Iain M. Banks
Against a Dark Background
She put her chin on the wood below the window. The wood was cold and shiny and smelled. She kneeled on the seat; it smelled too, but different. The seat was wide and red like the sunset and had little buttons that made deep lines in it and made it look like somebody’s tummy. It was dull outside and the lights were on in the cable car. There were people skiing on the steep slopes beneath. She could see her own face looking back at ‘her in the glass; she started to make faces at herself.
After a while the glass in front of her face went misty. She reached up and wiped it. Somebody in another car, going down the hill, waved at her. She ignored them. The hills and the white trees tipped slowly back and forward.
The cable car swung gently as it rose through the mountain air towards the cloudbase. The trees and runs on the slopes beneath were equally white; a fresh snowfall and freezing fog blowing up the valley overnight had coated the branches and needles of the trees with a crisp white wrap of crystals. Skiers cut and scythed through the new plumpness of the fall, engraving a carved text of blue-white lines onto the bulging fresh page of snow.
She watched the child for a moment. She was kneeling on the button-hide seat, looking out. Her ski-suit was garish pink, fur trimmed. Her gloves, hanging from her sleeves on lengths of cord, were a clashing mauve. Her little boots were orange. It was a foul-looking combination (especially so here in Frelle, Northern Caltasp’s supposedly most exclusive and certainly its most snobbish resort), but-she suspected-probably less psyche-damaging than the tantrum and sulk which would inevitably have resulted had her daughter not been allowed to choose her own skiing outfit. The girl wiped at the window, frowning.
She wondered what the child was frowning at, and turned to see another cable car passing them on the way down, twenty metres or so away. She put her hand out and moved it through the girl’s black hair, pulling some of the curls away from her face. She didn’t seem to notice; she just kept gazing out of the window. Such a serious face for a little girl.
She smiled, remembering when she had been that age. She could recall being five; she had memories from about as far back as three, but they were vague and inchoate; flashes of memory illuminating a dark landscape of forgotten past.
But she could remember being conscious of being five; even remember her fifth birthday party and the fireworks over the lake.
How she had wanted to be older then; to be grown up and stay up late and go to dances. She had hated being young, hated always being told what to do, hated the way adults didn’t tell you everything. And hated, too, some of the stupid things they did tell you, like, ‘These are the best days of your life’. You could never believe at the time that adults had any idea-beyond mischief-what they were talking about. You had to be an adult, with all the cares and responsibilities it brought, before you could appreciate the struggling ignorance adults termed innocence, and-usually forgetting the way they too had felt at the time-call the captivity of childhood, however caring, freedom.
It was a very ordinary tragedy, she supposed, but no less a cause for regret because it was so common. Like a hint, a foretaste of grief, it was an original, even unique experience for everyone it affected, no matter how often it had happened in the past to others.
And how did you avoid it? She had tried so hard not to make the same mistakes with her own daughter that she felt her parents had made with her, but sometimes she heard herself scolding the girl and thought, That’s what my mother said to me.
Her husband didn’t feel the same way, but then he had been brought up differently, and anyway didn’t really have that much to do with the child’s upbringing. These old families. Hers had been rich and influential and probably quite unbearable in its own power-deranged way, but it had never displayed quite the degree of almost wilful eccentricity Kryf’s had down the generations.
She looked at her wrist-screen and turned down the heating in her boots, which were quite cosy now. Midday. Kryf would probably just be getting up, ringing for breakfast and having his butler read him the news while a footman proffered a selection of clothes from which to choose that afternoon’s attire. She smiled, thinking of him, then realised that she was looking across the car at Xellpher. The bodyguard-the only other occupant of the car-was solid and dark as some old-fashioned stove, and smiling a little too.
She gave a small laugh and put her hand to her mouth.
‘M’lady?’ Xellpher said.
She shook her head. Outside, behind Xellpher, an outcrop of rocks ridged above the trees, caked in whiteness but streaked with naked black rock, a dark foreign body amongst the sheets and pillows of the snow. The cable car rose to meet the clouds and was enveloped by them.
A mast went past, grey and quick outside, and the cable car whirred and bumped on its wheels for a second or so, then continued its silent, burringly smooth ascent, seemingly nodding to itself as it was hauled on upwards past ranks of trees like the ghosts of some great descending army.
It went all grey. A grey post went by and the car rocked. The view stayed grey. There were some trees and she could see the other cable, but that was all. She looked round, annoyed. Xellpher smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. There was a cliff behind him, black bits in the white snow.
She turned back to the window and rubbed, hoping to see better. She watched a cable car appear out of the mists above, coming down to meet them on the other cable.
The cable car began to slow down.
The car slowed and stopped.
‘Oh dear,’ she said, looking up at the varnished ceiling of the car.
Xellpher stood up, frowning. He looked at the cable car on the descending cable, which had stopped almost level with them. She looked at it too. The car hung, swaying, just as theirs was. It appeared to be empty. Xellpher turned and looked at the cliff on the other side, visible through the mist thirty or forty metres away. She saw his eyes narrow and experienced the first faint twinge of fear as she followed his gaze to the cliff.
There was an impression-perhaps imagined-of movement amongst some trees at the top of the cliff. Xellpher glanced back at the cable car hanging across from them and took a pair of multi-sights from his skiing jacket. She was still watching the cliff, like him. Something did move amongst the trees, roughly level with them. Xellpher adjusted a control on the side of the sights.
She stuck her nose against the window. It was very cold. Mummy had told her once that a bad little girl had stuck her nose against a very cold window one day and it had stuck there; frozen! Stupid girl. The car on the other cable stopped rocking. She saw somebody in it. They peeked up, holding something long and dark, then they ducked down again so she couldn’t see them any more.
Xellpher crouched down, putting the sights away and reaching out to take both her hands and pull her towards him. He glanced at the child as he said, ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, my lady, but it might be best to sit down here on the floor, just for a moment.’
She squatted down on the scuffed boards of the car, her head below the level of the car windows. She reached up and gently pulled the child off the seat. She struggled for a second, said, ‘Mummy…’ in her demanding voice.
‘Ssh,’ she told her, cuddling her against her chest.
Still squatting, Xellpher waddled over towards the car’s doors, taking his communicator out of his pocket as he did so.
All the windows burst at once, spraying them with glass. The car shuddered.
She heard herself scream, clutching the child to her and falling down to the floor of the car. She bit the scream off. The car shook as more shots slammed into it. In the sudden silence, Xellpher muttered something; then there was a series of sharp concussions. She looked up to see Xellpher firing his hand gun out the shattered window towards the cliff. More shots cracked into the car, blasting splinters of wood into the air and puffing dust and little bits of foam from the hide seat coverings.
Xellpher ducked, then jumped up, firing back for a moment then diving to the floor and changing the clip in his gun. Shots tore into the car, smacking the metal and making it hum. She could taste the odour produced by Xellpher’s gun, acrid and burnt at the back of her throat. She glanced down at the child, wide eyed but unharmed beneath her.
‘Code zero, repeat, code zero,’ Xellpher said into the communicator during a brief lull in the firing. He slipped the machine back into his pocket. ‘I’ll open the door on the lee side,’ he told her loudly but calmly over the noise of puncturing metal and whining ricochets. ‘The drop is only ten metres onto snow. It might be safer to jump than stay here.’ The firing thrummed against the car, juddering it. Xellpher grimaced and lowered his head as a cloud of wood fragments sprayed off the wall by one smashed window. ‘When I open the door,’ he told her, ‘throw the child out first, then drop yourself. Do you understand?’
She nodded, afraid to try speaking. The taste at the back of her throat was not the smoke from his gun; it was fear.
He pushed himself back across the wooden slats to the door; the firing went on, sporadic gusts of furious noise and vibration. Xellpher smashed something, reached and pulled; the door swung in and along the wall. She could see their skis in their bins on the outside of the car, chopped off at window level by the gunfire. Xellpher looked out.
His head burst open; it was as though his body had been hit by some invisible cannon ball, throwing it back from the opened door and thumping against the other wall of the cable car.
She couldn’t see properly. She only started screaming as she realised the warm sticky stuff in her eyes was his blood.
Another shot from that side tore so me of the seats out and sent them bouncing to the floor; the whole car shook and swayed. She cuddled the child, hearing her scream and hearing her own screams, then she looked up as another blast set the car rocking from side to side again. She crawled towards the door.
The blow was astonishing, beyond comprehension. It was as though she had been hit by a train, by a power-hammer, by a comet. It hit somewhere below her chest; she had no idea where. She couldn’t move. In an instant she knew she was dead; she could have believed she had been torn in half.
The child was screaming beneath her. Almost at the door. She knew the girl was screaming because of her mouth, her face, but she couldn’t hear anything. Everything seemed to be getting very dark. The door was so close but she couldn’t move. The child dragged herself from under her, and she had to struggle to keep her head up, using one of her arms to support herself.
Child stood there, shouting something, face puffed and tear-streaked. So close to the door, but she couldn’t move. Ending now. No way to bring up a child. Silly, stupid, cruel people; like children, like poor children. Forgive them. No idea what’s next, if anything. Nor they. But forgive. Poor children. All of us, poor frightened children. Fate, nothing in your grubby creed’s worth this…
The grenade flew through the door, hit Xellpher’s body and landed clicking on the slatted floor behind the child. The child hadn’t seen it. She wanted to tell her to pick it up and throw it away, but she couldn’t get her mouth to work. The child kept screaming at her, bending down and screaming at her.
She reached up and with the last of her strength pushed the screaming child out of the door, a second before the grenade exploded.
Sharrow fell howling to the snow.
FROM A GLASS SHORE
La, la, la, la-la;
Can you see-ee any clearer from a glass shore?
Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm-hmm…
One line was all that came back to her. She stood on a fused beach with her arms folded, her boot heels scuffing the grainy, scratch-dulled surface, her gaze sweeping the flat horizons, and she half-whispered, half-sang that one remembered line.
It was the slack-water of the atmosphere, when the day winds blowing onto the land had died, and the night-breeze, delayed by a warmth-lidding overcast, had yet to be born from the inertia of archipelagic air.
Seaward, at the edge of a dark canopy of overhanging cloud, the sun was setting. Red-tinged waves fell towards the glass beach and surf frothed on the scoured slope, to be blown away along the curved blade of shore towards a distant line of dully glinting dunes. A smell of brine saturated the air; she breathed deeply, then started to walk along the beach.
She was a little above average height. Her trousered legs looked slim beneath her thin jacket; black hair spilled thick and heavy down her back. When she turned her head a little, the red light of the sunset made one side of her face look flushed. Her heavy, knee-length boots made rasping noises as she walked. And as she walked, she limped; a soft bias in her tread like weakness.
“… see-ee any clearer…” She sang softly to herself, pacing along the glass shore of Issier, wondering why she’d been summoned here, and why she had agreed to come.
She took out an antique watch and looked at the time, then made a tutting noise and stuffed the watch back in her pocket. She hated waiting.
She kept walking, heading along the tipped shelf of fused sand towards the hydrofoil. She’d left the ageing, second-hand craft moored-maybe a little dubiously, now she thought about it-to some indecipherable piece of junk a hundred paces or so along that unlikely shore. The hydrofoil, its arrowhead shape just a smudge in the dimness, glittered suddenly as it rocked in the small waves hitting the beach, chrome lines reflecting the ruddy glare of the day’s dying light.
She stopped and looked down at the motley red-brown glass surface, wondering just how thick the layer of fused silicate was. She kicked at it with the toe of one boot. The blow hurt her toes and the glass looked undamaged. She shrugged, then turned round and walked the other way.
Her face, seen from a distance, looked calm; only somebody who knew her well would have detected a certain ominousness about that placidity. Her skin was pale under the sunset’s red reflection. Her brows were black curves under a wide forehead and a crescent of swept-back hair, her eyes large and dark, and her nose long and straight; a column to support the dark arches of those brows. Her mouth-set in a tight, compressed line was narrow. Wide cheek bones helped balance a proud jaw.
She sighed once more, and sang the line from the song again under her breath. The tight line of her mouth relaxed then, becoming small, full lips.
Ahead of her, a couple of hundred paces up the beach, she could see the tall, boxy shape of an old automatic beachcomber. She walked towards it, eyeing the ancient machine suspiciously. It sat, silent and dark on its rubber tracks, apparently deactivated for lack of flotsam, waiting for the next tide to provide it with fresh stimulus. Its battered, decrepit casing was streaked with seabird droppings glowing pink in the sunset light, and while she watched a foam-white bird landed briefly on the flat top of the machine, sat for a moment then flew away inland.
She took out the old watch again, inspected it and made a little growling noise at the back of her throat. The waves beat at the margin of the land, hissing like static.
She would walk, she decided, almost as far as the beachcomber, then she would turn round, head back to the hydrofoil, and go. Whoever had set up the rendezvous probably wasn’t coming after all. It might even be a trap, she thought, glancing round at the line of dunes, old fears returning. Or a hoax; somebody’s idea of a joke.
She got within twenty paces of the old beachcombing machine, then turned, walking away with her just-a-little crippled walk and singing her little, monotonous tune, relic of some-or-other post-atomic.
The rider appeared suddenly on the crest of a large dune, fifty metres to her right. She stopped and stared.
The sand-coloured animal was man-high at its broad, muscled shoulders; its narrow waist held a glittering saddle and its massive rump was covered in a silvery cloth. It put its great wide tawny head back, reins jingling; it snorted and stamped its front paws. Its rider, dark on dark against the dull weight of cloud, nudged the big animal forward. It put its head down and snorted again, testing the shard-fringe where the sand at the top of the dune became glass. The beast shook its head, then trod carefully down the edge of sand to the hollow between two dunes at the urging of its rider; his cloak billowed out behind him as though hardly lighter than the air he moved through.
The man muttered something, stuck his heels into the beast’s flanks; the animal flinched as the spur terminals connected and sent little involuntary shivers of muscle movement up its great haunches. It put one broad paw tentatively onto the glass, then two; its rider made encouraging noises. Still snorting nervously, the animal took a couple of steps on the inclined deck of the shore, then-with a noise like an enormous whimper-it skidded, tottered, and sat heavily on its rump, almost unseating its rider. The animal put its head back and roared.
The man jumped quickly from the animal; his long cloak snagged briefly on the high saddle, and he landed awkwardly on the glass surface, almost falling. His mount was making sudden lurching attempts to get back up, paws skittering over the slick surface. The man collected his cloak about him and strode purposefully to the woman who was standing with one hand under the opposite armpit, the other hand up at her forehead, as though shading her eyes while she looked down at the beach. She was shaking her head.
The man was tall, thin beneath his riding breeches and tight jacket, and had a pale, narrow face, topped with black curls and edged with a neatly trimmed black beard. He walked up to her. He looked, perhaps, a few years older than she was.
“Sharrow,” he said, smiling. “Cousin; thank you for coming.” It was a cultured, refined voice, and quiet but nevertheless assured. He put his hands out to hers, squeezing them briefly then letting go.
“Geis,” she said, looking over his shoulder at the bellowing mount as it finally got shakily to its feet. “What are you doing with that animal?”
Geis glanced back at the beast. “Breaking it in,” he said with a grin that slowly faded. “But really it’s just a way of getting here to tell you…” He shrugged and gave a small, regretful laugh. “Hell, Sharrow, it’s a melodramatic message; you’re in danger.”
“Perhaps a phone call would have been quicker, then.”
“I had to see you, Sharrow; it’s more important than some phone call.”
She looked at the saddled animal, sniffing experimentally at the anchor-grass lining the nearest dune. “A taxi, then,” she suggested. Her voice was soft, and possessed a heavy smoothness.
Geis smiled. “Taxis are so… vulgar, don’t you find?” he said with a trace of irony.
“Hmm, but why the…” She gestured at the animal.
“It’s a bandamyion. Fine animal.”
“Yes, well; why the bandamyion?”
Geis shrugged. “I just bought it. Like I say, I’m breaking it in.” He made a dismissive gesture with a gauntleted hand. “Look, never mind the animal. This is more than mildly urgent.”
She sighed. “Okay; what?”
He took a deep breath, then breathed, “The Huhsz.”
She was silent for a moment, then she shrugged and looked away. “Oh, them.” She scratched at the glass beach with the toe of her boot.
“Yes,” Geis said quietly. “My people at the World Court say there’s a deal being arranged that means they’ll get their… their Hunting Passports, probably very soon. In a matter of days, perhaps.”
Sharrow nodded, not looking at her cousin. She crossed her arms and started to walk slowly along the beach. Geis took off his gauntlets and-after a glance at the ruminating bandamyion-followed her.
“Sorry I have to be the one to tell you, Sharrow.”
“That’s all right,” she said.
“I don’t think there’s any more we can do. I’ve got the family lawyers working on an appeal, and my corporate people are giving all the help they can-there’s a chance we can injunct on grounds of due notice-but it looks like the Stehrins have dropped their objections and the Nul Church Council is withdrawing its demurrance action. The rumour is the Huhsz have done a land deal in Stehrin, carving up some enclave, and the Church has been bought off, either with straight credit or the offer of a relic.”
Sharrow said nothing; she kept walking along the beach, staring down. Geis made a resigned gesture with his hands. “It’s all blown up so suddenly; I thought we had those assholes tied up for years, but the Court’s fast-tracked the whole matter, side-lined cases that have waited generations.” He sighed. “And of course it’s Llocaran’s turn to provide the Court President this session. Their nominee is actually from Lip City.”
“Yes, Lip City,” Sharrow said. “I imagine they are still upset about that damn Lazy Gun.” She gazed ahead to the dimly glinting shape of her distant hydrofoil.
(And in her mind saw again the line of desert hills beyond the stone balustrade of the hotel room balcony, and the faint crease of dawn-light above, suddenly swamped by the stuttering pulses of silent fire from beyond the horizon. She had watched-dazed and dazzled and wondering-as that distant eruption of annihilation had lit up the face of her lover.)
Geis’s voice sounded tired as he said, “Actually, I think the Huhsz must have got to one of the justiciaries. There’s been talk of one of the old guys being found in a snuff parlour a few days ago. I wouldn’t put it past the Huhsz to have set the whole thing up just to pocket a judge.”
“My,” Sharrow said, pulling a hand through her thick hair (Geis watched, eyes following those pale fingers as they ploughed that black field). “What energy and enterprise those Huhsz boys display.”
Geis nodded. “They’ve been lucky with their recruitment and investments recently, too,” he said. “Highly fluid; probably the most profitable order on Golter just now. It’s all helped them get their, war chest together.” His brows furrowed. “I’m sorry, Sharrow. I feel I’ve let you down.”
She shrugged. “Had to happen sooner or later. You’ve done all you can. Thanks.” She looked at him, then briefly put a hand out to touch his forearm. “I appreciate it, Geis.”
“Let me hide you, Sharrow,” he said suddenly.
She shook her head. “Geis-”
“I have interests they can’t-”
“Geis, no; I-”
“No; listen; I’ve places nobody-”
“Safe houses; offices; whole estates that don’t appear on any inventory, here and on other planets; cascade-owned companies my own chief execs don’t know about…”
“I appreciate the offer, Geis, but-”
“Habitats; whole asteroids; mines on Fian and Speyr; island barges on Trontsephori-”
“Geis,” she said, stopping and turning to him, taking his hands in hers for a moment. His thin face shone palely in the deepening red light. “Geis; I can’t.” She forced herself to smile. “You know they’d track me down eventually and you’d only get into trouble for Harbouring. They’ll use the Passports. If they wanted to-if they had the excuse that they thought you were sheltering me they could tear you apart, Geis.”
“I can look after myself.”
“I don’t mean you personally, Geis; I mean this commercial empire you’ve been so busy constructing. I watch the news; the anti-trust people are crawling all over you already.”
Geis waved one hand. “Bureaucrats. I can deal with them.”
“Not if the Huhsz use the Passports to open your data banks and search your files. All these precious companies, all these… interests; you could lose them all.”
Geis stood, staring at her. “I’d risk that,” he said quietly.
She shook her head.
“I would,” he insisted. “For you. If you’d let me, I’d do anything-”
“Geis, please,” she said, turning from him and walking in the other direction, towards the distant shape of the ancient beachcombing machine. Geis paced after her.
“Sharrow, you know how I feel about you; just let-”
“Geis!” she said sharply, barely glancing back at him.
He stopped, looked down at his feet, then walked quickly after her.
“All right,” he said when he was level with her again. “I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have said anything. Didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He took a breath. “But I won’t see you hounded like this. I can fight dirty, too. I have people in places you wouldn’t expect; in places nobody expects. I won’t let those religious maniacs get you.”
“I’m not going to let them get me,” she said. “Don’t worry.” He gave a bitter laugh. “How can I not worry?”
She stopped and looked at him. “Just try. And don’t do anything.that’s going to land both of us in even more trouble.” She tipped her head to one side, staring at him.
Eventually he looked away. “All right,” he said.
They resumed their walk.
“So,” he said. “What will you do?”
She shrugged. “Run,” she said. “They’ve only got a year; And-”
“A year and a day if we’re going to be precise about it.”
“Yes. Well, I’ll just have to try and keep a step or two ahead of them for a year… and a day.” She kicked at the glass surface beneath their feet. “And I suppose I have to try and find that last Lazy Gun. The one the Huhsz want. It’s the only other way to end this.”
“Will you get the team back together?” Geis asked, his voice neutral.
“I’ll need them if I’m going to find that damn Gun,” she told him. “And I’ll have to try, anyway. If the Huhsz get hold of one of them… it would make it easier to find me.”
“Ali. Then it really doesn’t wear off?”
“SNB? No, Geis, it doesn’t wear off. Like certain exotic diseases, and unlike love, synchroneurobonding is for life.”
Geis lowered his eyes. “You weren’t always so cynical about love.”
“As they say; ignorance pays.”
Geis looked as though he was about to say something else, but then shook his head. “You’ll need money, then,” he said. “Let me-”
“I’m not destitute, Geis,” she told him. “And who knows, perhaps there are still Antiquities contracts outstanding.” She clasped her hands together, kneading them without realising it. “If the family lore is right, the way to find the Lazy Gun is to find the Universal Principles first.”
“Yes, if the lore is right,” Geis said sceptically. “I’ve tried tracking that rumour down myself and nobody knows how it started.”
“It’s all there is, Geis.”
“Well, if you need any help finding the other people in the team…”
“Last I heard, Miz was being entrepreneurial in the Log-Jam, the Francks were raising sarflet litters in Regioner, and Cenuij had gone to ground somewhere in Caltasp Minor; Udeste, maybe. I’ll find him.”
Geis took a deep breath. “Well, according to my sources, yes, Cenuij Mu is in Caltasp, but it’s a bit further north than Udeste.”
Sharrow cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Mmhmm?”
Geis smiled sadly. “Looks like Lip City, cuz.”
Sharrow nodded, gritting her teeth as she walked onwards. She looked out to sea, where the last glow of the sun was vanishing fast on the bare curve of the horizon. “Oh, great,” she said.
Geis studied the back of his hands. “I have a security concern with contracts for certain corporate clients’ installations in Lip; it wouldn’t be impossible for Mu to… travel inadvertently to somewhere beyond the city limits…”
“No, Geis,” she told him. “That won’t work; kidnapping would just antagonise him. I’ll find Cenuij. Maybe I can persuade my darling half-sister to help; I think they’re still in touch.”
“Breyguhn?” Geis looked dubious. “She may not want to talk to you.”
“It’s worth a try.” Sharrow looked thoughtful. “She might even have some idea about where the Universal Principles is.”
Geis glanced at Sharrow. “That was what she was looking for in the Sea House, wasn’t it?”
Sharrow nodded. “She sent me a letter last year with some garbled nonsense about finding out how to get to the book.”
Geis looked surprised. “She did?” he said.
Sharrow hoisted one eyebrow. “Yes, and claimed to have discovered the meaning of life as well, if I remember rightly.”
“Ali,” Geis said.
They stopped, not far from the dark bulk of the old beachcomber machine. She breathed deeply, looking around at the faint curve of beach; it was dark enough for the phosphorescence in the waves to show as ghostly green lines rippling on the shore. “So, Geis, any more good news for me, or is that it?”
“Oh, I think that’s enough for now, don’t you?” he said, a small, sad smile on his face.
“Well, I appreciate you telling me, Geis. But I’m going to have to move fairly rapidly from now on; it might be best for you and the rest of the family if you all kept out of my way for the next year. I’ll need room to manoeuvre, know what I mean?”
“If you insist.” He sounded hurt.
“It’ll be all right,” she told him, holding her hand out to his. He looked at her hand, then shook it. “Really, Geis, I’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing. Thanks again.” She leaned forward and quickly kissed his cheek.
She stepped back, releasing his hand. His smile was pale. He nodded, swallowing.
“I am, as ever, your faithful servant, cousin.”
Geis managed to make the stilted statement sound both sad and sincere. He took a step back, closer to the water; a wave washed over one boot and its spur terminal gave a little blue flash of light as it shorted. Geis flinched and stepped smartly away. Sharrow gave a small, involuntary laugh.
Geis smiled ruefully and scratched the side of his head. “Just can’t get my dramatic exits right when you’re around,” he sighed. “Well, if ever you need me; if ever I can do anything… just call me.”
“I shall. Goodbye.”
“Farewell, Sharrow.” He turned abruptly and walked quickly back to the bandamyion.
She watched him go, heading into the dunes. She heard him calling for the animal, and laughed quietly when she saw him chasing the lolloping beast over the summit of a distant dune.
Finally she shook her head and turned away, towards the hydrofoil moored a hundred metres away along the deserted shore.
“Ah, hello there,” said a voice, right behind her.
She froze, then turned smoothly, left hand sliding into the pocket of her jacket.
There were a couple of tiny red lights high up on the front of the beachcombing machine, ten metres away; the lights winked slowly, on and off. They hadn’t been there a few seconds earlier.
“Yes?” she said.
“Am I addressing Lady Sharrow?” said the machine. Its voice was deep, with the distinctive chime at the start of each word which was supposed to ensure that people knew it was a machine doing the talking.
Her eyes narrowed. The machine sensed her left arm tensing. “I think,” she said, “you know who I am.”
“Well, indeed. Allow me to introduce myself…” The machine made a whining noise and lurched towards her, the rubber treads on its left-side tracks splashing through the small waves.
She backed away; two quick, long steps. The machine stopped suddenly. “Oh; I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to startle you. just a second…” The machine trundled back a couple of metres to where it had been. “There. As I was saying; allow me to introduce myself; I am a-”
“I don’t care who you are; what are you doing spying on me and my cousin?”
“A necessary subterfuge, dear lady, to ensure that I had the relevant personages-namely yourself and Count Geis correctly identified. Also, having unintentionally found myself in such close proximity to your conference, I thought it prudent and indeed only polite to delay making myself known to you until the said noble gentleman had bade you farewell, as considerations of good manners apart-my instructions are to reveal myself to you and you alone, initially at any rate.”
“You’re hellish talkative for a beachcomber.”
“Ah, dear lady, let not this rude appearance deceive you; beneath my tatterdemalion disguise lurk several brand spanking new components of a Suprotector (TradeMark) Personal Escort Suite, Mark Seventeen, Class Five, certified civil space legal in all but a handful of jurisdictions and battlefield limited to the remainder. And I-that is the aforesaid system, in full, combined with the services of various highly trained human operatives am at your service, my lady, exclusively, for as long as you may desire.”
“Really?” She sounded warily amused.
“Indeed,” said the machine. “A mere beachcomber-for example-would not be able to tell you that the gun which you are currently holding in the left hand pocket of your jacket, with your index finger on the trigger and your thumb ready to flick the safety catch, is a silenced FrintArms ten-millimetre HandCannon with eleven ten-seven coaxial depleted-uranium-casing mercury-core general-purpose rounds in the magazine plus one in the breech, and that you have another-double-ended-magazine in the opposite pocket, containing five armour-piercing and six wire-flechette rounds.”
Sharrow laughed out loud, taking her hand from her pocket and swivelling on her heel. She walked away down the beach. The machine lumbered after her, keeping a handful of paces behind.
“And I feel I must point out,” the machine continued, “that FrintArms Inc. strongly recommends that its hand weapons are never carried with a round in the breech.”
“The gun has,” she said tartly, glancing behind as she walked, “a safety catch.”
“Yes, but I think if you read the Instruction Manual-”
“So,” she interrupted. “You’re mine to command, are you?” she said.
“Wonderful. So who are you working for?”
“Why, you, mistress!”
“Yes, but who hired you?”
“Ah, dear lady, it is with the greatest embarrassment that I have to confess that in this matter I must-with a degree of anguish you may well find hard to credit-relinquish my absolute commitment to the fulfilment of your every whim. Put plainly, I am not at liberty to divulge that information. There, it is said. Let us quickly move on from this unfortunate quantum of dissonance to the ground-state of accord which I trust will inform our future relationship.”
“So you’re not going to tell me.” Sharrow nodded.
“My dear lady,” the machine said, continuing to trundle after her. “Without saying so in so many words… correct.”
“May I take it that you do wish my services?”
“Thanks, but I don’t really need any help when it comes to looking after myself.”
“Well,” the machine chimed, with what sounded like amusement in its voice, “you did hire an escort unit the last time you visited the city of Arkosseur, and you do have a contract with a commercial army concern to guard your dwelling house on Jorve.”
She glanced back at the machine. “Well, aren’t we well informed.”
“Thank you; I like to think so.”
“So what’s my favourite colour?”
“Ultraviolet, you once told one of your tutors.”
She stopped; so did the machine. She turned and looked up at the beachcomber’s battered casing. She shook her head. “Shit, even I’d forgotten I said that.” She looked down at the glass beach. “Ultraviolet, eh? Huh, so I did.” She shrugged. “That’s almost witty.”
She turned and walked on, the beachcomber at her heel. “You seem to know me better than I do myself, machine,” she said. “Anything else about me you think I should know? I mean, just in case I’ve forgotten.”
“Your name is Sharrow.”
“No, I rarely forget that.”
“-of the first house of Dascen Major, Golterian. You were born in 9965, in house Tzant, on the estate of the same name, since sold along with most of the rest of the Dascen Major fortune following the settlement required by the World Court after the dismemberment of your grandfather Gorko’s unhappily illegal-commercial network, rumoured to be the greatest of its day.”
“We’ve always thought big, as a family. Especially when it comes to disasters.”
“Following the unfortunate death of your mother-”
“Murder, I think, is the technical term.” She slowed her pace and clasped her hands behind her back.
“-murdered by Huhsz zealots, you were brought up by your father in a… peripatetic existence, I think one might fairly say.”
“When we weren’t making a nuisance of ourselves at the homes of rich relations, it was equal parts casinos and courts; father had an obsession with screwing money out of one of them. Mostly they did it to him.”
“You had… various tutors-”
“Singularly lacking in a sense of humour, all of them.”
“-and what might most charitably be called a chequered school history.”
“A lot of those records really shouldn’t be trusted.”
“Yes, there is a quite remarkable disparity between the written reports and most of the associated computer files. Several of the institutions you attended seemed to feel there might be a causal link between this phenomenon and your uncharacteristic keenness for the subject of computing.”
“Coincidence; they couldn’t prove a thing.”
“Indeed, I don’t think I’ve heard of anybody suing a school yearbook before.”
“A matter of principle; family honour was at stake. And anyway, litigiousness runs in our family. Gorko issued a writ against his father for more pocket money when he was five and Geis has almost sued himself several times.”
“At your finishing schools in Claav you developed an interest in politics, and became… popular with the local young men.”
She shrugged. “I’d been a difficult child; I became an easy adolescent.!”
“To the surprise of everybody except, apparently yourself, you won entrance to the diplomatic faculty of the University of Yadayeypon, but left after two years, on the outbreak of the Five Per Cent War.”
“Another coincidence; the professor I was fucking to get good grades died on me and I couldn’t be bothered starting again from scratch.”
“You crewed on an anti-Tax cruiser operating out of TP 105, a moon of Roaval, then-along with a group of seven other junior officers-became one of the first humans for three hundred years to take the then newly re-released symbiovirus SNBv3. With you as leader, you and your fellow synchroneurobondees flew a squadron of single-seat modified excise clippers out of HomeAtLast, a military-commercial habitat stationed in near-Miykenns orbit, becoming the most successful squadron of the seventeen operating in the midsystem.”
“Please; I’m blushing.”
“Three of your team died in your last action, at the very end of the war while the surrender was being negotiated. Your own craft was seriously damaged and you crash-landed on Nachtel’s Ghost, suffering near-fatal injuries on top of the extreme irradiation and already serious wounds you had sustained during the original engagement.”
“Nothing by halves; should be the family motto.”
“You were cut from the wreck and treated under the warinternment regulations in the Tax-neutral hospital of a mining concern on Nachtel’s Ghost-”
“- where you lost the fetus of the child you were carrying by another of your team, Miz Gattse Ensil Kuma.”
She stopped for a moment and looked up to see the hydrofoil, twenty metres away. She pursed her lips, breathed deeply and walked slowly on. “Yes; terribly complicated way of going about getting an abortion. But then I was sterilised at the same time, so it was practically a bargain.”
“You spent the months immediately after the war in Tenaus prison hospital, Nachtel. You were liberated-on your twen-tieth birthday-under the terms of the Lunchbar Agreement; you and the four surviving members of your team formed a limited company and undertook occasionally legal commercial surveillance and industrial espionage work, then branched out into Antiquities research and retrieval, a profession you shared with your sister, Breyguhn.”
“Half-sister. And we never got caught.”
“Your team’s last successful contract was the location and disposal of what is believed to have been the second-last Lazy Gun, which resulted in the Gun’s auto-annihilation while under deconstruction in the physics department of Lip City University.”
“Their methodology had been suspect for years.”
“The resulting detonation destroyed approximately twenty per cent of the city and resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million people.”
She stopped walking. They had arrived at the piece of roughly cylindrical wreckage embedded in the fused silicate of the beach to which the hydrofoil was moored. She stared at the dark lump of half-melted metal.
“Your team split up immediately afterwards,” the machine went on. “You currently own one third of a tropical fish breeding and retail business on the island of Jorve.”
“Hmm,” she said, thoughtfully. “Sounds so banal, that last part. The approach of middle age; I’m losing my panache.”
She shrugged and waded into the water, waves washing around her boots. She unlocked the hydrofoil’s painter and let the rope reel back into its housing in the stem.
She looked at the beachcomber. “Well, thanks, but I don’t think so,” she said.
“You don’t think what?”
She climbed onto the hydrofoil, slung her legs inside the footwell and pulled the control wheel down. “I don’t think I want your services, machine.”
“Ah, now, wait a moment, Lady Sharrow…”
She flicked a few switches; the hydrofoil came to life, lights lighting, beepers beeping. “Thanks, but no.”
“Just hold on, will you?” The machine sounded almost angry.
“Look,” she said, starting the hydrofoil’s engine and making it roar. She shouted: “Tell Geis thanks… but no thanks.”
“Geis? Look, lady, you appear to be making certain assump-tions about the identity of-”
“Oh, shut up and push me out here, will you?” She gunned the engine again, sending a froth of foam from the stern of the little boat. Its front foil levered down, knifing into the waves.
The beachcombing machine nudged the hydrofoil forward into the water. “Look, I have something to confess here-”
“That’s enough.” She smiled briefly at the beachcomber. “Thank you.” She switched the boat’s main lights on, creating a glittering pathway which swung across the waves.
“Wait! Will you just wait?”
Something in the machine’s voice made her turn to look at it.
A section of the beachcomber’s battered front casing swung up and back to reveal a red-glowing interior bright with screens and read-outs. Sharrow frowned; her hand went to her jacket pocket as a man’s head and shoulders appeared from the compartment.
He was young, muscular-looking in a dark T-shirt, and quite bald; the red light threw dark shadows across his face and over eyes which looked gold in the half-light. The skin on his smoothly reflecting head looked coppery.
“We have to-” he began, and she heard both the mechanised voice of the beachcomber and the man’s own voice.
He plucked a tiny bead from his top lip.
“We have to talk,” he said. There was a slick bassiness about his voice Sharrow knew she’d have found immensely attractive when she’d been younger.
“Who the hell are you?” she said, flicking a couple of switches in the hydrofoil’s cockpit without taking her eyes off him, or her other hand from the gun in her pocket.
“Somebody who needs to talk to you,” the young man said, baring his teeth in a winning smile. He gestured down at the casing of the beachcombing machine. “Sorry about the disguise,” he said with a slightly embarrassed, deprecating gesture. “But it was felt-”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “No; I don’t want to talk to you. Goodbye.”
She tugged the controls, sending the hydrofoil nudging round on a pulse of foam, swamping the front of the beachcomber; water splashed over the hatch’s lip into the machine’s interior.
“Careful!” the young man shouted, leaping back and glancing down. “But, Lady Sharrow!” he called desperately. “I have something to put to you-”
Sharrow pushed the throttle away from her; the ‘foil’s engine rasped and the little boat surged out from the glass shore. “Really?” she shouted back. “Well, you can put it-”
But something obscene was lost to the thrashing water and the screaming exhausts. The craft roared out to sea, rose quickly onto its foils, and raced away.
2 The Chain Gallery
Issier was the main island of the Midsea archipelago, which lay a thousand kilometres from any other land near the centre of Phirar, Golter’s third largest ocean.
The little arrowhead hydrofoil swung out from the island’s glass western shore and headed north, for Jorve, the next island in the group. It docked half an hour later in a marina just outside Place Issier II, the archipelago’s largest town and administrative capital.
Sharrow woke an apologetic guard in the marina office and left a note for the harbour master telling him to put the hydrofoil up for sale. She collected her bike, then took the east coast road north. She left her helmet off, driving in plain goggles with the wind fierce in her hair; the cloud overhead was fraying, letting moonlight and junklight spread a grey-blue wash over the fields and orchards outside the town.
She switched the bike’s lights off, driving fast and leaning hard round the open, sweeping curves of the gradually climbing road, its surface a faint snaking ribbon of steel blue unwinding in front of her. Ravines beyond the crash-barriers gave brief glimpses of the rock-ragged coast beneath, where the ocean swell terminated in glowing white lines of surf. She only put her lights on when other traffic approached, and thrilled each time to the heart-stopping sensation of total darkness in the instant after she killed the old bike’s lights again.
An hour after she had stood on the glass shore of Issier, she arrived at the solitary, turreted house on the cliff where she lived.
“Sharrow, you can’t do this!”
“You mean, You can’t do this to me,” she muttered.
“Nothing.” She took a camera the size of a little finger from a dressing-table drawer and clipped it into an interior pocket of the bag she’d packed.
She frowned, turning away from the bag lying open on the big round bed in the big round bedroom which faced out to sea. “Hmm?” she said.
Jyr looked distraught; he had been crying. “How can you just leave?” He threw his arms wide. “I love you!”
She stared at him. The pale areas of his face looked reddened; the fashion on the island that summer had been for black-white skin like camouflage, and Jyr-convinced he suited the style seemed determined to remain two-tone for the whole year.
She pushed past him, disappearing into her dressing-room to reappear with a pair of long gloves which she added to the pile of clothes in the overcrowded bag.
“Sharrow!” Jyr shouted, behind her.
“What?” she said, frowning, one hand at her mouth tapping her teeth as she looked down at the bag, deep in thought. She had booked a ticket on a westbound flight leaving early the next morning, called her lawyer and her business partners to arrange a meeting, and contacted her bank to rearrange her finances. Still, she was sure she’d forgotten something.
“Don’t go!” Jyr said. “Didn’t you hear what I said? I love you!”
“Uh-huh,” she said, kneeling on the bed to pull the bag closed.
“Sharrow,” Jyr said quietly behind her, a catch in his voice. “Please…” He put his hands on her hips. She knocked his hands away, grunting as she struggled with the catches on the bag.
She forced the bag closed and stood up. Then she was whirled round as Jyr grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “Stop doing this to me!” he shouted. “Stop ignoring me!”
“Well, stop shaking me!” she shouted.
He let her go and stood there, quivering, his eyes puffy. His hair, all white, looked dishevelled. “At least explain,” he said. “Why are you doing this? Why do you just have to go?”
“It’s a long story.”
“All right!” she snapped. “Because,” she said, talking quickly, “once upon a time, long ago and far away, there was a young girl who’d been promised to a great temple by her parents. She met a man-a duke-and they fell in love. They swore nothing would separate them, but they were tricked and she was taken to the temple after all.
“The Duke came to rescue the girl; she escaped and brought with her the temple’s greatest treasure. They married and she bore the Duke twins: a boy and a girl. In an attempt to get the treasure back, agents of the faith killed the Duke and his son.
“The treasure was hidden-no-one knows where-and the Duchess swore she’d avenge the deaths of her husband and child in any way she could, and to oppose the faith at every turn. She swore the surviving twin, a daughter, and all her descendants to the same oath.
“The faith responded in kind; a prophet had a vision and decided that the Messiah couldn’t be born until the faithful had their treasure back, or the female line of the family had died out; whichever came first. And however it worked, it had to happen by the time of the decamillenium.”
She studied Jyr’s tearful, uncomprehending face for a moment, then shook her head. “Well,” she said, exasperated, “you did ask.”
“Take me with you,” Jyr whispered.
“Take me with you,” he repeated, taking one of her hands in his. “I’ll do anything for you. Please.”
She pulled her hand away. “Jyr,” she said, looking levelly into his eyes. “It was a good summer and I had a lot of fun; I hope you did too. But now I’ve got to go. Stay in the house until the lease runs out, if you want.”
He slapped her.
She stared at him, her ears ringing, the impact of the slap like an echo on her face. He’d never hit her before. She didn’t know what she found more amazing; the fact he’d managed to surprise her, or that he’d even thought of trying to hit her in the first place.
He stood in front of her, his eyes wide.
She shook her head, smiled brightly and said, “Oh, boy,” then punched him hard in the jaw. Jyr’s head snapped back; he fell crashing into the dressing-table behind, scattering bottles, pots, jars and brushes. He slid to the floor; perfumes and lotions spilled from smashed bottles and made dark stains on the tiles around him.
She turned, picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. She hoisted a small satchel from the side of the bed and put it over her other shoulder. Jyr moaned, lying face down on the floor. The room began to reek of expensive perfume.
She inspected the knuckles on her left hand, frowning. “Get out of my house, now,” she said. “Phone?” she spoke to the room.
“Ready,” chimed a voice.
“Stand by,” she said.
She tapped Jyr on the backside with one boot. “You’ve got two minutes before I call the police and report an intruder.”
“Oh gods, my jaw,” Jyr whimpered, getting to his knees and holding his chin. The back of his head was bleeding. Bits of broken glass fell from him as he stood, shakily. She took a couple of steps away from him, watching him carefully. He almost fell again, then put one hand out to the dressing-table to steady himself. “You’ve broken my jaw!”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Not with an upper cut.” She glanced at the bedside clock. “That’s you down to about a minute and a half now, I’d say.”
He looked at her. “You fucking heartless bitch.” His voice was quite steady.
She shook her head. “No, Jyr, I never liked it when you talked dirty.” She looked away from him. “Phone?”
“Please call the local p-”
“All right!” Jyr roared, then winced, and held his jaw as he stumbled for the door. “I’m going! I’m going! And I’m never coming back!” He hauled the bedroom door open and slammed it shut behind him; she listened to his feet hammering down the stairs, then heard the front door crash shut; the turret shook around her. A final slam was his car door, followed by the noise of the engine, whining away into the night.
She stood very still for a while, then her shoulders dropped a little, and her eyes closed.
She swayed slightly, swallowed, then breathed out as she opened her eyes again, sniffing. She wiped her eyes, took another deep breath and walked away from the bed. She stopped briefly at the dressing-table, setting a couple of bottles upright again.
“Standing by,” said the room.
She looked at her reflection in the table’s mirror. “Cancel,” she said, then drew one finger through a thick pool of perfume on the cable’s wooden surface, and dabbed the scent behind her ears as she walked towards the door.
She drove the bike back into town, helmet on, nightsight activated and all lights blazing.
She arrived at the tall town house which was the home of the Bassidges, the couple who owned the other two thirds of the tropical fish business. Her lawyer was already there; she signed the necessary papers selling her share in the shop to them. She’d left her personal phone in the cliff house, knowing it would make her too easy to trace. After her lawyer had returned home and the Bassidges had gone to bed she sat down at the house’s antique desk-terminal and stayed there until dawn, taking a couple of zing-tabs to keep herself awake as she attempted to catch up on eight years of Antiquities news and data-gossip.
There were numerous outstanding contracts for the Universal Principles: several from universities, several more from big Corps known to invest in high-value Antiquities, a few from wealthy individual collectors who specialised in lost Unique books, and one anonymous contract. The latter offered the best financial advance, though only for Antiquities investigators with acceptable track records. She was almost tempted to draft a tender and mail is to the anonymous box number, but there was too much to settle first.
She suspected she’d end up looking for the book one way or the other. According to one of the more pervasive rumours that had circulated within the Dascen family and its attendant septs in the chaotic aftermath of her grandfather Gorko’s fall, the whereabouts of the last Lazy Gun-the one stolen from the Huhsz by the Duchess seven generations earlier and hidden after the Duke’s death-had been discovered by Gorko’s agents and its location somehow recorded in the Unique book named the Universal Principles, which itself had been missing for a lot longer.
To Sharrow, the rumour had always seemed just mad enough to be true, though how you could leave a message in something which everybody agreed had vanished centuries earlier, she understood no better than anybody else.
At appropriate times during the night, to allow for the time differences involved, she phoned the Francks in Regioner, left a message for Miz in the Log-Jam, failed to track down anybody by the name of Cenuij Mu in what passed for a city data base in Lip City, and filed a visitation request with the Truth Dissemination Service of the Sad Brothers of the Kept Weight, in the Sea House, Udeste province, Caltasp.
She checked on the last Lazy Gun’s official Antiquities status too, just for hell of it. There was, of course, only the one contract extant, from the World Court, offering a graded reward schedule for information leading to the weapon’s safe apprehension and an equally impressive sliding scale of steep fines and grisly punishments for anybody harbouring such information and not releasing it to the Court.
Nine years earlier there had been tens of contracts; a unique one from the Huhsz which specifically wanted the Gun taken from them by Sharrow’s family over two hundred years earlier, and all the rest, which just wanted a Lazy Gun. She and the rest of the team had taken up one of the most lucrative anonymous contracts which required the capture or destruction of either Gun. They had fulfilled the contract but to this day none of them knew who it had been who’d paid them (or paid all but one of them; Cenuij Mu had refused his share after the Gun wiped a large part of Lip City off the map).
Shortly after the Lip City explosion the World Court had legislated to forbid anybody else taking possession of the last remaining Gun, though of course every Antiquities specialist and team in the system knew damn well that the Huhsz-despite being prevented from saying so officially-would attempt to top any reward the World Court might offer for the fabled weapon.
She scrolled through the irreversible mutilations the World Court threatened to inflict on anybody obstructing the lawful sequestration of the last Gun, then clicked out of Antiquities Contracts to try another way of tracking down Cenuij Mu in Lip City, once more without success.
Tansil Bassidge rose early and made breakfast; the two women ate together in front of the kitchen screen, watching the all-hours news service, then Tansil took her to the airport for the dawn stratocruiser.
She napped during the flight, landing at Udeste City Intercontinental a couple of hours later, still just ahead of the dawn.
The region of Udeste lay just inside Golter’s southern temperate zone, jutting east into Phirar and west into Farvel, Golter’s largest ocean; bounded to the north by the Seproh plateau, its southern boundary was the narrow strip of the Security Franchise, which guarded the forests and fjords of the Embargoed Areas and-beyond-the mountains, tundra and cold desert of the historically rebellious province of Lantskaar, which stretched all the way down to the pack ice.
The Sea House lay at the very end of the final promontory of the Farvel Bight, a gulf which stretched in an almost unbroken curve nearly two thousand kilometres from the Areas to the House.
She hired a car and took the autotoll past and around the city-states, bishoprics, Corpslands, enclaves and family estates of Inner Udeste, then joined an interroute through the villages and farmlands of Outer Udeste’s western marches, across the moors towards the coast. The weather deteriorated continually throughout the journey, increasing cloud compensating for the rising sun so that she seemed to drive forever in a grey-brown half-light. Rain came and went in squalls. At the House limits the great chain-mesh fence’s one entrance straddled the small road in a clutter of ramshackle guard buildings on one side and a motley profusion of old, sad-looking tents on the other. A thunderstorm played over the broken hills to the north, and low cloud blanketed the sandy bluffs rising beyond the gate.
There was a short queue at the gate; the usual hopeful petitioners. She drove to the head of the column, sounding the car’s klaxon to shift the gaunt, hollow-eyed men and women out of the way. A scowling contract guard in a dripping camouflage cape walked up and pointed a carbine at her.
“Okay; what’s your name?” he said, sounding disgusted. He looked up and down the length of the rain-gleaming turbiner.
“Sharrow,” she told him.
“Full name,” he sneered.
“Sharrow,” she repeated, smiling. “I believe I’m expected.”
The guard looked uncertain. He took a step back.
“Wait here,” he said, then added, “Ma’am.” He disappeared into the guard cabin.
Moments later a captain appeared, fastening his tunic and settling a cap on his head; the guard she’d talked to held an umbrella over the captain, who wrung his hands as he bent to look in through the window at her. “My lady; we see so few nobles here… I’m so sorry… single names take us by surprise… all the riff-raff we have to deal with… Ah, might one ask for identification? Ah, of course; a Noble House Passport… thank you, thank you. Excellent; thank you, thank you. An honour, if I may say so…
“Well, don’t just stand there, trooper. The gate!”
Traversing the bluff and dropping back beneath the clouds to the downlands with their ruined and empty towns, and then to the canal-sectioned levels before the gravel beach and the great bay, took another half hour. The weather improved unaccountably when she reached the end of the road, where the creamy ribbon broadened out to become a spatulate apron whose seaward edge had disintegrated into rotten chunks of corroded concrete scattered like thick leaves across the sandy soil. Beyond lay Gravel Bay, a rough semi-circle bisected by the shallow curve of the great stone causeway and half-filled by the vast bulk of the Sea House. The bay’s upper slopes were brown and cream on grey, where decaying seaweed and a scum of wind-blown surf-froth lay tattered and strewn like rags across the grey gravel.
She got out of the car, carrying her satchel; a cold wind tugged at her hair and made her culottes flap. She buttoned the old riding-jacket and pulled on her long gloves.
At the end of the causeway stood two tall granite obelisks stationed on either side of the House’s artificial isthmus; stretched between them was an enormous rusted iron chain which would have blocked further automotive progress anyway, even if the concrete apron had connected with the ancient, time-polished flagstones of the causeway. A cold gust of wind brought the stench of rotting seaweed and raw sewage to her, almost making her gag.
She looked up. A little catchfire lightning played about the highest towers, turrets and aerials of the Sea House. The cloudbase, dark-grey and solid looking, hung immediately above. She had been here only twice before, and on neither occasion had the rain and mist permitted her to see more than the first fifty metres or so of the Sea House’s towering bulk. Today, all three hundred metres of it was visible, soaring dimly up towards the overcast.
She pushed a nosegay-scarf up over her mouth and nose, hoisted her satchel onto her shoulder, picked her way through the stumps of decaying concrete, stepped over the great iron chain, and-limping slightly, but walking quickly nevertheless-started down the rutted, cambered surface of the causeway.
At least, she told herself, the rain had stopped.
The Sea House was probably as old as civilisation on Golter; somewhere near its long-buried core it was claimed to rest on the remains of an ancient castle or temple predating even the zero-year of the First War. Over the millennia the building had grown, accreting about itself new walls, courtyards turrets, parapets, halls, towers, hangars, barracks, docks and chimneys.
The history of the planet, even of the system, was written on its tiered burden of ancient stones; here the age had demanded defence, leaving battlements and ramparts; here the emphasis was on the glory of gods, producing helical inscript columns, mutilated idols and a hundred other religious symbols fashioned in stone and wrought from metal, most of them meaningless for centuries; here the House’s occupants had thought fit to honour political benefactors, resulting in statues, relief columns and triumphal arches over walled-off roadways; elsewhere trade had been the order of the day, depositing cranes and jetties, graving docks, landing pads and launch gantries like flotsam round the outskirts of the House’s layered walls; on occasion information and communication had ruled, leaving a litter of rusting aerials, broken dishes and punctured shell domes crusting the scattered summits of the vast structure.
The current incumbents of the Sea House-who claimed despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary that they had inhabited it from the beginning, but who had certainly ruled there for the last five hundred years or so-were the Sad Brothers of the Kept Weight, one of Golter’s multitudinous ancient and arcane religious orders. They were exclusively male and claimed to believe in abstinence, continence and acquiescence to the will of God.
By Golter standards they were cooperative and outgoing, to the extent of permitting secular scholars to study in the many libraries, archives and depositories the House had accrued over the millennia. A veneer of ecumenicalism allowed visits by monks from other orders, and numerous prisoners from all over the system convicted under a variety of religious laws were held in the House. Other visitors were discouraged.
Sharrow was accepted at the House because six years earlier her half-sister Breyguhn had smuggled herself into the structure in an attempt to find and steal the Universal Principles, one of the system’s many fabled lost Unique books. Breyguhn had failed in her quest; she had been caught and imprisoned in the Sea House, and it was because she was her closest relation that Sharrow was allowed in to visit her.
With what was-arguably-a rare exhibition of an underlying sense of irony, the Sad Brothers had made the recovery of the Universal Principles the condition for Breyguhn’s release. Whether this implied they did not possess the book but wished to, or that they already did and so knew the task was impossible, was a matter for conjecture.
At the far end of the causeway the stone-flagged road inclined upwards to a huge, crumbling central gatehouse which was the only landward aperture in the House’s blank curtain wall of seaweed-hemmed granite. The gateway’s deeply machicolated summit hung like a set of gigantic discoloured teeth over a throat blocked by a rusting, ten-metre-square door of solid iron. The massive door-and the whole gatehouse-leaned out over the causeway’s end in a manner which indicated either serious subsidence, or a desire to intimidate.
Sharrow picked a rock up from the fractured surface of the wheel-grooved causeway and slammed it several times as hard as she could against the ungiving iron of the door. The noise was flat and dull. Rock dust and rust flakes drifted away on the breeze. She dropped the stone, her arm sore from the series of impacts.
After a minute or so she heard metallic sliding, scraping noises coming from the door. Then they faded. After another minute she hissed through her teeth in exasperation, picked up the stone again and slammed it against the door a few more times. She rubbed her arm and looked up into the dark arches of the stonework, searching for faces, cameras or windows. After a while, the clanking noises returned.
Suddenly a grille opened in the door at chest height; more flakes of rust fell away. She bent down.
“Yes?” said a high, scratchy voice.
“Let me in,” she said to the darkness behind the iron-framed hole.
“Ho! ‘Let me in,’ is it? What’s your name, woman?”
She pushed her scarf down from her mouth. “Sharrow.”
“That is my full name, I’m a fucking aristo. Now let me in, creep.”
“What?” the voice screeched. She stood back, putting her hands in her pockets while the grille slammed shut and a grinding, creaking noise seemed to shake the whole door. Finally the outline of a much smaller entrance appeared under the flakes of rust, and with a crunch a door swung open, large enough for a human to enter bowed. A small man in a filthy cowled cassock glared out at her. She held her passport in her right hand and shook it in front of his grey, unhealthy-looking face before he could say anything. He stared at the document.
“Cut the crap,” she said. “I went through it all last time. I want to speak to Seigneur Jalistre.”
“Do you now? Well, you’ll just have to wait. He-” the small monk began, swinging the door shut with one manacled hand.
She stepped forward, planting a boot in the doorway.
The brother looked down, eyes wide.
“Get… your… filthy… female foot out of my d-” he said, raising his gaze to find that he was looking down the barrel of a large hand gun. She pressed his nose with it. His eyes crossed, focusing on the stubby silencer.
He swung the door open slowly, his chain rattling. “Come in,” he croaked.
The silencer muzzle left a little white circle imprinted on the grey flesh at the tip of his nose.
“But, sire! She threatened me!”
“I’m sure. However, little brother, you are uninjured; a state subject to amendment, should you ever speak back to me like that again. You will take the Lady Sharrow’s weapon, issue a receipt, then escort our guest to the Chain Gallery and equip her with a visitor’s chain. At once.” The holo image of Seigneur Jalistre’s head, bright in the dim and musty gatekeeper’s cell, turned to her. The Seigneur’s broad, oiled face smiled thinly.
“Lady Sharrow, your sister will receive you in the Hall Dolorous. She has been expecting you.”
“Half-sister. Thanks,” Sharrow said. The holo faded.
She turned and handed her gun to the furiously scowling gatekeeper. He took it, dropped it in a drawer, scribbled quickly on a slip of plastic, threw it at her and whirled away. “This way, woman,” he snarled. “We’ll find you a nice heavy chain, I think. Oh yes.” He scuttled off, muttering; his own chain rattled along the wall-tracks to the doorway as she followed.
The monk snapped the manacle over her right wrist and rattled the heavy iron chain vigorously, snapping it taut against the wall a few times, jerking her arm.
“There,” he sneered. “That should keep you on the right track, eh, my lady?”
She looked calmly at the heavy blue-black manacle and ran her fingers lightly over the rough links of her chain. “You know,” she said, dropping her voice and smiling at him, “some people pay good money for this sort of treatment.” She arched an eyebrow.
His eyes went wide; he clutched at each side of his cowl, pulling it down over his eyes, then with one skinny, shaking hand pointed to the far end of the long, dimly lit gallery. “Out! Get out of my sight! To the Hall Dolorous and much good may it do you!”
The Sea House was a prison without doors. It was a prison within and around all its other functions.
Everyone in the Sea House, from its most senior Abbots and Seigneurs to its most constrained and punished prisoners, was manacled and chained. Each chain ended in a miniature bogey; a set of four linked wheels which ran along flanged rails set into the stones of every corridor, room and external space. These tracks, usually sunk into walls, often embedded in floors, sometimes crossing ceilings, and occasionally supported on little gantries like banisters and rails-traversing large open spaces, constituted the skeleton of the chain system.
The deepest track was narrower than a finger; it connected the senior Brothers to the House by means of intricately jewelled movements and fine chains spun from a choice of precious metals, the exact element used indicating further subdivisions of rank.
The outermost track was used for visitors as well as lay and honoured prisoners; it held a heavy steel chassis attached to an iron chain made from links thicker than a thumb.
The tracks in between provided for two grades of less senior Brothers, the House novices and their servants. Prisoners subject to harsher regimes wore drag-chains attached to their ankles and running on other, still more secure tracks; the lowest of the low were simply chained to dungeon walls. Legend also had it that there were secret places-deep and ancient, or high and (by Sea House standards) relatively modern places-where the chain system did not run, and the Order’s senior officers led lives of unparalleled debauchery behind supposedly non-existent doors… but the Sea House, and the chain system itself, did not encourage the investigation of such rumours.
Sharrow’s chain-guide wheels clicked as she followed a dark corridor which memory told her ascended to the Great Hall.
She encountered one other person on the way; a servant carrying a bulging laundry bundle and heading towards her using the same wall track as she. He stopped by a passing-circuit in the wall, flicked his own chain-guide through a set of ceramic points into the higher of the two tracks and waited-foot tapping impatiently-until she was almost level with him, then as she ducked he swung his chain over her head, down onto the track’s main line, and continued on his way, muttering.
A grubby sock lay fallen on the floor of the corridor; she turned to say something to the monk, but he had already disappeared into the shadows.
The Hall Dolorous was vast, dark and unechoing. Its ceiling lost in darkness, its walls shrouded in great dull flags and faded banners which vanished into a hazy distance, the enormous space felt bitter cold and smelled of charnel smoke. Sharrow shivered and held her scented scarf up to her nose again as she crossed the Hall’s width, her chain clicking along the floor-track with a chittering sound like a monstrous insect.
Breyguhn sat in a high-backed stone chair at a massive granite table which looked capable of supporting a small house. A similar chair was stationed on the far side of the table from her, seven metres away. Above Breyguhn, a slab of crystal larger than the table loomed out of the shadows, hiding the Hall’s ceiling. The streaked, canted window shed a rheumy yellow light down onto the surface of the granite platform.
Breyguhn’s severe face looked even paler than Sharrow remembered; her hair was tightly bunned and she wore a loose, slate-grey shift made from some coarse, thick material.
Sharrow satin the vacant stone chair, legs dangling. Breyguhn’s dark eyes regarded her.
“Sharrow,” she said, her voice flat and faint, seemingly smothered by the pervasive silence of the Hall.
“Breyguhn,” Sharrow nodded. “How are you?”
“I am here.”
“Apart from that,” she said levelly.
“There is no apart from that.”
Breyguhn brought her hands up from her lap to lay her forearms on the cold polished surface of the table, palms up. “What is it you want again? I think they told me but I’ve forgotten.”
Breyguhn was two years younger than Sharrow. She was broader built and a little shorter, with eyes deep set in a face that had once given the impression of strength but now looked pinched and worn.
“I need to find Cenuij,” Sharrow told her. “And… you might be able to help me look for something; an Antiquity.”
“What do you want from Cenuij?” Breyguhn sounded wary.
“The Huhsz have been granted their Passports; they’re about to start hunting me. I need Cenuij on my side.”
Breyguhn sneered. “You’ll be lucky.”
“If he won’t come with me voluntarily, the Huhsz will force him to work with them. They’ll use him to find me.”
Breyguhn’s eyes went wide. “Maybe he’d like that.”
Sharrow shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not, but at the very least, I have to warn him that when the Huhsz find I’ve gone, they might come looking for him.” Sharrow nodded at Breyguhn. “You’re the only person who seems to know exactly where he is.”
Breyguhn shrugged. “I haven’t seen Cenuij for six years,” she said. “They don’t allow visits from loved ones here. They only allow visitors one doesn’t want to see; visitors guaranteed to torment one.” Her mouth twisted humourlessly.
“But you’re in contact with him,” Sharrow said. “He writes.”
Breyguhn smiled, as if with difficulty, out of practice. “Yes, he writes; real letters, on paper. So much more romantic…” Her grin broadened, and Sharrow felt her skin crawl. “They come from Lip City.”
“But does he live there?”
“Yes. I thought you knew.”
“Whereabouts in the city?”
“Isn’t he registered with City Hall?” Breyguhn smiled.
Sharrow frowned. “The place is a barrio, Brey; you know damn well. There are quarters that don’t even have electricity.”
Breyguhn’s smile was wintery. “And whose fault is that, Sharrow?”
“Just tell me where Cenuij is, Brey.”
Breyguhn shrugged. “I have no idea. I have to send my letters post restante.” She looked down at the table top. Her smile faded quickly. “He sounds lonely,” she said in a small voice. “I think he has other loves now, but he sounds lonely.”
“Isn’t there anything in any of his letters-”
Breyguhn looked up, gaze sharp. “Echo Street,” she said suddenly.
“Don’t tell him I told you.”
Breyguhn shivered. She drew her arms off the surface of the granite table and let her hands fall to her lap again. She looked uncertain for a moment. “What else was there?”
“Information on an Antiquity.”
“Had you a particular one in mind?”
Breyguhn put her head back and laughed; a faint echo of the noise came back, seconds later, from overhead. She frowned and put one hand over her mouth. “Oh dear; I’ll pay for that later.” She squinted at Sharrow. “You want to go after the Universal Principles?”
“Why,” Breyguhn said. “That’s the price the Brothers have set for my release; are you doing this for me, Sharrow?” she asked, her voice heavy with sarcasm. “How sweet.”
“It’s for both of us,” Sharrow said. She found herself dropping her voice even though she knew that it made no difference if the Sea House’s masters were listening in. “I need the bit of… incidental information, the directions the work is supposed to contain. Once I have that, I guarantee I’ll give the book to the Sad Brothers. You’ll be free to leave here.”
Breyguhn put one hand fanned across her chest and fluttered her eyelids dramatically. “And why do you think I can help?” she asked, her voice artificially high.
Sharrow gritted her teeth. “Because,” she said, “the last time I was here you told me they let you use the libraries. You thought you were on the trail at last. And-”
“Yes.” Breyguhn’s eyes narrowed. “And I sent you,” she hissed, “a letter.” She glanced round then leaned closer. “I told you I had found the way,” she whispered. “The means to discover… that book.”
Sharrow sighed. She remembered the letter from Breyguhn; handwritten, barely legible, confused and full of wild accusations, bizarre, rambling political tirades and screeds of incomprehensible pseudo-religious rantings. Breyguhn’s claim in the course of it that she knew how to find the lost book had been mentioned almost as an aside in the midst of a manically passionate attack on the legal-political system in general and the World Court in particular. Sharrow had dismissed it at the time as literally incredible. “Yes, Brey,” she said. “And I wrote back to tell you I wasn’t in the Antiquities business any more.”
“But I told you only you could find it!” Breyguhn spat the words out.
Sharrow nodded slowly, looking away. “Indeed you did.”
“And you didn’t believe me.”
Sharrow shrugged. “You were the one who thought the book was here.”
“Maybe it is,” Breyguhn said, eyes narrowing. “Maybe they’re all here; the U.P., the Gnost, the Analysis of Major Journeys; all of them; every damn book Goltei’s ever had and then lost in ten thousand years and more. They might all be here; a million Uniques, a million treasures, all buried here, lost, thrown away to rot on the dung-pile this place is.” She directed a small, thin smile at Sharrow. “I haven’t found them, but they might be here. Even the Brothers themselves don’t know. The House has secrets even they haven’t guessed at.”
“I’m sure,” Sharrow said, tapping her fingers on the granite table. “Now-”
Breyguhn’s eyes narrowed. “We both know what the book’s supposed to lead to; what are you going to do with that?”
“Give it to the Huhsz,” Sharrow said. She gave a small laugh, glancing round the vast shadows around them. “We both have… eccentric cults to pay off.” She settled her gaze on Breyguhn again. “So. What have you got? What is it you know that-?”
“Blood fealty,” Breyguhn said suddenly.
Sharrow frowned. “What?”
“Blood fealty,” Breyguhn repeated. “Grandfather’s inner circle of aides and servants were under genetic thrall to him; he’d had behavioural patterns programmed into them.”
“I know; it was one of the reasons the World Court fell on him from the height it did.”
“Huh,” Breyguhn sighed, eyes bright for a moment. “Yes; if he’d got to a couple of their judges, or Corp chief execs with that sort of power…” She shook her head.
Sharrow sighed. “So it’s outlawed.”
“Indeed. Outlawed.” Breyguhn nodded. “Complete embargo; even in a war they won’t release it.” She talked quickly now, words spilling over each other. “But the old raptor hid information that way.” Her eyes glittered. “When he knew those death-kites of the World Court were closing in on him, he had the most precious things hidden where only his descendants could find them! He did! He did it! I know; I’ve seen the records of the family laboratories; they’re here!”
She sat forward in the great seat, resting her arms on the table surface. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “The Brothers scavenged much of what our grandfather built up, Sharrow; like filcher birds, on instinct. They don’t do anything with it, they don’t seem to care about the outside world; they just gather for gathering’s sake… but it’s been lying mouldering here for fifty years and only my researches have unearthed it!”
Sharrow leaned forward. “What?” she said, trying to remain calm.
“The secret! All the secrets! All the things he’d found, all the Antiquities; ones he’d collected, ones he’d simply tracked down but not yet gathered to him! Locations programmed into his servants, to be played back by us!”
Sharrow sat back. “You’re sure?”
“Certain!” Breyguhn’s sallow, grimacing face was lowered almost to the surface of the table. Her hands were fists, beating the polished granite for emphasis, making her iron chain rattle and clink. “ ‘The female line’ can access these secrets,” she hissed. “That’s all I know, and I don’t know if it includes me; I was born after he was brought down, while he was awaiting trial, and he probably wasn’t able to issue the instructions to his clinicians, but you must have inherited the access genes from your mother… if they weren’t scrambled by all that radiation or your precious SNB.”
Sharrow waved her hand, dismissing this. “Not a problem; but what do I have to do?”
Breyguhn looked suddenly wary, sitting up and back and looking around quickly. “You promise you’ll turn the book over to the Brothers once you have what you want from it?”
“You really promise? I’ll tell Cenuij you promised.”
Sharrow raised one hand. “Look, I promise.”
Breyguhn leant forward, her chin touching the granite table, her eyes wide. “For the UP.?” she whispered. “Bencil Dornay.”
“What?” Sharrow said, hardly catching the name. “Tansil…?”
“No! Not Tansil! A man; Bencil; Bencil Dornay, of Vemasayal.”
“All right,” Sharrow said, nodding. “So do I just ask him, or what?”
Breyguhn giggled suddenly and put her unmanacled hand over her mouth in an unsettlingly girlish gesture. “No, Sharrow,” she said, smirking. “No, you can’t just ask him.”
“You have to exchange body fluids.”
“What?” Sharrow said, sitting back.
Breyguhn giggled again, glancing round nervously as she did so. “Oh,” Breyguhn waved one hand, her smirk subsiding. “A kiss will do; though you’d have to bite him. Or scratch him with fresh saliva under your fingernail. Anything that draws blood; infects him.” She suppressed another giggle. “And I think the implication is you’re supposed to do it in public, too. Isn’t that too delicious?”
Sharrow looked suspicious. “Are you serious?”
Breyguhn shrugged, her eyes wide. “Perfectly; but then what have you got to lose, Sharrow? You used to love a bit of rough voyeurism with the servant classes, didn’t you?”
“Hell yes; or their pets.”
“Bencil Dornay,” Breyguhn hissed. “Don’t forget!”
“I swear. On my much-donated honour.”
“Sharrow! It’s not funny. Don’t you see what the world needs? Don’t you know what this family has been working towards for generations? What Gorko achieved; what Geis might, if he was given the space, the chance?”
Sharrow closed her eyes.
“You selfish clown, Sharrow! You can’t see it! You’re like all the others; ears on the grass, waiting harvest. How long must we go on like this? These eternal cycles; boom and slump, poverty and frivolity while the death-hand of the Corps and the Colleges and Churches and Court turns the handle; what’s the point? Stagnation! Meaninglessness!” Breyguhn shouted. “Our destiny is beyond! We need Antiquities; as banners, as rallying points, as bribes if need be; weapons if that’s what they are! Break out of the cycle! We need soldiers, not lawyers! One strong man or strong woman with the will, not pandering to the lowest common denominator with endless petty compromises!”
“Breyguhn…” Sharrow said, opening her eyes and feeling suddenly very tired.
“How long have we had space travel?” Breyguhn shouted, smacking her fist into the table surface; the chain whipped down, scattering chips of granite. Breyguhn didn’t seem to notice. “Seven thousand years! Seven thousand years!” she roared, standing, throwing her arms wide, voice echoing from above. Sharrow heard a bell ringing somewhere.
“Seventy centuries, Sharrow! Seven millennia of footling about in the one miserable system, crawling from rock to rock, losing the gift twice and after all this time half of what we once achieved is like magic to us now!”
Flecks of spittle made little arcs in the air from Breyguhn’s lips; they shone in the thin yellow light then fell to spot the broad surface of the huge table. “Evolution has stopped! The weak and the halt breed, diluting the species; they drag us all down into the mire; we must cut ourselves free!”
Sharrow glimpsed movement in the distance behind the other woman, and heard a quick jingling noise.
“Brey-” she said, making a calming, sit-down motion with one hand.
“Can’t you see? The nebulae should be ours but we are left with the dust! Sweep it away!” Breyguhn screamed. “Sweep it all away! The slate is full; wipe it out and start again! The decamillenium approaches! Burn the chaff!”
Sharrow stood up as two burly monks dressed in grubby white habits appeared behind her half-sister; the first monk took one end of Breyguhn’s chain and with a practised flick looped it over her head and round her arms, encircling her; he pulled tight, jerking her away from the great stone seat-her eyes closed, an expression of sudden joy on her pallid face-while the second monk threw a glittering bag over her head; there was a noise like a sigh, the bag ballooned then collapsed, then was pulled from Breyguhn’s head just as she too collapsed, limp and slack into the arms of the first brother. They zipped her into a straitcoat the shape of a thin, much bestrapped sleeping bag, then dragged her away along the floor, chains rattling.
The whole operation had taken place in less than a dozen heartbeats, and without the pair of monks even glancing at Sharrow.
She watched them go, feeling numb.
The trio disappeared into the shadows and the rattling of their chains faded until all she could hear was a faint moaning noise of the wind in some flue, high above. She shivered, picked up her satchel and started back across the empty breadth of the dark hall.
Seigneur Jalistre smiled brightly from the holo screen in the dullness of the gatekeeper’s office. “Hmm; the Universal Principles for your reasonable expenses, and the freedom of your sister…”
“Indeed, indeed,” the Seigneur said, slowly stroking his smoothly fat chin. “Well, I shall put your proposal to my brethren, Lady Sharrow.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Of course, you must understand that it is anything but a foregone conclusion that we shall accept your suggestion-we are not normally given to financing Antiquities contracts, and what with the upkeep of this magnificent but ancient building, we are far from being a rich order, as I’m sure you appreciate. But I feel certain your proposition will be treated seriously. Doubtless we shall be in touch.”
“It might be better if I call you,” she told the holo image.
“As you wish. Might I suggest you give us a few days to consider your proposal?”
“I’ll call in three or four days. Will that be all right?”
“That will be perfect, Lady Sharrow. I am only sorry your need for haste precluded a personal meeting.”
“Some other time, perhaps.”
“Indeed, indeed.” The Seigneur nodded slowly. “Hmm. Well, good-day then, Lady Sharrow. Pray tell brother gatekeeper he may resume possession of his office.”
She opened the door; the small gatekeeper stood outside by the postern in the main gate, scowling, the HandCannon held by the barrel in one grimy hand. The office hole-screen greyed as she descended the steps to where the small monk waited. She handed him the small plastic slip he’d given her earlier.
“Receipt,” she said.
“Gun,” replied the gatekeeper. “Take it and get out.”
The little monk swung open the postern and gestured to the outside world; a gust of rain and wind blew in, making his habit flap. “Hurry up, woman; get your filthy cloven body out of here!”
She took a step towards the door, then stopped and looked at the little monk. “You know,” she said, “for a greeter your attitude is somewhat suspect; I shall be sending a stiff note to the Udesten Hotel Guide.”
“Stuff your smart remarks where only a woman can, trollop.”
“And there really isn’t any need for that sort of language.”
She stood on the threshold of the door. She shook her head. “I’m not menstruating.” She smiled brightly. “Are you a castrate?”
The gatekeeper’s eyes went wide. “No!” he barked.
She swung one foot, kicking him in the crotch through the weight of the thick black cassock; he doubled up and fell to the courtyard flagstones, wheezing, his chain clattering around him.
“No,” she said, stepping out through the small door to the cold and the rain. “I didn’t think so, somehow.”
She walked away down the broad grey curve of the causeway, the rain spattering her face while the evil-smelling wind whipped her hair, and realised with some surprise that, after nearly eight years of peaceful banality, that made two men she’d hit in less than twenty hours.
Life was becoming interesting again.
3 Echo Street
Roughly ten per cent of the land area of Golter was autonomous state; countries in the accepted sense. The rest was technically Free Land in the form of city states, beldand, commercial and industrial parks, farming collectives, ecclesiastical dependencies, bank franchises, sept reservations, leased and freeheld familial estates, Antiquarian societies’ digs, contract diplomatic services’ ambassadorial domains, pressure-group protectorates, charity parklands, union sanatoria, time-share zones, canal, rail and road corridors and protected drove-ways; United World enclaves of a score of different persuasions; hospital, school and college grounds, private and public army training counties, and landparcels-usually squatted on-the subject of centuries-old legal disputes which were effectively owned by the courts concerned.
The inhabitants of these multifarious territories owed their allegiance not to any geographically defined authority or administration, but to the guilds, orders, scientific disciplines, linguistic groups, Corporations, clans and other organisations which administered them.
The result was that while a physical map of Golter was a relatively simple depiction of the planet’s varied but unremarkable geography, political maps tended to resemble something plucked from the wreckage after an explosion in a paint factory.
So, although Udeste was a recognised area and the city of the same name was the province’s effective service capital, there was no necessary proprietorial, administrative or jurisdictional link between the city and the surrounding countryside. Similarly, the province of Udeste owed no tribute to any bodies representing the continent of Caltasp Minor or even Entire, save that of the Continental Turnpike Authority.
The CTA maintained an impressive, if expensive, network of toll roads extending from the Security Franchise in the south to Pole City in the north. On her way back from the Sea House, Sharrow used the turbiner’s head-up display to check on the bid prices for seats on the afternoon and evening strats from Udeste Transcontinental to Capitaller, six thousand kilometres to the north-east, and decided to hang onto the hired car.
Roundly cursing a heinously complex legal dispute that had grounded all charter aircraft in southern Caltasp for the past month, the CTA for having won the battle against the railroads two millennia earlier, junketeers in general and lawyers heading for conferences in particular, Sharrow took Route Five out of Udeste City.
The turnpike skirted the edge of the Seproh plateau for eighteen hundred kilometres, lanes increasing in number as road trains, buses and private cars joined from the cities on Caltasp’s eastern seaboard and the curtain-wall cliffs to the north decreased in height from nine kilometres to two.
She left the car on automatic and used its terminal to tap into data bases all over the system, catching up on news and searching out all she could on the fortunes of the Huhsz and the whereabouts of the scattered remnants of Gorko’s legacy. She dozed for an hour to some quiet music, and watched screen for a while.
She rendezvoused with a rest-mobile, ramping up into the echoing parking hold of the Air Cushion Vehicle and leaving the car for refuelling while she stretched her legs. She stood on a glassed-in walkway high in the side of the ACV, watching the distant countryside move slowly past and the northbound traffic overtaking; road trains slowly, private vehicles as though the towering hovercraft was standing still.
Back on the road, she put the automobile on manual every now and again, taking the controls and spinning the engine up to maximum while the car boomed and the cloud shadows on the road flashed underneath the turbiner’s wheels.
It was late afternoon when the turnpike bunched and swung into the Seproh Tunnel. The two-hour journey was midday bright; when the road exited to the Waist rainforests it was already dark. She signalled ahead to another rest-mobile to book a cabin and caught up with the ACV an hour later, manoeuvring the car towards it up the canyon formed by two of the parked road trains it was towing.
Just a little too tired to accept the attentions of a prettily handsome road train driver she met in the bar, she slept soundly and alone in a small, quietly humming outside cabin.
She watched desert roll past while she breakfasted. Linear cloud disappeared into the blue distance above the turnpike’s route, like sections of vapour trail.
Beyond the desert and the Callis Range came scrub, then irrigated farms; by the Big Bight the land was lush again. Late afternoon brought her to the colourful, tyre-scuffed roadsigns welcoming her to Regioner.
Regioner-like its capital, Capitaller-owed its stunningly unimaginative name to a particularly bloody interlingual dispute which had taken place so long ago one language had changed out of all recognition and the other had died entirely, outside of university language department data bases.
She left the turnpike at sunset and took a laser-straight two-laner through prairies now ripe for their second harvest, sweeping through the warm darkness of the head-heavy crops with the radio loud, singing along at the top of her lungs while the foothills of the Coastal Range rose above the plain ahead.
An hour of hill-climbing on intestinally convoluted roads, through dark tunnels and across narrow bridges, past laden orchards and around numerous towns and smaller settlements brought her to a small, prettily colour-washed, but otherwise nondescript, hill village a couple of valleys away from Capitaller.
Zefla Franck, once described by Miz Gattse Kuma as nearly two metres of utter voluptuousness with a brain, strolled from the coach stop along the lane between the low white-painted houses near the summit of the hill, her long golden hair undone and straggling to the waist of her slinky dress, her shoes off and held over one shoulder. Her head was tipped back, her long neck curved.
The night was warm. The faint breeze rising from the orchards in the valley below smelled sweet.
She whistled, and watched the sparkling sky, where Maidservant-Golter’s second moon-shone blue-grey and bounteous near the horizon; a great stone and silver ship escorted and surrounded by a school of flickering, glittering lights; habitats and factories, satellites and mirrors, and departing and arriving ships.
The ships were quick, sharp points, sometimes leaving trails; the close-orbit satellites and habitats moved smoothly, some moderately quickly, some very slowly, giving the impression that they were flecks of brightness fixed to a concentric set of clear revolving spheres; the great mirrors and most far-flung industrial and settlement orbiters hung stationary, fixed lights against the darkness.
It was, thought Zefla, really quite beautiful, and the light cast by all the various satellites, both natural and human-made, seemed soft, seductive and even-despite its icy, polar-blue pallor-somehow warm. Moonlight and junklight. Junklight. Such a callous, mean-spirited name for something so beautiful, and not even accurate. No single piece of junk was big enough to be seen from the ground, and there was little enough real junk left, anyway; it had been tidied away, swept up, captured, slowed down and dropped in and burnt off.
She watched a winking satellite move with a perfect, steady stateliness across the vault. She followed its progress as it crossed above her to vanish behind the eaves of a house on the west side of the lane, where soft lights glowed behind pastel shades and music played quietly. She recognised the tune and whistled along as she climbed some steps to a higher level of the lane. She kept her head down to make sure she didn’t trip.
She hiccuped suddenly. “Shit!” she said.
Maybe it was looking downwards that did it. She looked back up at the sky and hiccuped again. “Shit shit shit!”
She found another slowly moving satellite, and determined to ignore the stupid hiccups and concentrate on tracking the little light across the sky. Another hiccup. “Shit!”
She was nearly home and she hated going into the house with the hiccups; Dloan always made fun of her.
Another hiccup. She growled and fixed all her attention on the satellite.
Her shin hit something hard. “Aow, fuck!”
Zefla hopped around on one foot, clutching her shin. “Ow ow ow!” she said. She glared at what she’d bumped into; the moonlight, the junklight, and the warm glow from the leaves of the luminous shrubs at the door of the house revealed a huge pale car almost filling the narrow lane outside the house. Zefla glared at the insect-spattered snout of the auto and muttered.
The shoes she’d been carrying dropped from her fingers to the cobblestones; she hopped on top of the shoes, lost her footing and fell with a yelp into the luminous bushes.
She lay in the shrubbery, cradled on her back by the creaking branches and surrounded by gently glowing leaves. Disturbed insects buzzed around her head and tickled her bare legs and forearms.
“Oh, bugger,” Zefla sighed, as the door opened and her brother looked out. Another head poked out of the door, swivelling; the gaze glanced her way, then away, then back.
“Zef?” said a female voice.
“Hell’s caries,” Zefla groaned. “I might have known. I suppose this is your car?”
“Good to see you too, Zefla,” Sharrow said, smiling, as Dloan Franck came out of the doorway and offered his sister a hand. Zefla took hold and was pulled upright to stand, swaying hardly at all in front of Sharrow, who folded her arms and grinned at her.
Zefla felt Dloan dust her down and pull a few luminous leaves out of her tangled blonde hair.
“Nice car,” she said to Sharrow, as Dloan fussed and tutted, pulling a twig from the sleeve of her dress. She stood one-legged, leaning on her brother and rubbing at her bruised shin. “Thought they had collision-avoidance radar.”
“It’s switched off,” Sharrow said, stooping to retrieve Zefla’s shoes from the cobbles.
Zefla sighed. “Mine too.”
Sharrow offered her the shoes, but she knocked them gently aside and took the other woman in her arms.
“Sorry about your leg,” Sharrow told Zefla, hugging her.
“Never mind; it cured my -hic!-aw, shit…”
Showered, dried, powdered and perfumed, Zefla Franck lounged magnificently on a relaxer, her red-brown skin gleaming where her bath sheet didn’t cover; another towel kept her hair piled high over her head. She drank a restorative from a long glass and looked out over the junklit valley and the lights of distant villages and houses; the glass of the old conservatory reflected her image and those of Sharrow and Dloan.
Sharrow stood by the glass wall, a drink in her hand, looking out.
Dloan sat in a hanging-chair, his hands deep in the neck fur of a sarflet, ruffling the animal’s tawny pelt while it sat there with an expression of sleepy bliss on its broad, black-snouted face.
Zefla shook her head. “I don’t think so, Shar; they could start trying to trash Geis with the Passports, but it’d eat time; your cuz has lawyers the way other people have freckles, and he can afford wizards; grade one legal slicks with minds like writ-grenades. Toss a few of those boys into the fray and they could stall the Huhsz for decades; get them so entangled they won’t be able to take a piss without applying for a court order…” Zefla hiccuped. “Damn!” She gulped. “Excuse me; more sober juice.”
She drank deeply from the tall glass again. “… Shit,” she continued, “even if they got blanket discovery Geis could keep ahead of them just generating new companies; dance their grubby little asses through the taxloop Labyrinth of No Return, shuffling liability, using anonymous proxies, cascading ownership… It would take them months to sort out what he’s already got, never mind what he could create if he wanted to put up a smokescreen. The point to remember is, they’ve only got a year; with that sort of cast-iron limitation, even Geis’s public exposure won’t suffer more than a-hic! shit-blip when the shareholders realise it’s just a glorified nuisance action that’s going to evaporate like a fart in a hurricane when the clock stops.”
Zefla drank again, then said, “What are you grinning at?”
Sharrow had turned away from the view while Zefla had been talking. She stood, smiling down at the other woman. “I’ve missed you, Zef.”
“Thank you very much,” Zefla said, holding one long leg out in front of her and looking at the bruise. “Wish I could say the same for your car.”
Sharrow looked down and ran her finger round the top of her glass. “So are you saying I should just go to Geis?”
“Hell, no; I’m just saying that if you ever did have to especially as a last resort after you’ve run the Huhsz round in circles for a few months and aren’t getting any closer to the Gun-you needn’t worry about hurting him legally.”
“Even so,” Sharrow said, frowning at her drink. “But just because of that… maybe I should take him up on his offer now.”
“You-hic!-want to?” Zefla said, her eyebrows rising.
“No,” Sharrow admitted, glancing at her.
“Then,” said a deep, rumbling, reasonable voice from the other side of the conservatory, “don’t.”
Sharrow looked at Dloan. He was even taller than Zefla, and much broader. He had precise, short-cropped blond hair which merged smoothly into an equally carefully trimmed blond beard; he lounged in a crumpled sweatsuit, exuding fitness. He kept on tickling the sarflet, and looked up only momentarily at Sharrow, smiling as though shyly, then looking away again.
“And let’s not forget the law is just one way of the Huhsz getting what they want,” Zefla told Sharrow. “I’d guess what Geis would really have to worry about if he sheltered you wouldn’t be a legal manoeuvre, it’d be simple betrayal. One disgruntled employee, one, spy, one Huhsz convert in the right place, and all the law in the system wouldn’t make any difference; they’d get you and destroy Geis.”
Sharrow nodded. “All right, but the alternative is to take to the trail again, and ask you guys to come with me.”
“Shar, kid,” Zefla said. “We never wanted to give it up.”
“But I feel I’m being selfish; especially if I could just run to Geis and everything would be all right.”
Zefla sighed exasperatedly. “Geis is a pain, Sharrow; the guy has a kind of charming facade but basically he’s a social inadequate whose real place in life is out mugging pensioners and cheating and beating on his girlfriends, and if he had three more names and been raised in a rookery in The Meg rather than the nursery at house Tzant, that’s exactly what he would be doing. Instead he jumps out of the commercial equivalent of dark alleys, strips companies and fucks their employees. He’s got no idea how real people work so he plays the market instead; he’s a rich kid who thinks the banks and courts and Corps are his construction set and he doesn’t want anybody else to play. He wants you the way he wants a sexy company, as a bauble, a scalp, something to display. Never get beholden to people like that, they’ll piss on you and then charge irrigation fees. You crawl under that scumball’s skirts and I’ll never talk to you again.”
Sharrow grinned and sat on a small chair by the glass wall. “So, do we go back on the road?”
Zefla drank, nodded. “Just point us to the on-ramp, girl.”
Zefla made a pained expression. “Shar, I’ve been lecturing law at Capitaller for the last five years; I’ve said all I’m ever going to say and I keep hearing the same old fucking questions; a really smart student comes along now and again, but it’s getting harder and harder to wait during the fallow times in between; an exciting day is when a hunky student bends over or one of the male staff starts growing a beard. My brain’s atrophying. I need some excitement.”
Sharrow looked at Dloan, who was sitting back in the gently swaying hanging-chair and sipping at his drink, the sarflet snoring at his feet. “Dloan?” she said.
Dloan sat looking at her for a while. Eventually he took a long deep breath, and said, “I was watching some screen a few days ago.” He cleared his throat. “Some adventure series. The bad guys were firing bi-propellent HE rounds from FA 300s, fitted with silencers.”
Dloan fell silent.
Sharrow looked at Zefla, who rolled her eyes.
“I’m holding my breath here, Dloan,” Sharrow said.
Dloan looked down at the animal at his feet. “Well, obviously there’s no point fitting a silencer when you’re firing bi-propellents; the rocket stage makes… lots of noise.”
“Oh, yes,” Sharrow said. “Of course.”
“Come on, Dlo,” Zefla said. “That sort of stuff always annoyed you. So what?”
“Yes,” Dloan said. “But it was the third act before I realised.” He sucked his lips in and shook his head.
Zefla and Sharrow exchanged looks. Dloan reached down to stroke the sleeping sarflet.
“I think,” Zefla said, “he means he’s get-hic!-zing disgustingly rusty and it’s time he saw some action before he forgets which end of a gun goes against your shoulder.”
Sharrow looked back to Dloan, who just sat there being blond and nodding wisely.
“Fine,” Sharrow said.
Zefla drank again. “So; via the Book to the Gun. Think the Huhsz really will call off the hunt if you get them the Lazy Gun first?”
“So It Is Written,” Sharrow said with sarcastically emphatic pronunciation.
“And Breyguhn’s clue-whatever it is-is it going to work?”
“It sounds semi-plausible,” Sharrow said, shrugging. “These days that’s about the best I have to go on.”
“The Universal Principles,” Zefla breathed. She looked thought-ful. “Supposed to be somewhere midsystem, if you can believe thousand-year-old rumours. This just an excuse to put some vacuum between you and the Huhsz?”
Sharrow shook her head. “Like I say, I have a lead.” She glanced at Dloan, who was stroking the sarflet. “Gory details to follow,” she told Zefla.
“Can’t wait,” Zefla said, waggling her dark blonde brows and flexing her perfect toes.
Sharrow raised her glass. “Think team,” she said.
Zefla raised her glass. “Yo to that.”
Dloan raised his glass. “Team,” he said.
Zefla frowned at her glass as though it contained something disgusting. “This calls for something stronger,” she said. “And I’m getting too sober anyway.” She put the glass down under her seat, felt around and pulled out an inhalant tube with a look of victorious anticipation on her face. “Let’s get into something mind bending!”
She stood in the doorway and looked out, shivering, at the night. It was raining and the wind was hurrying down the dimly lit street, filling the air with paper scraps like a flock of palely fluttering injured birds. The water in the gutters was thick and black and smelled rancid, washed from some of the hillside tip-mines further up the slope.
She was average height and dressed cheaply but gaudily; high heels, a micro skirt and a figure-hugging top. She clutched a small, shiny black fake-hide purse, and wore a little pillbox hat with a black lace veil which even with the heavy make-up couldn’t quite hide the mass of ridged, twisted scar tissue that covered the left side of her face. She held a little transparent plastic parasol over herself, but some of its spokes were broken and the wind kept gusting, sending rain spraying into her face every now and again. It smelled like somebody had used the doorway as a urinal earlier in the evening.
The street was fairly quiet for this time of night. The occasional car crawled past, windows mirrored. A variety of civilians splashed along the pavement, huddled under cloaks or umbrellas. There were few punters. The ones that were around mostly knew her already; you could always tell the new ones because they’d pass by the doorway she was standing in, do a double-take-or just stare-then come forward, looking her up and down and grinning that big grin that said, My lucky night!
It was only when they looked beneath the veil that they backed off, embarrassed, apologising, as though the Incident had somehow been their fault… But there had only been a couple of those this evening.
The wind shook the scrawny wires strung between the low tenements, producing a whistling noise and making the dim yellow streetlamps sway and flicker.
A trolley car went clanking up the street, its skinny whip-mast scratching at the wires above, producing crackling blue sparks. Two boys were hitching a late-night ride on the back fender; they had to keep quiet in case the conductor heard them, but when the blue flashes revealed a girl standing in a doorway, or up an alley with a client, they pointed and waved and made thrusting motions with their groins.
She hoped the trolley wouldn’t make a spark when it went past her, but it did. She flinched at the harsh burst of light and the sizzle of noise. She waited for the boys to make some obscene gesture at her, but they were looking at somebody standing in the alley-way directly across from her. The trolley’s power line flashed again and she caught another glimpse of the figure in the alley opposite. Somebody in a long dark coat. For a moment she had the impression she was being watched. Her heart started to beat faster; oh, not police, not tonight!
Then the figure-medium height, face hidden by a hat and a filter mask-left the alley-way and walked down the pavement on the far side of the street, walking slightly oddly, stiff-legged, like somebody trying to disguise a limp.
Just then two uniformed policemen walked past her doorway, their long capes dripping. She shrank back, but they weren’t on a round-up, not tonight. Probably they were intent on getting back to the precinct station and hitting the canteen. She relaxed again.
Suddenly the figure was in front of her.
She drew her breath in.
“Hi,” the man said, pulling his mask down.
She relaxed. It wasn’t the person from the other side of the street; it was a regular, the one she’d been hoping would turn up. He wore a short, pale cape and a broad hat. He was a smallish, thin man with muddy-looking skin and intensely blue eyes you couldn’t look at for too long.
“Oh,” she said, and smiled. She had slightly prominent teeth, already spotted with decay. “Hi, sweetie.”
“Sweetie…” he said, sounding amused. He stood in the doorway with her, and gently put his hand up underneath the lace veil to her face and stroked the rough surface of the old radiation burn. His fingers were delicate and slim. She tried not to flinch.
“You smell different this evening,” he said. His voice was like his eyes; sharp and demanding.
“New perfume. Like it?”
“It’ll do,” he said. He withdrew his hand from her ruined face, and sighed. “Shall we go?”
They left the doorway and walked down the street together, not touching; she had to walk quickly, teetering on her high heels, to keep up with him. A couple of times, glancing at their reflections in shop windows, she thought she saw the figure she’d seen earlier in the alley-way, following them with that odd, stiff-legged gait.
“Here,” he said, entering a narrow alley. It was dark, and she almost tripped on rubbish left on the dark, uneven bricks underfoot.
“But, doll,” she said, following him down the alley and won-dering what was going on. “This isn’t your-”
“Shut up,” he told her. He started up a flight of rickety wooden steps. She looked back, and saw the stiff-legged figure enter the alley-way behind them, silhouetting against the marginally brighter street behind, then disappearing into the shadows. “Hurry up!” her client hissed from the top of the steps. She glanced back at the darkness where the figure had vanished, and then ran as fast as her high heels would allow, up the creaking wooden steps.
There was a broad wooden gantry at the top of the steps, dotted with small sheds and ladders; it stretched along the side of the dank, bow-sided tenement. She couldn’t see him, but then a hand came out of the shadows and pulled her into the shelter of a small lean-to. A hand went over her mouth and she let him pull her against him, his breath warm on the back of her neck. Something glinted in his other hand, pointing out to the deck of the wooden gantry. Her eyes were wide and her heart thudded. She clutched the little black purse to her chest, as though hoping it would protect her.
She heard a creaking noise, then slow footsteps. The hand over her mouth clamped tighter.
The figure in the long dark coat came into view, still walking lopsidedly, then stopping and standing directly opposite them. The figure reached in through the coat, and from what must have been a leg-holster, pulled out a very long gun with a slim sight on top of the barrel. The man holding her tensed.
A creaking noise came from behind and beneath her.
The figure spun towards them, the gun coming up.
The man behind her shouted something; his gun fired, a burst of light and sound that lit up every grubby cranny of the alley and filled its length with a terrible barking noise. The figure with the rifle was blown back, folding in two; the great long gun made a quiet roar and something flashed overhead as the figure went straight through the hand rail at the edge of the wooden gantry to fall flaming to the stones of the alley-way.
She looked up; above the wooden gantry a small net swung from a piece of broken guttering. The net swayed in the wind, making a fizzing, sputtering noise and glowing with a strange green light.
The man followed her gaze.
“Prophet’s blood, it was only a stun-net,” he whispered.
She tottered to the broken rail and looked down to see the figure lying torn almost in half and burning amongst the packing cases and trash against the wall of the tenement opposite. A smell of roasted flesh wafted up from the body, making her feel sick.
The man grabbed her hand. “Come on!” he said. They ran.
“God help me, I almost enjoyed that,” he said, stumbling into the service entrance of the quiet apartment block. He took out his key, then paused, breathing hard, looking at her. “You’re still keen, I hope, yes?”
“Never say no to a man with a gun,” she said, trying to get out of the bright light shining near the laundry baskets.
He smiled and took off his short cloak with a flourish. “Let’s take the service lift.”
She busied herself with her make-up in the lift, turning to the corner and squinting into the little mirror, leaving the veil down while one hand worked behind it. She caught a glimpse of his face; he looked amused.
They entered his apartment. It was surprisingly plush, lit by subdued but expensive wall panels, full of ancient art works and pieces of fancy-looking equipment. The rug in the main room-patterned after the fashion of an early electronic chip-had a deep, luxuriant pile. He lit a cheroot, and sat down in a big couch. “Strip,” he told her.
She stood just in front of him, and-still determinedly holding the little purse-slowly pulled her veil away and let it fall to the floor. The radiation burn looked livid and raw, even under the make-up. The man on the couch swallowed, breathing deeply. He drew on the cheroot, then left it in his mouth as he folded his arms.
She took hold of the pillbox hat and removed it too. Her hair had been gathered up under the hat; now it fell out, spilling down her back.
He looked surprised. “When did you-?” he began, frowning.
She held one hand up flat towards him and shook her head, then put the same hand to the side of her face. She gripped the top edge of the radiation scar and slowly pulled it down, tearing it away from her cheek with a glutinous, sucking noise.
His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. The cheroot fell from his mouth onto the chest of his shirt.
She dropped the black purse from her other hand, which now held a small stubby pistol with no muzzle aperture. She spat out the fake teeth; they bounced on the printed-circuit rug.
“Hello, Cenuij,” she said.
“Sha-!” he had time to gasp, before the gun in her hand buzzed, his eyes closed and he went limp, sliding slowly off the couch onto the floor.
She sniffed, wondering what was burning, then took two quick steps towards him and removed the cheroot from the hole in his shirt before it burned any more of his chest hair.
He woke to the sound of spattering rain; he was sitting slumped in the rear seat of a tall All-Terrain and it was dark outside. Sharrow sat opposite him. His whole body was tingling, his head was sore and he didn’t think it wise to try speaking for a while; he looked around groggily.
Through rain-streaked glass to the right he could see a giant open-cast mine lit by dotted lights. The mine had eaten away half of an enormous conical hill and was continuing to shave away the other half. Looking carefully, he could make out a motley collection of trucks, draglines and lines of people with shovels, all working the canted grey face of the floodlit, sectioned hill. At least he wasn’t having trouble focusing.
“Cenuij?” she said.
He looked at her. He decided to try speaking.
“What?” he said. His mouth seemed to be working all right. Good sign. He flexed the tingling muscles in his face.
Sharrow frowned. “Are you okay?”
“She fries my synapses with a neurostunner whose insurance warranty ran out around the time of the Skytube, then she asks if I’m okay,” he said, attempting to laugh but coughing instead.
Sharrow poured something brown and fragrant from a flask into a cup; he took it and smelled spirit; he sipped at it, then knocked it back, smacking his lips. He almost threw it up again immediately, but held it down and felt it warm him.
“You once told me,” she said, “that if you had to be knocked unconscious, that’s the way you’d like it done, with one of those.”
“I remember,” he said. “It was the morning after Miz nearly rammed that Tax destroyer. We were in a tavern in Malishu and you were whining about your hangover; you wore a low-cut green scoopneck and Miz had left a line of lovebites like footprints leading down your left tit. But I didn’t think you’d treat an innocent observation as a definite request.”
“As you see,” Sharrow grinned, “the stunner has totally scrambled that perfect memory.”
“Just testing,” Cenuij said.
He stretched. He didn’t seem to be tied up in any way, and Sharrow wasn’t holding the stun gun.
“Anyway,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Indeed. I can see contrition oozing from your every pore.”
She nodded towards the open-cast mine. “Know where we are?”
“Mine Seven; a little west of the city perimeter road.” He rubbed at his leg muscles; they still felt tingly and weak.
“We’re right on the city limits,” Sharrow said. She nodded. “I step out that door and I’m outside the jurisdiction; you step out your side and you’re back in Lip City.”
“What are you trying to do, Sharrow? Impress me with your navigational skills?”
“I’m giving you a choice; asking you to come with me… but if you won’t, I’m letting you go.”
“You kidnap me first, then you ask me?” Cenuij shook his head. “Retirement’s addled your brains.”
“Dammit, Cenuij! I didn’t mean to snatch you; I just wanted to get to you. But that enthusiast with the stun-net rattled me. I wanted to get us both out of there.”
“Well, congratulations,” he said. “What a spiffing plan.”
“All right,” she said, raising her voice. “What was I supposed to do?” She got her voice under control again. “Would you have listened to me? If I’d tried to contact you; would you have given me the time to say anything?”
“No; I’d have switched off the instant I knew it was you.”
“And if I’d written?”
“Same. Switched the screen off or torn the letter up, accordingly.” He nodded quickly. “And if you’d approached me in the street I’d have walked away; run away; hailed a cab; jumped on a trolley; told a policeman who you were; anything. In fact, all the things I intend to do right now, or at least as soon as my legs feel like they’ll work again.”
“So what was I supposed to do, you awkward bastard?” Sharrow shouted, leaning forward at him.
“Leave me a-fucking-lone, that’s what!” he roared back into her face.
They glowered at each other, nose to nose. Then she sat back in the seat, looking out at the darkness on the other side of the car. He sat back too.
“The Huhsz are after me,” she said quietly, not looking at him. “Or they will be, very soon. With a Hunting Passport. A legal execution warrant-”
“I know what a Hunting Passport is,” he snapped.
“They might try using you to get to me, Cenuij.”
“Sharrow; can’t you get it through those artfully wanton black curls that I want nothing to do with you? I won’t indulge in some pathetic, nostalgic attempt to get us all back together again and be pals and pretend nothing bad ever happened-just in case that’s what’s on your mind-but equally I assure you I have no interest whatsoever trying to help the Huhsz second guess your every action; that would be almost as bad as actually being in your company.”
Sharrow looked like she was trying to control herself, then suddenly sat forward again. “Nothing to do with me? So why are you fucking the only whore in Lip City who could pass for my clone?”
“I don’t fuck her, Sharrow,” Cenuij said, looking genuinely surprised. “I just enjoy humiliating her!” He laughed. “And anyway, she’s rather better looking than you are.” He smiled. “Apart from that unfortunate eight-year-old radiation burn. I wonder how the poor girl got that?”
“And where’s she? The real girl? What have you done with her?”
Sharrow waved one hand. “Teel’s fine; she’s spaced on Zonk watching screen from the whirlbath in a hotel suite. She’s having a great night.”
“She’d better be,” Cenuij said.
“Oh! You enjoy humiliating her but now you’re all concerned for her well-being.” She sneered back. “Make sense, Cenuij.”
He smiled. “I am. But you wouldn’t understand.”
“And what sort of weird kick do you get from humiliating her anyway?”
Cenuij shrugged languidly. “Call it revenge.”
Sharrow sat back again, shaking her head. “Shit, you’re sick.”
“I’m sick?” Cenuij laughed. He crossed his arms and gazed up at the car’s ceiling lining. “She murders four hundred and sixty-eight thousand people and she calls me sick!”
“Oh, for the last fucking time,” she shouted. “I didn’t know they were going to start hacking the Gun to bits in the goddamn city!”
“You should have known!” he shouted back. “That’s where their labs were! That’s where they announced they were going to dismantle the damn thing!”
“I thought they meant the lab in the desert! I didn’t know they’d do it in the city!”
“You should have guessed!”
“I couldn’t believe anybody would be that stupid!”
“When have they ever been anything else?” Cenuij roared. “You should have guessed!”
“Well, I just fucking didn’t!” Sharrow yelled. She sat back, sniffing mightily.
Cenuij sat silently, massaging his legs.
Eventually Sharrow said, “That was probably some contract hunter with the net-gun tonight. If they’d succeeded you’d be in a Huhsz satrapy by dawn, all wired and juiced up so you’d have no fucking choice but to tell them what I was going to do next.”
“So I’ll stop talking to strangers,” Cenuij said. He tested one leg, flexing it. He sat forward suddenly. “Where are my shoes?” he demanded.
Sharrow dug under her seat, threw them over to him. He slipped them on and fastened them.
“Have you heard from Breyguhn recently?” she asked.
He stopped tightening a heel strap and glanced at her. “No. The good Brothers have what one might call a playful attitude to mail. I expect I’ll get another letter in a month or so.”
“I saw her four days ago.”
Cenuij looked wary. “Mm-hmm,” he said, sitting back. “And how… how is she?”
Sharrow looked away. “Not too good. I mean, surviving physically, but…”
“She didn’t give you… a letter or anything for me?” Cenuij asked.
“No.” Sharrow shook her head. “Look,” she said. “If we find the Universal Principles we can get her out. I only need the message in it; we can give the Brothers the book itself.”
Cenuij looked troubled, then sat back, sneering. “You say,” he said. His cloak lay on the seat beside him; he put it over his shoulders and fastened it, laughing. “Some piece of utterly unattributable Dascen family folklore has it that your grandpa somehow left a message in a book nobody’s set eyes on for a millennium and which there is no indication he even started to look for, and you believe it?” He shook his head.
“Dammit, Cenuij, it’s the best we’ve got to go on.”
“And what if this rumour is-by some miracle-only half wrong and you do need the book itself?” Cenuij asked.
“We’ll do all we can,” Sharrow said, sighing. “I promised.”
“You promised,” Cenuij sat still for awhile. He flexed both legs. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll think about it.” He put one hand to the door of the vehicle.
Sharrow put her hand over his. He looked into her eyes but she wouldn’t take her hand away. “Cenuij,” she said. “Please, come now. They’ll take you if you try to stay. I’m telling the truth, I swear.”
He looked at her hand. She took it away. He opened the door and climbed down out of the All-Terrain. He stood holding the door for a moment, checking that his legs were going to hold him when he tried to walk.
“Sharrow,” he said, looking up at her. “I’m only just starting to think that maybe you really are telling the truth about what happened to the Lazy Gun and Lip City.” He gave a sort of half-laugh. “But that’s taken eight years; let’s not rush things, shall we?”
She leant forward, imploring. “Cenuij; we need you; please… in the name of…” Her voice died away.
“Yes, Sharrow,” he smiled. “In the name of what?” She just stared at him. He shook his head. “There’s not really anything you respect or care about enough to use as an oath, is there?” He smiled. “Except perhaps yourself, and that wouldn’t sound right, would it?” He took a step backwards, letting go of the door. “Like I said, I’ll think about it.” He pulled his cloak closed. “Where can I contact you?”
She closed her eyes with a look of despair. “The Log-Jam, with Miz,” she said.
“Ah, of course.” He turned to go, facing the giant open-cast mine on the dark hillside. Then he stopped and turned back, the rain blowing about him. He nodded behind him at the mine. “See that, Sharrow? The open-cast? Mining an ancient spoil heap; sifting the already discarded, looking for treasure in what was rubbish… maybe not even for the first time, either. We live in the dust of our forebears; insects crawling in their dung. Splendid, isn’t it?”
He turned and walked away along the bank of an old tailings pond. He’d gone another few paces when he turned once more and called out, “By the way; you were very convincing about one thing… until you took the radiation scar off.”
He laughed and strode off towards the half-consumed spoil heap.
Like a lot of Golterian oddities, the Log-Jam was basically a tax dodge.
Jonolrey, Golter’s second largest continent, lay across Phirar from Caltasp. The same root word in a long-lost language that had provided the name for the ocean of Phirar had also given the region of Piphram its name. Once Piphram had been a powerful state, the greatest trading nation on the planet, practically running the world’s entire merchant marine. But that had been long ago; now it was just another entangledly autonomous patchwork Free Area, no less prosperous or gaudy than any other part of the world.
The administrative capital of Piphram, which by sheer coincidence happened actually to lie within the area its contract covered, was the Log-Jam.
Sunlit land slid under the small jet, flowing green and brown beneath its forward-weed wings as it throttled back and adjusted its position in the centre of the conical glide-path.
Sharrow watched Dloan at the plane’s controls; he sat in the pilot’s seat of the hired aircraft, studying its instrument screens. He’d flown the plane manually for take-off and ascent from Regioner, and had wanted to land it too, but the Log-Jam had had too many bad experiences with people trying to land on Carrier Field, and insisted on autolandings. Dloan was going to make sure it went all right.
Zefla, in a seat across from Sharrow, was fiddling with the small cabin’s screen controls; channel-hopping to produce a confused succession of images and background sound bursts.
Sharrow looked out of the window at the cloud-dappled land moving smoothly underneath.
“-alked to Doctor Fretis Braäst, moderator of the Huhsz college at Yadayeypon Ecclesiastical School.”
“Well, yes,” Zefla said, turning up the sound. Sharrow glanced up at the screen to see a well-groomed male presenter talking to camera; behind him, on the studio wall, was a gigantic, slightly grainy hologram of her own face. “You’re a star, kid,” Zefla said, smiling dazzlingly. Dloan turned round to watch.
Sharrow scowled at the screen. “Is that the best photo they could get? Must be ten years old; look at my hair. Ugh.”
The blow-up of Sharrow’s face was replaced by a live holo of a trim-looking elderly man with white hair and a white beard. He had twinkly eyes and an understanding smile. He was dressed in a light-grey academic gown with discreet but numerous qualification ribbons decorating one side of the collar.
“Doctor Braäst,” said the presenter. “This is a terrible thing, isn’t it? Here we are, about to start the second decamillenium, and your faith wants to hunt down and kill-preferably put to death ceremonially, in fact-a woman who has never been convicted of anything and whose only crime appears to be having been born, and being born female.”
Doctor Braäst smiled briefly. “Well, Keldon, I think you’ll find that the Lady Sharrow does have a string of convictions for a variety of crimes in Malishu, Miykenns, dating-”
“Doctor Braäst,” the presenter gave a pained smile and glanced down at a screenboard balanced on his knee. “Those were minor public order offences; I don’t think you can use fifteen-year-old fines for brawling and insulting a police officer as an excuse for-”
“I beg your pardon, Keldon,” the white-haired man smiled. “I was just trying to keep things totally accurate.”
“Well, fine, but to return to-”
“And I’d remind you that the whole issue of the use of such Passports is not a Huhsz tenet; this is a civil process with a pedigree over two millennia old; what we are told-and what we have to accept-is that this is a civilised response to the problem of assassination and the potential for disruption it implies.”
“Well, I believe a lot of people would say that all assassination ought to be illegal-”
“Perhaps so, but it was found that its codification caused less disruption than extra-legal actions.”
“Well, well; we aren’t here to discuss the history of legal… legal history, Doctor; we’re talking about the fate of one woman you seem determined to persecute and hound to death with all the influence and resources your-extremely wealthy-faith can muster.”
“Well, I agree that on the face of it this might seem terribly unfortunate for the lady-”
“I suspect most people would put it rather stronger than that-”
“Although this is a lady associated with the Incident in Lip City eight years-”
“This is all rumour, though, isn’t it, Doctor Braäst? Smear tactics. She hasn’t been convicted of anything… In fact, she successfully sued two screen services which implicated her in the Lip City Incident-”
“I can understand you’re frightened of her doing the same to you…”
“But none of this alters the fact that you want this woman dead, Doctor Braäst. Why?”
(”That’s more like it,” Zefla said, nodding.)
“Keldon, this is an unfortunate matter going back many generations, to an act of desecration, violence and rape carried out by one of the lady’s ancestors-”
“A version of events which has always been vigorously denied by-”
“Of course it’s been denied, Keldon,” the small doctor said, looking exasperated. “If you’ll just let me finish…”
“I beg your pardon; go on.”
“In which a young temple virgin was abducted, several of our order were seriously injured and numerous acts of violently destructive desecration, some of them of an obscene and depraved nature I can’t repeat here, were committed by troops of the Dascen clan-”
“Again, this is all denied-”
“Please let me finish; this unfortunate child was then raped, despoiled by Duke Chlea, forced to marry him and to bear children. When this poor, defiled and frightened creature attempted to return herself and her twins to the safety and security of the temple she had known since she was an infant-”
“Now, really, Doctor Braäst; history is quite clear on this; the Huhsz… Huhsz supporters, I should say, simply attacked-”
“History is people and records and the human memory and therefore not infallible, Keldon; we have divine guidance in this, which is.”
“But, Doctor Braäst, surely no matter whose version of this tragic story you believe, there is no reason to carry this blood-feud on into the present.”
“But we did not,” the white-haired man said reasonably. “This confused and unfortunate woman swore eternal antipathy to our faith; swore, indeed, that she would murder the next Prophet Incarnate, should He appear in her lifetime, and furthermore bound all her line to the same oath; that she had been raped, and then indoctrinated by the Dascen tribe in an atmosphere of hatred and atheist lies might help to explain such an abomination, but it cannot excuse it.
“Our Patriarch was at first determined to ignore this outrage, but God himself, in a visitation of a kind that occurs less than once in a generation, spoke to him and told the blessed Patriarch that he had but one course of action; blood had to be met with blood. By all means meet tolerance with tolerance, but equally one must meet intolerance with intolerance.
“The Messiah can not be born until the threat has been lifted or the desecration ameliorated. The oath has been made, the vendetta instituted, and all by the Dascen female line. They might think that they can rescind their rash and sacrilegious curse-indeed I perfectly understand that they want to do so now-but I’m afraid God’s word is not to be so trifled with. What must be done must be done. Even if we don’t get the Passports-though I am confident we shall-this is not a matter for compromise.”
“Of course, Doctor Braist, cynics might say that the real object of all this is to secure the return of what is now the very last Lazy Gun, which was the chief treasure taken from-”
“The exact nature of the treasure is irrelevant, Keldon, but it was as an act of mercy that God, through the Patriarch, allowed that the return of this device-never at any time used by the Huhsz, I might point out, and of purely ceremonial value would signal an end to this tragic feud, from our side at least.”
“But, Doctor, what it all boils down to is this; can any amount of this sort of reasoning, historical or otherwise, really justify this sort of barbaric practice in this day and age? Briefly, please.”
“Barbarism is always with us, Keldon. Lip City suffered an act of unparalleled barbarity eight years ago. What we have been forced to do is not barbaric; it is the will and the mercy of God. We can no more ignore this duty than we can neglect the adoration of Him. The Lady Sharrow-though we may feel sorry for her on a human level-represents a living insult for all those of the True and Blessed Belief. Her fate is not a matter for debate. She is the last of her line; a sad, barren and disabled figure whose misery has gone on too long. Her spirit, when it is finally released, will sing for joy that we were the ones who rescued her from her torment. I look forward to the eternal instant when her voice joins those of the Blessed whose conversion occurs after death; hers will be a muted exaltation, but it will be exaltation nevertheless, and eternal. Surely we should all wish her that.”
“Doctor Braäst, we’re out of time. Thank you for those words.”
“Thank you, Keldon.”
“Well,” the presenter said, turning to face the camera again with his eyebrows raised and just the suggestion of a shake of his head. “The war in Imthaid, now-”
Zefla switched the screen off. Dloan turned back to the jet’s controls. The Log-jam was a vast metallic ice crystal, glittering in the distance at the margin of the land and sea.
Zefla turned to Sharrow, slinging one long leg over her seat. “Buncha religious fuckwits.” She shook her head, blonde hair swinging. “You’re going to be a fucking heroine at the end of this, Shar, and they’re going to look like the humourless hysterical dickshits they are.”
Sharrow looked disconsolately at the darkened screen, nodding. “Only if they don’t get me,” she said, turning away and looking out of the window, where the outlying sections of the Log-jam rose towards the dropping plane like a set of enormous, gleaming fingers.
The plane landed without incident on Carrier Field.
When the state of Piphram had been on the way downhill after its era of grandeur and wealth, centuries earlier, many of the seaships that had comprised its merchant fleet had been sold, many more had been scrapped, and hundreds had been mothballed. The mothballed ships-everything from megatonne bulk carriers to the most delicate and exquisite repossessed private yacht-had mostly been brought home, to lie in a broad lagoon on the coast of Piphram’s Phirarian province and await better trading conditions.
Subsequently a modest land boom on the nearby coastal strip, between the Snowy Mountains and the lagoon-dotted coast pushed property prices up and Piphram’s historically punitive real-estate taxes exaggerated the effect. Then somebody-spotting a loophole in the tax status of the lagoons-thought of using a couple of old car ferries as temporary floating dormitories.
The two down-at-stern ferries, or rather their marginal situation, had proved to be a seed-point; within the chaos of Goltei’s furiously complicated economic ecology, finance-along with its relevant material manifestations-tended to concentrate and crystallise almost instantaneously around any region where the conditions for profit-making were even one shade more promising than elsewhere.
Thus, the Log-jam had grown from a few rusty hulks to a fully-fledged city in less than a hundred years; at first the ships were moored together in clumps and people moved between them on small craft, then later the vessels were joined together. Some were welded to each other and some had secondary housing, office and factory units built upon and between them until the individual identity of the majority of the ships began to disappear in the emerging topology of the conglomerative city.
The Log-jam now comprised many thousands of ships and a new one was added every few weeks; it had spread to the limits of the first lagoon, then spread out to sea and taken over three other lagoons along the coast, to become home to over two million people. Its main airport-which could be moved as one unit so that it was always on the outskirts of the city-was composed of forty old oil tankers joined side by side, their decks stripped, smoothed and strengthened to take the strats and transport aircraft. Its largely mothballed space port was a collection of ancient oil production platforms, towering at the southernmost end of the city; its docks were a few dozen dry docks, crane-carrying bulk carriers and militarily obsolete fleet auxiliary vessels.
Eight old aircraft carriers, remnants of a commercial navy, jointly made up Carrier Field, where the V-winged executive jet landed.
The little plane was quickly towed away and down-lifted to be stored in the bowels of one of the adjoining ex-supertankers which now served as supplementary hangars to the antique carriers.
Sharrow, Zefla and Dloan looked around the deck of the old ship while a tall, stooped steward with a full beard loaded their baggage onto a whining trolley. The weather was warm and humid and the sun high in a slightly hazy sky.
“Mornin t’yez,” wheezed the steward, nodding to them. “This your first time t’the jam, hm?”
“No,” said Sharrow, scowling.
“It is mine,” Zefla said brightly.
“Almost a crime, lovely lady like yerself not visitin the jam till now, if ye don’t mind me sayin so, ma’am,” the steward told Zefla. He took the control stick at the front of the cart and started to walk away, the cart whining behind him. “Been a good few years an more since we ad the priv’lege of welcomin two such beautiful ladies such as yourselves to the old jam. Makes the day a better one just seein two such enchantin zamples of the fair sex, it do, an it were a pretty fine day t’begin with. But made the better now with your presence, lovely ladies, like I says. An no mistake.”
“You are too kind,” Zefla laughed.
“And talkative,” muttered Sharrow.
“Wha’s that, ma’am?”
“Nothing,” Sharrow said.
They followed the tall steward across the deck of the field towards the superstructure that had been one of the old carriers’ command island and was now the arrivals hall. A line of laden baggage carts blocked their way. Dloan was looking at them suspiciously.
Zefla looked round, frowning. “I thought Miz said he’d-”
A brassy, sonorous musical chord burst from beyond the baggage trolleys; a flock of white seabirds, undisturbed by the jet’s arrival, flew squawking from the superstructure as the sound echoed across the deck. The baggage trolleys jerked into motion as a small tractor unit at one end pulled them away, revealing a twenty-strong ceremonial band sitting behind, all dressed in bright red and gold uniforms and blowing on glittering and extremely noisy instruments.
Sharrow recognised the tune, but couldn’t remember the name. She looked at Zefla, who shrugged. Dloan was kneeling, a large pistol in his hands, though it was pointed at the deck for the moment as he looked around. The band stood up and started walking towards them, still playing. Dloan had switched his attention to the tall, bearded steward, who was now no longer stooped, and who was taking off his jacket. He threw his hat away, ripped the beard off.
He stepped forward, went down on one knee in front of Sharrow and took her hand in his.
“My lady! Our leader!” he exclaimed, and kissed her hand.
The band were surging round and past them, instruments swinging to and fro, up and down. Dloan had stood and was holstering his pistol. Zefla laughed, her hands over her ears. Sharrow smiled and shook her head as Miz reached into his shirt, produced a bunch of flowers and presented them to her. She accepted them, putting the blossoms to her nose while Miz jumped to his feet.
He was tall, loose-limbed and his pale brown face-framed by long, straight fair hair-looked younger than it deserved to, and almost determinedly carefree. He had sparkling eyes cratered in a network of fine lines, a thin hook of a nose and a great, grinning mouth with generous lips and uneven teeth.
“Idiot!” she shouted at him, laughing; the band blared and circled around them.
He put his arms out, a questioning look on his face. She put the flower stems in her mouth, holding them with her teeth, then went to him, embracing him.
“Hiya, beautiful!” he shouted over the noise of the band, and lifted her off her feet. He whirled her round once, winking broadly at Zefla and Dloan in turn as he did so. His smile sparkled in the sunlight and seemed to rival the carrier’s deck in extent.
He set Sharrow back on her feet, still holding her; she pushed her head forward to deposit the flowers on his shoulder, in a curiously animal-like gesture that brought a brief tremor to his face; a sudden expression of something between desire and despair. It was gone in an instant, and only Zefla saw it. The flowers fell between Miz and Sharrow, nestling against their chests.
“Good to see ya, youngster!” he shouted.
“Not so young any more,” Sharrow told him.
“I knew you’d say that.”
“Well, I never could hide much from you.”
“There was a lot you never wanted to,” he leered. He waggled his eyebrows.
“Oh,” she tutted, pushing him away. The flowers fell towards the deck; he scooped them up easily and with a look of pretended hurt clutched them to his chest. His eyes closed, then he swivelled to bow very formally to Zefla and present them to her instead. Zefla took them and threw them to Sharrow, and while Miz was still watching their trajectory, stepped forward and hugged him, lifting him off his feet and whirling him round, all in the middle of the bellowing, glittering, encircling band.
“Waaaa!” Miz wailed, as Zefla spun faster.
Dloan smiled; Sharrow laughed.
“Ah, Lady Sharrow.”
“Doubtless you wish to know the result of our deliberations concerning your proposal.”
“I am happy to say that the Brethren have agreed. When the property is delivered, your sister will be released.”
“Half-sister. And the expenses?”
“On what is called Commercial Scale Two, I believe. Will that be acceptable?”
“I suppose so.”
“We shall have a business agency draw up the contract itself; they will sort out the details with you or your lawyer. Their number will be tagged to this message record.”
“Thank you. I’ll call them now.”
“Indeed. Your servant, my lady.”
The broad face in the holo smiled insincerely.
A fresh warm wind blew, making the lines of bunting flutter and rustle in gay lines across the shock of cloudless blue sky. The sea quivered, spangling, and across the sharp, glittering creases of the waves the small yachts came skimming like flat stones, their sails bosoming out and flourishing vivid stripes and bright patterns at the massed spectators. The crowd lining the rails of the ships or seated on the choicer barges roared into the breeze and waved hats and scarves; they threw streamers and let off noisy fireworks.
The yachts rounded the stand-turn buoy, heeling until their gunwales touched the water, then righted, reset their sails for the new reach and raced off towards the next buoy with the wind directly behind them. Spinnakers blossomed, one by one, snapping and filling like the chests of exotic displaying birds. A few of the yacht crews found time to wave back at the crowd; the people roared again, as though trying to fill the gaudy sails with their breath.
Miz guided Sharrow through the groups of chattering people on the barge, nodding to faces he recognised and occasionally exchanging greetings but not stopping to make introductions. He was dressed in achingly bright shorts and a short-sleeved shirt only a fraction quieter than the cheers of the crowds on the spectator barges. Sharrow wore a long gauzy dress of pale green; she sported dark glasses and held a parasol; Miz carried her satchel for her.
Several of the people they passed turned and looked after them, wondering who Miz’s new companion was. Nobody seemed to know, though a few thought she looked vaguely familiar. Miz lifted a couple of drinks from a waiter’s tray, leaving a coin behind, then he nodded towards a pontoon bar where little shell-boats were moored like buds on branches, paid for one and strode down the ramp to the floating deck-again nodding to the parties filling some of the other shell-boats-and set the drinks down on the central table of the boat. He helped Sharrow aboard.
They sat watching all the bustle of the regatta for a while, drinking their drinks and sampling the sweetmeats and savouries the waiters brought round; freshmenters in cat-canoes and sampans glided amongst the shell-boats, selling their own wares.
She had outlined the situation over dinner at his hotel the previous night, asking him to sleep on it. They and the Francks had dined in the circular funnel restaurant of the old cruise ship, watching the lights of the Log-Jam as they seemed to revolve beneath them.
They had danced, gone for a last few drinks and inhalants in Miz’s impressively large suite looking out over a floodlit marina, then while the Francks went for a walk on deck, he had walked her to her room, kissing her cheek and leaving, backing off, blowing kisses. She had half expected him to try and stay, or ask her to come back to his suite, but he hadn’t.
Sharrow looked from the gaudy regatta to Miz’s tanned, grinning face and twirled her parasol.
“So what have you decided, Miz? Will you come with us?”
“Yes,” he told her, nodding quickly. He adjusted the shellboat’s sunshade then took off his own dark glasses. “I do have a little business to attend to here first, however.” He smiled widely, steel-blue eyes scintillating.
She laughed at his expression; it was so childishly roguish.
He looked young and healthy and handsome as ever, she thought. There was an energy in him, as though his life held a momentum greater than that of others; the poor kid from the barrios of Speyr come up from nothing and heading higher still, brimming with ideas and schemes and general mischief.
“What sort of business? Will it take long?” she asked, twirling her parasol to watch the pattern of light and shade it cast on his open, eager face.
He bit his lips, put one hand over the side of the little shell-boat and dabbled his fingers in the water. “It’s just a little lifting operation,” he said, glancing at her. “Actually, I might be able to expedite it, now you lot are here; bring it forward a bit, if you’ll help.”
She frowned at the water where his hand trailed. “A lifting operation?” she said. “You gone into the marine salvage business?” She sounded confused.
He laughed. “No, not that sort of lifting,” he said, and sounded almost embarrassed.
She nodded. “Oh… that sort of lifting.”
“Yes,” he said.
“What is it you’re going for?”
He slid along the circular seat to her side, making the shell-boat list. He put his chin on her shoulder and spoke softly into her ear, which was revealed under the mass of swept-back black hair. He breathed her perfume in, closing his eyes, then sensed her moving away from him. He sighed and opened his eyes. She was angled away from him, staring at him over the top of her dark glasses, her huge eyes wide.
“Say that again,” she said. He looked beyond where she sat, then mouthed the words without actually speaking them.
She mouthed the words back, and he watched her lips.
The Crownstar Addendum? her lips said. Her eyes became wider still. He nodded. Sharrow pointed at his chest and mouthed: You Are Fucking Crazy.
He shrugged and sat back.
She dropped the parasol to the seat and set the dark glasses on the table, then put one hand under her armpit and the other over her eyes. “This must be the silly season for Antiquities,” she breathed.
“Don’t you admire my ambition?” Miz laughed.
She looked at him. “I thought we were going for something difficult. I thought the… article you’re talking about was supposed to be unstealable.”
“Whisper when you say that last word,” he said quietly, looking around the other shell-boats. “It’s only applied to one thing round here.”
“What are you going to do with it once you’ve got it?”
“Well, it started when I was contacted by an anonymous buyer,” Miz said breezily. “But I think I’ll ransom it back to the relevant authorities. That might be safer.”
“Safer!” she laughed. He looked hurt. “Why?” she asked. “Why are you doing this? I thought you were doing all right here?”
“I am,” he said, looking insulted. He waved around. “I’m rich; I don’t need to do it.”
“So don’t!” she said through her teeth.
“It’s too late to back out now,” he told her. “I have a tame official who’s going to help; he’s terribly excited about it all.”
“Oh, good grief,” she groaned.
“It’s so easy,” he said, leaning close to her again. “I thought it was crazy too, when it was first suggested, but the more I looked into it, and found out the truth of where and how it’s stored, the easier I realised it was going to be. It’d be crazy not to do it.”
“In other words,” she said. “You got bored.”
“Na,” he said, waving with one hand and looking flattered.
“So,” she said. “How do you propose to set about this probably suicidal task?”
“Hey, kid,” he said, beaming a smile at her and putting his arms wide. “Am I the Tech King, or not?”
“You are, after all, the Tech King, Miz, of course,” she said, a dubious expression on her face. “But-”
“Look; it’s all set up,” he dropped his voice again and sat closer. “The technical part of it’s over, really; it’s just putting the final human bits of it together that I’ve been working on.” He looked at her carefully, to see how he was doing. “Look,” he said, putting on his most winning smile, “it’ll be fine. I’m serious; there won’t even be a fuss, dammit. They won’t even know the thing’s actually gone until I tell them; this is a totally beautiful plan I have here and you’ll thank me later for letting you become a part of what is not so much a theft but more of a work of art in itself, really. Honestly. And like I say, I can even bring it forward now you guys are here so it’ll all be over by the time we have to start out-running the Huhsz. If you’ll help. Will you help?”
She looked deeply suspicious. “If you can convince me this plan’s viable and we won’t all spend the rest of our lives on the hand-pumps in some prison-hulk eating plankton, yes.”
“Ah,” Miz laughed, slapping her knee. “No danger of that.”
“Na.” He shook his head adamantly. “They’d kill us three and turn you over to the Huhsz for the reward.”
He looked instantly stricken with contrition. “So sorry. That wasn’t very funny, was it?”
“Am I laughing?” She put her dark glasses back on and sipped her drink.
Miz pursed his lips. “This stuff about the Huhsz,” he said. “There no other way out?”
“I stay ahead of them for a year, or get them their Lazy Gun.” She shrugged. “That’s it.”
“They can’t be bought off?”
“Certainly they can; by giving them the Gun.”
“But not with, like, money?”
“No, Miz. It’s a matter of dogma; faith.”
“Yeah,” he said. “So?” He looked genuinely puzzled.
“The answer is no,” Sharrow said patiently. “They can’t be bought off.”
“Anyway,” Miz said, and tapped her on the shoulder with one finger, a knowing look on his face. “The Tech King has thought up a way of slowing the bad guys down.” He winked at her.
“Ever been to the K’lel desert?”
She shook her head.
“Or Aïs city?” Miz asked, grinning.
“Too arid for my taste,” Sharrow smiled, rubbing her fingers up and down the stem of her glass. “I’m a moist kind of girl really, deep down.”
Miz crossed his eyes for a moment. “Please,” he said, sighing theatrically. He cleared his throat. “I’m serious.” He leaned close again. “These Passports are the World Court extra-specials, aren’t they? The unloseable ones with this weird sort of warp-type hole thingy in them?”
She frowned. “You’re losing me with all this technical jargon, Tech King.”
He slapped her thigh gently. “You know what I mean; the nano-event holes left over after the AIT Accident. Each Passport’ll incorporate one of them, won’t it?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And they’ll be coming out of Yada to be initiated at the Huhsz World Shrine?”
“I imagine so, but…”
He sat back, tapping the side of his head. “I have a Fiendish Plan, my Leader,” he said.
She shook her head, sighing. “And I thought you might have gotten sensible in your old age.”
“Perish the thought.” He grimaced. “And anyway; you’re the one wants to go looking for a book that hasn’t been heard of for a millennium without even the benefit of a paying contract in the vague hope it’ll somehow lead to a Lazy Gun.”
“Yes,” she said, dropping her voice and putting her face close to his. “But the book is only lost, not the most heavily guarded piece of jewellery on the fucking planet.”
Miz waved this distinction away with one hand as though it was a bothersome fly. “Did you get your contract set up with the Sea House guys?”
“Spoke to them this morning. Scale Two exes.”
“Huh. They handling it themselves?”
She shook her head. “Agency called The Keep.”
“The Keep?” Miz frowned. “Never heard of them.”
“Me neither; must be new. Seem to know what they’re talking about.”
“What is this damn book, anyway?” Miz asked, sounding annoyed. “The U.P.; what’s it about?”
Sharrow shrugged. “The only known part of the text is the dedication page; that gives a very rough idea, but the whole point of the fashion for noble houses commissioning Unique books was that the contents stayed a secret. For what it’s worth, just going on the names involved, this Unique’s meant to be the best of them.”
“Hmm. Maybe I’ll wait till they make the holo.” He shrugged. “And anyway, how come you think you can track it down when nobody else has been able to?”
“Gorko,” Sharrow said. “And Breyguhn.”
“What, your grampa?”
“Yes. According to Breyguhn, Gorko found out where the book was, but didn’t try to lift it. He’s supposed to have left a record of where it is, or was. Breyguhn claims she knows how I can get hold of this information.”
Miz thought about this, then said, “Shit, yes, the book. That’s what she was after when she broke into the Sea House, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. And she thinks she’s on the trail now.” Sharrow shrugged. “Or she could be having a joke at my expense.”
“A joke?” Miz looked intrigued.
She shook her head. “Wait till you hear how I’m supposed to access the information Breyguhn’s found.”
“Tell me now; I hate being teased.”
“Tell me!” he said, leaning closer and tickling her waist.
She stifled a shriek and tried to slide away, slapping his hand. “Stop that! Behave yourself!” She held up her glass in front of her. “Look at this. See; empty.”
He stopped trying to tickle her and looked round for a waiter, a wide grin on his face. His expression changed as he looked back up the ramp to the barge. “Ah,” he said. “Somebody I’d like you to meet. Back in a trice.” He sprang from the shell-boat, leaving it rocking.
She watched him go as he paced up the pontoon, waving at some people calling from another shell-boat.
Sharrow sat back in the seat, staring into the middle distance where another aim of the Log-jam sparkled in the sunshine, light reflecting off a thousand windows of a floating apartment block. The Crownstar Addendum, she thought. Oh dear. She had the unnerving feeling that they were all going off the rails; Miz trying to stay young by getting involved with this preposterous scheme to snatch one of the system’s most secure treasures; Cenuij chasing scar-girls in Lip; Zefla getting wasted every night, and Dloan becoming a screen-junkie. As for herself, she was just getting old, mired in banality.
A waiter appeared with a drink on a tray. She looked round to see Miz at the far end of the ramp, talking to a tall, plump man in long ceremonial robes of blue and gold; the Log-Jam’s colours. The two men walked down towards the shell-boats, the tall official nodding his head tolerantly as Miz made a joke. A small entourage of lesser officials followed behind. She sipped her drink as the group approached. The official made a small gesture with one gloved, heavily ringed hand; his minions stopped a few metres back on the pontoon, and stood there in the sunlight trying to look dignified while he and Miz walked to the shell-boat where she sat.
“The Lady Sharrow,” Miz said. “The honourable Vice Invigilator Ethce Lebmellin.”
The official bowed slowly, with just that degree of care that indicated he was not used to bowing. Sharrow nodded.
“My lady, this is indeed a pleasure,” the Vice Invigilator said. His voice was high and soft; his face was leaner than the body beneath the long, formal robes suggested. His eyes looked dark and cold.
“How do you do?” she said.
“May I welcome you to our humble city?”
“You may indeed,” she said. “Will you join us, sir?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure, dear lady, but I regret affairs of state require my presence elsewhere. Perhaps another time.”
“Perhaps,” she said, and smiled.
“Mister Kuma,” Lebmellin said, turning to the other man.
“Triplicate, Mister Lebmellin,” Miz said quietly.
Sharrow frowned, wondering if she’d heard right. Triplicate? she thought. She wouldn’t have heard the word at all but for the fact Miz pronounced it so carefully.
The robed official didn’t look in the least confused; he just looked at the other man for a second, then said, “Triplicate,” also very quietly. Miz smiled.
The official turned to her, bowing again, and returned along the pontoon to the barge, his entourage sweeping behind him like chicks after their mother.
Miz sat back down in the shell-boat, looking quietly pleased with himself.
“That your tame official?” Sharrow said quietly.
Miz nodded. “Devious big fuck; wouldn’t trust him further than I could throw him. But he’s the guy who can be in the right place at the right time, and he’s hungry.”
“You really are going ahead with this, aren’t you?”
“Damn right I am.”
“And the, ah… T-word just there; a password?”
Miz giggled. “Kind of.” He glanced at her. “Tee-hee-hee,” he said.
“You’re mad,” she told him.
“Nonsense. This’ll work out fine.”
“What boundless optimism you display, Miz,” she said, shaking her head.
“Well,” he said, shrugging. “Why not?” Then a look of uncertainty crossed his face. “There is just one slightly worrying development, recently. Well, over the last few weeks.” He pulled at his lower lip with his fingers. “Not sure if it’s actually a security leak as such, but kind of worrying.”
“What?” she said.
He turned side-on to face her again. “You know they have those sial races, down in Tile?”
“Yes,” she said. “They take the animals’ own brains out and replace them with human ones.”
“Yeah, criminals’ brains, Tile being a bit uncivilised. Anyway.” He coughed. “Somebody seems to be naming sials after my embarrassments.”
“For example, three weeks ago I had a shipment of, um… legally sensitive antique electronic circuitry being moved on a Land Car from Deblissav to Meridian. As the car was going through a pass in a mountain range called The Teeth, it was mined, attacked and looted. Bandits got clean away.” He shrugged. “Two days later, the winner at Tile Races was called Electric Toothache.”
She considered this. “Kind of tenuous, though, isn’t it?” she said, amused.
“There have been others,” he said. He looked genuinely worried. “I’ve had my agent there look into it, but we can’t work out how it’s being done. The stables keep the names secret until the race and then decide on a name on the day; supposed to help prevent cheating. Somebody’s getting the owners to name their beasts after things that go wrong in my affairs. And I can’t work out why.”
She patted his shoulder. “You’re working too hard, dear,” she said.
“I should have known better than to tell you,” he said, draining his glass. He nodded at hers. “Come on; take your drink and we’ll go and watch the race finish.”
They abandoned the little boat, leaving it rocking on the waves. She twirled her parasol as they walked back towards the barge, the water under the pontoon making slapping, gulping noises on the slats and floats of the walkway and the circular hulls of the shell-boats.
Thrial was the sun. Rafe was little more than a molten blob, while M’hlyr was solid on its one ever outward-facing side. Fian was sufficiently cold near its unwobbling poles for water ice to exist despite the fact most metals would run like water at its equator. Trontsephori was smaller than Golter; a clouded water world whose weather systems were so classically simple they resembled a crude simulation. Speyr was almost as large as Golter, terraformed five millennia earlier. Then came Golter, with its three moons, followed by a belt of asteroids; then Miykenns, colonised even earlier than Speyr, followed by the system’s giants; Roaval-ringed and mooned-and Phrastesis, shelled in still settling debris after the enigmatic destruction of its moons during the Second War. After it came the small giant, Nachtel, with its cold, just-habitable moon, Nachtel’s Ghost. Plesk, Vio and Prenstaleraf made up the outer system, each one colder and rockier and tinier in turn, trailing off like something at the end of a sentence. Assorted debris and comets completed the system.
Thrial was a ring of pure white gold inset with veins of platinum; it opened on a concealed hinge made from what appeared to be extruded diamond 13. The planets hung on loops of equally unlikely allotropic mercury and were each represented by a flawless example of the relevant birthstone according to the Piphramic Astrology, precisely graded to indicate planetary size on a logarithmic scale. Moons were red diamond, the asteroids emerald dust and the comets a tinily beaded fringe of dark carbon fibres, each tipped with a microscopic sphere of white gold. Distance from Thrial was represented by molecule-wide fines somehow etched into the ambivalent loops of mercury.
The Crownstar Addendum, as the necklace had been called for four or five thousand years, was beyond argument the single most precious piece of jewellery in the system, either extant or missing. All by itself, in its sheer pricelessness, the Crownstar Addendum provided the theoretical security for the Log-Jam’s currency, commercial guarantees and insurance bonds. Its melted-down and split-up value alone would have kept an averagely extravagant noble family comfortably off for a century or so, or even bought a minor house name, but that element of its value was insignificant compared to its intrinsic worth as something precious and mysterious that had somehow survived-and, to the extent that it could, had often been part of-Golter’s frenetically embroiled and feverish history.
Exactly who or what had made it, for whom, and when, and how, nobody knew.
No more did they know what the Crownstar itself was, if there had ever been such a thing. On Golter, the chances were about equal that if the Crownstar had existed it had been hidden, broken up, or just lost.
Whatever the Crownstar had been, and wherever it had ended up, there was no doubt concerning the location of its Addendum; it was kept deep in a special vault located inside a battleship near the centre of the Log-Jam. It was taken out-under intense security-only for very rare and special occasions; it was never, ever worn, and the impregnability of its vault-effectively a gigantic revolving safe made from three thousand tonnes of armour plate-had in recent years become almost as legendary as the fabled necklace itself.
Ethce Lebmellin watched from his plushly decorated seat in the reviewing stand as the two winning yachtsmen acknowledged the cheers of the crowd and started to ascend the steps towards him. The first prize was an ornate and ancient silver cup; it sat in front of him, gleaming in the reflected light striking off the waves. The gaily striped awning above flapped and snapped in the breeze.
Lebmellin looked at the prize cup, studying his reflection on its curved, polished surface. A rather silly prize for a rather silly pastime, he thought. The sort of thing the middle orders tended to waste their lives over, imagining they had accomplished something.
A familiar feeling of self-disgust and bitterness welled up inside him. He felt used and reviled. He was like this cup; this decorative, over-decorated trinket. Like it, he was dragged out for certain ceremonial duties, briefly admired, made use of, then packed away again without as much as a second thought. They were both fussily ornamented, had little apparent practical use and they were both hollow. Was this what he had worked for?
He had spent years in the diplomatic colleges of Yadayeypon, studying hard while the smart-ass lower-order kids made fun of his plodding progress, and the smoothly urbane scions of major houses-and minor houses better off than his own-sneered at his unfashionable clothes.
And what had he received, for all those late nights, all those given-up holidays, all those taunts and sly looks? An undistinguished qualification, while others had drunk and snorted and fornicated their way to outstanding success, and others had simply not cared, their positions in some family concern or Corp guaranteed just by their name.
He doubted any of them even remembered him.
A sinecure; a post of utmost vapidity for a small, parochially eccentric city-state. It was probably no more than his brilliant contemporaries had expected of him.
He rose to present the cup to the two fresh, sweating faces. He let them touch his gloves and kiss his ceremonial rings, wanting to draw his hand away and wipe it, feeling that everybody was watching him and thinking what a fool he looked. He spoke a few predictable, meaningless words to them, then handed the two men their empty prize. They held it aloft, to more cheers. He looked around the crowds, despising them.
You’ll applaud me one day, he thought.
He realised he was smiling, but decided it was only fitting, given the general rejoicing.
He thought of that upstart barrow-thief Miz Gattse Kuma and that snotty aristocrat with her laughing, dismissive eyes. Want to use me to get our treasure? he thought, still smiling, his heart beating faster. Think you can buy just my robe and my cooperation without buying the man inside, with his own desires and ambitions and plans? Well, he thought. I have a little surprise for you, my friends!
5 Lifting Party
The Abyssal Plain Nodule Processing Plant Mobile Repair Module woke up at one second before midnight, its circuits and sensors quickly establishing its location, internal state and external circumstances, as well as its programmed instructions.
It was on Golter, in a shallow lagoon off the coast of Piphram, under the floating city called the Log-Jam; it was fully functional and recently overhauled, with all reservoirs, tanks, magazines and batteries registering 99 per cent capacity or above; a subset of instructions refamiliarised it with the extra equipment and weaponry it had been fitted with, finding those fully ready too.
Its cupola sensor was at a true depth of 27.1 metres; its tracks, two metres lower, were sunk into soft mud to a depth of forty centimetres. Assuming its chronometer to be correct, the tide should be half-ebbed. The keel of a large stationary vessel lay eight metres above it. Light was scarce, seeping in from the occasional gap in between distant ships in shafts that barely illuminated the surrounding mud; the light signature indicated it was artificial. There was a faint current, only a few millimetres per second. The seabed was quiet; the water itself was filled with a distant, inchoate rumble of sound, an amalgam of noises coming from the ships that stretched for kilometres in all compass directions.
Water quality was brackish, oxygen-poor and moderately polluted with a broad spectrum of contaminants, though it was comparatively transparent. There was a confusing jumble of mostly metallic junk and wreckage lying under the surface of the mud at levels from nine metres down to barely submerged. Magnetic fields lay in static patterns all around; distant fluctuations were motors. Electrical activity was dispersed and ubiquitous in the ships above it.
Radiation was normal, for Golter.
Its instructions were clear. It readied itself, then adjusted its buoyancy by dropping two large weights from its flanks; they fell a few centimetres and embedded themselves in the mud, barely disturbing the surface. The mud still held it, but its motors would break that grip. It carried out the quietest possible start, flutter-feeding its motors so that it moved away at first much slower than the current, coming up and out of the mud as its buoyancy brought its tracks to the seabed’s surface.
Using its tracks and impellers, it accelerated smoothly and almost silently up to a slow crawl, and began a wide turn that would take it towards the destination it could already sense; the keel of a long vessel whose girth, allied with the angle of taper from beam to stem and stem, as well as the depth of water the craft was drawing, indicated that it was, or had been, a large capital ship; probably a battleship.
High in the superstructure of a five-hundred-metre liner which had once plied the lucrative trade routes between Jonolrey and Caltasp, Ethce Lebmellin entered the state suite where the reception was in noisy full swing. He was dressed in full ceremonial robes; cumbersomely sumptuous clothes of red, gold and blue covered in designs of extinct or mythical sea creatures that made his every step a battle of colourful monsters.
Lebmellin’s aides started introducing him to the guests. He heard himself making automatic replies as he went through the motions of greeting, inquiry and ingratiation. Two decades of training for and taking part in receptions, banquets and patties, at first in the academies and colleges of Yadayeypon and later in the Log-Jam itself, had given Lebmellin ample reserves of exactly the sort of flawlessly unthinking politeness such occasions demanded.
He could see Kuma at the far side of the room, introducing people to the aristocrat and his other two new friends; the man called Dloan-as bulky and quiet as any bodyguard Lebmellin had ever seen-and his bewitchingly attractive sister.
People seemed pathetically anxious to meet the noblewoman, who-in perhaps only a few days’ time-would be running for her life, trying to escape the Huhsz. The aristocrat, standing under the bright coloured lights near the centre of the reception room, had taken off her shoes; her naked feet were half submerged in the thick pile of the room’s richly patterned carpet. Lebmellin loathed such aristocratic affectation. He had to suppress a sneer as he shared a joke with a popular and influential courtesan it would have been foolish to antagonise.
He laughed lightly, putting his head back. Good; Kuma was just introducing the Franck woman to the Chief Invigilator.
A few minutes after midnight, routine repair work on a factory ship a couple of vessels away from what had once been the Imperial Tilian Navy’s flagship Devastator resulted in a small explosion in the manufacturing vessel’s bilges.
The Repair Module sensed the faintest of alterations to the dim hanging shape of a distant ship, then registered the shockwave as it passed through the attached hulls above, and finally heard and felt the explosion pulsing through the water around it as it trundled quietly and softly across the mud towards the old battleship.
The gas detonation fractured several of the factory ship’s outer plates and ruptured the insulation of a main power cable, so that when the water rushed in through the gaps in the ship’s hull it shorted out the electricity supply for several dozen ships near the heart of the Log-Jam. That part of the city sank into darkness.
The Module sensed the electrical fields immediately around fade and die, leaving only the magnetic signatures of the fabric of the ships themselves.
Emergency lights burned on the ships for a few seconds until their stand-by generators took up the strain, so that, one by one, the vessels flickered into brightness again. The Log-Jam’s power supply centre-tapping the reactors of dozens of old submarines and four of the eight nuclear-powered carriers which made up Carrier Field-instituted checks to determine where the power line had shorted, before it started to re-route electricity to the affected area.
The power supply in the Devastator took a little longer to re-establish while its alarms were checked. When the old battle-ship’s systems did fire up again, much of the emergency wiring-replaced only a few months earlier as part of the vessel’s rolling refit programme by an electrical company very distantly owned by Miz Gattse Kuma-promptly melted, starting numerous but small fires throughout the old ship. The system was shut down again. Duty engineers on the Devastator-who, after the guards, made up the bulk of the old battleship’s fifty or so night staff-worked to reroute the generator supply while battery-powered fire control systems tackled the fires; most were put out within a few minutes.
The Module half-ploughed, half-floated gently on, approach-ing the dark space under the silent battleship, whose wide, flat bottom hung suspended just a handful of metres above the floor of soft, black mud.
Lebmellin fought the desire to look at his timepiece or ask an aide the hour. He watched the Chief Invigilator as the older man fell under the spell of the golden-haired Franck woman. The aristocrat was quite outshone in her company. Zefla Franck glowed; she filled the space about her with life and beauty and an attraction you could almost taste.
The Sharrow woman had a sort of quiet, dark beauty, under-stated despite the strength of her features and forbidding, even if one had not known she was from a major house; she was like a dark, cloud-covered planet clothed in quiet, cold mystery.
But the Franck woman was like Thrial; like the sun; a radiance Lebmellin could feel on his face as she joshed and joked with his immediate superior. And the old fool was lapping it up, falling for it, falling for her.
Mine, thought Lebmellin, watching her as she talked and laughed, savouring the way she put her head back and the exquisite shape it gave that long, inviting neck. Mine, he told himself, fastening his gaze on her hand when it went out to touch the ornately embroidered material on the arm of the Chief Invigilator’s robe.
You’ll be mine, Lebmellin told her piled mass of shining golden hair and her wise-child laughing eyes and her perfect, agile, ever minutely swivelling and shifting figure and her luxurious, enveloping, softly welcoming voice and mouth. Mine, when this is over, and I can have whatever I want. Mine.
The Chief Invigilator offered to show the Francks the Log-Jam from his yacht. She accepted; her brother declined gracefully, to the obvious relief of the Chief Invigilator. He swept off with her on his arm, taking only his two bodyguards, private secretary, butler, chef and physician with him and leaving the rest of his entourage behind to look briefly discomfited, then relax and enjoy themselves.
The mains power was reconnected by a different route before the Devastator’s generator could be hooked into the circuit. When the battleship’s circuits came alive again, many of the alarms went off. There were still dozens of small fires burning aboard, and though they too were extinguished shortly after the power returned, there was smoke in many of the ship’s spaces, only gradually being pulled out of the vessel as its ventilation system rumbled back to life.
The alarms continued to sound, refusing to be reset without triggering again. The engineers and guard techs scratched their heads and ran various checks.
It was a few minutes before they realised that they weren’t dealing with a set of persistent and interlinked false alarms, and that something really was wrong.
By that time the Module had used a thermal lance to cut its way through the battleship’s mine-armour just a little to port of the vessel’s keel, directly under the Addendum Vault. It trundled back a little to let the three-metre disc of white-heat-edged metal thump onto the mud and disappear, then powered through the thick plume of disturbed mud until it was just underneath the hole. It reconfigured its tracks and motor chassis for minimum-cross-sectional shape and vertical large-bore pipe-working, then floated up into the flooded bilgespace.
The Crownstar Addendum lay in what had been the Devastator’s B-turret magazine. The magazine and the turret above had been designed to rotate as a unit to train the-three forty-centimetre guns on their targets; it had been heavily armoured to start with, and on its conversion from magazine to vault had been reinforced with extra titanium armour, as well as having all its entrances but one sealed up, so that once it had been swivelled away from the matching aperture in the magazine cylinder’s sleeve, the only way in was through at least a metre of armour plate.
The Module placed a shaped charge rather larger than any projectile the Devastator had ever fired under the base of the magazine vault, then crawled to one side of the flooded compartment, withdrew all its surface sensors into its armoured carapace and switched its listening devices off entirely.
The detonation shuddered through every single one of the Devastator’s sixty thousand tonnes. It raised eyebrows and clinked ice cubes in glasses on adjoining ships. Two senior technicians in the battleship’s security control room looked slowly at each other and then reached for the Maximum Alert panic button. Every alarm on the ship that hadn’t gone off already proceeded to.
Lebmellin got the call about a third after midnight; he was waiting for it, so sensed his communications aide’s stillness as she listened to something more important than the chatter of world news and jam systems reports which usually spoke to her wired eardrum. She closed one eye, checking her lid-screen.
The Chief Invigilator’s comm man was already talking into a brooch phone.
Lebmellin’s aide tapped his elbow once, and spoke the code he was expecting. “Sir; a Court representative has arrived unexpectedly. He’s aboard the Caltasp Princess.”
“Oh dear,” Lebmellin said. He turned back to the industrialist he’d been talking to, to make his apologies.
“It’s on F deck!” the security chief said, slamming the console and looking round the smoke-misted atmosphere of the control room, where lights flashed from most surfaces and every seat was occupied with people punching buttons, talking quickly into phones and thumbing through manuals. “Oh, sorry, Vice Invigilator,” he said, standing quickly.
Lebmellin left his aides in the corridor and strode into the centre of the room, his gaze sweeping round the boards and walls of flashing lights. “Well now,” he said in his best calm-but-determined voice. “What is going on, eh, chief?”
“Something’s broken into the vault, sir. Straight up and in after a power cut; it’s only two bulkheads-fairly thin bulkheads-away from the central chamber now. The last-ditch stuff ought to activate, but as nothing else has stopped it…” He shrugged. “It’s jammed the vault sir, but it can’t get away; we have two microsubs under the hole and four-soon six-crawler units standing by at the side of the hull, plus the duty submarine on its way to the nearest practicable space with divers ready, and all deck surfaces within two hundred metres under guard. We’ve informed the City Marines and they have aircraft and more men standing by. The Chief Invigilator is-”
“Indisposed, I believe,” Lebmellin said smoothly.
“Yes, sir. Unavailable, sir, so we contacted you.”
“Very good, chief,” Lebmellin said. “Please return to your post.”
The Module broke through into the central vault in a cloud of smoke, its carapace glowing red hot. A machine gun opened up, sprinkling the Module with fire; it lumbered on regardless, dragging a wrecked track behind it. One of its arms had been torn off and its casing had been dented and scarred in various places.
Gas gushed into the circular space, filling it with unseen fumes that would have killed a human in seconds. The machine trundled and squeaked to the centre of the chamber where a titanium sleeve had descended from the ceiling to cover the transparent crystal casing around the Addendum itself.
The Module mortared a shaped-charge fusing pin at the point where the titanium sleeve disappeared into the ceiling, piercing the armour and jamming the sleeve in position. A pulse weapon fired, filling the hazy, gas-choked chamber with sparks but failing to scramble the Module’s photonic circuitry.
The machine extracted what looked like a very thick rug about a metre wide from an armoured compartment under its carapace, wrapped the rug clumsily round the titanium column using its one functioning heavy arm, then sent the light pulse triggering the pre-patterned close-cutter; the charge blasted four microscopically thin crevices through the metal, and a metre of the titanium sleeve fell apart to reveal the undamaged crystal dome within holding the Crownstar Addendum, like a seed cluster within a halved fruit.
The Module loosed its most delicate arm from a slot on its side and reached towards the crystal dome, a hypersonic cutter humming on the end of the spindly arm. It made an incision round the base of the thick crystal dome, lifted it carefully off and placed it to one side, then reached in for the Addendum, lying on a neck-shaped slope of plain black cloth.
The three multi-jointed digits closed in on the necklace, swivelling and adjusting as they neared, as if uncertain how to pick it up.
Then they slowed, and stopped.
The Module made a gasping, grinding noise and seemed to collapse on its tracks. The arm reaching for the Addendum sagged, lopsided, its metal and plastic fingers still a couple of centimetres away from its goal. The fingers trembled, flexed for one last time, then drooped.
Smoke leaked from the carapace of the Module, joining the gas and the fumes and smoke already filling the chamber. A noise like a groan came from the battered machine.
It was quarter of an hour before the emergency motors were able to grind and force the vault round so that its door and the magazine sleeve door were aligned, and before the central chamber was cool and gas-free enough for Lebmellin, the security chief and the other guards to enter.
They wore gas-masks; they stepped in, over pieces of wreckage still glowing, and found the Module where it had stopped, its thin metallic arm stretched out grasping for the Addendum. The guards eyed it warily; their chief looked round the wrecked chamber with a look of disbelieving fury.
Lebmellin stepped gingerly over a lump of sliced titanium, holding his robes up off the debris-scattered deck. “Perhaps we ought to rename the ship the Devastated, eh, chief?” he said, and chuckled behind his mask.
The security chief gave him a bleak smile.
Lebmellin went to the necklace, staring intently at it without touching it.
“Best be careful, sir,” the security chief said, his voice muffled by the mask. “We don’t know that thing’s really dead yet.”
“Hmm,” Lebmellin said. He looked round, then nodded at the security chief, who motioned the guards out of the chamber.
The two men went to a metal fire-hose cabinet on the wan and each inserted a small key into what looked like an ordinary, non-locking handle. The dented mild steel cabinet swung open and Lebmellin reached in under the remains of the ancient canvas hose for a thin package wrapped in clean rags.
Lebmellin peeled back the rags to reveal the real Crownstar Addendum, which of course was far too valuable to leave the vault or ever be left exactly where people thought it was. The two men took magnifiers from their pockets and stared at the necklace. They both sighed at the same time.
“Well, chief,” Lebmellin said. He reached inside his robe with the hand not holding the Addendum and rubbed his chest. “It’s here, but we are going to have to fill out an awful lot of forms, and probably in triplicate.”
At exactly that point, the Module made a noise like a shot, and moved briefly on its tracks before falling silent again. The security chief spun round, eyes wide, a cry starting in his throat. After a moment he turned back. “Probably just cooling,” he said, smiling shamefacedly.
The Vice Invigilator looked unimpressed. “Yes, chief.” He covered the necklace in his hand with the rags and put it back in the fire-hose cupboard; they locked it together.
Lebmellin nodded at the machine. “Have the men force that thing back out the way it came,” he said. “Let the units under the ship take it away; we don’t want it doing anything awkward like self-destructing now, do we?”
“No, sir,” the security chief looked pained. “Of course it may do just that if we try to move it.”
Lebmellin looked meaningfully at the fire-hose cupboard. “Only the Chief Invigilator and five members of the City Board may move what’s in there; for tonight, we have no choice. Dump that damned thing down the hole it came through, and make sure this place is extremely well guarded.”
“Now do let’s leave; there’s a terribly regrettable smell in here, even with this mask, and my hair is going to stink for absolutely days. Call the guards back in.”
They supervised the removal of the necklace the Module had been about to grasp; Lebmellin went with the fifty fully armed Marines who escorted two nervous-looking bank vice-presidents to the Jam’s second most secure vault, in the Log-Jam branch of the First International Bank, on a purpose-built concrete barge modelled on an ancient oil-production platform.
Lebmellin left the bank on his official ACV with his aides. The security chief called from the Devastator. The Module had been levered and hoisted back down through the ship without incident and was now being dragged away from beneath the hull by a Marine crawler.
“Very good,” Lebmellin said, staring up through the cockpit canopy at the junklit clouds above. He smiled at his comm aide and official secretary, wondering which one was in Kuma’s employ. Possibly both.
He took a deep breath, holding one hand over his chest as he did so, as though breathless. He smiled beatifically. “I believe Mister Kuma was throwing a party after the reception; let’s see what’s left of it, shall we? You needn’t stay; you may all then depart for some well-earned sleep.”
Miz Gattse Kuma’s party on the old mixed-traffic ferry was just starting to lose momentum. The upper car-deck of the ferry held a dance floor; the lower train-deck held half a dozen train carriages fitted out with snug bars. The ferry was a recent acquisition moored on the outer fringe of the Log-Jam, facing out to the lagoon sandbar and the sea beyond and only attached to the rest of the city by ordinary gangplanks. Using its stabilisers the ship was able to rock itself from side to side and so simulate a moderate ocean swell, which all but the most sensitively constituted party-goers had thought highly amusing.
Lebmellin climbed to the bridge of the old ferry, ignoring the dispersing party and nodding to the burly men who made up Kuma’s security team. His mouth was dry and he found that he was trembling, partly in delayed response to the theft of the Addendum itself, and partly in anticipation of what was going to happen now.
The wide, red-lit bridge was almost empty; much of the ferry’s instrumentation had been removed. They were there; the noblewoman, Kuma and the Franck man. They all wore street clothes. The aristocrat carried a small shoulder satchel. He nodded to Kuma-relaxed and holding a drink-and moved to a pool of light over a chart table where a drinks tray sat, crystal goblets glittering.
“You have the piece, Mister Lebmellin?” Kuma said.
“Here,” he said, taking it out of his robe. He laid it on the chart table, opening the cloth. The three clustered around, staring at it.
He watched them while they gaped at the jewel. He tried to see what was different about them, how this SNB virus, this ancient piece of scientific wizardry had changed them, infected them with each other somehow, made them-at times, the rumour went-better able to anticipate one another’s reactions than identical twins. He had done his homework on Mister Kuma; he knew his past, and how this viral drug had altered him-and these others-forever. But how did it show itself? Could you see it? Could you detect it in their voices? Were they reacting similarly now? Did they think the same things all the time? He frowned at them, trying to see something he knew could not be seen.
Whatever, he thought, suppressing a smile; for all their fabled powers, they were no more immune to the spell-casting attractions of the necklace than anybody else.
The Crownstar Addendum did not disappoint. It lay there gleaming, light sliding off its conventionally impossible mercury loops as though it was creating its own pure, clean brilliance; as though it was part of something even more fabulous from a finer plane of existence which had intruded into the mundane universe by accident.
Lebmellin looked round them, smirking. Even the aristocrat had deigned to be impressed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement at the far end of the bridge, and thought he heard a muffled thump from above. The Franck man, the one who looked like a bodyguard, looked up.
“It is beautiful,” Sharrow said, her voice soft.
“But you might find these a little easier to spend,” Kuma said, dropping a little hide bag onto the table beside the necklace. He drew the string, opening the bag and revealing a dozen medium-sized emeralds.
“Quite,” Lebmellin said. He lifted the bag up and smiled at the green stones.
“This calls for a drink,” Kuma said, lifting one of the crystal decanters. He poured some gold-flecked Speyr-spirit for Lebmellin.
“Let me show you a salute from Yadayeypon, Mister Kuma,” Lebmellin said, putting the bag of emeralds in his robe. He took the other man’s glass, poured its contents into his own glass-the flakes of gold leaf swirling in the light-blue liquid-then reversed the process and finally poured half back into his own glass again. He handed the tolerantly smiling Kuma his glass back.
“What’s the toast?” Kuma inquired. “Absent poisoners?”
“Indeed,” Lebmellin smiled.
The windows at either end of the bridge shattered and broke, just as the door to the bridge slammed open; suddenly the bridge was full of black-fatigued men holding unlikely-looking guns. Dloan Franck had started to go for his own pistol, but then stopped. He put his hands up slowly.
Lebmellin had his own gun out by then. Kuma turned to him, still holding his drink and looking slightly annoyed. “Lebmellin,” he said. “Have you lost your fucking mind?”
“No, Mister Kuma,” Lebmellin said, taking the Addendum up and putting it back in his robes while his men relieved the three of their hand weapons. “Though you might be in danger of losing more than that.”
One of the black-dressed men handed Lebmellin a crescent-shaped device like a tiara; Lebmellin put it on his head. The other men were doing likewise. Dloan Franck stared, frowning mightily, at the gun the man nearest to him was holding. A little red light winked on top of the gun’s night scope.
“Lebmellin, old son,” Kuma said, with what sounded like weary sorrow, “unless you’ve got an army out there, this could all end very messily indeed. Why don’t you just put the piece back down on the table and we’ll forget this ever happened?”
Lebmellin smiled; he nodded to another of the black-dressed men, who held a plain metal cube, about thirty centimetres to a side. He set the box on the chart table; there was a big red button on its top.
“This,” Lebmellin said, “is a Mind Bomb.”
They didn’t look very impressed. The aristocrat and Kuma both looked at Dloan Franck, who shrugged.
“This,” Lebmellin went on, “will cause anybody within a fifty-metre radius to lose consciousness for half an hour; unless they are wearing one of these.” Lebmellin tapped his tiara.
Kuma stared at Lebmellin, seemingly aghast. Dloan looked at Sharrow and shook his head slightly.
“Unpleasant dreams, my friends,” Lebmellin said. He pushed the red button down hard.
Sharrow cleared her throat. Miz Gattse Kuma sniggered.
Dloan Franck was still looking at the gun Lebmellin’s man held. The little red light on the sight had just gone off. The man was looking at the gun, too. He gulped.
Lebmellin stared at the three still-standing people round the chart table, then stepped forward and slammed the red button down again as hard as he could.
As though it was a signal, the woman and two men burst away from the table at the same instant, whirling round to respectively punch, kick and head-butt the three men nearest them; Dloan and Sharrow overpowered the two men who’d taken their guns while they were still trying to get their own rifles to work. Miz made a grab for Lebmellin, but he had pushed himself away from the table and fell back, stumbling across the deck of the red-lit bridge.
Four black-clothed bodies lay on the floor round the chart table; everybody else seemed to be fighting; another man fell to the deck; the aristocrat followed him down, straddling him and punching him and tearing something from his clothing. Lebmellin saw two of his men at the bridge doorway pointing their guns at the melee and shaking the rifles when they didn’t work. Sharrow fired the gun she’d taken back and one of the men at the door fell to the deck, screaming and clutching his thigh; the other threw his gun down and ran.
Lebmellin ran too; he got to the end of the bridge and hauled himself out of the shattered window. Somebody shouted behind him. He fell to the deck aft of the broken window, landing heavily.
Sharrow got up and ran after Lebmellin; she saw him hobbling along the deck outside. She jumped out of the window, landing on something small and hard lying on the metal deck, like a pebble. A big, sleek, jet-engined powerboat was idling by the hull of the ferry. She levelled the HandCannon at Lebmellin, twenty metres away. Somebody shouted a challenge from the far end of the deck; the bulky figure of the Vice Invigilator skidded and stopped; Lebmellin glanced back at her, hesitated, then threw himself over the rail and fell through the darkness.
Sharrow watched him tumble; he hit the starboard engine nacelle of the powerboat below and bounced slackly into the black water. A second later a door gull-winged open half-way along the craft’s cabin and a figure threw itself out, also splashing into the waves.
“What’s happening?” Miz said from the broken bridge window.
Sharrow glanced back at him and shrugged. “Lots,” she said, and looked down at the deck to see what her foot was resting on. It was the Crownstar Addendum. “Oh,” she said. “Found the piece.” She picked it up carefully.
“Good,” Miz said. The muffled engines of the powerboat below revved up; it started to drift forward, then its engines screamed and it pushed away across the small waves, spray billowing from its hull as it accelerated and rose up on two sets of A-shaped legs to reveal itself as a hydrofoil.
Miz and Dloan joined Sharrow at the rail; the black hydrofoil powered into the night, twin blue-pink cones of light pulsing from its engines. Dloan held the metal box Lebmellin had called a Mind Bomb-its top hinged back-and one of the guns the black-dressed men had carried.
“Look,” he said to Miz, while Sharrow squinted at the dark water. Dloan opened up the stock of the rifle, pulling out some wires. “Ordinary synaptic stunners with a radio-controlled off switch.” Dloan held up the Mind Bomb, which was empty save for a single tiny piece of electronic circuitry. “And a radio transmitter…”
Miz looked mystified, from the empty box to Dloan’s face.
“I think I can see somebody…” Sharrow said, shading her eyes.
“Hello!” a faint, female voice said from the waves below.
“Zefla?” Dloan said, setting the gun and box on the deck.
A voice floated back sarcastically. “No, but I can take a message.”
Sharrow thought she could just see Zefla, her blonde head bobbing in the water. “What are you doing down there?” she called.
“Waiting for a rope, perhaps?”
“If you’re going to be cheeky you can look for Lebmellin. He’s down there somewhere. Can you see him?”
“No. About that rope…”
Just before they lowered her a rope ladder, Lebmellin bumped into Zefla. His body went drifting past face down, his distorted skull oozing blood.
Zefla held on to the corpse for a moment. Miz frowned, looking down. “What are you doing, Zef?” he called.
“Checking the double-crossing son-of-a-bitch for the emeralds,” Zef shouted back.
“Na, don’t bother,” Miz told her. “They were fakes anyway.”
Zefla made a growling noise. Sharrow gave Miz a hard look, and he beamed a broad smile at her.
“Isn’t this great?” he said, sighing happily. “Just like the old days!”
Sharrow shook her head, secured the ladder and threw the end down to Zefla.
They helped her over the rail; she was dressed in knickers and a short black under-slip.
“You all right?” Sharrow asked her.
“Oh’, fine,” Zefla said, dripping. “Chief Invigilator’s been killed, his yacht’s sunk and I was kidnapped.” She started to wring her hair out. “How’s your evening been?”
“Tell you later,” Miz said, turning from one of his hired men. “Jam security and Marines on the way,” he told Sharrow.
She shoved the Addendum into her satchel. “Let’s go,” she said.
Their route took them down into the bowels of the ship and past a couple of Miz’s nervous-looking hired hands; he told the guards to stop anybody else from following them.
A gangplank just above sea level led from the stem of the ferry into a larger passenger ship; as they crossed they heard shooting and the sound of helicopters. Miz kicked the end of the gangplank into the water after they’d passed.
They ran through the echoing, deserted space that had been the vessel’s engine room. On the far side was a crudely welded-in doorway, half-burnt paint still peeling from annealed metal near where the flame had burned.
A short corridor of large-bore pipe led to a similar door; when Miz closed it behind them they were at the bottom of a huge, tall, clangingly echoing space; naked metal walls towered into the darkness above. A single yellow bulb shone weakly,, suspended at the end of a skinny wire descending from the shadows. The air smelled stale and metallic.
“Old oil tanker,” Miz said breathlessly, leading the way across the water-puddled floor of the huge tank. Their shadows swung across the tank floor like the hands of a clock. “Boat’s in a dock a few tanks along.”
“Something fast, I hope,” Zefla said.
“Nup,” Miz said. “The hired hands have chose; we’ve got an ancient sail-boat with an electric motor. It’ll take us to a marina on shore. Not what they’ll be looking for at all.”
“You hope,” Sharrow said.
They jogged on, leaping the I-beams that were the vessel’s ribs and ducking through a couple of torch-burnt doors through to other tanks.
A pain hit Sharrow in the lower ribs, making her gasp. She ran on, holding her side. “You okay?” Zefla asked.
Sharrow nodded, motioned the others on. “Just a stitch; keep going.”
Then the lights went out. “Shit,” Sharrow heard Miz say. The sound of footsteps in front of her slowed.
The faintest of glows came from ahead, light spilling from a couple of tanks beyond. “Probably just a fuse, not enemy action,” Miz said. “Watch out for the I-beams. Ouch!”
“Find one?” Zefla inquired.
There was a muffled explosion somewhere behind them, followed by a distant banging noise. “Oh fuck!” Miz shouted.
“Just one of those nights really, isn’t it?” Zefla said.
“Yeah,” Miz said. “I bet we get to Aïs City and it’s raining. Well, come on.”
They ran. The pain in Sharrow’s abdomen got worse and her legs started to hurt as well: stabbing pains piercing her with every step.
“Sharrow?” she heard Dloan say in the darkness, as the silhouette of Miz climbed through to another tank.
“Here,” she gasped as she staggered. “Keep going, dammit; I’m here, I’m here.”
The others drew further ahead. They crossed another tank, stumbling up to the I-beams and splashing through unseen puddles of water. Her legs burned with pain; she gritted her teeth, tears coming unbidden to her eyes. Zefla then Dloan made it through the door to the next tank. The pain was getting worse. She heard one of them asking her something.
“Keep going!” she yelled, fighting the urge to scream, terrified of what was happening to her but determined to fight it.
Suddenly it was as though her head was being crushed in a vice, and a wave of agony swept over her from shoulders to calves, as though she was being skinned alive. She staggered and stopped, tasting blood in her mouth.
There was a noise of metal sliding heavily over metal, then a sharp detonation of pain inside the back of her head. She crumpled up, falling to the cold steel deck, unconscious before she hit.
She knew she hadn’t-been out long; maybe a minute or two. There was a distant banging noise coming from somewhere, and she thought she heard somebody shouting her name. The pain had gone. She was hunched, fetal, on the metal, lying on her right side in a shallow puddle. The opened satchel lay in another puddle a metre away. Her knees and forehead ached and it felt like she’d bitten her tongue. She had been sick; the vomit lay spreading quietly into the puddle in front of her. She groaned and wobbled upright, her hair flapping wetly against her face. She pulled the opened satchel out of its puddle, then spat and looked around. It was suddenly very bright in the tank; brighter than it had been before the lights went out.
She looked behind her. Sitting on a pair of gaudily coloured deck-chairs were two identical young men. They had fresh, scrubbed, pale coppery-pink faces beneath entirely bald scalps, and they were dressed very plainly in tight grey suits. Their irises were yellow. One held what looked like a naked plastic doll. She had a vague feeling she recognised the two men. They smiled, together.
She looked away and closed her eyes, but when she looked back they were still there. It had gone very quiet in the tank. A narrow metal stairway against one hull wall led up in a series of staggered flights towards the ship’s deck level.
She looked at the tank’s two doors; both were sealed by metal shutters attached to some sort of sliding mechanism. What looked like a large pressurised gas cylinder lay on the floor of the tank by the side of the two young men; a hose snaked away towards the bulkhead leading to the tank she’d been heading for. She could hear a hissing noise. She gagged, doubling up and feeling in her jacket for her gun.
It wasn’t there.
A stunning pain in her back and shoulders forced a scream from her and brought her arching back up. It was gone almost in the same instant; she fell back into the puddle, staring up at the harsh white lights beaming down from the top of the tank.
“Looking for your gun, Lady Sharrow?” one of the pleasant-looking young men said. His voice echoed round the tank.
She forced herself to sit up again. The two young men were smiling broadly, sitting with their legs crossed at exactly the same angle. The overhead lights reflected off their bald heads and made their golden eyes glow. One young man still held the doll, the other her gun.
She remembered now where she had seen one of them before; on the glass shore of Issier, in the vehicle disguised as a beachcomber.
They smiled once more, in unison. “Hello again,” said the one with the gun. “Thank you for dropping by.” He smiled broadly and made a stirring, circling motion with the gun. “You had to leave so precipitously on our last meeting, Lady Sharrow. I felt we didn’t really get a chance to talk, so thought I’d arrange another get-together.”
“Where are my friends?” she said hoarsely.
“In their little boat by now, I’d imagine,” the man with the gun said. “Or alternatively, gassed and dead on the other side of that wall.” He nodded, smiling, at the bulkhead.
“What do you want?” she said tiredly. The smell of her own sickness filled her nose for a moment, making her gag again.
The two young men glanced at each other; it was like watching somebody looking in a mirror. “What do we want?” the same one said again. “Gosh; nothing we haven’t already got, in a sense, I suppose.” He put her gun in an inside pocket of his plain grey jacket, drew out the Crownstar Addendum, smiled happily at the necklace, then slipped it back inside his jacket again. “Got the bauble, which is the main thing.” He grinned. “And of course we have you, pretty lady.” He nodded to his twin who held the doll; he poked the tiny figure sharply between the legs with one finger.
Incredible, impossible pain surged out of her groin and belly. She screamed, doubling up again and moaning as she quivered, convulsing across the deck.
The pain ebbed gradually.
She lay there, breathing hard, her heart thumping. Then she crawled round until she could see the two young men again. The one who’d been doing the talking was laughing silently.
“Bet that smarted, what?” He took a small kerchief from a breast pocket and wiped his eyes. He put it away and composed himself. “Now then, to business.” He made a cylinder of his fist, put it to his mouth and cleared his throat theatrically.
“The body is a code, my dear Lady Sharrow, and we have yours. We can do what my attractive assistant here has just done to you, anytime, anywhere.” He cocked his head to one side. “And if you don’t do as you’re told, like a good little Sharrow, we’ll have to spank you.” He looked at the other young man. “Won’t we?”
The other one nodded, and flicked a finger at the rump of the doll.
“No, please-” she heard herself say before the pain hit.
It was as though she’d been whacked on the behind by the flat of a sword with a blow fit to break legs. She felt her mouth gape as she gagged again, her face down against the cool metal of the tank floor. Tears squeezed from her eyes.
“Thank you for the necklace,” the young man said matter-of-factly. “We really do appreciate the efforts you and mister Kuma went to to secure it, I want you to know that. But we do feel you could do even better, you know? You see, we rather think you might be intending to look for another Antiquity. Can you guess what it is?”
She looked up, her breath quick and shallow. She had to blink hard to see them properly, still sitting there on their deck-chairs in their severe grey suits, their legs crossed, the bald pates gleaming. She couldn’t talk. She shook her head instead.
“Oh, come on now; you must be able to,” the young man chided. “I’ll give you a clue; you’ve already found one, it’s the last of its kind, and everybody but everybody who’s anybody wants one. Come on, it’s easy!”
She lowered her head to the tank floor again, nodding.
“It’s also,” the young man continued, “supposed to be the only weapon ever made with a semblance of a sense of humour.”
She brought her head up. “The Lazy Gun,” she said, her voice weak.
“That’s right!” the young man said brightly. “The Lazy Gun!” He sat forward in the deck-chair, smiling broadly. “Now of course we recognise that you have your own reasons for wanting to find this remarkable-and now unique-weapon, and will probably want to turn the Gun over to our friends the Huhsz, in the hope that they’ll stop trying to catch and kill you. An understandable desire on your part, of course, but one-sadly-that does somewhat conflict with the plans the interests that we represent have for the weapon.
“In brief, we would far prefer that you give the Gun to us. Now we’ll be letting you know the details of this little scheme nearer the time, but that’s given you the general idea. You give the Gun to us, or we’ll be terribly upset, and we’ll let you know it, too, via one of these small but perfectly formed mannequins.” The young man waved one hand towards the doll. “Got that?”
She nodded, swallowing and then coughing. “Yes,” she croaked.
“Oh, and may we counsel you not to run to that ghastly cousin of yours? Even the resourceful Geis won’t be able to help you against the people we work for, or protect you well enough to prevent us getting in touch with you through the mannequin. Besides which, we do have plans for old Geisy as well, actually. So all in all we really do think you’d be best advised to stick with us. What do you say?”
He paused, then put one hand to his ear. “Sorry?” he said. “Didn’t hear you there…”
She nodded. “Yes,” she said. “All right.”
“Super. We’ll be in touch again, Lady Sharrow,” he told her. “Every now and again we’ll make our presence felt. Just to keep you convinced this hasn’t been a dream, and we are quite serious.” He smiled and spread his arms wide. “I really would urge you to do your utmost to cooperate with us, Lady Sharrow. I mean, just think; supposing these started to fall into the hands of your enemies?” He looked at the doll lying in the hands of his twin, then gazed back into her eyes, shaking his head. “Life could become very unpleasant indeed, I’d imagine. You agree, I take it?”
“Jolly good!” The young man clapped his hands then pulled the sleeve of his grey jacket up and looked at a wrist-screen. He started to whistle as he watched the display for a while.
After a minute or so, he nodded a few times, then crossed his arms and smiled up at her again.
“There, my dear; that’s probably given all of the above time to sink into your memory.” He flashed his broad smile, then nodded to his image, who cradled the doll in both hands and carefully placed it on the metal deck between his booted feet.
“Twin,” said the other young man, “the lights, please.”
The one who hadn’t spoken raised the heel of his right boot over the doll.
She had time to suck in air but not to scream before he brought his foot stamping down on the doll’s head.
Something beyond pain detonated inside her skull.
She woke to a dim glow. The doorways to the adjoining tanks were still closed off by the metal shutters. There was no sign of the two young men, their deck-chairs or the gas cylinder. The naked plastic doll with the squashed, shattered head lay by her gun on the deck.
She drew herself up on her hands and stayed that way for a while, half lying, half supported by her arms.
She picked up the gun and the doll. The gun was still loaded; she put it in her jacket, then tested the doll, pressing it gingerly. It seemed to have stopped working. Circuitry foam sparkled dully inside the broken head.
She put the doll in her satchel and struggled to her feet, staggering. She reached into a pocket and pulled out the old heirloom timepiece. It had been smashed, the glass face broken. She shook it, then her head, then put the watch back in her pocket.
She rinsed her mouth in a puddle of relatively clean-looking water.
She couldn’t find any way to open the shutters over the doors, so she climbed the clanging metal stairway towards the tanker deck above, stopping to rest at each turn.
She hauled herself out onto the deck as the dawn broke pink and sharp above. She walked unsteadily along the deck, heading towards the tanker’s distant superstructure where a few lights burned. She breathed deeply and tried not to sway too much as she walked.
Then a man jumped out from behind a pipe cluster about ten metres in front of her. He was dressed like a refugee from the worst fancy-dress patry in the history of the world, clad in a baggy suit of violently clashing red and green stripes. He lifted what looked like an artificial leg and pointed it at her, telling her to stop or he’d shoot.
She stared at him for a moment, then laughed loudly and told him where to stick his third leg.
He shot her.
Continual noise and constant vibration. But something hushing, reassuring, comforting about these surrounding sensations, as though they were the acceptable successors of a womb-remembered external busyness, a comforting reminder that all was well and being attended to.
She became gradually aware that she was warm and prone and-when she stirred her tired, tingling limbs-naked under some smooth cloth. She tried to open her eyes but could not. The drone of noise called her back to sleep; the shaking all around her became a rocking, like the arms of somebody she had never known.
Her fingers and hands tingled.
She had been playing in the snow in the grounds of Tzant; she and Geis had been throwing snowballs at Breyguhn and the Higres and the Frenstechow children, a running battle that had gone on round the great maze and down into the formal gardens. It had been a startlingly cold winter that year; there were days when if you spat you could hear the spittle crack and freeze before it hit the snow, and the huge house smelled of the tape the servants had sealed the window frames with, to keep out draughts.
Geis was fifteen or sixteen then; she was eleven, Breyguhn nine. Geis and she end up in the gazebo, fending off the others as they close in. Geis looks into her eyes, his face glowing; a snowball whizzes over his head. To the death, cuz! he shouts, and she nods; and he tries to kiss her but she giggles and pushes him away and quickly gathers more snow together, while Breyguhn screams imprecations in the distance and snowballs thud into the wooden boards of the gazebo.
She woke slowly, turning over in the narrow cot. There were voices talking somewhere beyond the wall. An antiseptic, hospital smell came off the sheen beneath her. She remembered something about a puddle and throwing up into it, but she felt all right now, just hungry and slightly queasy at the same time. There was a light behind her; that was what she had turned away from. Her hair, beneath her on the thin pillow, smelled washed. Her eyes insisted on closing again. She let them; the view had been hazy anyway. The voices outside her head went on.
The Lazy Gun came and talked to her in her sleep.
In her dream the Lazy Gun had legs and a little head, like a doll’s. (She started to wake again, remembering the doll; she wanted her doll. She didn’t try to open her eyes, but felt around her for the doll; under the pillow, down the sides of her naked body where the sheets were tucked in, against the vibrating metal wall to one side and the metal bars of the cot on the other… but there was no doll. She gave up.)
The Gun was still there when she returned to the dream. It cocked its tiny doll-head to one side and asked her why she was going to look for it.
I can’t remember, she told the Gun.
It walked around for a while on its spindly legs making annoyed, clicking noises and then stopped and said, You shouldn’t.
I shouldn’t what? she said.
You shouldn’t look for me, it told her. I bring nothing but trouble. Remember Lip City.
She got very angry and shouted something at it and it disappeared.
There had been eight Lazy Guns. A Lazy Gun was a little over half a metre in length, about thirty centimetres in width and twenty centimetres in height. Its front was made up of two stubby cylinders which protruded from the smooth, matt-silver main body. The cylinders ended in slightly bulged black-glass lenses. A couple of hand controls sitting on stalks, an eyesight curving up on another extension, and a broad, adjustable metal strap all indicated that the weapons had been designed to be fired from the waist.
There were two controls, one on each hand grip; a zoom wheel and a trigger.
You looked through the sight, zoomed in until the target you had selected just filled your vision, then you pressed the trigger. The Lazy Gun did the rest instantaneously.
But you had no idea whatsoever exactly what was going to happen next.
If you had aimed at a person, a spear might suddenly materi-alise and pierce them through the chest, or some snake’s spit fang might graze their neck, or a ship’s anchor might appear falling above them, crushing them, or two enormous switch-electrodes would leap briefly into being on either side of the hapless target and vaporise him or her.
If you had aimed the gun at something larger, like a tank or a house, then it might implode, explode, collapse in a pile of dust, be struck by a section of a tidal wave or a lava flow, be turned inside out or just disappear entirely, with or without a bang.
Increasing scale seemed to rob a Lazy Gun of its eccentric poesy; turn it on a city or a mountain and it tended simply to drop an appropriately sized nuclear or thermonuclear fireball onto it. The only known exception had been when what was believed to have been a comet nucleus had destroyed a city-sized berg-barge on the water world of Trontsephori.
Rumour had it that some of the earlier Lazy Guns, at least, had shown what looked suspiciously like humour when they had been used; criminals saved from firing squads so that they could be the subjects of experiments had died under a hail of bullets, all hitting their hearts at the same time; an obsolete submarine had been straddled by depth charges; a mad king obsessed with metals had been smothered under a deluge of mercury.
The braver physicists-those who didn’t try to deny the existence of Lazy Guns altogether-ventured that the weap-ons somehow accessed different dimensions; they monitored other continua and dipped into one to pluck out their chosen method of destruction and transfer it to this universe, where it carried out its destructive task then promptly disappeared, only its effects remaining. Or they created whatever they desired to create from the ground-state of quantum fluctua-tion that invested the fabric of space. Or they were time machines.
Any one of these possibilities was so mind-boggling in its implications and ramifications-provided that one could understand or ever harness the technology involved-that the fact a Lazy Gun was light but massy, and weighed exactly three times as much turned upside down as it did the right way up, was almost trivial by comparison.
Unfortunately-for the cause of scientific advancement when a Lazy Gun felt it was being interfered with it destroyed itself; what appeared to be a matter/anti-matter reaction took place, turning the parts of the gun not actually annihilated into plasma and causing a blast of the sort normally associated with a medium-yield fission device; it was this kind of explosion which had devastated Lip City, though most of the subsequent illnesses and deaths caused by radiation had resulted not directly from the initial detonation but from the scattering of fissile material from the cores of the City University Physics Department’s research reactors.
(And she was there again; distracted-from that sweetly succulent pummelling-to gaze at the line of desert hills beyond the softly billowing white curtains and the stone balustrade of the hotel-room balcony. She watched the faint crease of dawn-light above as it was suddenly swamped by the stuttering pulses of silent fire from beyond the horizon. She looked-dazed and dazzled and wondering, still in her shaken instant of ignorance and cresting bliss-from that distant eruption of light to Miz’s face as he reared above her, eyes tightly closed, his mouth stretched open in a silent shout, the sheen of sweat on his hollowed cheek lit by the flickering light of annihilation, and as release came flooding-with knowledge, with realisation, so that her squeezed, convulsing cry became a scream of terror-she experienced a grain of vanishing, collapsing ecstasy, immediately swept away and lost in a storm of guilt and self-disgust.)
The Lazy Guns had not had a happy history; they had turned up during the Interregnum following the Second War, seemingly products of Halo; the vast Thrial-polar Machine Intelligence artifact/habitat destroyed by whatever mysterious weapon had been fired from-and which appeared to have obliterated-the moons of the gas giant planet Phrasresis. The Guns had floated like soap bubbles through the spasming chaos of the war-ravaged system in their drifting, otherwise empty lifeboats, and one by one they had been captured, stolen, used, abused, hidden, lost, rediscovered and used and abused again.
And one by one they had met their ends: one had been turned on Thrial by the insane theocrat into whose hands it had fallen; the weapon had refused, or been unable, to destroy the sun, and Gun and theocrat had simply vanished. Two Guns had annihilated themselves when people had tried to take them apart, one had taken a lucky hit during an air-strike, another was believed to have been deliberately attacked by a suicidal assassin while in the armoury of the noble family which had discovered it, and one-its lenses staring down a pair of electron microscopes-had created a series of nano-bang matricial holes in the World Court’s Anifrast Institute of Technology before whatever bizarre event had occurred which led to the Institute, all it had contained (except for the twenty-three gently-radiating holes) and a precise circle of land approximately thirteen hundred metres in diameter disappearing to be replaced by an attractive, perfectly hemispherical salt-water lake stocked with a variety of polar-oceanic plankton, fish and mammals.
Perhaps it was simply bad luck, but despite the fact the sheer capability of the Guns ought to have ensured their owner could effectively become ruler of the entire system, the weapons had invariably been the downfall of whoever had come into possession of them.
The Guns even had their own small, schismed cult; the Fellowship of the Gun believed the devices were the ambiguous, testing gifts from a superior alien civilisation, and that when the final Gun was found and venerated-worshipped rather than used-the aliens would finally appear amongst the people of the system and lead them to paradise, while the Free Fellowship of the Gun believed simply that the Guns were gods, and (now) that the one remaining Gun was the God.
The Huhsz faith regarded both these cults as idolatry in nature; as far as they were concerned the Gun stolen from them by Sharrow’s ancestor had simply been a temple treasure, albeit the principal one. They wanted it back because they regarded it as their property and because it had become an article of faith that unless it was recovered-or the Dascen female line wiped out-their messiah could not be born on time, on or before the advent of the decamillenium.
She opened her eyes groggily, to focus on a man sitting less than a metre away. He was dressed in a uniform that hurt her eyes; bright violet and shining yellow. His face was round and dark and very serious. “Who are you?” she whispered.
“I am God,” he said, nodding politely.
She looked at him for a while, listening to the hum that was all around her. The place they were in lurched.
“God?” she said.
The man nodded. “God,” he said.
“I see,” she said, drifting away again.
The hum became a lullaby.
She woke slowly, turning over in the narrow cot. There were voices talking somewhere beyond the wall. An antiseptic, hospital smell came off the sheets. She remembered being a bubble, blown through the system on the blast-fronts of the war’s erupting energies. She was one of the team now. She could remember what the doctor had told them, before they became infected with it; every word…
“You won’t notice it most of the time,” the doc told her/them. “It’s not telepathy and it’s not some doze-head feeling of mystical oneness with your fellows; it’s just the ability to know how somebody’ll react in a given situation. It’s a short-cut; a way of building up instant rapport without having to wait for a few years-probably longer than the war-and still never get there because the attrition rate’s so high you never achieve a stable combat unit.
“You want to know the truth? It’s an anti-fuck-up agent. Ever watched dumb-screen, where ops always go according to plan and nobody ever shoots their own people by mistake? That’s what SNB helps make come true. It makes war a little bit more like it’s supposed to be; less entropic, less chaotic; more tidy. I trust some of you are mature enough to realise that this makes it a top-brass wet-dream…”
“That’s me,” she whispered to herself. “I’m one of the team now. Eight of us.”
She woke up into a white space with no walls but a low ceiling; there was a Lazy Gun there. She couldn’t tell which one.
Nothing but trouble, sang the Gun, dancing round her on its skinny, wobbly legs. Nothing but death and destruction and trouble. She grabbed at the Gun; it tried to dance away from her, giggling, but she caught it and held it and strapped it to her. A wall which was a mirror appeared as soon as she touched the weapon. The Lazy Gun’s controls were as she remembered them; delicate, somehow, and beautiful. Its sides and top surface were covered in fabulously complicated scrollwork, incised into the silver casing. It was-she realised as she turned with it-a hunting gun. She pointed it at the mirror and smiled at herself as she pushed the trigger.
She woke up and looked round the small cabin; it was a cube barely two metres square. There was another bunk above hers, a light-metal drawer-unit with her clothes folded neatly inside, a plastic chair, a locked door with a single plastic hook on it and an air vent. That was all; no window.
Whatever sort of vehicle she was in, it was still moving. She could hear what sounded like combustion engines, and something about the way the deck beneath her vibrated and the whole cabin moved now and again suggested that she was on an Air Cushion Vehicle. Her stomach growled.
She considered trying to go back to sleep, but she’d slept enough. She took out her clothes and looked in the pockets; they held nothing. Her satchel was nowhere to be seen, either.
She got out of the small bed, feeling stiff and hungry. She checked herself over; there were faint bruises on her knees and she could feel a tiny ulcer on her tongue where she’d bit herself, but there were no other signs of damage. She dressed, then hammered on the door until somebody came.
“God?” she said to the man with the dark, round face she’d seen earlier in what she had assumed to be a dream. He shifted awkwardly on the small plastic seat and brushed imaginary dust from the thigh of his violently clashing yellow and violet uniform trousers. “Well,” he said. “Technically, yes.” A pained expression passed over his face.
“Right,” she said. “I see.”
“I used,” the man offered, frowning, “to be called Elson Roa.” He was tall and spindly and he sat very still with a look of faint surprise on his face. His fair hair stuck up from his forehead, adding to the impression of slight bewilderment.
“Elson Roa,” she repeated.
“But then I became God,” he nodded. “Or rather realised that I always had been God. God in the monotheistic sense that I am all that really exists.” He was silent for a moment. “I can see you are an apparence who is going to need an explanation.”
“An explanation,” she said. “Yes. That might be a good idea.”
She ate the reconstituted E-rations from the heated aluminium tray as though they were the finest banquet ever set before woman. The girl who had brought the food was the same one who’d escorted her to the toilet; she was dressed in brown and yellow and she sat in the cabin’s little plastic seat watching with fascination as Sharrow squeezed the last dregs from the sweet pouch, licked her lips and handed the tray back to her and said. “Delicious; could I have another one of those, please?”
The girl left to get some more food, locking the door behind her. The old hovercraft droned on, pitching rhythmically for a few moments as it traversed taller-than-average waves.
Sharrow had been captured by Solipsists.
They were a fifty-or-so-strong band of licensed privateers incorporated under the laws of Shaphet and dedicated to selffulfilment, union-rate security provision, and-where possible robbing the rich. Mostly, however, they were hired by insurance and finance companies to frighten reluctant clients and repossess unpaid-for material. Their ACV-a third-hand war-surplus marsh patrol vessel from the Security Franchise-had itself been a repo job; the Solipsists had taken over the payments and renamed it the Solo.
Their attack on the fringe of the Log-Jam had not been an unqualified success. They had heard there was a convention of circus performers taking place on a hotel-ship in the jam, and so disguised themselves as a troop of three-legged mutants, with their guns inside their hollow legs-hence the artificial limb Sharrow had been shot with. But they’d got their dates wrong; the convention wasn’t for another month.
They had attempted to gate-crash Miz’s party on board the ferry but found there was too much security, so they’d split up and gone in search of stray guests wandering away from the party, hoping to surprise and rob them; instead several of the Solipsists had been surprised and captured by the jam’s own security services after the fracas on the ferry, and a couple had been shot and wounded by Marines. The rest had only just got away, taking the big ACV charging along the lagoon sandbar in its own dawn-lit sandstorm while the Marines and Navy argued over who had jurisdiction to put a shot across their bows.
Apart from a few credit and debit cards, a handful of passports and a small amount of jewellery, Sharrow had been their only real prize; they’d probably have left her too, but for the fact she’d been carrying a major house passport.
The Solipsists had let her see a news sheet which mentioned the deaths of the Log-jam’s Vice and Chief Invigilators and a few security personnel injuries, but which did not talk about finding any bodies gassed in the tanks of old oil tankers.
They wouldn’t let her call anybody; they intended to take her far north, to the Free City and traditional hostage-transfer point of Ifagea on the Pilla Sea to see if they could ransom her back to her family from there.
“I don’t have any immediate family,” she told Roa.
“There must be somebody who would pay for you,” Roa said, looking puzzled. “Or you must have your own money.”
“Not much of that. I’ve a cousin who might pay a ransom. I don’t know…”
“Well, perhaps we can sort that out later,” Roa said, staring at a finger nail.
“I know,” Sharrow said. “Take me to Aïs in Nasahapley, not Ifagea.”
Rows brows knitted. “Why?” he said.
“Well, I think I’m meeting some friends there. They’ll bring some money.”
Roa looked dubious. “How much?”
“How much do you want?” she asked.
“How much would you suggest?” Roa countered.
She looked at him. “I’ve no idea. Haven’t you done this before?”
“Not as such,” Roa admitted.
“How about a hundred Thrial?” she joked.
Roa considered this. He put one boot on the other knee and tried to dig mud out from between the grips. “There are forty-six other apparences aboard,” he said, sounding embarrassed and refusing to meet her gaze. “Make it forty-six hundred… I mean, forty-seven.”
She stared at him, then decided he was serious. The sum was less than the average yearly income on Golter.
“Oh, what the heck,” she said. “Let’s call it five k.”
Roa shook his head. “That might cause difficulties.”
“Just the forty-seven hundred?”
“Yes,” Roa nodded emphatically.
“It’s a deal,” she said. “Net-call a chap called Miz Gattse Kuma and tell him I’ll meet him in Nis, soon as you can get there.”
Roa mumbled something.
“Pardon?” she said.
“We’ll have to think about that,” Roa said, clearing his throat. “The last time we were in Aïs we had some problems with certain-apparent-small craft which were damaged in the harbour.”
“Well,” Sharrow said. “See what you can do.”
“I shall tell my apparences,” Roa said, standing up and looking determined.
He left, locking the door. Sharrow lay back on the narrow cot, shaking her head.
At least Aïs was closer than Ifagea. She hoped they got there before the-apparently-not terribly well-informed Solipsists heard she would soon be fair game for the Huhsz hunting mission, and worth a lot more than forty-seven hundred.
The creaking, salt-encrusted, rust-streaked hovercraft Solo had headed north from the Log-Jam up the coast of Piphram, its holed exhausts blattering, its route marked by twin lines of smoke from its alcohol-powered rotary engines, stirred into wide helices by its dented, vibrating propellers. It refuelled from a commercial tanker in the Omequeth estuary and crossed the Shiyl peninsula over the Omequeth Corridor, still heading north towards the savanna south of Nasahapley.
“But if you’re God,” Sharrow said to Elson Roa, “why do you need the others?”
“What others?” Roa said.
Sharrow looked exasperated. “Oh, come on.”
Elson Roa shrugged. “My apparences? They are the sign that my will is not yet strong enough to support my existence without extraneous help. I am working on this.” Roa coughed. “It is, indeed, in a very real sense, an encouraging sign that we lost six of our number at the Log-Jam, as this indicates my will is becoming stronger.”
“I see,” Sharrow said, nodding thoughtfully. This was her third day aboard, the second after she’d woken up following her over-enthusiastically applied nerve-blast on the deck of the Log-Jam tanker. It was her third talk with the lanky, serious, very still and staidly eccentric Solipsist leader.
They were due to arrive in Aïs tomorrow.
The Solo’s route north and west had been a circuitous one, determined by estuaries, land corridors, seas, lakes and arguments amongst Roa and his apparences concerning the reality or otherwise of apparent obstacles such as islands and small craft. They were, anyway, making slow progress at least partly because the Solipsists seemed unable to work the ACV’s major sensory and navigational apparatus, and so could not travel at night or in mist and fog.
“So,” she said. “Are you immortal?”
Roa looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure,” he said. “The idea may not be relevant; time itself may be a redundant concept. What do you think? I may have created you as a platform for part of just such an answer.”
“I really have no idea,” she confessed. She waved a hand towards the bulkhead behind her. “What about the others? Do they-the apparences-all call themselves God, too?” she asked.
“Apparently,” Roa said, without the hint of a smile.
“Hmm.” She bit her lip.
Roa looked awkward. He seemed to think of something, and reached into a pocket in his violet and yellow tunic and pulled out a grubby piece of paper. “Ah,” he said, clearing his throat. “Your friend Mister Kuma sent a signal to say, um…” Roa squinted at the piece of paper, frowned, turned it upside down and finally scrunched it away in his pocket again. “Well, it said he’d meet you in Aïs at the, um, Continental Hotel… he’s paid the money into the account we asked him to, and, um… he wished you well.”
“Oh,” she said. “Good.”
Roa looked suddenly confused. “Um, apart from one, who’s an atheist,” he said suddenly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“We all call ourselves God except for one apparence, who is an atheist.”
“Ah-ha,” she said, nodding slowly. “And what does this person call themself?”
“ ‘Me.’ “
Roa cleared his throat, then closed his eyes and made a strange humming noise while rolling his head around on his neck for a few moments.
Then he opened his eyes. She smiled at him.
He looked displeased, got up and walked out.
She suspected he’d been hoping that when he opened his eyes, she’d have disappeared.
The Gun came into her dreams again that night. It was reading one of the Huhsz Passports. The Passports looked like books, and she tried to read what the book said, but every time she looked over the Gun’s shoulder it shied away, dipping and ducking on its skinny, bendy telescopic legs and continued to read the Passports, laughing to itself now and again, and no matter what she did she couldn’t get to see what it was finding so funny, so she kicked at its legs the next time and the Gun tripped and fell; she grabbed the Passport, but the Gun jumped up again, very angry, and shot her before she could open the book to see what it said.
She woke terrified in the small cot, palms sweating. They were heading for Aïs, near the Huhsz World Shrine. She and the Passports were going to be in the same place. She was mad; what was Miz thinking of? Probably they were all going to die.
Perhaps she should just give herself up. She stared into the darkness while the hovercraft whispered around her, tomb-dark.
What could she do against the Passports? What could anybody do? Miz was mad, or setting up a trap. You couldn’t destroy the Passports; they carried one of the nano-bang holes left over from the AIT Accident, each one broadcasting a small amount of radiation and a vast quantity of neutrinos, making them impossible to hide. Even if you destroyed the fabric of the Passport the hole would survive, and that was what the World Court recognised. Mad, mad, mad, she thought, twisting over and over in her cot, entangling herself in the thin sheet. The Huhsz could only hunt her; the World Court could order her arrest virtually anywhere if the Passports were destroyed (except what good would it do to destroy the fabric and leave the hole?) What was Miz planning? What could he do? Put them on a fast ship and sling them at the sun? The World Court would commandeer a faster ship… You couldn’t hide them, you couldn’t hold on to them, you couldn’t destroy them…
She fell asleep again eventually, her thoughts still revolving and repeating and echoing in her skull, dancing graceless pirouettes of hopelessness and despair.
Apart from some trouble with a group of peasant-squatters and an overhead power line, the Solo’s journey to Aïs was uneventful. Sharrow had been released from her cabin. Her passport and her satchel full of personal effects-including her gun, credit cards and cash, rather surprisingly-had been returned. She had watched the latter part of the journey from the flight deck of the old ACV, and talked to more of the Solipsists.
She discovered that the other Solipsists saw no contradiction in being part of a group of which they were not the leader; they all assumed they were, and Roa was just something they had imagined to deal with the boring parts of the job. There were still arguments, but the system of Roa being in charge appeared to work. (Democracy was out; they’d only vote for themselves again.)
Roa wisely did not name a second-in-command, in case this was taken as a sign that he was growing uncertain. This had happened before, and Roa had almost been murdered in his sleep by the person/figment concerned. Roa had dealt with the person sternly, hence at least one of the dents in the Solo’s stern starboard airscrew.
The old ACV powered along the coast of Nasahapley towards Aïs. An hour before they got there, she watched from the flight deck as they passed the territory’s religious cantonment, the sprawling, walled settlement on the coastal flood-plain dominated by the black and gold spires of the Huhsz World Shrine.
She waited for the regretful words, the apologetic explanation and the change of course that would take the hovercraft curving round towards the Shrine, but it never happened.
The Solo was too large to be allowed to travel in Greater Aïs county, where they had rules about that sort of thing. Elson Roa and a couple of the others unloaded a small half-track from the ACV’s garage deck and took her to the city in that, leaving the other apparences to argue with the harbour authorities about landing dues, mooring rates and untreated sewage discharges.
The small half-track rumbled into the dusty main square of Aïs; ochre, colonnaded buildings sloped on all sides. They had driven part of the way down the central reservation of a boulevard, collecting a couple of small shrubs on the nudge bars and a traffic violation. The half-track’s driver-a young albino originally called Keteo who drove with more enthusiasm than skill and more speed than accuracy-skidded the half-track to a stop just before the square’s central fountain, and sat staring malevolently at the flower-beds across the other side of the square.
It was a hot day; the sun was bright in the clear sky. The terminus of the Trans-Continental Monorail stood just beyond the flower-beds Keteo was staring at so intently. Sharrow looked around the square, where traffic-mostly buses-moved, and people-almost all totally nude-walked.
“Oh shit,” Sharrow said. “Just my luck to arrive in Nudist Week.”
Roa, who had been looking strangely tense until that point, relaxed and smiled. “Nudist Week,” he said, sounding relieved. “Yes; they really are, aren’t they? Of course.”
Sharrow looked around the square again, wondering if Miz and the Francks were here yet.
“Well,” Roa said to her. “Here we are. I have no idea whether I shall need you in the future, but I trust I imagine you well, if we do meet again.” He fell silent and stared at his finger nails.
She looked from him to the other two Solipsists; the man beside Roa was sitting with his eyes tightly closed. Keteo the driver was gunning the engine and muttering something as he glared at the distant flower-bed. Roa looked away and closed his eyes. He made a humming noise and started to roll his head.
She got down out of the half-track and stood on the road. Buses grumbled past; people-mostly naked, many carrying briefcases-walked past.
Elson Roa opened his eyes. He looked briefly delighted, then saw her standing on the road surface and started. He frowned down at her.
“Oh,” he said. “Politeness.” He reached down with one hand. She shook it. “Good-bye,” he said.
“Good-bye,” she replied, and turned and walked away.
When she looked back, Roa and the other back-seat Solipsist were arguing vehemently with the driver and gesticulating alternately at the flower-beds and the boulevard.
She walked self-consciously to the monorail station. As she walked up the steps, the Solipsist half-track roared out of the square, just missing the flower-beds and sending mostly naked pedestrians scattering in all directions as it bounced down the boulevard back towards the port.
She felt more and more awkward walking amongst the naked people in the station concourse, so she stopped to take her clothes off in a phone booth and was promptly arrested for stripping in public, an offence against common decency.
7 Operating Difficulties
The K’lel desert was a few million square kilometres of karst; eroded limestone devoid of topsoil. Karst forms when carbon dioxide dissolved in rain reacts with porous limestone as the moisture permeates it on its way to an underlying layer of impervious rock. Golter had had not one but several ages when there had been widespread and rather crude industrialisation, and each time one of the major centres had been downwind of K’lel, a lushly but shallowly forested area already vulnerable to the scouring effect of the Belt winds; the succession of increased carbon dioxide levels and heavy acid rainfall in the past had gradually destroyed the forests and eroded the rock while the Belt winds had produced a dust-bowl from the remaining soil, creating a change in the climate that only accelerated the desertification.
Eventually only the rock had been left, frayed and sculpted into spears and pinnacles of knife-sharp karst; a forest of pitted stone blades stretching from horizon to horizon, baked to the heat of the equatorial sun and dotted with collapsed caves where a few parched plants clung on in dark, sunken oases, and striated by tattered ribbons of seemingly level ground where the karst’s brittle corrugations were on a scale of centimetres rather than kilometres.
There were always plans to revivify the dead heart of the continent, but they never came to anything; even the seemingly promising scheme to replace the main space port for Golter’s eastern hemisphere, Ikueshleng, with a new complex in the desert had failed. Apart from some ruins, a sprinkling of old waste silos, a few vast, automated solar energy farms, and the Traps-Continental Monorail-also sun-powered-the K’lel was empty.
She squatted on her haunches in the shadow of the monorail support, holding her rifle butt down on the dusty ripples of stone, clenching the gun between her knees while she adjusted the scarf round her head, tucking one end into the collar of her light jacket.
It was mid-morning; the high cirrus clouds were poised like feathery arches over the warming expanse of karst, and the still air sucked sweat from exposed skin with an enthusiasm bordering on kleptomania. She slipped the mask up over her mouth and nose and reseated the dark visor over her eyes, then sat back, holding the gun, her fingers tapping on the barrel. She took a drink from her water bottle and glanced at her watch. She looked over at Dloan, crouching at the other leg of the monorail, rifle slung over his back, wires from his head-scarf leading into an opened junction box in the support leg. He looked up at her and shook his head.
Sharrow leant back against the already uncomfortably warm support leg. She shifted her satchel so that it was between her back and the hot metal of the monorail support. She looked at the time again. She hated waiting.
They met up again in the Continental Hotel in Aïs, after Sharrow had bailed herself out of Aïs’s Vice Squad pound and bribed the desk sergeant to lose the record of her arrest.
She finally arrived at the hotel-clothed again, and veiled, even if it did attract attention-but there was nobody there registered as Kuma or any other name she could imagine the others might be using.
She stood, tapping her fingers on the cool surface of the reception desk while the smiling and quite naked clerk scratched delicately under one armpit with a pen. She wondered whether to ask if there were any messages for her; she was starting to worry about giving her location away to the Huhsz. She’d think about it. She bought a newssheet to see if the Huhsz had their Passports yet and headed for the bar.
The first person she saw was a fully clothed Cenuij Mu.
“My watch says the damn thing should be visible by now,” Miz said, tight-beaming from the top of the monorail line, two kilometres away round the shallow curve the twinned tracks took to avoid a region of collapsed caves.
“Mine too,” Sharrow said into the mask. She squinted into the distance, trying to make out the tiny dot that was Miz, sitting on the baking top-surface of the monorail; the last time she’d looked she’d been able to see him and the lump on the ground beneath him, which was the camouflaged-netted All-Terrain, but the heat had increased sufficiently in just the last ten minutes for it to be impossible to see either now; with the naked eye the white line of the rail writhed and shimmered, smearing any detail. She tried adjusting the magnification and the polarisation of the visor, but gave up after a while.
“Nothing on the phones?” she asked.
“Just expansion noises,” Miz replied.
She looked at her watch again.
“So what changed your mind?” she asked Cenuij, in the elevator to the floor where the others were waiting.
He sighed and pulled back the left sleeve of his shirt.
She bent forward, looking. “Nasty. Laser?”
“I believe so,” he said, pulling down his sleeve again. “There were three this time. They wrecked my apartment. Last I heard-before I had to run away-my insurance company was refusing to pay out.” Cenuij made a sniffing noise and leant back against the wall of the lift, arms crossed. “When all this is over I shall ask you to cover that loss.”
“I promise,” Sharrow said, holding up one hand.
“Hmm,” Cenuij said as the elevator slowed. “Meanwhile, Miz appears to think there’s some point in staging…” Cenuij looked round the elevator, then shrugged, “a train robbery.”
Sharrow raised her eyebrows. The elevator stopped.
“For… artifacts,” Cenuij said, as the doors opened and they left, “that are indestructible, can’t be hidden and it would be suicide to hold on to.” He shook his head as they walked down the wide corridor. “Does the Log-Jam turn everybody’s brains to mush?”
“It does when you head-butt a hydrofoil from twenty metres up,” she told him.
She pulled her mask down; the air was a hot blast at the back of her throat. She waved at Dloan. He took the plugs out of his ears, cocked his head.
“Aren’t you getting anything?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Just the carrier signal; nothing about the train being late or being on this section of track yet.”
She turned back, frowning. “Shit,” she said, and flicked a grain of dust off the muzzle of the hunting rifle. She put the mask back up.
Miz stood looking out of the hotel-room window, glaring at Aïs’s dusty eastern suburbs. He glanced at Cenuij, who was taking the doll apart on the table, a magnifier clipped over his eyes.
“I was set up,” Miz said incredulously. He flapped his arms as he turned back to look at the others. “Some bastard had me steal the fucking necklace and let Lebmellin think he was going to double-cross me, but they had it all worked out; fucking Mind Bomb shit and the guns it switched off. And the set-up in the tanker; it was all done that day; I checked that route myself during the morning…” His voice trailed off as he sat heavily on the couch beside Sharrow. “And look at this!” He reached out to the low table in front of the couch and snatched up the newssheet Sharrow had brought with her. “Re-purloined Jewel wins the first race in Tile yesterday! Bastards!”
“Hey,” Sharrow said, putting her arm on his shoulders.
“Anyway,” he said, “enough. You had a worse time.” He squinted at her. “Two identical guys?” he said.
“Completely identical,” Sharrow nodded, taking her arm away. “Clone identical.”
“Or android identical,” Cenuij said from the table, putting down the magnifier.
“You think so?” she asked.
Cenuij stood, stretching. “Just a thought.”
“I thought androids came kind of expensive,” Sharrow said, swirling her drink. “I mean, when the hell do you ever see an android these days?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I’ve dated a few,” Zefla grunted, going to the room’s bar for a drink.
“They tend to stay in Vembyr, certainly,” Cenuij agreed. “But they travel, occasionally, and like everybody else,” Cenuij smiled frostily at Sharrow, “they each have their price.”
“Dloan was in Vembyr once,” Zefla said, turning from the flasks and bottles displayed in the cooler. “Weren’t you, Dlo?”
Dloan nodded. “Arms auction.”
“What’s it like?” Miz asked him.
Dloan looked thoughtful, then nodded and said, “Quiet.”
“Anyway,” Zefla said, taking a bottle from the cooler, “fuck the androids; what about that doll?”
Cenuij looked at it lying spread out on the table. “Could have been made anywhere,” he told them. “PVC body with strain gauges and an optical wiring loom; battery pack and a chunk of mostly redundant circuitry foam, plus an electronic coder-transmitter working at the long-wave limit of normal net frequencies.” Cenuij looked at Dloan. “Could the doll have been linked to some form of nerve-gun to do what she’s described?”
Dloan nodded. “Modified stunner can produce those effects. Illegal, most places.”
“I didn’t see any gun,” Sharrow said, trying to remember. “There were the two guys, the two chairs, the gas cylinder…”
“Chlorine!” Miz said, slapping both knees and jumping up from the couch to go to the window again, running one hand through his hair. “Fucking chlorine! Sons of bitches.”
“The gun could have been anywhere in the tank,” Cenuij said, glancing at Dloan, who nodded. “Possibly with the master unit controlling the androids, if that’s what they were. Or,” Cenuij added, nodding at Sharrow, “the doll could have been transmitting directly.”
Nobody said anything.
Sharrow cleared her throat. “You mean there might be something inside me picking up the signals from the doll?”
“Possible,” Cenuij said, gathering the bits and pieces of the doll together. “This long-wave transmitter isn’t how you’d normally slave a gun to a remote. It’s… strange.”
“But how could there be something in me?” Sharrow said. “Inside my head…?”
Cenuij shoved the remains of the doll into a disposal bag. “Had any brain surgery recently?” he asked, smiling humourlessly.
“No,” Sharrow shook her head. “I haven’t been near a doctor for… fourteen, fifteen years?”
Cenuij scraped the last few bits of the doll into the bag. “Not since Nachtel’s Ghost, in fact, after the crash,” he said. He sealed the disposal bag. “So it was a nerve-gun.”
“I hope so,” Sharrow said, staring towards the window where Miz was standing again, looking out over the dusty city.
“You want this?” Cenuij asked her, holding up the bag with the doll’s remains in it.
She shook her head and crossed her arms, as though cold.
They booked a private compartment on the dawn-hour Aïs-Yadayeypon Limited. Three hours into the journey the train left the last vestiges of Outer Jonolrey’s prairies behind and decelerated across the first jagged outcrops of karst for its last stop before the eastern seaboard. They completed their breakfast and watched the pale-grey, intermittently spired landscape below start to dot with houses, solar arrays and fenced compounds.
They were the only people who got off. The straggled town felt like frontier territory, lazy and open and half-finished. The local vehicle dealer had the six-wheel All-Terrain waiting in the station car park; Miz signed the papers, they collected a last few supplies from a general hardware store and then set off into the karst along a bumpy, dusty solar-farm road that roughly paralleled the widely spaced fence of inverted U’s supporting the thin white lines of the monorails.
Sharrow looked up as something moved above her on the monorail. Cenuij looked down, his scarf-enfolded head showing over the edge of the rail eight metres above.
“What exactly is going on?” he said.
She shrugged. “No idea.” She looked at Dloan, still listening to the monorail’s circuits, then along to the next support leg, where Zefla was sitting in the shade, her head bowed.
“Well, that’s fine,” Cenuij said tetchily. “I’ll just stay up here and get heat-stroke, shall I?” He disappeared again.
“What an excellent idea,” Sharrow muttered, then tight-beamed to the point on the rail two kilometres away where Miz was. “Miz?”
“Yeah?” Miz’s voice said.
“How long till the next one’s through in the other direction?”
“Miz, you are absolutely sure-” she began.
“Look, kid,” Miz said, sounding annoyed. “It’s the regular fucking express, the Passports were issued yesterday and my agent in Yada says a Huhsz front company hired a private carriage on this train, today, about five minutes after the Passports hearing broke up. How does it all sound to you?”
“All right, all-” she began.
“Whoa,” Miz said. There was silence for a few moments, then Miz’s voice returned, suddenly urgent. “Got something on the phones… definite vibration… should be it. All ready?”
She glanced at Dloan, who was holding one hand to his ear. He looked up at her and nodded. “Here it comes,” he said.
“Ready,” Sharrow told Miz. She whistled to Cenuij, who stuck his head over the top again. “It’s on its way,” she told him.
“Got the other foil ready?”
“Of course; putting the gunge on now.” He shook his head. “Stopping a monorail with glue; how do I get into these situations?” His head disappeared.
Sharrow looked at the squatting figure a hundred metres up the line. “Zef?”
Zefla jerked. Her head came up; she looked round and waved. “Business?” her sleepy voice said in Sharrow’s ears.
“Yes, business. Try to stay awake, Zef.”
“Oh, all right then.”
Dloan shut the junction box in the monorail leg and started climbing up the hand-holds towards the top of the rail.
Sharrow felt her heart start to race. She checked the rifle again. She brought out the HandCannon and checked it too. They were under-gunned for an operation like this, but they hadn’t had time to get all the gear they’d wanted together.
The morning after she’d been dropped in Nis by the Solipsists and met up with the others, they heard the Passports would be issued within the next twenty hours.
Miz told them his plan; Cenuij told him he was crazy. Zefla’s considered opinion on its legal implications was that it was ‘cheeky’.
They had just enough time to set up the All-Terrain purchase for the next day and storm through Aïs in a variety of taxis, buying up desert gear, bits of comm equipment and the heaviest automatic hunting rifles and ammunition the Aïs county laws would allow them to have. Just another day or so and Miz could have had heavier weaponry flown in and cleared through one of his front companies, but the Passports were issued on time that day and they had no choice but to make their move.
Their final purchases had been three large discs of coated heavy-duty aluminium foil-spare parts for a portable solar furnace-and some glue. While Dloan and Miz had been buying those, Sharrow had been in the hotel, placing a call to a descendant of one of the Dascen family’s servants, a man rich enough himself to have a butler and a private secretary both of whom Sharrow had to go through before she got to Bencil Dornay, who cordially and graciously invited her to his mountain house, along with her friends.
“-ast!” Sharrow heard Miz say.
“What?” she sent back, rattled by the tone of his voice. There was no reply. She stared into the distance, where the white line of the monorail disappeared into the desert shimmer.
“I can see it!” Cenuij shouted from above.
An infinitesimal silent line appeared on the liquid horizon, barely visible through the trembling air. The tiny bright line lengthened; sun burst off it briefly, flickering, then blinked out again.
Sharrow stood up and clicked the visor magnification to twenty. It was like looking at a toy-train set reflected in a pool of wobbling mercury. The train was still a couple of kilometres away from where Miz was lying on the top of the monorail. She watched the shadows of the support legs flicking across the train’s nose as it raced along under the rail, a tearing silver line curving through the heat.
“Shit,” she heard herself say. The shadows were strobing across the train’s aircraft-sleek snout at almost three per second; the supports were spaced every hundred metres and the expresses normally ran at about two-twenty metres per second; that was the speed they’d based their calculations on. She drew a breath, to tell Miz to throw the foil over early, when she saw a flash under the monorail.
“Foil’s down!” she heard Miz yell.
If Miz’s plan was going to work, the train’s needle radar should now be picking up the echo of the foil screen and slamming the emergency brakes on.
“It’s going too fast,” she beamed to Zefla. “It’ll overshoot.”
“On my way,” Zefla sent back, and started running towards Sharrow.
A roaring, screaming noise came through the tight-beam; Miz was just audible above the racket, shouting, “Feels like it’s braking. Here it comes!”
“Start running!” Cenuij called down to Sharrow.
“I’m running, I’m running,” she muttered, sprinting across the corrugated karst towards the next support leg.
Two kilometres away, Miz lay on the top of the monorail, his cheek held just off the burning surface. The vibration and the noise bored through him; the humming from beneath built into a teeth-aching buzz that seemed to threaten to jolt him right off the rail. He spread himself out, trying to clamp himself to the rail with his hands and feet. Beneath him, the circle of foil he’d dropped into the path of the train vibrated gently on its plastic stays, its coated surface reflecting the train’s radar. The noise and vibration rose to a crescendo as the furiously braking train screamed past underneath.
“Shi-i-i-i-t!” Miz said, his teeth chattering, every bone in his body seeming to judder. The vortex of air swept up and over him, lashing at his clothes.
The bullet nose of the decelerating train hit the circle of foil, ripping through it instantly and sending the shredded pieces fluttering through the air like a flock of falling silver birds.
The train roared away, still braking. Miz jumped up. “I’d put that second foil down now, kids!” he tight-beamed, then ran to the support leg and started climbing down towards the All-Terrain.
Sharrow slowed, looking back down the curving line of support legs; light and shade flickered at their limit. She ran on through the parched air, still slowing, and waited for the second circle of foil to drop above her. She could hear the train now; a distant roar.
“Going fast, eh?” Zefla grinned, dashing past.
The second foil reflector dropped and spread ten metres ahead of Sharrow. She stopped, breathing hard, a furnace in the back of her throat. Zefla jogged on, fifty metres in front of her. Sharrow looked back; the train came on, still slowing; the noise stayed almost constant as the slipstream ebbed and the wail of protesting superconductors gradually faded as the train drew closer.
Then it was above her, the carriages flicking past just a couple of metres over her head; the train’s sleek nose hit the second foil screen and held it, tearing it from its stays so that the glistening membrane wrapped round the snout of the front carriage, snapping and cracking around it until the train drew to a stop.
She was just behind the rear of the last carriage; it hung, swinging slightly from the white line of track. She ran on, jumping ridges in the limestone and following Zefla, her gun out ready in front of her. Zefla glanced back.
Suddenly something dropped out of the train from the second-last carriage, between Sharrow and Zefla. In the same instant as it came fluttering down from the still-swinging hatch she recognised the gold and black shape as a Huhsz uniform. Sharrow knew Zefla would dive for cover just there. Sharrow went in the same direction, dropping into the cover of a corrugation in the karst, her gun tracking the falling uniform.
The Huhsz officer’s cape hit the ground as empty as it had been when it left the train. Dust rose. She aimed at the opened hatchway. A hand gun and face appeared. She waited. Hand gun and face withdrew again.
A movement to her right made her heart race briefly before she realised it was the shadow of the train on a long ridge of karst by the track-side; she was seeing what must be Dloan and Cenuij’s shadows as they got into position above the train.
Sharrow shifted her position a few metres along the shallow trench into better cover.
Something else fell from the train, at its nose; the foil screen flashed and glittered, rustling to the ground.
“Shit,” Sharrow breathed. She touched the side of her mask. “Foil’s fallen off,” she broadcast. “Break something.”
“Right,” Dloan’s voice said.
They’d smeared the second foil with glue so that it would stick to the front of the train, but obviously it hadn’t held; now the railway’s technicians and controllers back in Yadayeypon would be looking at their screens and read-outs and seeing a clear view in front of the train and probably no indications of damage. Soon they would start thinking about letting the train continue on its way again.
There was a pause, then a loud bang from above. Sharrow relaxed a little; that ought to be Dloan and Cenuij doing something terminal to the train’s power supply. A brief grinding noise overhead, and the sight of the second-last carriage settling down a little lower and sitting very still while the other carriages swayed slightly, confirmed that its superconductors were no longer holding it up inside the monorail; the train was trapped.
She glanced back, down to the end of the train and beyond. A line of dust a kilometre or so away was Miz in the All-Terrain. She looked back to the hatch; a larger gun appeared, and a face; the gun sparkled.
The ridge of karst Sharrow had been crouched behind earlier dissolved in an erupting cloud of dust and a rasping bellow of noise as a thousand tiny explosions tore through the brittle, eroded stone. Sharrow was too close to do anything but curl up and try to shield herself from the shrapnel slivers of stone whirling away from the devastation. Debris pattered against her back; a couple of the impacts stung like needles. She tried to roll further away, then when the noise stopped but she could hear rifle shots, leapt up, firing.
Bullets sparked round the empty hatch; the hatch cover itself clanged and jerked and swayed as Zefla’s fire hit and pierced it from the other side.
There was a percussive thump from the hatch; something flashed into the ground and exploded. The air was filled by a crackling noise and the ground under the hatch leapt and danced with tiny explosions, all raising dust about the initial impact site; there was an impression of blurring, buzzing, furious movement in the air.
Sharrow ducked down, cursing. She pulled a small flare from her satchel, lit it and lobbed it to one side of the spreading ripple of explosions.
They’d fired a flea-cluster round. The individual microgrenades each had twelve random, explosive bounces to find the heat signature of a human being nearby, then they would blow up anyway. Properly used they were devastating, but the canister was designed to be lobbed, not fired straight down into the ground; she guessed less than half the micro-grenades had survived the initial shock.
Sharrow kept down, waiting for one of the deadly little pebbles to land at her feet, doubting that any of them would be distracted by the burning flare. Then a stuttered ripple of noise announced the tiny grenades had self-destructed. She peeked up, gun ready.
A head appeared looking down from the hatchway. She shot it. The man’s head jerked once, as though nodding at something; then it hung there, and a limp arm flopped out of the hatch. Blood started to fall towards the dark cape lying on the karst. The arm and head were pulled away inside. She fired the rest of the magazine, watching most of the bullets spark and ricochet off the train’s underside.
“Fuck this,” Sharrow said. She kept the rifle trained on the hatch one-handed, reloaded it, then pulled the HandCannon out of her pocket, put it to her mouth and sprang the magazine, catching it in her teeth; she turned it round with the hand holding the pistol, pushing the magazine home again. She tight-beamed to where she thought Zefla was. “Zef?”
“Zef?” she broadcast.
“Morning,” Zefla drawled, almost lazily.
Zefla started firing at the hatch door again. Sharrow fired too, then scrambled out of the karst trench and ran, leaping over the corrugations, towards the small crater where the flea-cluster round had landed. She got almost underneath the hatch; Zefla stopped firing. Sharrow aimed the rifle at the underbelly of the train carriage just in front of the hatch, then fired a dozen rounds into the metal. Some ricocheted; one whined past her left shoulder. She took out the HandCannon and fired into the same area, the recoil punching back into her hand and shaking her whole arm as the gun bellowed; the A-P rounds left neat little holes in the carriage skin.
Something moved in the hatchway she loosed the rest of the pistol’s rounds into the hatchway itself, the noise changing from the sharp crack of the Armour-Piercing shells to the whine of the flechette rounds. Then she ran, back and to one side, out from under the train. She rolled into cover, crying out as a sharp edge of karst sliced through her jacket and cut her shoulder. She sat up, quickly rubbed her shoulder, then reloaded while Miz pulled up the All-Terrain directly under the train’s last carriage.
From here she could see the top of the train and the monorail itself. Dloan and Cenuij had disappeared; there was a hint of an opened section on the roof of the last carriage.
Suddenly the Huhsz carriage shook; its windows shattered and burst, spraying out. There was a sharp, manic buzz of noise she recognised, and a series of popping, crackling noises; a couple of the flea-rounds jumped out of the shattered carriage and leapt around like tiny firecrackers on the karst surface for a few seconds, then they detonated. The wrecked Huhsz carriage stayed silent; grey smoke drifted from it.
“What the fuck was that?” Miz broadcast from the All-Terrain.
“Flea-cluster,” Sharrow said. “Cenuij? Dloan?” she called urgently.
“Here,” Cenuij sighed.
“You guys all right?” Zefla’s voice said.
“Both fine; they tried to roll a flea-cluster at us. Our large friend rolled it straight back in at them and closed the door. He’s just gone in for a look round.”
“Yeah, Dloan!” Zefla whooped.
“This might be them,” Dloan said. Sharrow saw him at one of the blown-out windows in the Huhsz carriage; he was fiddling with something.
“What are you doing now?” Sharrow said, puzzled.
“Tying a bit of string to this briefcase,” Dloan said, as though it should be obvious. “Nobody underneath this carriage?”
“All clear,” Sharrow told him. Dloan threw the large briefcase out of the smashed window; it jerked open as the string tied inside the carriage came taut; there was a crack and the whine of flechettes; the briefcase bounced into the air on a cloud of smoke, then fell back, swaying on the end of the string; a series of what looked like large, black books tumbled out of it and thumped dustily to the karst.
“Ah-ha,” said Sharrow.
She stood on top of the waste silo; a dusty yellow mound on the side of a dusty yellow hill with the karst desert behind them, a field of pale, frozen flames in the fierce glare of the afternoon sun. Miz sat in the All-Terrain, talking on the transceiver. The silo’s valve-heads were protected by a small blockhouse covered in ancient, fading radiation symbols and death-heads. Dloan attached a thermal charge to the door’s lock; the charge burned brighter than the noon sun and Dloan kicked the door open.
The interior of the blockhouse was black after the glare of the burning charge and the blinding sunlight; it was roastingly hot, too. Sharrow held the five Passports. They were solid and heavy, even though they were fashioned largely from titanium and woven carbon fibre. The external text, addressed to officials and responsible individuals everywhere, commanding their complete cooperation under the laws of the World Court, and threatening untold punishments for anybody who tried to destroy the Passports, was engraved on thin, flat sheets of diamond secured to the covers. The matricial holes were blue carbuncles embedded in one corner of each of the solid documents; a sequence of recessed buttons along their spines controlled the Passports’ circuitry, which could produce a hologram of the World Court judges and a recording of their voices, also commanding complete cooperation from all and sundry before going into the details of their pan-political authority and legal provenance.
Cenuij swung the metre-long, bullet-shaped slug away from the top of the silo’s access shaft. The radiation monitor cuff on his wrist whined quietly.
Cenuij and Dloan together heaved the shaft lock open; the massive shutter made a protesting, creaking noise and the radiation cuff sirened louder. Sharrow approached the dark well of the shaft.
“Well,” Cenuij said to her, “don’t stand there admiring the damn things; chuck them down before we all get fried.”
Sharrow dropped the Passports into the shaft. They made a vanishing, dunking noise. She helped Cenuij hold the shutter; Dloan primed the bundle of explosive, thermal charge and assorted ammunition rounds, sealed them inside the inspection slug and then manoeuvred the bullet-shaped slug into place above the shaft while Cenuij’s radiation monitor warbled away.
The slug slid into place, securing the shutter; they let it go while the slug disappeared down the shaft, cable unwinding from a reel in the ceiling.
“Okay,” Dloan said, heading for the door.
They got back into the cool interior of the All-Terrain.
Miz grinned at Sharrow. “Done it?”
“Yes,” Sharrow said, wiping sweat from her face.
“Great,” Miz said, pulling on the car’s controls to take them away from the silo. They bumped off its domed top and back onto the track leading into the hills.
“Is that plane on the way yet?” Cenuij demanded from the rear of the bouncing All-Terrain.
“Pilot had a problem with customs in Hapley City,” Miz said.
“Sorted out now; meeting us two klicks north of here. She’ll be keeping low to stay out of surface radar; there’s a bit of fuss about the train.”
“What about satellites?” Cenuij said.
“By the time they process what they’ve got, we’ll be away,” Miz said. “Worst happens, the plane’s impounded.” He shrugged. “We’re leaving it at Chanasteria Field anyway.”
“Five seconds,” Dloan said. Miz stopped the All-Terrain on the track just before it entered a shallow canyon; they all watched the bulge of the waste silo.
There was an impression of noise; an almost sub-sonic concussion in the air and from the ground. A little dust drifted from the door of the blockhouse.
“That ought to slow the bastards down,” Miz said, restarting the vehicle.
Sharrow nodded. “With any luck.”
“I hope it was worth it,” Cenuij said.
“Well, yahoo for us,” Zefla yawned. “This calls for a drink.”
“Maybe Bencil Dornay’ll fix you a cocktail if you ask him nicely,” Miz told her, gunning the All-Terrain’s engine as they rumbled into the canyon.
Sharrow looked out of the window at the drifting dust.
8 The Mortal Message
She swam above the landscape. The water was a quiet milky-blue; the landscape below glowed green. Diving towards it, she could see tiny roads and houses, glittering lakes and patches of dark forest. She touched the cool crystal, her naked limbs pulsing, forcing, keeping her down; her black hair floated around her head, a slow cloud of darkness, swirling languidly.
She stilled her arms and legs and rose gently upward through the warm water.
On the surface she rolled over and lay floating, watching the vague shadow her body cast on the pale-pink tiles of the ceiling. She shifted her limbs this way and that, watching the fuzzy figure on the ceiling respond. Then she kicked out for the side, pulled herself out and took a towel from a table. She went to the parapet, where a breeze from the valley blew in, bringing a scent of late summer richness. The cool air flowed over the parapet and round her wet body, making her shiver. She put her arms on the wooden rail of the glass-fronted parapet and watched the hairs on her forearms unstick themselves from the beads of moisture there and rise, each on its own tiny mound of flesh.
The view led across the valley to evergreen forests and high summer pasture. The mountains above held no trace of snow yet, though further on, beyond the horizon, the centre of the range held peaks with permanent snow-fields and small glaciers. Beyond the lip of rock above, high streaks of clouds and vapour trails crossed the pale-blue vault like spindrift.
She put the towel round her shoulders and walked to the edge of the pool, looking down into the gradually calming, green-glowing waters. The landscape below trembled and shook, as though convulsing in the throes of some terrible quake.
The house of Bencil Dornay was built under an overhang on a great mountain in the Morspe range overlooking the Vernasayal valley, three-and-a-half thousand kilometres south of Yadayeypon, almost within sight of Jonolrey’s western coast and the rollers of Southern, Golter’s fourth ocean. The house clung beneath an undercut buttress like a particularly stubborn sea crustacean determined to stay clamped to its rock even though the tide had gone out long ago. The house’s most unsettling feature was its swimming pool, which was on the very lowest of the dwelling’s five floors, and which was glass-bottomed.
Faced with the green glow rising from the pool and the dim but otherwise unobstructed view it offered of the valley far below, people of a nervous disposition being shown round for the first time had been known to turn a remarkably similar shade. Hardier, more adventurous guests willing to display their trust in modern building techniques rarely missed an opportunity to take a dip in the pool, even if it was just to say they’d done it.
Sharrow stood there and waited for some time, until the water beading her skin had mostly dried and the chopping water in the pool had stilled completely, so that the view of the valley five hundred metres below was clear and distinct and heart-stopping, then she dived gracefully back in.
The pain came while she was swimming back to the side; just under her ribs, then in her legs. She tried to ignore it, swimming on, gritting her teeth. She got to the pool-side, put her hands on the ridged tiles, tensing her arms. Not again. It couldn’t happen again.
The pain slammed into her ears like a pair of white-hot swords; she heard herself gasp. She tried to clutch at the pool-side as the next wave hit, searing her from shoulders to calves. She cried out, falling back in the water, coughing and choking as she tried to swim and to curl up at the same time. Not all of it again. What came next? What did she have to prepare for now? The pain ebbed; she grabbed at the pool-side again. She was suddenly weak, unable to pull herself out; she felt to one side with her foot, seeking the steps. Her right hand found a handle recessed in the tiles. She gripped it, knowing what would happen now; her body convulsed as the agony tore through her, as if her body was a socket and the pain some huge, obscene plug, transmitting a vast and terrible current of agony.
She doubled up in the water, concentrating on her grip on the tile handle, terrified of letting go. She felt her face go underwater, and tried to hold her breath while the pain went on and on and a low moan escaped her lips in a string of bubbles. She wanted to breathe but she couldn’t uncurl herself from the fetal position she’d assumed. A roaring noise grew in her ears.
Then the pain eased, evaporating.
Spluttering, coughing, spitting water, she pulled on the tile handle and felt her head bump into the pool-side. She surfaced, breathing at last, and put out her other hand, found the handle, found both handles. One foot slotted into an underwater step. She kept her eyes closed and dragged herself upwards with the dregs of her strength. She felt the edge of the pool against her belly, and collapsed onto the warm plastic tiles at the edge of the pool, her legs still floating in the water.
Then strong hands were pulling her, lifting her, holding her, arms enfolding her. She opened her eyes long enough to see the worried faces of Zefla and Miz, and started to say something to them, to tell them not to worry, then the great sword smashed into her backside, and she spasmed, collapsing; they held her again, taking her weight, and she felt herself lifted, one toe sliding over the tiles, and then she was laid down on something soft, and they held her, warm against her, whispering to her, and were still there when the last brief instant of agony burst again inside her head, ending everything.
She woke to the sound of bird-song. She was still lying by the pool-side, covered by towels. Zefla lay beside her, cradling her head, gently rocking her. A bird chirped and she looked round for it.
“Sharrow?” Zefla said quietly.
The bluebird sat on the wooden parapet of the pool terrace. Sharrow watched it watching her, then turned to Zefla. “Hello,” she said. Her voice sounded small.
“You okay?” Zefla asked.
The bluebird flew away. Miz appeared, dressed in trunks, squatting down. “Called the-” he started to say to Zefla, then saw Sharrow’s eyes were open. “Well, hi,” he said softly, putting one hand out to her face and touching her cheek. “Back with us again, are you?” he asked, smiling.
“I’m all right,” she said, rolling over and trying to sit up. Zefla put an arm to her back, helping her. She shivered and Miz wrapped a towel round her shoulders.
“All that wasn’t what you’d call natural, was it?” Zefla said.
She shook her head. “It was the same as the last time. In the tank. Exactly the same. A recording.” She tried to laugh. “They did say they’d be in touch.”
Miz looked over to the pool. “Could be a nerve-gun or something down there, in the valley; beaming straight up.”
“Or something in the house,” Zefla said, patting at Sharrow’s hair with a towel.
“Maybe,” Sharrow said. “Maybe.”
“If I ever get my hands on whoever’s doing this,” Miz said quietly. “I’m going to kill them, but I’m-”
Sharrow put her hand out, held Miz’s arm, squeezing it. “Ssh, ssh,” she whispered.
Miz sighed and stood. “Well I’m going to take a look round the house, starting with the next floor up; I’ll get Dlo or Cen to take a look down in the valley.” He reached down, put his hand on Sharrow’s head for a moment. “You going to be all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
“Good girl.” Miz walked quickly away.
“Girl,” Sharrow muttered, shaking her head.
“Let’s get you to bed, eh?” Zefla said.
Sharrow used Zefla’s shoulder to help her get up. Eventually she stood, supported by the other woman. “No; I was having a swim. It’s gone now; I feel fine.”
“You’re crazy,” Zefla said, but let Sharrow shrug off the towel she was holding round her shoulders, and walked with her to the side of the pool. Sharrow stood there for a moment, composing herself, drawing herself upright and flexing her shoulders. She dived into the water; it was a rather ragged dive, but then she surfaced and struck out strongly for the far side.
Zefla sat down on the side of the pool, her dark red-brown legs dangling in the water. She grinned at the pale, lithe figure forcing its way through the lime-glowing water to the far side, and shook her head.
“How’s our patient, Doctor Clave?” Bencil Dornay asked.
“Fit and healthy, it would seem,” the elderly clinician said, entering the lounge with Sharrow at his side.
Bencil Dornay was a compact, clipped man of late middle years with small green eyes set in a pale-olive face; he had a neatly trimmed beard and perfectly manicured hands. He dressed casually, almost carelessly, in clothes that were of the very best quality, if not the last word in fashion. His father had left the employ of Gorko, Sharrow’s grandfather, when the World Court had ordered the dissolution of the old man’s estate; Dornay senior had gone into business and been highly successful, and bought himself a shorter name. Bencil had been even more successful than his father, reducing his own names from three to two. He had no children but he had applied to the relevant authorities to be allowed to clone himself, and hoped the succeeding version of himself might be able to afford the next step, shedding one more name to instigate a minor noble house.
“Fit enough to dance, perhaps, Doctor Clave?” Dornay asked, eyes twinkling as he glanced at Sharrow, who smiled. “I was planning a small party in the lady’s honour tomorrow evening. This little dizzy spell won’t prevent her from dancing, will it?”
“Certainly not,” Doctor Clave said. He was rotund and heavily bearded and had an air of amiable distraction about him. He seemed so much like how Sharrow remembered doctors were supposed to be that she wondered just how much was an act. “Though I’d-” The doctor cleared his throat. “Advise having medical attention on hand at this party, naturally.”
Bencil Dornay smiled. “Why, Doctor, you didn’t imagine I would dare conduct a soiree without you in attendance, did you?”
“I should think not” The doctor looked at a small clipboard. “Well, I’d better see if those lazy techs have got all that stuff back in the plane…”
“Let me see you out,” Bencil Dornay offered. “Lady Sharrow,” he said. She nodded. He and the clinician walked to the elevator. She watched them go.
Sharrow could just remember Bencil Dornay’s father from a single one of those seasons when she had visited the great house of Tzant while the estate had still technically belonged to the Dascen family yet its administration-and fate-had been in the hands of the Court.
Dornay senior had left Gorko’s employ twenty years earlier, and had already become a rich trader; it had been his particular pleasure to revisit as an honoured guest the residence he had served in as house-secretary. He had been a stooped, kindly man Sharrow remembered as seeming very old (but then, she had been very young), with a perfect memory for every item in the vast, half-empty and mostly unused pile that had been house Tzant. She and the other children had played games with him, asking him what was in a particular drawer or cupboard in some long-neglected room of some distant wing, and found that he was almost invariably correct, down to the last spoon, the last button and toothpick.
Breyguhn had said she thought he was a wizard and had had every grain of dust numbered and filed. She delighted in moving things from drawer to drawer and cupboard to cupboard and room to room, trying to confuse him when the others came running back, breathless with the news that he was wrong.
Sharrow couldn’t honestly claim that she remembered Bencil Dornay himself; he had been sent to college before she was born, and if they had ever met, she had quite forgotten the occasion.
Dornay senior must have been in Gorko’s genetic thrall for over four decades by then. The code that would-according to Breyguhn-tell Sharrow where the Universal Principles was had been added to the message in his cells shortly before Gorko had fallen; just by the very act of fathering him, Dornay senior had passed that message on to his son, where it waited now-if Breyguhn was right-half a century later.
And all it needed-she thought, with a kind of bitterness was a kiss.
Sharrow turned and walked to the far end of the lounge, where a glassed-in terrace looked out onto an ocean of cloud. The others sat watching a bolo-screen.
“Well?” Miz said, attempting to guide her into a chair. She gave an exasperated tut, waving his arm away, and sat in another seat.
“What’s the news?” she nodded at the screen, where a map showed what looked like a schematic of a war.
“The Huhsz are playing things down,” Cenuij said. “They’ve apologised for the accident on the train; said some munitions went off accidentally; denying there was any attack. They say the Passports will be initiated to a few days’ time, after a period of mourning for the Blessed Ones killed on the train.”
“Hey,” Zefla said to Sharrow. “We saw that house you had on the island. It looked really nice.”
“Thanks,” Sharrow said. “Still standing, was it?”
“Dammit, Sharrow; what did the doctor say?” Miz said.
She shrugged, looking at the war-map in the screen. “There is something in there.” She tapped her head. “In here.”
“Oh no,” Zefla breathed.
“What, exactly?” Cenuij said, sitting forward.
“Some crystal virus, probably,” Sharrow said, looking round them. “Just a molecule thick, most places, growing round and into my brainstem. One thread disappears down my spine and ends up in my right foot. The rest branch…”, she shrugged, “into the rest of my skull.”
“Gods, Sharrow,” Zefla breathed.
“A crystal virus,” Cenuij said, eyes wide. “That’s war-tech.” He glanced at the corridor leading to the elevator. “How did that old duffer know-?”
“That old duffer knows what he’s talking about,” Sharrow said. “And he’s got all the best gear. He mediced for the Free Traders’ navy on Trontsephori during the Barge War, and he volunteered to help metaplegics after the Five Per Cent. He didn’t know what he was looking for-I don’t know he even believed me-but he kept looking and it showed up on an NMR scan. The doc wants me to visit a specialist hospital for more tests; I said I’d think about it.”
“Will they be able to take it out?” Miz asked, looking worried. “Operate or… something?”
Sharrow shook her head.
“Not that stuff,” Cenuij said, obviously impressed. “It grows less than a centimetre a month, but once it’s in, it’s in. To take it out you’d need the original virus, and that’ll be locked back up in a Court compound in some military habitat. If there’s another war the Court thinks justifies the escalation you might see it again. Not until.”
“Couldn’t we steal it?” Miz said.
“Are you mad?” Cenuij asked him.
Dloan shook his head. “Tricky,” he said.
Zefla put one hand to her mouth, staring at Sharrow, her eyes bright.
“So that’s what was picking up the long-wave signal from the doll,” Cenuij said, staring straight ahead and nodding. “A crystal virus.” He gave a small laugh and looked at Sharrow. “Shit, yes, that’s all you’d need. If it was put in while you were in hospital on the Ghost it’s had long enough to grow right down the length of your body; the strand into your foot must be the aerial. The lattice could itself sit there forever and you’d never notice; probably pulls less power than an iris; then the right code comes along and zap!”
“Ouch, might be a better description,” Sharrow said.
“And using the long-wave,” Cenuij said. “Perfect; you don’t need much definition, and it’ll penetrate…”
“So these signals come from the comm net,” Zefla said. “Satellites and shit?” Cenuij didn’t reply; he was staring out at the carpet of cloud beyond the sun-bright terrace outside. Sharrow nodded. Zefla spread her hands. “Can’t we find out who’s sending the signals?”
“You’ll be lucky,” Dloan said.
“Out of the question,” Cenuij said, dismissing the idea with a wave of the hand.
“Well, how the hell do we stop it?” Miz said loudly. “We can’t let that happen again!”
“Live in a mineshaft, maybe,” Cenuij suggested. “Or find somewhere off-net. Though even off-net, if somebody knew where you were they could beam a signal at you; that doll they had in the tanker was just a close-range transmitter…”
“How about a pain-disruptor collar?” Zefla asked.
“Forget it,” Cenuij said. He made a tutting noise. “Damn, I’d like to have talked to that old doe.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. “Wonder if I should call him?”
“Ask him tomorrow night,” Sharrow told him. “He’s coming to the party.”
“That still on?” Miz asked.
“Why not?” Sharrow shrugged, looking at where Bencil Dornay had escorted the doctor towards the elevator. “He’s only inviting people he trusts, and he isn’t telling anybody we’re here.” She smiled at Miz. “He really wanted to throw a party in our honour; I couldn’t refuse.”
Miz looked sceptical.
“Will you do it then?” Cenuij asked her with a strange, unsettling smile.
She looked at his thin, inquiring face. “Yes, Cenuij; I’ll do it then.”
Zefla got out of her seat and knelt by Sharrow’s, hugging her. “You poor kid; you’re in the wars, aren’t you?”
Sharrow put a hand through Zefla’s ringleted hair, fingertips touching her scalp. “Actually, a war sounds like just what I need, right now.”
She stood in her room, facing the mirror, her underclothes and dress lying on the bed behind her, the lights on full. She gazed at herself. There was still some slight bruising on her knees from when she’d fallen in the tank in the Log-Jam, though the hint of discoloration on her forehead from the same fall had gone. There was a cut on her shoulder, from the karst, and two broken nails where her hand had gripped the hand-hold in the pool that morning.
She put her arms above her head, watching her breasts rise, then lower as she dropped her arms again. She turned side-on, relaxing, and frowned at the bulge of her belly. She stared at her thighs in the mirror, then looked down at them, wondering if they were getting lumpy yet. She couldn’t see anything. Maybe her eyesight was going.
She had never undergone any type of alteration-apart from orthodontic work when she was a child-and never used any anti-geriatric drug, legal or otherwise. She had sworn she never would. But now, even before there were any obvious signs of age on her body, she thought she knew how older people must feel; that desire not to change, not to deteriorate. Was it simply that she wanted to remain attractive? She gazed into her own eyes.
Mostly, she thought, I want to remain attractive to myself. If no man ever saw me again, I’d still want to look good to me. I’d trade five, ten years of life to look like this until the end.
She shook her head at herself, a small frown on her face.
“So die young, narcissist,” she whispered to herself.
At least the Huhsz might ensure she never grew old.
She turned to dress.
The body is a code, she thought, reaching for her slip. And froze, thinking of where she had heard that phrase, and of what she was supposed to discover from Bencil Dornay this evening, and how.
In the curving corridor, by one window looking out into a gulf of darkness strung and beaded with the necklace lights of distant roads and the clustered jewels of towns and villages, opposite the wide staircase that led to the house reception floor, its lit depths already bustling with talk and music and laughter, she found Cenuij Mu sitting on a couch, dressed in a formal black robe and reading what looked like a letter.
He looked up when she approached. He inspected her, then nodded. “Very elegant,” he told her. He looked down at the letter, folded it and put it away in the black robe.
She checked her reflection in the windows, severe in court-formal black. Her dress was floor-length and long-sleeved, decorated with plain platinum jewellery worn around her high-collared neck and on her gloved hands. A black net held her hair, constellated with diamonds. “Court-prophylactic,” she said, turning to check her profile. “Prissy, constipated style,” she told him. She shook her head at her reflection. “Damn shame I look so drop-dead stunning in it.”
She expected a reply to that, but Cenuij didn’t seem to be listening. He was staring into the middle distance.
She sat beside him on the couch, the dress and collar forcing her to sit very erect, her head up. “Was that a letter from Breyguhn?” she asked him.
He nodded, still staring away round the curve of corridor. “Yes. Just delivered.”
“How is she?”
Cenuij shook his head, then shrugged. “She mentioned you,” he said.
“Ali,” Sharrow said. “Did she mention anything about this message I’m supposed to get from Dornay?”
Cenuij shrugged again. He looked tired. “Nothing directly,” he said.
“Can’t help wondering what form it’s going to take,” Sharrow admitted. The music and chattering from the floor below swelled briefly, then ebbed again before Cenuij replied.
“If it’s the sort of thing I think she’s talking about,” he said, “it could be expressed in a variety of ways. He might not simply say whatever it is he knows; it might be encoded as a drawing, some body-pose from a sign-dance, a whistled tune. It could even vary according to the circumstances he’s in when the programming takes over.”
“I’d no idea this was one of your areas of expertise, Cenuij.”
“Merely a smattering,” he said, seeming to collect himself. “Breyguhn knows more.”
“We’ll get her out,” Sharrow told him.
He looked annoyed. “Why do you two hate each other so much?” he asked.
She stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Partly your standard sibling rivalry,” she told him. “And the rest is…” She shook her head. “Too long a story. Brey’ll tell you in her own time, I expect.” Sharrow held one of Cenuij’s hands.
“Soon, Cenny; she’ll tell you soon. This nonsense with Dornay should put us on the track of the book; we’ll find it. She’ll be out soon.”
Cenuij looked down, and his hand moved, as though about to take the letter out again. “That’s all I want,” he whispered.
She put her arm round him.
“And you, Sharrow?” he said, twisting away from her to look her in the eye. “What do you want? What do you really want? Do you know?”
She gazed levelly at him. “To live, I suppose,” she said, with what she hoped sounded like sarcasm.
“No good; too common. What else?”
She wanted to look away from his intense, narrow gaze, but forced herself to meet it. “You really want to know?” she asked.
“Of course! I asked you, didn’t I?”
She shrugged. She pursed her lips and looked deliberately away, out into the darkness beyond the windows. “Not to be alone,” she said, looking at him and lifting her chin just a little, as if in defiance. “And not to let people down.”
He gave a harsh laugh and got up from the couch. He stood above her, straightening his robe. “Such a humorist, our little Sharrow,” he said. Then he smiled broadly and put his arm out towards her. “Shall we?”
She smiled without warmth, took his arm and they descended to the party.
There were perhaps a hundred guests. The band was entirely acoustic and by that measure extremely up-to-date; Bencil Dornay’s own kitchen staff had prepared the tables of delicacies themselves. Dornay took her round his guests, introducing them. They were business colleagues, senior staff in his trading firm, a few local dignitaries and worthies, rich friends from nearby houses and some local artists. Sharrow entertained the idea that Bencil Dornay’s guests just happened to be uniformly polite, but guessed that they had been told not to ask any embarrassing questions on the lines, of How does it feel to be hunted by the Huhsz?
“You are very brave, Lady Sharrow,” Dornay said to her. They stood by one of the food-laden tables, watching a juggling troupe perform on a small stage raised in the middle of the reception hall’s dance floor. People had left a discreet clearing round the host and his guest.
“Brave, Mister Dornay?” she said. He had dressed in pure white.
“My lady,” Dornay said, looking into her eyes. “I have requested my guests say nothing about the unfortunate cir-cumstances you find yourself in. Nor shall I, but let me say only that your composure would astonish me, had I not known the family you come from.”
She smiled. “You think old Gorko would be proud of me?”
“It was my misfortune only to meet that great man once,” Dornay said. “A bird cannot land once on a great tree and claim to know it. But I imagine that he would, yes.”
She watched the spinning wands of the jugglers as they flashed to and fro beneath the spotlights. “We believe the Passports my… pursuers require are safe, for now.”
“Thank the gods,” Dornay said. “They appear not to have been initiated but I feared a trick, and we are not so far from their scrofulous World Shrine. I have taken every precaution, of course, but… Well, perhaps I should have cancelled this evening.”
“Ah, now, Mister Dornay, I believe I forbade you…”
“Indeed,” Bencil Dornay laughed lightly. “Indeed. What was I to do? My family no longer exists to serve yours, dear lady, but I am your servant nevertheless.”
“You are too kind. As I say, I believe I am safe for now. And I’m grateful for your hospitality.”
“My house is yours, dear lady; I am yours to command.”
She looked at him then, as the jugglers drew gasps with their complicated closing routine.
“Do you mean that, Mister Dornay?” she asked him, searching his eyes.
“Oh, absolutely, dear lady,” he said, eyes shining. “I am not merely being polite; I mean these things literally. It would be my pleasure and an honour to serve you in any way I can.”
She looked away for a moment. “Well,” she said, and smiled waveringly at him. The lights came up as the jugglers finished their display to decorously wild applause. “I… I do have a favour to ask you.” She had to raise her voice a little to make herself heard.
Dornay looked delighted, but from the corner of her eye she could see guests-released from the spell of the juggling troupe-moving a little closer to her and Dornay and looking expectantly at the two of them. She let him see her gaze flick around the people. “Perhaps later,” she said, smiling.
She stood on the terrace, a drink in her hand, the darkness at her back as she leant against the shoulder-high parapet, the reception room like a giant bright screen in front of her. People were dancing inside. Clouds hid the junklight.
Miz came out, wandering across the terrace, smoking some-thing sweet-smelling from a little cup-kettle. He leant back beside her and offered her the gently fuming cup, but she shook her head.
“Haven’t seen you up dancing yet,” he said, breathing deeply.
“You used to dance so well,” he said, glancing at her. “ We used to dance so well.”
“Remember that dance competition in Malishu? The endurance one where the prize was to go to dinner with the brave and heroic pilots of the Clipper Squadrons?” He laughed at the memory.
“Yes,” she said. “I remember.”
“Hell,” he said, turning round to look out over the dark valley. “We’d have won, too, if the MPs hadn’t arrived looking for us.”
“We were AWOL; taught me never to trust you with dates again.”
“I got confused; we’d crossed the date-line during the party the night before.” Miz looked bewildered and squinted up at the dark clouds. “Several times, actually, I think.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“Anyway,” he said. “Want to try it again?” He nodded back at the hall and the dancing people. “This lot look feeble; give them a couple of hours and they’ll be falling like raindrops.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Not right now.”
He sighed and turned round, taking another snort from the cup-kettle. “Well, if it comes to the end of the night,” he said, pretending snootiness, “and you don’t get offered a lift home; don’t come crying to me.” He nodded once, primly emphatic, and headed back to the reception hall, practising his dance steps on the way, drink held out in one hand, the fuming cup-kettle in the other. She watched him go.
She had been remembering a ball in Geis’s father’s house, in Siynscen, when she’d been fifteen or sixteen. Breyguhn had fallen in love with Geis that summer-or thought she had, at least-when they had all stayed at the estate. Sharrow had told her she was silly, and far too young; Geis was almost twenty. What would he want with a child like her? And anyway, Geis was an altogether tiresome person; an awkward, over-eager fool with funny eyes and a plump behind. In fact she herself was quite fed up with him wanting to dance with her at these sorts of functions, and wanting to kiss her and give her stupid presents.
Nevertheless, Breyguhn was determined she would declare her undying love for Geis at the ball, stubbornly maintain-ing that Geis was kind and dashing and poetic and clever. Sharrow had poured scorn on all this, but then, when she had stood in their dressing-room, all fussed around by servants (and enjoying the attention and the luxury of it, because their father had lost a lot of money that year, and had dis-missed all their own staff save his android butler), and seen her half-sister in her first ball-gown (albeit borrowed, like her own, from a better-off second cousin), with her hair piled up like a woman’s, her budding breasts pushed by the bodice to form a cleavage, and her eyes, made-up, glowing with confidence and a kind of power, Sharrow had thought, with some amusement and only a hint of jealousy, that per-haps dear, tedious old Geis might just find Brey attractive after all.
She’d watched Geis as he and some of his officer-cadet friends entered the party. They were in the uniform of the Alliance Navy; the ball itself was a fund-raising event for the Tax Alliance and Geis had been into space for a couple of months on an Alliance warship.
She realised then that she hadn’t really looked at Geis for a year or two; not properly looked at him.
She had never liked uniforms, but Geis looked almost hand-some in his. He moved less awkwardly; he spotted a dark, trimmed beard which quite suited him and made him look older, and he had lost the puppy fat he’d carried through his mid-teens. She had drifted close to him, unseen, early on in the evening before the ball properly started, hearing him laughing lustily with his friends and hearing them laughing at what he said, and-perhaps, she told herself later, in the spell of those gales of male laughter-had determined then not to treat Geis with her usual disdain, should he ask her for a dance. She would see what happened, she thought, walking away from the young men. She would do nothing so petty and low as try to entrap her cousin just to prove something to her foolish little half-sister, but if he really had improved so, and if he did, at some point, maybe, ask her for a dance…
He asked her for the first dance. For the rest of the evening they hardly left each other’s side between dances, or each other’s arms during them.
She watched, as she stepped and moved and was held and turned and displayed and admired on the dance floor: Breyguhn’s eyes took on a look of surprise at first; then that slowly became hurt, until that was replaced by scorn and what she must have thought was recognition; upon which her eyes filled with tears, and finally with hate.
She danced on, exulting, not caring. Geis looked as dash-ing and handsome as Breyguhn had said. He had changed, he had more to talk about, had become more like a man than a boy. Even his remaining gaucheness seemed like enthusiasm; gusto, indeed. She listened to him and looked at him and danced with him and thought about him, and decided that had she not been exactly who she was, had she been just a little more like everybody else and just a little less difficult to please, she could almost have fallen for her cousin.
Breyguhn left the ball early with their father and his mistress, in a storm of tears. A duenna was left to wait for Sharrow. She and Geis danced until they were the last couple left on the dance floor and the band were making deliberate mistakes and taking long pauses between numbers. She even let Geis kiss her-though she didn’t respond-when they went out to the dawn-lit garden for some fresh air (her chaperone coughing delicately from a nearby bower), then she’d had herself taken home.
She had seen Geis face-to-face only twice in the two years after that; she had been away at finishing school, then started at Yadayeypon University, in both places discovering the fresh, unexpected and surprising pleasures of sex, and the power her looks and her birthright (judiciously deployed) gave her over young-and not so young-men who were vastly more moodily interesting and intellectually stimulating than cousin Geis, the part-time Navy goon and geekishly successful businessman.
The following year, at her father’s funeral, they’d exchanged a few words (though she’d overheard rather more), and when she did finally agree to meet him properly-at the launch of an airship (which he had named after her! The embarrassment!)-she had been rather curt with him, claiming she had been too busy to answer his letters, and just hated talking on the phone. He had looked hurt, and she’d felt a terrible, cruel urge to laugh.
She’d seen him once more before the war, a few months later, at a New Year party he’d thrown in a villa in the Blue Hills, in Piphram.
Then the Five Per Cent War had finally broken out, and she had joined the anti-Tax forces, partly because theirs seemed the more romantic cause, partly because she considered them the more politically progressive side, and partly as a kind of revenge.
And if it had done nothing else-she thought, as she drained her glass and smiled ruefully at the great wide screen that was the window into Bencil Dornay’s party-the war had finally signalled the end of her wilfully extended and determinedly wanton girlhood.
And more, she thought, smiling sadly at the dancing, happy people on the other side of the windows, remembering that last engagement, frantic and terrible and pitiless in the cold and the silence of the dark seconds of space between Nachtel and Nachtel’s Ghost.
She made to finish her drink, but the glass was already dry.
A little later she returned to the party.
“Your grandfather was a truly great man, my lady. The great are always seen as a threat by the lesser; they can’t help it. It’s not just jealousy, though there was much of that in your grandfather’s case. It is an instinctive reaction; they know (without knowing that they know) that there is something awesome in their midst, and they must make way for it. That is cause for resentment; an ignoble and small-minded emotion, like jealousy, and just as endemic. Your grandfather was brought down by a great mass of small people, dear lady. They were worms; he was a raptor. He had the vision to look out of our furrow, and the courage to do what had to be done, but the worms fear change; they think worm thoughts, ever burrowing and recycling, never raising their heads from the loam. You know, your grandfather could have lived the life of a great duke; he could have maintained the worth of the house and made it gradually greater still, he could have encouraged science, the arts, built great buildings, endowed foundations, become a World Counsellor, helped control the Court; and no doubt have enjoyed what personal happiness was ever to be his. Instead he gambled it all; the way the truly great must if they are not to lie on their deathbed and know that they have wasted their talents, that the life they have lived has been one many a lesser man could have lived. We call what transpired fail-ure, but I tell you it cannot fail to inspire those of us who keep his memory. He lives on, in our hearts, and he will receive the respect he deserves one day, when the world and the system have changed to become a temple fit for his memory to be venerated within.”
Sharrow stood before the giant portrait of her grandfather in a private room of the overhang house. Bencil Dornay had offered to show her his personal shrine while a group of mime artists were performing in the reception room.
Gorko was depicted in the painting as a giant of a man with a huge, carved face and great bristling whiskers; his body looked exaggeratedly muscled under a tight riding tunic and the bandamyion mount beside him looked out of scale. Something like fire shone from Gorko’s staring eyes. The portrait was at one end of the narrow room, draped in plush hangings. Apart from the painting, the room was empty.
“Hmm,” Sharrow said. “Fate preserve us from greatness.”
Dornay shook his head. “Dear lady, don’t let the mean-of-spirit infect you.” He glanced at the tall portrait. “Greatness is his legacy, and our hope.”
“Do we really need greatness, Mister Dornay?” she asked him. He turned slowly and walked towards the doors at the far end of the room, and she followed him. “We must need it, my lady. It is all that leads us onward. With it we may dream. Without it, we merely subsist.”
“But so often,” she said, “the people we call great seem to lead us to destruction.”
“Their own, indeed,” Dornay said, opening the doors and ushering her into a small hallway. “And those around them, I dare say. But destruction can be a positive act, too; the clearing out of rot, the excising of diseased tissue, the brushing away of the old to make room for the new. We are all so loath to offend, to cause any pain. The great have the vision to see beyond such pettiness; do we curse the doctor for some small pain when it saves us a greater one? Does any worthwhile adult blame his parents for the occasional slap as a child?”
They descended by elevator to the party. “Your rhetorical questions disarm me,” Sharrow told him.
“You were to ask me something, I believe, good lady,” Dornay said, as they walked into the dimly lit rear of the hall. In the centre, a complicated formal dance was in progress; people walked and skipped in knots that tied and untied across the floor. Sharrow thought the band looked bored.
“Yes,” she said. She stopped and looked at him. His eyes twinkled and he blinked rapidly. There was nobody nearby. She took a breath. “My grandfather left some information with your father; he passed it on to you.”
Dornay looked uncertain. “To me?” he asked.
“By blood-fealty,” she said.
He was silent for a few moments. Then his eyes widened. He took a deep breath. “In me!” he gasped. “In me, dear lady!” His eyes stared into hers. “How? What do I-? But, dear lady; this is a privilege! A singular honour! Tell me; tell me what I have to do!”
She looked down for a second, wondering how to put it. All the lines she’d rehearsed for this moment sounded wrong.
Then Dornay made a gulping noise. “Of course! Dear lady…“
She looked up to see him biting his lower lip. Blood welled. He drew a white handkerchief from his robe, offered it to her. “If you will, my lady,” he nodded delicately, looking at her lips.
She understood, and put the handkerchief in her mouth, wetting the end. When the end of the handkerchief was heavy with her saliva, she handed it back to him. He put it quickly to the cut. She wanted to look away, but found herself gritting her teeth instead. Dornay sucked on the handkerchief for a while, then dabbed at his lip with it until the blood stopped flowing.
“Whatever I have to tell, I shall tell only you, dear lady,” he told her. He took a few deep breaths. “Now, shall we…?”
The guests were stretched round the circular dance floor like the membrane of a bubble; she and Dornay were motioned forward so that they could see the dancers clearly.
They watched the dance develop for a minute or so. Dornay looked around as though searching for something, seeming to grow increasingly agitated. Finally he said, “Dear lady, shall we dance?” and took her hand.
“What?” she said. “But-”
He pulled her out from the line of people facing the groups of dancers; he drew her to him, taking hold of her waist. She put her hands to his neck almost automatically. There was a strange sheen about his face, and a look of emptiness in his eyes. She felt herself shudder.
He stepped back, and began to move into and through the formal dancing groups; bumping into people, oblivious, drawing the start of protests from dancers whose backs he connected with, until they realised it was their host they were about to berate.
He moved on, pulling and pushing and manoeuvring her with him while she did her best to follow with her flawed, limp-hesitant step; they swept away across the wide floor, disrupting and destroying the carefully worked-out patterns of the ancient dance they had invaded.
Pushed and pulled, twirled and swayed this way and that, and trying to keep her feet out from under his, Sharrow had little chance to notice anybody else’s reactions as together she and Dornay brought the rest of the dancers to a staring, bewildered, incredulous halt. The band faltered, the tune stopped. Bencil Dornay danced on, round this way; back that. The band leader watched them, trying to nod in time somehow, then she had the band attempt some suitable tune. A few of the watching people started to form pairs and began to dance as well.
Sharrow looked into Bencil Dornay’s sweating, blank-eyed face, and felt a wave of revulsion course through her that almost made her gag.
Their course became a spiral, tightening gradually as Dornay turned and turned and turned in a closing, whorling twist of motion. They reached the coiled centre of their figure, and stopped. Then suddenly Dornay let go of her, spun round once, his white robe belling out, and dropped to the floor as though felled with an axe. His head hit the hardwood with a crack; she felt the impact through her feet and the bones of her legs. Somebody screamed.
She stood there open-mouthed, pushed back as people flooded forward to the white body lying under the dance floor lights. She stared, shaking her head.
“Excuse me-” Doctor Clave said, threading between the people.
Sharrow looked at her hands.
Miz came up to her, pulled her away. “Sharrow, are you all right? Sharrow?”
The guests continued to rush in from every side, packing and swirling round the huddle of people as though caught in a vortex.
“What?” she said. “What?”
“What happened? Are you all right?” His face swam in front of her, open and concerned.
There were gasps from the crowd of people. She saw some of them glance at her and look away. Miz pulled her further back. Dloan appeared suddenly between her and the crowd. Zefla was at her other side, putting an arm round her.
She saw one person work their way out of the knot of people pressing round the centre of the dance floor and walk towards her. It was Cenuij; he seemed to be writing in a small notebook.
He came up to where she stood, flanked by Zefla and Miz. He made a final emphatic dot in the notebook, clipped the pen back in, snapped it shut and put it in his robe. He glanced back at the crowd and shrugged. “Dead,” he told them. He pulled a cheroot from his robe and lit it. “Told us what we needed to know, though.” He looked past Zefla. “Hmm.” He nodded. “Look; the bar’s free.” He walked away.
THE SIGNALS OF DECAY, THE WEAPONRY OF DECEIT
The viewing-gallery was built like a steeply raked auditorium. Scattered throughout its thousand or so seats were only a few dozen people, most of them asleep. She sat alone.
Her field of view was almost filled by the giant screen; the giant screen was almost filled by Golter. The great shown globe turned with a smooth and stately inevitability, a silent thunder implicit in the monumental graduation of the changing, revolving face it presented to the darkness, and something of its immense scale apparent in the linearity of that vast unhurriedness.
It shone; a gigantic disc of blue and white and ochre and green, god-fabulous in extent and more beautiful than love.
She sat looking at it. She was muscularly slim and of about average height, perhaps a little more. She was quite bald; beneath her blonde eyebrows her blue eyes were held in tear-drop shapes by small folds in the outside corners; her nose was broad and her nostrils flared. She wore dark overalls and clutched a small satchel to her chest as she sat watching the planet on the huge screen.
The local police chief had been very understanding. He had known Mister Dornay personally, and only an urgent profes-sional engagement had prevented him from attending the party himself. It must have been a terrible experience for her; he quite understood. An inquest would be held at a later date, but a simple recorded statement from her would almost certainly be quite sufficient. Doctor Clave had already determined the cause of death to be a massive brain haemorrhage; unusual, these days, but not unknown. She must not blame herself. Of course she was free to go; he perfectly comprehended her desire not to stay any longer than she had to in a place that now held such tragic memories for her. Anyway, he had no desire to detain her when she was the officially sanctioned quarry of the legally authorised but surely woefully misguided and arguably rather inhumane sect pursuing her; it would give him no pleasure whatsoever to have this horrible event occur within his jurisdiction. He was sure she understood.
Dornay’s private secretary was next to be interviewed; she left the police chief in Bencil Dornay’s study and joined the others in the house library, where Cenuij was making excited noises over a desk-screen.
“Okay?” Miz said, coming to meet her.
“Nothing to worry about,” she said, “but I’ve been told to get out of town.” She nodded to Zefla and Dloan, who stood by Cenuij’s shoulder.
“That’s it!” Cenuij said, pressing a button to take a copy of the display. He tapped the screen with a finger. The glyphs shown there were all roughly the same; variations on an elaborate, whorled, criss-crossed shape formed from a single line. On the desk beside Cenuij sat the notebook he’d been drawing in just after Dornay had died; its small screen displayed a shape similar to those on the desk-screen. “That’s the one,” he said excitedly. He tapped the notebook and one of the glyphs in turn. “Miykenns Capital, in Cevese script, Ladyr dynasty.”
Sharrow stared at the pattern drawn on the notebook-screen, seeing the single line leading into the complex glyph, its spiralled structure, and its central, tightening coil ending in a dot.
“That was what we… traced?” she said.
Zefla heard the catch in Sharrow’s voice, and put her arm round her.
“Yup,” Cenuij said, tearing the print from the desk-screen slot and grinning at it. “Shaky brush-work; a Cevese script scholar would have a fit-”
“Oh, Cenny, for goodness sake…” Zefla said.
“-but that’s it,” Cenuij said, smacking the print-out with the backs of his fingers. “Could contain a mistake of course, in the circumstances, but at the very least it’s Miykenns Darkside, almost certainly Miykenns Capital, and if these epicycles are right-”, he pointed at two small circles on one spiral, “- it’s in the time of the Ladyr dynasty.”
“So, Malishu?” Miz said.
Cenuij shook his head. “Doubt it, not then. Next, we have to look back to see where the capital was during the Ladyr dynasty.” His lip curled slightly. “Could be anywhere. Knowing the Ladyrs, they sold it to the highest bidder.” He turned back to the desk-screen. “Library: Miykenns; history; Ladyr dynasty. Display; the capital of Miykenns.”
The screen halved into text and a multi-layered holo map.
Miz peered. “Pharpech?” he said. “Never heard of it.”
“I have,” Zefla said.
“Congratulations,” Cenuij told her, zooming the bewilderingly structured map then swooping the view back again. “You probably form part of a small and very exclusive club.”
“Yeah,” Zefla said, staring at the ceiling with a look of intense concentration on her face. “One of my lecturers used it as an example of a degenerated… something or other.”
“Well,” Cenuij said. “It was supposedly capital of Miykenns under the Ladyrs, eight hundred years ago.” He scanned the text. “And hasn’t looked forward since. Last entry in the encyclopedia is-ye gods-twenty years ago; the coronation of King Tard the seventeenth. Prophet’s blood!” Cenuij sat back in surprise. “ ‘No pictures available.’”
“A king?” Miz laughed.
“Retro suburb,” Zefla breathed.
“The latest of the…” Cenuij scrolled the screen, then laughed. “Useless Kings,” he said. “Well, how disarmingly honest.”
“How far is this place from Malishu?” Sharrow asked.
Cenuij checked. “About as far away as you can get. Nearest rail line is… ha! I don’t believe it; it says two days’ march away!” He looked round the others. “This sounds like the place they invented the phrase ‘time-warp’ to cover.”
Zefla nudged Sharrow with her hip. “Nice and far from the Huhsz.”
“Hmm,” Sharrow said, unconvinced. “Does it say what their religion is?”
Cenuij scrolled the text. “Basically home-grown; monarchworship and theophobia.”
“Theophobia?” Miz said.
“They hate gods,” Zefla said.
“Fair enough,” Miz said, nodding. “If I lived somewhere not even within hailing distance of the outskirts of the backend-of-nowhere, I’d want somebody in authority to blame, too.”
Miz booked tickets for them all, to Miykenns. A series of cross-routed phone calls ensured that a trusted exec in one of Miz’s holding companies in The Meg had his sister’s best friend book another ticket, in the name of Ysul Demri, for the water-world of Trontsephori.
Zefla shaved Sharrow’s hair off and spread a thin film of depilatory oil over her scalp. Miz sat on the bed behind them and pretended to cry. Sharrow inserted the contacts, used dabs of skinweld to alter the shape of her eyes, spray-bleached her eyebrows and inserted small plugs into her nostrils, lifting them and flaring them.
She looked at her ears in the dressing-table mirror. “My ears stick out,” she said, frowning. She looked up at Zefla, standing behind her. “Do you think my ears stick out?”
Zefla shrugged. Miz shook his head. Sharrow decided her ears stuck out, and used skinweld on them too.
Dloan sat on the bed beside Miz with Sharrow’s satchel turned inside out on his lap. He unpicked the stitching, then reached in and withdrew her new identity papers, handing them to her. She looked at her holo in her ID while Zefla carefully removed the depilatory film.
“ ‘Ysul Demri’, eh?” Zefla said, glancing at the name on Sharrow’s new ID as she crumpled the stubble-studded film and threw it into a bin. She squinted at the holo. “Totally convincing. Always fancied being a bald, did you?” She started to spread hair-preventing cream over Sharrow’s scalp.
Sharrow nodded. “They’re supposed to have more fun.”
Zefla’s hands glided over her soft skin, gently rubbing the cream in. Miz made sensuous grunting noises in the background.
“Sharrow. I hope you don’t mind me calling you… can’t we get vision on this?”
“No; I’m dressing at the moment.”
“I beg your pardon. Shall I call back?”
“No, it’s all right. It’s… good to hear from you, Geis, but do you mind me asking how you found me?”
“Not at all. I’ve had my comm people scanning all the public data bases for your name; I thought I might be able to warn you if it looked like the Huhsz were closing in. I hope you don’t mind…”
“I suppose not. My life seems to be pretty public-domain these days.”
“I don’t want to alarm you; we’re pretty certain the Huhsz haven’t got access to this sort of hacking power. But there’s a report on the local contract police data base that there was some sort of incident at a party at this guy’s house last night. Didn’t he work for the family, once?”
“That was his father. But, yes, there was an incident.”
“The police aren’t holding you, are they?”
“No. It’s been cleared up. I’ll be on my way soon.”
“I see. Anyway, Sharrow, I was calling for a couple of reasons. There are a lot of confused reports coming out of the Log-Jam at the moment, I won’t ask you about that… but I did hear about what happened to that monorail in the K’lel, and my satellite people tell me there’s a lot of Huhsz activity around an old nuclear-waste silo on the edge of the desert. I just wanted to say… Well, I’d better not say too much, even over this channel, though it is pretty secure… But I did want to say; congratulations. It took one of my best AIs seconds to come up with the same scheme, even after it was pointed in the right direction. It was brilliant.”
“Thanks. It was Miz’s idea, actually.”
“Oh. Still, it was good. But of course it won’t delay them for very long. I understand the holes in the Passports might continue to radiate for quite a while, but the Huhsz have placed orders for portable magnetic inclusion chambers with Continental Fusion Inc. and, well, it’ll make things difficult for them, I suppose, having to cart gear that size around with them, but I just wanted to say that my offer stands; I’ll do all I can-everything I can to protect you, if you’ll just give me the chance.”
“And I still appreciate it, Geis, but I’ll try and dodge them for a while longer.”
“I think you’re very brave. Please remember; if you need any help at all, I am yours to command.”
“The last person who said that…”
“Nothing. Yes, thanks. I’ll remember.”
She left the viewing-gallery, and in the double doors between the auditorium and the main corridor bumped into a man just on his way in. She started to apologise, then saw his bright smile, his bald head. He looked at her bald scalp and smiled even more broadly as the doors behind her opened and somebody else entered the narrow space between the two sets of doors and put what felt like a gun to the nape of her neck.
“Oh, Lady Sharrow,” the first young man said, sounding perfectly delighted and still gazing at her bald head. “You didn’t need to go to all that trouble just for us!”
They travelled separately to Ikueshleng, the space port for Golter’s eastern hemisphere. The others had already gone when she got there. She paid cash for a stand-by to Stager. She watched some screen while she waited, feeling nervous but trying not to look it. Golter had had some bad experiences with crashing spacecraft over the millennia, and as a result one of the few things that was strictly controlled about the planet was space traffic; the vast majority of commercial ships were restricted to two ports serving a hemisphere each, and both the resulting bottlenecks, though Free Ports and so not closely bureaucratically controlled, were inevitably dangerous places for people on the run.
She survived unchallenged and caught a shuttle around noon; half an hour later she was in Stager, the kilometre-diameter, five-wheel space-station that was the traveller’s usual next port of call after Ikueshleng.
She found a midsystem discount ticket shop in wheel five and bought a high bounce-factor single to Phrastesis Habitats via Miykenns/Malishu-station. She watched the clerk put her credit card into the reader, and tried not to look relieved when the transaction went through. She had to sign an insurance disclaimer, and scribbled something that might just have passed for Ysul Demri if you’d had a good imagination. She bought a disposable phone with a hundred thrials of credit embedded, a basic-model wrist-screen and a newssheet, ate a light lunch in a small, over-priced cafe, then she walked round the curve of the wheel’s outer rim to the viewing-gallery.
She sat between them, in the very back row of the gallery. She stared at the screen. The one on her right did the talking.
“Three baldies in a row!” he sniggered. “What a laugh, eh?”
The one on her left sat watching the screen with a jacket over his lap. He held the gun underneath the jacket, pointed into her side just below her ribs. Guns tended not to be terribly popular baggage items with the people who ran space-stations-she had reluctantly abandoned her HandCannon to a left-luggage agency in Ikueshleng-and she was almost tempted to believe the gun poking into her ribs was a fake, but she thought the better of doing anything that would ensure she’d find out.
She looked at the profile of the silent man holding the gun. He was identical to the one on her right. She could see no sign that either of them was an android.
“I said, what a laugh, eh?” The one on her right poked her with one finger. Her right hand flicked out, grabbed his hand; she glared into his eyes. His mouth made an O. He looked amused. The gun under her left ribs prodded briefly.
She let go of his hand. It had been warm; it had felt like a human hand.
“My, we’re touchy,” the young man on her right said. “I almost wish we’d brought one of our mannequins along.” He pulled at the collar of his tight grey, business-like jacket, adjusting his cuffs. “I take it you had your little flashback two days ago, did you?”
She watched the planet for a moment, looking down on what must be noon on Issier (there; white fluffs of cloud in the centre of Phirar, covering the archipelago) and nodded slowly.
“I believe I felt something, at one point,” she said.
“Just to let you know we haven’t forgotten you,” the young man said. “I hear you were seeing an old friend of the family; terrible shame about old Bencil Dornay. What a shock that must have been for you.”
She sought southern Caltasp under its own speckled cover of cloud, and identified the huge smooth curve of Farvel Bight, its northern limit hidden under the clouds that reputedly never broke above the Sea House.
“Our family likes its old servants to know we haven’t forgotten them,” she told the young man. “Or their children.”
“Indeed.” The young man said. “So now you’re on your way to Miykenns, aren’t you, Lady Sharrow…?” He paused. “Except you missed the ship you were booked on, and which the rest of your team took.”
She looked up, tracing again the route she’d taken to the Franck’s home, then on to Lip City.
“Did I?” she said. “Damn. I hate it when that happens.”
“And instead you’re off to Trontsephori, isn’t that right?”
She looked down the long coast of Piphram, straining to make out the lagoons and the dot that was the Log-Jam.
“Am I?” she said.
“No, Ysul,” the young man said almost gently. “No, you’re not.” He sighed. “You’re Phrastesis bound, according to your ticket. But somehow I don’t think you’ll make it all the way there.”
She looked from the burning bright heart of Jonolrey’s Mel desert into his eyes.
“You’re very well informed for a messenger boy,” she said. “You should be in the travel business.”
He smiled coldly at her. “Don’t be unpleasant, Lady Sharrow,” he said. He put out his hand and stroked her upper arm with one finger. “We can be so much more unpleasant to you than you can be to us.”
She looked down at the slowly stroking finger, then back to his eyes. He watched his finger too, as though it didn’t belong to him. “Not even,” he said quietly, “that greasy little over-achiever of a cousin of yours will be able to help you, if we decide to be really unpleasant to you… Lady Sharrow.”
She reached out to take hold of his stroking finger, but he took it away, folding his arms.
“You know,” she said. “I’m really getting a little fed up with you and all your attentions.” She frowned at him. “Just who are you? Why are you doing this? What sort of weird enjoyment do you get from it? Or do you just do whatever you’re told?”
He smiled tolerantly. “Let me give you a word of advice-”
“No,” she said. “Let me give you a word of advice.” She leant towards him, away from the gun. “Stop doing this, or I’ll hurt you-if you can be hurt-or I’ll kill you; kill or destroy both of you-”
The young man was pretending to look frightened; he was pulling faces at his twin sitting on her other side. The gun was stuck harder under her ribs. She ignored the gun and reached out with her left hand and took the other young man’s chin in her hand.
“No, listen to me,” she said, gripping his chin hard, feeling the warm smoothness of it, and forcing one finger into the side of his neck, to touch the beat of blood beneath his skin. He smelled of cheap scent. He looked at her and tried to smirk, but the way she was holding his chin made it difficult. The gun was a sharp pain under her ribs, but she couldn’t really care just at that point. She shook his chin a little.
“I’ll do whatever I can to both of you,” she said. “And I don’t give a flying fuck what you or your employers do to me; I’ve never liked being treated the way you miserable little pricks have been treating me, and I don’t respond well to that sort of persuasion, understand? You getting all this?”
She made a play of searching his eyes. “Are you? Whoever I’m talking to in there? Comprehend? You’ve made your point and you’ll get your Gun. Now just fuck off; or we’ll all suffer.” She smiled bleakly. “Yes, I’ll suffer most, I don’t doubt.” The bleak smile faded. “But at least I won’t be alone.”
She let go of his chin slowly, pushing his head away a little with her last touch.
The young man smoothed a hand over his scalp and readjusted his jacket collar. He cleared his throat, glancing at his image on her other side. “Your talent for destruction extends to yourself I see, Lady Sharrow,” he said. “How democratic in one so noble.”
She got up slowly, holding her satchel. “Eat my shit, you puppet,” she told him. She paused as she moved past the one with the gun, looking into his eyes and then glancing at his lap. “I trust the rest of your weaponry is rather more intimidating.”
She walked, trying not to limp, along the aisle towards the gangway, the back of her naked scalp and the area between her shoulder blades itching and tingling, waiting for the shot that would kill her, or just the start of the pain again, but she made it to the end of the aisle, then down the steps, then through the double doors without anything happening.
In the corridor outside she collapsed back against the wall, swallowing, breathing heavily and putting her head back against the soft bulkhead. She closed her eyes for a moment.
Then she made her eyes go as wide as they could, blew her cheeks out, and with a slight shake of her head, walked away.
She landed on Miykenns three days later. The shuttle bellied down onto the wide, calm waters of Lake Malishu, its still hot hull creating bursts of steam with each skimming kiss so that its progress was marked by a series of small, distinct clouds, each curling round itself like a gauzy leaf and rising into the warm, still air while the craft whizzed on, finally settling onto the lake’s mirror-surface in a long, unzipping trail of white.
Beyond the early-morning coastal mists, the Entraxrln towered distantly on all sides, as though the lake existed in the eye of some vast purple storm.
She stepped lightly onto the jetty on Embarkation Island. Miykenns’ gravity was barely seventy per cent of Golter’s; the ship she’d journeyed on had maintained one Golter-g during acceleration and deceleration, and so Miykenns gave her the delicious feeling that she was about to float away all the time; it was a sensation that had led to more than a few broken limbs and heads over the time that people from Golter had been landing on Miykenns and suddenly feeling as though they could leap tall buildings.
She looked around and breathed deeply. The heady, fruity air filled her instantly with a careless, dizzy optimism, and an aching nostalgia that was sweet and poignant at once.
She and her fellow passengers were presented with flowers by tall, smiling Tourist Agency youngsters and shown the way to the maglev terminal; Malishu’s usual informality manifested itself in a total lack of any visible officials between the shuttle jetty and the maglev platform, and its renowned organisational prowess was demonstrated in the fact that an empty train had departed just before the passengers got there.
People stood on the open platform watching the winking light at the rear of the train as it disappeared down the causeway heading across the misty lake for the city.
Then groans turned to cheers as it became obvious the slowly flashing light had stopped and was coming nearer. Applause greeted the returning train.
She sat in the nose of the observation car, a huge smile on her face as she watched the great towers and sheet-membranes of the Entraxrln draw nearer while flocks of birds drifted across the lake on either side like huge clouds of lazy snowflakes under the clearing morning mists.
The Entraxrln was a couple of kilometres tall around the lake; by the time the city became evident, nestled, packed and crusted around and inside its vast dark trunks and cables, she had to lean forward in her seat and crane her neck to see the pale reaches of the topmost spindles and the slowly swell-waving membranes of the vast structure.
She sat back in her seat, still smiling. “Welcome to Embarkation Island,” said a recorded voice as they hurtled, slowing, into Malishu Central Rail Station. It shouldn’t have been that funny, but she found herself laughing along with everybody else.
The Entraxrln of Miykenns had fascinated astronomers on Golter for millennia before people ever set foot on the globe. Observatory records written on clay tablets thirteen thousand years earlier, which by some miracle had survived all of Golter’s frenetic history in between and even remained translatable, spoke of the several theories attempting to account for Miykenns’s strange appearance; white and blue swirls on one side, and a strange, dark, slowly-changing aspect on the other, rarely obscured by the white marks that always dotted what was assumed to be the ocean, and on which-with a good telescope on a high mountain on a calm night-distinct and swirling patterns could just be made out, like drips of pale-hued paints dropped onto the surface of a darker tint, and stirred into thin lines and creamy whorls.
It had been five millennia from the season that tablet had been fired to the day when people finally set foot on Miykenns and discovered the truth.
The Entraxrln was a plant; a single vast vegetable which must have been growing on Miykenns for at least two million years; it was, by several orders of magnitude, both the oldest and the largest living thing in the entire system.
It covered three continents, two oceans, five sizeable seas and thousands of islands. It controlled the weather, it withstood tsunami, it tamed volcanoes, it diverted glaciers, it mined minerals, it irrigated the desert, it drained seas and it levelled mountains. It grew up to three kilometres tall on land, had covered mountains eight thousand metres high, and tendrils had been found buried in volcanic vents in the deepest ocean trenches.
Its roots, trunks, leaf-membranes and anchor-cables covered the land beneath like an enormous, airy mat, producing something that looked vaguely like a forest-with trunks and layers of canopy-but built on the scale of a planet-wide weather system. Consequently, a physical map of Miykenns was as bafflingly complex as a political chart of Golter.
Humanity had been colonising the Entraxrln’s great domatium for seven thousand years, spreading out amongst its mountainous trunks and beneath its dim, diminishing layers, heading away from the clearings where they had landed to inhabit the plant’s bounteous commonwealth of levels and carve and work its trunks for dwellings and artifacts, and to trap or farm its various parasitic and symbiotic fauna and flora for food. Malishu, favoured by the great lake the Entraxrln had left uncovered for its own mysterious reasons-and by its almost central position in the vast plant-had been the planet’s capital for most of those seven millennia.
She hired a tri-shaw with a breezily prolix driver and found a small pension in the Artists’ Quarter, at the base of one of the city’s eleven great composite trunks. The fluted slope of the helically netted column rose into the haze and mists above, the houses and narrow, zig-zagging streets and bridges petering out as the gradient grew steeper.
She screened the city news channel before she went out; it held nothing about her or the Huhsz.
She walked towards the inner city through the lunch-time crowds inundating the markets and marquee an galleries; her nose was assaulted by smells she’d forgotten she knew; of the fruits, bulbs, flowers and tubers of the various plants that coexisted with the Entraxrln; of the rainbow-skinned fish and spike-mouth crustaceans from the lake, and of the cooked meats and potages made from the animals that lived within the great plant; jelly-birds, glide-monkeys, bell-mouths, cable-runners, trap-blossoms, tunnel-slugs and a hundred others. Painters and sculptors, silhouettists and aurists, scentifiers and holo artists called out to her from their stalls and tents, telling her-as they told everybody-that she had an interesting profile or skull or aura or scent.
A few stares and a couple of shouts convinced her that baldness wasn’t a major fashion feature in Malishu this season, so she found a drug store and bought a wig and some eyebrow spray, then continued.
She grew tired after a while and paid a few coins for the one-way hire of a bike into the inner city, riding a little shakily and trying not to be too touristically distracted by the gradually heightening buildings and. the cloudy canopies of Entraxrln membranes fifteen hundred metres above while the half-kilometre-wide trunk column around which the inner city had grown up-like dolls’ houses at the base of a great tree-drew slowly closer.
“You just walked out?” Zefla giggled, a hand over her mouth. They were sitting in a lunchbar at the foot of a Corp tower in Malishu’s central business district.
Sharrow shrugged. “Oh, I was just getting fed up with it all. I don’t even know what they were supposed to tell me.” She stirred her salty soup. “Maybe they just wanted to show me how clever they were, that we hadn’t fooled them.”
“But no more of those pains?” Zefla said.
“Not so far.”
Zefla nodded. She had dressed as soberly as she could, in a dark two-piece. Her height didn’t attract attention in Malishu, where most people were around two metres tall. She’d tied her hair up and wore a rather dowdy hat. “You got a gun yet?”
“That’s next,” Sharrow said. “How’s the Central?”
“Comfortable.” Zefla smiled. “Been done out since, but the Bole bar is still the same.” Zefla’s smile widened. “Hey, Grappsle’s still there. He remembered us. Asked after you.”
Sharrow grinned. “That was good of him.”
“Yeah; we told him you were on the run.” Zefla bit into her sandwich.
“Obviously hadn’t heard the news,” Zefla continued, chewing. “He just seemed to assume it was a jealous wife.” She shrugged. “Men, eh?”
“Hmm.” Sharrow sipped her soup. “And where are the boys?”
“Cenny marched Miz and Dlo down the City Library before they could unpack properly. They’re trying to find out more about this Pharpech place; a lot of stuff’s only available on non-standard format DBs, and some of it’s on flimsies and paper, for Fate’s sake.” Zefla shook her head at such incontinent archaicism and tore another bite from her sandwich. “Probably hit the University stacks tomorrow,” she mumbled through a mouthful of food.
Sharrow sipped her soup until Zefla swallowed, then said, “Had a chance to screen the legal situation?”
Zefla shook her head. “Got all I’m ever going to get from the public data bases in about five minutes. Under System law the Kingdom of Pharpech doesn’t exist; the area around it’s still theoretically Settlement Territory under the auspices of the (First) Colonial Settlement Board, Defunct. That takes us back to the thirty-three hundreds, and it’s got much more complicated since; there are at least fifteen competing and mutually aggravational land-title disputes, all dormant for way over a century so technically moribund, but there are just bound to be loop-holes; I can smell them.
“Going as far back as it’s sensible to go, the Kingdom was created as a Dukedom by the Ladyrs in return for tap-mining rights on the territory outskirts; it was declared capital when the Ladyrs needed a casting vote on the Planetary Board and the burgers of Malishu weren’t being cooperative. The then Duke declared himself King when the Ladyr dynasty collapsed, the Conglomerate that fell heir to the tap-mining rights got a Title by Use deed over their patch, which seems to have been the only bit anyone really cared about-and which has been closed down for three hundred years anyway-and… well, apart from removing its status as planetary capital, nobody ever got round to sorting out Pharpech’s legal status.
“If you want an opinion, with eight cents of de facto existence the Kingdom’s been going so long a decent gang of greased-up legal hot-shots could swing Full Diplomatic Acceptance and even a seat on the Miykenns World Council under Common Law in under a year. But in the meantime,” Zefla said, “it’s in Nowhere Territory.” She smiled happily and waved her arms. “Just one of those little legal oxbows on the great flood-plain of System law. There are zillions.”
“You got all that in five minutes?” Sharrow grinned.
“Maybe ten; I lose track when I’m enjoying myself.” Zefla shrugged. “Anyway, I’ll be heading for the Uni Legal Faculty myself soon. See if there’s anything the public DBs have missed.”
“You don’t think there’s anything we’ll be able to use?”
“No,” Zefla said. “Buying some defunct mining claim, forging docs and pretending to the throne…” She shook her head. “Pharpech’s complexities all seem to be in the distant past; there’s no confusion recent enough to exploit. Unless I can dig up something very unexpected indeed, we aren’t going to crack this one via the legal route. I’ll keep looking, though.”
“Okay,” Sharrow said. “I’ll check out the travel possibilities, but assuming that doesn’t take long, let me know if I can help you or the boys.” She reached into her satchel. “Here, I got this phone…”
“Right.” Zefla tapped the code for Sharrow’s disposable phone into her own. “How’s your hotel?”
“Comfortable. In the Artists’ Quarter.”
“What’s it like these days?”
“Full of artists.”
“No improvement, then.”
“Even more twee, if anything.”
“And the hunkies?”
“I have a horrible feeling nothing’s changed there either; the good-looking ones are gay and the interesting ones turn out to be mad.”
“Hard times,” Zefla agreed.
“Hmm.” Sharrow nodded, a pained expression on her face. “It’s been too long,” she said. “I hear words like ‘hard’ and I’m in danger of sliding off my seat.” She looked out at the gentle, filtered light of afternoon… “Doesn’t help having all these huge fucking towering columns rearing up all over the place here, either…” She sighed. “I may be forced to desperate measures; I haven’t seen one for so long I’m starting to forget what they look like.”
“Well, hey,” Zefla said, looking amused. “There’s always Miz. He’d be up for it.”
She shook her head. “I know. But…” She looked away.
“Old wounds, eh?” Zefla said, washing her sandwich down with some wine.
Sharrow gazed away with a lost expression Zefla knew from over a decade and a half earlier. “Yeah, old wounds,” she said quietly.
“Good afternoon, Madam. How may I help you?”
“Good afternoon. I’d like a FrintArms HandCannon, please.”
“A-? Oh, now; that’s an awfully big gun for such a lovely lady. I mean, not everybody thinks ladies should carry guns at all, though I say they have a right to. But I think… I might… Let’s have a look down here. I might have just the thing for you. Yes; here we are! Look at that, isn’t it neat? Now, that is a FrintArms product as well, but it’s what’s called a laser; a light-pistol some people call them. Very small, as you see; fits easily into a pocket or bag; won’t spoil the line of a jacket and you won’t feel you’re lugging half a tonne of iron around with you. We do a range of matching accessories, including-if I may say so-a rather saucy garter holster; wish I got to do the fitting for that! Ha; just my little joke. And there’s even… here we are; this special presentation pack; gun, charged battery, charging unit, beautiful glider-hide shoulder holster with adjustable fitting and contrast stitching, and a discount on your next battery. Full instructions, of course, and a voucher for free lessons at your local gun club or range. Or there’s the special presentation pack; it has all the other one’s got but with tyro charged batteries and a nightsight, too. Here; feel that-don’t worry; it’s a dummy battery -isn’t it neat? Feel how light it is? Smooth; see? No bits to stick out and catch on your clothes, and beautifully balanced. And of course the beauty of a laser is, there’s no recoil. Because it’s shooting fight, you see? Beautiful gun, beautiful gun; my wife has one. Really. That’s not a line; she really has. Now, I can do you that one-with a battery and a free charge-for ninety-five; or the presentation pack on a special offer for one-nineteen, or this, the special presentation pack for one-forty-nine.”
“I’ll take the special.”
“Sound choice, madam, sound choice. Now, do-?”
“And a HandCannon, with the eighty-mill silencer, five GP clips, three six-five AP/wire-flechettes clips, two bi-propellant HE clips, two incendiary clips, and a Special Projectile Pack if you have one; the one with the embedding homing rounds, not the signallers. I assume the nightsight on this toy is compatible.”
“Aah… Yes, and how does madam wish to pay?”
She slapped her credit card on the counter. “Eventually.”
She walked away from the gun shop, the satchel heavy on her shoulder. She bought a newssheet and read it on the open-top deck of the tram she took back to the Artists’ Quarter.
She scanned the flimsy, thumbing through its stored pages on fast-forward and stopping to look closely at something only once.
She’d glanced at the race results from Tile.
One of the runners-up the day before had been Dance of Death.
10 Just A Concept
“Hiya, doll. Oh. ‘Doll’, that wasn’t very… Shit.”
“Get on with it, Zef.”
“Sorry. Meet me at the Crying Statue in an hour; how’s that?”
“Too damn succinct for a lawyer.”
“I’m out of practice.”
“I know the feeling. The Crying Statue, in an hour.”
“See you there, doll… Shit.”
Two women made their way from the Crying Statue in Malishu’s Tourist Quarter across the carved-open arc of Tube Bridge to the University Precincts. Above them, the mid-morning mists were lifting into the air amongst the stalk towers and stay-cables of the Entraxrln, obscuring the distant, under-ocean view of the highest membrane layers.
They walked quickly along pavements still damp from the morning smir. Sharrow, in a long dark dress and jacket and the high-heeled boots she tended to favour when going anywhere with Zefla, strode determinedly with her head up, a severe, slightly forbidding look on her face, discouraging contact. The striking, sternly poised face, dramatic auburn hair and precise, upright carriage almost disguised the fact that every second step was a slight fall, a tiny flaw in the pattern, a misplaced beat in the rhythm of her body.
Zefla strolled-long-stepped in culottes and a light coat-shirt-with an almost disjointed looseness, head moving from side to side, smiling at everyone and no-one, walking with a kind of easy familiarity as though she belonged here, knew these people, made this walk every day.
Heads turned as they crossed the bridge over the trickle-throated bed of the Ishumin rivet and entered the partially walled warren of the university; merchants at stalls lost the thread of their sales pitch, people using phones forgot what they were talking about, passengers at tram stops neglected to press the call-button for the next tram so that it rushed clanking past them; at least two men, looking back over their shoulders, bumped into other people.
Sharrow started to get uneasy as they passed through Apophyge Gate into the dark clutter of the Literature Faculty prefecture. “You sure you weren’t followed?” she asked Zefla.
Zefla looked mildly incredulous. “Of course I was followed,” she said scornfully. “But never by anybody with anything lethal in mind.” She put her arm through Sharrow’s and looked quietly smug. “Quite the opposite, I imagine.”
“I’d forgotten we could be conspicuous,” Sharrow admitted, but seemed to relax a little. She lifted her gaze from the cramped cobble-barks of Metonymy Street to the airy sweep of stay-cables describing elegant arcs above the distant grid of the Mathematics Faculty. She began to whistle.
They walked on, still arm-in-arm. Zefla looked thoughtful for a while, then smiled; a youth crossing the street in front of them with an armful of ancient books, caught unintentionally in the beam of that smile, promptly dropped the tomes. Zefla went, “Whoops,” as she stepped over the crouching student’s head, then gazed at Sharrow.
“Whistling…” Zefla said.
“Hmm?” Sharrow looked at her.
They stopped at a street corner to study a Faculties map. Zefla bent, hands clasped behind her back, inspecting the map.
“Whistling,” she repeated. “Well, it used to mean only one thing.”
Sharrow had an uncharacteristically broad smile on her face when Zefla turned back to her. Sharrow shrugged and cleared her throat as they turned to head up a steep side street towards the History Faculty. “Damn, am I that transparent?”
“You look tired, too.”
Sharrow rubbed under her eyes gently. “Worth every bag and line.”
“Who was the lucky fellow?”
“Strings? Wind? Keyboard? Composition?” Zefla inquired.
Sharrow grinned at her, brown eyebrows flexing. “Percussion,” she said huskily.
Zefla sniggered, then assumed a serious expression, lifting her head up and enunciating clearly. “Don’t brag, dear; it’s unbecoming.”
“Ah, war is hell,” Miz Gattse Ensil Kuma said, sitting back luxuriantly in the perfumed pillows of the small canal-boat. He lifted the stemmed glass of slushed trax spirit from the boat’s table and sipped at it delicately, watching the gently glowing lanterns as they floated past them. The boat’s own lantern shone softly, creaking on the end of a bowed, spindly branch above them. People in fancy-dress passed on the canal walkway a few metres away, trailing streamers and laughing, their faces hidden by grotesque and fabulous masks. Above, over the dark city, fireworks blazed distantly, their flashes lighting up the layers of Entraxrln membrane and sometimes silhouetting the open weave-work of the composite trunks. The boat whirred quietly on along the raised, open section of canal.
Sharrow-actually, at that moment, Commander Sharrow of the anti-Tax League Irregular Forces Eleventh Clipper Squadron-sat across the little table from him. For the first time since they’d met almost a year ago she was out of uniform and not dressed in ease-fatigues or street sloppies. She wore a rainbow-mirrored half-mask that just covered her eyes and the bridge of her nose. It was topped by a cap of white and green-dyed lake-bird feathers; her dress was bright green, short, low-cut and clinging, and her legs, in the fashion of the day, were sheathed in a transparent covering of polymerised perfume-oil. She had long, perfectly shaped legs and they gleamed, they glistened, they glinted under the suspended lanterns that swung on bowed stalks over the dark canal.
He could hardly keep his eyes off those long, slinkily muscular legs. He knew the dry, slick touch of perfume-oil, the smooth, blissful feel of that slowly evaporating, few-molecules-thick covering; he had experienced it many times on other women and it was no longer quite so freshly erotic an experience as it had been once. But sitting here, alone with her in this little purring, gently bumping boat on the last night of the festival, he wanted to touch her, hold her, stroke and kiss her more than he could remember ever wanting any woman. The urge, the need was as scarifying and intense as he remembered from just before he’d first gotten laid; it burned in him, infested him, ran brilliant and urgent in his blood.
It was suddenly irrelevant to him that she was his Commanding Officer and an aristo-things that had, in some kind of piqued, invertedly snobbish way in the past prevented him from ever thinking of her as a woman (and a beautiful, attractive, intelligent one, at that; the kind he would normally know just from the first glance, the first word, that he would want to bed if he could) rather than his tactically brilliant but curt and scathingly sarcastic CO, or an arrogant over-privileged brat from Golter who had drop-dead looks and knew it.
“A toast,” Sharrow said, uncrossing her gauzily shining legs and sitting forwards. She raised her glass.
“What to?” Miz asked, looking at the colourfully distorted reflection of his face in her rainbow-mirror mask. His own mask lay on his chest, looped round his neck.
“Iphrenil toast,” she said. “The secret toast; we each toast what we choose to.”
“Stupid custom.” He sighed. “Okay.”
They clinked glasses. Masked figures dressed as deep country bandits ran along the canal, whooping and firing pop-guns. He ignored them and looked into her eyes as he drank from his glass. Here’s to getting you into bed, my commander, he thought to himself.
Her dark, mocking eyes looked back at him from behind the mask. A small smile creased her lips.
A flower grenade landed between them in the well of the little boat. She laughed a dark-brown laugh, electrifying him. She kicked the grenade over to him; he kicked it back; the perfumed fuse burned smokily. She trapped the fist-sized ball beneath her naked foot, watching it (and he could feel the SNB kicking in, this becoming a tactical situation for both of them, and he knew the possibilities and the potential courses she would be evaluating right then. He waited, in that lengthened instant, to see what she would do), then just as the fuse seemed to go out, she kicked the grenade over to him; he laughed, outlucked, and tried to kick the ball out of the way.
The flower grenade burst with a loud pop, scattering a cloud of colour all around him, surrounding him in a thousand tiny, expanding blooms. Some stuck to him; others were so small and dry they went up his nose and made him sneeze; the scent reeked.
He coughed and sneezed and tried to wave the flowers away, distantly aware of her clapping her hands and laughing uproariously. People on shore cheered and whistled.
He sat, wiping his nose on a handkerchief and brushing the sticky flowers off his dress jacket. Some of the blooms had landed in his glass; he wrinkled his nose, threw the scent-contaminated spirit overboard.
“Streme Tunnel!” shouted a ceremonially robed official sitting on a high seat on the canal path. “Streme Tunnel! Fifty metres!” He nodded to them as they acknowledged, waving.
Miz turned, looking forward over the bows of the small boat. Ahead, the tube-canal entered a wide basin where most people were decanting from their boats.
The circular canal-twenty kilometres long and one of two girdling what had once been the outer city-was really just an Entraxrln root-transport tube with the top half cut off; the section they were approaching now had not been sliced open, and soon disappeared into a dark mass of Entraxrln mat the size of a small range of hills and covered with the houses and tenements of Streme prefecture; Streme Tunnel was five kilometres long and took over an hour for the average boat to negotiate. Most people not asleep or amorously inclined tended to get out here.
He turned back to her, sighing and shrugging.
“Well,” he said, trying to put just the right note of regret into his voice, “it would appear to be de-boating time, up ahead.”
She set her mouth in a line; an expression he knew was not neutral, but which he still could not fully interpret. It might be annoyance or merely acceptance. Still, something in his chest seemed to release like a spring. Maybe, he thought.
She drank from her glass, frowning.
He sat back, deliberately relaxed, and crossed his arms. He thought quickly; do I want to do this? Yes. But it’s breaking the code we’ve all followed without ever discussing or agreeing it; no sex between neurobondees. With people from other groups, yes; with anybody else in the military habitats where they were based ninety per cent of the time, yes. But not in-group. Too many people thought it would upset the delicate web of anticipation and response that existed between the teams when they flew combat missions together.
I know, he thought, and I don’t fucking care. She’s the commander; let her decide; I want her.
So he uncrossed his arms and glanced back at the tunnel mouth as they entered the basin and the canal fluted out, broadening around them. He looked back into her eyes and said calmly, not too loudly, “So, what shall we do? Get out or go through?”
Her gaze slid from his eyes to the tunnel ahead, then back again. She took a breath.
She’s mine, he thought. Oh, don’t let me be wrong!
“What do you want to do?” she asked him.
He shrugged, adjusted a pillow at his side. “Well, I’m comfortable here…”
“You want to go through,” she said, the mirror-mask rising as she tipped her head back, as if daring him.
He just shrugged.
She looked at the people on the shore, and up at the sporadic bursts of fireworks above the city’s dark twinkle of lights. “I don’t know,” she said, looking back at him. And suddenly she was all haughty Golter noble, nose in the air, imperious and straight-backed, her voice commanding: “Persuade me.”
He smiled. A year ago, that would have been it; he’d have bridled at that arrogance, and laughed and said, Na, it’d be boring in the tunnel; let’s rejoin the others and have some real fun (and would secretly have hoped that she had wanted to go through, and so would be hurt that he’d said it would be boring)… but now he was a little older and a lot wiser, and he knew her better, too, and he was fairly sure now that he knew what it meant that she should suddenly revert to the behaviour of her earlier life.
And even then, even in that instant when he knew he was on the tremulous brink of something he wanted more desperately than he’d ever wanted anything before, and knew that it was going to break new and dangerous ground, and maybe endanger him, her and the others, and knew that he knew, and didn’t care, because life was there to be lived just this one time, and that meant gambling, seizing each and every chance for happiness and advancement; even then he found time to think, to be struck by the realisation: How old we have become.
Not one of us over twenty; her-this stunning, glorious creature in front of him-only just nineteen. And yet in the last year we have become ancient; from children to cynical, war-worn, half-careless, half-uncaring veterans who will take their enemies when and where they can in the darkness and the single-ship loneliness of the battle, coupling with them across microseconds of space, tussling and teasing and tangling with them until only one was left… and took their pleasures cut from the same template; total, intense and furiously concentrated involvement, immediately followed by utter indifference.
Persuade you, he thought. “Okay,” he said, smiling at her. “Come on through the tunnel and I promise I’ll tell you what I toasted to.”
She made a funny expression, drawing both ends of her mouth down, the tendons in her neck standing out. It was an expression he’d never seen on her before. He smiled despite himself, thinking how suddenly young she had looked.
“I don’t know,” she said, the mirror-mask looking down at her glass. “Then I’d have to tell you what I toasted to…”
She looked up into his eyes, and he wondered if it was possible to give a come-hither look from behind a mask. He settled back in the plushness of the cushions. Something sang in his soul. The tunnel entrance drifted closer.
Boat marshals called to them, reminding them this was their last chance to decant. People on shore made knowing, lowing noises and shouted ribald advice. He scarcely heard them.
“You’re persuaded?” he said.
She nodded. “I’m persuaded.”
He sat very still.
She reached up and took off the rainbow-mirror mask, just as the tunnel mouth came up to swallow them.
“This is it,” Zefla said. “31/3 Little Grant Terrace.”
The three-storey structure was even more darkly ramshackle than its neighbours. It was Malishu-vernacular in style, sculpted from bluey-purple layer-mat supported by fire-hardened beams of brown stalk-timber. It looked out over a narrow-railinged, bark-cobbled street to a view of the steeply raked roofs-some tented, some bark-tiled-of the Modern History Department, and out towards the city’s northern suburbs.
The place looked dead. The ground floor had no windows and the tall windows in the two upper floors were dark and dirty. The door, made from poorly cured bark that had warped and split over the years, hung crooked over a nailed-on extra sill. Zefla pulled on a string handle. They couldn’t hear any sound from the interior. Zefla tested the door but it was either locked or badly stuck.
Sharrow looked up at the guttering; a section hung loose, dripping water despite the fact the roof and street had now dried after the early-morning drizzle. She kicked fragments of a fallen roof tile into a weed-ruffed hole in the pavement, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “I take it being the world authority on the Kingdom of Pharpech doesn’t attract major funding.”
Zefla pulled harder on the string door-pull and stood back. “Maybe it does,” she said. “But the guy feels closer to the place living in an antiquated ruin like this.”
“Method scholarship?” Sharrow said sceptically. “More likely this is Cenuij’s idea of a joke.”
Zefla shook her head earnestly. “Oh, no. I can tell, he was genuine. I think he wanted to come himself, but he reckoned your man here would be more receptive to us.”
“Huh,” Sharrow said, frowning at the skeleton of a tiny animal lying just inside the doorway’s recess. “That description could cover a tankful of shit.”
A window creaked open on the third floor and a small, grey-haired, bearded man stuck his head out and looked down at them.
“Hello?” he said.
“Hello,” Zefla called. “We’re looking for a gentleman called Ivexton Travapeth.”
“Yes,” said the little man.
Zefla paused, then said, “You’re not him, then?”
“Right. Do you know where we can find him?”
Zefla looked at Sharrow, who started whistling.
“Could you tell us where he is?” Zefla said.
“Yes,” the little man said, blinking.
“Wrong department,” Sharrow muttered, folding her arms and turning to look back out over the city. “It’s the Formal Logic building and they’re working to rule.”
“Where is he?” Zefla asked, trying not to giggle.
“Oh, here,” the man nodded.
“May we see him?” Zefla said.
“Keep going,” Sharrow told Zefla quietly. “The Passports only last a year.”
“Good,” Zefla said. “Thank you. We’d have phoned or screened, but Mister Travapeth seems to discourage that sort of contact.”
“Yes. Could you let us in?”
“Yes, yes,” the small man nodded.
Sharrow started to make loud snoring noises.
Zefla nudged her. “Please come down and let us in,” she said, smiling at the little man.
“Very well,” the grey-bearded man said and disappeared. The window banged shut.
Sharrow’s head thumped onto Zefla’s shoulder. She yawned. “Wake me when the door opens or the universe ends, whichever’s sooner.”
Zefla patted her auburn locks.
The door opened, creaking. Sharrow turned to look. The small grey-bearded man peeked out, looked up and down the street, then opened the door wide. He was pulling on a pair of floppy trousers with attached soft-shoes; he tied the cord and tucked his shirt into his trousers as he stood there, grinning at the two women. He was tiny, even smaller than he’d looked in the window. Zefla thought he looked cuddly.
“Good-morning,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied, and beckoned them to enter. Zefla and Sharrow stepped over the high sill into a dull but not dark space looking onto a small courtyard, partially shielded from them by a sheet hanging from the floor above. The air smelled of sweat and cooked fats. A grunting, wheezing male-sounding noise came from the other side of the grubby sheet. Zefla glanced at Sharrow, who shrugged.
“I hope you’re hearing that too,” she told Zefla, “or I’m more tired than I thought and flashing-back to last night.”
The grey-bearded man went on before them, still hitching up his trousers and tucking in the last few folds of his creased shirt as he bustled forward round the edge of the hanging sheet. They followed. The courtyard was small and cluttered; balconies ran round the two floors above, giving access to other rooms. A light covering of membrane made a gauzy roof above.
The floor of the atrium was covered with carpets and mats on which stood half a dozen over-stuffed bookshelves and a couple of tables covered with layers and rolls of paper. Exercise equipment in the shape of dumbbells, weights, heavy clubs and flexible bars lay strewn amongst the stuff of ancient scholarship.
In the centre of it all stood the tallish, gaunt figure of an almost naked elderly man with a white mat of hair on his chest and a shock of thick black hair on his head. He was clad in a grubby loincloth and clutched a pair of hand-weights which he was raising alternately, breathing heavily and grunting with each lift. There was sweat on his fined, tanned face. Zefla reckoned he was seventy at least, though his figure was relatively youthful; only the white chest-hair and a certain slackness round his belly revealed his age. “Ha; good-morning, lovely ladies!” he said in a deep voice. “Ivexton Travapeth at your service.”
He thumped the hand-weights down on a massive book that seemed to be holding down one corner of an age-brown chart, raising dust and making the table beneath shudder. “And how may this humble and undeserving scholar help two such radiantly pulchritudinous gentle-ladies?” He stood, arms crossed, biceps bulging, on the balls of his feet, facing them, still breathing heavily. His expression was somewhere between mischievous and lecherous.
“Good-morning, Mister Travapeth,” Zefla said, nodding as she stepped forward and put out her hand. They shook. “My name is Ms Franck; this is my assistant, Ms Demri.”
Sharrow nodded as Travapeth glanced, smiling, at her. “We’re researchers for an independent screen production company, MGK Productions. Our card.” Zefla handed him a card from one of Miz’s many front companies.
Travapeth squinted at the card. “Ali, you are from Golter. I thought so from your accent, of course. How may Travapeth help you, my saxicolous damsels?”
Zefla smiled. “We’d like to talk to you about a place called Pharpech.”
Ivexton Travapeth rocked back on his heels a little. “Indeed?” he said.
At that point the little man rushed out of the shadows behind the scholar, holding open a long grey gown. He jumped up and tried to put the gown over the tall man’s shoulders. He failed, and tried several more times while Travapeth boomed:
“Pharpech! Ali, dear, belovable lady, you utter a word-an almost magical word-which summons up such a welter of emotions in this well-travelled breast-” There was a hollow thud as Travapeth struck his white-haired chest with one fist “-I scarcely know where or how to begin to respond.”
The little man put the gown over one forearm and pulled a chair from beneath a table, stationing it behind Travapeth. He climbed up onto the chair and went to put the gown over the scholar’s shoulders just as Travapeth moved away towards a chest-high wooden stand holding a set of dumbbells. The little grey-haired man fell to the floor with a squeal.
Travapeth lifted the dumbbells from the stand, grunting.
“You say screen production company?” he said, straining to lift the dumbbells to his chin. The little man picked himself up and dusted himself down, retrieved the gown from the carpet and looked sulkily at Travapeth. Sharrow had her lips tightly closed.
“That’s right,” Zefla smiled.
The little grey-haired man scowled at Travapeth, then left the gown draped over the chair and returned to the shadows, muttering incoherently and shaking his head.
“Hmm,” Travapeth said, finally heaving the dumbbells level with the top of his shoulders and standing there panting for a moment. He swallowed. “I happen to know His Majesty King Tard the Seventeenth rather well,” he boomed. He smiled at the two women with a sort of radiant humility. “I was present at his coronation, you know, back when you two beautiful ladies were still suckling at the generous globes of your mothers’ breasts, I imagine.” He sighed contemplatively, perhaps sadly, then looked more serious as he strained at the dumbbells, and after a while relaxed. “And I have to say,” he panted, “His Majesty has shown… a consistent reluctance… to allow any sort of pictographic record… to be taken of his realm… which the modern world seems to regard as… bordering on the pathological.”
“We understand that,” Zefla said. “Nevertheless, Pharpech appears to be a fascinating and even romantic place, from what one reads about it, and we do feel that it would be worth some time and effort-by an experienced and highly talented team of individuals widely respected in their respective fields-to produce a true, factual and faithful account of life in what represents one of the last vestiges of a time gone by, miraculously still surviving into the present day.”
Travapeth seemed to strain again. Then he grunted; he put the dumbbells back on their stand and reached with a shaking hand for a stained towel lying crumpled on top of a bookcase.
“Quite so,” he said, shaking the towel until it uncrumpled. “But try explaining that to His Majesty!”
“Let me be candid,” Zefla said as Travapeth wiped under his armpits, and then his face. (Sharrow looked away.) “Our intention is to go there initially without any equipment-without even still cameras, if that’s what it takes-and perhaps, with your good offices, if that proves agreeable to you, establish some sort of understanding with whatever authorities control the sort of very limited access rights we’d require for the extremely respectful and tasteful prestige documentary production we have in mind.”
Travapeth nodded, blew his nose noisily into the towel and put it back on top of the bookcase. Sharrow coughed and studied the upper balcony. Zefla glided smoothly on. “We do of course recognise the difficulties involved, and we hope that-as a highly respected scholar and the foremost expert on Pharpech in the entire system-you would agree to act as our historical and anthropological consultant.”
Travapeth’sbrows knitted together as he flexed his shoulders and went to a sit-up bench, lying on it and jamming his feet under the bars.
“Yes, I see,” he said, clasping his hands behind his neck.
“Should you agree to this,” Zefla continued, “we would of course credit you on screen.”
“Mm-hmm,” Travapeth said, grunting as he did a sit-up.
“And, naturally,” Zefla said, “there would be a substantial fee involved, reflecting both the added academic weight your involvement in this prestigious project would contribute and the worth of your valuable time.”
Travapeth sat back on the narrow padding of the sit-up bench with a sigh. He stared up at the courtyard’s membrane ceiling.
“Of course,” he said, “financial matters are hardly my first concern.”
“Of course,” Zefla agreed. “I can well imagine.”
“But-just to give me a rough idea…?” He performed another sit-up then twisted, touching both elbows off his knees in turn.
“Might we suggest ten thousand, inclusive?” Zefla said.
The scholar paused, touching elbow to knee.
“Four immediately,” Zefla said, “should you be prepared to help us, then three on first day of principal photography and three on transmission.”
“Repeat fees?” Travapeth grunted, still swinging from side to side.
“Industry Prestige Documentary Production standard.”
“Single screen credit?”
“Same size, half the duration of the director’s.”
“Call it fifteen.”
Zefla sucked her breath in and sounded apologetic. “I’m not really authorised to exceed twelve thousand for any single individual.”
Travapeth sat back panting heavily. “Butler!” he shouted into the air, his voice resounding round the atrium. His sweatstreaked face looked upside-down at Zefla. “My dear girl,” he breathed, “you won’t need any other individual. I am all that you require; all that you could possibly ask for,” he leered.
From the corner of her eye Zefla caught Sharrow turning away with a hand stuffed in her mouth, just as the little man appeared from the shadows again, struggling to carry a huge hide bucket full of water.
“Fifteen,” Travapeth repeated, closing his eyes. “Six, five four.”
Zefla looked down, shaking her head and rubbing her chin.
“Well, then,” Travapeth sighed. “In three equal tranches; I can’t say fairer than that.”
The little man grabbed the chair with the gown draped over it and dragged it with him as he staggered up to where Travapeth lay panting on the sit-up bench; he climbed up onto the chair, heaved the bucket up level with his chest, then dumped the water over Travapeth’s deep-breathing, nine-tenths naked frame. Zefla stepped back quickly from the splash.
The scholar shuddered mightily as the water poured off him onto the mat beneath. He spluttered and blinked his eyes as his butler climbed down from the seat and walked away.
Travapeth smiled wetly at Zefla. “Do we have a deal, dear girl?”
Zefla glanced at Sharrow, who nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Ugh! Fate! Did you see his loincloth going clingy and see-through after the little guy poured the water over him? Yech!”
“Thankfully, my eyes were averted at that point.”
“And that stuff about ‘the generous globes of your mothers’ breasts’!” Zefla said in a booming voice, then squealed, hand over her mouth as they walked laughing down Imagery Lane through units and packs of students moving between lectures.
“I thought I was going to throw up,” Sharrow said.
“Well you shouldn’t have tried to put your whole hand into your mouth,” Zefla told her.
“It was that or howl.”
“Still, at least he seems to know what he’s talking about.”
“Hmm,” Sharrow said. “So far so plausible; we’ll see if Cenuij is impressed.” She nodded down the street to their right. “Let’s go down here. There’s a place I remember.”
“Okay,” Zefla said. They turned down Structuralist Street.
“Down here somewhere,” Sharrow said, looking around. The street was busy and edged with cafes and estaminets.
“Actually,” Zefla said, putting her arm through Sharrow’s again and looking up at the high membrane waving slowly two kilometres above. “Now I think about it, maybe I do kind of admire his brazenness.”
Sharrow glared at Zefla. “You really can’t hate anybody for more than about three seconds, can you?”
Zefla smiled guiltily. “Ah, he wasn’t that bad.” She shrugged. “He’s a character.”
“Let’s hope he stays a minor one,” Sharrow muttered.
Zefla laughed. “What’s the aim of this sentimental journey, anyway?” She looked along the crowded street. “Where are we heading for now?”
“The Bistro Onomatopoeia,” Sharrow told her.
“Oh, I remember that place,” Zefla said. She peered into the distance, a pretend frown on her face. “How do you spell it again?” she asked.
“Oh,” they chanted together, “just the way it sounds.”
She kept her cap down over her eyes and her boots on the rickety seat opposite. Her uniform jacket hung over the back of her own chair.
“Schlotch.” She said, and took another drink of the trax spirit.
“Schlotch?” Miz asked.
“Schlotch,” she confirmed.
“Mud scraped off a boot,” Dloan said, tapping her boot with the toe of his own.
She shook her head slowly, looking down at her hands where they were clasped between her uniformed thighs. She belched. “Nup,” she said.
Next round the table was Cenuij.
“A turd dropping into a toilet bowl,” he suggested, his gaze shining out from two black eyes he’d collected a couple of nights earlier. “From ten thousand metres.”
“Close,” she said, then giggled, waving one hand as the others started to heckle. “Na; na, not close at all. I lied. I lied. Ha ha ha.”
“The noise a-hic! shit-sock full of pickled jelly-bird brains makes when swung vigorously against an Excise Clipper escape hatch by a dwarf wearing a jump-girdle on his head.”
Sharrow glanced up at Zefla and shook her head quickly. “Too prosaic.”
Zefla shrugged. “Fair enough.”
Cara cleared his throat carefully. “The noise a speckle bug makes-” he began patiently.
They all pulled off their caps and started throwing them at him and shouting, “No!” “Choose another track!” “No, no, no!” “Fuck this goddamn speckle bug!” “Think of something else!”
Cara flinched, grinning under the barrage of caps, putting his arms out over the table so that his drink wasn’t spilled. “But,” he said, sounding reasonable. “It’s got to be right eventually…”
“Na, wrong again,” Sharrow said. She took some more trax. She felt drunker than she ought to feel. Could it be because it was on an empty stomach? They’d come to the Onomatopoeia for hangover cures and lunch, but somehow-it being their last day before another tour unless peace broke out-it had turned all too easily into another drinking bout.
Had she had breakfast? She accepted her cap back from somebody, and put it on over her crew-cut scalp. No, she couldn’t remember whether she’d had breakfast or not.
She drained the trax, said, “Next!” quite loudly, and put her glass down and pointed at Miz at the same time. Somebody refilled her glass.
Miz looked thoughtful. Then his thin, bright face lit up. “A Tax cruiser hitting another asteroid at half the speed of-”
They all started shouting and throwing their caps at him.
“This is getting too silly,” Froterin said, as Miz started to retrieve the caps. Froterin looked massively round them all. “Everybody’s starting to repeat themselves.”
“What was that?”
Froterin stood shakily, his seat scraping back across the pavement, teetering and almost falling into the street. He put his hand onto his broad chest, over his heart. “But now,” he rumbled, “I think it’s time for a little song…” He started to sing: “Oh, Caltasp oh Caaaltasp…”
“Oh, Fate… My cap!”
“Give me my cap!”
“Mine first! I’m less drunk and I aim better anyway!”
“Throw something else!”
“Not my drink, you cretin; use his!”
“Oh CAAALtasp, oh CAAALtasp-”
“My ears! My ears!”
“It’s no good, sir; caps just bounce off it!”
“Oh no! His glass is empty!”
Vleit got out of her seat and tip-toed round to Sharrow while the rest tried to stop Froterin singing. Vleit had a wicked grin on her face, and when she got to Sharrow she crouched down and whispered in her ear.
Sharrow nodded vigorously and they both dissolved into fits of giggles and then throaty, coughing laughter. “Yes!” Sharrow nodded, crying with laughter. “Yes!”
“Oh CAAAALtasp, oh CAAAAAAALtasp, oh thank you very much,” Froterin said, and sat down with the mug of mullbeer Miz had brought him. He sat supping happily.
“She got it! Vleit-hic! shit-got it!”
“What was it?”
Sharrow sat shaking her head and drying her eyes on her shirt sleeve while Vleit got up from the cafe pavement, holding her stomach and still laughing.
“What was the answer?”
“Not telling,” Sharrow laughed.
“You got to tell,” Miz protested. “Otherwise how do we know Vleit’s really won?”
Sharrow put her cap back on again and glanced at Vleit;they both started giggling again, then guffawing. “You want to tell them?” Sharrow said.
“Not me, commander.” Vleit shook her head, still giggling. “You tell them. Rank Has Its Problems; remember?”
“What was it?”
“Yeah; come on; tell us!”
“All right, all right,” Sharrow said, sitting up properly in her seat. Then, suddenly, she looked worried; her smooth brow furrowed. “Shit,” she said. “I’ve forgotten what the fucking word was.” She shook her head.
She put her head down on the table and pretended to cry. At least two caps bounced off her before Cenuij roared, “Schlotch!”
Sharrow looked up quickly. “You sure?”
“Positive,” Cenuij said precisely.
Sharrow sighed. “Yeah; schlotch.”
“So?” Miz said, arms wide. “What’s schlotch onomatopoeic for or with or whatever?”
“It’s the sound,” Sharrow said, leaning conspiratorially over the table, and glancing up and down the street. “Of…” She shook her head. “It’s no good,” she said with feigned regret. “I’m just not drunk enough yet to tell you.”
“Oh, come on…Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Vleit; what the hell was it?”
“Sharrow; you said you’d tell; what is it?”
Sharrow grinned, fended off a flung cap then put her head back and laughed loudly while the others protested.
A timid-looking waiter approached from out of the bistro, holding a tray nervously to his chest as though it was a shield. He came up to Sharrow; she smiled at the young waiter and adjusted her cap.
The waiter coughed. “Um, Commander Sharrow?” he said.
“You read a good name-tag, kid,” Miz said, winking at him.
“Yeah,” Cenuij said. “Stick with us, we’ll make you a waiter. Oh. You are a-”
Sharrow waved them both to be quiet. “Yes,” she said, staring rather blearily at the youth.
“Phone call for you, Commander. Military.” The young waiter scurried back into the bistro.
Sharrow looked puzzled. She put her hand into the pocket of her uniform jacket, which was hanging over the back of her seat. She winced and grimaced, then brought her hand out covered in red goo. “What miserable scumbag put ghrettis sauce all over my fucking comm set?” she roared, standing and letting the red sauce drip onto the pavement.
“Shit,” Miz said in a small voice. “I thought I did that to Dloan’s jacket, back at the inn.”
“Dloan’s?” Sharrow shouted at him. She pointed at Dloan’s uniform. “How many bars on his jacket? One! How many on mine? Two!” she yelled, pointing at them with her other hand.
Miz shrugged, smiling. “I thought I was seeing double.”
“Fucking double guard duties,” Sharrow muttered as she strode past him towards the bistro interior. “Get that shit out of my pocket; now!”
“Must be strong stuff, that ghrettis sauce,” she heard Dloan musing. “Mil comm set’s supposed to be waterproof to a pressure of…”
Inside the bistro it was quiet and dark; only the staff were there. “Thanks, Vol,” she said to the proprietor as she took the phone.
“Commander Sharrow here,” she said, nodding appreciatively to Vol when he handed her a cloth for her hand.
She closed her eyes as she listened. After a while she said, “Comm set broke down, sir. No idea why, sir.” Her eyes screwed tighter. “Possibly enemy action, sir.”
She wiped her hand and nodded again to Vol, who went to sit at the far end of the bistro with the rest of the staff.
She glanced back through the bistro’s windows to the street at the group, who were trying to sort out whose cap was whose. She smiled, watching them, then returned her attention to the phone. “Yes, sir! On our way, sir,” she said, and made to put the phone down. “I beg your pardon, sir?” She frowned at her reflection on the other side of the bar, visible through the glasses and between the up-ended barrels. “The doc? I mean, surgeon-commander… of course, sir.”
She looked at her reflection again, shrugged at herself.
“Yes,” she said into the phone. “Hi, doc; what’s the problem?” She leant on the bar, pushing her cap up and rubbing her face. “What-? Oh, the check-ups.” She grinned at her reflection. “What is it; somebody taken a rad-blast, or are we talking exotic diseases?”
She listened for half a minute or so.
She watched the reflection of her face in the mirror go pale.
After a while she cleared her throat and said, “Yes, I’ll do that, doc. Of course.” She started to put the phone down again, then stopped and said, “Thanks, doc,” into it, and only then put it back behind the counter.
She stood there for a moment, staring at her image in the mirror. She glanced down at her shirt. “Shit,” she whispered, looking back up to her reflection. “And you’re pickling the little fucker.”
Vol came back round the other side of the bar with a tray full of dirty glasses. She started when she saw him, then leaned over, beckoning.
“Vol. Vol!” she whispered.
The aproned proprietor, burly-fit and placid as ever, leaned over to her and whispered back, “Yes, Commander?”
“Vol, you got anything’ll make me sick as a lubber?”
“Sick as a lubber?” he said, looking puzzled.
“Yes!” she whispered, glancing out at the others. “Filthy gut-grenaded,throat-scouring, turned inside-out sick!”
Vol shrugged. “Too much drink usually does the trick,” he said.
“No!” she hissed. “No, something else!”
“Stick your fingers down your throat?”
She shook her head quickly. “Tried that as a kid; got it to work on my half-sister, but never on me. What else?” She glanced at the others again. “Quickly!”
“Very salty water,” Vol said, spreading his hands.
She slapped him on the shoulder. “Fix me enough for two.”
She turned and walked towards the door, hesitated, then bit her lip and put her hand into a trouser pocket. She pulled out a coin and clutched it in her hand as she went out to the others. They looked up at her. Miz was still scraping her jacket pocket clean of sauce; the comm set lay on the table covered in red, like something butchered.
She spread her arms. “Well, they still haven’t sorted out the situation, guys,” she told them. There were various mutters, mostly of disapproval. “They’re still talking,” she said. “But meanwhile the festivities continue; looks like another tour at least. We’re overdue at Embarkation Asshole now.” She sighed. “I’ll go phone a truck.” She hesitated, then went up to Miz and presented the coin in her hand to him. “Toss that,” she told him.
Miz looked round the others. He shrugged, tossed the coin. She looked at how it landed on the table. She nodded and turned to go.
“Yes?” Miz said pointedly.
“Tell you later,” she told him, and went back into the bistro.
“Thanks, Vol,” she said, taking the glass of cloudy water from him and heading for the toilet. “Phone us a military truck, will you?” she called. She took a preparatory sip of the salted water. “Yech!”
“Commander Sharrow!” Vol called after her. “You said make enough for two; is that all for you?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly.”
“Bleurghch! Aauullleurch! Hooowwerchresst-t-t!” she shouted down the toilet-hole, and for a few moments, as her stomach clenched again (and she thought, Hell, maybe this’s doing the little bastard more harm than the booze would have), she listened to the noises she was making, and remembered the game they’d been playing, and actually found it all ridiculously funny.
Zefla watched Sharrow looking at the facade of what had been the Bistro Onomatopoeia, and which was now an antique bookshop.
Sharrow shook her head.
“Oh well,” she said. She looked down at a coin she held in her hand. “Guess that proves it.” She put the coin back in her pocket. “You never can go back.” She turned and walked away.
Zefla looked a moment longer at the bookshop sign, then hurried after Sharrow.
“Hey,” she said. “Look on the bright side; we’re looking for a book, and what do we find in one of our old drinking haunts? A bookshop!” She slapped Sharrow across the shoulders. “It’s a good omen, really.”
Sharrow turned to Zefla as they walked. “Zef,” she said, tiredly. “Shut up.”
11 Deep Country
She sat at the window of the gently rocking train, watching the Entraxrln roll past outside, the airily tangled, cable-curved vastness of it and the sheer size of the twisting, fluted nets of the composite trunks making her feel tinier than a doll; a model soldier in a train set laid out on the floor of a quiet, dark forest that went on forever.
Here the Entraxrln seemed much more mysterious and alien than it did in Malishu; it imposed itself, it seemed to exist in another plane of being from mere people, forever separated from them by the titanic, crushing slowness of its inexorably patient metabolism.
From this window she had watched hours of it pass slowly by; she had seen distant clouds and small rainstorms, she had watched herds of tramplers bound away across the floor-membrane, she had gazed at trawler-balloons and their attendant feaster birds cruising the high membranes, she had caught sight of the high, dark freckles on the lofted membranes that were glide-monkey troupes, peered dubiously at herds of wild jemers loping across open spaces with a strange, stiff-legged gait, knowing that they would be riding the tamed version of the awkward-looking animals, and she had seen a single great stom black, somehow ferocious even as little more than a speck, and with a wingspan great as a small plane-wheeling around far above, effortlessly weaving its way between the hanging strings and ropes of growing cables.
Zefla sat opposite Sharrow, one elbow on the opened window-ledge, a hand supporting her head. The warm breeze blew in, disturbing the blonde fall of her hair. Her other hand held a portable screen. Her head rocked slightly from side to side in time with the creaking, flexing carriage.
The compartment door opened squeakily and Cenuij looked in.
“Welcome to nowhere,” he said, smiling brightly. “We just left the comm net.” He withdrew and closed the door.
Zefla looked vaguely surprised, then went back to her novel. Sharrow pulled out her little disposable phone. Its display flashed Transception Problem. She clicked a few buttons experimentally, then shrugged and put the phone away in her satchel.
Sharrow glanced at her watch. Another four hours on this train, another day on a second train, then two days after that they might just be in Pharpech if all went according to plan.
She looked out the window again.
“And this is the view from the back of the Castle; that’s looking south. No; north. Well, more north-east, I suppose. I think.” Travapeth handed the holo print to Zefla, who glanced at it and smiled again.
“Enchanting,” she said. Zefla passed the print across the conference table to Sharrow, who hardly bothered to glance at it.
“Hmm,” she said, stifling a yawn. She passed the print to Cenuij, sitting round the table from her. He looked at it. There was a sour, disgusted look on his face. He studied the holo as if trying to decide whether to tear it up, spit on it or set it on fire. Eventually he put it face down on a large pile of prints lying on the table.
They had hired a small office in a modern block in the city centre; Travapeth-clad in an ancient and grubby professorial robe that had probably once been maroon-had visited two days in a row, drinking large amounts of trax wine on each occasion and holding forth at some length-and with gradually increasing volume-on any and every aspect of the Kingdom of Pharpech that Zefla, Sharrow or Cenuij could think of.
Miz and Dloan, meanwhile, were tracking down any further information they could find on the Kingdom in data bases and publications; they were also completing the travel arrangements.
Zefla and Sharrow had been worried Cenuij would take exception to Travapeth’s bombastic demeanour; with Cenuij, things could always go either way when he met people who had as high an opinion of themselves as he did of himself. They had waited until Cenuij was in a particularly good mood before they introduced the two men to each other. It had worked; Cenuij seemed almost to have warmed to the old scholar, but today, after lunch in a private booth in a nearby restaurant, Travapeth had insisted on showing them the flat and holo photographs he had taken on his visits to the Kingdom, from the first time he’d gone there as a student fifty years earlier, up to his last visit, five years ago.
“Ah,” Travapeth said. He brought another carton of prints up from the floor at his side, depositing the carton on the table and delving inside. “Now, these are especially interesting,” he said, plonking the thick wad of prints on the polished bark table. Dust puffed out from between the holos. Sharrow sighed. Cenuij, a look of horror on his face, glanced beneath the table to see how many more cartons Travapeth had down there.
“These date from twenty years ago,” Travapeth said, helping himself to a blister-fruit from the bowl.
Something small and red wriggled out from a hole in the bottom of the carton the prints had been in; it ran fast and eight-legged across the table towards the edge. Travapeth brought his hand holding the blister-fruit crunching down on the insect as he said, “These date from the time of His Majesty’s coronation.”
Zefla stared at the old scholar’s hand as he rolled it back and forth, making sure the insect was fully squashed.
“As I say,” Travapeth went on, absently wiping his red-stained hand on a different coloured stain already decorating the thigh of his robe, “I was personally invited to the coronation by His Majesty.” He polished the blister-fruit on roughly the same part of the robe he’d wiped the insect on, and then bit into the fruit, talking through the resulting yellowish mush and waving the dripping fruit around. “I shink thish shirst one ish a short of zheneral zhiew…”
Sharrow put one hand under her armpit and her other hand to her brow.
“Enchanting,” Zefla said, passing the print to Sharrow. It was sticky. Sharrow gave it to Cenuij.
“Ah,” Travapeth said, swallowing. “Now; still the coronation day, but here we have the ceremony of the holy book being brought out of the vault.”
Sharrow looked up.
“Holy book?” Zefla said brightly. She accepted the print from the scholar’s thin, age-spotted hand.
“Yes,” Travapeth said, frowning at the holo. “The monarch has to be sitting on the book, on the throne in the cathedral when he is crowned.” He handed the print to Zefla, a leery smile on his face. “Sitting on it with fundament bared, I may add,” he added. “The monarch has to bare his nether regions to the skin cover of the book.” The elderly scholar took another deep bite from the blister-fruit and sat smiling at Zefla as he masticated.
“Fascinating,” Zefla said, glancing at the print and passing it on. Sharrow looked at it. She sensed Cenuij waiting, tense, in the other seat.
The slightly blurred holo showed a crowd of serious looking but colourfully attired men holding the poles supporting an opened palanquin in which something light brown and about the size of a briefcase sat, resting on a white cushion. The by-now-familiar ramshackle bulk of Pharpech Castle rose in the background, at the end of the small city’s main square. She quickly turned the holo from side to side and up and down, but the image of the book in the palanquin didn’t reveal any more from other angles.
“What sort of holy book is it?” Sharrow asked.
She pretended to stifle another yawn, and smiled apologetically at Travapeth as she did so. She handed the holo to Cenuij, who looked at it then put it down. He jotted something in his notebook.
“I have to confess, dear girl, that I don’t know,” Travapeth admitted, frowning. He took another bite from the fruit. “Shome short of ancient tome shupposhed to have been a gisht shrom-” He swallowed. “- the Ladyr Emperor to the first of the Useless Kings.” Travapeth waved the dripping fruit around. Zefla flinched, then calmly wiped her eye. “I of course offered to inspect the book for His Majesty, to determine its identity, provenance and importance, but in this was refused, unusually.” Travapeth shrugged. “All I know is that it’s an encased book, some sort of precious metal, probably silver. It’s about as thick as your hand, as long as your forearm and its breadth is roughly twenty-eight and half centimetres.”
Cenuij sat back in his seat, fingers drumming on the table. Sharrow felt herself evaluating the scene, trying to gauge just how much interest they appeared to be showing. Too little might look as suspicious as too much.
Travapeth crunched into the core of the blister-fruit, frowned and spat a few seeds into the carton the holos had come from. “The book’s never been opened,” he said. “Rumour is it’s booby-trapped, but anyway it’s locked and naturally there’s no key. I might have at least been able to establish the work’s identity had the old King not had it recovered-or rather additionally covered-in the skin of some revolutionary peasant leader some years before I first travelled to the Kingdom.” Travapeth sighed.
“It’s a very colourful ceremony, the coronation, isn’t it?” Zefla said, turning to Sharrow and Cenuij and tapping her notebook stylo on the table’s polished surface. Sharrow nodded (thinking good girl), as Zefla turned back to Travapeth, who was taking aim at the office’s litter bin, stationed beneath a window near one corner of the room. He threw the core of the blister-fruit; it thumped soggily against the wall above and fell behind the bin. Travapeth shook his head.
“It would make very good screen,” Zefla said to him. She glanced round at Sharrow and Cenuij. “I’d just adore to record something like that ceremony,” she said (Sharrow and Cenuij both nodded). “So ethnic,” Zefla said to Travapeth, her hands out in front of her as though supporting two large invisible spheres. “So… so real.”
Travapeth looked wise.
“I don’t suppose,” Zefla said, “the current King is thinking of resigning or anything, is he?”
Travapeth wiped his hands on the front of his robe and shook his head. “I believe not, dear girl. The present King’s grandfather did abdicate; he took himself off to a monastery to pursue a life of holy despisal. But King Tard… well, he’s not really the religious type.” Travapeth frowned. “He does believe in their god, of course, but I don’t believe it would be inaccurate to term his religious observances perfunctory rather than assiduous.”
“They don’t ever re-enact-?” Zefla began. But Travapeth boomed on.
“Of course, sudden conversions to extreme holiness have been known to occur in the present royal family, usually following traumatic events in the life of the noble person concerned involvement in an unsuccessful coup, being discovered with somebody else’s spouse or one’s own mount, finding one has been made general of an army being sent to root out guerrillas and revolutionaries in deep country; that sort of thing. But for a monarch to take up holy orders is relatively rare; they tend to die in harness.” Travapeth’s eyebrows rose. “Literally so in the case of the King’s great-grandfather, who accidentally strangled himself to death in a very unlikely position while suspended from the ceiling of a room in a house of less than spotless reputation.” The old scholar gave a sort of grunting laugh and grimaced dubiously at Zefla as he took a drink from a goblet of trax wine, and gargled with it before swallowing.
“Well,” Zefla said. “Perhaps we might be able to catch some other ceremony. If we do get permission to work there.”
“Certainly,” Travapeth said, belching. “There’s the annual rededication of the cathedral, the maledictions before the annual glide-monkey hunt-that’s quite colourful, and the hunt itself is exciting… Well, they call it a hunt; it’s more of a spectator sport. Then there’s the New Year mass-executions day, the debtors’ flogging festival… and there are always events celebrating the birth of a new royal baby or the King’s acquisition of some new piece of technology.”.
“Yes,” Zefla said, tapping the stylo on the conference table again. “These pieces of modern technology that the Kings purchase every now and again; I take it they have purely symbolic value?”
Travapeth shook his head. “Not even that, sweet lady; they are bought merely to remove any monetary surplus from the country’s economy. This, ah, apparently strange behaviour is designed to keep the Kingdom stable by soaking up profit that might otherwise lead to progress and therefore instability. This is the very reason that Pharpech is also known as the Court of the Useless Kings.” Travapeth frowned and gestured with his hands. “This might strike us as a rather eccentric way to rule a state, but I think we have to respect the Pharpechians’ right to run their country the way they want, and certainly one cannot deny that it works; there has been no progress whatsoever in Pharpech for nearly eight hundred years. In its own way, that’s quite an achievement.”
Cenuij made an almost inaudible noise and jotted something in his notebook.
“Of course,” Travapeth sighed. “This practice can be taken too far; I was present in the Kingdom when His Majesty the present King took delivery of his radio telescope.”
“I thought the area was radio-opaque,” Cenuij said.
“Oh, absolutely,” Travapeth said. “And of course there’s no break in the canopy for hundreds of kilometres. But you miss the point, my dear sir. The telescope was not bought to be used; there was nobody in the realm able to operate it and no electricity supply available anyway. As I have related, modern technology with the partial exception of the guards’ and the army’s weapons-is effectively banned in the Kingdom.”
The old scholar suddenly looked quite sad, and dropped his voice a little. “Even my own modest camera fell foul of this rule after the unfortunate business of the King being thrown from his mount while performing the annual capital boundary riding, during my last visit…” Travapeth seemed to collect himself, sitting straight in his seat and raising his voice again. “No, sir; the King bought the telescope because it cost exactly the amount of money the treasury had to spend and because it was totally useless. Although I believe he did enjoy sliding around inside the bowl for a while, which goes against the letter but not the spirit of the Uselessness creed… But no,” Travapeth said, and came close to scowling. “My complaint is with the site the King chose for his telescope, which was the old castle library; he had the library torn down and all the books burned.” Travapeth shook his head. “Disgraceful behaviour,” he muttered into his wine goblet.
Sharrow stared at him, then made a small note in her own notebook, just to be doing something. Oh shit, she thought.
Zefla was shaking her head, making noises of polite outrage.
Cenuij had stiffened. “All the books?” he said, voice hoarse. “Burned?”
Travapeth looked up, eyebrows raised. “I’m afraid so,” he said, nodding sadly. “They went into the castle furnace; coated the whole city in ash and black, half-burned pages.” The old scholar shook his head. “Tragedy, really.”
“Terrible,” Zefla agreed.
“And for the townspeople, of course,” Travapeth said. “As I’ve said; Pharpech experiences rain only rarely, and the roof-tax tends to discourage people from covering the top-most floor of their dwellings, so all that ash made a quite terrible mess.”
“Were any very valuable books destroyed?” Cenuij said. He gave a small smile. “I’m something of an antiquarian book collector in my spare time. I’d hate to think…”
“To be honest, I doubt it,” Travapeth said, nodding to Zefla as she refilled his goblet with wine. “Thank you, dear girl.” He looked at Cenuij. “Pharpech is something of a desert for bibliophiles, dear sir. There is no literary tradition as such; only a very few of the top officials in the Kingdom, a couple of family tutors and sometimes the monarch can read at all. Though, as one might expect, this has led to a rich oral culture. But no, sir; the library was a Useless purchase, bought a few hundred years ago from an auction house here in Malishu; it had belonged to a noble family fallen on hard times.
“All the rare and valuable books had already been sold individually; what the King destroyed was merely the standard collected classics most noble families favour instead of wallpaper to line one room of their mansions, though usually the wallpaper is in more danger of being read. Its purchase as a Useless article was arguably a change of circumstance of only a very limited degree. I very much doubt that the system bibliocontinua lost anything irreplaceable in the vandalistic conflagration. But dammit, sir, it’s the principle involved!” Travapeth said loudly, banging his goblet down on the table and spilling wine over the holos and the patch of table in front of him.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Cenuij said. He made another note.
“As a result,” the old scholar said, dabbing at a patch of spilled wine on the table with the cuff of his robe, “the only book left in the whole castle is probably the one the monarch sits on during the coronation. Whatever it is.”
“Hmm,” Sharrow said, nodding.
“Right,” Zefla said, laying her stylo down. “Tell me some more about these festivals, Ivexton; which ones would you say are the most vibrant, the most colourful…?”
“So what do you think?” Sharrow asked.
Cenuij shrugged and stirred spice into his mullbeer. “I suppose it could be what we’re looking for,” he said.
They sat, all five, in a private booth in a cafe near the rented office. Miz and Dloan had their route organised; it would involve taking a flying boat from Malishu to Long Strand, a maglev express to LiveInHope, then two slow trains to the Pharpech outlands border, where there was a small settlement they could hire guides and buy mounts in. They hadn’t yet booked any tickets.
“I thought the book had been lost for a lot more than the eight cents since the Ladyrs,” Miz said.
“Anything up to two millennia, depending whose account you trust.” Cenuij nodded. “But that’s just since anybody admitted to owning it. Maybe the Ladyrs stumbled on it when they were dispossessing an uncooperative family or sacking a Corp that hadn’t paid its protection money quickly enough, maybe it had never really been truly lost. Maybe they didn’t know what it was they had-just another old unopened book that might come in handy one day.” Cenuij shrugged. “Anyway, sending it to a coprolite like Pharpech when the anti-imperial heat was on must have seemed like a neat idea at the time.” He supped his ale. “It worked, after all; nobody’s found it, though obviously old Gorko had his nose to the trail.”
“So do we go?” Zefla said. She sucked on an inhalant.
“Well,” Sharrow said, “I don’t see how Breyguhn or anybody else could have set up what happened to Bencil Dornay; the pattern he traced was pretty unambiguous, and it sounds like there is exactly one book in the castle at Pharpech.” She spread her hands. “I think we go.”
“Keeps you out of the way of the Huhsz, too,” Miz said, rolling trax spirit round in his glass. “Caught a recent news report? They’re saying two heavyweight missions left Golter yesterday, one bound for Tront and the other headed this way.”
“I heard,” she said. “At least they sound confused. Any more interesting race winners in Tile?”
Miz shook his head. “Nothing since Dance of Death.”
“How we doing for funds?” Zefla inquired, apparently trying to hold her breath and talk at the same time.
“Fluid,” Sharrow said. “Barely used a third of our allowance. The only drawback is response-time; shuffling the credit trail so it’s difficult to follow. But that shouldn’t be a problem unless we need a lot of cash very quickly.”
Miz held his small glass of trax spirit up to the light, frowning at it. “What sort of funds are we taking to Pharpech?” he asked.
“Cash, gold, diamonds and trinkets,” Sharrow said.
(‘This looks cloudy,” Miz said, nudging Dloan and nodding at the trax glass. “D’you think it’s cloudy?’)
“Getting past the border guards might swallow a fair amount,” Sharrow said to Zefla. “But once we’re in, everything’s supposed to be cheaper than dirty water.”
“Which is probably about all they have to sell,” Cenuij said.
“Think that’s what’s in this glass,” Miz muttered, squinting at the trax glass. He held it in front of Cenuij’s nose. “That look cloudy to you?”
“We’ll have to play it by ear regarding the gear we can take in,” Sharrow said. “Apparently it’ll depend what sort of mood the border guards are in.”
“No other way into this place?” Miz said, sniffing at the glass. “Struck me we’re doing all this horribly officially. I mean, I was standing in a holiday agent’s today talking about travel insurance. I mean, travel insurance! Have we really come to this?” He held the trax up to the light again, then waved it in front of Sharrow’s face. “Cloudy/not cloudy; what do you think?” he asked her.
“There are lots of other ways in,” Sharrow said, pushing Miz’s glass out of the way. “But they’re all even more complicated, too dangerous and involve walking or riding enormous distances in the company of people who kill, capture or rob other people as a way of life; the border guards sound like nursery wardens in comparison.”
“I still say a decent pilot could take a chopper or a VTOL in through-” Miz began, still frowning at his glass.
“Well, you try finding a plane,” Sharrow said, “anywhere on Miykenns. Flying boats or nothing; that’s your choice.”
“Yes, Miz,” Cenuij smiled. “I think you’ll find a lot of people felt the same way earlier in Miykenns’ history; that’s why there’s so little cable and membrane clutter around Malishu, and why the extensive Pilot’s Cemetery is such a poignant feature on the sightseeing circuit.”
“I bet I could-” Miz began.
“Something else,” Zefla said quickly, slapping the table. “We are not taking Travapeth.”
“He might come in useful,” Cenuij said.
“Yeah,” Zefla said. “So’s a broken leg if you want to kick yourself in the back of the head.”
“No Travapeth,” Sharrow said, then frowned at Miz, who had taken a small torch out of his jacket pocket and was shining it through the glass of trax spirit.
Zefla sighed. “The old guy’s going to be awfully upset when we don’t make the documentary,” she said. “He was talking about a book tie-in. And he could use the money.”
“He doesn’t think we’re going to get to make the thing anyway,” Sharrow said, brows furrowing as she watched Miz sniff at the trax glass again. “He’s got five grand,” she told Zefla, “for three days of sitting pontificating, flirting like a gigolo and having wine and food poured down him; easiest money he’s ever going to make.”
Miz made a tutting noise and put the trax glass to his ear. He flicked its rim gently with one finger, an expression of deep concentration on his face.
“Oh, give me that!” Sharrow said, exasperated. She took the glass from his fingers before he could protest, put it to her lips and drained it.
Then her face creased into a sour expression and she turned and spat the trax out behind her, onto the age-stained planks of the booth. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “What did you do; piss in it?” she asked Miz. “That was horrible!”
“Hell, I knew that,” he said, looking annoyed. “But was it cloudy?” He nodded at the stain on the planks. “We’ll never know now.”
“Oh, stop farting about and go and get us a bottle,” she told him.
“Not if you’re just going to spit it all over the floor,” he said primly, turning sideways in his seat and crossing his arms and legs.
“I’ll get us a bottle,” Zefla said, rising.
“Filthy peacemaker,” Sharrow said.
“Hey, Zef; make sure it’s not cloudy…”
The Entraxrln deep country was sinking into an early-evening purple gloom. The layers of membrane here grew closer and thicker and the trunks and stalks were thinner but far more numerous; cables looped and curved and hung everywhere, strung with great tattered lengths and folds of wind-torn leaf-membrane. There was no longer any real sense of there being ground underfoot; although the undulating landscape resembled a purple downland, it was a landscape in which great holes had been cut and huge suspended skeins of material added; some of the holes lengthened to tunnels and dropped into deeper, darker layers further down, while others narrowed and doubled back, and throughout this bewildering three-dimensional maze great roots and tubes ran, undulating across the maroon layers like huge blood vessels standing out on the skin of some enormous sleeping animal.
The captain stood in the doorway of the guard cabin and watched the group of riders and their pack animals as they plodded off into the slowly gathering darkness along the track to the capital.
The captain pulled on his pipe a few times, surrounding his head with a cloud of smoke.
The guard sergeant struggled up the steps towards the captain, holding two sacks.
“Claim they’re not tourists, sir,” the sergeant said. “Say they’re travellers.” He deposited the two sacks at the captain’s feet. “Not a sect I’d heard of, sir, must confess.” He opened the sacks up. “Least one of them’s dressed proper for a holy man; Order of the Book, he said; wants to try and give the King some books, sir. I told him the King didn’t hold with books, but he didn’t seem bothered.”
The captain stirred some of their booty with his foot. Bottles clinked; he could see the usual collection of cameras, a couple of sets of magnifiers, a civilian nightsight and some cash.
“Two of them were ladies, sir; veiled, they were. None of them fitted any descriptions of undesirables. Guides were known to us; regular fellows.”
The captain squatted down, boots creaking. He poked at a piece of mysterious-looking equipment with the stem of his pipe. The piece of equipment started to play music. He poked it again and it went quiet. He lifted it and put it inside his shirt.
“Quite generous they were, really. It’s all here sir, naturally.”
The captain reached into a sack and pulled out a bottle, putting the pipe back in his mouth as he weighed the trax spirit bottle in his hand.
“Oh, dear; I wouldn’t touch that one, sir. Looks a bit cloudy if you ask me.”
She woke in the night. Her backside was sore. The room was very dark, the bed felt strange and the place smelled odd. There was somebody in here with her; she could sense breathing. A rippling blue-grey light flashed, jarring a confusing image of the room across her eyes. She remembered. This was the inn called The Broken Neck on the square beneath the castle; a haven after the long ride on the swaying, cantankerous and rank-smelling jemers and two nights in rough, communal guest-houses in the dark deep country. Cenuij had gained entrance to the monastery hospitale while they had come here, to the two best rooms in the inn and suspiciously spicy food and strong wine which had made her fall asleep over the table. Zefla had put her to bed; it was she who was sleeping in the other lumpy bed across the chamber.
Of course, she thought, as another silent burst of lightning flickered through the windows, and she calmed.
I am in Pharpech.
She got out of the massive, creaking, bowed bed with its pile of coarse blankets and two slightly softer sheets, waited for another flash, then with the memory of the room’s image held in her eyes crossed to the tall windows. They had a balcony; she hadn’t thought it looked very safe when they’d first taken the room, but she would trust it. The window creaked a little when she opened it. She stepped outside, closed the window and moved sideways along the bark-clad wall to the cable-branch railing.
The darkness outside made her dizzy. She could feel, even somehow hear that she was in the open air, but there was no light anywhere; nothing from the sky, where the membrane cut out any celestial light, and nothing from-she couldn’t think of this place as a city-the town, either. Her fingers felt for the thin railing and found it, gripped it. Like being blind, she thought.
The air was a little colder than it had been earlier; she wore an extremely modest nightdress, and only her neck and ankles felt the breeze. She stood there, waiting for another flash of lightning, frightened of the balcony and the three-storey drop to the alley beneath.
The lightning was there; far off in the distance, seemingly half above and half beneath the higher membranes. The light revealed part of the four or five kilometre-wide semi-clearing around Pharpech town, and the nearby composite trunks. The town itself was a half-glimpsed jumble of geometric shapes curving away beneath her.
And there had been something else, half-glimpsed to her right, level with her, only a few metres away. A figure; a person. Her heart jumped.
“Sharrow?” she heard Miz whisper, uncertain.
She smiled into the darkness. “No,” she whispered. “Ysul.”
“Oh, yeah.” Miz coughed quietly. “Your dinner repeating on you, too?”
“No,” she whispered, wanting to laugh. “The lightning.”
She looked over, trying to see him. Eventually the lightning flared again. He was standing facing her, looking towards her the way she was looking towards him. She suppressed a giggle. “Forgot your jim-jams, huh?”
“Hey,” he said, his whisper close in the utter darkness. “These balconies aren’t that far apart. I bet I could get over there.” He sounded innocently delighted, like a small boy.
“Don’t you dare?” she whispered. She thought she could hear him moving; skin on thin, heat-cured cable.
She stared at where she knew he was, as if trying to force her eyes to see by sheer force of will. Then she looked deliberately away, hoping to see him from the side of her eye. She couldn’t.
“Miz!” she whispered. “Don’t! You’ll kill yourself. It’s three sto-”
The lightning came again, and there was Miz, standing on the outside of his balcony, holding on to its railing with one hand while reaching out towards her with the other. She had time to see the expression on his face; eager, happy and mischievous, then as the blue light disappeared she heard his breath and felt the draught of air as he leapt over to her balcony. She reached out and grabbed him, fastening her arms round him.
“Madman!” she hissed into his ear.
He chuckled, swung over the railing and hugged her.
“Isn’t this romantic?” he sighed happily. He smelled of sweet male sweat and smoke and-faintly-of scent.
“Get back to your room!” she told him, squirming in his embrace. “And use the doors!”
He moved sensuously against her, working her back against the bark-clad wall; he nuzzled her neck, smoothed his hands down her flanks and to her thighs and behind. “Mmm, you feel good.”
“Miz!” she said, pushing his arms down and away from her, taking his wrists in her hands. He made a plaintive noise and licked at her neck.
Then he just broke her grip on his wrists and took her face in his hands, kissing her.
She let him for a while, and let his tongue explore her mouth, but then (seeing again, without wishing to, the billowing curtains and the stone balustrade of another hotel bedroom, light-minutes and eight years away from here, and his face above her, beautiful and ecstatic and lit by the stuttering spasms of annihilation light swamping the dawn above Lip City) gradually she calmed the tempo of the kiss down, and guided his hands behind her shoulders and put her arms around him, and moved her head to one side of his, and rested her cheek on his shoulder and patted his back.
She felt him heave a deep sigh.
“What’s a chap got to do to get to you these days, Sha-Ysul?” he said, sounding sad and a little bewildered.
She hugged him tighter and shrugged, shook her head, knowing he could feel each movement.
The Entraxrln sky above them lit up again as the lightning moved closer.
“Hey,” he said, raising his head. “Remember that time in the inn in Malishu, in the top storey, with the fireworks and all that stuff?”
She nodded her head.
“That was fun, eh?” he said softly.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, it was.”
She kept hold of him and he kept hold of her, and she looked out to where the lightning played, and saw another couple of flashes, and even heard a little distant rumbling, and then eventually he shivered in her arms and kissed her forehead and let go of her. “ I’d better get back and make sure Dloan’s still snoring,” he whispered.
“Come by the door, then,” she said, taking his arm and trying to pull him towards the open windows. He resisted, staying where he was.
“Can’t,” he said. “Our door’s locked. Either I go back the way I came or I sleep with you.”
“Or on the floor,” she told him.
“Or with Zef,” he whispered brightly. “Hey, or both of you!”
“You have my bed,” she said. “I’ll sleep with Zef.”
“You did that once before,” he said, sounding unconvincingly hurt, “and I was very upset.”
“Only because we wouldn’t let you watch.”
“True,” he agreed. “Is that supposed to make it better?”
“Are you going in through this window or not?”
“Not. I’m going back the way I came; Dloan’s snoring needs me.”
“Miz-” But he had already slung one leg over the balcony; she felt the wind on her cheek as he swung the other one over too. “Maniac!” she whispered. “Be care-”
The lightning came and he made his leap; he gasped, then she heard the skin-on-railing noise again, and he whispered triumphantly, “There. Almost too easy.”
“You’re insane, Kuma.”
“Never denied it. But I’m so graceful. Good-night, my lady.”
She heard him blow a kiss, then move away. She waited. A moment later there was a muffled thud and she heard him say, “Ouch!”
She smiled into the darkness, quite sure that he had bumped into something deliberately just for a laugh, just for her.
The lightning swept above, flooding the enclosed landscape with a quick, sharp, monochrome light that seemed to be over before it had fully begun, and-in providing such vanishingly brief instants of contrast-somehow only intensified the darkness.
12 Snow Fall
They had been lovers for a few months. It was only the second time they had been back to Miykenns since the perfume festival and their ride in the little canal-boat through the long, dark, scented vein of the canal. They delighted in their luck; Malishu was celebrating again when they returned, just entering a huge retro binge of ancient costumes and sporadically cheap food and drugs as people celebrated the 7021st Founding Week.
They had dined and danced and drunk; they had taken a short ride in a canal-boat and watched vivid holos flicker and pulse in the air above the city, depicting the arrival of the first explorers, scientists and settlers seven millennia earlier. The holos went on to display a brief history of Miykenns which they both watched as they strolled hand in hand down the narrow streets back to their inn beneath the bare hill near the city Signalling Museum.
The last part of the holo display was made up of edited highlights of the current war. They stood on the threshold of the inn, watching. Above the city they saw darkly shining fleets of liberated excise clippers flying in formation; the bombardment of the laser pits on the Phrastesis-Nachtel asteroid bases; rioting miners on Nachtel’s Ghost; and a Tax cruiser blowing up. “Hey,” Miz said, as the blossoming light of the cruiser’s death faded slowly above Malishu. “Wasn’t that the one we got, out past the Ghost?”
She watched the secondary detonations burst like sparkling flowers within the sphere of glowing wreckage that had been the Tax cruiser. “Yes,” she said, cuddling closer to him, fitting herself around him. “One of ours, indeed.” She rubbed one hand over the chest of his uniform jacket. “Anyway, let’s get back to the room, eh?” She turned away, taking a grip of his shoulder and trying to pull him in through the door.
“Hell,” he said, allowing himself to be pulled. “We took those pix; shouldn’t we get royalties or something?”
Their room was on the top floor, a tall, wide space roofed with translucent woven Entraxrln membrane, bowed like a loose tent over the supporting poles and beams.
They made love sitting on the end of the bed, facing a wall of mirrors; he beneath her and she on his lap, facing the same way so that they could see themselves in the dim city-light filtering down through the translucent roof as he put his arms up underneath hers, gripping her shoulders, holding her breasts, rubbing her flat belly, sliding down to the tight curls of hair and moist cleft beneath while her head kept turning to one side then the other, kissing him as her hands moved up and down his sides and thighs, holding his balls as he flexed slowly under her and she moved, clenching and loosening, up and down on him.
They were panting, straining, watching each other, gaze fastened to the same place on the surface of the mirror, watching with a kind of eager, ravenous solemnity as they concentrated, wrapped up in the approaching moment, conscious only of themselves and each other; the whole world, the entire system and universe shrunk to this pulsed, focused joining with nothing else, nowhere else, no-when and no-one else mattering, when the fireworks burst overhead.
The light was furious, shocking. They both stopped moving to gaze open-mouthed at the membrane fabric above. Then, as the noise cracked and thundered down into the room, they looked back into the mirror together and started laughing. They fell back onto the bed, giggling under the multi-coloured lights inundating the soft roof above them.
“What lousy timing,” she said, laughing so hard she laughed him out of her. “Shit.”
“Corn-screen would have had it happen just as we came,” he agreed. He shifted underneath her and she rolled off.
She lay on the bed beside him, gently bit one of his nipples. “You’re not giving up now are you?”
“Hell, no, I don’t want to!” he said gesturing at the roof, where red and green lights strobed and noise like gunfire rattled. “But this is fucking distracting!”
She was still for a second, then bounced off the bed.
“I’ve had an idea,” she told him.
She stopped his ears with little bits of tissue she soaked with her own spittle, and then she did the same to her own ears. The noise of the fireworks was lessened, deadened.
Then she picked up her knickers, lying on the floor at the side of the bed, held them with both hands, and ripped them.
“Hey,” she heard him protest, voice booming dully. “I bought you those…”
She put a finger to her mouth and shook her head.
She tore the delicate, perfumed material into two strips. She put one black band over his eyes, tying it behind his head so that he was made quite blind, and then she did the same to herself, so that in that shared but separate, self-created darkness, and surrounded by that distanced, heavy, undersea sound, they made love with only touch as their guide.
She was blind. Blind and surrounded by mushy, roaring noises and she knew there were lights exploding all around. Some part of her wanted to find this funny because she’d been in just this situation before not all that long ago, but she couldn’t laugh.
Anyway she couldn’t indulge herself, she had the others to worry about. Worrying for all of them; that was her job.
Somebody was calling to her, quietly screaming her name.
Iron taste in mouth. Smell of burning. She felt another part of herself start bawling at her to wake up; burning! Fire! Run! The roaring noise filled her head. Run!
But there wasn’t anywhere to run to. She knew that.
There was something else to worry about, too, but apart from knowing it was important, she couldn’t remember what it was.
The voice in her ears shouted her name. Why couldn’t they leave her in peace? Her head tipped forward; it felt terribly heavy and large. Still a smell of burning, acrid and sharp.
Her nose itched. She reached to scratch it and her left arm suddenly turned into a pipe full of acid, gushing pain into her. She tried to cry out but somehow she couldn’t. She was choking.
She struggled to put her head back. Her helmet clunked hard against something that shouldn’t have been there. Of course; she was wearing a helmet. But it didn’t feel right.
“Sharrow!” screamed a tiny voice through the roaring.
“Yes, yes,” she muttered, coughing and spitting, She acci-dentally tried to make a be quiet motion with her left arm, and the pain tore through her. This time she was able to shout.
She spat again. Noises tinkled and whined in her ears above the continual roaring and the voices shouting her name. At least she thought it was her name.
“Sharrow?” she heard herself say.
“Sharrow! Come in!-Was that her? Keep-! Miz!-debris!-from this range! -only water!-Are you crazy?”
What a lot of babbling, she said to herself, and could feel her brow furrowing as she thought, Miz? Didn’t she have something she was supposed to tell him, some secret?
She tried to open her eyes. But she shouldn’t even need to do that, should she?
She was exhausted. Her left arm wouldn’t move, she felt incredibly heavy and cold and there were lots of other pains and discomforts clamouring for her attention now, too.
“Sharrow! Fate, Shar; please answer; wake up!”
Shut up, she told them. Can’t get any peace these days…
… They sailed through a tunnel. It was dark, but a little paper lantern glowed above them and the air was sweet. He had joined her on the pillows, lean and hard and eager and gentle. They had lain together for a long time later, listening to the warm water gurgle beneath them and the tiny hum of the ship…
The ship! Where was the ship? It should be here, all around her. She tried to shift in the hard, uncomfortable seat but the pain in her arm came back. She heard herself cry out.
“Sharrow!” a voice said quite distinctly in her ears.
“Miz?” she said. It was his voice. She wondered why she was blind and the ship wasn’t talking to her.
“Sharrow? Can you hear me?”
“Miz?” she said louder. Her mouth felt funny. The roaring in her ears pulsated away, heavy and insistent, like some too-quick surf pounding into her ears.
“Sharrow; talk to me!”
“All right!” she shouted angrily. Was the man deaf?
“Thank Fate! Listen, kid; what’s your status?”
“Status?” she said, confused. “Don’t know; what do you-?”
“Shit. Okay; you’re spinning. First we’ve got to stop that. You’ve got to keep awake and stop the spin.”
“Spin,” she said. Spin? Was that something to do with the secret she’d been keeping from him? She made a determined effort to open her eyes. She thought they were open but she still couldn’t see anything.
She brought her right arm up; it was incredibly heavy. She tried to bring it to her face, but the arm wouldn’t move very far. It fell back, crashing into something and hurting her.
She started to cry.
“Sharrow!” the voice said. “Keep it together, girl!”
“Don’t call me girl!”
“I’ll call you anything I fucking want until you get that ship levelled.”
“Prick,” she muttered. She pushed her head as far forward as she could and rammed her right arm up. Heavily gloved fingers thumped into her face-plate. It felt wrong; wrong shape, wrong place. Her nose hurt. Her arm was quivering with the effort of keeping it there against her helmet. She felt down to the helmet rim, took a deep breath, then pushed up.
Snap. She cried out with the pain. Her nose burned; blood filled her mouth. Her arm crashed down into her lap.
But the ship was back; it was there around her. The lid-screens swam into focus while the ship’s systems whispered and tingled and swarmed through her, filtering down through her awareness as the transceiver in her helmet spoke to the wafer-unit buried in the back of her skull. She felt around, looked at the lid-screens and listened to the music of systems status, the roaring in her ears reduced to dull background.
She was a force at the core of sensation. It was like floating in the centre of a huge sphere of colour and movement and displayed symbols; a sphere made of in-holo’d screens, like windows to other dimensions, each one giving a summary of its state and singing a single note of song. She only had to look at one of those windows and will shift to be there, looking down onto the details of that landscape-itself often composed of more sub-windows-all the rest of the screens reduced to a smear of colour on the outskirts of her vision, where a flash of movement or an associated change in their harmonics would signal something needing her attention.
She floated in the middle of it all, taking stock.
“Fucking hell,” she said. “What a mess.”
“What?” Miz said in her ears.
“Got status,” she said, looking round. The ship was a wreck. “Good fucking grief.” What to do first?
“Reduce spin or you’ll black out again,” Miz said urgently.
“Oh, yes,” she said. The spin was insane; she looked to the main tanks, but they were empty. The bow thrusts had some water left. She woke the motor up, swung it to operating temperature and pushed the fuel through. Nothing happened.
Why wasn’t the burn working?
Spinning too much. Wrong route. She closed off one valve, opened another; water hit the reaction chamber and plasma went bursting out from the ship’s nose. Miz was shouting something but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. The weight got worse and the roaring came back and became a noise like darkness.
She felt something snap.
Wrong way! she thought, vectoring the thrust right round.
The worst of the weight lifted slowly; the roaring went back to what it had been before and then gradually faded. Her body started to lift in the seat, pulling out of the squashed, crumpled attitude it had taken up. Give it ten more seconds. She opened her eyes. The inside of the face plate was smeared with blood. She closed her eyes, sought out the suit-view in the lid-screen display and shifted down into it.
The emergency controls gleamed in the back-up lighting. No holos. The flattie status screens were blown or pulsing red.
She turned her head to the left.
The port instrument bulkhead had come to pay her couch a visit. It felt like the port-rear ceiling had had the same idea. That was what was stopping her head from going right back; probably what had nearly ripped her helmet off, too. Her seat had been half-torn from its mountings by the impact, which had caught her left arm between the bulkhead and the armrest.
She stared. Could that really be her arm disappearing into all that mangled-up shit? She ignored the memory of the pain and pulled hard.
It was as though she’d slammed an axe into herself. Her head jerked around inside the helmet; she fought the scream but it forced its way out of her throat anyway.
She blinked tears away. Her arm remained pinned.
So much for that idea.
She moved her head. Looked like her right arm wasn’t in terribly good shape any more, either. She tried to move it but it wouldn’t cooperate. Numb. “Be like that, then,” she muttered, trying to sound unconcerned.
Physically brave, she told herself. Physically brave. That was the one accurate phrase she remembered from when she’d hacked into her service file (though it had been embedded amongst a load of nonsense about her being impatient and arrogant; how dare they?). Physically brave. Remember that.
She shifted out of helmet-view. The ship’s bow tank drained, the pipes emptied and the motor cut out. She reached to the main tanks, but of course there was nothing there. The back-up tanks were dry too. The ship was still spinning, but only once every eight seconds.
“You did it!” Miz shouted. Broadcasting on radio; the comm laser was dead.
She attempted to sort some sense out of the nav gear’s gibberish and tried the ship’s external sensors, but they came up fuzz-grey. The back-ups were out, too, apart from one non-holo camera in the bow, fixed staring straight ahead. All it showed were lots of nebulae, a glimpse of a white disc ahead with a reddish-golden disc behind it, then nebulae again, then the white-disc/red-gold disc combination again, and so on.
“Where the hell am I?” she said.
“Can’t read you,” Miz said. “Open a data channel.”
“Only got input,” she said. “It’s open.”
“Shit,” he said. “Okay, here’s what I have.”
The nav gear started acting sensibly again. She was still on the Outside of Nachtel’s Ghost, about a quarter second Inwards from the engagement position, tumbling and twisting towards the moon.
“Right,” she said. “Just let me get my bearings here…”
The external view she had now-flagged as thousand magnification-showed a wrecked excise clipper spinning slowly in front of her, its black hull flayed and pitted, its rear end gone, ruptured plates fluting tumorously from the craft’s waist to shred away to nothing from about three-quarters of the way back, ending in a glinting mess of shining metal.
There was something biological, even sexual about the ruined ship, its matt-black skin like dull clothes ripped apart to reveal the flesh beneath, exposed and open. She’d never seen a ship so badly damaged.
She thought, Poor fucker; lift that driver’s chow-bucket off its hook and send it back to Stores… then realised that this was the view from Miz’s ship; he was following her, and what she was looking at was her own craft. She was the unfortunate pilot she’d been consigning to oblivion.
She selected trajectory forecast while she looked at the doc window. The medical unit seemed to have given up on her. Then she remembered where the doc’s tubes plugged into her. She shifted back to helmet-view, staring at where her left forearm disappeared between the bulging instrument bulkhead and the seat armrest; the gap was about three centimetres. Hmm, she thought.
She shifted back to nav; she was heading straight for Nachtel’s Ghost. The icy little world was still nearly a tenth of a light-second away and it would take her the best part of an hour to get there, but she was going to go right down the throat of the gravity well. Even if she could miss Nachtel’s Ghost she’d be pointing at Nachtel itself, with no way to miss it; seen from its barely habitable moon, the gas giant filled half the sky. She’d have to sling-shot.
Instinctively, she reached again for the main tanks.
“Shit,” she said.
She glanced at the group-status holo which had been part of the squirt Miz had sent. “Miz!” she shouted. “The others!”
“Vleit and Frot are dead,” Miz said quickly. “Zef’s chasing Cara but getting no reply. Kid, there’s nothing you can-”
“You’ve got damage, too!” she said.
“Yeah, some laser-work from the cruiser and ice abrasion from that water-screen you left behind when you got zapped-”
“Miz,” she whispered, “are-?”
“I’m sure, Sharrow,” Miz said, his voice thick. “Dead and gone. Probably never knew what hit them.”
“How did they do this to us?” she said.
“I don’t know,” Miz said wearily. “Cenuij wants to call War Crime on that engagement; says nobody reacts that fast and there must have been an AI in charge; I think we just got out-lucked. Cruiser took some damage and flared home; now forget about the engagement! Have you any reaction mass? We have to get you into orbit around the Ghost.”
She’d shifted into life support. “No point,” she said. “The recycler’s wrecked and I’m losing gas; I’ve enough to breathe for about… two hours, then that’s it.”
“That suit or cabin?”
“Suit. Cabin’s got less; pressure leak.”
“Shit,” Miz said. She could almost hear him thinking. “The doc,” he said. “It could floor your metabolism and-”
“The doc,” she said, “is fucked.”
“Damn,” he said. It was such a mild curse she almost laughed. “Could you bail out?” he asked her. “I could match with you; you could zap across… or I could get over to you…”
“I don’t think there’s quite the time,” she said. She glanced into suit-view and looked briefly at her one trapped and one… broken? dislocated? arm. “There might be other problems with that approach, anyhow.”
“What about reaction mass?”
She glanced around. “Nothing.”
“Come on! There must be something! Check!”
She initiated a checking routine, and looked carefully at each tank glyph in turn. The check routine said zero everywhere and staying that way. Her own senses told her the same thing. She tried blipping the feed from each tank in turn, just in case there was water there and it was a sensor or display fault.
“Nothing,” she said. “Displaying empty; acting empty.”
“Think think think,” she heard Miz mutter. She suspected he hadn’t meant her to hear that, or had simply been unaware he was speaking. Suddenly she wanted to hold him, and started to cry again. She did it quietly, so he wouldn’t hear.
“This might sound mad,” he said. “But I could use my laser; hit you in the right place, get some reaction that way…”
“It does sound mad,” she said.
“There’s got to be something!” She could hear the desperation in his voice.
“Hey,” she said. “Want to hear another crazy idea?”
“Crash-land on the Ghost.”
“Cruise in and crash-land, like a plane.”
“You haven’t got any wings!”
“I’ve got a shape that looks vaguely aerodynamic; bit like the end of a spiked gun. And there’s the snow-fields.”
“The snow-fields,” she said. “They’re hundreds of metres deep on the Ghost, in places; lo-grav. And there’s air.”
“Pretty thin air.”
“Getting thinner all the time,” she agreed. “Unbreathable in another thousand years; crap terraforming… but it’s there.”
“But how you going to fly?”
“Oh, I can’t,” she said, taking another look round the ship’s systems from the highest level. What a total fucking mess. If this was a simulation, she’d be clicking out now and hitting Replay to go back to just before it had all gone so horribly wrong, and try again.
“It was just an idea,” she told him. “I used to wake up in the night and try to think up ways out of horrible situations to get me back to sleep, and one idea I had was using the Ghost’s snow-fields to crash-land on.” She sighed. “But I always imagined I’d have some control as I went in.”
She shook her head at the unsaveable mess around her and swooped back into close-range nav view. “I think I’m dead, Miz.” She listened to her own voice, and was amazed at how cool she sounded. Physically brave.
“Forget it. I’ll run that idea of the crash-land past the machine; see what it thinks.”
“Aw, don’t spoil my fun,” she said. “I never even ran it through mine…”
“Fucking hell,” she heard him say after a while. “My machine’s as crazy as you.”
“It says it’ll work?”
“Um, three-quarters empty mass… drag… need details of the snow compression, depth it becomes ice… depends on the angle… no; the machine’s not quite as crazy as you. And you’d need some fine-tuning, in-atmosphere, at the start anyway…”
“Run an insertion past the machine anyway,” she said.
“At least it’d be spectacular,” she said. “Burning up in the atmosphere or slamming into the snow. Better than hazing out from oxygen starvation.”
“Don’t talk like that!… Shit, there must be something…”
She had remembered some time ago what the secret was. “Hey,” she said gently. “Miz?”
“Pick a number between one and two.”
“Pick a whole number between one and two. Please.”
“Oh… one,” he said. She smiled sadly. “Well?” he said.
He said it the way he had when she’d got him to toss the coin outside the Bistro Onomatopoeia, a week earlier.
She shook her head, even though it hurt and he couldn’t see.
“Nothing,” she said. “Tell you later.” She shifted back to the doc, down into the external read-outs. Cabin cold, external air poor and pressure falling. Aggregate radiation dosage… Oh, well. She felt herself shrug and grimaced as her left arm protested. She was going to die, anyway; she wouldn’t live long enough to experience the radiation sickness. And I’d have made a lousy mother anyway, she told herself.
She kept wanting to press Replay, to snap out of this disastrous simulation and start again, or just break the link and go for a drink with the guys. It didn’t feel right that she was trapped in this situation as firmly as she was trapped in the seat, pinned there by the weight of circumstance and chance.
At first, when she’d joined up, she’d thought she could never be one of the dead ones. She told herself they must have made a mistake, and she just wasn’t going to.
Later she’d started to get scared sometimes, when pilots she’d thought even better than she had died. Had she been wrong about how good they were, or wrong about skill saving you every time? Maybe it didn’t. Maybe luck did come into it. And that made it frightening, because nobody knew how to train for that. You carried a lucky tooth or a special letter or always made sure you were last out of the mess; she’d known people who did that sort of thing… A lot of them were dead, too.
“Look,” Miz said, “I’m still catching up with you; I’ll match velocities. I’ll get over to you. It can’t take-”
“Miz,” she said, quieting him. “No.” She let out a long, ragged sigh. “I’m trapped in here. I’d have to be cut out.”
“Oh, shit,” he groaned.
The way he said it, she knew he was talking about something else. “What?” she said.
“You don’t need that much to take you into the Ghost’s atmosphere at the right angle,” he said. “Just a nudge; a few seconds’ burst… Hey!” His voice brightened again. “I’ll nudge you! I’ll just fly alongside and-”
“Forget it; you’ll just break your own ship…”
“Look, if we can’t think of anything-”
“Wait,” she said.
She reached into the ship’s plumbing, found no read-out for the relevant section of pipe, but the record of valves shut…
“Hey,” she said. “You know I put the thrust the wrong way at first; made the spin worse?”
“I got confused because before that I tried sending the water round the loop against the spin.”
“So there might be water in the closed section of loop.”
“Isn’t it showing?”
“Shit,” he said. “There might be some in there.”
“Yes, and it might be frozen,” she said, shifting into the ship’s patchy temperature map.
“Hold on,” he said. “I’ll run it through…” His voice went away. She was left alone for a few moments.
She’d always expected to be re-living her life at this point, but it didn’t seem to be happening. She felt cold and battered and tired. This combat flying lark was supposed to have been just a little exotic incident in her life, something to tell people about when she was old. It had never been meant to get this important, never been planned to be this crucial and ghastly and hopeless. It certainly wasn’t supposed to be the end of everything. It couldn’t all just end, could it?
Yes it could, she thought. Somehow she’d never really thought about it before, but yes; of course it could. She didn’t just accept it now; she knew it now. What a time to learn that particular lesson.
“Yeah!” Miz hollered. “If it’s there, there’s enough!”
“Well,” she said. “We won’t know until we try.”
“But you’ve got reaction mass!” he yelled. “You can do it!”
“Two minutes ago you were telling me I was crazy to even think about this; now suddenly it’s a great idea.”
“It’s a chance, kid,” he said, quieter. There was something else in his voice, too; the equivalent of one arm holding some surprise behind his back, and a sly smile on his face.
“And?” she said.
“I just ran a routine for your in-atmosphere control.”
“Using your astonishing powers of laser control, you will fashion a pair of crude but serviceable wings from-”
“Quiet, smart-ass; dig down to the clip’s non-mil suite.”
“Pardon? Oh all right.” She shifted down the systems root to the clipper’s full display. What was this heap of civilian shit meant to do? Was he just trying to distract her?
“See the gyros?”
“Labelled FTU1 and 2; Fine Trimming Units.”
“Yes,” she said. “Well, the bow cluster, anyway. Shit, I thought those were stripped when these boats were militarised.”
“They never got around to it,” Miz told her. “Now, can you get power to that bow cluster?”
“Yes. But wouldn’t it be better-?”
“No; it doesn’t matter that you’re tumbling on insertion if we get the burn timed right and you might need all the manoeuvring power in those gyros.”
“All right, all right,” she said. “They’re taking power.”
“Okay!” he yelled. “We’ll re-work the figures when we’re closer. Now, I’m going to try and match velocities; that should make things more accurate. Get ready for some incredibly skilful flying on the part of the Tech King, and then be ready to read out lots and lots of exciting numbers once I’m alongside, unless you can get the output comm link sorted.”
“Can’t wait,” she said, the tiredness tingling through her. She just wanted to sleep. She forgot about her left arm for a second and tried to stretch.
She cut off the shout of pain as fast as she could.
“What?” Miz’s voice said quickly.
She breathed hard a couple of times.
“I just remembered I paid my mess bill yesterday,” she lied.
“Wow.” Miz laughed. “You really do tempt fate, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said. “It must be male.”
“That’s more like it,” he said. “Okay; let’s see if I can get this thing spinning and twisting like yours…”
“Okay,” he said, and she could hear the fear in his voice. “Here we go, kid.”
They had talked it through for the last half hour; she’d given him all the data she could, he’d run it past his machine dozens of times and every time it came out Maybe. She’d got the gyros up to speed, braked each one in turn and the ship had responded. She’d settled on a routine that would let her use the gyros to control the ship during its descent through the atmosphere of Nachtel’s Ghost.
They’d done a tenth-second burst from the pipes into the reaction chamber and got power; there was water in the pipe and it wasn’t frozen. They’d got a recent snow-field map of the Ghost from their base via Dloan, who was escorting Cenuij’s damaged craft back there; they’d selected a big snow-field on the equator. Miz had shown her the view he had of her ship, perfectly parallel with his own and slowly rolling while the rest of the system revolved around it. She’d complimented him on his flying and tried not to look too closely at the damage.
But now he had to move away, and she had to make that last burn, hoping the water in the pipe-work would be enough, and it hadn’t frozen somewhere further up the duct, and that the pump would work, and that the power didn’t fail, or even fluctuate.
“You take care now,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “Thirty seconds.”
“Me, worry?” she said, trying not to let him hear the fear and pain in her voice. She was finding it more of a strain now. Her arm was hurting really badly and she was frightened. She wanted to tell Miz that there was a precedent for all this, that when she’d been five years old she’d been saved by a fall into the snow, but she had never been able to tell him that full story, and he had never pressed her for it. She wanted to tell him she loved hint and she was pregnant by him, but she couldn’t tell him any of that, either.
“Look, ah… kid,” he said (and she just knew he’d be grimacing now, and that if he hadn’t had the helmet on he’d be scratching the side of his head), “I know there’s… you know; things we haven’t said during the last few months; I mean, me and you, since we’ve been, you know, well, together, but-”
“You’re making a complete mess of this, Miz,” she told him, her voice matter-of-fact while her eyes filled with tears. “Don’t say anything else now. Tell me later. Ten seconds.”
He was silent for six of them.
Eventually he said, “Good luck, Sharrow.”
She was still thinking what to say in reply when she opened the valve, the motor roared in the distance and she had to devote all her attention to the attitude and heading readings. She shifted to the view through the one little flattie camera in the craft’s nose.
The planet came up to meet her; a curved white wall. The ship encountered the atmosphere’s outer layers. She tried the radio and heard interference. “Miz?” she said.
“… ust hear y-”
She shouted, “If this goes badly and I make a crater, I want it named after me!”
If he replied, she never heard him.
The falling ship ploughed deeper into the planet’s atmosphere and began to judder and moan.
The five of them sat on the tavern terrace a little outside Pharpech city, she with her memories.
The others watched the huge stom as it wheeled and banked above the deep country a kilometre east of the tavern, beating back up towards the middle-layer of Entraxrln membrane it had cruised down from earlier. The monkey-eater birds mobbed it, stooping at its back and head in great plummeting circles, turning quickly this way and that, zig-zagging erratically, unpredictably, wings like jagged hooks in the air. The stom, four times the size of the monkey-eaters, moved with a ponderous grace that approached dignity, as it ducked its massive reptilian head and took what ponderous, almost gentle evasive action it was able to.
“Come on, baby,” Zefla said. Sharrow had handed her the binoculars; Miz watched through another pair of field-glasses.
“Put some effort in there,” Miz muttered.
Sharrow looked at Dloan, squinting in the same direction. His hands gripped the bark rail of the tavern porch, squeezing and releasing unconsciously.
She watched the stom as it struggled higher in the air, still beset by the scrappy, mobbing shapes of the monkey-eaters.
One of them was still falling.
The four of them had come out here for dinner at an inn called The Pulled Nail on the outskirts of the town after a day spent sightseeing. Cenuij hadn’t been in touch since they’d left him at the door of the monastery hospitale the night before; he was supposed to be trying to get an audience with the King. He would leave word at the inn if he had anything to report.
Pharpech in daylight hadn’t looked so bad. The people seemed friendly enough, though their accent was difficult to understand, and they had decided half-way through the day that they’d buy local clothes tomorrow; theirs made them too conspicuous, and people tended to ask them-in those strange accents, and with a hint of incredulity-what had possessed them to come to a place like Pharpech.
One of the things she’d found it hard to get used to was how difficult it was to access information. All it really meant, most of the time, was that you had to resort to rather obvious methods like asking people directions, or what a certain building was; nevertheless it was unsettling, and despite all her supposed maturity and sophistication she had the unnerving feeling that she was a child again, trapped in a baffling world of mysterious intent and arcane significance, forever making guesses at how it all worked but never knowing exactly the right questions to ask.
The first thing they’d done, on the advice of their two guides who were setting off back to the border that morning, was take their jemer mounts to a stable on the outskirts of town, where they sold the creatures-after much haggling on Miz’s part for slightly more than they’d paid for them. Then they became tourists for the day.
They had seen the great square in daylight, its flat, mostly un-roofed buildings crowded round the sloped paving stones like a strange rectangular crowd of people, all squashed up shoulder-to-shoulder, grimly determined not to miss whatever was going on in the square (and yet most of them were gaily painted and sported bright, full awnings, hiding little work-shops and stalls like shiny shoes peeking out from under the just-raised skirts of their canopies).
They had found the people fairly fascinating, too. A few of them rode on jemers though most were on foot like them, the crowding majority of then colourfully if simply dressed, but apart from their almost invariably pale skin-far more physically varied than they were used to; very fat people, unhealthily gaunt people, people in dirty rags, people with deformities…
They had viewed the castle from the outside; three stone storeys that looked planned and passing symmetrical, topped by a ramshackle excrescence of Entraxrln timber stacked and tacked and piled and leaning to produce a vertical warren of apartments, halls and the occasional grudged-looking concession to defence in the shape of gawky, teetering towers and forlorn stretches of battlement, all of it dotted randomly with windows and protrusions and capped by a few creaky towers pointing uncertainly towards the layers of leaf-membrane above as though in puzzled inquiry.
The rest of the town had been confusing, repetitive, occasionally riotous. The cathedral was small and disappointing; even its bell, which rang out each hour, sounded flat. The only really interesting feature the cathedral possessed was a stone statue of the Pharpechian God on the outside of the building, having various unpleasant things done to Him by small, fiendishly grinning Pharpechian figures armed with farming implements and instruments of torture.
They had walked the narrow streets, tramping up and down narrow lanes and twisting alleys, dodging water thrown from upstairs windows, treading in rotting vegetables and worse, continually finding themselves back where they had started, and often being followed by crowds of children-so many children-and sometimes adults, many of whom seemed to want to take them home or show them round personally. Zefla smiled generously at the more persistent proto-guides and talked quickly in High Judicial Caltaspian to them, usually leaving them bobbing in her wake looking beatifically bemused.
By lunchtime they were exhausted. They returned to the inn, then kept to the outskirts of the town in the afternoon, passing the high walls of various monasteries and prisons, a school and a hospital. The monastery hospitale where Cenuij had been given a bed for the night looked closed and deserted, though they could hear muted curse-singing over the high walls.
They found the royal zoo; a sad mouldering of cages and pits where sick animals paced to and fro or threw themselves at fire-hardened bars, snarling. A glide-monkey troupe huddled in a corner of their net-roofed pit, their connective limb membranes wrapped round them like cloaks, their large eyes peeking out fearfully. A tangle-tooth paced back and forwards in a small cage, head down, its emaciated body containing in its movements only an echo of the animal’s lithe power. One huge, bare cage contained a full-grown stom, sitting crouched by one wall, its wings tied and splinted, its snout and legs scarred and cut. Even while they watched, appalled at the size of the animal and the painful squalidness of its situation, the beast raised its metre-long head and hit it off the wall a few times, drawing dark-purple blood.
“Why is its wing splinted?” Zefla asked a zoo-keeper.
“Not exactly splinted, lady; more tied up,” the keeper replied. He carried a bucket full of something bloody and gently steaming. Sharrow wrinkled her nose and moved up wind. The keeper shook his head and looked serious. “See, she just roars and beats her wings against the bars of the cage all day if you don’t tie her up.”
They didn’t stay long in the royal zoo.
The town became farmland quite suddenly, the streets leading past the various walled institutions straight into fields, where the membrane-beds stretched like neat lines of straked, fresh wounds into the distance and the serried plants of the Entraxrln’s secondary or tertiary ecology sat troughed and still. A field-guard recommended the tavern, a kilometre away along one of the raised scar-tissue roads.
They sat on the terrace of The Pulled Nail, eating surprisingly subtly cooked meats and vegetables; then Dloan pointed out the stom as it flew down the dulling light of the evening from a distant gap in the second-highest membrane level; the beast turned, carving the air, heading for a composite trunk and the specks of a glide-monkey troupe. But the monkey-eater birds roosting further up the trunk-space had seen the reptile and stooped, their cries faint but furious through the still air, and began to mob the single black giant. It had turned, something resigned but almost amused about its delicately lumbering, slow-motion movements; a calm core of stolidity set amongst the jerky whizzings of the monkey-eaters, electrons to its weighty nucleus.
She supposed they were what people saw as noble beasts, something of their perceived authority evident in the fact they were one of the few species of Miykennsian fauna that had an original name, rather than a Golterian fix-up.
She could feel the others wanting the stom to escape unharmed, as it surely would, but only she, she thought, had seen the tiny grey-green scrap of one monkey-eater fly too close to the head of the stom; she’d had Zefla’s binoculars, and seen the bird skim daringly close to that huge head, and had a fleeting impression of the snapping jaws closing on it, wounding it, winging it as the bird was pulled off course across the air before escaping in a small, brief cloud of grey-green, and starting to fall.
It was falling still.
She could still just see it, naked-eyed now.
It was spiralling quickly down, five hundred metres beneath where it had been savaged, still trying to fly but only managing a half-braked helical dive towards the ground below.
Above it, just behind it, matching its hopeless, graceless, desperate rumble with a more controlled and smooth spiral of its own, another bird was keeping close station, refusing to leave its fellow.
She followed them both. The two dots were soon lost in the groundscape of undulating membrane matting in the distance. When she looked up again, the stom had made it back through the gap in the leaf-membrane a kilometre above. The other monkey-eaters gave up the chase and Miz, Zef and Dlo made appreciative noises and sat down to their meal again.
She sat down too, after a while.
She ate her meal slowly, not joining in the conversation, often glancing at the region where the two birds had disappeared, and only took a drink of her wine when one bird reappeared flying slowly, as though tired, flapping effortfully upwards, towards the columnar colony that was its home, alone.
13 At The Court of The Useless Kings
His Majesty King Tard the Seventeenth, Lord of Despite, Seventy-fourth of the Useless Kings, Lord Protector and Master of Pharpech, its Dominions, Citizens, Lower Classes, Animals and Women, Prime Detester of God The Infernal Wizard, Exchequer of the Mean and Guardian of the Imperial Charter, sat on the Stom Throne in the castle’s Great Hall, squinting narrow-eyed at the skinny, suspiciously clever-looking monk kneeling on the throne steps in front of him.
The throne room was a dark and smoky place. It was devoid of windows so that God couldn’t see in and it stank of cloying scents emanating from smoking censers because that kept His unquiet spirit entering. The throne was at one end of the room, and the King’s dozen or so courtiers and secretaries sat on small stools stationed on the steps of the throne’s square dais, their stature and significance expressed by how far up the dais steps and how close to the royal presence they were allowed to sit.
The Stom Throne-carved in the shape of one of the great flying reptiles, its wings forming the sides of the throne, its back the seat and its bowed head functioning as a foot-rest swung gently in the air above the dais, hanging by wires from the incense-blackened barrel-ceiling of the room and held just a few centimetres off the time-dulled and threadbare carpet spread across the top of the dais.
His courtiers said the throne was suspended like this to symbolise his authority and elevation above the common herd, but he just liked the way you could make the throne swing if you rocked back and forward a lot. Two very large, quiet Royal Guardsmen stood on the broad tail of the Stom Throne, armed with laser-carbines disguised as muskets; sometimes he’d get them to join in the swinging. If you got people to kneel close to the throne and then started to swing while they were talking, you could get the big carved beak of the Stom Throne to thump them in the chest or head and make them retreat off the dais, where officially he didn’t have to listen to them. He was thinking about doing that to this monk.
It was unusual for this sort of person to be presented to him; usually his courtiers kept them out. He always got suspicious of his courtiers when they did something out of character. He knew that-naturally-they feared and respected him, but sometimes he thought they wouldn’t be beyond talking behind his back or having little plans of their own.
Anyway, he didn’t like the monk’s face. There was something too narrow and sharp and penetrating about it, and there was a look of amused contempt about his expression that suggested he found the King or his Kingdom ridiculous. He distrusted the monk instantly. People had died for less. A lot less.
One of his courtiers mumbled into his ear about the monk’s mission. The King was mildly surprised by what he was told, but still suspicious.
“So,” he said to the monk, “you are of an Order which also despises the Great Infernal Wizard.”
“Indeed, your gracious Majesty,” the monk said, looking down modestly at the carpet. His voice sounded respectful. “Our Belief-perhaps not so dissimilar from your own, more venerable and more widely followed creed-is that God is a Mad Scientist and we His experimental subjects, doomed forever to run the Maze of Life through apparently random and unjust punishments for meaningless and paltry rewards and no discernible good reason save His evil pleasure.”
The King stared at the skinny monk. The man’s accent was off-putting and his language complicated, but he had the odd impression that the monk had actually been complimentary just there. He leaned forward in the gently swinging throne.
“D’you hate God too?” he said, wrinkling his nose and frowning.
The skinny monk, clad in a black cassock embellished only with a small metal box tied on a thong round his neck, smiled in an odd way and said, “Yes, your Majesty. We do, with a vengeance.”
“Good,” the King said. He sat back and studied the skinny monk. The monk glanced at the courtier who’d briefed the King, but the courtier kept shaking his head. One did not speak to the King until one was spoken to.
The King prided himself on being something of a statesman; he knew the value of having allies, even though the Kingdom itself was quite self-sufficient and under no immediate external threat. There were bandits and rebels in the deep country, as ever, and the usual closet reformers in the Kingdom and even the court, but the King knew how to deal with them; you asked a courtier and got them to check how they’d been dealt with in the past. Still, times changed on the outside even if they didn’t change here, and it never did any harm to have people in the world beyond who sympathised with Pharpech, and it had always annoyed the King that so few people out there seemed to have heard of his realm.
He’d quiz this monk. “How many of there are you?”
“Here in your realm, your Majesty? Only myself, of our Order-”
He shook his head. “No, everywhere. How many of you altogether?”
The skinny monk looked sad. “Vile number only a few thousand at the moment, your Majesty,” he admitted. “Though many of us are in positions of some power where we must, of course, keep our beliefs secret.”
“Hmm,” said the King. “Who’s your leader?”
“Majesty,” the monk said, looking troubled, “we have no leader. We have a parliament, a gathering of equals in which each man is his own high priest, and in that lies our problem.” The skinny monk looked up and smiled with more warmth. “You see, your Majesty, I have come humbly, on behalf of all my fellows, to petition you to become our spiritual leader.”
Petitions petitions petitions. The King was heartily sick of petitions. But at least this one was from outside the Kingdom, from people who didn’t owe him everything anyway and so had a damn cheek petitioning him for anything… No, this came from people who were doing it because of their respect for him and what he represented. He rather liked the idea.
“Spiritual leader?” he said, trying not to sound too taken with the title.
“Yes, your Majesty,” said the skinny monk. “We seek your approval of our humble creed because you are the head of a like-minded faith which has survived for many centuries, and so gives us hope. We wish to ask for your blessing, and-if you would be so kind as to grant it-for the ultimate blessing of your becoming head of our church. We would undertake to do nothing to disgrace your name, and to do everything to help honour the name of yourself and the Kingdom of Pharpech.” The monk looked touchingly modest. “Majesty, please believe we do not wish to impose upon your renowned good nature and generosity, but such is our heart-felt respect for you, and so great is our desire to gain your approval-undeserving wretches though we may be-that we felt we would be derelict in our duties to our faith if we did not approach you.”
The King looked confused. He didn’t want to give his blessing to people who were undeserving wretches. He had enough of those already.
“What?” he said. “You’re saying you’re undeserving wretches?”
The skinny monk looked uncertain for a second, then bowed his head. “Only compared to you, your Majesty. Compared to the unbelievers, we are the deserving and enlightened. As the saying has it; modesty is most effective when it is uncalled for.” The skinny monk smiled up at him again. His eyes looked moist.
The King didn’t quite understand that last remark-probably due to the skinny monk’s odd accent-but he knew the little fellow thought he’d said something mildly witty, and so made a little polite laughing noise and looked round his courtiers, nodding at them, so that they laughed and nodded at each other too. The King prided himself on being able to put people at their ease in this manner.
“Good monk,” he said, sitting back in the Stom Throne and adjusting his day-robe around him as the great throne swung gently, “I am minded to accept your humble request.” The King smiled. “We shall talk further, I think.” He put on his wise expression, and the skinny monk looked almost pathetically pleased. He wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands.
How touching! the King thought.
He waved one hand graciously to the side, making a curl in the thick incense smoke. He indicated a couple of clerks standing to one side, holding cushions on which sat large flattish objects: ornate metal boxes. “Now, I understand you have brought Us some presents…”
“Indeed, your Majesty,” the skinny monk said, glancing round as the clerks came shuffling forward. They stood in a line at his side. He took the box from the first of the clerks and held it up to the King. It looked like a larger version of the little box on the thong round his neck. “It is a book, your Majesty.” He fiddled with the lock on the metallic box.
“A book?” the King said. He sat forward in the throne, gripping the edges of the Stom’s wings. He hated books. “A book?” he roared. His courtiers knew he hated books! How could they let this simpering cur come before him if they knew he’d come bearing books? He looked furiously at the nearest courtiers. Their expressions changed instantly from smirking satisfaction to shocked outrage.
“But it is God’s book, your Majesty!” the skinny monk whined, jaw trembling as his thin hands struggled to open the book’s jewelled metal casing.
“God’s book?” the King bellowed, standing up in the Stom Throne. This was… what was it called? Sacrilege! The great throne swung to and fro while the King glared down at the hapless monk. “Did you say God’s book?” he shouted. He raised his hand, to order the heretical… heretic be taken away.
“Yes, your Majesty,” the monk said, suddenly pulling the book apart, pages riffling. “Because it is blank!”
He held the book up before him like a shield, face turned away from the King’s wrath, while the flittering white pages fell fanning apart.
The King glanced round at his courtiers. They looked surprised and angry. He was aware that he was standing up in the swinging throne, in a position that might make a lesser man look a fool.
He thought quickly. Then he realised that it was quite funny. He started to laugh. He sat down in his throne, laughing, and looked round his courtiers, until they started to laugh too.
“What, good monk? Are they all blank?”
“Yes, your Majesty!” the skinny monk said, gulping, laying the first book down and taking up the next from the second clerk. “See!” He put that one down, lifted the next and the next and the last. “See, your Majesty! See, see; all blank! And look; the pages themselves are too slick and shiny to be written upon; no ink-pen will write, and even lasers will simply reflect. They cannot even be used as blank notebooks. They are truly Useless books!”
“What?” shouted the King. He put his head back and roared with laughter. “Useless!” he shouted, lying back in the Stom Throne and laughing so much that his sides ached. “Useless!”
He laughed until he started to cough. He waved away a courtier holding a glass of wine and sat forward in the throne, smiling kindly down at the monk.
“You are a good fellow, little monk, and a credit to your Order. You may stay as Our guest, and we shall have more to say to each other.” Intensely pleased at having successfully completed such an elegant speech, the King snapped his fingers at a secretary, who scurried forward, pen and pad at the ready, his head bowed. “See Our little monk is made welcome,” the King told him. “Find good apartments for him.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The secretary led the relieved monk away. The King inspected the shiny-paged books. He chuckled, and ordered them to be put with the smaller Useless items in the castle’s trophy gallery.
“Shit,” said Cenuij, sitting on the bed in Miz and Dloan’s room, staring at the little stick-on screen Miz had unrolled onto the covers. It showed a ghostly view of a glass display-cabinet containing a collection of old-fashioned electrical goods.
“Looks like a shop-window display from a historical drama,” Miz said. He rotated the nightsight view the fake jewel on the cover of the book was seeing, but all it showed was more useless kitchen hardware.
“Safe to broadcast this?” Dloan said, peering at the screen.
Miz shrugged. “It’s pseudo-directional after the initiating squirt and the transmitter’s freq-hopping. I doubt they have stuff to pick this up, even if they’re not quite as lo-tech as they pretend to be.”
“I trust this works on the same principle,” Cenuij said, holding up the miniature book on the thong round his neck. Beneath the rags he’d worn to make his way to The Broken Neck, he wore the plain black habit he’d dressed in since they’d entered the Kingdom.
“Yeah,” Miz said, “but don’t use it except in an emergency, just in case.” He tried the sonic display from another jewel set into the cover of the bugged book in the castle, but all it showed in the screen was a mono holo of the interior of a small display-case. The last fake jewel, an electrical field sensor, registered nothing, not even any activity in the electrical gear around it. Obviously any back-up power-sources they’d ever had had run out long ago.
“Nothing,” Miz said, clicking the screen off.
“I thought he’d put them in with the one other book he had,” Cenuij admitted. He shrugged. “Oh well, they got me into the castle. And His Majesty’s confidence.”
“Fun in there?” Zefla asked, pouring herself and the others a drink.
Cenuij waved one arm. “Stacked to the rafters with treasure, trash, petty jealousies, pathetic plots, superstition and suspicion,” he said.
“You must feel at home, Cenuij,” Sharrow said.
“Absolutely,” he agreed. “I’m not missing you at all.”
“Had a chance to look for the book yet?” Miz asked.
“Give me time,” Cenuij said, annoyed. “I’ve only been there two days; it’s a little early to start inquiring about the castle treasures. So far I’ve met the King once, the Queen and a couple of extremely unpleasant children far too often already, and I’ve had to hang out with a bunch of vapidly vicious courtiers and cretinously religious functionaries. The unholy life in Pharpech appears to consist largely of rising at an extremely early hour and chanting curses to God in draughty chapels between profoundly uninspiring meals and bouts of gossip whose mind-boggling pettiness is rivalled only by its poisonous malevolence.
“So far all I’ve discovered about the castle vaults is their approximate location. I suspect they’re higher-tech than the rest of this squalid retro theme-park, but I don’t know any more yet.” Cenuij drank quickly from his wine-mug. “So, what have you tourists been up to, while I’ve been infiltrating the very heart of the Kingdom and winning the confidence of its most powerful inhabitant, at no small risk to myself?”
“Oh, just farting around,” Miz grinned.
“We checked the weapons and stuff,” Dloan said.
“We burned the extra hollow pages from the Useless books,” Zefla said, “eventually.”
“Miz has identified the place the local criminal fraternity while away those long hours between acts of villainy,” Sharrow said. “Dloan is planning a journey into the deep country to make contact with the rebels, and Zefla and I are making discreet inquiries about the various artisan, merchant-class and women’s rights reform movements.”
“Oh well, at least you’re keeping yourselves busy,” Cenuij said. He smiled.
“It passes the time while you’re doing all the work, Cenny,” Sharrow told him.
The cathedral clock chimed flatly in the distance. Cenuij drained his wine-mug. “Quite. Well, that’s the hour for evensong; time to go and sing God’s hatreds. I’d better get back and carry on doing all that work, hadn’t I?” He handed Sharrow the mug. “Thanks for the wine.”
“Don’t mention it.”
The thief swung into the booth, through the floor-length dirty curtains and down onto the trestle bench across from Miz. The noise of the smoky inn abated only slightly as the heavy curtains swung back. A couple of yellow-glowing candles, one on each of the narrow booth’s side walls, flickered in the draught.
The thief was small for a Miykennsian. Dressed in dark, undistinguished clothes, he had a beard, several facial scars on his pale skin, and greasy hair. His nose was wide, the nostrils flared above lips set in a sneer. His eyes were deep-set, hidden.
“You wanted to see me, Golter-man?” His voice was quiet and hoarse, but there was a strange smoothness about it that reminded Miz of a razor applied to flesh; the way it slipped in, without pain at first, almost unnoticed.
Miz sat back, holding his tankard of mullbeer. “Yes,” he said. He nodded at the table. “Would you like a drink?”
The thief’s lips briefly shaped themselves into a smile. “I’ve one coming; why don’t you pay for it?”
“All right.” Miz sipped at his drink, saw the thief watching him with his contemptuous sneer, then opened his throat and sank about half the beer and set the tankard down with a thump on the rough wooden table. He wiped his lips with his sleeve for good measure.
The man sitting on the other side of the table didn’t look impressed. The curtain opened behind him; he turned and grabbed the wrist of the serving girl who came through, grinning at her as she put the bottle and cup down on the table. She smiled nervously back.
The thief turned to Miz. “Well, pay the girl.”
Miz dug into the pocket of his jerkin and handed the girl some coins. She gaped at what he’d given her, then tried to close her hand and turn quickly away.
The thief still held her wrist; he yanked her so that she fell back against the table. She gave a small cry of pain. The thief prised open her fingers and lifted out the money Miz had given her. He looked at the coins and seemed surprised. He took two of them, reached up and slipped them both down the girl’s bodice, then pushed her upright and slapped her behind as he propelled her out of the booth. He bit on a coin then put it and the rest away in his dark tunic.
“You over-tipped,” he said, breaking the seal on the bottle and pouring some of the trax spirit into the little bark cup.
“Yeah,” Miz said. “What with that and this old-fashioned courtesy displayed to women-folk, I’m finding it really hard to fit in here.”
The thief drank from the cup, watching Miz over the rim. His throat moved as he swallowed. He refilled the cup. “I heard Golter men hand their women their cocks to keep when they take up with them.”
“Only the lucky ones,” Miz said. The thief looked levelly at him. Miz shrugged, spread his hands. “You didn’t hear where they keep them.”
The thief drank the second cup of trax, then flicked the last of the spirit out onto the rough table top. He spat into the little cup, wiped round the bowl with the hem of his hide waistcoat, then leant across the table to Miz, holding up the cup in his hands as though it was some jewel. “Drink?” he said, putting his other hand on the bottle.
Miz shoved the tankard over to the other man, took the bark cup and let the other man fill it. Miz knocked the trax back in one go. It was rough; he tried not to cough. The thief drained the tankard, then leant back, stuck his head out through the curtain and shouted something.
The serving girl came back through the curtain with another cup and two tankards full of beer. She looked at the thief, who looked at Miz.
Miz said, “Oh, no, please, allow me,” and dug for more coins in his jerkin.
He paid the girl roughly what the thief had let her keep the last time. She still looked pleased.
“So,” said the thief. “What was it you wanted?”
Miz supped his beer. “I might be interested in exporting some ethnic artifacts,” he said.
“Apply to the castle,” the thief told him.
Miz shrugged. “The ethnic artifacts I’m interested in…” Miz put his head to one side, looking up at the ceiling beyond the open-roofed booth, “… aren’t actually for sale. But I’d pay a good price to somebody who might help me come into possession of them.”
The thief swirled his beer round in his tankard. “What things are you talking about? Where are they?”
“Could be almost anything,” Miz said. “Some of them…” He imitated the thief, swirling his beer around in his tankard, “… might be in the castle.”
The thief looked into his eyes. “The castle?” he said, flatly.
Miz nodded: “Yes. How practical do you think it might be to have something from the castle fall into one’s hands?”
The thief nodded, seeming to look away. He stood slowly, holding the tankard. “Wait here,” he said. “I have somebody who might be able to help you.” He backed out of the booth through the dull, heavy curtains.
Miz sat alone for a moment. He drank his beer. He looked round the grubby booth. The place reeked of sweat, spilled drink, possibly spilled blood, and something Miz suspected was beer gone badly off. The Eye and Poker; he’d heard more inspiring names for inns. This one was in the less reputable part of Pharpech town, down the steep side of the hill from the castle and out to the east in an area of creakily tumbledown tenements that housed stinking tanneries and bone-meal works. Even with a gun in his pocket and a viblade in his boot he’d felt vulnerable walking in here.
He looked up at the top edge of the booth wall, a metre above his head and a metre below the yellow-stained ceiling of the bar. He was sure he could see little brown stalactites on the ceiling.
He turned his attention to the bark wall behind him. Now he looked carefully, there was a distinct line of greasy blackness at about scalp height, where countless unwashed heads of probably inhabited hair had left their mark over the years. Miz tutted, disgusted, and felt the back of his head. He altered his position in the seat, lifting his feet up and sitting sideways on the bench, his head against the side wall of the booth.
The noise from the bar seemed to have faded. He turned his head, frowning.
The heavy curtains jerked. Three crossbow bolts thudded into the bark at the back of the booth, neatly into the lower part of the greasy line he’d looked at a few seconds earlier, where his head had been.
He stared at them. Then he pulled his gun from his pocket and pushed the beer tankard over so that it spilled beer across the table and down spattering onto the stained floor; the puddle spread to the hem of the booth’s curtains, where it would be visible from the bar outside.
Miz got up on his knees and swung quickly and silently across to the trestle bench on the other side of the table. He sat on the table, feet on the bench, to one side of the booth. It was still very quiet outside; just a few whispers and the noise of a chair or two being scraped across uneven floorboards. There were three little tears in the heavy curtains where the quarrels had entered. The holes let in tiny beams of smoky light.
He waited, gun ready, heart pounding.
The curtain moved millimetrically; the light from one of the three holes blinked out.
He thrust an arm through the divide in the curtains and grabbed the man outside by the neck as he threw himself forward and out. He landed crouching, his back to the narrow bark divide between two booths, his arm tight round the neck of the man he’d grabbed, who thudded sitting onto the floor. It was the thief he’d first spoken to; Miz rammed his gun in just under the man’s right ear.
The bar had cleared almost entirely; only a haze of smoke and a few unfinished drinks on the tables showed that the place had been packed a few minutes earlier. Standing with their backs to the bar itself were three men holding crossbows. One of them had reloaded, one was about to fit the bolt into its groove, and the other had frozen in the act of pulling the crossbow taut again.
The one with the loaded crossbow was pointing it at him. Miz forced the thief’s head to one side with the barrel of the laser. The thief smelled rancid; he struggled a little but Miz pulled his arm tighter round his neck, never taking his eyes off the man with the crossbow. The thief went still. He wheezed as he breathed.
There were a couple of other men still in the bar, near the doorway; they both held heavy-looking pistols, but they seemed to be backing off towards the doors. Miz was more worried about the booth next to his. He thought he glimpsed its curtain move out of the corner of his eye. He shifted across the floor so that his back was to the curtains of the booth he’d been in.
“Now, boys,” Miz said, grinning at the man with the crossbow. “Let’s just take this sensibly and nobody’ll get hurt.” He stood up slowly, keeping the thief between himself and the three men with the crossbows. “What do you say?”
Nobody said anything. The thief in his arm went on wheezing. Miz could feel the man trying to swallow. He loosened his grip just a little. “Perhaps our friend here has something he’d like to contribute.”
The two men near the doors slipped outside. Miz prodded the thief with the gun again. “Say something calming.”
“Let him go,” gasped the thief. Still no reaction.
These bozos are waiting on something, Miz thought. He heard a noise somewhere behind him in the booth. They’d gone over the top! There was a squelching noise from the floor behind him. He whirled round, taking the thief with him. A long thin blade flashed out of the curtains and thudded into the thief’s torso just under the sternum, the glistening point appearing out of his back through the hide of his tunic. He made a grunting noise.
Miz had already ducked, dropping and turning. The crossbow bolt smacked into the back of the thief’s skull, sending his body jack-knifing forward through the curtains and into the man holding the knife, forcing him to fall backwards over the table.
Miz’s gun made a crackling, spitting noise. The man who’d fired the crossbow shook as the beams hit his chest, flames licking round the edges of the little craters on his jacket. He dropped the crossbow and hung his head. He stood like that for a moment, while Miz moved away from the booth where the man with the knife was still trying to extricate himself from the curtains and the body of the thief. Then the crossbow man fell slowly back, whacking his head off the bar and crumpling to the floor. Blood sizzled against the flames flickering on his jacket.
The other two crossbow men looked at each other. The one who had now loaded his quarrel smiled nervously at Miz. He nodded at Miz’s gun, swallowing.
“We didn’t realise you was from the castle,” he said, and very carefully took the quarrel back out of its groove. The other man released the tension in his bow and let it fall to the ground. They both glanced at the dead man lying on the floor.
The man in the booth got the thief’s body off him and from behind the curtains shouted, “Me neither, sire!” A terrified bearded face poked slowly from behind the booth’s curtains.
Miz looked warily around. He smiled insincerely at the two crossbow men and the knife-wielder. “Boys, you’re going to see me out of this rather rough neighbourhood.” He glanced at the man in the booth. “You go to the front door and get the heroes out there to give you their guns.”
The bearded man gulped. He came out from behind the curtains, leaving the thief’s body lying half in and half out of the booth. He walked to the door. He opened it gently and called out. There was some conversation, which became heated, and then the sound of running footsteps. The bearded man smiled at Miz in a sickly fashion. “They ran away, sire,” he said.
“Why don’t you do the same?”
The man needed no more prompting; he was out of the door in an instant. Miz turned to the other two. “Chaps, you and I are going to go out the back way.”
The two men looked at each other.
Miz frowned mightily. “There must be a back way.”
“Yes, sire,” one of the men said, “but it’s through the tannery.”
Miz sniffed the air. “Is that what it is?” he said. “I thought the beer was off.”
“Blame the tannery,” Miz said as Zefla dried his hair.
Sharrow poked at one of Miz’s locally made boots with the toe of her own. “These are falling apart,” she said. “I thought you only bought them two days ago.”
Miz shrugged beneath hiss towel as Dloan handed him a glass of wine. “Yeah; don’t know what the hell I stepped in.”
“So,” Sharrow said, “the local ruffians don’t want to play.” She sat down in the one comfortable easy chair in Miz and Dloan’s room.
“Apart from playing Let’s Perforate Miz’s Head, correct,” Miz agreed. He looked at Sharrow as Zefla finished drying his hair. “I’m worried. Cenuij talked about the King having spies and informers; what if word of this gets back to the castle?”
Sharrow shrugged. “What can we do?”
Miz nodded at Dloan. “Why don’t we all go with Dlo tomorrow? We can call it a safari; get out of town for a few days, camp somewhere near deep country, let Dlo-maybe me too-head in, try and contact these revolutionaries.”
“Cenuij doesn’t think much of the idea,” Zefla said, tossing Miz a scent spray.
“Thanks,” Miz said. “Yeah, well, he wouldn’t, would he? 1 think it’s worth doing just to get away for a while.”
“You really think we might be in danger after tonight?” Sharrow asked.
“It’s possible,” Miz said, spraying under his arms.
“What about Cenuij?” Dloan said.
“He’s not in trouble,” Sharrow waved one hand. “We can leave a message for him with the innkeeper; it’s not worth the risk of using the comm gear.” Sharrow nodded, looking thoughtful. “Okay, we’ll go.”
“Camping out in the bush for a few nights,” Zefla said, crossing her eyes. “Oh, the utter joy of it.”
The airship drifted over the sunlit jungle, a blue-white bubble against the blue-white skies of tropical Caltasp after the rainy season. The canopy slid slowly by underneath, the tops of the highest trees only five metres or so beneath the keel of the open gondola, where she, Geis, Breyguhn and Geis’s martialer knelt, their long guns poking over the gunwales of the boat-shaped basket.
The smells and sounds of the jungle wrapped up around them, mysterious and exciting and a little frightening.
“We’re on a perfect heading,” Geis said, talking very quietly to her and Breyguhn. “The wind’s taking us over one of the best areas, and our shadow’s trailing us.” He looked at the martialer, a small, rotund, perpetually smiling man from Speyr who looked more like a comedy actor than a combat tutor. “Is that not so, martialer?”
“Indeed, sire,” the martialer smiled. “A perfect heading.”
When Geis had first introduced the martialer to her and Breyguhn, in the arbor of the Autumn Palace, he had asked him to prove his skills as he saw fit. The fat little fellow had smiled even more broadly, and-suddenly flourishing a stillete-whirled and thrown. A white-wing, fluttering past a trellis ten metres away, was suddenly pinned to the wood. Sharrow had been impressed and Geis delighted. Breyguhn had been shocked. “What did you do that for?” she’d said, almost in tears, but the little man had held up one finger, padded to the trellis and removed the knife with barely any effort. The white-wing, which had only just been held by one wing, had flown away…
“There!” Sharrow said, pointing to the forest floor.
They looked down as they passed slowly to one side of a clearing. There was a water hole, and on the dusty ground near it a large animal with smooth green skin lay dead, its guts spilled onto the ground. Another animal-smaller, but powerful-looking-stood in the pool of intestines, biting and tugging at something inside the fallen herbivore’s belly cavity. The predator raised its head to look at the balloon, its golden-red snout covered in green blood.
“A rox!” Geis whispered. “Wonderful!”
“Ugh,” Breyguhn said, watching from the other side of the gondola.
The martialer took the airship’s control box from his pocket and flicked a switch. The drifting vessel hummed almost inaudibly above them, coming to a stop. The rox, its broad jaws still working as it chewed on its kill, looked up at them, unworried. It put its head to one side, still chewing.
“Cousin?” Geis said to her.
Sharrow shook her head. “No,” she said. “You.”
Geis looked delighted. He turned and sighted along the long powder gun.
Sharrow watched Breyguhn grimace, looking over the edge of the gondola but not really enjoying what she was seeing. Sharrow turned to look too.
“You become one with the gun and the line and the target,” Geis whispered, aiming (the martialer sat nodding wisely). “Damn; he’s gone back inside the guts of the thing.”
“Yeaurk,” Breyguhn said, sitting down on the other side of the gondola.
“Don’t rock us!” Geis whispered urgently.
The martialer put the airship controls down, raised both hands above his head and clapped them loudly together. Sharrow laughed; the rox’s head came up, freshly green, and looked at them again.
“Got you,” whispered Geis. The gun roared. Geis bumped backwards in the gondola; a cloud of smoke drifted down the wind. The rox had stopped chewing. It collapsed to the ground, front knees thumping into the dust; dark-red blood pumped from its head as it fell over, kicked once and was still.
“Fine shot, sire.”
“Ugh. Is it over? Have you done it? Is there a lot of blood?”
“Take us over there, martialer; I want to get down and cut a couple of trophies.”
“Poor animal; what chance did it have?” Breyguhn said, peeking over the gondola at the two corpses lying side by side.
“The chance of not being seen,” Geis said happily, and shrugged.
“It was quick,” Sharrow told Breyguhn, trying to ally herself with Geis’s maturity rather than with her half-sister’s youth, even though she was closer in age to Brey, who was only twelve.
“Yes,” Geis said, preparing the rope ladder as the martialer guided the airship through the warm air towards the clearing. “It wouldn’t know what hit it.”
“It still seems cruel to me,” Breyguhn said, crossing her arms.
“Not at all,” Geis said. “It killed that heuskyn down there; I killed it.”
“It’s the law of the jungle,” Sharrow told Breyguhn.
Geis laughed. “Literally,” he said. “And it didn’t suffer the way the heuskyn must have.” A puzzled, exasperated look appeared on his face. “I’ve often thought, you know, that that’s what matters; suffering. Not death, not actually killing. If you die instantly-really instantly, with no warning whatsoever-what are you missing? Your life might be terrible from then on until when you were going to die anyway. Of course, it might have been great fun instead, but the point is that at any given moment you just don’t know which. I don’t think there should be any penalty for killing somebody instantaneously.”
“But what about the people left behind, their family and friends?” Breyguhn protested.
Geis shrugged again, glancing over the side of the gondola as they drew slowly to a stop. “The law doesn’t pretend we prosecute murderers because of the effect on the murdered person’s nearest and dearest.”
He and the martialer hauled the rope ladder to the gunwale.
“But then,” Sharrow said, “if people knew they could be killed at any time, and their murderer would get away with it, everybody would be frightened all the time. No matter who you killed, they’d always have suffered.” She spread her hands.
Geis looked at her, face creased in a frown. “Hmm,” he said, his lips taut. “Yes, that’s a point. I hadn’t thought of that.” He looked at the martialer, who smiled at him. Geis shrugged, handed the martialer his gun and said, “Oh, well. Back to the drawing board on that idea.”
He took his knife from its sheath, held it between his teeth, then lowered himself over the side of the gondola and down the rope ladder.
Sharrow watched him descend. He climbed down out of the shadow of the airship; the sunlight glinted on the blade of the knife in his mouth. She leant out further, aiming her gun down at the crown of his head as it nodded its way down the ladder towards the ground.
“Excuse me, lady.” The martialer took the gun from her with a regretful smile.
She sat back in the seat. Breyguhn smirked. She tried not to blush. “I wasn’t actually going to fire it, martialer.”
“I know, Lady Sharrow,” he nodded, taking a round from the breech and handing her the gun back, “but it is dangerous to point guns at people.”
“I know,” she said. “But the safety catch was on and I’m very sorry. You won’t tell Geis, will you?” She smiled her most winning smile.
“I doubt that will be required, lady,” the martialer said.
“He might not…” Breyguhn said, smirking at Sharrow.
“Oh, he doesn’t believe anything you tell him anyway, Brey,” Sharrow said, dismissing the girl with a wave. She smiled again at the martialer, who smiled back. Breyguhn scowled.
“Hey, girls!” shouted a faint, taunting voice from below. “Any particular part of this beast you’d like?”
They camped on, a low rise at the edge of what was probably a range of small jagged hills the Entraxrln had grown over long before, leaving clogged canyons and deep, dark caves leading up steep V-sided ravines; tall spires, splayed and spread over the landscape in a way that looked geological rather than vegetable, were probably rocky pinnacles, wrapped in the Entraxrln’s intimate embrace and now acting as anchor-points for membrane cables. The landscape in the hills and beyond them was even more dark and choked than it had been in the three days since they’d left the town. They had passed a few little towns and villages, and seen a couple of small castles in the distance, homes of lesser nobles, but had encountered few other travellers.
Leeskever, their guide-a lean, garrulously knowledgeable and spectacularly ugly hide-trapper they’d met in the Broken Neck and who sported an eye-patch Zefla thought most dashing-said that if the gentlemen wanted to see any savages or outlaws, they’d be in there somewhere, but he wasn’t going to lead them any further. This was bandit country.
Miz decided that his place was looking after the ladies. Dloan went in alone, on foot.
They left the jemer mounts to graze and passed the next two days walking near the camp and climbing the more gently sloped cables with loop-guides, while Leeskever talked about the thousands of animals he’d killed and the half-dozen or so buddies he’d lost; to stom, tangle-teeth, other assorted wild animals, and the effects of gravity when people fell off cables; all of them in country much like this.
Sharrow slipped out of the camp a couple of times when Leeskever wouldn’t notice, tramping half a klick into the Entraxrln undergrowth to do some target practice. She used the silencer on the HandCannon and set up some blister-fruits ten, twenty and forty metres away.
On her second visit to her private shooting gallery, she heard something move above and behind her just as she was changing from one magazine to another; she slammed the clip home, stepped to one side and turned. She had the impression of something diving towards her, and fired.
The clip she’d just loaded was wire-flechette. She checked the magazine later; four rounds fired.
She wasn’t sure how many hit whatever it was trying to jump her, but it disappeared in an exploding cloud of purple blood she had to jump away to avoid. When she went back to stir the warm, gently steaming debris with her boot, she couldn’t tell what it had been, except that it had had fur rather than skin or feathers. The biggest bit of chewed-looking bone left was smaller than her little finger.
She decided she didn’t need any more target practice.
They sat, secured by ropes to hard-bark spikes stuck into the three-metre broad cable above them. They ate lunch, feeling a warm, sappy-smelling tunnel-wind blow about them, looking down the hundred metres or so to the ground. The rise holding their camp was visible a kilometre away across the grotesquely deformed landscape of the Entraxrln.
Leeskever shoved the tap-spike into a vein-like bulge on the surface of the cable. Clear water seeped through the membrane over the end of the hollow spike and started to fill a little cup hanging under its handle. He sniffed the wind. “That’ll bring the King’s stom, that wind,” he said.
They all looked at him.
“Glide-monkeys,” he said. “Stom come for the annual migration; there’s one male troupe that’s half-tamed; they roost in the trunk north of the town.”
“They don’t actually ride them, do they?” Zefla said.
Leeskever laughed. “Na! And never did, neither. Don’t you believe what people tell you. Stoma sooner eat you than smell you. Just legend, all that stuff about flying them.” He sipped water from the small cup, then passed it to Zefla. “The King and his court go up to one of the male roosts in the trunk and stand looking at the beasts, choose one as their own, tippy-toe up to it, waft some sleepy-gas at it and spray a mark on it. Coward courtiers and ministers have their aides do it; the rest pretend they’re brave.” Leeskever accepted the cup back from Zefla and hung it under the dripping tap-spike. “Then the dignitaries sit in their viewing-gallery, watch the stom take monkeys and cheer on their particular beast. Highly civilised spectacle.”
“Sounds it,” Miz said.
“What’s that?” Zefla said, pointing down.
“Eh?” said Leeskever. “Ah; now that is one of those tangle-teeth I was telling you about.”
“This the beast that has a taste for your companions?” Zefla asked him.
“Might even be the same one, for all I know,” Leeskever said.
They watched the long, striped back of the tangle-tooth as the quadruped padded slowly through the jungled confusion of roots, stalks and long tatters of fallen membrane on the level below.
Sharrow remembered the airship, and the animal Geis had killed. When he’d returned, blooded, to the gondola, he’d presented her and Breyguhn with nothing more nocuous and shocking than the animal’s ears.
She had accepted her still-warm gift gracefully. Breyguhn couldn’t bear to touch the blood-matted thing. Still, while Sharrow had thrown hers away the day they left the Autumn Palace estates to return to their respective schools, Breyguhn had kept her trophy for years.
Dloan came out of the deep country the following morning, morose and unsuccessful. He’d had to shoot two inept bandits, but apart from that he hadn’t seen anybody. There might well be rebels and the like in the deep country, but they’d kept well out of his way.
They set off back to the town that afternoon with the wind soft behind them. Several troupes of stom flew over them a kilometre up, heading in the same direction. Leeskever nodded wisely.
They paid him at the same inn on the outskirts of the town they’d eaten at the day after they’d first arrived. Miz went into town alone, disguised. Their rooms were still being kept for them; a beggar had asked after them and the innkeeper had given him the note they’d left for him. Nobody else had inquired about them.
“A decent bed and hot water!” Zefla said, marching into her and Sharrow’s room. “Fucking luxury!”
She slept well at first, then woke during the depths of the night wondering what was happening, and thought there was something long and cold crawling over her skin at her throat.
She sat up, whimpering and pulling at her nightdress, then felt to the skin at the top of her chest, and with her hands there, looking into the utter darkness, hearing Zefla stir and make a fading, still-asleep huh-ing noise, she realised what was happening.
It was their way of saying they were still in touch, even here. So much for being off-net.
The feeling was like a cold finger drawn across her skin, right round the base of her neck, like an executioner sketching where the axe will fall. Then another line, then another and another, each one further out than the last.
The shape of the Crownstar Addendum was traced out on her skin, to the last strand, the last planet of the system.
The long looping orbit of Prensteleraf was drawn around her neck and down over the tops of her breasts. After a while, when no more happened, she lay down in the soft, sagging bed again.