’s regeneration tank shortly after his return from Aeschere. He winced at the sight of his seared and ruined flesh.

She glanced back to him with an expression that almost bordered on sympathy. ‘They had to do a lot of work on you, didn’t they?’

‘When I had that first seizure, they ran scans on me to see if there were any abnormalities in my skull. But they found nothing. The medicians told me everything looked like it should.’

‘I’d agree with you that the worm-like mechant you described must be the means by which Antonov got the lattice inside your head. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t answer the question of why it showed up on my machines, but not those at the hospital . . .’

Her voice trailed off, and she leaned back against a table, drumming her fingers against its edge. ‘Instantiation lattices are just about the single most advanced form of technology in the whole of the Tian Di, apart from the transfer gates. Theoretically, a sophisticated enough lattice could fool certain analytical devices into thinking it wasn’t there. I can’t think of anything else that could possibly make sense. But it also begs the question – why would Antonov want to place such a sophisticated piece of technology inside your head?’

She looked at him as if he might be able to give her an answer.

‘If I could tell you the reason,’ he said, ‘I would.’

She nodded to the images floating around them. ‘Whatever Antonov had in mind for you, it wasn’t for your benefit. You’ve already had two serious seizures in a row, and I’d be an idiot not to think that lattice of yours is the reason why. Is there anything else you should be telling me?’

Luc told her about his strange dream-encounter with Antonov.

‘But you’re saying it wasn’t a dream?’ asked Zelia, once he’d finished.

‘I don’t know what it was, but he told me that if I survived, I had to open a specific record in Archives and make a small alteration to it.’

De Almeida nodded, her face neutral. ‘Go on.’

Luc shrugged. ‘He told me I had to add in a line about calling in a favour, then save and close the file.’

‘And did you?’

Luc nodded. ‘I wanted to see if it was real. If it didn’t exist, then that would have proved the whole damn thing really was just some terrible nightmare.’

‘What was the file’s reference?’

‘Thorne, 51 Alpha, Code Yellow.’

She breathed out through her nose, her mouth making a chewing motion. ‘Tell me what you found in the file.’

‘It described an incident on Thorne more than a century ago – some kind of illegal biotech research that brought about a number of deaths.’ He glanced at her. ‘You were the Director in charge of Thorne at the time.’

‘You’ve been looking into me?’

‘Not as such, but your name was attached to the file.’

‘I remember that investigation all too well,’ she said. ‘Tell me, Mr Gabion, have you discussed the details of this file or how you altered it with anyone else?’

‘Hell, no.’ He laughed nervously, wondering if she had any idea how terrified he really was. Almost certainly, he decided. His palms were clammy with sweat, his heart thudding in his chest. ‘If I’d told anyone what I just told you, they’d have locked me up and thrown away the key.’

Zelia nodded and stepped around to the other side of the slab, looking thoughtful. She reached up to brush a strand of hair back from her face. As she did so, Luc noticed her hand was shaking very slightly.

He glanced towards the sunlit door, beyond which lay the greenhouse. ‘If the others found out what I’ve just told you,’ he asked her, ‘what would happen to me?’

‘To you? To be brutally frank, Mr Gabion, dissection would be the first obvious step. Molecular tools would be used to tease your lattice apart, atom by atom, and highly invasive scanning routines would be used to try and decrypt whatever data or auto-suggestive routines Antonov might have implanted inside you. Assuming, that is, he hadn’t also booby-trapped the lattice to kill you the instant anyone tried to fool with it in any significant way.’ She shrugged. ‘To put it even more bluntly, Mr Gabion, I would not expect you to live for very long.’

Luc got halfway to the greenhouse entrance, his shoes slapping loudly against the tiles underfoot.

Something flashed past him in a blur, and the next thing he knew he was looking up at the outline of a mechant, hovering directly between him and the painted ceiling.

Zelia stepped over, gazing down at him with an expression of contempt.

‘Promise me,’ she said, ‘that you won’t waste any more of my time with stupid stunts like that.’

‘You just told me I’m going to have my brain picked apart,’ Luc groaned. ‘What the fuck would you do?’

‘I already told you nothing would happen to you so long as nobody else found out you were in possession of a lattice.’ She gestured towards the mechant, and it drifted back out of the way. ‘I keep my word, Mr Gabion.’

‘You’re serious?’ He pushed himself up into a sitting position on unsteady hands, staring up at her with desperate hope. ‘You’re not going to hand me over to them?’

‘I want to know just what Antonov was up to when he gave you that lattice. If I shared what you’ve told me with Father Cheng or anyone else in the Council, the first thing they would do is take the matter out of my hands. However, I have very good reasons for not wanting that to happen.’

He decided not to ask her what those reasons might be. There was something unsettling about her eyes, about her whole demeanour, the way she carried herself as much as the way she looked at him, as if he were an object rather than a human being.

‘So what happens now?’ he asked.

‘Nothing for the moment, Mr Gabion,’ she said, her eyes bright, ‘except that you’ll finish the job I brought you to Vanaheim to carry out. And if you ever – ever – think of telling anyone about our conversation here, believe me when I say there would be consequences.’

‘You’re not exactly giving me much choice.’

‘No, I’m not.’ She reached out a hand and he took it, standing up. Her grip was surprisingly strong.

‘Now that we’re clear on our relationship,’ she said, ‘I want to know if there’s anything else you want to tell me. Any other apparent hallucinations or memories you think might be pertinent.’

‘Nothing that really made any sense to me,’ he admitted.

The mechant drifted closer to him, instruments unfolding from its belly.

‘Tell me anyway,’ said Zelia, her eyes slitted like a hungry cat.

Luc stared at the mechant and licked his lips. ‘Okay. I had this dream a couple of times where I found myself looking into a mirror – or what I thought was a mirror, at first, but turned out to be a mask someone wore over their face. Except instead of seeing my own reflection in the mirror, I saw Antonov’s.’

De Almeida stared at him intently. ‘You’re certain of this?’

Luc shook his head helplessly. ‘How can I be certain about anything? It was just some crazy nightmare. But it felt . . .’

‘What?’ she demanded.

‘Real. It felt real.’

‘I think Antonov planted some of his own memories in your head,’ she told him. ‘I’m going to be honest with you. Once a lattice is in, it’s in for good, and the means by which Antonov placed it inside you strike me as extremely crude compared to how it’s usually carried out. The whole process has to be carefully monitored under laboratory conditions from beginning to end, and it can take weeks, even months, for a lattice to properly meld with the surrounding tissues. But what he did to you will almost certainly kill you, probably within weeks, sooner if left unattended.’

Luc nodded dumbly. ‘Isn’t there some way to, I don’t know, reverse the process? And if I’ve got an instantiation lattice in my head, doesn’t that mean you’d be able to create a backup of my mind?’

‘A backup couldn’t be made at this early a stage of your lattice’s growth, no. It simply wouldn’t work. And a mature lattice is precisely what will kill you. But in return for your aid in finding Sevgeny’s killer, I’ll do my best to reverse any damage brought about by your lattice until I can figure out some other, more long-term solution. The whole affair will remain our secret, yours and mine alone.’

She stepped a little closer to him. ‘But while you’re searching for Vasili’s killer, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can hold anything back from me. Not anything – is that clear?’

‘That’s clear,’ he said. ‘But if I’m going to do what you want me to, I need to be able to speak candidly with you, and without fear of repercussion.’

‘Why? Was there something you had on your mind?’

‘I need your reassurance first.’

She sighed and waved a hand. ‘Fine. Go on.’

‘It doesn’t take any great skill to work out that some of your fellow Councillors think you’re guilty as hell when it comes to Vasili’s murder. Based on what I heard back in that library of Vasili’s, you’re one of the few people around with the necessary access to Vanaheim’s security systems and the expertise to be able to carry it off.’

‘I can give you my personal reassurance that I did not kill Sevgeny. For one, I have no possible motive – as I believe I already pointed out to Ruy Borges.’

That remains to be seen, thought Luc. ‘Nobody got round to telling me what would be a good motive. Why would someone want to kill Sevgeny Vasili?’

‘A desire to hinder Reunification,’ she said immediately.

‘There are people in the Council who would go that far?’

Her face coloured slightly. ‘The fact of Sevgeny’s murder suggests that some might. Sevgeny was the architect of Reunification with the Coalition worlds, but most of his fellow Eighty-Fivers stood against it. Cheng put him in charge of the process of negotiation once he and the Eighty-Five were forced to concede to Reunification, under pressure from the general members of the Council.’

Could that be why one of them might have murdered him? Because they were against Reunification?’

She sighed. ‘It can’t be ruled out.’

‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘How do you feel about Reunification?’

She glared at him. ‘What does my opinion of it matter?’

‘I just want to get a sense of where everyone stands,’ he said.

Her answer was hesitant, and reminded Luc vividly of just how very, very old people like Zelia de Almeida really were, appearances to the contrary. ‘Back in the days before the Schism, I thought completely severing contact with the Coalition was a mistake. It wasn’t like they were taking chances with any of the advanced technology they found in the Founder Network, so there was no risk of another Abandonment. Instead they were taking a slow and cautious approach, studying everything they discovered in situ and only allowing it back through the transfer gates to their own worlds once they were absolutely sure they properly understood what they had.’

‘But people had reason to be scared, didn’t they? The human race came very close to extinction because of the things we’d discovered in the Founder Network.’

‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘But I think reunifying with the Coalition is a good thing, even necessary.’

‘Why?’

She stared off into the distance before answering. ‘It’s my belief that without Reunification, the Tian Di is in serious danger of becoming stagnant. Perhaps dangerously so.’

Luc nodded, thinking. ‘Can you think of any other motives Vasili’s killer might have had apart from a desire to stop or slow down Reunification?’

She smiled humourlessly. ‘That’s for you to figure out, Mr Gabion, isn’t it?’ She stepped away from him, her manner suddenly brisk as she made towards the raised slab he had earlier found himself on.

‘Before we go any further,’ she told him, ‘I need to interrogate your lattice. Hopefully I can counteract its growth process by reconfiguring some of its basic functions.’ She indicated the slab. ‘Please.’

Luc nodded and walked back over, taking a seat on the edge of the slab. Zelia’s mechant followed close behind, reaching out with a steel and plastic proboscis that weaved and twisted in the air before his face.

‘What’s it doing?’ he asked nervously.

‘It’s allowing me to talk to your lattice,’ de Almeida replied, her expression intent, eyes focused on something Luc couldn’t see. He felt a slight tingling in his scalp.

‘All right,’ she said as the mechant retracted its proboscis and moved back. ‘I’ve set up neural blocks that should help retard the lattice. Now you can go home, Mr Gabion. You have your work to return to, and an investigation to carry out.’

‘How can I do that from Temur?’

‘Remember I have Father Cheng’s permission to bring you here as and when necessary. When I need you, I’ll call on you. In the meantime, you can return to your work in Archives. Now follow me.’

She led him down the length of the greenhouse and through tall doors at its far end. The sky had darkened, the air outside only slightly cooler than it had been inside de Almeida’s laboratory. Pale filaments of nebulae, perhaps only a few light-years away, rose above the horizon.

A flier dropped silently down onto a broad concrete apron close to the greenhouse. Luc glanced back and saw tall, sand-coloured towers surrounding the circular building he had just emerged from, side by side with a tile-roofed mansion. Beyond the buildings, cultivated gardens segmented by gravel paths had been planted with gently rustling trees of the same species as those in the greenhouse.

‘If you really want me to find out who killed Vasili,’ he said as they approached the flier, ‘I’m going to need to talk to people. And you need to show me just what went wrong with your security systems.’

‘Nothing went wrong with them.’

Luc frowned. ‘I don’t understand. Cheng said that someone must have compromised—’

She regarded him with wide, angry eyes. ‘Unfortunately, Bailey Cripps was quite correct in his assessment when he said there was nothing whatsoever wrong with Vanaheim’s security systems. I spent the last few days taking them apart in order to come to that conclusion.’

‘But in that case—’

‘Whoever did this, Mr Gabion, wants to make me appear to be the guilty party.’

‘You think someone’s trying to frame you?’

She nodded.

‘That could make your case very difficult.’

‘That goes without saying. Who exactly do you need to talk to?’

‘Everyone.’ He shrugged. ‘Anyone. Councillors, certainly.’

She sighed. ‘I thought you might say something like that. But it could prove difficult.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you’re not a Councillor yourself. None of them have to talk to you, unless Father Cheng tells them otherwise.’

‘But Cheng agreed to your running this investigation, didn’t he? Surely they have to obey him.’

‘You’d think so, but to be frank, it took a lot of persuasion to get Father Cheng to agree to letting you come to Vanaheim. None of them really care about Vasili, they only care whether their neck’s next on the block. And what Cheng wants most of all is for all of this to go away before the Reunification ceremonies begin.’

Luc reached out, putting one hand on the side of the flier’s open hatch. ‘I’d like to take another look at Vasili’s body.’

She frowned. ‘You’ve already seen it.’

‘That was more of a quick glance. Plus, I need to interrogate Vasili’s home security system. And take a second look around that island.’

She nodded tiredly and gestured to the flier. ‘I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime . . .’

Luc nodded and climbed on board.

‘One last thing,’ he said, turning to look down at her. ‘Were you aware that Bailey Cripps came to visit me at my home before I was even brought to Vanaheim?’

Her eyes widened in shock. ‘What?’

‘He had,’ said Luc, ‘concerns about my loyalties.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He said I was just as much a suspect, though he didn’t specify what I was a suspect of.’

De Almeida stared off to one side, her nostrils flaring in the same way they had on Vasili’s island. Then she turned back to him. ‘Thank you for sharing that with me, Mr Gabion.’

‘I think,’ he said, ‘that you need my help just as much as I need yours.’

Fire flashed in her eyes. ‘And how do you figure that?’

‘You brought me into this because you thought I was good at my job. In that case, I can tell you I’m pretty sure the rest of the Council, or at least those I met today, are getting ready to hang you out to dry.’ He felt the conviction of his own words as he spoke. ‘That’s assuming you’re telling me the truth, and you really didn’t kill Vasili. But even if you didn’t, the odds are stacked against you. I didn’t get the sense you were well liked by any of those others I met – quite the opposite, in fact.’

‘You’re speaking out of turn, Mr Gabion,’ she said, her voice low and dangerous.

‘I told you I need to be able to speak candidly. I can’t be afraid of speaking to you, and those are the facts as I see them.’

‘Any other nuggets of wisdom you’d care to share with me?’

‘I think your bringing me to Vanaheim was a move of desperation on your part. You thought if I could work out who really killed Vasili, it would keep the rest of them from turning you into a scapegoat.’

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. ‘I may have underestimated you, Mr Gabion. I see that now.’

‘As for Cripps, my best guess is he came to me because he thought I was in league with you in some way. You told me you’d all left Vasili’s body where it was for a couple of days; time enough for you to wonder when they were going to start accusing you of his murder and look for ways to prove yourself innocent. That’s why you approached Cheng, seeking his permission to bring me here. And it’s obvious Cripps thinks you are guilty, because as soon as he got wind of that decision, he decided maybe I was working with you to cover things up.’

She thought about this for a moment. ‘You’re sure about that?’

Luc shrugged. ‘Alternatively, maybe Cripps was trying to throw me off for some other reason.’

‘Perhaps he did it.’

‘Maybe he did,’ Luc agreed. ‘He certainly acted like a frightened man, and he really doesn’t trust you.’

She let out a small laugh. ‘The one thing I and Bailey Cripps have in common is that we don’t trust anyone. It’s an essential trait for a long career in the Temur Council. I’ll be in touch, Mr Gabion. I’ll do my best to arrange interviews with anyone who might be able to throw some more light on this whole sorry mess.’

Luc watched her turn and stride up the path without another word, then stepped back, the hatch folding back into place.

SIX

When Luc arrived home through the Hall of Gates, it was mid-afternoon in Ulugh Beg. Eleanor came to him later that evening, exploring his new skin with fingers and lips while the setting sun sent shards of orange light slanting through the window of his apartment.

Tell me what happened, she had asked him shortly after appearing at his door, obviously distraught and out of her mind with worry. Tell me where you disappeared to. When you didn’t come back, I really started to think maybe you were gone forever.

But he knew the risks of telling her too much and getting her involved, and her work in SecInt meant she understood the necessity of keeping secrets. She had not really expected him to answer. Even so, he felt a pang, as if by refusing to answer her questions he was in some strange way betraying her.

He lay back, head propped up on a pillow, Eleanor’s own skin limned by the city’s myriad lights as she moved above him, hands kneading his flesh. He noticed again the cosmetic alterations she had recently made to her own body: her hips were slightly narrower than they had been, her breasts fractionally and fashionably smaller. She shuddered, skin glistening, then pressed herself down against him, holding him tight as he came inside her. She held perfectly still for a moment, then slid down onto the bed beside him.

He lay there for a long time, listening to her sleep. He was still wide awake, despite his exhaustion. Sleep was impossible after everything he’d been through.

Sometime in the early morning, he had the overwhelming sense that someone else was in the room with them.

He lifted his head and saw a hunched figure with its hands pushed deep into pockets, staring out the window with its back to him.

The figure turned and looked at him: Cripps. A rainbow shimmer surrounded his outline.

Luc climbed naked out of the bed and pulled on a night-robe. Eleanor, he saw with relief, hadn’t woken. He gestured towards the living room and stepped through. Cripps took the hint, his data-ghost vanishing from the bedroom and reappearing in the living room a moment later.

‘There are laws about data-ghost voyeurism,’ Luc hissed the moment the door into the bedroom folded itself shut behind him. ‘How the hell long were you standing there watching us?’

Cripps shrugged. ‘A minute, no more. I want to know what you said to Zelia de Almeida, after she took you away from Vasili’s.’

Luc dropped into a seat and pushed both hands through his hair, still groggy. ‘Or what? You’re going to threaten me too?’

‘Charming as ever, was she?’ Cripps made a gesture, and Luc felt a flush of outrage when the house AI obeyed him, de-opaquing the window and allowing the morning light to come streaking in. Pioneer Gorge’s street-markets were already busy far off in the distance. ‘I, however, do not need to threaten you,’ he continued. ‘I need only remind you of your sworn duty to the Temur Council.’

‘To the Council,’ Luc snapped, ‘but not necessarily to you in particular.’

‘If you’d prefer, I can arrange to have you taken back to Vanaheim by force, and interrogated there at my pleasure.’ Cripps let his gaze drift towards the bedroom door. ‘Or perhaps I could have Miss Jaq arrested, and see what she might be able to tell us. Would that be preferable?’

Luc gripped the arms of his chair and reminded himself that the data-ghost had no actual, physical throat for him to take a hold of. ‘Does Father Cheng know you’re here?’

‘Father Cheng trusts me to ensure the safety of both the Council and the citizens it serves,’ Cripps replied. ‘To that end, I have an open remit to do whatever proves necessary to ensure the Tian Di’s survival and safety. Who else do you think I report to, Mr Gabion?’

‘All right,’ Luc said heavily, ‘fine. De Almeida checked me out in her laboratory and found nothing particularly wrong with me. I already knew I had lesions on my brain from Aeschere, which isn’t exactly surprising, given the level of trauma I suffered. That’s the most probable cause.’

‘And what else?’

Luc shrugged. ‘She asked me my impressions of the people gathered at Vasili’s, and if I had any particular insights. That’s about it.’

‘Tell me your insights, then.’

‘There’s really nothing to tell until I have a chance to interview each of the Councillors individually. She said she might be able to arrange that. I also asked to see the inside of Vasili’s home a second time.’

Cripps’ gaze was unwavering. ‘I’m sure you had more to discuss than that.’

‘I told her you’d come here once before and asked me a lot of questions.’

‘That probably wasn’t a very wise thing to do.’

‘Why?’

‘Well,’ Cripps responded, ‘Zelia is herself the most obvious suspect in Vasili’s murder, is she not?’

‘The other day,’ Luc reminded him, ‘you claimed I was a suspect, but there was no way I could possibly have known yet about Vasili’s death.’

‘That remains to be seen,’ said Cripps. ‘She brought your name up very soon after the discovery of Vasili’s body. Naturally, that aroused my suspicions.’

‘And how does that make me a suspect?’

One corner of Cripps’ mouth turned up in a smirk. ‘Perhaps you didn’t pull the trigger on the weapon that killed Vasili, Mr Gabion, but you might have been complicit in his death in some other way.’

‘Go on.’

‘Sneaking an assassin through the Hall of Gates and transporting them to Vasili’s island, as Father Cheng believes, is not something even Zelia, with her high level of access to Vanaheim’s security networks, could have done easily. She would have needed accomplices.’

Luc stared at Cripps in shock. ‘You think de Almeida recruited me to help her set up Vasili’s assassination, then brought me into the investigation to throw you off the scent?’ He let out an outraged laugh. ‘How long did it take you to come up with that? It’s the most—’

‘It might have been planned weeks or even months ago,’ said Cripps, interrupting. ‘Your side trip to Aeschere would have given you excellent cover.’

Luc shook his head, unable to believe what he was hearing. ‘And what about you, Mr Cripps? You turn up here twice, unannounced, and making threats – just the kind of thing a guilty man would do to try and cover his own tracks.’

‘No, it’s the kind of thing a police officer would do, and I’m the closest there is to one on Vanaheim. You can’t deny Zelia looks guilty as all hell, particularly since she’s perfectly placed to sabotage the same security networks she’s been put in charge of.’

Luc was finding it harder and harder to fight back a growing tide of anger. ‘I was there when Father Cheng agreed that I could come to Vanaheim and—’

Cripps stepped closer, until Luc could see the dim outline of the window through his data-ghost. ‘Let me make myself clear. You collapsed in front of several high-ranking members of the Council, and Zelia was very insistent on taking you with her, even though any one of us could have provided you with an equal level of medical attention, and a lot sooner as well. That, Mr Gabion, did not go without remark.’

‘For God’s sake, I’m just barely out of intensive regeneration therapy!’ Luc yelled, briefly forgetting Eleanor was still asleep next door. ‘Instead of getting the chance to recover, I got hauled off to play detective without any warning. And if de Almeida wants me back on Vanaheim, I don’t have much choice in the matter, and you know that.’ Same as I don’t have much choice but to be here listening to you, however I feel about it.

Cripps nodded. ‘Then just do what I tell you, and continue to keep an eye on everything Zelia says and does.’ He reached out to touch something Luc couldn’t see, his hand blurring as it reached outside of the range of the projector he was using. ‘We’ll speak again.’

The data-ghost winked out. Luc stared at the empty air where it had been for another minute, all thoughts of sleep vanished.

‘Luc?’

He turned to see Eleanor framed in the bedroom door, a look of alarm on her face. ‘Luc, what’s going on?’ she asked. ‘I heard you yelling.’

‘How much did you hear?’

‘Just the last few seconds.’ She glanced back through to the bedroom. ‘I didn’t mean to intrude, I . . .’

‘No, it’s okay.’ He gestured at her to come in. ‘It was just work.’

‘Archives called you in the middle of the night?’

‘And since when did you work regular office hours, Miss Jaq?’

She smiled and came to sit beside him, but he could see the strain and worry in her face, and wondered if she’d heard more than she was letting on.

He couldn’t help but admire the smooth, taut muscles of her body, carefully optimized to the physical standards required of SecInt agents. She had skills of endurance and prowess that remained unavailable – at least legally – to most citizens of the Tian Di, a necessary advantage in her line of work. And yet, in that moment, she looked almost frail as she reached out and clasped one hand over his.

‘There’s something going on I don’t know about, isn’t there?’ she said. ‘And it’s got something to do with Aeschere. Every time I look at you, you’re somewhere else.’

He thought of de Almeida, and her revelations about the lattice in his skull. ‘I want to tell you, but . . .’

‘But you can’t,’ she finished for him. ‘I get it. Though I do think you should talk to Director Lethe.’

Luc shook his head at this, and saw a flash of anger in her eyes. ‘Why not?’ she asked.

‘What I’m involved in is at a higher level even than Lethe.’

‘The Temur Council?’

He didn’t reply, and her eyes darted towards where Cripps’ data-ghost had been standing until just a minute ago.

‘You have to be careful when dealing directly with the Temur Council,’ she said, her voice soft. ‘Very, very careful.’

‘Believe me,’ he said, reaching out to her, ‘I know.’

By the next evening the walls of Luc’s apartment felt as if they were closing in, and he decided to head into Archives rather than spend any more time on his own.

He could have simply data-ghosted himself there – some of Archives’ employees spent their entire careers working remotely, via transfer gate on other Tian Di colonies – but there were certain questions that were best asked face-to-face. That meant a trip to the Pioneer Gorge facility, and to Vincent Hetaera, the Archives Division’s Head of Research.

He travelled by overhead tram, watching as the wafer-thin buildings bordering the north-east quadrant of Chandrakant Lu Park gave way to the classical architecture of the Old Quarter. The tram carried him past the crescent shapes of biomes that preserved the planet’s original flora and fauna, then down into the Gorge itself, before leaving him at the entrance to Archives, a vast, truncated pyramid of a building more than two centuries old.

He found Vincent Hetaera standing by the window of his office. ‘It’s wonderful to see you whole and well,’ said Hetaera, stepping over to Luc with a wide grin on his face.

He stopped and regarded him with a shocked expression. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said, his tone apologetic.

‘What?’

Hetaera’s grin grew wide once more. ‘I should have addressed you as Master Archivist Gabion, shouldn’t I?’

‘Luc will do just fine. And I’ll have the same as you’re having,’ he said, gesturing to the glass in the other man’s hand.

Hetaera glanced down at the glass he held as if he’d forgotten it was there. ‘It’s just kavamilch,’ he said. ‘Sure you don’t want something stronger?’

‘Kavamilch will be fine.’

Hetaera shrugged and picked up a pot, pouring some of the warm brew into a second glass and handing it to Luc.

‘I got your request,’ said Hetaera as they sat down opposite each other on couches by the window. ‘But there might be a problem,’ he added with a grimace.

‘What kind of problem?’

‘The author of the book you’re looking for,’ Vincent explained. ‘Javier Maxwell. He never wrote a book by that name, at least not that we know of.’

A History of the Tian Di?’ The book Vasili had taken hold of in the last moments before his death. ‘How sure are you about that?’

Hetaera raised an eyebrow. ‘Very sure. Where did you hear about it?’

‘I saw a copy,’ Luc replied, ‘a physical, printed copy, with my own two eyes. Is it possible we just don’t have records of it?’

‘I suppose it’s possible, but ever since Father Cheng locked Maxwell away and took control of the Temur Council, his name’s had restricted access flags attached to it wherever it turns up in our files. Even with your recent promotion, I doubt you’d be able to get permission to find out if it ever did exist without petitioning Father Cheng himself directly.’

Luc nodded tiredly. He’d come across any number of such restricted access flags during his years of researching Winchell Antonov’s endless tangle of connections with terrorist groups scattered far and wide across the Tian Di.

‘May I ask,’ said Hetaera, ‘how you came across this book?’

Luc had been dreading the possibility he might be asked precisely this question. ‘It’s a confidential source,’ he replied carefully.

‘Then if the book ever existed, it’s more than likely been wiped from the official records.’ Hetaera spread his hands. ‘If it was a printed book, how old would you say it was?’

‘I couldn’t begin to guess.’

‘Pre-Schism old?’ Hetaera hazarded.

Luc shrugged. ‘Maybe. I guess it could have been.’ He studied Hetaera, wondering just how much he could get away with telling him. ‘It was part of someone’s personal collection.’

‘Well, there you go,’ said Vincent. ‘We all know how much turbulence the Tian Di went through following the Schism. A lot of things were lost forever back then, and not just books.’

‘But I saw this book. It exists.’

‘Yes, but not as far as Archives is concerned, unfortunately.’ Vincent gave him an apologetic smile. ‘Seems to me that your life hasn’t got any less interesting since you got back from Aeschere.’

‘Yeah,’ said Luc. ‘That’d be an understatement.’ He’d almost forgotten about the kavamilch in his hand, and swallowed it down. It tasted sweet and warm.

‘And what about Archives?’ asked Hetaera. ‘I know you turned down a promotion to the Security Division before. Now that Antonov’s gone, do you think you’ll change your mind and move upstairs?’

The corner of Luc’s mouth twitched. ‘We’re on the top floor, Vincent. There is no upstairs.’

‘You know what I mean.’

Luc sighed. ‘To be honest, there’s nothing to stop me retiring right now. Never do another damn thing for the rest of my life.’

Hetaera watched him for a moment. ‘Sitting around and doing nothing isn’t your style.’

‘No.’ Luc played with his empty glass. ‘Staying in Archives feels like the best option. I feel at home here, and now at least I can pick and choose what work I do.’ His eyes flicked towards his superior. ‘Right now, I’ve been asked to consult on something on behalf of a member of the Council.’

‘Ah.’ Hetaera nodded, regarding him shrewdly. ‘That would explain the sudden interest in officially non-existent books, so I’ll ask no more.’ He gestured with his drink. ‘There are a thousand jobs in Archives needing investigating, once you’re done with this. Tying up the loose ends from Antonov alone could take a lifetime.’

Luc nodded. ‘Is Offenbach in the usual place?’

Hetaera laughed. ‘Where else would he be? Good to have you back, Luc.’

Luc smiled. ‘Good to be back, Vincent.’

‘There you go,’ said Jared Offenbach, leaning forward in his chair. ‘Dummy corporations, black market accounts, traceable and currently non-traceable funds, as much as you could want. A lot of it doesn’t even go anywhere: it’s chaff, designed to lead you far away from where the real money is going. Which is Black Lotus, of course.’

Cascades of colour-coded financial information filled the office of Senior Archives Librarian Offenbach, swarming around both men. The office itself was only dimly visible with the windows opaqued, but Luc could just about make out shelves filled with antique reading devices used to recover legacy data from obsolete hardware.

Luc shifted in his own seat, causing nearby strands of information to ripple in the air as they attempted to maintain their integrity. He watched Jared pull yet more data from out of deep virtual stacks. Flags indicated that some of the information flowing around them hadn’t been accessed, in certain cases, for more than a century, perhaps longer. Offenbach gestured expertly with his fingers, untwining dense braids of data into finer and finer branches, rapidly surrounding himself in a glowing tapestry of light. His nearly hairless pate gleamed under the constant assault of visualized data.

For reasons that remained obscure to Luc, Offenbach preferred to maintain an outward physical appearance considerably more advanced than most. Liver spots dotted his hands, while a hawklike nose that always made Luc think of a half-opened flick-knife jutted from the centre of his face.

‘I’m looking for something very specific,’ said Luc, grasping at a set of brightly coloured filaments just within his reach. Tiny clumps of words, names and reference numbers pulsed like jellyfish as his fingers brushed against them. He made a claw of his hand, then flung his fingers wide, causing the clumps to suddenly expand, revealing more details, along with the broad outlines of the financial links that connected the filaments together, almost fractal in their compact density. He performed another deft sleight of hand, and the filaments of data shrank once more.

To one side of the two men floated several dense clusters, rendered in luminous orange and green, representing the financial concerns of more than a dozen Benarean resistance movements. Dark nebulae of restricted or missing data weaved in and out of these brightly glowing clouds, but Luc knew that even this vast quantity of interconnected data represented only one very minor sub-branch of the complete Black Lotus data-set.

‘Something specific?’ Offenbach spluttered. ‘Well, I should hope so.’

Luc leaned back. ‘The focus I want is on a medium-broad spectrum of interconnectivity, representing whatever relationship existed between Winchell Antonov and Sevgeny Vasili.’

Offenbach blinked a couple of times, clearly choosing his next words carefully. ‘I can tell you right now that any such records are likely to be heavily flagged and restricted.’

‘That’s hardly news to me, Jared.’ Luc’s work on the Black Lotus data-set had been a constant struggle with restricted-data flags. If Offenbach hadn’t been able to help him circumnavigate a number of them in the past, he might never have succeeded in tracking Antonov down. Offenbach was, in many ways, Archives’ unsung hero.

Offenbach gave him a look of wry amusement, then reached out, manipulating the data before him with practised ease. The entire set rotated on an invisible axis, bringing clusters representing the relationships between the Temur Council and Sevgeny Vasili into clearer focus. Luc could see that most of the clusters reached back for centuries, all the way to the pre-Schism days. Many of the strands were colour-coded brown and grey, to indicate their special restricted status.

‘Strange,’ Offenbach muttered.

‘What?’

The librarian shook his head. ‘Your revised security rating should have gone through now you’ve been promoted to Master of Archives, but these data-sets simply won’t respond to your new rating. They still appear restricted to your eyes, don’t they?’

Luc glanced again at the brown-and-grey coded links and nodded. Each member of SecInt, depending on their personal security ratings, saw different things even when looking at the same visualized information. What might appear restricted to Luc might instead show as fully available to Offenbach, and vice versa.

Luc reached out and touched a grey strand, but it vibrated without expanding.

‘You’re right,’ he said, staring at the restricted strands. ‘I can’t access a lot of these.’ He glanced at other, neighbouring strands, which appeared not to be flagged in the same way. ‘But I can see others that look like I could access them, if I wanted to.’

Offenbach nodded distractedly. ‘But all of these should be accessible to you now.’ He tapped one finger against the arm of his chair. ‘Maybe your new rating is taking time to percolate through the system.’

‘That sounds like bullshit even to me, Jared.’

Offenbach sighed and nodded. ‘A lot of these threads were capped following Antonov’s death. If that much has propagated through the data-sets, then your new rating should have taken effect, unless . . .’

‘Unless what?’

Offenbach looked suddenly uncomfortable. ‘Usually, when something like this happens, it’s because of orders coming from way, way up the food chain.’

A member of the Council, in other words. Luc had a mental flash of Cripps, standing in his apartment.

Offenbach raised one magnificently hairy eyebrow. ‘You mentioned when you came in that you were asked to help in an investigation of some kind. Would that investigation perhaps be connected to stories I’ve been hearing about your trip up to the White Palace?’

Luc made a face. ‘I see I’m the talk of the town.’

Offenbach let out a half-muffled giggle. ‘Yes. So much intrigue.’

Despite his outward appearance, Luc sometimes wondered if Offenbach might actually be a good deal younger than himself. He certainly acted like it at times.

‘I want to show you something,’ said Offenbach, his face lit up with nearly palpable excitement. He sent data-sets flying by with disorienting speed, galaxies of information vanishing into the darkened recesses of his office in rapid order. Finally a single, vast constellation appeared, orbited by dozens of other, smaller clusters.

‘What you’re looking at here,’ said Offenbach, ‘is the total data-set for the preparations for Reunification. I don’t need to tell you the predictive power of a set like this, do I?’

No you don’t, thought Luc, his eyes automatically tracing lines of real and potential influence. ‘You don’t need to work in Archives to guess a lot of things are going to change following Reunification, Jared.’

‘But look here at these subsets. They show regions of unusually high activity surrounding Sevgeny Vasili over just the last few days, considerably more than might be expected even given his role in making Reunification a success. Clearly something is up.’

Luc tried not to show his surprise. ‘You were already looking into Vasili?’

Offenbach clapped his hands in excitement, his eyes glittering from across the room. ‘Not officially, no. But that level of activity naturally draws our attention and raises flags. Now, as for Vasili’s links to Antonov, all we really have to go on is a relatively scant quantity of publicly available data. You know, of course, that they were both on the Committee for Reconstruction following the Abandonment.’

Luc nodded. ‘I know that before Antonov turned against the Council, the two men had worked together.’

‘In the early days,’ Offenbach agreed. ‘And later, of course, they became diametrically opposed when Father Cheng took power.’

Luc nodded. ‘I’m looking for something deeper than that,’ he said.

‘I thought you might be,’ Offenbach replied. Screeds of text appeared, flickering by at a speed even Luc, despite his experience, found difficult to follow.

For the thousandth time, Luc recalled Vasili’s last message to posterity, recorded on the pages of a book the head of Archives couldn’t prove existed: Winchell, I was wrong, so very wrong. I see that now.

A lifetime of questions were contained within that one simple statement.

‘What I can tell you,’ said Luc, ‘is that there should be a recent connection between the two men, possibly as recently as within the last year.’

Offenbach raised his eyebrows in surprise, suddenly sober. ‘That recent?’

Luc nodded slowly and Offenbach whistled. A moment later the window de-opaqued, letting afternoon light seep in. A thin layer of dust became evident, coating many of the ageing data-readers stacked around them.

‘My guess,’ said Offenbach, ‘is that whoever decided to restrict your access to some parts of the data-sets doesn’t want you to find something out.’

‘They might stop me from finding those things out,’ Luc agreed, ‘but clearly that’s not a concern for you, since they can’t lock everyone out of those data-sets without attracting too much attention. So anything you feel like telling me,’ he said, glancing again at the restricted threads, ‘is just between us.’

Offenbach’s fingers tapped at the arm of his chair. ‘All right,’ he said, as if coming to a decision, ‘then let me ask you a question. Were you aware that no one has seen Sevgeny Vasili for days?’

Luc did his best to keep his face impassive. ‘How did you find that out?’

Offenbach gave him a sly look. ‘By inference, as well as observation. You know how we work: intelligent filters identify trends and highlight nodes of activity that at first glance might only appear circumstantial or unconnected. Once Reunification gets rolling, there’s going to be a massive exchange of cultural and scientific data between us and the Coalition, all mediated by Vasili. And Vasili has been at the heart of the preparations for Reunification for a very, very long time.’

‘And your point is?’

‘Up until several days ago,’ Offenbach continued with a note of triumph, ‘Vasili was all over Archives like a rash. That exchange of data I mentioned can’t take place without Vasili’s direct involvement. But now Vasili’s vanished from sight, on the cusp of something he’s been working towards for longer than most of us here have even been alive. And yet there hasn’t been a single adequate word of explanation from anyone in the Council.’

Offenbach shifted in his seat before continuing. ‘Now, I know you’ve been out of the loop since they brought you back from Aeschere, Luc, but you have to understand that unless he pops up again sometime very soon, there is going to be a major stink. And then you turn up here asking about connections between Vasili and Antonov. I think that’s what any self-respecting Master of Archives would call a significant correlation.’

Luc sighed and let his shoulders sink in defeat. ‘Fine, now that you put it that way, I suppose it’s obvious I’m interested in Vasili’s . . . recent absence.’

Offenbach leaned towards him, his manner theatrically conspiratorial. ‘This isn’t official Archives business, is it, Luc?’

‘No, it’s a commission, from a member of the Temur Council.’

‘And of course you can’t talk about it. Am I right?’

Luc shook his head ruefully. ‘I know you’re itching to find out the details, because all your stats indicators are saying something significant is up.’

‘Well, that much is obvious,’ the other man huffed. ‘A word of warning for you. Sometimes, when ordinary people get caught up in Council intrigue, their strings get yanked so hard their heads get pulled off.’

First Eleanor, and now Offenbach was taking the trouble to give him essentially the same warning. ‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘for that delightful image.’

‘Just an observation.’ Offenbach fidgeted for a moment, and Luc sensed he was leading up to something. ‘You know, a lot of the data recovered from your trip to Aeschere is still strictly embargoed, despite our department’s protests. It leaves us just as handicapped in the fight against Black Lotus as we were before, and I have no idea just how long it’s going to be before we can get our hands on that data – assuming the Sandoz ever let us have access to it.’

Luc nodded. Offenbach wanted something in return.

‘I think I can do something for you, Jared.’

Offenbach’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Such as?’

‘I still have special access privileges to Sandoz’s own archives.’ Those privileges had been hard-won on Luc’s part, and had fostered what Vincent Hetaera had hoped would become a new era of inter-agency cooperation. From what Luc had been hearing since his recovery, that era was already proving short-lived.

‘You can get hold of the Aeschere data?’

‘It’s the least I can do,’ said Luc. ‘Is there anything else you can think of that might be useful to me?’

Offenbach thought for a moment. ‘Perhaps. But it’s not something that can necessarily be corroborated. You’d just have to take it at face value, I’m afraid.’

‘Rumour, then.’

Offenbach moved his head from side to side. ‘More than rumour, less than verifiable fact.’

‘Listening at doors, in other words.’

Offenbach leaned forward, his voice dropping to a husky half-whisper. ‘It’s my understanding that over the past several decades, Vasili became isolated not only from Father Cheng, but from the rest of the Eighty-Five. A pariah within Cheng’s inner circle, essentially.’

Luc thought about it for a moment. ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ he said.

‘Why?’

‘If that were the case, Father Cheng would hardly have given him such a prestigious job as preparing the Tian Di for Reunification.’

‘But then again,’ said Offenbach, ‘who amongst his trusted advisors would Cheng have given the job to? None of them would have wanted the job. Recall that the Eighty-Five first came into existence as a pressure group within the original Temur Council, agitating for complete separation from the Coalition. And out of all of them, Vasili was easily the most vocal in that regard. Don’t you think it’s strange that one of the primary architects of the Schism wound up being given the job of rebuilding our links with the Coalition?’

‘So giving Vasili that job was a kind of punishment?’ asked Luc. And a very ironic one, if true. ‘That’s genuinely fascinating, but I can’t see the relevance.’

‘Wait,’ said Offenbach, still clearly enjoying the moment, ‘there’s more.’

He waved a hand, and the window behind him opaqued yet again, the room becoming dimmer.

‘What,’ asked Offenbach, peering from out of the shadows, ‘does the name Ariadna Placet mean to you?’

It took Luc a moment to place the name. ‘She was Director of Policy for Thorne at some point, wasn’t she?’ As, he recalled, had been Zelia de Almeida, although Placet had held the post first. ‘I seem to remember something about her suffering permanent death while she was there – an accident of some kind.’

‘But before that,’ Offenbach prompted. ‘What is it that links her to Antonov?’

‘I’m aware that she was in a relationship with him a long time ago,’ Luc replied, wondering just where Offenbach was leading him. ‘Starting from not long after the Abandonment. They were both engineers, and sided with the Tian Di Hui resistance fighters when they fought the Coalition occupying forces here on Temur.’

‘And?’

Luc sighed. He wished Offenbach would get to the point. ‘Their relationship ended long before the Schism. After Cheng took power, she enjoyed a long and fruitful career in the Temur Council until her death.’

Ariadna Placet had been one of the few Council members for whom the instantiation technology had failed. When she had died in a flier accident on Thorne, her backups proved to have been lost or corrupted.

Just like Vasili’s, Luc realized with a start.

‘What if I told you,’ Offenbach continued, ‘that there were accusations of foul play regarding her death?’

‘There was an inquest, wasn’t there?’ asked Luc, feeling a rush of adrenalin. ‘I don’t recall hearing about any such accusations.’

Offenbach grinned. ‘Then you might also be interested to know that not very long after her relationship with Antonov ended, Placet became Sevgeny Vasili’s lover.’

Luc thought of icebergs grinding together in a half-frozen sea, their vast bulks hidden in shadowy waters. ‘Tell me more.’

‘Vasili has a reputation for being a very private man,’ Offenbach continued. ‘Few people outside of the Temur Council knew about the relationship.’

‘Who made the accusation of foul play?’

‘Vasili did. He never accepted the inquest’s findings. He’s always insisted the flier Placet was in when she died must have been sabotaged or shot down on purpose, and her backups deliberately vandalized.’

Luc stared at him in amazement. ‘Why the hell have I never heard about any of this?’

‘Because it’s inner circle gossip,’ said Offenbach. ‘The kind of thing that rarely trickles down from the Eighty-Five to the likes of you and me. From what I gather, Vasili wasn’t the kind to keep quiet about his suspicions. He was absolutely convinced Placet had been murdered, along with a couple of other passengers unlucky enough to be on board the flier with her at the time. That, I think, is the reason Vasili became so isolated from Cheng and the rest of the Eighty-Five.‘

‘But if that were true, what would be the motive for murdering her?’

‘Assuming all this is true, and Vasili isn’t as crazy as the rest of the Council seem to think he is? I have no idea.’

Luc rubbed at his temple. Antonov, Vasili and Placet. ‘You’ve given me even more than you realize, Jared.’

‘That’s the beautiful thing about data,’ said Offenbach. ‘Things that only at first appear to be unconnected frequently prove, at a later date, to be intimately intertwined.’

I couldn’t have put it better, thought Luc, rising to his feet. ‘Thanks, Jared. I’ll get that Aeschere data through to you as soon as I can.’

‘I can only hope I’ve been able to help,’ replied Offenbach.

Luc headed for the door. ‘More than you can possibly imagine,’ he said as he departed.

SEVEN

In the three days since Jacob Moreland’s ship had crash-landed on Darwin, he had taken to hiding in a deep cave a few kilometres away from where that same craft had quickly set about destroying itself. He sustained himself by sucking brackish moisture from the pocket-like leaves of bushes that grew up the side of the hill below the cave, until it began to rain on the second day, an incessant downpour that continued well into the next evening. He passed the time huddled deep within the cave’s recesses, staring out towards the distant flicker of light that betrayed the presence of Coalition mechants still searching the nearby forest and shore.

They were looking for him, of course. His ship had evaded detection on the way down from orbit by disguising itself as random orbital flotsam, but whoever was controlling the mechants must have realized there was a chance at least one of the spy-ships had made it past their defences.

Jacob continued watching through the night until the lights eventually passed into the next valley, and only then allowed himself the luxury of sleep.

He emerged from the cave at dawn on his fourth day on Darwin, by now ravenous with hunger, climbing to the top of a tree and crouching low on a branch in order to peer out across the forest canopy. He could see that the search for him continued to move further and further away from his hiding place: beams of light flickered across the mouth of an estuary several kilometres to the north.

From time to time, as he waited to be rescued by whichever Tian Di sleeper agents picked up his transceiver alert, he would glance up at the impossibly vast bulk of the world-wheel that straddled Darwin’s equator. Patterns of light danced around the wheel’s inner curve, and up and down the spokes that connected the wheel to the continents and oceans below. From time to time displays of light, not unlike auroras, encircled the wheel like a phantasmagorical wreath, billowing like silk sheets cast into a turbulent wind. Whether it were some strange natural phenomenon, a byproduct of industrial processes, or indeed some form of artistic display, Jacob could not begin to guess.

The search lights finally faded behind a veil of grey rain that tumbled from the sky, blown in from the sea. Jacob returned to his cave and checked the transceiver for what might have been the thousandth time, but there was still no response.

He could not discount the possibility that the agents who had arrived before him might have been uncovered and terminated; but if that were the case, he felt sure their killers would not only have located their transceivers, but used them to track him down the moment he had sent out his distress call. The fact that they had not done so suggested those agents were still out there, somewhere.

Of course, there was always the possibility that if the sleeper agents had been captured, they had first managed to destroy their transceivers, or perhaps . . .

No. He pushed his transceiver back into a pocket of his combat suit. It was too easy to get caught up in paranoid fantasies, isolated and alone out here as he was. If he received no response within the next few days, he’d just have to strike out on his own and take his chances.

He set about foraging in the woods close by the cave, and found some wild nuts that proved bitter but edible. He tried a fruit analogous in appearance to berries, small dark clusters the colour of bruised knuckles, but just one was enough to make him violently sick and leave him with a fever that very nearly incapacitated him. He managed to crawl back inside the cave, where it took the microchines infesting his gut several hours to neutralize the berry’s poison and calm the fever.

When he next emerged from the cave, pale and shaky, night had fallen once more, and he saw a single light flickering through the line of trees dotting the slope below his cave.

They’ve found me, he thought with a lurch. Darwin’s security forces must have decided to renew their search for him. The chances of him surviving any encounter out here, without backup, against whatever mechants the Coalition were now employing, were vanishingly small.

Jacob waited, silent and still, for several minutes, then came to the conclusion that this was almost certainly a lone individual moving through the woods on foot. He could hear them stumbling through the undergrowth, their flashlight swinging this way and that.

Scrambling into the shelter of a tree’s wide, blade-like roots, he waited again.

Before long he saw the figure of a man make its way into a clearing below the cave, nervously clutching a torch in one hand. Jacob studied this individual from amongst deep shadows. The flickering auroras from the world-wheel faintly illuminated the stranger’s face, and Jacob saw that the man’s hair was grey and unkempt, his eyes pale and watery-looking. His mouth moved as if he were perpetually on the verge of saying something but then changing his mind. He was not young, and the lines on his face and the stiffness of his movements suggested he had not made use of any gerontological treatments presumably available to the Coalition’s citizens.

Jacob’s lattice searched its databases for a facial match, and found a near-perfect correlation with a sleeper agent named Melvin Kulic who had been sent to Darwin more than a century ago. The match was not quite perfect, however, suggesting this man was instead a descendant of Kulic’s, born since his arrival on Darwin.

Jacob felt a bristling of unease. This was not the reception he had been expecting.

‘Are you there?’ the old man called out, his voice wavering with uncertainty.

A moment later the old man jerked around, flashing the light across the clearing as if he he’d heard something, but Jacob had made no sound.

The light from his torch flickered across the tree behind which Jacob hid. Jacob drew back slightly, momentarily unsure whether or not he should reveal his presence.

That this old man had come looking for him, rather than the agents he had been expecting, implied something had gone badly wrong. His mind churned with possibilities. If he revealed himself, would he be walking into a trap? At the worst he could kill himself, safe in the knowledge that he had prepared instantiation backups prior to his departure from the Tian Di.

That settled it. And, besides, there was nothing to be gained from hiding any longer.

Jacob stepped away from the tree, watching as the old man flashed his light here and there around the clearing. He hadn’t seen him yet.

‘Listen,’ the old man’s voice quavered, ‘if you’re there – and if that damn thing hasn’t just gone haywire telling me you’re here – you’d better think about . . . Shit!’

The old man staggered backwards when he finally caught sight of Jacob standing just a few metres away. He stumbled over a root or rock hidden in the undergrowth, and let out a gasp of pain when he landed clumsily.

Jacob stepped forward, reaching out a hand and helping the old man back up onto his feet. At least if it were to prove expedient or necessary to kill this stranger, there would be no possibility of witnesses.

‘You’re one of them, aren’t you?’ said the old man, his face a mixture of awe and terror. ‘From the Tian Di.’ He looked around. ‘Where’s your ship?’

‘You’re alone?’ asked Jacob.

The old man squinted, and Jacob realized with a start that he had trouble with his eyes.

‘Your eyes,’ asked Jacob. ‘What’s wrong with them?’

‘My . . .’ The old man stared at him in befuddlement. ‘Of course,’ he replied after a moment. ‘You won’t know about the Edicts.’

‘Edicts?’ Jacob grasped at a sliver of memory. ‘You mean the Left-Behind – their Church Edicts, is that what you mean?’

The old man nodded. ‘The pastors won’t stand for any kind of messing around with the body now,’ he said. ‘Not any more, anyways.’

‘Tell me your name,’ said Jacob.

‘Jonathan Kulic. My father was . . . one of you.’

‘Where is he?’ Jacob demanded. ‘Why didn’t he or Bruehl or any of the other agents come here to meet me?’

‘I . . .’ the old man faltered. ‘My father died, years ago.’

‘Died? Of what?’

‘He . . . he came to believe in the Edicts.’

Jacob stared at him. ‘I don’t understand. How is that even possible?’

‘He didn’t have faith in the Edicts at first,’ Kulic replied, ‘that much he finally told me just before his death. But when he did come to believe in them, he let the microchines in his body – is that what they’re called? – die out. After that he grew old so quickly, some in our community believed he had been touched by God, or perhaps punished by him.’ Kulic shook his head. ‘He never even told my mother where he’d really come from, but he confided in me, on his deathbed.’

Jacob’s mind reeled. If Jonathan Kulic was telling the truth, his father – a Tian Di sleeper agent – had gone native, falling for the dictates of an extremist religious group existing on the very fringes of Coalition society. It said much about the moral corruption of the Coalition that such fringe cults were allowed to exist. But then again, groups such as the Left-Behind provided excellent cover for Tian Di agents.

‘And the others?’ Jacob demanded, stepping closer to Kulic. ‘Bruehl? Sillars? What about them?’

Kulic took a step back, looking frightened now. ‘Bruehl . . . changed. I don’t know as much about Sillars. I told the beacon everything I could.’

The beacon. He meant the transceiver, of course. ‘Then why are you here?’ asked Jacob, stepping forward and grabbing a fistful of the old man’s shirt. ‘You had nothing to do with any of this; you’re not from the Tian Di. Why did you come here?’

Kulic stared back at him with wide and frightened eyes, looking like he was on the verge of tears. ‘It’s hard to explain.’

Jacob reached behind his back, sliding a thin blade from out of a narrow sleeve situated over his lower spine. He brought it up to where the old man could see its razored edge glinting in the light of the world-wheel, then touched it to the side of Kulic’s throat.

‘Why didn’t you alert the Coalition authorities here that your father had confessed to being a spy?’

‘I was too afraid of them,’ the old man stammered, ‘of what they might do to me. I grew up with stories of the horrible changes they make to you when you join them, of the Fallen in the cities, demons pretending to be human. And, besides, the villages are all I’ve ever known. He told me – my father, that is – that the Tian Di would wipe Darwin and all the other Coalition worlds free of sin. So when he died, I decided to finish what my father could not.’

Jacob relaxed his grip on the old man. He was nothing more than a weak-willed old fool. In some ways that might make him dangerous, and Jacob knew the safest course would be to terminate him immediately.

Yet the fact remained that his mission so far had gone desperately awry almost before it had started. There was at least a chance Jonathan Kulic might actually be able to help him.

‘I need shelter, clothes, and food,’ he told the old man. ‘I also need a little time to regain my strength. Can you help me?’

The old man reacted with pitiful gratitude, his eyes shining as he sobbed. ‘Of course. Of course! You’re going back there, aren’t you?’ he asked. ‘Back to Temur, through that new transfer gate.’

Jacob struggled to control himself. His training told him he should reach out and snap Kulic’s neck and be done with it; whatever madness had taken over Kulic’s father had caused him to share the intimate details of his mission with his son, an act that constituted an appalling breach of protocol.

But then he saw the old man’s eyes were again damp with tears. He’s been waiting all his life for this moment, Jacob realized with a shock – waiting for the day his father’s transceiver would activate, and give his life a purpose that had clearly been missing.

Jacob had been lucky to survive the journey across the light-years – and even luckier to have evaded the Coalition’s security forces on reaching Darwin. He could almost believe the God of the Left-Behind really had guided this old man to help him, when by all rights he should have been forced to fend for himself.

Jacob reached out slowly and put a hand on Kulic’s shoulder, patting it. From here on in, he was going to have to improvise.

‘If you ever again mention any of the details of my mission out loud,’ Jacob said quietly, ‘I will gut you and garland your village with your intestines. Do you understand me?’

The old man’s mouth worked. ‘I – I’m sorry,’ he managed to mumble. ‘I didn’t mean to speak out of turn.’ His eyes darted here and there, almost as if he thought someone might be hiding behind a tree or bush and listening. ‘But you could take me home with you,’ he added in a hoarse whisper. ‘Take me back to Temur, where there are at least real people, and not . . . monsters.’

‘Perhaps I could,’ Jacob replied with as much fake sincerity as he could muster.

The old man’s gratitude was rapidly becoming wearing. Jacob had him wait there in the clearing while he went back to the cave in order to fetch the case he had retrieved from the ship. Then he allowed Kulic to lead him back through the woods to a horse and cart waiting on a dirt path less than a kilometre away. The horse whinnied gently at Jacob’s approach, its hoofs pawing nervously at the dirt underfoot.

‘Why not use motorized transport?’ Jacob asked Kulic, as he climbed into the rear of the cart, which contained nothing but bags of dried hay and a large, tattered carpet with a faded pattern woven into it.

‘The Edicts,’ Kulic replied, as if that told Jacob everything he needed to know, before taking the reins and coaxing the horse into a gentle trot. They began to move at a steady pace, but Jacob could feel every bump where he sat crouched in the rear.

For the first time since he had stumbled out of his ship and watched it dissolve to nothing, Jacob allowed himself a faint sliver of hope. There was still a chance – small, but real – that he could find the weapon Father Cheng required him to locate, and carry it back to Temur.

Just days from now, and he, Jacob Moreland, would earn his place as one of the greatest heroes of the Tian Di. Millions might die as a result of his actions, but – as all truly good men knew – history was a tapestry necessarily woven from the bodies of the innocent.

EIGHT

At first, Luc thought Cripps had returned when he awoke to find a figure once again lurking in the darkness of his bedroom. But when it stepped closer, he saw instead that it was de Almeida’s data-ghost.

He had been dreaming that he was making love to her. He remembered clearly the way her lithe frame had moved above his in a room whose contours were unfamiliar to him. He recalled with astounding clarity the warm scent of her skin and the taste of her lips and tongue, and the urgent thrust of her hips against his own. It had felt so entirely real that upon seeing her data-ghost standing before him, he felt momentarily disoriented, not quite sure if he was awake or not.

‘Mr Gabion,’ she said, her voice low. ‘We need to talk.’

He sat upright amidst the tangled sheets of his bed, irritated and embarrassed, as if she had somehow been privy to his thoughts.

He waved a hand and the window de-opaqued, letting in the pre-dawn light. At least he was alone this time; Eleanor had spent most of the previous evening neck-deep in preparations for a pre-tribunal hearing concerning Aeschere.

‘What is it?’ he asked, making no attempt to hide his irritation.

‘It’s Sevgeny Vasili’s murderer,’ she said. ‘They’ve found him.’

His fatigue drained away. ‘Where?’

‘Downtown, here in the capital,’ she said. ‘Dead, unfortunately. Alive would have been better. Do you know Kirov Avenue?’

‘Yeah.’ Kirov Avenue was in one of the oldest districts of the city, an area heavily populated by Benareans like himself.

‘Meet me there,’ she said, flashing an address to him before vanishing.

Kirov Avenue was lined by tall apartment buildings that hailed from the days of vat-based architecture, when construction materials had been formed from slabs of fullerene grown in tanks of engineered microbes. There had been a scandal when the buildings had started sagging just a few decades after their construction, causing their once-gleaming facades to slowly melt. The internal skeleton of one fluted tower was clearly visible where the outer cladding had crumbled away. After that, Benareans dislocated by the repercussions of the uprising there had moved in, while everyone else had moved out.

Luc had been one of those Benareans – one of thousands of refugees who had scattered across the Tian Di in the wake of the Battle of Sunderland. It had not, at first, been an easy existence. Orphaned in the wake of the rebellion, he had been given over to the charge of a Benarean family. His adoption had not gone well, and he had only rarely returned to this part of the city since.

He arrived there just over an hour after de Almeida summoned him, stepping out of an Archives flier to find himself confronted by half a dozen armoured Sandoz cars arrayed outside a building whose walls curved gently as they rose towards a peak sufficiently lofty that he couldn’t quite make it out.

Several data-ghosts conferred with each other beside one of the Sandoz vehicles, while a few steps away, SecInt mechants kept a small crowd of a dozen or so civilian onlookers at a distance from the building.

Luc decided to keep his own distance until Zelia made her appearance. The data-ghosts, all of which had their backs to him, alternated between studying something on the ground immediately before them and craning their heads back to peer at the upper floors of the adjacent building.

Luc couldn’t see just what it was they were all staring at on the ground, but he could make an educated guess. Someone had exited the building the hard way, and at a terminal velocity. As he continued to watch, one of the data-ghosts turned away with a grimace, covering his mouth as if he was about to be sick. This convinced Luc he’d guessed correctly.

Just when he had started to wonder if de Almeida was going to turn up at all, the data-ghost of a small, wiry-looking woman with blond hair and severe eyes stepped away from a mechant she had been addressing and approached him.

‘It’s me,’ the woman muttered, leaning in close. ‘Zelia.’

Luc shook his head. ‘Why the disguise?’

‘It would cause something of a fuss, don’t you think, if people were to know there were this many members of the Council standing around Kirov Avenue in the middle of the night?’

‘Where?’ Luc asked, glancing around. He saw one or two data-ghosts, but none he recognized. . .

‘Oh,’ he said, feeling stupid. He wondered if Father Cheng himself might be amongst them.

‘I want you to take a look at the body.’

‘If you’ve found your killer,’ said Luc, ‘why do you need me here?’

‘Because I think you might know him,’ she said, before turning her back on him and suddenly fading from sight.

Luc stepped towards the cluster of vehicles, muttering a curse under his breath.

His name was Reto Falla. He had fallen nearly three quarters of a kilometre from the window of his apartment, landing in a sculpted garden area at the base of the tower, which had long since gone to seed. His legs were grotesquely folded back behind his body, while his torso had ruptured upon impact. The back of his skull had also shattered where it had struck a decorative rock. He had died, Luc noted, with a look of surprise on what was left of his face.

He stepped away as mechants proceeded to hide the body from view inside a temporary, dome-spaced structure. De Almeida’s data-ghost-in-disguise beckoned to him to follow her away from the cluster of people, again coming to a halt a short distance away.

‘So?’ asked de Almeida, ‘was I right? You knew him?’

Luc sighed. ‘Yes. We both come from the same small settlement on Benares.’

‘A settlement that was entirely wiped out during the Battle of Sunderland, I understand.’

‘Yes,’ Luc admitted, a sudden tension taking hold of him. ‘Falla and me and some other kids were on a school trip to a low orbit factory at the time of the attack. All of us became orphans in the exact same moment.’

Luc studied the face of de Almeida’s data-ghost, to see if he had evinced so much as a trace of pity. None was apparent.

‘But you were already aware, I gather, that he had since become involved with Black Lotus?’

‘Sure. He was picked up during a raid some years back, when Black Lotus were just gaining a real foothold here on Temur. That’s when I saw him, for the first time since we were kids.’

‘When, exactly?’

Luc was sure she already knew the details, but answered anyway. ‘They put me in charge of his interrogation, in case knowing me might make him more inclined to be talkative.’

‘And did it?’

Luc laughed, glancing back over to where Falla’s crumpled form was now hidden inside a brightly coloured dome, shadowy figures moving inside. ‘He hardly even remembered me. When I told him we’d grown up in the same place, he just looked at me like I was lying. It had been a long time, after all.’

‘Just how deeply involved was he with Black Lotus?’

‘He was far from being a high-level operative, if that’s what you mean.’ He felt a sense of inexplicable sadness that he recognized as just one legacy of the trauma of those years. ‘He wasn’t much of anything; more of a fantasist, with no real connections. He had some psychological issues, along with a whole roster of dependencies, chemical, neural and otherwise.’

‘Curable enough, I would have thought.’

He turned to look at her. ‘Some things run too deep, Miss de Almeida. You can’t just root them out without fundamentally changing someone’s personality.’

‘But is he the kind of person Black Lotus would want to recruit?’

‘He was certainly disaffected enough, but he never amounted to much. At best, he knew people who knew people, if you follow.’

‘So what did you do with him?’

‘Nothing. We made him into a paid informant, but we never got anything useful out of him.’ He made sure to fix his eyes on de Almeida’s. ‘And in answer to your next question, there’s absolutely no way he’d have been able to pull off anything so sophisticated as a high-level assassination. Not even with a lot of help.’

She regarded Luc with a look of amusement. ‘It’s interesting the way your lives worked out. Him on one side of the fence, you on the other.’

He frowned. ‘Reto fell for Black Lotus’s bullshit. I didn’t.’

‘What kind of bullshit?’

‘Is there a reason for this line of questioning?’

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘I want to know the answer.’

‘Black Lotus claimed they weren’t responsible for the assault on Sunderland that killed a huge number of Benareans, but it’s demonstrably not true. As far as Black Lotus were concerned, the Benareans who died as a direct result of their actions were nothing more than collateral damage.’

‘That didn’t stop a lot of other Benareans joining their ranks afterwards,’ said Zelia.

‘Then I guess you’d have to ask them for their reasoning,’ he replied levelly.

De Almeida again regarded him with a look of amusement that was already becoming as familiar as it was deeply irritating. The real problem with data-ghosts, Eleanor had once said, is that you can’t punch them in the face.

A second data-ghost appeared next to de Almeida’s, and spoke to her without acknowledging Luc’s presence before vanishing once more.

‘Two hundred and thirty-first floor,’ said Zelia, turning back to face him. ‘That’s Falla’s apartment. The elevator’s out of action past the two-hundredth floor, I’m afraid. You’ll have to walk the rest of the way.’

‘Or,’ he said, ‘I could just ghost there.’

She shook her head. ‘No. Father Cheng might want you to take a look at physical evidence, and you can’t do that if you’re only present as a projection. If you start now, I’ll see you there in half an hour.’

By the time Luc had ascended in a working car to the two-hundredth floor and climbed up the last thirty-one flights, his skin was slick with sweat and he was breathing hard. It took him longer than half an hour since he also had to negotiate his way past a series of security mechants placed in the stairwells. A final mechant, decorated in the distinctive livery of the Temur Council, led him into a small, derelict-looking apartment.

De Almeida was there in the flesh, although Father Cheng and Bailey Cripps themselves were only present as data-ghosts. Cheng turned to regard him as he entered, and for a moment Luc caught his look of cold contempt, quickly replaced by one of jovial avuncularity.

‘Mr Gabion,’ said Cheng, his voice booming in the confines of the tiny living-room. ‘It appears we’ve found our killer and saved you a great deal of bother.’

‘Take a look at this,’ said de Almeida, gesturing to the mechant that had led him inside.

The mechant projected an image of a crude-looking device, blown up until it was nearly a metre across. Luc recognized it as a home-brew CogNet earpiece, a customized unit typically used for circumventing low-grade security networks – part of a thief’s arsenal, in other words. Black Lotus often made use of operatives skilled at constructing such devices.

Luc glanced between de Almeida and Cheng. ‘All this tells us is that Falla probably made his living as a thief,’ he said.

<Zelia,> he heard Cheng script. <You really shouldn’t have brought him here.>

<I have your permission to include him in the investigation, Father Cheng. You agreed, remember?> she replied, her expression defiant.

<Yes, but it appears our investigation has come to a pleasingly rapid end. That makes his presence no longer necessary.>

Luc kept his gaze fixed on the projected image, terrified that Cheng and Cripps might realize he could hear their every word.

‘Mr Gabion,’ said de Almeida, nodding at the projection, ‘Father Cheng believes Falla must have used this device to pass through the Hall of Gates.’

‘Case closed, really,’ said Cripps. ‘That thing’s crammed with decrypted security data for getting past the White Palace’s defences. There’s even data proving he was present on Vanaheim at the time of Vasili’s murder.’

Luc glanced at de Almeida. Her jaw was clenched, like she was on the verge of going ballistic.

‘If you have the actual device here, can I take a closer look?’ asked Luc, gesturing to the projection.

Cripps started to say something. ‘I don’t—’

‘Of course,’ de Almeida snapped before he could finish. ‘Here.’ She reached out a hand to the mechant providing the projection, and it dropped the original device into her open palm. It was, as Luc had expected, quite tiny, smaller even than a fingernail.

She passed it to Luc, who studied it closely, ignoring the glare on Cripps’ face. When he tried to access it through his own CogNet link, he found to his surprise that it was quite easy. The crude device’s temporal archives proved to be not only accessible, but also dated back months. It didn’t take him more than a minute to locate data inside the tiny machine that apparently proved the device and its owner had indeed passed through the Hall of Gates.

He shot a furtive glance at de Almeida, and saw her looking back, her jaw clenched beneath angry eyes.

<The data on that thing’s been faked,> she sent.

It took Luc a moment to understand she was addressing him directly. He continued to study the device in his palm without replying.

<Our conversation is private,> de Almeida continued, guessing why he was suddenly reluctant to respond. She was looking in the other direction from him now, towards the shattered window. <Neither Cheng nor Cripps will know we’re scripting, unless I tell them or you make it obvious. Now tell me if you agree with my conclusion.>

<It could have been faked,> Luc sent back, turning the device over in his hands. <That doesn’t mean it was.>

The casing had been crudely soldered, as if it had been built in a hurry. In that respect it was entirely unlike similar devices he had encountered in the past, which had been more sophisticated in appearance, often indistinguishable from commercial CogNet units.

‘Do we know for a fact that Falla killed himself ?’

Luc glanced up. De Almeida had directed her question at Cripps.

<I think it’s fairly evident he did precisely that rather than be caught,> Cripps scripted back to her.

<Speak out loud,> de Almeida sent back. <Let Gabion hear you, or switch to open broadcast.>

<I don’t think I—>

‘If you will, Bailey,’ Cheng commented.

Cripps looked like he’d eaten something sour. ‘Clearly Falla killed himself,’ he said out loud. ‘He must have had a tip-off that SecInt were on their way here.’

Luc stepped across to the shattered window at the room’s far end and looked out. The ground was an unpleasantly long way down.

‘But a tip-off from who?’ asked Luc, stepping back from the window.

‘Black Lotus, of course,’ Cripps barked. ‘He decided to end his life rather than face punishment for his actions.’

‘Or possibly, someone connected to Black Lotus made that decision for him,’ suggested Cheng. ‘It would certainly make it harder to track down whomever was responsible for giving him his orders.’

‘It’s looking very open and shut to me,’ Cripps declared. ‘His connections with Black Lotus are extensively documented.’

‘Finding that device doesn’t prove he killed Vasili, let alone somehow found his way through the Hall of Gates!’ de Almeida protested.

‘No,’ said Cheng, ‘but that machine’s own internal records strongly suggest he did.’

‘Those records,’ she said through clenched teeth, ‘could have been faked.’

‘Oh no, Zelia,’ said Cripps, one corner of his mouth curling up. ‘On the contrary, I already checked the White Palace’s own security records. I found anomalies in them, corresponding to the times and dates inside Falla’s crude little toy.’

‘But why on Earth would Black Lotus want him to kill Vasili?’ she demanded.

Cripps regarded her with a pained expression, as if confronted by an imbecile. ‘Surely, Zelia, that should be clear. This was a tit-for-tat move, a strike against the Council in return for Winchell Antonov’s death. As far as I’m concerned, you can stop playing detective now. We’ll arrange an immediate inquest and have a decision based on the evidence within the next few days. After that, we can concern ourselves with other questions – such as who might have helped Falla carry out his crime.’

‘Wait a minute,’ said de Almeida. ‘Are you telling me that you think Vasili was killed as revenge for our stopping Antonov? He hasn’t been at the heart of Council politics for more than a century. What would be the point? You, on the other hand,’ she said, practically spitting the words at Cripps, ‘would make a far more worthwhile target, especially since you spend so much of your time away from Vanaheim. Why, if Falla found it so easy to pass through the Hall of Gates, would he fly halfway around Vanaheim just to kill a minor and half-forgotten member of the Eighty-Five, when he could have stuck around Liebenau and killed someone a lot more important?’

Cripps shrugged. ‘You heard Joe: there’ll be an enquiry to figure out the hows and the whys. Right now the most appalling thing about all this is that it’s all so easily preventable.’ His voice began to rise. ‘That means someone hasn’t been doing their job, Zelia. If they had, Sevgeny might still be alive today.’

‘If it were to become publicly known that the architect of the Reunification was murdered in his own home,’ said Cheng, ‘it would be a major propaganda coup for Black Lotus and their supporters, and there are still plenty of those left. I’ve already made it clear that this is unacceptable. Instead of questioning Bailey’s hard work, Zelia, perhaps you should try and find out how it is your vaunted security systems failed to prevent a lone agent, acting with the minimum of support, from entering our sanctuary and killing one of our own like a dog. If it hadn’t been for Bailey’s swift and decisive action here, Falla might have lived to do much worse things than what he so very clearly did to poor Sevgeny.’

Luc watched de Almeida closely, noting the stricken look on her face. ‘I want to see the evidence for myself,’ she spat, but Luc could see she was shaken. ‘I have that right.’

‘You’ll see it,’ said Cripps, regarding her with a smile. ‘I’ll be happy to release the complete details of my investigation to you at the appropriate time.’ <I’m afraid the evidence still won’t reflect well on your security arrangements, Zelia. I’m sorry to have to tell you that.>

<I’m sure you managed to find a way to deal with the pain,> she shot back.

‘Mr Gabion.’

Luc started, and realized he was being addressed by Cheng.

‘By the looks of things,’ said Cheng, ‘your investigation has come to an end rather more swiftly than any of us might have hoped. I know it must have been difficult for you to be drawn into all of this at such short notice. You understand,’ he added, ‘that absolute discretion on your part continues to be both expected and necessary.’

‘I understand, Father,’ Luc replied. He felt unsure what to do next.

<Take him from here, Zelia,> Cheng scripted. <Then I want to talk with you.>

She glanced at Luc. ‘You should go back down,’ she muttered, her tone curt. ‘Thank you for your help.’

<And wait for me outside,> she added. <We aren’t finished here.>

‘Father.’ Luc nodded to Cheng, and left.

Luc waited on the street by the tower for nearly an hour. It started to rain – a thick, cold end-of-year drizzle that cascaded from the skies, painting the street with wet sheets that darkened the decaying shells of the apartment buildings around him. Police mechants came and went, still guarding Falla’s body while SecInt forensics teams carried out their work inside the tent hiding his body.

They eventually started letting the residents of the tower back in not long after forensics wrapped up their work. Shortly after, a SecInt ambulance that had arrived while Luc was inside the building took Falla’s remains away.

The police mechants followed the ambulance on its upwards trajectory, and soon the only company Luc had was a couple of civil-engineering mechants tasked with cleaning up whatever blood and tattered flesh hadn’t already been washed away. He retreated into a doorway to shelter from the worst of the rain still gusting down from on high, watching the skyline slowly brighten as morning drew nearer.

Zelia appeared from out of the building entrance and came towards him, her expression bleak.

‘You look cold,’ she said, stepping up beside him and into the comparative shelter of the doorway. Luc could see lines of fatigue around her eyes.

‘You look,’ he said, ‘like you’ve been given a hard time.’

Anger stiffened her face, and he wondered if he’d crossed a line. But then she nodded distractedly, as if acknowledging the point.

‘It doesn’t matter what Cheng thinks,’ she said in a monotone, staring toward the patch of pavement where Falla’s body had been. ‘He didn’t do it.’

‘Falla?’ Luc shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, either.’

She regarded him coolly. ‘Explain your reasoning.’

He shrugged. ‘I told you. I knew Falla. He’d be lucky to outsmart a paper bag. He’s no assassin.’

‘Not even if his hand had been forced?’ de Almeida suggested. ‘Desperate people do desperate things, under the right circumstances.’

‘Falla had no family after the Battle of Sunderland, and no real friends either – certainly no one who could be used as leverage to force him to do something like that. He was barely any use as an informant, and not much use for anything else.’ Luc shook his head. ‘Try as I might, I can’t picture him as some kind of stealthy killer, finding his way through the White Palace, then flying halfway across Vanaheim in order to slaughter a Councillor in his own home. It just doesn’t compute.’

‘Not even with Black Lotus’s resources to help him?’

‘But that’s just it,’ said Luc. ‘Apart from that CogNet piece you produced back up there, I’ve not seen any evidence of him having access to any such resources. There’s no evidence he even had so much as a weapon in his possession.’ He let out a sigh. ‘The whole thing feels . . .’

‘Like a set-up,’ she finished for him. ‘Frankly, I’m inclined to agree. With that in mind, I want you to take another look at Falla’s CogNet piece.’

Luc stared at her. ‘You stole it?’

She sighed irritably. ‘No. It’s been taken along with everything else as evidence.’

‘Then how can I—’

‘I copied its complete contents to my lattice – all the data and hacks Falla supposedly used to pass through the Hall of Gates without being detected.’

Luc looked at her, surprised. ‘That could get you into a lot of trouble if Cheng found out,’ he said quietly.

‘Then let’s make sure he doesn’t,’ she said, a hint of steel in her voice.

‘So why don’t you think Falla did it?’ he asked.

‘For the same reasons as before. Even though Cripps insists on telling Father Cheng there’s some flaw in Vanaheim’s security networks, I can assure you there is no such flaw.’

‘I remember you said that before, but it’s starting to look like—’

‘What you don’t know,’ she said, interrupting him, ‘is that every one of the Eighty-Five, Cripps included, has override privileges for those networks.’

Luc ducked his head back in surprise. ‘You mean . . .’

‘I could never say it in front of Father Cheng or Cripps, but the more time passes, the more convinced I am that it had to be someone from amongst the Eighty-Five who killed Vasili.’

‘And the rest of the Council? What about them?’

‘I think we’ll soon be able to rule pretty much all of them out.’ She laughed softly, her expression suddenly bleak. ‘Not that I’m crazy enough to say so to Father Cheng’s face.’

‘If that’s the case, then is it possible one of them could have used those overrides to sneak Falla through the Hall of Gates, then had him carry out the murder on their behalf?’

She gave a tired shrug. ‘Like you said yourself, he’s not exactly anyone’s first choice for a deadly assassin.’

‘But surely having such override privileges defeats the point of even having the security networks?’

‘Power has its own privileges, Mr Gabion. Most of the Eighty-Five prefer to keep their movements entirely private, even from the greater part of the Temur Council. Any one of them could have covered their tracks if they were of a mind to frame Falla – or commit murder.’

‘So all this time you had your suspicions? Why didn’t you say anything before?’

‘Because I don’t want to make an enemy of the most powerful men and women in the whole of the Tian Di. It might be one of them, or several of them, or for all I know they all had a hand in Vasili’s murder.’ She shrugged. ‘It would be tantamount to suicide to accuse them, collectively or individually, without rock-solid, unassailable proof.’

Luc stared at her, scandalized. ‘Surely you can’t be the only one in the Council who came to this conclusion?’

‘If any of them did,’ she said, ‘they’re keeping their mouths shut and waiting to see how things develop.’

Luc licked dry lips and tried to ignore the thumping of his heart. ‘They’re not the only ones who can override Vanaheim’s security,’ he pointed out.

She smirked. ‘You still haven’t ruled me out as a suspect, have you?’

‘No,’ Luc admitted. ‘Even if I wanted to, how could I? The circumstantial evidence against you is still strong.’

‘Why,’ she asked, ‘would I get you to carry out this investigation, if I’d killed Sevgeny myself?’

‘To try and make yourself look less guilty,’ he replied. He nodded towards the tower. ‘The question is, what can I do now? Cheng just said the investigation is over, and . . . I still have this thing squatting inside my skull.’

De Almeida shook her head, keeping her eyes fixed on Luc. ‘I told you I’d do what I could to help retard its growth, didn’t I? And as for the investigation, it isn’t finished until I say it is.’

‘If Father Cheng doesn’t want me on Vanaheim, I’m not sure just what you expect me to do,’ Luc protested.

‘I run the security networks, remember? I can get you onto Vanaheim without anyone else knowing.’

He stared at her. ‘Do you realize what you just said?’

She nodded stiffly. ‘Of course I do. And yes, I could easily have delivered Reto Falla to Vanaheim without Cheng or anyone else knowing – but I didn’t.’ She paused, her gaze flickering across his face. ‘Why don’t you put your fabulous gut instinct to work and tell me if you really think I had something to do with it?’

Luc sighed. ‘No, I don’t think you did.’

She arched her head. ‘Why not?’

He hesitated, wondering just how much he really did trust his instinct. ‘Because you don’t act like guilty people usually do,’ he explained. ‘Now I’ve got a question for you.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘I don’t get it. Why do you still need me? Surely if you want to carry out some private investigation behind Father Cheng’s back, you could do it yourself.’

‘Why are you so desperate to get out of this?’ she demanded. ‘Don’t you want me to fix that thing in your head before it kills you?’

He felt like a butterfly squirming as it was pinned to a board. ‘Of course I do.’

‘There are places that I may ask you to go, and people I may ask you to speak to, that might present me with problems if I tried to do it myself.’

‘What people? What places?’

She smiled enigmatically. ‘The less you know for now, the better. There’ll be a funeral service on Vanaheim for Sevgeny tomorrow, and I want you to be there.’

Luc glanced in the direction of the White Palace, mostly obscured by a tower on the opposite side of the street. ‘If Cheng or Cripps found out, they’d have me killed.’

She nodded. ‘For now, you’ll data-ghost through one of my private channels. That way I can make absolutely sure no one finds out you’re there, although you should still be able to communicate with me in secret.’

Luc winced as the street lights became suddenly brighter. He pressed his fingers against his eyes and stared down at the ground.

‘Mr Gabion?’

‘I . . .’

A high-pitched humming filled his ears. He thought he heard a voice, but far away, and lost in the noise. There was something familiar about it. He staggered slightly as a terrible, throbbing pain consumed his thoughts.

‘Gabion? What is it?’ demanded de Almeida. ‘Another seizure?’

He managed to nod, and she reached up with her other hand, pressing gloved fingers against his scalp. Her touch was softer, more delicate than he’d expected. She was close enough that he could smell her, and for some reason he found himself thinking of Eleanor spread beneath him, her skin painted with perspiration.

‘What are you doing?’ he mumbled.

‘Pulling data from the neural taps I put in your skull the other day,’ she said distractedly. ‘The growth-rate of your lattice is accelerating.’

Shit. ‘Can you do something?’ he pleaded, feeling a surge of panic.

‘I can only do my best,’ she muttered, and after a moment the pain slowly faded once more to a distant numbness. The relief was overwhelming.

‘What did you do?’

‘I made some temporary adjustments,’ she said, taking her hand from his scalp and stepping back. ‘Better?’

He nodded.

‘Now you have another reason to come back to Vanaheim. While you’re there, I can do more to help you.’

‘Not if I’m only there as a data-ghost.’

‘That’s only a temporary measure,’ she assured him. ‘I’ll bring you there in person soon enough.’

Even if you didn’t kill Vasili, I can’t think of anyone in a better position to do it, he thought.

He glanced up at a faint hum from above, and watched as a flier dropped down from out of the gloom, settling onto the road nearby.

‘I’ll send a flier for you tomorrow, just before the service,’ she said. ‘It’ll take you to a private office on the White Palace. Once there, you’ll be able to data-ghost to Vanaheim.’

‘Fine,’ said Luc, and watched as de Almeida walked away, her long, dark coat swaying with the movement of her hips as she boarded the flier. His eyes followed the craft as it lifted on AG fields that bowed the rain around its hull before finally speeding upwards and into the sky.

NINE

Luc dreamed he was back on Aeschere, lost in claustrophobic passageways crowded with mandalas and leering statues.

This isn’t real, he gasped as Antonov leaned over him, playing with the wriggling worm-like mechant.

Very astute, Antonov replied, grinning down at him. You’ve met Zelia by now, haven’t you? Be careful of that one.

Luc struggled to free himself from the chair he had been bound to. Don’t do this to me, he cried. I can’t go through this again.

I wish I could stop this, Mr Gabion, said Antonov, shaking his head sadly, I really do. But this isn’t the kind of dream where you can pinch yourself and wake up; you know that already. You’re reliving all this because there’s a war inside your skull, and I’m winning.

No. Zelia de Almeida is helping me. She’ll undo whatever damage you’ve done to me.

The neuro-suppressants she put inside you? They only suppress your conscious awareness of a process that can’t be stopped. Didn’t she tell you that?

She told me she could save me!

Antonov laughed a rich, hearty laugh, leaning back and raising his face to the ceiling. She’s bluffing, he said, bringing his gaze back down. Or maybe she thinks she really can retard the lattice’s growth, but I seriously doubt it. What I put inside your head is far in advance of the kind of technology even the Temur Council allow themselves. No, my dear boy, she’s more interested in saving her own skin than anything else. At best, you’re a puzzle to be unlocked, so she can find out what I’m really up to.

Then why not just tell me why you put this thing inside me, damn it! Luc screamed.

Because we are engaged in a game, Luc – and a very dangerous one, Antonov replied. And it is never a good idea to show one’s hand too soon.

You’re killing me because I found a way to stop you.

Antonov looked confused for a moment. You think this is about revenge? He shook his head. I’m saving your life, and mine as well.

How in hell do you figure that out?

When you found me, I had no access to my backups, no other way to preserve at least some of my thoughts and memories. What you see before you is all that’s left of me.

Luc listened, thunderstruck.

You did a better job than you realized, the dead man continued. I had cached backups, of course, but SecInt, thanks to its temporary truce with Sandoz, managed to locate nearly all of them – and every last one of them auto-destructed before it could be interrogated. He clasped one hand to his injured chest. But this part of me, mere shadow of my former self that it is that now resides inside you, is enough to finish the task ahead.

He leaned in close to Luc. Speak to the Ambassador, Luc. With his help, we will both be reborn, and a terrible calamity will be prevented.

What Ambassador? What—

Luc woke with a start and jerked upright, lungs heavy and aching in his chest. He was back home again.

For all he knew, the dream he had just experienced was at best an elaborate fantasy formed from his own fears and desires – at worst, a sign of incipient madness, triggered by the lattice as it grew in complexity and reach.

But he knew better. Whatever Antonov had done to him, it had been done for a reason. Some part of the dead man, some shadow-aspect, was alive and well inside his skull, drawing out the agony and drip-feeding him whatever tantalizing scraps of information it could use to make him dance to any tune but his own.

Speak to the Ambassador. Luc had no idea which Ambassador Antonov might have been referring to.

Every world of the Tian Di but Vanaheim had embassies, but they meant little in this age of instantaneous travel across the light-years. Mostly, the title ‘Ambassador’ was an honorary role given to those who’d served the Temur Council with distinction. They could have told Luc he was an Ambassador as his reward for Aeschere, and it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing.

He searched the public and secure databases for information on planetary ambassadors currently resident on Temur while he dressed and breakfasted. He vaguely recognized some of the names, but could find no immediately obvious link to Vasili or to de Almeida or anyone else – nothing that might make sense of what the dream-Antonov had said to him.

Glancing in a mirror, he frowned, then stepped closer. His CogNet earpiece had turned dark, an indicator that it had failed in some way and needed to be replaced.

He carefully removed it and looked down at it in the palm of his hand. It was tiny, the kind of thing that was easily lost, but as easily replaced at virtually no cost. The technology was entirely ubiquitous, the kind of thing you grew up around without ever really being aware of how badly you needed it until it was gone.

Except there had been no break in service during his search of several different databases, despite his CogNet earpiece’s terminal failure. Antonov’s lattice, he realized with a chill, had seamlessly taken over from it without his even noticing.

He stared down at the tiny darkened bead, a mixture of dread and excitement churning inside him.

Then he thought back to his meeting with Offenbach, when he had been unable to bypass the security settings on a number of files. Would his lattice, unwelcome as it was, now enable him to access those same files should he try again?

Luc dropped the darkened bead in the recycling, then headed out.

One of de Almeida’s mechants guided him to a tiny private cubicle in a walk-in office complex close by Chandrakant Lu Park. He didn’t have long to wait before de Almeida’s invitation arrived in the form of a tiny point of light that hovered in the air before him.

He reached out. The star-like point puffed into mist the moment his fingertips brushed it, and –

– he was on Vanaheim.

Looking down at his hands, he flexed them, stunned at how perfectly real they looked. He could feel a breeze touching his cheek, as if he were really, actually physically present. The haptics alone were on a whole order of sophistication beyond anything he’d ever experienced before while data-ghosting. It had to be because of his lattice.

It was like actually being there.

He was sitting on a long stone bench near the middle of an auditorium cut into the side of a hill. The benches formed steps that led down to the foot of the hill, and seated on them at different points around the auditorium were maybe forty or fifty men and women, the majority of whom he did not recognize. Sitting at his side was de Almeida, who glanced towards him out of the corner of her eye, giving him the tiniest nod to let him know she could see him.

The auditorium was large enough that it looked almost empty. Clearly, few amongst the Temur Council had felt inclined to come and pay their respects to their dead compatriot. Most of those present were clustered together near the base of the auditorium, but a few, including de Almeida, sat conspicuously apart from the rest. Mechants sporting a variety of liveries hummed through the air.

Before the steps stood a low, wide platform, and beyond that a sloping grassy plain. Luc could see a meandering river a few kilometres away. Tall columns were arranged haphazardly around the edges of the auditorium, a few bearing broken-limbed statues, as if the auditorium were the remnant of some long dead civilization. Close by a bend in the river stood an imposing-looking ruin, moss growing up its sides, a partly caved-in roof open to the elements.

Luc held his breath, half-convinced someone would see his electronic phantasm despite de Almeida’s reassurances.

<You’re sure no one can see me?> he asked her.

<No one even knows you’re here,> she confirmed.

<What are those ruins?> he scripted, nodding towards the river. They looked old, which made no sense unless Vanaheim had been occupied for far longer than anyone knew.

<Follies,> replied Zelia. <They’re not real. Just architectural whims, like this auditorium.> There was a note of disgust in her voice, as if she didn’t approve.

He spotted Surendra Finch, Overseer for Temur’s security services, and the man to whom Lethe reported directly; Rosabella Dose, who had fired the fatal shot that killed Lewis Finney when Coalition forces stormed the judicial headquarters on Darwin mere months after the Abandonment; Alexander Maksimov, famous for negotiating the surrender of Yue Shijie’s transfer gates to the Sandoz; and many less familiar faces that nonetheless had in their own ways influenced the course of the Tian Di over the centuries.

It was intimidating company, to say the least.

He saw Father Cheng stand up from a gathering at the front of the auditorium, and step towards the platform, trailed by several mechants and a small entourage that included Cripps. A projector had been set up on the platform, and as Luc watched, this device unfolded broad panels made of thin metal wafers.

After a moment, the air above the panels shimmered, then darkened to reveal a sprinkling of stars, in defiance of the afternoon light. A grey, cylindrical shape floated in the foreground, occluding many of the stars. The curved surface of a world was clearly visible, revealing that the cylindrical object was in orbit.

As Luc watched, brilliant light flared at the rear of the grey cylinder, and it began to recede from the fixed viewpoint above the planet, dwindling within seconds to a tiny point of slightly flickering light almost indistinguishable from the steady brilliance of the stars. Before very long it had vanished entirely. Luc guessed it was Sevgeny Vasili’s coffin.

‘Sevgeny would have liked it this way,’ said Father Cheng, his voice carrying clear and sharp across the hillside. ‘He used to wonder what might lie at the heart of our galaxy; well, in a way, he’ll get to find out now. That ship we placed him on board – the last one he’ll ever travel on – is a modified version of the same craft that carry the seeds of transfer gates to new worlds. I can’t think of a better farewell for a man who worked so hard towards reuniting the two disparate halves of the human race.’

Luc watched with interest as Cheng pointedly cast his gaze around those gathered, and recalled what Offenbach had told him: Vasili had been given the job of Reunification not as a perk, but as a kind of punishment duty.

‘We all know how hard Sevgeny worked towards that goal,’ Cheng continued. ‘He may not have lived to see it fulfilled, but his body, if not his soul, will journey where his heart and his mind often did, to the mystery at the heart of our island universe. God speed, Sevgeny,’ he said, glancing towards the dark projection hovering in the air. ‘We’ll miss you, but you’ll always be with us, in spirit at least.’

Cheng stepped down from the platform, and someone new stepped up to say their piece. Luc meanwhile found his attention drawn to a figure that stood alone on the far side of the auditorium, and felt his skin prickle as if he had just been doused in ice-water.

Whoever they were, their face was entirely invisible beneath a mirrored mask. The mask formed part of a suit of cloth and metal that was covered in turn by a loose, flowing coat that billowed gently in the light breeze flowing down the slope of the hill.

The same figure he’d seen in his dreams, with Antonov’s angry face reflected in it.

<Who is that?> he demanded, pointing.

De Almeida glanced towards the masked figure, then regarded him with an expression of amusement before turning her attention back to the man delivering his eulogy on the stage. <That, Mr Gabion, is the Coalition Ambassador, Horst Sachs.>

<I know him,> Luc insisted. <I saw him in my dreams.>

<He certainly fits the description you gave me a few days ago, yes.>

<Coalition Ambassador?>

She gave him a sidewise glance full of irritation. <Of course. You know that we’ve had visitors from Darwin prior to the new transfer gate’s official opening. The Ambassador is our most frequent visitor of all. Sevgeny Vasili was scheduled to introduce him to the public during the Reunification ceremonies.>

Luc felt a shiver run through him at the sight of the masked figure. <I’m not sure how people are going to react if he’s still wearing that mask. Doesn’t he ever take it off?>

<Not to my knowledge, no,> she replied. <People in the Coalition are . . . very different from us, it seems. How different may prove to be a shock for many.>

<Then what I saw really was real,> he replied, feeling dazed.

<Clearly.>

<Then you understand what this means?> he sent back. <Antonov must have had dealings with the Ambassador. Why didn’t you tell me he was real before?>

<Because I knew there was a very good chance that he’d be here, and I wanted to see if you genuinely did recognize him.>

‘Zelia.’

Luc realized with a start that Ruy Borges had come over to join them. He stiffened with apprehension before remembering Borges could neither see nor hear him.

De Almeida’s response was filled with bored exasperation. ‘Whatever it is, can’t it wait, Ruy?’

‘I was just thinking,’ said Borges with a lopsided grin, ‘of what Javier might say if he was here. He’d have a few words to say about Sevgeny, wouldn’t he?’

Javier. He could only be talking about Javier Maxwell.

De Almeida scowled. ‘This really isn’t the time or the place.’

‘I almost forget sometimes how much those two men hated each other,’ Borges continued, his grin growing wider. ‘If it wasn’t for Javier being locked up in that prison of his, I’d have thought he was behind Sevgeny’s murder.’

‘I’m serious, Ruy,’ de Almeida growled. ‘Go away.’

‘Now if Javier were the next to be assassinated . . . well, it’s not like there’s a lack of volunteers when it comes to pulling the trigger.’

De Almeida stared at him with baleful contempt. ‘What, exactly, are you saying?’

Borges shrugged. ‘Just that if the security systems around that prison of his were to fail and something were to happen to him as a result, well . . . we’d be free of a serious thorn in our side, don’t you think?’

Luc saw some heads towards the front of the auditorium had turned away from the latest eulogy, and were keenly watching Borges’s confrontation with de Almeida instead.

She stood. ‘You’re suggesting I killed Vasili, and I should do the same to Javier. Is that it?’

Borges’s grin grew wider, his voice slightly louder, easily carrying across the auditorium. ‘It’s not like everybody doesn’t already think you did it. But if something were to happen to Javier, then it might help tip the balance in your favour a little.’

De Almeida stared at him with undisguised loathing. ‘Am I on trial?’ she demanded.

‘All I’m saying,’ Borges continued, ‘is that were you to allow the security on Javier’s prison to slip at the right time and place, there are a few people who might be prepared to take care of Javier the way you took care of Sevgeny.’

‘Would you be the one who pulled the trigger, Ruy?’ A cold smile twitched the corners of her mouth. ‘No, of course not. You just like to make speeches and threaten people. And let’s be clear on this: the one thing I don’t control is the security cordon around Javier’s prison. You know that just as well as I do. The Sandoz handle it under Joe’s direct supervision.’

Ruy’s hands twisted at his sides. ‘You know I’m not the only one who wants nothing to do with that thing masquerading as a human being,’ he spat, stabbing one finger in the direction of the masked Ambassador. ‘Joe’s hand is being forced when it comes to Reunification. He doesn’t say it, at least not to anyone outside of the Eighty-Five – but we all know it. Something’s going on that we aren’t being told about.’

Zelia’s expression became incredulous. ‘What the hell does Javier have to do with any of that?’

‘Because that’s what Javier’s always wanted, isn’t it?’ Borges’s voice was rising again, and even the woman delivering her eulogy had paused to listen. ‘To expose us to those . . . those monsters in the Coalition.’

Luc glanced towards the Ambassador, wondering how he felt about being described in such terms.

De Almeida waved one hand in dismissal. ‘You’re a fantasist, Ruy. Show some respect for Sevgeny’s memory and sit the hell back down.’

Out of the corner of his eye, Luc saw Cripps moving rapidly up the steps towards them.

Somebody has to say it,’ Borges spat. ‘Those people in the Coalition have all been changed by the Founder Network. For God’s sake, Zelia,’ he continued, a pleading tone creeping into his voice now, ‘how can we possibly know there’s anybody left alive on Darwin who’s truly human anymore, even in all of the Coalition? How do we know they weren’t compromised, even replaced by whatever it is that’s lurking in the Network?’

‘Stop this now.’

Borges turned to stare at Cripps, his nostrils flaring. ‘No,’ he said, shaking his head adamantly. ‘There are things that have to be said.’

‘This is a difficult enough time as it is,’ Cripps growled. ‘You’re making a scene, Ruy.’

‘Everyone knows she—’

Ruy.’

Borges’s lips quivered, but he went silent and walked back down the steps without another glance at de Almeida. Luc followed him with his eyes as Borges stalked past the platform, giving Horst Sachs a wide berth as he made towards a group of fliers parked a short walk away.

‘Thank you,’ de Almeida said to Cripps.

‘Don’t thank me,’ Cripps replied curtly. ‘It wasn’t for your benefit; he was disrupting the proceedings.’

De Almeida nodded wordlessly as Cripps turned on his heel and headed back down to rejoin Father Cheng, who hadn’t so much as turned around throughout the altercation. Luc had little doubt he was nonetheless aware of everything that had just taken place.

<I want to talk to the Ambassador,> Luc said as de Almeida took her seat next to him once more.

She allowed herself a brief sideways glance at him. <I’m already working on making arrangements for precisely that. You might be interested to know Ambassador Sachs was working very closely with Vasili on the run-up to Reunification.>

<He was?>

She nodded, very gently. <They had regular meetings up until just a few days before Sevgeny’s body was discovered, as a matter of fact.>

On the stage, the final eulogy came to an end. People were already sharing muttered conversations as they began to move out of the auditorium and towards the parked fliers.

De Almeida stepped away to speak to one or two people, but it was clear from their uneasy expressions that they were disinclined to spend too much time speaking with her.

He glanced towards Ambassador Sachs, who was now in conversation with Cripps. Something about that perfectly reflective mask made his skin crawl. When he followed de Almeida down to the front of the auditorium, he had the uncanny sense the Ambassador was watching him, but with that mask it was impossible to tell exactly where his gaze fell at any moment.

<Gabion.>

He glanced back over at de Almeida. <What?>

<You can rule out the Ambassador as a possible suspect,> she replied, leading his data-ghost across the grasslands towards her flier. <It seems he was at a function held in his honour at the exact same time Vasili was killed.>

<What did Borges mean when he said something was going on? Something that people weren’t being told about?>

She sighed. <The honest answer is that I don’t know what he meant.>

<I don’t believe that.>

<It’s true. I . . . > She stopped and looked around. Luc did the same; they were amongst the last to leave, and even if someone had seen her speaking to someone who wasn’t there, they might simply have assumed it was a private conversation and left it at that.

‘We’re free to talk out loud now,’ she said, switching away from script-speak. ‘No one’s going to overhear us.’

<You’re sure?>

She glanced around with a furtive expression. ‘I never feel comfortable using script-speak, even if I have to.’

Luc activated his data-ghost’s audio circuits, but kept the volume dialled down to not much more than a whisper. ‘Go on, then.’

‘There are rumours,’ she explained, ‘of secret negotiations between the Coalition and some members of the Eighty-Five. Negotiations that none of the rest of the Council were ever told about.’

‘And that’s what Borges was referring to just now?’

She nodded helplessly. ‘For all I know it’s just a rumour and nothing more, but once you put an idea like that in the head of a man like Borges, no matter how tenuous, it becomes dangerous.’

‘But what kind of negotiations?’

She shrugged. ‘I have no idea, assuming the story is even true.’

‘All right, then what about Javier Maxwell? Why would Borges want him dead so badly?’

She scowled. ‘It doesn’t really have to do with Maxwell at all, it’s more to do with what he represents. Borges is scared because Cheng’s hand is being forced over Reunification.’

‘Forced? How?’

‘By the same tide of popular opinion that originally made it possible for him to seize control of the Temur Council – a tide that has now turned the other way, in favour of Reunification.’ She kept her voice low as she spoke. ‘Even without access to instantiation technology, people throughout the Tian Di are living better and longer lives than at any time since the Abandonment. The days when the colonies had to struggle to survive, when desperately stringent measures were needed – those days are long gone, and everyone in the Tian Di knows it. Now they want the same things we in the Council have – and Father Cheng hasn’t given them any adequate reasons why they shouldn’t have the same things sooner rather than later.’

‘Then why doesn’t he just give them to us?’

‘Cheng is old. We all are. The mistake was believing that as long as things stayed the same, we’d have stability. Instead, we have stagnation, but Cheng doesn’t seem to understand that. He had to be forced into agreeing to Reunification.’

‘What forced his hand?’

‘There are plenty of indicators showing that without radical social change, the Tian Di might break up. There might even be civil war. The evidence was convincing enough to persuade the majority of Councillors to agitate in favour of Reunification. And for all his power, Cheng can’t do anything without the vast majority of us backing him.’

‘And Borges?’

‘Men like Borges would be more than happy to maintain the current status quo forever, even if the rest of the Tian Di burned. He doesn’t want change, and neither, I think, do most of the Eighty-Five.’

‘In that case, given Vasili was actively working towards change, surely Borges would make a good suspect for his murder?’

‘Our mutual cup overflows with potential suspects, wouldn’t you say?’ she said.

‘That’s why I’m going to need full access to Vanaheim’s security records, Miss de Almeida.’

She stared at him like she hadn’t quite heard him right. ‘You’re not actually serious, are you?’

‘Quite serious. I need access to any and all data relating to the movements of everyone in Vanaheim over, say, the last few days – and preferably the last several weeks. I also need access to the personal records of everyone on the Council.’

She laughed disbelievingly. ‘And you really think I would give you that much?’

‘If you don’t,’ he said, ‘I don’t see how I’d be able to do my job properly. I can’t possibly make an accurate assessment regarding Vasili’s murder until I first have a good idea of the circumstances and events surrounding his death. Without that context, how can I possibly clearly identify a motive that might give you the identity of his killer? And everything you’ve just told me makes it clear that there’s a lot I still don’t know.’

Anger flashed across her face. ‘I’ll take the idea under consideration,’ she replied, her voice clipped. ‘But any specific information you need I can get for you immediately, upon request. You don’t need direct personal access.’

‘Without it, I’m flying blind,’ he countered.

And what about Father Cheng? He wanted to ask. Are we treating him as being above suspicion?

But he was still too afraid to ask that question.

‘Here’s what I can do,’ she said. ‘I just sent Ambassador Sachs a request for a confidential interview that you’ll conduct.’

‘Won’t a request like that make him suspicious? What if he tells someone else about it, and Father Cheng finds out you’re carrying on your investigation in defiance of his orders?’

‘I told the Ambassador it was all part of an overall review of our security measures in the wake of Vasili’s murder. As far as he’s concerned, you’re just someone who works for me, period. He knows nothing of your background, or why you’re really here. But it’s also a chance to find out why he met with Antonov. In the meantime,’ she added, ‘I want you to go home and wait there until you hear from me.’

‘I understand,’ Luc replied wearily, but even before he had finished his reply she had cut the connection. The last of his words echoed dully inside the tiny cubicle, back in Ulugh Beg.

TEN

Over the next few days, Luc dreamed of other faces he had never encountered, and of places he had never visited.

As he woke each morning, he felt sure that Antonov’s ghost, lurking within his skull, had whispered secrets that, however hard he tried, could not be recalled. Even when awake, he fell from time to time into a kind of trance, sometimes lasting for several minutes or even longer. He cradled a glass of hot kavamilch one morning, then found once he brought it to his lips that it had turned cold; more than half an hour had passed without his being aware of it.

And then there were the occasional bouts of excruciating pain, each one longer than the last. He barely managed to stop his house from contacting the medical services during one particularly bad episode: just because one hospital’s neural scanner had failed to detect his lattice didn’t mean another would.

He waited to hear from de Almeida, desperate for her to work her magic on him, but no word came and, as she had left him no way to contact her directly, there was little for him to do but wait.

Eleanor got in touch, but despite his yearning for her company, he avoided her. He didn’t know what she might do if he had another seizure while she was around him. Even so, the wounded tone in her voice whenever she left another unanswered message for him tore a hole in his heart.

It took an effort to force himself back out of his apartment. The headaches and fevered dreams of the past few days had left him exhausted, and he found he had little energy for anything more than spending time within the arboretum on the roof of the Archives building, where he could at least enjoy the company of Master Archivists who were now his equals in rank. There, he not only found Offenbach, but also Hogshead, Benet, and even old Kubaszynski, long since retired but on a brief visit from his home on Novaya Zvezda.

He listened to their conversation as it turned to heroic Archivists of old: men such as Gardziola, who had tracked down Samarkandian census records believed destroyed during the Mass Deletions. He heard again the story of Justin Krumrey, who forced the Grey Barons of Da Vinci to relinquish private collections of 21st and 22nd century media, also thought lost forever. He heard tales of Panther Wu, the wrestler-turned-theoretician who first instituted the system of Master Archivists, and whose statue stood wreathed in dark green ivy at the heart of the rooftop gardens amongst which they idled.

He listened to their tales of epic adventure, laughed at their jokes, and returned to his apartment filled with ideas for future research projects and exploratory fieldwork. But when he caught sight of the White Palace floating far above the city, he was reminded that his days might very well be numbered for reasons that remained far from clear. All his plans seemed suddenly worthless, since there was no way to know whether he might live long enough to implement them.

He went to his bed that night filled with a sense of dread that kept him awake through the night, leaving him exhausted and weary by the time morning arrived.

Early the next day, de Almeida finally data-ghosted unannounced into his apartment. Luc had barely slept, his head feeling as if hot pokers were being slowly driven through the bone and tissue.

He felt overwhelmingly, even embarrassingly, grateful at the sight of her. Her data-ghost perched on an invisible seat in his apartment’s kitchenette as he made himself some kavamilch, wincing from the pain of his headache.

‘I’ve arranged a time and place for you to meet with Ambassador Sachs,’ she began without any preamble, ‘but remember that he doesn’t know it isn’t officially sanctioned.’

‘Any news about that inquest Cheng said would be held concerning Reto Falla?’ asked Luc.

De Almeida let out a rush of nervous breath. ‘I’m sure you’ll be far from surprised to learn they’ve already found Falla guilty of the murder. I asked to see the minutes of the enquiry meeting, but they’ve been ruled confidential.’

‘Even to you?’

‘Even to me,’ she replied dryly. ‘Another enquiry’s been commissioned, this time to try and work out how he could have done it. Cripps has been put in charge of that one. I’m pretty sure he’s the one who’s stopping me seeing those minutes, let alone any of the related evidence.’

Apart from the evidence you managed to steal, Luc thought to himself. ‘Any idea why?’

‘Apparently I’m under suspicion of negligence,’ she replied, her expression darkening. ‘It seems they want to carry out a review of the security networks, so they can work out where I . . . where I screwed up.’ She almost spat the words out. ‘The information on Falla’s CogNet piece, did you . . . ?’

‘I couldn’t find anything that fitted the profile of an active Black Lotus agent.’ He shrugged. ‘And the data on a CogNet earpiece, particularly a hacked one, isn’t hard to fake, as I think you already know. That he even still had it makes no sense.’

‘Why?’

‘Any assassin with an iota of intelligence or imagination would have dumped or destroyed that earpiece immediately. Instead, there it was, in plain view in his apartment. Everything about it just feels wrong.’

‘I came to the same conclusion myself,’ she admitted.

‘What about the rest of the Council?’ he asked, cradling the kavamilch in his hands as he took a seat across from her. ‘Surely they have some say in the direction of the inquest, or are they just going to accept Father Cheng’s decisions without question?’

De Almeida nodded. ‘That’s precisely it. It doesn’t matter what they believe, it’s what Cheng believes that matters.’

Luc took a sip of the kavamilch before he continued. He could feel it slowly work its tendrils into his brain, waking him up and clearing his thoughts, even dulling the pain a little.

‘I need your help,’ he said. ‘Whatever it is you did to help me before, it isn’t working anymore. The pain’s getting worse. And there’ve been more . . . hallucinations, or dreams, or whatever the hell they are.’

‘I told you I’d do what I could,’ she said tiredly. ‘You’ll be back on Vanaheim soon enough.’

‘In person this time?’

‘You’ll have to be, if we’re going to get you together with Ambassador Sachs.’

‘You need to take a look at me first,’ he said. ‘I mean it, Miss de Almeida – Zelia. I’m no good to you if—’

‘Don’t try and pressure me,’ she snapped, her eyes hard. ‘Do you really think I don’t know that?’

Luc bit back a retort. He studied her face, the way her nostrils flared and the tightness of her mouth. She was a lot more scared than she was ever likely to admit.

‘They’ve really got you backed into a corner, haven’t they?’ he said quietly.

Her nostrils flared again. ‘I’m not interested in your unwarranted speculation. I’m only interested in your obedience.’

Luc shook his head and laughed wearily. ‘Fuck you.’

Her hands clutched into claws, as if she meant to rip out his eyes. ‘I won’t abide this . . .’

‘Abide what?’ He was tired of her threats, her dismissive manner.

Somehow she managed to hold her temper in check. ‘You want to test me, don’t you? See how far you can push me.’

‘Who else do you have that could help you, Zelia? My guess is Cripps is watching every move you make, which is why you need me to be your errand-boy on Vanaheim. That’s how it is, isn’t it?’

At that, she got a wild look in her eyes like she might attack him. Luc tensed, briefly forgetting she was only present in the form of a projection, her physical body far away on Vanaheim. After a moment she seemed to remember this herself, and shook her head, looking sad and sorry for herself.

‘I know I need your cooperation,’ she said, her voice thick, ‘as much as you need my help. I suppose it’s obvious enough to you that I’m not in the best place just now, politically speaking.’

He thought of all the long years he had worked for Security and Intelligence. He had never pretended bad things didn’t happen under the Council’s rule, but he’d always believed the long-term stability they’d brought to the Tian Di made them the least of all possible evils.

Or so he’d told himself. After what he’d seen over the past several days, he wasn’t so sure what he believed any more.

‘Maybe we should get back to why Vasili was killed in the first place,’ he said carefully. ‘We keep circling around Reunification as a possible motive, given that there’s no lack of opposition to it, even now. Can Reunification go ahead without him around?’

She thought for a moment, then nodded. ‘That brings me to something I wondered about,’ she said. ‘If Vasili’s death was intended as an act of sabotage against Reunification, it’s a stunningly inept one. Why kill him, instead of targeting the transfer gate linking us to the Coalition itself ?’

Can that gate be harmed? Is it possible it could come under attack?’

‘Not when it’s as heavily defended as it is, no. It’s secure in orbit, and it’s probably going to stay there until the Council finally decides it’s safe to bring it down to Temur’s surface.’

‘Then maybe,’ he said, ‘we’re not looking at sabotage. Maybe the real reason for his murder has nothing to do with Reunification.’