/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space / Series: Culture

Consider Phlebas

Iain Banks

The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction; coldblooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principals were at stake. There could be no surrender. Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction. Consider Phlebas — a space opera of stunning power and awesome imagination from one of the most talented writers of his generation.

Consider Phlebas

Iain Banks

Idolatry is worse than carnage.

The Koran, 2: 190

Gentile or Jew

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

T. S. Eliot,

“The Waste Land”, IV

Prologue

The ship didn’t even have a name. It had no human crew because the factory craft which constructed it had been evacuated long ago. It had no life-support or accommodation units for the same reason. It had no class number or fleet designation because it was a mongrel made from bits and pieces of different types of warcraft; and it didn’t have a name because the factory craft had no time left for such niceties.

The dockyard threw the ship together as best it could from its depleted stock of components, even though most of the weapon, power and sensory systems were either faulty, superseded or due for overhaul. The factory vessel knew that its own destruction was inevitable, but there was just a chance that its last creation might have the speed and the luck to escape.

The one perfect, priceless component the factory craft did have was the vastly powerful — though still raw and untrained — Mind around which it had constructed the rest of the ship. If it could get the Mind to safety, the factory vessel thought it would have done well. Nevertheless, there was another reason — the real reason — the dockyard mother didn’t give its warship child a name; it thought there was something else it lacked: hope.

The ship left the construction bay of the factory craft with most of its fitting-out still to be done. Accelerating hard, its course a four-dimensional spiral through a blizzard of stars where it knew that only danger waited, it powered into hyperspace on spent engines from an overhauled craft of one class, watched its birthplace disappear astern with battle-damaged sensors from a second, and tested outdated weapon units cannibalised from yet another. Inside its warship body, in narrow, unlit, unheated, hard-vacuum spaces, constructor drones struggled to install or complete sensors, displacers, field generators, shield disruptors, laserfields, plasma chambers, warhead magazines, manoeuvring units, repair systems and the thousands of other major and minor components required to make a functional warship. Gradually, as it swept through the vast open reaches between the star systems, the vessel’s internal structure changed, and it became less chaotic, more ordered, as the factory drones completed their tasks.

Several tens of hours out on its first journey, while it was testing its track scanner by focusing back along the route it had taken, the ship registered a single massive annihilation explosion deep behind it, where the factory craft had been. It watched the blossoming shell of radiation expand for a while, then switched the scanner field to dead ahead and pushed yet more power through its already overloaded engines.

The ship did all it could to avoid combat; it kept well away from the routes enemy craft would probably use; it treated every hint of any craft as a confirmed hostile sighting. At the same time, as it zigzagged and ducked and weaved and rose and fell, it was corkscrewing as fast as it could, as directly as it dared, down and across the strand of the galactic arm in which it had been born, heading for the edge of that great isthmus and the comparatively empty space beyond. On the far side, on the edge of the next limb, it might find safety.

Just as it arrived at that first border, where the stars rose like a glittering cliff alongside emptiness, it was caught.

A fleet of hostile craft, whose course by chance came close enough to that of the fleeing ship, detected its ragged, noisy emission shell, and intercepted it. The ship ran straight into their attack and was overwhelmed. Out-armed, slow, vulnerable, it knew almost instantly that it had no chance even of inflicting any damage on the opposing fleet.

So it destroyed itself, detonating the stock of warheads it carried in a sudden release of energy which for a second, in hyperspace alone, outshone the yellow dwarf star of a nearby system.

Scattered in a pattern around it, an instant before the ship itself was blown into plasma, most of the thousands of exploding warheads formed an outrushing sphere of radiation through which any escape seemed impossible. In the fraction of a second the entire engagement lasted, there were at the end some millionths when the battle-computers of the enemy fleet briefly analysed the four-dimensional maze of expanding radiation and saw that there was one bewilderingly complicated and unlikely way out of the concentric shells of erupting energies now opening like the petals of some immense flower between the star systems. It was not, however, a route the Mind of a small, archaic warship could plan for, create and follow.

By the time it was noticed that the ship’s Mind had taken exactly that path through its screen of annihilation, it was too late to stop it from falling away through hyperspace towards the small, cold planet fourth out from the single yellow sun of the nearby system.

It was also too late to do anything about the light from the ship’s exploding warheads, which had been arranged in a crude code, describing the vessel’s fate and the escaped Mind’s status and position, and legible to anybody catching the unreal light as it sped through the galaxy. Perhaps worst of all — and had their design permitted such a thing, those electronic brains would now have felt dismay — the planet the Mind had made for through its shield of explosions was not one they could simply attack, destroy or even land on; it was Schar’s World, near the region of barren space between two galactic strands called the Sullen Gulf, and it was one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead.

1. Sorpen

The level was at his top lip now. Even with his head pressed hard back against the stones of the cell wall his nose was only just above the surface. He wasn’t going to get his hands free in time; he was going to drown.

In the darkness of the cell, in its stink and warmth, while the sweat ran over his brows and tightly closed eyes and his trance went on and on, one part of his mind tried to accustom him to the idea of his own death. But, like an unseen insect buzzing in a quiet room, there was something else, something that would not go away, was of no use, and only annoyed. It was a sentence, irrelevant and pointless and so old he’d forgotten where he had heard or read it, and it went round and round the inside of his head like a marble spun round the inside of a jug:

The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual assassins of the new Yearking’s immediate family by drowning them in the tears of the Continental Empathaur in its Sadness Season.

At one point, shortly after his ordeal had begun and he was only part-way into his trance, he had wondered what would happen if he threw up. It had been when the palace kitchens — about fifteen or sixteen floors above, if his calculations were correct — had sent their waste down the sinuous network of plumbing that led to the sewercell. The gurgling, watery mess had dislodged some rotten food from the last time some poor wretch had drowned in filth and garbage, and that was when he felt he might vomit. It had been almost comforting to work out that it would make no difference to the time of his death.

Then he had wondered — in that state of nervous frivolity which sometimes afflicts those who can do nothing but wait in a situation of mortal threat — whether crying would speed his death. In theory it would, though in practical terms it was irrelevant; but that was when the sentence started to roll round in his head.

The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual

The liquid, which he could hear and feel and smell all too clearly — and could probably have seen with his far from ordinary eyes had they been open — washed briefly up to touch the bottom of his nose. He felt it block his nostrils, filling them with a stench that made his stomach heave. But he shook his head, tried to force his skull even further back against the stones, and the foul broth fell away. He blew down and could breathe again.

There wasn’t long now. He checked his wrists again, but it was no good. It would take another hour or more, and he had only minutes, if he was lucky.

The trance was breaking anyway. He was returning to almost total consciousness, as though his brain wanted fully to appreciate his own death, its own extinction. He tried to think of something profound, or to see his life flash in front of him, or suddenly to remember some old love, a long-forgotten prophecy or premonition, but there was nothing, just an empty sentence, and the sensations of drowning in other people’s dirt and waste.

You old bastards, he thought. One of their few strokes of humour or originality had been devising an elegant, ironic way of death. How fitting it must feel to them, dragging their decrepit frames to the banquet-hall privies, literally to defecate all over their enemies, and thereby kill them.

The air pressure built up, and a distant, groaning rumble of liquid signalled another flushing from above. You old bastards. Well, I hope at least you kept your promise, Balveda.

The Jinmoti of Bozlen Two kill the hereditary ritual… thought one part of his brain, as the pipes in the ceiling spluttered and the waste splashed into the warm mass of liquid which almost filled the cell. The wave passed over his face, then fell back to leave his nose free for a second and give him time to gulp a lungful of air. Then the liquid rose gently to touch the bottom of his nose again, and stayed there.

He held his breath.

It had hurt at first, when they had hung him up. His hands, tied inside tight leather pouches, were directly above his head, manacled inside thick loops of iron bolted to the cell walls, which took all his weight. His feet were tied together and left to dangle inside an iron tube, also attached to the wall, which stopped him from taking any weight on his feet and knees and at the same time prevented him from moving his legs more than a hand’s breadth out from the wall or to either side. The tube ended just above his knees; above it there was only a thin and dirty loincloth to hide his ancient and grubby nakedness.

He had shut off the pain from his wrists and shoulders even while the four burly guards, two of them perched on ladders, had secured him in place. Even so he could feel that niggling sensation at the back of his skull which told him that he ought to be hurting. That had lessened gradually as the level of waste in the small sewercell had risen and buoyed up his body.

He had started to go into a trance then, as soon as the guards left, though he knew it was probably hopeless. It hadn’t lasted long; the cell door opened again within minutes, a metal walkway was lowered by a guard onto the damp flagstones of the cell floor, and light from the corridor washed into the darkness. He had stopped the Changing trance and craned his neck to see who his visitor might be.

Into the cell, holding a short staff glowing cool blue, stepped the stooped, grizzled figure of Amahain-Frolk, security minister for the Gerontocracy of Sorpen. The old man smiled at him and nodded approvingly, then turned to the corridor and, with a thin, discoloured hand, beckoned somebody standing outside the cell to step onto the short walkway and enter. He guessed it would be the Culture agent Balveda, and it was. She came lightly onto the metal boarding, looked round slowly, and fastened her gaze on him. He smiled and tried to nod in greeting, his ears rubbing on his naked arms.

“Balveda! I thought I might see you again. Come to see the host of the party?” He forced a grin. Officially it was his banquet; he was the host. Another of the Gerontocracy’s little jokes. He hoped his voice had shown no signs of fear.

Perosteck Balveda, agent of the Culture, a full head taller than the old man by her side and still strikingly handsome even in the pallid glow of the blue torch, shook her thin, finely made head slowly. Her short, black hair lay like a shadow on her skull.

“No,” she said, “I didn’t want to see you, or say goodbye.”

“You put me here, Balveda,” he said quietly.

“Yes, and there you belong,” Amahain-Frolk said, stepping as far forward on the platform as he could without overbalancing and having to step onto the damp floor. “I wanted you tortured first, but Miss Balveda here” — the minister’s high, scratchy voice echoed in the cell as he turned his head back to the woman — “pleaded for you, though God knows why. But that’s where you belong all right; murderer.” He shook the staff at the almost naked man hanging on the dirty wall of the cell.

Balveda looked at her feet, just visible under the hem of the long, plain grey gown she wore. A circular pendant on a chain around her neck glinted in the light from the corridor outside. Amahain-Frolk had stepped back beside her, holding the shining staff up and squinting at the captive.

“You know, even now I could almost swear that was Egratin hanging there. I can…” He shook his gaunt, bony head. “…I can hardly believe it isn’t, not until he opens his mouth, anyway. My God, these Changers are dangerous frightening things!” He turned to Balveda. She smoothed her hair at the nape of her neck and looked down at the old man.

“They are also an ancient and proud people, Minister, and there are very few of them left. May I ask you one more time? Please? Let him live. He might be—”

The Gerontocrat waved a thin and twisted hand at her, his face distorting in a grimace. “No! You would do well, Miss Balveda, not to keep asking for this… this assassin, this murderous, treacherous… spy, to be spared. Do you think we take the cowardly murder and impersonation of one of our Outworld ministers lightly? What damage this… thing could have caused! Why, when we arrested it two of our guards died just from being scratched! Another is blind for life after this monster spat in his eye! However,” Amahain-Frolk sneered at the man chained to the wall, “we took those teeth out. And his hands are tied so that he can’t even scratch himself.” He turned to Balveda again. “You say they are few? I say good; there will soon be one less.” The old man narrowed his eyes as he looked at the woman. “We are grateful to you and your people for exposing this fraud and murderer, but do not think that gives you the right to tell us what to do. There are some in the Gerontocracy who want nothing to do with any outside influence, and their voices grow in volume by the day as the war comes closer. You would do well not to antagonise those of us who do support your cause.”

Balveda pursed her lips and looked down at her feet again, clasping her slender hands behind her back. Amahain-Frolk had turned back to the man hanging on the wall, wagging the staff in his direction as he spoke. “You will soon be dead, impostor, and with you die your masters’ plans for the domination of our peaceful system! The same fate awaits them if they try to invade us. We and the Culture are—”

He shook his head as best he could and roared back, “Frolk, you’re an idiot!” The old man shrank away as though hit. The Changer went on, “Can’t you see you’re going to be taken over anyway? Probably by the Idirans, but if not by them then by the Culture. You don’t control your own destinies any more; the war’s stopped all that. Soon this whole sector will be part of the front, unless you make it part of the Idiran sphere. I was only sent in to tell you what you should have known anyway — not to cheat you into something you’d regret later. For God’s sake, man, the Idirans won’t eat you—”

“Ha! They look as though they could! Monsters with three feet; invaders, killers, infidels… You want us to link with them? With three-strides tall-monsters? To be ground under their hooves? To have to worship their false gods?”

“At least they have a God, Frolk. The Culture doesn’t.” The ache in his arms was coming back as he concentrated on talking. He shifted as best he could and looked down at the minister. “They at least think the same way you do. The Culture doesn’t.”

“Oh no, my friend, oh no.” Amahain-Frolk held one hand up flat to him and shook his head. “You won’t sow seeds of discord like that.”

“My God, you stupid old man,” he laughed. “You want to know who the real representative of the Culture is on this planet? It’s not her,” he nodded at the woman, “it’s that powered flesh-slicer she has following her everywhere, her knife missile. She might make the decisions, it might do what she tells it, but it’s the real emissary. That’s what the Culture’s about: machines. You think because Balveda’s got two legs and soft skin you should be on her side, but it’s the Idirans who are on the side of life in this war—”

“Well, you will shortly be on the other side of that.” The Gerontocrat snorted and glanced at Balveda, who was looking from under lowered brows at the man chained to the wall. “Let us go, Miss Balveda,” Amahain-Frolk said as he turned and took the woman’s arm to guide her from the cell. “This… thing’s presence smells more than the cell.”

Balveda looked up at him then, ignoring the dwarfed minister as he tried to pull her to the door. She gazed right at the prisoner with her clear, black-irised eyes and held her hands out from her sides. “I’m sorry,” she said to him.

“Believe it or not, that’s rather how I feel,” he replied, nodding. “Just promise me you’ll eat and drink very little tonight, Balveda. I’d like to think there was one person up there on my side, and it might as well be my worst enemy.” He had meant it to be defiant and funny, but it sounded only bitter; he looked away from the woman’s face.

“I promise,” Balveda said. She let herself be led to the door, and the blue light waned in the dank cell. She stopped right at the door. By sticking his head painfully far out he could just see her. The knife missile was there, too, he noticed, just inside the room; probably there all the time, but he hadn’t noticed its sleek, sharp little body hovering there in the darkness. He looked into Balveda’s dark eyes as the knife missile moved.

For a second he thought Balveda had instructed the tiny machine to kill him now — quietly and quickly while she blocked Amahain-Frolk’s view — and his heart thudded. But the small device simply floated past Balveda’s face and out into the corridor. Balveda raised one hand in a gesture of farewell.

“Bora Horza Gobuchul,” she said, “goodbye.” She turned quickly, stepped from the platform and out of the cell. The walkway was hoisted out and the door slammed, scraping rubber flanges over the grimy floor and hissing once as the internal seals made it watertight. He hung there, looking down at an invisible floor for a moment before going back into the trance that would Change his wrists, thin them down so that he could escape. But something about the solemn, final way Balveda had spoken his name had crushed him inside, and he knew then, if not before, that there was no escape.

by drowning them in the tears

His lungs were bursting! His mouth quivered, his throat was gagging, the filth was in his ears but he could hear a great roaring, see lights though it was black dark. His stomach muscles started to go in and out, and he had to clamp his jaw to stop his mouth opening for air that wasn’t there. Now. No… now he had to give in. Not yet… surely now. Now, now, now, any second; surrender to this awful black vacuum inside him… he had to breathe… now!

Before he had time to open his mouth he was smashed against the wall — punched against the stones as though some immense iron fist had slammed into him. He blew out the stale air from his lungs in one convulsive breath. His body was suddenly cold, and every part of it next to the wall throbbed with pain. Death, it seemed, was weight, pain, cold… and too much light…

He brought his head up. He moaned at the light. He tried to see, tried to hear. What was happening? Why was he breathing? Why was he so damn heavy again? His body was tearing his arms from their sockets; his wrists were cut almost to the bone. Who had done this to him?

Where the wall had been facing him there was a very large and ragged hole which extended beneath the level of the cell floor. All the ordure and garbage had burst out of that. The last few trickles hissed against the hot sides of the breach, producing steam which curled around the figure standing blocking most of the brilliant light from outside, in the open air of Sorpen. The figure was three metres tall and looked vaguely like a small armoured spaceship sitting on a tripod of thick legs. Its helmet looked big enough to contain three human heads, side by side. Held almost casually in one gigantic hand was a plasma cannon which Horza would have needed both arms just to lift; the creature’s other fist gripped a slightly larger gun. Behind it, nosing in towards the hole, came an Idiran gun-platform, lit vividly by the light of explosions which Horza could now feel through the iron and stones he was attached to. He raised his head to the giant standing in the breach and tried to smile.

“Well,” he croaked, then spluttered and spat, “you lot certainly took your time.”

2. The Hand of God 137

Outside the palace, in the sharp cold of a winter’s afternoon, the clear sky was full of what looked like glittering snow.

Horza paused on the warshuttle’s ramp and looked up and around. The sheer walls and slim towers of the prison-palace echoed and reflected with the booms and flashes of continuing fire-fights, while Idiran gun-platforms cruised back and forth, firing occasionally. Around them on the stiffening breeze blew great clouds of chaff from anti-laser mortars on the palace roof. A gust sent some of the fluttering, flickering foil towards the stationary shuttle, and Horza found one side of his wet and sticky body suddenly coated with reflecting plumage.

“Please. The battle is not over yet,” thundered the Idiran soldier behind him, in what was probably meant to be a quiet whisper. Horza turned round to the armoured bulk and stared up at the visor of the giant’s helmet, where he could see his own, old man’s face reflected. He breathed deeply, then nodded, turned and walked, slightly shakily, into the shuttle. A flash of light threw his shadow diagonally in front of him, and the craft bucked in the shock wave of a big explosion somewhere inside the palace as the ramp closed.

By their names you could know them, Horza thought as he showered. The Culture’s General Contact Units, which until now had borne the brunt of the first four years of the war in space, had always chosen jokey, facetious names. Even the new warships they were starting to produce, as their factory craft completed gearing up their war production, favoured either jocular, sombre or downright unpleasant names, as though the Culture could not take entirely seriously the vast conflict in which it had embroiled itself.

The Idirans looked at things differently. To them a ship name ought to reflect the serious nature of its purpose, duties and resolute use. In the huge Idiran navy there were hundreds of craft named after the same heroes, planets, battles, religious concepts and impressive adjectives. The light cruiser which had rescued Horza was the 137th vessel to be called The Hand of God, and it existed concurrently with over a hundred other craft in the navy using the same title, so its full name was The Hand of God 137.

Horza dried in the airstream with some difficulty. Like everything else in the spaceship it was built on a monumental scale befitting the size of the Idirans, and the hurricane of air it produced nearly blew him out of the shower cabinet.

The Querl Xoralundra, spy-father and warrior priest of the Four Souls tributory sect of Farn-Idir, clasped two hands on the surface of the table. It looked to Horza rather like a pair of continental plates colliding.

“So, Bora Horza,” boomed the old Idiran, “you are recovered.”

“Just about,” nodded Horza, rubbing his wrists. He sat in Xoralundra’s cabin in The Hand of God 137, clothed in a bulky but comfortable space suit apparently brought along just for him. Xoralundra, who was also suited up, had insisted the man wear it because the warship was still at battle stations as it swept a fast and low-powered orbit around the planet of Sorpen. A Culture GCU of the Mountain class had been confirmed in the system by Naval Intelligence; the Hand was in on its own, and they couldn’t find any trace of the Culture ship, so they had to be careful.

Xoralundra leaned towards Horza, casting a shadow over the table. His huge head, saddle-shaped when seen from directly in front, with the two front eyes clear and unblinking near the edges, loomed over the Changer. “You were lucky, Horza. We did not come in to rescue you out of compassion. Failure is its own reward.”

“Thank you, Xora. That’s actually the nicest thing anybody’s said to me all day.” Horza sat back in his seat and put one of his old-looking hands through his thin, yellowing hair. It would take a few days for the aged appearance he had assumed to disappear, though already he could feel it starting to slip away from him. In a Changer’s mind there was a self-image constantly held and reviewed on a semi-subconscious level, keeping the body in the appearance willed. Horza’s need to look like a Gerontocrat was gone now, so the mental picture of the minister he had impersonated for the Idirans was fragmenting and dissolving, and his body was going back to its normal, neutral state.

Xoralundra’s head went slowly from side to side between the edges of the suit collar. It was a gesture Horza had never fully translated, although he had worked for the Idirans and known Xoralundra well since before the war.

“Anyway. You are alive,” Xoralundra said. Horza nodded and drummed his fingers on the table to show he agreed. He wished the Idiran chair he was perched on didn’t make him feel so much like a child; his feet weren’t even touching the deck.

“Just. Thanks, anyway. I’m sorry I dragged you all the way in here to rescue a failure.”

“Orders are orders. I personally am glad we were able to. Now I must tell you why we received those orders.”

Horza smiled and looked away from the old Idiran, who had just given him something of a compliment; a rare thing. He looked back and watched the other being’s wide mouth — big enough, thought Horza, to bite off both your hands at once — as it boomed out the precise, short words of the Idiran language.

“You were once with a caretaker mission on Schar’s World, one of the Dra’Azon Planets of the Dead,” Xoralundra stated. Horza nodded. “We need you to go back there.”

“Now?” Horza said to the broad, dark face of the Idiran. “There are only Changers there. I’ve told you I won’t impersonate another Changer. I certainly won’t kill one.”

“We are not asking you to do that. Listen while I explain.” Xoralundra leant on his back-rest in a way almost any vertebrate — or even anything like a vertebrate — would have called tired. “Four standard days ago,” the Idiran began — then his suit helmet, which was lying on the floor near his feet, let out a piercing whine. He picked up the helmet and set it on the table. “Yes?” he said, and Horza knew enough about the Idiran voice to realise that whoever was bothering the Querl had better have a good reason for doing so.

“We have the Culture female,” a voice said from the helmet.

“Ahh…” Xoralundra said quietly, sitting back. The Idiran equivalent of a smile — mouth pursing, eyes narrowing — passed over his features. “Good, Captain. Is she aboard yet?”

“No, Querl. The shuttle is a couple of minutes out. I’m withdrawing the gun-platforms. We are ready to leave the system as soon as they are all on board.”

Xoralundra bent closer to the helmet. Horza inspected the aged skin on the back of his hands. “What of the Culture ship?” the Idiran asked.

“Still nothing, Querl. It cannot be anywhere in the system. Our computer suggests it is outside, possibly between us and the fleet. Before long it must realise we are in here by ourselves.”

“You will set off to rejoin the fleet the instant the female Culture agent is aboard, without waiting for the platforms. Is that understood, Captain?” Xoralundra looked at Horza as the human glanced at him. “Is that understood, Captain?” the Querl repeated, still looking at the human.

“Yes, Querl,” came the answer. Horza could hear the icy tone, even through the small helmet speaker.

“Good. Use your own initiative to decide the best route back to the fleet. In the meantime you will destroy the cities of De’aychanbie, Vinch, Easna-Yowon, Izilere and Ylbar with fusion bombs, as per the Admiralty’s orders.”

“Yes, Qu—” Xoralundra stabbed a switch in the helmet, and it fell silent.

“You got Balveda?” Horza asked, surprised.

“We have the Culture agent, yes. I regard her capture, or destruction, as of comparatively little consequence. But only by our assuring the Admiralty we would attempt to take her would they contemplate such a hazardous mission ahead of the main fleet to rescue you.”

“Hmm. Bet you didn’t get Balveda’s knife missile.” Horza snorted, looking again at the wrinkles on his hands.

“It destructed while you were being put aboard the shuttle which brought you up to the ship.” Xoralundra waved one hand, sending a draught of Idiran-scented air across the table. “But enough of that. I must explain why we risked a light cruiser to rescue you.”

“By all means,” Horza said, and turned to face the Idiran.

“Four standard days ago,” the Querl said, “a group of our ships intercepted a single Culture craft of conventional outward appearance but rather odd internal construction, judging by its emission signature. The ship was destroyed easily enough, but its Mind escaped. There was a planetary system near by. The Mind appears to have transcended real space to within the planetary surface of the globe it chose, thus indicating a level of hyperspatial field management we had thought — hoped — was still beyond the Culture. Certainly such spaciobatics are beyond us for the moment. We have reason to believe, due to that and other indications, that the Mind involved is one from a new class of General Systems Vehicles the Culture is developing. The Mind’s capture would be an intelligence coup of the first order.”

The Querl paused there. Horza took the opportunity to ask, “Is this thing on Schar’s World?”

“Yes. According to its last message it intended to shelter in the tunnels of the Command System.”

“And you can’t do anything about it?” Horza smiled.

“We came to get you. That is doing something about it, Bora Horza.” The Querl paused. “The shape of your mouth tells me you see something amusing in this situation. What would that be?”

“I was just thinking… lots of things: that that Mind was either pretty smart or very lucky; that you were very lucky you had me close by; also that the Culture isn’t likely to sit back and do nothing.”

“To deal with your points in order,” Xoralundra said sharply, “the Culture Mind was both lucky and smart; we were fortunate; the Culture can do little because they do not, as far as we know, have any Changers in their employ, and certainly not one who has served on Schar’s World. I would also add, Bora Horza,” the Idiran said, putting both huge hands on the table and dipping his great head towards the human, “that you were more than a little lucky yourself.”

“Ah yes, but the difference is that I believe in it.” Horza grinned.

“Hmm. It does you little credit,” observed the Querl. Horza shrugged.

“So you want me to put down on Schar’s World and get the Mind?”

“If possible. It may be damaged. It may be liable to destruct, but it is a prize worth fighting for. We shall give you all the equipment you need, but your presence alone would give us a toe-hold.”

“What about the people already there? The Changers on caretaker duty?”

“Nothing has been heard from them. They were probably unaware of the Mind’s arrival. Their next routine transmission is due in a few days, but, given the current disruption in communications due to the war, they may not be able to send.”

“What…” Horza said slowly, one finger describing a circular pattern on the table surface which he was looking at, “…do you know about the personnel in the base?”

“The two senior members have been replaced by younger Changers,” the Idiran said. “The two junior sentinels became seniors, remaining there.”

“They wouldn’t be in any danger, would they?” Horza asked.

“On the contrary. Inside a Dra’Azon Quiet Barrier, on a Planet of the Dead, must rank as one of the safest places to be during the current hostilities. Neither we nor the Culture can risk causing the Dra’Azon any offence. That is why they cannot do anything, and we can only use you.”

“If,” Horza said carefully, sitting forward and dropping his voice slightly, “I can get this metaphysical computer for you—”

“Something in your voice tells me we approach the question of remuneration,” Xoralundra said.

“We do indeed. I’ve risked my neck for you lot long enough, Xoralundra. I want out. There’s a good friend of mine on that Schar’s World base, and if she’s agreeable I want to take her and me out of the whole war. That’s what I’m asking for.”

“I can promise nothing. I shall request this. Your long and devoted service will be taken into account.”

Horza sat back and frowned. He wasn’t sure if Xoralundra was being ironic or not. Six years probably didn’t seem like very long at all to a species that was virtually immortal; but the Querl Xoralundra knew how often his frail human charge had risked all in the service of his alien masters, without real reward, so perhaps he was being serious. Before Horza could continue with the bargaining, the helmet shrilled once more. Horza winced. All the noises on the Idiran ship seemed to be deafening. The voices were thunder; ordinary buzzers and bleepers left his ears ringing long after they stopped; and announcements over the PA made him put both hands to his head. Horza just hoped there wasn’t a full-scale alarm while he was on board. The Idiran ship alarm could cause damage to unprotected human ears.

“What is it?” Xoralundra asked the helmet.

“The female is on board. I shall need only eight more minutes to get the gun—”

“Have the cities been destroyed?”

“…They have, Querl.”

“Break out of orbit at once and make full speed for the fleet.”

“Querl, I must point out—” said the small, steady voice from the helmet on the table.

“Captain,” Xoralundra said briskly, “in this war there have to date been fourteen single-duel engagements between Type 5 light cruisers and Mountain class General Contact Units. All have ended in victory for the enemy. Have you ever seen what is left of a light cruiser after a GCU has finished with it?”

“No, Querl.”

“Neither have I, and I have no intention of seeing it for the first time from the inside. Proceed at once.” Xoralundra hit the helmet button again. He fastened his gaze on Horza. “I shall do what I can to secure your release from the service with sufficient funds, if you succeed. Now, once we have made contact with the main body of the fleet you will go by fast picket to Schar’s World. You will be given a shuttle there, just beyond the Quiet Barrier. It will be unarmed, although it will have the equipment we think you may need, including some close-range hyperspace spectographic analysers, should the Mind conduct a limited destruct.”

“How can you be certain it’ll be ‘limited’?” Horza asked sceptically.

“The Mind weighs several thousand tonnes, despite its relatively small size. An annihilatory destruct would rip the planet in half and so antagonise the Dra’Azon. No Culture Mind would risk such a thing.”

“Your confidence overwhelms me,” Horza said dourly. Just then the note of background noise around them altered. Xoralundra turned his helmet round and looked at one of its small internal screens.

“Good. We are under way.” He looked at Horza again. “There is something else I ought to tell you. An attempt was made, by the group of ships which caught the Culture craft, to follow the escaped Mind down to the planet.”

Horza frowned. “Didn’t they know better?”

“They did their best. With the battle group were several captured chuy-hirtsi warp animals which had been deactivated for later use in a surprise attack on a Culture base. One of these was quickly fitted out for a small-scale incursion on the planet surface and thrown at the Quiet Barrier in a warp-cruise. The ruse did not succeed. On crossing the Barrier the animal was attacked with something resembling gridfire and was heavily damaged. It came out of warp near the planet on a course which would take it in on a burn-up angle. The equipment and ground force it contained must be considered defunct.”

“Well, I suppose it was a good try, but a Dra’Azon must make even this wonderful Mind you’re after look like a valve computer. It’s going to take more than that to fool it.”

“Do you think you will be able to?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think they can read minds, but who knows? I don’t think the Dra’Azon even know or care much about the war or what I’ve been doing since I left Schar’s World. So they probably won’t be able to put one and one together — but again, who knows?” Horza gave another shrug. “It’s worth a try.”

“Good. We shall have a fuller briefing when we rejoin the fleet. For now we must pray that our return is without incident. You may want to speak to Perosteck Balveda before she is interrogated. I have arranged with the Deputy Fleet Inquisitor that you may see her, if you wish.”

Horza smiled, “Xora, nothing would give me greater pleasure.”

The Querl had other business on the ship as it powered its way out of the Sorpen system. Horza stayed in Xoralundra’s cabin to rest and eat before he called on Balveda.

The food was the cruiser autogalley’s best impression of something suitable for a humanoid, but it tasted awful. Horza ate what he could and drank some equally uninspiring distilled water. It was all served by a medjel — a lizard-like creature about two metres long with a flat, long head and six legs, on four of which it ran, using the front pair as hands. The medjel were the companion species of the Idirans. It was a complicated sort of social symbiosis which had kept the exosocio faculties of many a university in research funds over the millennia that the Idiran civilisation had been part of the galactic community.

The Idirans themselves had evolved on their planet Idir as the top monster from a whole planetful of monsters. The frenetic and savage ecology of Idir in its early days had long since disappeared, and so had all the other homeworld monsters except those in zoos. But the Idirans had retained the intelligence that made them winners, as well as the biological immortality which, due to the viciousness of the fight for survival back then — not to mention Idir’s high radiation levels — had been an evolutionary advantage rather than a recipe for stagnation.

Horza thanked the medjel as it brought him plates and took them away again, but it said nothing. They were generally reckoned to be about two thirds as intelligent as the average humanoid (whatever that was), which made them about two or three times dimmer than a normal Idiran. Still, they were good if unimaginative soldiers, and there were plenty of them; something like ten or twelve for each Idiran. Forty thousand years of breeding had made them loyal right down to the chromosome level.

Horza didn’t try to sleep, though he was tired. He told the medjel to take him to Balveda. The medjel thought about it, asked permission via the cabin intercom, and flinched visibly under a verbal slap from a distant Xoralundra who was on the bridge with the cruiser captain. “Follow me, sir,” the medjel said, opening the cabin door.

In the companionways of the warship the Idiran atmosphere became more obvious than it had been in Xoralundra’s cabin. The smell of Idiran was stronger and the view ahead hazed over — even seen through Horza’s eyes — after a few tens of metres. It was hot and humid, and the floor was soft. Horza walked quickly along the corridor, watching the stump of the medjel’s docked tail as it waggled in front of him.

He passed two Idirans on the way, neither of whom paid him any attention. Perhaps they knew all about him and what he was, but perhaps not. Horza knew that Idirans hated to appear either over-inquisitive or under-informed.

He nearly collided with a pair of wounded medjel on AG stretchers being hurried along a cross-corridor by two of their fellow troopers. Horza watched as the wounded passed, and frowned. The spiralled spatter-marks on their battle armour were unmistakably those produced by a plasma bolt, and the Gerontocracy didn’t have any plasma weapons. He shrugged and walked on.

They came to a section of the cruiser where the companionway was blocked by sliding doors. The medjel spoke to each of the barriers in turn, and they opened. An Idiran guard holding a laser carbine stood outside a door; he saw the medjel and Horza approaching and had the door open for the man by the time he got there. Horza nodded to the guard as he stepped through. The door hissed shut behind him and another one, immediately in front, opened.

Balveda turned quickly to him when he entered the cell. It looked as though she had been pacing up and down. She threw back her head a little when she saw Horza and made a noise in her throat which might have been a laugh.

“Well, well,” she said, her soft voice drawling. “You survived. Congratulations. I did keep my promise, by the way. What a turn-around, eh?”

“Hello,” Horza replied, folding his arms across the chest of his suit and looking the woman up and down. She wore the same grey gown and appeared to be unharmed. “What happened to that thing around your neck?” Horza asked.

She looked down, at where the pendant had lain over her breast. “Well, believe it or not, it turned out to be a memoryform.” She smiled at him and sat down cross-legged on the soft floor; apart from a raised bed-alcove, this was the only place to sit. Horza sat too, his legs hurting only a little. He recalled the spatter-marks on the medjel’s armour.

“A memoryform. Wouldn’t have turned into a plasma gun, by any chance, would it?”

“Amongst other things.” The Culture agent nodded.

“Thought so. Heard your knife missile took the expansive way out.”

Balveda shrugged.

Horza looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t suppose you’d be here if you had anything important you could tell them, would you?”

“Here, perhaps,” Balveda conceded. “Alive, no.” She stretched her arms out behind her and sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to sit out the war in an internment camp, unless they can find somebody to swap. I just hope this thing doesn’t go on too long.”

“Oh, you think the Culture might give in soon?” Horza grinned.

“No, I think the Culture might win soon.”

“You must be mad.” Horza shook his head.

“Well…” Balveda said, nodding ruefully, “actually I think it’ll win eventually.”

“If you keep falling back like you have for the last three years, you’ll end up somewhere in the Clouds.”

“I’m not giving away any secrets, Horza, but I think you might find we don’t do too much more falling back.”

“We’ll see. Frankly I’m surprised you kept fighting this long.”

“So are our three-legged friends. So is everybody. So are we, I sometimes think.”

“Balveda,” Horza sighed wearily, “I still don’t know why the hell you’re fighting in the first place. The Idirans never were any threat to you. They still wouldn’t be, if you stopped fighting them. Did life in your great Utopia really get so boring you needed a war?”

“Horza,” Balveda said, leaning forward, “I don’t understand why you are fighting. I know Heidohre is in—”

“Heibohre,” Horza interjected.

“OK, the goddamn asteroid the Changers live in. I know it’s in Idiran space, but—”

“That’s got nothing to do with it, Balveda. I’m fighting for them because I think they’re right and you’re wrong.”

Balveda sat back, amazed. “You…” she began, then lowered her head and shook it, staring at the floor. She looked up. “I really don’t understand you, Horza. You must know how many species, how many civilisations, how many systems, how many individuals have been either destroyed or… throttled by the Idirans and their crazy goddamned religion. What the hell has the Culture ever done compared to that?” One hand was on her knee, the other was displayed in front of Horza, clawed into a strangling grip. He watched her and smiled.

“On a straight head count the Idirans no doubt do come out in front, Perosteck, and I’ve told them I never did care for some of their methods, or their zeal. I’m all for people being allowed to live their own lives. But now they’re up against you lot, and that’s what makes the difference to me. Because I’m against you, rather than for them, I’m prepared—” Horza broke off for a moment, laughing lightly, self-consciously. “…Well, it sounds a bit melodramatic, but sure — I’m prepared to die for them.” He shrugged. “Simple as that.”

Horza nodded as he said it, and Balveda dropped the outstretched hand and looked away to one side, shaking her head and exhaling loudly. Horza went on, “Because… well, I suppose you thought I was just kidding when I was telling old Frolk I thought the knife missile was the real representative. I wasn’t kidding, Balveda. I meant it then and I mean it now. I don’t care how self-righteous the Culture feels, or how many people the Idirans kill. They’re on the side of life — boring, old-fashioned, biological life; smelly, fallible and short-sighted, God knows, but real life. You’re ruled by your machines. You’re an evolutionary dead end. The trouble is that to take your mind off it you try to drag everybody else down there with you. The worst thing that could happen to the galaxy would be if the Culture wins this war.”

He paused to let her say something, but she was still sitting with her head down, shaking it. He laughed at her. “You know, Balveda, for such a sensitive species you show remarkably little empathy at times.”

“Empathise with stupidity and you’re halfway to thinking like an idiot,” muttered the woman, still not looking at Horza. He laughed again and got to his feet.

“Such… bitterness, Balveda,” he said.

She looked up at him. “I’ll tell you, Horza,” she said quietly, “we’re going to win.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. You wouldn’t know how to.”

Balveda sat back again, hands spread behind her. Her face was serious. “We can learn, Horza.”

“Who from?”

“Whoever has the lesson there to teach,” she said slowly. “We spend quite a lot of our time watching warriors and zealots, bullies and militarists — people determined to win regardless. There’s no shortage of teachers.”

“If you want to know about winning, ask the Idirans.”

Balveda said nothing for a moment. Her face was calm, thoughtful, perhaps sad. She nodded after a while. “They do say there’s a danger… in warfare,” she said, “that you’ll start to resemble the enemy.” She shrugged. “We just have to hope that we can avoid that. If the evolutionary force you seem to believe in really works, then it’ll work through us, and not the Idirans. If you’re wrong, then it deserves to be superseded.”

“Balveda,” he said, laughing lightly, “don’t disappoint me. I prefer a fight… You almost sound as though you’re coming round to my point of view.”

“No,” she sighed. “I’m not. Blame it on my Special Circumstances training. We try to think of everything. I was being pessimistic.”

“I’d got the impression SC didn’t allow such thoughts.”

“Then think again, Mr Changer,” Balveda said, arching one eyebrow. “SC allows all thoughts. That’s what some people find so frightening about it.”

Horza thought he knew what the woman meant. Special Circumstances had always been the Contact section’s moral espionage weapon, the very cutting edge of the Culture’s interfering diplomatic policy, the elite of the elite, in a society which abhorred elitism. Even before the war, its standing and its image within the Culture had been ambiguous. It was glamorous but dangerous, possessed of an aura of roguish sexiness — there was no other word for it — which implied predation, seduction, even violation.

It had about it too an atmosphere of secrecy (in a society that virtually worshipped openness) which hinted at unpleasant, shaming deeds, and an ambience of moral relativity (in a society which clung to its absolutes: life/good, death/bad; pleasure/good, pain/bad) which attracted and repulsed at once, but anyway excited.

No other part of the Culture more exactly represented what the society as a whole really stood for, or was more militant in the application of the Culture’s fundamental beliefs. Yet no other part embodied less of the society’s day-to-day character.

With war, Contact had become the Culture’s military, and Special Circumstances its intelligence and espionage section (the euphemism became only a little more obvious, that was all). And with war, SC’s position within the Culture changed, for the worse. It became the repository for the guilt the people in the Culture experienced because they had agreed to go to war in the first place: despised as a necessary evil, reviled as an unpleasant moral compromise, dismissed as something people preferred not to think about.

SC really did try to think of everything, though, and its Minds were reputedly even more cynical, amoral and downright sneaky than those which made up Contact; machines without illusions which prided themselves on thinking the thinkable to its ultimate extremities. So it had been wearily predicted that just this would happen. SC would become a pariah, a whipping-child, and its reputation a gland to absorb the poison in the Culture’s conscience. But Horza guessed that knowing all this didn’t make it any easier for somebody like Balveda. Culture people had little stomach for being disliked by anybody, least of all their fellow citizens, and the woman’s task was difficult enough without the added burden of knowing she was even greater anathema to most of her own side than she was to the enemy.

“Well, whatever, Balveda,” he said, stretching. He flexed his stiff shoulders within the suit, pulled his fingers through his thin, yellow-white hair. “I guess it’ll work itself out.”

Balveda laughed mirthlessly. “Never a truer word…” She shook her head.

“Thanks, anyway,” he told her.

“For what?”

“I think you just reinforced my faith in the ultimate outcome of this war.”

“Oh, just go away, Horza.” Balveda sighed and looked down to the floor.

Horza wanted to touch her, to ruffle her short black hair or pinch her pale cheek, but guessed it would only upset her more. He knew too well the bitterness of defeat to want to aggravate the experience for somebody who was, in the end, a fair and honourable adversary. He went to the door, and after a word with the guard outside he was let out.

“Ah, Bora Horza,” Xoralundra said as the human appeared out of the cell doorway. The Querl came striding along the companionway. The guard outside the cell straightened visibly and blew some imaginary dust off his carbine. “How is our guest?”

“Not very happy. We were trading justifications and I think I won on points.” Horza grinned. Xoralundra stopped by the man and looked down.

“Hmm. Well, unless you prefer to relish your victories in a vacuum, I suggest that the next time you leave my cabin while we are at battle stations you take your—”

Horza didn’t hear the next word. The ship’s alarm erupted.

The Idiran alarm signal, on a warship as elsewhere, consists of what sounds like a series of very sharp explosions. It is the amplified version of the Idiran chest-boom, an evolved signal the Idirans had been using to warn others in their herd or clan for several hundred thousand years before they became civilised, and produced by the chest-flap which is the Idiran vestigial third arm.

Horza clapped his hands to his ears, trying to shut out the awful noise. He could feel the shock waves on his chest, through the open neck of the suit. He felt himself being picked up and forced against the bulkhead. It was only then that he realised he had shut his eyes. For a second he thought he had never been rescued, never left the wall of the sewercell, that this was the moment of his death and all the rest had been a strange and vivid dream. He opened his eyes and found himself staring into the keratinous snout of the Querl Xoralundra, who shook him furiously and, just as the ship alarm cut off and was replaced by a merely painfully intense whine, said very loudly into Horza’s face, “HELMET!”

“Oh shit!” said Horza.

He was dropped to the deck as Xoralundra let him go, turned quickly, and scooped a running medjel off the floor as it tried to get past him. “You!” Xoralundra bellowed. “I am the spy-father Querl of the fleet,” he shouted into its face and shook the six-limbed creature by the front of its suit. “You will go to my cabin immediately and bring the small space helmet lying there to the port-side stern emergency lock. As fast as possible. This order supersedes all others and cannot be countermanded. Go!” He threw the medjel in the right direction. It landed running.

Xoralundra flipped his own helmet over from its back-hinged position, then opened the visor. He looked as though he was about to say something to Horza, but the helmet speaker crackled and spoke, and the Querl’s expression changed. The small noise stopped and only the continuing wail of the cruiser’s alarm was left. “The Culture craft was hiding in the surface layers of the system sun,” Xoralundra said bitterly, more to himself than to Horza.

“In the sun?” Horza was incredulous. He looked back at the cell door, as though somehow it was Balveda’s fault. “Those bastards are getting smarter all the time.”

“Yes,” snapped the Querl, then turned quickly on one foot. “Follow me, human.” Horza obeyed, starting after the old Idiran at a run, then bumping into him as the huge figure stopped in its tracks. Horza watched the broad, dark, alien face as it swivelled round to look over his head at the Idiran trooper still standing stiffly at the cell door. An expression Horza could not read passed over Xoralundra’s face. “Guard,” the Querl said, not loudly. The trooper with the laser carbine turned. “Kill the woman.”

Xoralundra stamped off down the corridor. Horza stood for a moment, looking first at the rapidly receding Querl, then at the guard as he checked his carbine, ordered the cell door to open, and stepped inside. Then the man ran down the corridor after the old Idiran.

“Querl!” gasped the medjel as it skidded to a stop by the airlock, the suit helmet held in front of it. Xoralundra swept the helmet from its grasp and fitted it quickly over Horza’s head.

“You will find a warp attachment in the lock,” the Idiran told Horza. “Get as far away as possible. The fleet will be here in about nine standard hours. You shouldn’t have to do anything; the suit will summon help on a coded IFF response. I, too—” Xoralundra broke off as the cruiser lurched. There was a loud bang and Horza was blown off his feet by a shock wave, while the Idiran on his tripod of legs hardly moved. The medjel which had gone for the helmet yelped as it was blown under Xoralundra’s legs. The Idiran swore and kicked at it; it ran off. The cruiser lurched again as other alarms started. Horza could smell burning. A confused medley of noises that might have been Idiran voices or muffled explosions came from somewhere overhead. “I too shall try to escape,” Xoralundra continued. “God be with you, human.”

Before Horza could say anything the Idiran had rammed his visor down and pushed him into the lock. It slammed shut. Horza was thrown against one bulkhead as the cruiser juddered mightily. He looked desperately round the small, spherical space for a warp unit, then saw it and after a short struggle unclamped it from its wall magnets. He clamped it to the rear of his suit.

“Ready?” a voice said in his ear.

Horza jumped, then said, “Yes! Yes! Hit it!”

The airlock didn’t open conventionally; it turned inside out and threw him into space, tumbling away from the flat disc of the cruiser in a tiny galaxy of ice particles. He looked for the Culture ship, then told himself not to be stupid; it was probably still several trillion kilometres away. That was how divorced from the human scale modern warfare had become. You could smash and destroy from unthinkable distances, obliterate planets from beyond their own system and provoke stars into novae from light-years off… and still have no good idea why you were really fighting.

With one last thought for Balveda, Horza reached until he found the control handle for the bulky warp unit, fingered the correct buttons on it, and watched the stars twist and distort around him as the unit sent him and his suit lancing away from the stricken Idiran spacecraft.

He played with the wrist-set for a while, trying to pick up signals from The Hand of God 137, but got nothing but static. The suit spoke to him once, saying “Warp/unit/charge/half/exhausted.” Horza kept a watch on the warp unit via a small screen set inside the helmet.

He recalled that the Idirans said some sort of prayer to their God before going into warp. Once when he had been with Xoralundra on a ship which was warping, the Querl had insisted that the Changer repeat the prayer, too. Horza had protested that it meant nothing to him; not only did the Idiran God clash with his own personal convictions, the prayer itself was in a dead Idiran language he didn’t understand. He had been told rather coldly that it was the gesture that mattered. For what the Idirans regarded as essentially an animal (their word for humanoids was best translated as “biotomaton”), only the behaviour of devotion was required; his heart and mind were of no consequence. When Horza had asked, what about his immortal soul? Xoralundra had laughed. It was the first and only time Horza had experienced such a thing from the old warrior. Whoever heard of a mortal body having an immortal soul?

When the warp unit was almost exhausted, Horza shut it off. Stars swam into focus around him. He set the unit controls, then threw it away from him. They parted company, he moving slowly off in one direction, while the unit spun off in another; then it disappeared as the controls switched it back on again to use the last of its power leading anybody following its trace away in the wrong direction.

He calmed his breathing down gradually; it had been very fast and hard for a while, but he slowed it and his heart deliberately. He accustomed himself to the suit, testing its functions and powers. It smelled and felt new, and looked like a Rairch-built device. Rairch suits were meant to be among the best. People said the Culture made better ones, but people said the Culture made better everything, and they were still losing the war. Horza checked out the lasers the suit had built in and searched for the concealed pistol he knew it ought to carry. He found it at last, disguised as part of the left forearm casing, a small plasma hand gun. He felt like shooting it at something, but there was nothing to aim at. He put it back.

He folded his arms across his bulky chest and looked around. Stars were everywhere. He had no idea which one was Sorpen’s. So the Culture ships could hide in the photospheres of stars, could they? And a Mind — even if it was desperate and on the run — could jump through the bottom of a gravity-well, could it? Maybe the Idirans would have a tougher job than they expected. They were the natural warriors, they had the experience and the guts, and their whole society was geared for continual conflict. But the Culture, that seemingly disunited, anarchic, hedonistic, decadent mélange of more or less human species, forever hiving off or absorbing different groups of people, had fought for almost four years without showing any sign of giving up or even coming to a compromise.

What everybody had expected to be at best a brief, limited stand, lasting just long enough to make a point, had developed into a wholehearted war effort. The early reverses and first few megadeaths had not, as the pundits and experts had predicted, shocked the Culture into retiring, horrified at the brutalities of war but proud to have put its collective life where usually only its collective mouth was. Instead it had just kept on retreating and retreating, preparing, gearing up and planning. Horza was convinced the Minds were behind it all.

He could not believe the ordinary people in the Culture really wanted the war, no matter how they had voted. They had their communist Utopia. They were soft and pampered and indulged, and the Contact section’s evangelical materialism provided their conscience-salving good works. What more could they want? The war had to be the Minds’ idea; it was part of their clinical drive to clean up the galaxy, make it run on nice, efficient lines, without waste, injustice or suffering. The fools in the Culture couldn’t see that one day the Minds would start thinking how wasteful and inefficient the humans in the Culture themselves were.

Horza used the suit’s internal gyros to steer himself, letting him look at every part of the sky, wondering where, in that light-flecked emptiness, battles raged and billions died, where the Culture still held and the Idiran battle fleets pressed. The suit hummed and clicked and hissed very quietly around him: precise, obedient, reassuring. Suddenly it jolted, steadying him without warning and jarring his teeth. A noise uncomfortably like a collision alarm trilled violently in one ear, and out of the corner of his eye Horza could see a microscreen set inside the helmet near his left cheek light up with a holo red graph display.

“Target/acquisition/radar,” the suit said. “Incoming/increasing.”

3. Clean Air Turbulence

“What!” roared Horza.

“Target/acqui—” the suit began again.

“Oh shut up!” Horza shouted, and started punching buttons on the suit’s wrist console, twisting this way and that, scanning the darkness around him. There ought to have been a way of getting a head-up display on the inside of the helmet visor to show him what direction the signals were coming from, but he hadn’t enough time to familiarise himself completely with the suit, and he couldn’t find the right button. Then he realised he could probably just ask. “Suit! Give me a head-up on the transmission source!”

The top left edge of the visor flashed. He turned and tipped until a winking red dot positioned itself on the transparent surface. He hit the wrist buttons again, and the suit hissed as it evacuated gas from its sole-nozzles, sending him shooting away under about one gravity. Nothing appeared to change apart from his weight, but the red light went out briefly, then came back on. He swore. The suit said:

“Target/acquisition—”

“I know,” Horza told it. He unslung the plasma pistol from his arm and readied the suit lasers. He cut the gas jets, too. Whatever it was coming after him, he doubted he’d be able to outrun it. He became weightless again. The small red light continued to flash on the visor. He watched the internal screens. The transmission source was closing on a curved course at about point zero-one lights, in real space. The radar was low frequency and not particularly powerful — all too low-tech to be either the Culture or the Idirans. He told the suit to cancel the head-up, brought the magnifiers down from the top of the visor and switched them on, aiming at where the radar source had been coming from. A doppler shift in the signal, still displayed on one of the helmet’s small internal screens, announced that whatever was producing the transmission was slowing down. Was he going to be picked up rather than blown apart?

Something glinted hazily in the magnifiers’ field. The radar switched off. It was very close now. He felt his mouth go dry, and his hands shook inside the heavy gloves of the suit. The image in the magnifiers seemed to explode with darkness, then he swept them back to the top of the helmet and looked out into the starfields and the inky night. Something tore across his vision, pure black, racing across the backdrop of sky in utter silence. He jabbed at the button which switched on the suit’s needle radar and tried to follow the shape as it passed him, occluding stars; but he missed, so there was no way of telling how close it had come, or how big it was. He had lost track of it in the spaces between the stars when the darkness ahead of him flared. He guessed it was turning. Sure enough, back came the radar pulse.

“Ta—”

“Quiet,” Horza said, checking the plasma gun. The dark shape expanded, almost directly ahead. The stars around it wobbled and brightened in the lens effect of an imperfectly adjusted warp motor in cancel mode. Horza watched the shape come closer. The radar switched off again. He switched his own back on, the needle beam scanning the craft ahead. He was looking at the resulting image on an internal screen when it flickered and went out, the suit’s hissings and hummings stopped, and the stars started to fade away.

“Sapping/effector/fi… re…” said the suit, as it and Horza went limp and unconscious.

There was something hard under him. His head hurt. He couldn’t remember where he was or what he was supposed to be doing. He only just remembered his name. Bora Horza Gobuchul, Changer from the asteroid Heibohre, lately employed by the Idirans in their holy war against the Culture. How did that connect with the pain in his skull though, and the hard, cold metal under his cheek?

He had been hit hard. While he still couldn’t see or hear or smell anything, he knew something severe had occurred, something almost fatal. He tried to remember what had happened. Where had he been last? What had he been doing?

The Hand of God 137! His heart leapt as he remembered. He had to get off! Where was his helmet? Why had Xoralundra deserted him? Where was that stupid medjel with his helmet? Help!

He found he couldn’t move.

Anyway, it wasn’t The Hand of God 137, or any Idiran ship. The deck was hard and cold, if it was a deck, and the air smelled wrong. He could hear people talking now, too. But still no sight. He didn’t know if his eyes were open and he was blind, or if they were shut and he couldn’t open them. He tried to bring his hands up to his face to find out, but nothing would move.

The voices were human. There were several. They were speaking the Culture’s language, Marain, but that didn’t mean much; it had grown increasingly common as a second language in the galaxy over the last few millennia. Horza could speak and understand it, though he hadn’t used it since… since he had talked to Balveda, in fact, but before that not for a long time. Poor Balveda. But these people were chattering, and he couldn’t make out the individual words. He tried to move his eyelids, and eventually felt something. He still couldn’t think where he might be.

All this darkness… Then he remembered something about being in a suit, and a voice talking to him about targets or something. With a shock he realised he had been captured, or rescued. He forgot about trying to open his eyes and concentrated hard on understanding what the people near by were saying. He had used Marain just recently; he could do it. He had to. He had to know.

“…goddamn system for two weeks and all we get is some old guy in a suit.” That was one voice. Female, he thought.

“What the hell did you expect, a Culture starship?” Male.

“Well, shit, a bit of one.” The female voice again. Some laughter.

“It’s a good suit. Rairch, by the look of it. Think I’ll have it.” Another male voice. Tone of command; no mistaking it.

“…” No good. Too quiet.

“They adjust, idiot.” The Man again.

“…bits of Idiran and Culture ships would be floating all over the place and we could… that bow laser… and it’s still fucked.” Woman, different one.

“Our effector won’t have damaged it, will it?” Another male; young sounding, cutting across what the woman had said.

“It was on suck, not blow,” the captain said, or whatever he was. Who were these people?

“…of a lot less than grandad over there,” said one of the men. Him! They were talking about him! He tried not to show any sign of life. He only now realised that of course he was out of the suit, lying a few metres away from people probably standing around it, some with their backs to him. He was lying with one arm underneath his body, on his side, naked, facing them. His head still hurt and he could feel saliva dribbling from his half-open mouth.

“…weapon of some sort with them. Can’t see it, though,” said the Man, and his voice altered, as though he was changing position as he spoke. Sounded like they had lost the plasma gun. They were mercenaries. Had to be. Privateers.

“Can I have your old suit, Kraiklyn?” Young male.

“Well, that’s that,” the Man said, his voice sounding as though he was getting up from a squatting position, or turning round. It seemed he had ignored the previous speaker. “A bit of a disappointment maybe, but we did get this suit. Better get out now before the big boys show.”

“What now?” One of the females again. Horza liked her voice. He wished he could get his eyes open.

“That temple. Should be easy meat, even without the bow laser. Only about ten days from here. We’ll do a little bit more funding-up on some of their altar treasures and then buy some heavy weaponry on Vavatch. We can all spend our ill-gotten gains there.” The Man — Krakeline or whatever his name was — paused. He laughed. “Doro, don’t look so frightened. This’ll be simple. You’ll be thankful I heard about this place, once we’re rich. The goddamn priests don’t even carry weapons. It’ll be easy—”

“Easy out. Yeah, we know.” A woman’s voice; the nice one. Horza was aware of light now. Pink in front of his eyes. His head was still sore but he was coming to. He checked out his body, consciously calling on the feedback nerves to gauge his own physical readiness. Below normal, and it wouldn’t be perfect until the last effects of his geriatric appearance had faded away, in a few days — if he lived that long. He suspected they thought he was already dead.

“Zallin,” the Man said, “dump that weed.”

Horza opened his eyes with a start as footsteps approached. The Man had been talking about him!

“Aah!” somebody cried nearby. “He’s not dead. His eyes are moving!” The footsteps suddenly halted. Horza sat up shakily, narrowing his eyes in the glare. He was breathing hard and his head swam as he raised it. His eyes focused.

He was in a brightly lit but small hangar. An old, weather-beaten shuttle craft filled about half of it. He was sitting almost against one bulkhead; near the other stood the people who had been talking. Halfway between him and the group stood a large, ungainly youth with very long arms and silver hair. As Horza had guessed, the suit he had been wearing lay prone on the floor at the feet of the group of humans. He swallowed and blinked. The youth with the silver hair stared at him and scratched nervously at one ear. He wore a pair of shorts and a frayed T-shirt. He jumped when one of the taller men in the group, in the voice Horza had decided was that of the captain, said, “Wubslin,” (he turned to one of the other men) “isn’t that effector working properly?”

Don’t let them talk about you as though you aren’t here! He cleared his throat and spoke as loudly and as determinedly as he could. “There’s nothing wrong with your effector.”

“Then,” the tall man said, smiling thinly and arching one eyebrow, “you should be dead.”

They were all looking at him, most with suspicion. The youth near him was still scratching his ear; he appeared puzzled, even frightened, but the rest just looked as though they wanted rid of him as quickly as possible. They were all humans, or close to; male and female; mostly dressed in either suits or bits of suits, or T-shirts and shorts. The captain, now moving through the group, closer to Horza, looked tall and muscular. He had a mass of dark hair combed back from his brow, a sallow complexion and something feral about his eyes and mouth. The voice suited him. As he came closer Horza saw that he was holding a laser pistol. The suit he wore was black, and its heavy boots rang on the naked metal deck. He advanced until he was level with the young man with the silver hair, who was fiddling with the hem of his T-shirt and biting his lip.

“Why aren’t you dead?” the Man asked Horza quietly.

“Because I’m a lot fucking tougher than I look,” Horza said. The Man smiled and nodded.

“You must be.” He turned round and looked briefly back at the suit. “What were you doing way out here in that?”

“I used to work for the Idirans. They didn’t want the Culture ship to catch me, and they thought they might be able to rescue me later, so they threw me overboard to wait for the fleet. It’ll be here in about eight or nine hours, by the way, so I wouldn’t hang around.”

“Will it, now?” the captain said quietly, raising his eyebrow again. “You seem very well informed, old man.”

“I’m not that old. This was a disguise for my last job — an agatic drug. It’s wearing off. A couple of days and I’ll be useful again.”

The Man shook his head sadly. “No you won’t.” He turned and started back towards the other people. “Dump him,” he told the youth in the T-shirt. The youth started forward.

“Now wait a goddamned minute!” Horza shouted, scrambling to his feet. He backed against the wall, hands out, but the youth was coming straight at him. The others were looking either at him or at their captain. Horza swung forward and up with one leg, too fast for the young man with the silver hair. He caught him in the groin with his foot. The youth gasped and fell to the deck, clutching at himself. The Man had turned. He looked down at the youth, then at Horza.

“Yes?” he said. Horza got the impression he was enjoying it all. Horza pointed to the now kneeling youth.

“I told you — I can be useful. I’m pretty good in a fight. You can have the suit—”

“I’ve got the suit,” the captain said drily.

“So at least give me a chance.” Horza looked around them. “You’re mercenaries or something, right?” Nobody said anything. He could feel himself starting to sweat; he stopped it. “Let me join. All I’m asking for’s a chance. If I louse up first time, dump me then.”

“Why not dump you now and save the hassle?” The captain laughed, spreading his arms wide. Some of the others laughed too.

“A chance,” Horza repeated. “Shit, it isn’t much to ask.”

“I’m sorry.” The Man shook his head. “We’re overcrowded already.”

The silver-haired youth was looking up at Horza, his face twisted with pain and hate. The people in the group were smirking at Horza or talking quietly to each other and nodding at him, grinning. He was suddenly aware that he looked like just a skinny old man in the nude.

“Fuck it!” he spat, glaring right at the Man. “Give me five days and I’ll take you on anytime.”

The captain’s eyebrows went up. For a second he might have looked angry, then he burst out laughing. He waved the laser at Horza. “All right, old man. I’ll tell you what we’ll do.” He put his hands on his waist and nodded at the youth still kneeling on the deck. “You can fight Zallin here. You feel up to a rumble, Zallin?”

“I’ll kill him,” Zallin said, looking straight at Horza’s throat. The Man laughed. Some of his black hair spilled out of the back lip of his suit.

“That’s the idea.” He looked at Horza. “I told you we’re already overcrowded. You’ll have to produce a vacancy.” He turned round to the others. “Clear a space. And somebody get this old guy some shorts; he’s putting me off my food.”

One of the women threw Horza a pair of shorts. He put them on. The suit had been lifted from the deck, and the shuttle rolled a couple of metres sideways until it clanged against the hull on the far side of the hangar. Zallin had finally risen from the deck and gone back to the others. Somebody sprayed anaesthetic on his genitals. Thank goodness for non-retractables, Horza thought. He was resting against the bulkhead, watching the group of people. Zallin was taller than any of them. His arms seemed to reach to his knees and they were as thick as Horza’s thighs.

Horza saw the captain nod towards him, and one of the women walked over. She had a small, hard-looking face. Her skin was dark, and she had spiky fair hair. Her whole body looked slim and hard; she walked, Horza thought, like a man. As she got closer Horza saw she was lightly furred on her face, legs and arms, which the long shirt she wore revealed. She stopped in front of him and looked at him, from his feet to his eyes.

“I’m your second,” she said, “whatever good that’s supposed to do you.”

She was the one with the nice voice. Horza was disappointed, even through his fear. He waved one hand. “My name’s Horza. Thanks for asking.” Idiot! he told himself. Tell them your real name, that’s it. Why not tell them you’re a Changer as well?

“Yalson,” the woman said abruptly, and stuck her hand out. Horza wasn’t sure if the word was a greeting or her name. He was angry with himself. As though he didn’t have enough problems, he’d tricked himself into giving his real name. Probably it wouldn’t matter, but he knew too well that it was the small slips, the seemingly inconsequential mistakes, that often made the difference between success and failure, even life and death. He reached out and clasped the woman’s hand when he realised that was what he was supposed to do. Her hand was dry and cool, and strong. She squeezed his. She let go before he had time to squeeze back. He had no idea where she came from, so he didn’t read too much into it. Where he came from that would have been a fairly specific sort of invitation.

“Horza, eh?” She nodded and put her hands on her hips in the same way as the captain had done. “Well, good luck, Horza. I believe Kraiklyn thinks Zallin’s the most expendable member of the crew, so he probably won’t mind if you win.” She looked down at his slack-skinned paunch and rib-skinny chest, and her brow furrowed. “If you win,” she repeated.

“Thanks a lot,” Horza said, trying to suck in his belly and push out his chest. He gestured over to the others. “They taking bets over there?” He tried to grin.

“Only on how long you’ll last.”

Horza let the attempt at a grin fade. He looked away from the woman and said, “You know, I could probably get this depressed even without your help. Don’t let me stop you if you want to go and put some money down.” He looked back at the woman’s face. He could see no compassion or even sympathy in it. She looked him up and down again, then nodded, turned on her heel and went back to the others. Horza swore.

“Right!” Kraiklyn clapped his gloved hands together. The group of people split up and moved around the sides of the hangar, lining two of them. Zallin was standing glaring at Horza from the far end of the cleared space. Horza pushed himself away from the bulkhead and shook himself, trying to loosen up and get ready.

“So, it’s to the death, both of you,” Kraiklyn announced, smiling. “No weapons, but I don’t see any referees, so… anything goes. OK — begin.”

Horza made a little more room between himself and the bulkhead. Zallin was coming towards him, crouched, arms out like a pair of oversized mandibles on some enormous insect. Horza knew that if he used all his built-in weapons (and if he had them all; he had to keep reminding himself they’d taken out his venom-teeth on Sorpen), he could probably win without too much trouble, unless Zallin landed a lucky blow. But he was equally sure that if he did use the only effective weapon he had left — the poison glands under his fingernails — the others would guess what he was and he’d be dead anyway. He might have got away with using his teeth somehow and biting Zallin. The poison affected the central nervous system, and Zallin would have slowed down gradually; probably nobody would guess. But scratching him would be fatal for both of them. The poison contained in the sacs under Horza’s nails paralysed muscles sequentially from the point of entry, and it would be obvious Zallin had been scratched by something other than ordinary nails. Even if the other mercenaries didn’t regard this as cheating, there would be a good chance the Man, Kraiklyn, would guess Horza was a Changer, and have him killed.

A Changer was a threat to anybody who ruled by force, either of will or of arms. Amahain-Frolk had known that, and so would Kraiklyn. There was also a degree of human-basic revulsion reserved for Horza’s species. Not only were they much altered from their original genetic stock, they were a threat to identity, a challenge to the individualism even of those they were never likely to impersonate. It had nothing to do with souls or physical or spiritual possession; it was, as the Idirans well understood, the behaviouristic copying of another which revolted. Individuality, the thing which most humans held more precious than anything else about themselves, was somehow cheapened by the ease with which a Changer could ignore it as a limitation and use it as a disguise.

He had Changed into an old man, and that legacy still lay with him. Zallin was getting very close.

The youth lunged, using his huge arms like pincers and making an ungainly grab for Horza. Horza ducked and jumped to one side, faster than Zallin had anticipated. Before he could follow Horza round, the Changer had landed a kick on the youth’s shoulder which had been aimed at his head. Zallin swore. So did Horza. He’d hurt his foot.

Rubbing his shoulder, the youth came forward again, almost casually at first, then suddenly swinging one long arm out, hand fisted, and very nearly catching Horza’s face. The Changer felt the wind of the scything swing on his cheek. If the blow had landed, it would have finished the fight. Horza dummied one way, then leapt in the other direction, pivoting on one heel and lashing out again with a foot aimed between the youth’s legs. It landed, but Zallin just smiled painfully and grabbed at Horza again. The spray must have deadened all feeling.

Horza circled the youth. Zallin was staring at him with a look of intense concentration on his face. His arms were still bowed out in front of him like pincers, and at their ends his fingers flexed every now and again, as though desperate for the feel of Horza’s throat. Horza was hardly aware of the people standing around him, or the lights and fittings of the hanger. All he could see was the crouched, ready young man in front of him, with his massive arms and silvery hair, his frayed T-shirt and light shoes. The shoes squeaked on the metal deck as Zallin lunged again. Horza spun and flicked out with his right foot. It caught Zallin across his right ear, and the youth pranced away, rubbing his ear.

Horza knew he was breathing hard again. He was using up too much energy just staying at maximum tension, ready for the next attack, and in the meantime he just wasn’t hurting Zallin enough. At this rate the youth would soon wear him down, even without coming at him. Zallin spread his arms again and advanced. Horza skipped to one side, his old muscles complaining. Zallin swivelled. Horza leapt forward, pivoting again on one foot and swinging the other heel at the youth’s midriff. It connected with a satisfying thump, and Horza started to jump away, then realised his foot was caught. Zallin was holding it. Horza fell to the deck.

Zallin was swaying, one hand down at the base of his ribcage. He was gasping, almost doubled up, and staggering — Horza suspected he’d cracked a rib — but he held Horza’s foot with the other hand. Twist and pull as he might, Horza couldn’t loosen the grip.

He tried a sweat-pulse in his lower right leg. He hadn’t done that since single-combat exercise in the Academy in Heibohre, but it was worth a try; anything was, if it had a chance of loosening that grip. It didn’t work. Perhaps he had forgotten how to do it properly, or perhaps his artificially aged sweat glands were incapable of reacting that fast, but either way he was still trapped in the youth’s grip. Zallin was recovering now from the blow Horza had landed. He shook his head, the hangar lights reflecting on his hair; then he took hold of Horza’s foot with his other hand.

Horza was walking on his hands round the youth, one leg gripped, the other hanging down, trying to take some weight on the deck. Zallin stared at the Changer and whipped his hands round, as though trying to twist Horza’s foot right off. Horza read the motion and was throwing his whole body round even as Zallin started the manoeuvre; he ended up back where he’d started, his foot held in Zallin’s hands and his own palms crabbing across the deck as he tried to follow the movements of the youth. I could go for his legs; sweep in and bite, Horza thought, desperately trying to think of something. The instant he starts to slow down I’d have a chance. They wouldn’t notice. All I need is— Then, of course, he remembered again. They had taken those teeth out. Those old bastards — and Balveda — were going to kill him after all, in Balveda’s case from beyond the grave. As long as Zallin had his foot like this, the fight was only going to go one way.

What the hell, I’ll bite him anyway. He surprised himself with the thought; it was conceived and acted upon before he had time really to consider it. The next thing he knew he had pulled on the leg which Zallin held and pushed as hard as he could with his hands, flinging himself between the youth’s legs. He fastened his remaining teeth into the boy’s right calf.

“AAH!” Zallin screamed. Horza bit harder, feeling the grip round his foot slacken slightly. He jerked his head up, trying to tear the youth’s flesh. He felt as though his kneecap was going to explode and his leg would break, but he worried the mouthful of living flesh and punched up towards Zallin’s body with all his might. Zallin let go.

Horza stopped biting instantly and threw himself away as the youth’s hands came slamming down towards his head. Horza got to his feet; his ankle and knee were sore, but not seriously injured. Zallin was limping as he came forward, blood pouring from his calf. Horza changed tactics and pounced forward, striking the youth square in the belly, beneath the rudimentary guard of his huge arms. Zallin put his hands to his stomach and lower ribcage and crouched reflexively. As Horza went past he turned and brought both hands down on Zallin’s neck.

Normally the blow would have killed, but Zallin was strong and Horza was still weak. As the Changer steadied and turned he had to avoid colliding with some of the mercenaries lining the bulkhead; the fight had traversed the hangar, from one end to the other. Before Horza could get in another blow, Zallin was upright again, his face contorted with frustrated aggression. He screamed and rushed at Horza, who sidestepped neatly. But Zallin stumbled in his headlong rush, and by pure luck his head thumped into Horza’s stomach.

The blow was all the more painful and demoralising for being unexpected. Horza fell and rolled, trying to send Zallin straight over the top, but the youth fell on him, pinning him to the deck. Horza wriggled, but nothing happened. He was trapped.

Zallin raised himself up on one palm and drew the other hand up behind him into a fist as he leered at the face of the man beneath him. Horza realised suddenly that there was nothing he could do. He watched that massive fist go up and back, his own body flattened, his arms pinned, and knew it was over. He’d lost. He got ready to move his head as fast as possible, out of the way of the bone-splintering punch he could see would be unleashed at any moment, and tried again to move his legs, but knew it was hopeless. He wanted to close his eyes, but knew he had to keep them open. Maybe the Man will take pity. He must have seen I fought well. I was just unlucky. Maybe he’ll stop it

Zallin’s fist paused, like a guillotine blade raised to its highest point, just before release.

The blow never fell. As Zallin tensed, his other hand, taking the weight of his upper body on the deck, skidded; it went shooting out from under him as it slipped on some of the youth’s own blood. Zallin grunted in surprise. As he fell towards Horza his body shifted, and the Changer could feel the weight pinning him lessen. He heaved himself out from underneath Zallin as the youth rolled. Horza rolled in the other direction, almost into the legs of the mercenaries who stood watching. Zallin’s head hit the deck — not hard, but before the youth could react Horza threw himself onto Zallin’s back, locking his hands round his neck and bringing the youth’s silver-haired head back. He slid his legs down either side of Zallin’s body, straddling him, and held him there.

Zallin went still, a gurgling noise coming from his throat where Horza’s hands held him. He was more than strong enough to throw the Changer off, to roll on his back and crush him; but before he could have done anything, one flick of Horza’s hands would have broken his neck.

Zallin was looking up at Kraiklyn, who stood almost right in front of him. Horza, too, lathered in sweat and gulping air, looked up into the dark, deep-set eyes of the Man. Zallin wriggled a little, then went motionless again when Horza tensed his forearms.

They were all looking at him — all the mercenaries, all the pirates or privateers or whatever they wanted to call themselves. They stood round the two walls of the hangar and they looked at Horza. But only Kraiklyn was looking into Horza’s eyes.

“This doesn’t have to be to the death,” Horza panted. He looked for a moment at the silver hairs in front of him, some of them plastered with sweat to the boy’s scalp. He looked up at Kraiklyn again. “I won. You can let the kid off next place you stop. Or let me off. I don’t want to kill him.”

Something warm and sticky seemed to be seeping from the deck along his right leg. He realised it was Zallin’s blood from the wound on his leg. Kraiklyn had a strangely distant look on his face. The laser gun, which he had holstered, was lifted easily back out of its holster into his left hand and pointed at the centre of Horza’s forehead. In the silence of the hangar, Horza heard it click and hum as it was switched on, about a metre away from his skull.

“Then you’ll die,” Kraiklyn told him, in a flat, even voice. “I’ve no place on this ship for somebody who hasn’t the taste for a little murder now and again.”

Horza looked into Kraiklyn’s eyes, over the motionless barrel of the laser pistol. Zallin moaned.

The snap echoed round the metal spaces of the hangar like a gunshot. Horza opened his arms without taking his eyes off the mercenary chief’s face. Zallin’s limp body tumbled slackly to the deck and crumpled under its own weight. Kraiklyn smiled and put the gun back in its holster. It clicked off with a fading whine.

“Welcome aboard the Clear Air Turbulence.” Kraiklyn sighed and stepped over Zallin’s body. He walked to the middle of one bulkhead, opened a door and went out, his boots clattering on some steps. Most of the others followed him.

“Well done.” Horza, still kneeling, turned at the words. It was the woman with the nice voice again, Yalson. She offered him her hand once more, this time to help him up. He took it gratefully and got to his feet.

“I didn’t enjoy it,” he told her. He wiped some sweat from his brow with his forearm and looked into the woman’s eyes. “You said your name was Yalson, right?”

She nodded. “And you’re Horza.”

“Hello, Yalson.”

“Hello, Horza.” She smiled a little. Horza liked her smile. He looked at the corpse on the deck. Blood had stopped flowing from the wound in one leg.

“What about that poor bastard?” he asked.

“Might as well dump him,” Yalson said. She looked over at the only other people left in the hangar, three thickly furred and identical heavy-set males in shorts. They stood in a group near the door the others had left by, looking at him curiously. All three had heavy boots on, as though they had just started to suit up and had been interrupted at the same moment. Horza wanted to laugh. Instead he smiled and waved.

“Hello.”

“Ah, those are the Bratsilakins,” Yalson said, as the three furry bodies waved dark grey hands at him, not quite in synch. “One, Two and Three,” she continued, nodding at each one in turn. “We must be the only Free Company with a clone group that’s paranoid.”

Horza looked at her to see if she was serious, just as the three furry humans came over to him.

“Don’t listen to a word she says,” one of them said, in a soft voice Horza found surprising. “She’s never liked us. We just hope that you’re on our side.” Six eyes looked anxiously at Horza. He did his best to smile.

“You can depend on it,” he told them. They smiled back and looked from one to another, nodding.

“Let’s get Zallin into a vactube. Probably dump him later,” Yalson said to the other three. She went over to the body. Two of the Bratsilakins followed her, and between the three of them they got the limp corpse to an area of the hangar deck where they lifted some metal planks up, opened a curved hatch, stuffed Zallin’s body into a narrow space, then closed both hatch and deck again. The third Bratsilakin took a cloth from a wall panel and mopped up the blood on the deck. Then the hairy clone group headed for the door and the stairs. Yalson came up to Horza. She made a sideways gesture with her head. “Come on. I’ll show you where you can clean up.”

He followed her over the hangar deck towards the doorway. She turned round as they went. “The rest have gone to eat. I’ll see you in the mess if you’re ready in time. Just follow your nose. Anyway, I have to collect my winnings.”

“Your winnings?” Horza said as they got to the doorway, where Yalson put her hand on what Horza assumed were lighting switches. She turned to him, looking into his eyes.

“Sure,” she said, and pressed one of the switches covered by her hand. The lights didn’t change, but under his feet Horza could feel a vibration. He heard a hiss and what sounded like a pump running. “I bet on you,” Yalson said, then turned and bounded up the steps beyond the door, two at a time.

Horza looked round at the hangar once and then followed her.

Just before the Clear Air Turbulence went back into warp and its crew sat down at table, the ship expelled the limp corpse of Zallin. Where it had found a live man in a suit, it left a dead youth in shorts and a tattered shirt, tumbling and freezing while a thin shell of air molecules expanded around the body, like an image of departing life.

4. Temple of Light

The Clear Air Turbulence swung through the shadow of a moon, past a barren, cratered surface — its track dimpling as it skirted the top edge of a gravity well — and then down towards a cloudy, blue-green planet. Almost as soon as it passed the moon its course started to curve, gradually pointing the craft’s nose away from the planet and back into space. Halfway through that curve the CAT released its shuttle, slinging it towards one hazy horizon of the globe, at the trailing edge of the darkness which swept over the planet surface like a black cloak.

Horza sat in the shuttle with most of the rest of the CAT’s motley crew. They were suited up, sitting on narrow benches in the cramped shuttle’s passenger compartment in a variety of spacesuits; even the three Bratsilakins had slightly different models on. The only really modern example was the one Kraiklyn wore, the Rairch suit he had taken from Horza.

They were all armed, and their weapons were as various as their suits. Mostly they were lasers, or to be more exact what the Culture called CREWS — Coherent Radiation Emission Weapon Systems. The better ones operated on wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Some people had plasma cannons or heavy pistols, and one had an efficient-looking Microhowitzer, but only Horza had a projective rifle, and an old, crude, slow-firing one at that. He checked it over for the tenth or eleventh time and cursed it. He cursed the leaky old suit he’d been given, too; the visor was starting to mist up. This whole thing was hopeless.

The shuttle started to lurch and vibrate as it hit the atmosphere of the planet Marjoin, where they were going to attack and rob something called the Temple of Light.

It had taken the Clear Air Turbulence fifteen days to crawl across the twenty-one or so standard light-years that lay between the Sorpen system and that of Marjoin. Kraiklyn boasted that his ship could hit nearly twelve hundred lights, but that sort of speed, he said, was for emergencies only. Horza had taken a look at the old craft and doubted it would even get into four figures without its outboard warping engines pancaking the ship and everything in it all over the skies.

The Clear Air Turbulence was a venerable Hronish armoured-assault ship from one of the declining, later dynasties, and was built more for ruggedness and reliability than for performance and sophistication. Given the level of technical expertise possessed by its crew, Horza thought this was just as well. The ship was about a hundred metres long, twenty across the beam and fifteen high, plus — on top of the rear hull — a ten-metre-high tail. On either side of the hull the warp units bulged, like small versions of the hull itself, and connected to it by stubby wings in the middle and thin flying pylons swept back from just behind the craft’s nose. The CAT was streamlined, and fitted with sprinter fusion motors in the tail, as well as a small lift engine in the nose, for working in atmospheres and gravity wells. Horza thought its accommodation left a lot to be desired.

He had been given Zallin’s old bunk, sharing a two-metre cube — euphemistically termed a cabin — with Wubslin, who was the mechanic on the ship. He called himself the engineer; but after a few minutes’ talk trying to pump him for technical stuff on the CAT, Horza realised that the thickset white-skinned man knew little about the craft’s more complex systems. He wasn’t unpleasant, didn’t smell, and slept silently most of the time, so Horza supposed things could have been worse.

There were eighteen people on the ship, in nine cabins. The Man, of course, had one to himself, and the Bratsilakins shared one rather pungent one; they liked to leave the door to it open; everybody else liked to close the door as they went past. Horza was disappointed to find that there were only four women aboard. Two of them hardly ever showed themselves outside their cabin and communicated with the others mostly by signs and gestures. The third was a religious fanatic who, when not trying to convert him to something called the Circle of Flame, spent her time wired up in the cabin she shared with Yalson, spooling fantasy head-tapes. Yalson seemed to be the only normal female on board, but Horza found it difficult to think of her as a woman at all. It was she, however, who took on the job of introducing him to the others and telling him the things about the ship and its crew which he would need to know.

He had cleaned up in one of the ship’s coffin-like wash-points, then followed his nose as Yalson had suggested to the mess, where he was more or less ignored, but some food was shoved in his direction. Kraiklyn looked at him once as he sat down, between Wubslin and a Bratsilakin, then didn’t look at him again and continued talking about weapons and armour and tactics. After the meal Wubslin had shown Horza to their cabin, then left. Horza cleared a space on Zallin’s bunk, hauled some torn sheets over his tired, aching, old-looking frame, and fell into a deep sleep.

When he woke he bundled up Zallin’s few possessions. It was pathetic; the dead youth had a few T-shirts, shorts, a couple of little kilts, a rusty sword, a collection of cheap daggers in frayed sheaths and some large plastic micropage books with moving pictures, repeating and repeating scenes from ancient wars for as long as they were held open. That was about all. Horza kept the youth’s leaky suit, though it was far too big and non-adjustable, and the badly maintained and ancient projectile rifle.

He carried the rest, wrapped in one of the more tatty bed sheets, down to the hangar. It was as it had been when he’d left it. Nobody had bothered to roll the shuttle back. Yalson was there, stripped to the waist, exercising. Horza stood in the doorway at the bottom of the steps, watching the woman work out. She spun and leapt, did backflips and somersaults, kicked her feet out and jabbed punches at the air, making small grunting noises with each sharp movement. She stopped when she saw Horza.

“Welcome back.” She stooped and picked up a towel from the deck, then started to rub it over her chest and arms, where sweat glistened in the golden down. “Thought you’d croaked.”

“Have I been asleep long?” Horza asked. He didn’t know what sort of time system they used on the ship.

“Two days standard.” Yalson towelled her spiky hair and draped the damp towel over her lightly furred shoulders. “You look better for it, though.”

“I feel better,” Horza said. He hadn’t had a look in a mirror or a reverser yet, but knew that his body was starting to come back to normal, losing the geriatric look.

“That Zallin’s stuff?” Yalson nodded at the package in his hands.

“Yes.”

“I’ll show you how to work the vactubes. We’ll probably sling it when we next come out of warp.”

Yalson opened the deck and the tube hatch beneath, then Horza dropped Zallin’s gear into the cylinder and Yalson closed it again. The Changer liked the way Yalson smelled when he caught the scent of her warm, perspiring body, but somehow there was nothing in her attitude towards him to make him think they would ever become more than friends. He’d settle for a friend on this ship, though. He certainly needed one.

They went to the mess after that, to have something to eat. Horza was ravenous; his body demanded food to rebuild itself and put more bulk onto the thin shape it had assumed to impersonate the Gerontocracy of Sorpen’s outworld minister.

At least, thought Horza, the autogalley works all right and the AG field seems smooth. The idea of cramped cabins, rotten food and a lumpy or erratic gravity field filled the Changer with horror.

“…Zallin didn’t have any real friends,” Yalson said, shaking her head as she stuffed some food into her mouth. They were sitting in the mess together. Horza wanted to know if there was anybody on the ship who might want to avenge the youth he had killed.

“Poor bastard,” Horza said again. He put his spoon down and stared across the cluttered space of the low-ceilinged mess room for a second, feeling again that quick, decisive bone-snap through his hands, seeing in his mind’s eye the spinal column sever, windpipe crumple, arteries compress — turning off the youth’s life as though rotating a switch. He shook his head. “Where did he come from?”

“Who knows?” Yalson shrugged. She saw the expression on Horza’s face and added, between chews, “Look, he’d have killed you. He’s dead. Forget about him. Sure it’s tough, but… anyway, he was pretty boring.” She ate some more.

“I just wondered if there was anybody I ought to send anything to. Friends or relations or—”

“Look, Horza,” Yalson said, turning to him, “when you come on board this ship you don’t have a past. It’s considered very bad manners to ask anybody where they came from or what they’ve done in their lives before they joined. Maybe we’ve all got some secrets, or we just don’t want to talk or think about some of the things we’ve done, or some of the things we’ve had done to us. But either way, don’t try to find out. Between your ears is the only place on this crate you’ll ever get any privacy, so make the most of it. If you live long enough, maybe somebody will want to tell you all about themselves eventually, probably when they’re drunk… but by that time you may not want them to. Whatever; my advice is just to leave it for the moment.”

Horza opened his mouth to say something, but Yalson went on, “I’ll tell you all I know now, just to save you asking.” She put her spoon down and wiped her lips with one finger, then turned in her seat to face him. She held up one hand. The tiny hairs of the light fur on her forearms and the back of her hands gave a golden outline to her dark skin. She stretched one finger out. “One — the ship: Hronish; been around hundreds of years. At least a dozen not very careful owners. Currently without its bow laser since we blew it up trying to alter its wavelength pattern. Two—” She extended another finger. “Kraiklyn: he’s had this craft since any of us have known him. He says he won it in a game of Damage somewhere, just before the war. I know he plays the game but I don’t know how good he is. Anyway, that’s his business. Officially we’re called the KFC, Kraiklyn’s Free Company, and he’s the boss. He’s a pretty good leader and he isn’t afraid to slug it out with the rest of the troops when it comes to the crunch. He leads from the front, and that makes him OK in my book. His gimmick is he never sleeps. He has a… ah…” Yalson frowned, obviously looking for the right words. “…an enhanced hemispherical task-division in his brain. One third of the time one half sleeps and he’s a bit dreamy and vague; the other third of the time the other half sleeps and he’s all logic and numbers and he doesn’t communicate too well. The other third of the time, like when he’s in action or whenever there’s an emergency, both sides are awake and functioning. Makes it pretty hard to sneak up on him in his bunk.”

“Paranoid clones and a Man with a shift system in his skull,” Horza shook his head. “OK. Go on.”

“Three—” Yalson said, “we’re not mercenaries. We’re a Free Company. Actually we’re just pirates, but if that’s what Kraiklyn wants to call us, that’s what we are. In theory anybody can join so long as they eat the food and breathe the air, but in practice he’s a bit more selective than that, and he’d like to be even more so, I’ll bet. Anyway. We’ve carried out a few contracts, mostly protection, a couple of escort duties for third-level places who’ve found themselves caught up in the war, but most of the time we just attack and steal wherever we think the confusion caused by the war makes us likely to get away with it. That’s what we’re on our way to do at the moment. Kraiklyn heard about this place called the Temple of Light on a just-about-level-three planet in this neck of the woods and he reckons it’ll be easy in, easy out — to use one of his favourite expressions. According to him it’s full of priests and treasure; we shoot the former and grab the latter. Then we head for the Vavatch Orbital before the Culture blows it away and we buy something to replace our bow laser. I guess the prices should be pretty good. If we hang on long enough people will probably be trying to give the stuff away.”

“What’s happening to Vavatch?” Horza asked. This wasn’t something he’d heard about. He knew the big Orbital was in this part of the war zone, but he’d thought its condominium-style ownership would keep it out of the firing line.

“Didn’t your Idiran friends tell you?” Yalson said. She dropped the hand with the outstretched fingers. “Well,” she said, when Horza just shrugged, “as you probably do know, the Idirans are advancing through the whole inward flank of the Gulf — the Glittercliff. The Culture seems to be putting up a bit of a fight for a change, or at least preparing to. It looked like they were going to come to one of their usual understandings and leave Vavatch as neutral territory. This religious thing the Idirans have about planets means they weren’t really interested in the O as long as the Culture didn’t try to use it as a base, and they promised they wouldn’t. Shit, with these big fucking GSVs they’re building these days they don’t need bases on Os or Rings, or planets or anything else… Well, all the various types and weirdos on Vavatch thought they were going to be just fine, thank you, and probably do very well out of the galactic fire-fight going on around them… Then the Idirans announced they were going to take Vavatch over after all, though only nominally; no military presence. The Culture said they weren’t having this, both sides refused to abandon their precious principles, and the Culture said, ‘OK, if you won’t back down we’re going to blow the place away before you get there.’ And that’s what’s happening. Before the Idiran battle fleets arrive the Culture’s going to evacuate the whole damn O and then blast it.”

“They’re going to evacuate an Orbital?” Horza said. This really was the first he’d heard of any of this. The Idirans had mentioned nothing about Vavatch Orbital in the briefings they had given him, and even once he was actually impersonating the outworld minister Egratin, most of what had been coming in from outside had been rumour. Any idiot could see that the whole volume around the Sullen Gulf was going to become a battle space hundreds of light-years across, hundreds tall and decades deep at least, but exactly what was going on he hadn’t been able to find out. The war was shifting up a gear indeed. Still, only a lunatic would think of trying to move everybody off an Orbital.

Yalson nodded, all the same. “So they say. Don’t ask me where they’re going to pull the ships from for that one, but that’s what they say they’re going to do.”

“They’re crazy.” Horza shook his head.

“Yeah, well, I think they proved that when they went to war in the first place.”

“OK. Sorry. Go on,” Horza said, waving one hand.

“I’ve forgotten what else I was going to say,” Yalson grinned, looking at the three fingers she had extended as though they would give her a clue. She looked at Horza. “I think that about covers it. I’d advise you to keep your head down and your mouth shut until we get to Marjoin, where this temple is, and still to keep your head down once we get there, come to think of it.” She laughed, and Horza found himself laughing with her. She nodded and picked up her spoon again. “Assuming you come through OK, people will accept you more once you’ve been in a fire-fight with them. For now you’re the baby on the ship, no matter what you’ve done in the past, and regardless of Zallin.”

Horza looked at her doubtfully, thinking about attacking anywhere — even an undefended temple — in a second-hand suit with an unreliable projectile rifle. “Well,” he sighed, spooning more food from his plate, “so long as you don’t all start betting on which way I’ll fall again…”

Yalson looked at him for a second, then grinned, and went back to her food.

Kraiklyn proved more inquisitive about Horza’s past, despite what Yalson had said. The Man invited Horza to his cabin. It was neat and tidy, with everything stowed and clamped or webbed down, and it smelt fresh. Real books lined one wall, and there was an absorber carpet on the floor. A model of the CAT hung from the ceiling, and a big laser rifle was cradled on another wall; it looked powerful, with a large battery pack and a beam-splitter device on the end of the barrel. It gleamed in the soft light of the cabin as though it had been polished.

“Sit down,” Kraiklyn said, motioning Horza to a small seat while he adjusted the single bed to a couch and flopped into it. He reached behind to a shelf and picked up two snifflasks. He offered one to Horza, who took it and broke the seal. The captain of the Clear Air Turbulence drew deeply on the fumes from his own bowl, then sipped a little of the misty liquid. Horza did the same. He recognised the substance but couldn’t remember the name. It was one of those you could snort and get high on or drink and just be sociable; the active ingredients lasted only a few minutes at body temperature, and anyway were broken up rather than absorbed by most humanoid digestive tracts.

“Thanks,” Horza said.

“Well, you’re looking a lot better than when you came on board,” Kraiklyn said, looking at Horza’s chest and arms. The Changer had almost resumed his normal shape after four days of rest and heavy eating. His trunk and limbs had filled out to something approaching their fairly muscular usual and his belly had grown no larger. His skin had tautened and taken on a golden-brown sheen, while his face looked both firmer and yet more supple, too. His hair was growing in dark from the roots; he had cut off the yellow-white lankness of the Gerontocrat’s sparse locks. His venom-teeth were also regrowing, but they would need another twenty days or so before they could be used. “I feel better, too.”

“Hmm. Pity about Zallin, but I’m sure you could see my point.”

“Sure. I’m just glad you gave me the chance. Some people would have zapped me and thrown me out.”

“It crossed my mind,” Kraiklyn said, toying with the flask he held, “but I sensed you weren’t totally full of crap. Can’t say I believed you about this ageing drug and the Idirans, at the time, but I thought you might make a fight of it. Mind you, you were lucky, right?” He smiled at Horza, who smiled back. Kraiklyn looked up at the books on the far wall. “Anyway, Zallin was sort of dead weight; know what I mean?” He looked back at Horza. “Kid hardly knew which end of his rifle to point. I was thinking of dropping him from the team next place we hit.” He took another gulp of the fumes.

“Like I say — thanks.” Horza was deciding that his first impression of Kraiklyn — that the Man was a shit — was more or less correct. If he had been going to drop Zallin anyway there was no reason for the fight to be to the death. Horza could have bunked down in the shuttle or the hangar, or Zallin could have. One more person wouldn’t have made the CAT any more roomy for the time it took to get to Marjoin, but it wouldn’t have been for all that long, and they weren’t going to start using up all the air or anything. Kraiklyn had just wanted a show. “I’m grateful to you,” Horza said, and raised the flask towards the captain briefly before inhaling again. He studied Kraiklyn’s face carefully.

“So, tell me what it’s like working for these guys with the three legs,” Kraiklyn said, smiling and resting one arm on a shelf at the side of the couch bed. He raised his eyebrows. “Hmm?”

Ah-hah, thought Horza. He said, “I didn’t have much time to find out. Fifty days ago I was still a captain in the marines on Sladden. Don’t suppose you’ve heard of it?” Kraiklyn shook his head. Horza had been working on his story for the past two days, and knew that if Kraiklyn did check up he would find there was such a planet, its inhabitants were mostly humanoid and it had recently fallen under Idiran suzerainty. “Well, the Idirans were going to execute us because we fought on after the surrender, but then I was hauled out and told I’d live if I did a job for them. They said I looked a lot like this old guy they wanted on their side; if they removed him, would I pretend to be him? I thought, what the hell. What have I got to lose? So I ended up on this Sorpen place with this ageing drug, impersonating a government minister. I was doing all right, too, until this Culture woman shows, blows my whole bloody act and nearly gets me killed. They were just about to bump me off when this Idiran cruiser came in to snatch her. They rescued me and captured her and they were making their way back to the fleet when they got jumped by a GCU. I got stuffed into that suit and thrown overboard to wait for the fleet.” Horza hoped his story didn’t sound too rehearsed. Kraiklyn stared into the flask he held, frowning.

“I’ve been wondering about that.” He looked at Horza. “Why should a cruiser go in by itself when the fleet was just behind it?”

Horza shrugged. “Don’t really know, myself. They hardly had time to debrief me before the GCU showed up. I guess they must have wanted that Culture woman pretty badly, and thought if they waited for the fleet to show, the GCU would have spotted it, picked up the woman and made a run for it.”

Kraiklyn nodded, looking thoughtful.

“Hmm. They must have wanted her awful bad. Did you see her?”

“Oh, I saw her all right. Before she dropped me in it, and afterwards.”

“What was she like?” Kraiklyn furrowed his brows and played with the flask again.

“Tall, thin, sort of good looking, but off-putting as well. Too damn smart for my liking. I don’t know… Not much different from any Culture woman I’ve seen. I mean, they all look different and so on, but she wouldn’t have stood out.”

“They say they’re pretty special, some of these Culture agents. Supposed to be able to… do tricks, you know? All sorts of special adaptations and fancy body chemistry. She do anything special you heard of?”

Horza shook his head, wondering where all this was leading. “Not that I know of,” he said. Fancy body chemistry, Kraiklyn had said. Was the Man starting to guess? Did he think Horza was a Culture agent, or even a Changer? Kraiklyn was still looking at his drug flask. He nodded and said:

“About the only sort of woman I’d have anything to do with, one of these Culture ones. They say they really do have all these… alterations, you know?” Kraiklyn looked at Horza and winked as he inhaled the drug. “Between the legs; the men have these souped-up balls, right? Sort of recirculating… And the women have something similar, too; supposed to be able to come for fucking hours… Well, minutes, anyway…” Kraiklyn’s eyes looked slightly glazed as his voice trailed off. Horza tried not to appear as scornful as he felt. Here we go again, he thought. He tried to count the number of times he’d had to listen to people — usually from third- or low fourth-level societies, usually fairly human-basic, and more often than not male talking in hushed, enviously admiring tones about how It’s More Fun in the Culture. Perversely coy for once, the Culture played down the extent to which those born into it inherited such altered genitalia.

Naturally, such modesty only increased everybody else’s interest, and Horza occasionally became angry with humans who exhibited the sort of fawning respect the Culture’s quasi-technological sexuality so often engendered. Coming from Kraiklyn, it didn’t surprise him a bit. He wondered if the Man had had some cheap, Culture-imitative surgery himself. It wasn’t uncommon. It wasn’t safe, either. Too often such alterations were simply plumbing jobs, especially on males, and made no attempt to uprate the heart and the rest of the circulatory system — at least — to cope with the increased strain. (In the Culture, of course, that high performance was genofixed in.) Such mimicking of this symptom of the Culture’s decadence had, quite literally, caused a lot of broken hearts. I suppose we’ll hear about those wonderful drug glands next, Horza thought.

“…Yeah, and they have those drug glands,” Kraiklyn went on, eyes still unfocused, nodding to himself. “Supposed to be able to take a hit of almost anything, any time they want. Just by thinking about it. Secrete stuff that makes them high.” Kraiklyn stroked the flask he held. “You know, they say you can’t rape a Culture woman?” He didn’t seem to expect an answer. Horza stayed silent. Kraiklyn nodded again. “Yeah, they’ve got class, those women. Not like some of the shit on this ship.” He shrugged and took another snort from the flask. “Still…”

Horza cleared his throat and leant forward in his seat, not looking at Kraiklyn. “She’s dead now, anyway,” Horza said, looking up.

“Hmm?” Kraiklyn said absently, looking at the Changer.

“The Culture woman,” Horza said. “She’s dead.”

“Oh yes.” Kraiklyn nodded, then cleared his throat and said, “So what do you want to do now? I’m sort of expecting you to come along on this temple caper. I think you owe us that, for the ride.”

“Oh yeah, don’t worry,” Horza said.

“Good. After that, we’ll see. If you shape up you can stay; otherwise we’ll drop you off somewhere you want, within reason, like they say. This operation should be no problem: easy in, easy out.” Kraiklyn made a dipping, flying motion with his flattened hand, as though it was the model of the CAT which hung somewhere over Horza’s head. “Then we go to Vavatch.” He took another gulp from the fumes in the snifflask. “Don’t suppose you play Damage, hmm?” He brought the flask down, and Horza looked into the predatory eyes through the thin mist rising from the flask’s neck. He shook his head.

“Not one of my vices. Never really got the chance to learn.”

“Yeah, I guess not. It’s the only game.” Kraiklyn nodded. “Apart from this…” He smiled and glanced about, obviously meaning the ship, the people in it and their occupation. “Well,” Kraiklyn said, smiling and sitting up, “I think I’ve already said welcome aboard, but you are welcome.” He leant forward and tapped Horza on the shoulder. “So long as you realise who’s boss, eh?” He smiled widely.

“It’s your ship,” Horza said. He drank what remained of the flask’s contents and put it on a shelf beside a portrait holocube which showed Kraiklyn standing in his black suit, holding the same laser rifle which was mounted on the wall above.

“I think we’ll get on just fine, Horza. You get to know the others and train up, and we’ll knock the shit out of these monks. What do you say?” The Man winked at him again.

“You bet,” Horza said, standing and smiling. Kraiklyn opened the door for him.

And for my next trick, thought Horza as soon as he was out of the cabin and walking down to the mess, my impression ofCaptain Kraiklyn!

During the next few days he indeed got to know the rest of the crew. He talked to those who wanted to talk and he observed or carefully overheard things about those who didn’t. Yalson was still his only friend, but he got on well enough with his room-mate, Wubslin, though the stocky engineer was quiet and, when not eating or working, usually asleep. The Bratsilakins had apparently decided that Horza probably wasn’t against them, but they seemed to be reserving their opinion about whether he was for them until Marjoin and the Temple of Light.

Dorolow was the name of the religious woman who roomed with Yalson. She was plump, fair skinned and fair haired, and her huge ears curved down to join onto her cheeks. She spoke in a very high, squeaky voice which she said was pretty low as far as she was concerned, and her eyes watered a lot. Her movements were fluttery and nervous.

The oldest person in the Company was Aviger, a smallish, weather-beaten man with brown skin and little hair. He could do surprisingly supple things with his legs and arms, like clasp his hands behind his back and bring them over his head without letting go. He shared a cabin with a man named Jandraligeli, a tall, thin, middle-aged Mondlidician who wore the scar-marks from his homeworld on his forehead with unrepentant pride and a look of perpetual disdain. He ignored Horza devoutly, but Yalson said he did this with every new recruit. Jandraligeli spent a lot of time keeping his old but well-maintained suit and laser rifle clean and sparkling.

Gow and kee-Alsorofus were the two women who kept themselves so much to themselves and were alleged to do things when alone in their cabin, which seemed to annoy the less tolerant of the Company males — that is, most of them. Both women were fairly young and had a rather poor grasp of Marain. Horza thought maybe that was all that kept them so isolated, but it turned out they were pretty shy anyway. They were of average height, medium build, and sharp-featured in grey skin, with eyes that were pools of black. Horza thought perhaps it was just as well they didn’t look at people straight too often; with those eyes it could be an unsettling experience.

Mipp was a fat, sombre man with jet-black skin. He could pilot the ship manually when Kraiklyn wasn’t aboard and the Company needed close support on the ground, or he could take over at the shuttle controls. He was supposed to be a good shot, too, with a plasma cannon or rapid projectile rifle, but he was prone to binges, getting dangerously drunk on a variety of poisonous liquids he procured from the autogalley. Once or twice Horza heard him throwing up in the next stall in the heads. Mipp shared a cabin with another drunkard, called Neisin, who was more sociable and sang a lot. He had, or had convinced himself he had, something terrible to forget, and although he drank more steadily and regularly than Mipp, sometimes when he’d had a bit more than usual he would go very quiet and then start crying in great, sucking sobs. He was small and wiry and Horza wondered where he put all the drink, and where all the tears came from inside his compact, shaved head. Perhaps there was some sort of short circuit between his throat and his tear ducts.

Tzbalik Odraye was the ship’s self-styled computer ace. Because he and Mipp together could, in theory, have overridden the fidelities Kraiklyn had programmed into the CAT’s non-sentient computer and then flown off in the ship, they were never allowed to stay on the craft together when Kraiklyn wasn’t aboard. In fact, Odraye wasn’t that well versed in computers at all, as Horza discovered through a little close but apparently casual questioning. However, the tall, slightly hunchbacked man with the long yellow-skinned face probably knew just about enough, Horza reckoned, to handle anything that went wrong with the ship’s brains, which seemed to have been designed for durability rather than philosophical finesse. Tzbalik Odraye roomed with Rava Gamdol, who looked as though he came from the same place as Yalson, judging from his skin and light fur, but he denied this. Yalson was vague on the subject, and neither liked the other. Rava was another recluse; he had boarded off the tiny space around his top bunk and installed some small lights and an air fan. Sometimes he spent days at a time in this small space, going in with a container of water and coming out with another full of urine. Tzbalik Odraye did his best to ignore his room-mate, and always vigorously denied blowing the smoke from the pungent Cifetressi weed, which he smoked, through the ventilation holes of Rava’s tiny cubicle.

The final cabin was shared by Lenipobra and Lamm. Lenipobra was the youngster of the Company; a gangly youth with a stutter and garish red hair. He had a tattooed tongue which he was very proud of and would display at every possible opportunity. The tattoo, of a human female, was in every sense crude. Lenipobra was the CAT’s best excuse for a medic and was rarely seen without a small screenbook which contained one of the more up-to-date pan-human medical textbooks. He proudly showed this to Horza, including a few of the moving pages, one of which showed in vivid colour the basic techniques for treating deep laser burns in the most common forms of digestive tracts. Lenipobra thought it looked like great fun. Horza made a mental note to try even harder not to get shot in the Temple of Light. Lenipobra had very long and skinny arms, and spent about a quarter of each day going about on all fours, though whether this was entirely natural to his species or merely affectation Horza could not discover.

Lamm was rather below average height, but very muscular and dense looking. He had double eyebrows and small horngrafts; the latter stuck out from his thinning but very dark hair above a face he usually did his best to make aggressive and threatening. He did comparatively little talking between operations, and when he did talk, it was usually about battles he had been in, people he had killed, weapons he had used, and so on. Lamm considered himself second-in-command on the ship, despite Kraiklyn’s policy of treating everybody else as equals. Every now and again Lamm would remind people not to give him any problems. He was well armed and deadly, and his suit even had a nuclear device in it which he said he would set off sooner than be captured. The inference he seemed to hope people would make was that, if they upset him, he might just set off this fabled nuke in a fit of pique.

“What the hell are you looking at me for?” Lamm’s voice said, in amongst the storm of static, as Horza sat in the shuttle, shaking and rattling inside his too-big suit. Horza realised he had been looking across at the other man, who was directly opposite. He touched the mike button on his neck and said:

“Thinking about something else.”

“I don’t want you looking at me.”

“Us all got to look somewhere,” Horza said jokingly to the man in the matt-black suit and grey-visored helmet. The black suit made a gesture with the hand not holding a laser rifle.

“Well, don’t fucking look at me.”

Horza let his hand drop from his neck. He shook his head inside the suit helmet. It fitted so badly it didn’t move on the outside. He stared at the section of fuselage above Lamm’s head.

They were going to attack the Temple of Light. Kraiklyn was at the controls of the shuttle, bringing it in low over the forests of Marjoin, still covered in night, heading for the line of dawn breaking over the packed and steaming greenery. The plan was that the CAT would come back in towards the planet with the sun very low behind it, using its effectors on any electronics the temple did have, and making as much noise and as many flashes as it could with its secondary lasers and a few blast bombs. While this diversion was absorbing any defensive capacity the priests might have, the shuttle would either head straight for the temple and let everybody off, or, if there was any hostile reaction, land in the forest on the night side of the temple and disgorge its small force of suited troops there. The Company would then disperse and, if they had the facility, use their AG to fly to the temple, or — as in Horza’s case — just crawl, creep, walk or run as best they could for the collection of low, slope-sided buildings and short towers which made up the Temple of Light.

Horza couldn’t believe they were going in without some sort of reconnaissance; but Kraiklyn, when tackled on this point during the pre-op briefing in the hangar, had insisted that that might mean giving up the element of surprise. He had accurate maps of the place and a good battle plan. As long as everybody stuck to the plan, nothing would go wrong. The monks weren’t total idiots, and the planet had been Contacted and doubtless knew about the war going on around it. So, just in case the sect had hired any overhead observation, it was wiser not to attempt a look-see which might give the game away. Anyway, temples didn’t change much.

Horza and several of the others hadn’t been very impressed with this reading of the situation, but there was nothing they could do. So here they all sat, sweating and nervous and being shaken up like the ingredients of a cocktail in this clapped-out shuttle, slamming into a potentially hostile atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Horza sighed and checked his rifle again.

Like his antique armour, the rifle was old and unreliable; it had jammed twice when he tested it on the ship using dummy shells. Its magnetic propulsor seemed to work reasonably, but, judging by the erratic spread of the bullets, its rifling field was next to useless. The shells were big — at least seven-millimetre calibre and three times that long — and the gun could hold only forty-eight at a time and fire them no faster than eight a second. Incredibly, the huge bullets weren’t even explosive; they were solid lumps of metal, nothing else. To top it all, the weapon’s sight was out; a red haze filled the small screen when it was turned on. Horza sighed.

“We’re about three hundred metres above the trees now,” Kraiklyn’s voice said from the shuttle flight deck, “doing about one and a half sounds. The CAT’s just started its run-in. About another two minutes. I can see the dawn. Good luck, all.” The voice crackled and died in Horza’s helmet speaker. A few of the suited figures exchanged glances. Horza looked over at Yalson, sitting on the other side of the shuttle about three metres away, but her visor was mirrored. He couldn’t tell if she was looking at him or not. He wanted to say something to her, but didn’t want to bother her over the open circuit in case she was concentrating, preparing herself. Beside Yalson, Dorolow sat, her gloved hand making the Circle of Flame sign over the top of her helmet visor.

Horza tapped his hands on the old rifle and blew through his mouth at the mist of condensation forming on the top edge of his visor. It made it worse, just as he thought it might. Perhaps he should open his visor, now that they were inside the planet’s atmosphere.

The shuttle shook suddenly as though it had clipped the top of a mountain. Everybody was thrown forward, straining their seat harnesses, and a couple of guns went sailing forward and up, to clatter off the shuttle ceiling before slamming back to the deck. People grabbed for the guns and Horza closed his eyes; he wouldn’t have been at all surprised if one of these enthusiasts had left their safety catch off. However, the guns were retrieved without mishap, and people sat cradling them and looking about.

“What the hell was that?” the old man, Aviger, said, and laughed nervously. The shuttle began some hard manoeuvring, throwing first one half of the group on their backs while the people on the other side were suspended by their seat webbing, then flipping in the other direction and reversing the postures. Grunts and curses came over the open channel into Horza’s helmet. The shuttle dipped, making Horza’s stomach feel empty, floating, then the craft steadied again.

“Bit of hostile fire,” Kraiklyn’s clipped tones announced, and all the suited heads started to look from side to side.

“What?”

“Hostile fire?”

“I knew it.”

“Oh-oh.”

“Fuck.”

Why did I think as soon as I heard those fateful words, ‘easy in, easy out,’ that this was going—” began Jandraligeli in a bored, knowing drawl, only to be cut off by Lamm.

“Hostile fucking fire. That’s all we need. Hostile fucking fire.”

“They are gunned up,” Lenipobra said.

“Shit, who isn’t these days?” Yalson said.

“Chicel-Horhava, sweet lady; save us all,” muttered Dorolow, speeding up the tracings of the Circle over her visor.

“Shut the fuck up,” Lamm told her.

“Let’s hope Mipp can distract them without getting his ass blown off,” Yalson said.

“Maybe we should call it off,” Rava Gamdol said. “Think we ought to call it off? Do you think we should call it off? Does anybody—”

“NO!” “YES!” “NO!” shouted three voices, almost in unison. Everybody looked at the three Bratsilakins. The two outer Bratsilakins turned their helmets to look at the one in the middle, as the shuttle swooped again. The middle Bratsilakin’s helmet turned briefly to each side. “Oh, shit,” a voice said over the open channel, “all right: NO!”

“I think maybe we should—” Rava Gamdol’s voice started again.

Then Kraiklyn shouted, “Here we go! Everybody ready!”

The shuttle braked hard, banking steeply one way, then the other, shuddering once and dipping. It bounced and shook, and for a second Horza thought they were crashing, but then the craft slid to a stop and the rear doors jawed open. Horza was on his feet with the rest of them, piling out of the shuttle and into the jungle.

They were in a clearing. At its far end a few branches and twigs were still tumbling from huge, heavy-looking trees where the shuttle had just seconds before torn through the edge of the forest canopy as it dipped in for the small area of level, grassy ground. Horza had time to see a couple of bright birds flying fast out of the trees near by and caught a glimpse of a blue-pink sky. Then he was running with the others, round the front of the shuttle where it still glowed dark red and vegetation beneath it smouldered, and on into the jungle. A few of the Company were using their AG, floating over the undergrowth between the moss-covered tree trunks, but hampered by creepers which hung like thick, flower-strewn ropes between the trees.

So far they still couldn’t see the Temple of Light, but according to Kraiklyn it was just ahead of them. Horza looked round at the others on foot as they clambered over fallen trees covered in moss and swept past creepers and suspended roots.

“Fuck dispersing; this is too hard going.” It was Lamm’s voice. Horza looked round and up, and saw the black suit heading vertically for the green mass of foliage above them.

“Bastard,” said a breathless voice.

“Yeah. B-b-bastard,” Lenipobra agreed.

“Lamm,” Kraiklyn said, “you son of a bitch, don’t break through up there. Spread out. Disperse, damn it!”

Then a shock wave Horza could feel through his suit blasted over them all. Horza hit the ground immediately and lay there. Another boom came through the hissing helmet speaker as it fed in the noise from outside.

“That was the CAT going over!” He didn’t recognise the voice.

“You sure?” Somebody else.

“I saw it through the trees! It was the CAT!”

Horza got up and started running again.

“Black bastard nearly took my fucking head off…” Lamm said.

There was light ahead of Horza, through the trunks and leaves. He heard some firing: the sharp crack of projectiles, the sucking whoop of lasers and the snap-whoosh-crash of plasma cannon. He ran to a small earth and shrub bank and threw himself down so that he could just see over the top. Sure enough, there was the Temple of Light, silhouetted against the dawn, all covered in vines and creepers and moss, with a few spires and towers sticking out above like angular tree trunks.

“There she is!” Kraiklyn shouted. Horza looked along the earth bank and saw a few of the Company, in the same prone position as he was. “Wubslin! Aviger!” Kraiklyn shouted. “Cover us with the plasmas. Neisin, you keep the micro on each side of the grounds beyond, as well. Everybody else, follow me!”

More or less as one, they were off, over the tangled bank of mossy ground and bushes and down the other side, through light scrub and long, cane-like grass, the stalks covered in clinging, dark green moss. The mixture of ground cover came up to about chest height and made the going difficult, but it would be reasonably easy to duck down out of a line of fire. Horza waded through as best as he could. Plasma bolts sang through the air above them, lighting the dim stretch of ground between them and the sloping temple wall.

Distant fountains of earth and crashes he could feel through his feet told Horza that Neisin, sober the last two days, was laying down a convincing and, more importantly, accurate fire pattern with the Microhowitzer.

“There’s a little gunfire from the upper left level,” the cool, unhurried voice of Jandraligeli said. According to the plan, he was supposed to be hiding high in the forest canopy watching the temple. “I’m hitting it now.”

“Shit!” somebody yelled suddenly. One of the women. Horza could hear firing from ahead, though there were no flashes from the part of the temple he could see.

“Ha ha.” Jandraligeli’s smug voice came through the helmet speaker. “Got them!” Horza saw a puff of smoke over to the left of the temple. He was about halfway there by now, maybe closer. He could see some of the others not far away, to his left and right, pushing and striding through the cane grass and bushes with their rifles held high to one shoulder. They were all gradually getting covered in the dark green moss, which Horza supposed might be useful as camouflage (providing, of course, that it didn’t turn out to be some horrible, previously undiscovered sentient killer-moss… He told himself to stop being silly).

Loud crashes in the shrubbery around him, and smashed bits of cane and twigs fluttering past like nervous birds, sent him diving for the ground. The earth beneath him shuddered. He rolled over and saw flames lick the mossy stalks above; a flickering patch of fire lay directly behind him.

“Horza?” a voice said. Yalson’s.

“OK,” he said. He got up to a crouch and started running through the grass, past bushes and young trees.

“We’re coming in now,” Yalson said. She was up in the trees, too, along with Lamm, Jandraligeli and Neisin. According to the plan, all except Neisin and Jandraligeli would now start moving through the air on AG towards the temple. Although the anti-gravity units on their suits gave them an extra dimension to work with, they could be something of a mixed blessing; while a figure in the air tended to be harder to hit than one on the ground, it also tended to attract a lot more fire. The only other person in the Company with AG was Kraiklyn, but he said he preferred to use his for surprise or in emergencies, so he was still on the ground with the rest of them.

“I’m at the walls!” Horza thought it was Odraye’s voice. “This looks all right. The walls are really easy; the moss makes it—”

Horza’s helmet speaker crackled. He wasn’t sure if there was something wrong with his communicator or if something had happened to Odraye.

“— ver me while I’m—”

“— on you useless—” Voices clashed in Horza’s helmet. He kept wading through the cane grass, and thumped the side of his helmet.

“— asshole!” The helmet speaker buzzed, then went silent. Horza swore and stopped, crouching down. He fumbled with the communicator controls at the side of the helmet, trying to coax the speaker back into life. His too-big gloves hindered him. The speaker stayed silent. He cursed again and got to his feet, pushing through the scrub and long grass to the temple wall.

“— rojectiles inside!” a voice yelled suddenly. “This — … — cking simple!” He couldn’t identify the voice, and the speaker went dead again immediately.

He arrived at the base of the wall; it slanted out of the scrub at about forty degrees and was covered in moss. Further along, two of the Company were clambering up it, almost at the top, about seven metres above. Horza saw a flying figure weaving through the air and disappearing over the parapet. He started climbing. The clumsily large suit made it more difficult than it should have been, but he got to the top without falling and jumped down from the parapet onto a broad wall-walk. A similar moss-covered wall sloped up to the next storey. To Horza’s right the wall turned a corner beneath a stubby tower; to his left the wall-walk seemingly disappeared into a blank cross-wall. According to Kraiklyn’s plan Horza was supposed to head along that way. There ought to be a door there. Horza jogged along towards the blank wall.

A helmet bobbed up from the side of the sloped wall. Horza started to duck and swerve, just in case, but first an arm waved from the same place, then both helmet and arm appeared, and he recognised the woman Gow.

Horza threw back the visor on his helmet as he ran, getting a faceful of jungle-scented Marjoin air. He could hear some rattling projectile fire from inside the temple, and the distant thud of an exploding Microhowitzer round. He ran up to a narrow entrance cut in the sloped wall, half covered by streamers of mossy growth. Gow was kneeling, gun ready, on the splintered remains of a heavy wooden door which had blocked the passageway beyond. Horza knelt beside her and pointed at his helmet.

“My communicator’s out. What’s been happening?”

Gow touched a button on her wrist, and her suit PA said, “OK so far. No hurts. They on towers.” She pointed up. “Them no fly go in. They enemy got projectile guns only, them fall back.” She nodded and kept glancing round through the doorway and into the dark passageway beyond. Horza nodded too. Gow tapped his arm. “I tell Kraiklyn you go in, yes?”

“Yeah, tell him my communicator’s out, OK?”

“Yeah, sure. Zallin same trouble had. You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, you be safe, too,” Horza said. He stood up and entered the temple, scuffing over splinters of wood and fragments of sandstone scattered over the moss by the door’s demolition. The dark corridor branched three ways. He turned back to Gow and pointed. “Centre corridor, correct?”

The crouched figure, silhouetted against the light of the dawn, nodded and said, “Yeah, sure. Go middle.”

Horza set off. The corridor was covered in moss. Every few metres dim yellow electric lights burned from the walls, casting murky pools of light which the dark moss seemed to absorb. Soft-walled, sponge-floored, the narrow passage made Horza shiver, though it wasn’t cold. He checked that his gun was ready to fire. He could hear no other sound apart from his own breathing.

He came to a T-junction in the corridor and took the right-hand branch. Some steps appeared and he ran up them, stumbling once as his feet tried to run out of his oversized boots; he put his hand out and jarred his arm on the step. Some moss came off the step and he caught a glimpse of something glinting underneath, in the dull yellow light cast by the wall lights. He recovered his balance, shaking his jarred arm as he continued up the steps and wondering why the temple’s builders had made the steps out of what looked like glass. At the top of the steps he went down a short corridor, then up another flight of stairs, curving to the right and unlit. Considering its name, Horza thought, the temple was remarkably dark. He came out onto a small balcony.

The monk’s cloak was dark, the same colour as the moss, and Horza didn’t see him until the pale face turned towards him, along with the gun.

Horza threw himself to one side, against the wall to his left, and fired his gun from the hip at the same time. The monk’s gun jerked upwards and let loose a fusillade of rapid fire at the ceiling as he collapsed. The shots echoed round the dark, empty space beyond the small balcony. Horza squatted by the wall, gun pointed at the dark, crumpled figure only a couple of metres away. He raised his head and in the gloom saw what was left of the monk’s face, then relaxed slightly. The man was dead. Horza levered himself away from the wall and knelt by the balcony balustrade. Now he could see a large hall in the dim light of the few small globes which protruded from its roof. The balcony was about halfway up and along one of the longer walls, and, from what he could see, there was some sort of stage or altar at one end of the hall. The light was so dim he couldn’t be sure, but he thought he saw shadowy figures on the floor of the hall, moving. He wondered if it was the Company and tried to recall seeing other doors or corridors on his way to the balcony; he was supposed to be down there, on that level, on the floor of the hall. He cursed his useless communicator and decided he would have to risk shouting down to the people in the hall.

He leant forward. Some shards of glass had fallen from the roof, where it had been hit by the monk’s gun, and his suited knee crunched on the debris. Before he could open his mouth to shout down into the hall, he heard noises from beneath — a high-pitched voice speaking a language of squeaks and clicks. He went still, said nothing. It might just have been Dorolow’s voice, he supposed, but why would she talk in anything other than Marain? The voice called again. He thought he heard another, but then laser and projectile fire erupted briefly from the opposite end of the hall from the altar. He ducked and in the lull heard something click behind him.

He spun round, tightening his finger on the trigger, but there was nobody there. Instead, a small round thing, about the size of a child’s clenched fist, wobbled on the top of the balustrade and plonked down onto the moss about a metre away. He kicked at it with his foot and dived across the body of the dead monk.

The grenade detonated in mid-air, just under the balcony.

Horza jumped up while the echoes were still cracking back from the altar. He leapt into the doorway at the far end of the balcony, putting out one hand and grabbing the soft corner of the wall as he went past, spinning himself round as he fell to his knees. He reached out and grabbed the dead monk’s gun from the corpse’s slack grip, just as the balcony started to come away from the wall with a glassy, grinding noise. Horza shoved himself back into the corridor behind him. The balcony tipped bodily away into the empty space of the hall in a dully glittering cloud of fragments and fell with a great, shattering crash onto the floor below, taking the shadowy form of the dead monk fluttering with it.

Horza saw more of the shapes scatter in the darkness beneath him, and fired down with the gun he had just acquired. Then he turned and looked down the corridor he was now in, wondering if there was some way down to the hall floor, or even back outside. He checked the gun he had taken; it looked better than his own. He crouched and ran away from the doorway looking over the hall, putting his old rifle over his shoulder. The dimly lit corridor curved right. Horza straightened gradually as he left the doorway behind, and stopped worrying about grenades. Then it all started to happen in the hall behind him.

The first thing he knew was that his shadow was being thrown in front of him, flickering and dancing on the curving wall of the passage. Then a cacophony of noise and a stuttering burst of blast waves rocked him on his feet and assaulted his ears. He brought the helmet visor down quickly and crouched again as he turned back towards the hall and the bright flashes of light. Even through the helmet, he thought he could hear screams mixed in with the gunfire and explosions. He ran back and threw himself down where he had been before, lying looking out into the hall.

He put his head down as fast as he could and used his elbows to lever himself back the instant he realised what was happening. He wanted to run, but he lay where he was, stuck the dead monk’s rifle round the corner of the doorway and sprayed fire in the general direction of the altar until the weapon stopped firing, keeping his helmet as far back from the doorway as possible, visor turned away. When that gun stopped he threw it away and used his own, until it jammed. He slid himself away after that, and ran off down the corridor, away from the opening of the hall. He didn’t doubt that the rest of the Company would be doing the same thing, those that could.

What he had seen ought to have been incredible, but although he had looked only long enough for a single, hardly moving image to form on his retinas, he knew what he was seeing and what was happening. As he ran he tried to work out why the hell the Temple of Light had been laserproofed. When he came to a T-junction in the corridor he stopped.

He swung his rifle butt at the corner of the wall, through the moss; the metal connected, doubtless denting, but he felt something else give too. Using the weak light from the suit torch cells on either side of the visor, he looked at what lay underneath the moss.

“Oh God…” he breathed to himself. He struck at another part of the wall and looked again. He remembered the glint of what he’d thought was glass under the moss on the stairs, when he’d jarred his arm, and the crunching feeling under his knee on the balcony. He leant against the soft wall, feeling sick.

Nobody had gone to the extraordinary lengths of laserproofing an entire temple, or even one large hall. It would have been horrendously expensive and surely unnecessary on a stage-three planet anyway. No; probably the whole interior of the temple (he recalled the sandstone to which the outer door had been attached) had been built from blocks of crystal, and that was what was buried under all the moss. Hit it with a laser and the moss would vaporise in an instant, leaving the interior surfaces of the crystal beneath to reflect the rest of that pulse and any subsequent shots falling on the same place. He looked again at the second place he’d struck with the gun, looked deep into the transparent surface beyond, and saw his own suit lights shining dully back at him from a mirrored boundary somewhere inside. He pushed himself away and ran down the right-hand branch of the corridor, past heavy wooden doors, then down some curved steps towards a splash of light.

What he had seen in the hall was chaos, lit with lasers. A single glimpse, coinciding with several flashes, had burned an image into his eyes he thought he could still half see. At one end of the hall, on the altar, monks were crouched, guns firing, their own guns flashing with chemical-explosive fire; around them burst dark explosions of smoke as moss vaporised. At the other end of the hall several of the Company stood or lay or staggered, their own shadows huge on the wall behind them. They were loosing off with everything they had, rifles strobing pulses off the far wall, and they were being hit by their own shots slamming back from the internal surfaces of crystal blocks they didn’t even realise they were aiming at. At least two were blind already, judging by the way they were caught in poses of sightless blundering, arms out in front of them, guns firing from one hand.

Horza knew too well that his own suit, his visor especially, was not capable of stopping a laser hit, from either visible wavelength guns or X-rays. All he could do was get his head out of the way and loose off with what projectiles he had, hoping to get a few of the priests or their guards. He had probably been lucky he hadn’t been hit even in the brief length of time he’d looked into the hall; now all he could do was get out. He tried shouting into the helmet mike, but the communicator was dead; his voice sounded hollow in the suit and he couldn’t hear himself through the ear speaker.

He saw another shadowy shape ahead, a dim silhouette crouched low against the wall in the pool of daylight coming from another corridor. Horza threw himself into a doorway. The figure didn’t move.

He tried his rifle; its knocks on the crystal walls seemed to have unjammed it. A burst of fire made the figure collapse slackly to the floor. Horza stepped out of the doorway and walked to it.

It was another monk, dead hand gripped round a pistol. His white face was visible in the light which came down another passageway. On the wall behind the monk there were the pockmarks of burned-off moss; clear, undamaged crystal showed through beneath. As well as the holes produced by Horza’s burst of fire, the monk’s tunic, now seeping with bright red blood, was covered with laser burns. Horza stuck his head round the corner, looking into the light.

Against the morning glow, framed in a slanting doorway, a suited form lay on the mossy floor, gun extended at the end of one hand so that it pointed down the passageway towards Horza. A heavy door lay at an angle behind, just hanging by one twisted hinge. It’s Gow, Horza thought. Then he looked at the door again, thinking it looked wrong somehow. The door and the walls leading to it were scarred with laser burns.

He went up the corridor to the fallen figure and rolled it over so that he could see the face. His head swam for a second as he looked. It wasn’t Gow; it was her friend, kee-Alsorofus, who had died here. Her blackened, cracked face stared out, dry-eyed, through the still clear visor of her helmet. He looked at the door and at the corridor. Of course: he was in another part of the temple. Same situation, but a different set of passageways, and a different person…

The woman’s suit was holed, centimetres deep, in a few places; the smell of burned flesh leaked into Horza’s ill-fitting suit, making him gag. He stood up, took kee-Alsorofus’s laser, stepped over the slanted door and went out onto the wall-walk. He ran along it, round a corner, ducking once as a Microhowitzer shell landed too close to the temple’s sloping walls and sent up a shower of flashing crystal fragments and ruddy chunks of sandstone. The plasma cannons were still firing from the forest, too, but Horza couldn’t see any flying figures. He was looking for them when he suddenly sensed the suit to one side of him, standing in the angle of the wall. He stopped, recognising Gow’s suit, and stood about three metres from her while she looked at him. She pushed the visor on her helmet up slowly. Her grey face and black, pit-like eyes fixed on the laser rifle he was carrying. The look on her face made him wish he had checked the gun was still switched on. He looked down at the gun in his hand, then at the woman, who was still staring at it.

“I—” He was going to explain.

“She killed, yeah?” The woman’s voice sounded flat. She seemed to sigh. Horza drew in a breath, was about to start talking again, but Gow spoke in the same monotone. “I thought I hear she.”

Suddenly she brought her gun hand up, flashing in the blue and pink of the morning sky. Horza saw what she was doing and started forward, reaching out instantly with one hand even though he knew he was too far away and too late to do anything.

“Don’t!” he had time to shout, but the gun was already in the woman’s mouth and an instant later, as Horza started to duck and his eyes closed instinctively, the back of Gow’s helmet blew out in a single pulse of unseen light, throwing a sudden red cloud over the mossy wall behind.

Horza sat down on his haunches, hands closed round the gun barrel in front of him, eyes staring out at the distant jungle. What a mess, he thought, what a fucking, obscene, stupid mess. He hadn’t been thinking of what Gow had just done to herself, but he looked round at the red stain on the angled wall and the collapsed shape of Gow’s suit, and thought it again.

He was about to start back down the outer wall of the temple when something moved in the air above him. He turned and saw Yalson landing on the wall-walk. She looked at Gow’s body once, then they exchanged what they both knew of the situation — what she had heard over the open communicator channel, what Horza had seen in the hall — and decided they would stay put until some of the others came out, or they gave up hope. According to Yalson only Rava Gamdol and Tzbalik Odraye were definitely dead after the fire-fight in the hall, but all three Bratsilakins had been there too, and nobody had heard anything from them after the open channel had become intelligible again and most of the screaming had stopped.

Kraiklyn was alive and well but lost; Dorolow lost too, sitting crying, maybe blinded; and Lenipobra, against all advice and Kraiklyn’s orders, had entered the temple through a roof door and was heading down to try to rescue anybody he could, using only a small projectile pistol he’d been carrying.

Yalson and Horza sat back to back on the wall-walk, Yalson keeping the Changer informed on how things were going in the temple. Lamm flew overhead, heading for the jungle where he took one of the plasma cannons from the protesting Wubslin. He had just landed near by when Lenipobra announced proudly he had found Dorolow, and Kraiklyn reported he could see daylight. There was still no sound from the Bratsilakins. Kraiklyn appeared round a corner of the wall-walk; Lenipobra leapt into view, clutching Dorolow to his suit and bounding down over the walls in a series of great slow jumps as his AG struggled to lift both him and the woman.

They set off back to the shuttle. Jandraligeli could see movement on the road beyond the temple, and there was sniper fire coming from the jungle on either side. Lamm wanted to tear into the temple with the plasma cannon and vaporise a few monks, but Kraiklyn ordered the retreat. Lamm threw the plasma gun down and sailed off towards the shuttle alone, swearing loudly over the open channel on which Yalson was still trying to call the Bratsilakins.

They waded through the tall cane grass and bushes under the whooshing trails of plasma bolts, as Jandraligeli gave them cover. They had to duck occasionally as small-bore projectile fire tore through the greenery around them.

They sprawled in the hangar of the Clear Air Turbulence, beside the still warm shuttle as it clicked and creaked, cooling down again after its high-speed climb through the atmosphere.

Nobody wanted to talk. They just sat or lay on the deck, some with their backs against the side of the warm shuttle. Those who had been inside the temple were the most obviously affected, but even the others, who had only heard the mayhem over their suit communicators, seemed in a state of mild shock. Helmets and guns lay scattered about them.

“ ‘Temple of Light,’,” Jandraligeli said eventually, and gave what sounded like a mixture of laugh and snort.

“Temple of fucking Light,” Lamm agreed.

“Mipp,” Kraiklyn said in a tired voice to his helmet, “any signals from the Bratsilakins?”

Mipp, still on the CAT’s small bridge, reported that there was nothing.

“We ought to bomb that place to fuck,” Lamm said. “Nuke the bastards.” Nobody replied. Yalson got up slowly and left the hangar, walking tiredly up the steps to the upper deck, helmet dangling from one arm, gun from the other, her head down.

“I’m afraid we’ve lost that radar.” Wubslin closed an inspection hatch and rolled out from underneath the nose of the shuttle. “That first bit of hostile fire…” His voice trailed off.

“Least nobody’s injured,” Neisin said. He looked at Dorolow. “Your eyes better?” The woman nodded but kept her eyes closed. Neisin nodded, too. “Actually worse, when people are injured. We were lucky.” He dug into a small pack on the front of his suit and produced a little metal container. He sucked at a nipple at the top and grimaced, shaking his head. “Yeah, we were lucky. And it was fairly quick for them, too.” He nodded to himself, not looking at anybody, not caring that nobody seemed to be listening to him. “See how everybody we’ve lost all shared the same… I mean they went in pairs… or threes… huh?” He took another slug and shook his head. Dorolow was near by; she reached over and held out her hand. Neisin looked at her in surprise, then handed the small flask to her. She took a swig and passed it back. Neisin looked around, but no one else wanted any.

Horza sat and said nothing. He was staring at the cold lights of the hangar, trying not to see the scene he had witnessed in the hall of the dark temple.

The Clear Air Turbulence broke orbit on fusion drive and headed for the outer edge of Marjoin’s gravity well, where it could engage its warp motors. It didn’t pick up any signals from the Bratsilakins and it didn’t bomb the Temple of Light. It set a course for the Vavatch Orbital.

From radio transmissions they had picked up from the planet they worked out what had happened to the place, what had caused the monks and priests in the temple to be so well armed. Two nation states on the world of Marjoin were at war, and the temple was near the frontier between the two countries, constantly ready for attack. One of the states was vaguely socialist; the other was religiously inspired, the priests in the Temple of Light representing one sect of that militant faith. The war was partly caused by the greater, galactic conflict taking place around it, as well as being a tiny and approximate image of it. It was that reflection, Horza realised, which had killed the members of the Company, as much as any bounced laserflash.

Horza wasn’t sure how he would sleep that night. He lay awake for a few hours, listening to Wubslin having quiet nightmares. Then the cabin door was tapped lightly. Yalson came in and sat on Horza’s bunk. She put her head on his shoulder and they held each other. After a while she took his hand and led him quietly down the companionway, away from the mess — where a splash of light and distant music witnessed that the unsleeping Kraiklyn was unwinding with a drug flask and a holosound tape — down to the cabin which had been Gow’s and kee-Alsorofus’s.

In the darkness of the cabin, on a small bed full of strange scents and new textures, they performed the same old act, theirs — they both knew — an almost inevitably barren cross-matching of species and cultures thousands of light-years apart. Then they slept.

State of play: one

Fal ’Ngeestra watched the shadows of the clouds move on the distant plain, ten kilometres away horizontally and one vertically, and then, with a sigh, lifted her gaze to the line of snow-capped mountains on the far side of the open grassland. The mountain range was fully thirty kilometres from her eyes, but the peaks were sharp and distinct in the thin air which they invaded with their rock and brilliant icy whiteness. Even at that distance, through that much atmosphere, their glare startled the eye.

She turned away, walking along the broad flagstones of the lodge terrace with a stiff-legged gait unsuited to her lack of years. The trelliswork above her head was covered in bright red and white flowers and cast a regular pattern of shadows over the terrace beneath; she walked through light and shade, her hair dim then shining gold in turn as each halting step moved her from shadow to sunlight.

The gun-metal bulk of the drone called Jase appeared at the far end of the terrace, out of the lodge itself. Fal smiled when she saw it and sat down on a stone bench jutting out from the low wall which separated terrace from view. They were high up, but it was a hot and windless day; she wiped a little sweat from her forehead as the old drone floated along the terrace towards her, the slanting lines of sunlight passing over its body in a steady rhythm. The drone settled on the stones beside the bench, its broad, flat top about level with the crown of the girl’s head.

“Isn’t it a lovely day, Jase?” Fal said, looking back at the distant mountains again.

“It is,” Jase said. The drone had an unusually deep and full-toned voice, and made the most of it. For a thousand years or more Culture drones had had aura fields which coloured according to their mood — their equivalent of facial expression and body language — but Jase was old, made long before aura fields were thought of, and had refused to be refitted to accommodate them. It preferred either to rely on its voice to express what it felt, or to remain inscrutable.

“Damn.” Fal shook her head, looking at the far-away snow. “I wish I was climbing.” She made a clicking noise with her mouth and looked down at her right leg, which stuck straight out in front of her. She had broken the leg eight days before, while climbing in the mountains on the other side of the plain. Now it was splinted up with a fine tracery of field-strands, concealed beneath fashionably tight trousers.

Jase ought, she thought, to have taken this as an excuse to lecture her again on the advisability of only climbing with a floater harness, or with a rescue drone near by, or at the very least on not climbing alone, but the old machine said nothing. She looked at it, her tanned face shining in the light. “So, Jase, what have you got for me? Business?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Fal settled herself as comfortably as she could on the stone bench and crossed her arms. Jase stretched out a short force field from its casing to support the awkward-looking outstretched leg, though it knew that the splint’s own fields were taking all the strain.

“Spit it out,” Fal said.

“You may recall an item from the daily synopsis eighteen days ago about one of our spacecraft which was cobbled together by a factory vessel in the volume of space Inside from the Sullen Gulf; the factory craft had to destruct, and later so did the ship it made.”

“I remember,” said Fal, who forgot little about anything, and nothing at all from a daily synopsis. “It was a mongrel because the factory was trying to get a GSV Mind out of the way.”

“Well,” Jase said, its voice a little weary, “we have a problem with that.”

Fal smiled.

The Culture, there could be no doubt, relied profoundly on its machines for both its strategy and tactics in the war it was now engaged in. Indeed, a case could be made for holding that the Culture was its machines, that they represented it at a more fundamental level than did any single human or group of humans within the society. The Minds that the Culture’s factory craft, safe Orbitals and larger GSVs were now producing were some of the most sophisticated collections of matter in the galaxy. They were so intelligent that no human was capable of understanding just how smart they were (and the machines themselves were incapable of describing it to such a limited form of life).

From those mental colossi, down through the more ordinary but still sentient machines and the smart but ultimately mechanistic and predictable computers, right down to the smallest circuit in a micromissile hardly more intelligent than a fly, the Culture had placed its bets — long before the Idiran war had been envisaged — on the machine rather than the human brain. This was because the Culture saw itself as being a self-consciously rational society; and machines, even sentient ones, were more capable of achieving this desired state as well as more efficient at using it once they had. That was good enough for the Culture.

Besides, it left the humans in the Culture free to take care of the things that really mattered in life, such as sport, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems, and climbing high mountains without the aid of a safety harness.

A hostile reading of such a situation might lead to the idea that the discovery by the Culture’s Minds that some humans were actually capable of matching and occasionally beating their record for accurately assessing a given set of facts would lead to machine indignation and blown circuits, but this was not the case. It fascinated those Minds that such a puny and chaotic collection of mental faculties could by some sleight of neuron produce an answer to a problem which was as good as theirs. There was an explanation, of course, and it perhaps had something to do with patterns of cause and effect which even the almost god-like power of the Minds had difficulty trying to fathom; it also had quite a lot to do with sheer weight of numbers.

There were in excess of eighteen trillion people in the Culture, just about every one of them well nourished, extensively educated and mentally alert, and only thirty or forty of them had this unusual ability to forecast and assess on a par with a well-informed Mind (of which there were already many hundreds of thousands). It was not impossible that this was pure luck; toss eighteen trillion coins in the air for a while and a few of them are going to keep landing the same side up for a long, long time.

Fal ’Ngeestra was a Culture Referer, one of those thirty, maybe forty, out of the eighteen trillion who could give you an intuitive idea of what was going to happen, or tell you why she thought that something which had already happened had happened the way it did, and almost certainly turn out right every time. She was being handed problems and ideas constantly, being both used and assessed herself. Nothing she said or did went unrecorded; nothing she experienced went unnoticed. She did insist, however, that when she was climbing, alone or with friends, she must be left to her own devices and not watched by the Culture’s. She would take a pocket terminal with her to record everything, but she would not have a real-time link with any part of the Mind network on the Plate she lived on.

Because of that insistence she had lain in the snow with a shattered leg for a day and a night before a search party had discovered her.

The drone Jase started to give her the details of the flight of the nameless ship from its mother-craft, of its interception and self-destruction. Fal had turned her head, though, and was only half listening. Her eyes and mind were on the distant, snowy slopes, where she hoped she would be climbing again in a few days’ time, once these stupid bones in her leg had thoroughly healed.

The mountains were beautiful. There were other mountains on the up slope side of the lodge terrace, reaching into the clear blue sky, but they were tame stuff indeed compared to those sharp, rearing peaks across the plain. She knew that was why they had put her in this lodge; they hoped she would climb those nearer mountains rather than take the trouble to hop into a flyer and head over the plain. It was a silly idea, though; they had to let her see the mountains, or she wouldn’t be herself, and as long as she could see them she just had to climb them. Idiots.

On a planet, she thought, You wouldn’t be able to see them so well. You wouldn’t be able to see the lower foothills, the way the mountains rise from the plain just so.

The lodge, the terrace, the mountains and the plain were on an Orbital. Humans had built this place, or at least built the machines that built the machines that… Well, you could go on and on. The Plate of the Orbital was almost perfectly flat; in fact, vertically it was slightly concave, but as the internal diameter of the completed Orbital — properly formed only once all the individual Plates had been joined up and the last dividing wall was removed — would measure over three million kilometres, the curvature was a great deal less than on the convex surface of any human-habitable globe. So from Fal’s raised vantage point she could see right to the base of the distant mountains.

Fal thought it must be very strange to live on a planet and have to look over a curve; so that, for example, you would see the top of a seaship appear over the horizon before the rest of it.

She was suddenly aware that she was thinking about planets because of something Jase had just said. She turned round and looked earnestly at the dark grey machine, playing back her short-term memory to recall exactly what it had just said.

“This Mind went underneath the planet in hyperspace?” she said. “Then warped inside?”

“That was what it said it was trying to do when it sent the coded message in its destruct pattern. As the planet is still there it must have succeeded. Had it failed, at least half a per cent of its mass would have reacted with the planet’s own material as though it was antimatter.”

“I see.” Fal scratched at one cheek with a finger. “I thought that wasn’t supposed to be possible?” Her voice contained the question. She looked at Jase.

“What?” it said.

“Doing…” She scowled at not being immediately understood and waved one hand impatiently. “…Doing what it did. Going under something so big in hyperspace and then bouncing over. I was told even we couldn’t do that.”

“So was the Mind in question, but it was desperate. The General War Council itself decided that we should try to duplicate the feat, using a similar Mind and a spare planet.”

“What happened?” Fal asked, grinning at the idea of a “spare” planet.

“No Mind would even consider the idea; far too dangerous. Even the eligible ones on the War Council demurred.”

Fal laughed, gazing up at the red and white flowers curled round the trelliswork overhead. Jase, which deep down was a hopeless romantic, thought her laughter sounded like the tinkling of mountain streams, and always recorded her laughs for itself, even when they were snorts or guffaws, even when she was being rude and it was a dirty laugh. Jase knew a machine, even a sentient one, could not die of shame, but it also knew that it would do just that if Fal ever guessed any of this. Fal stopped laughing. She said:

“What does this thing actually look like? I mean you never see them by themselves, they’re always in something… a ship or whatever. And how did it — what did it use to warp with?”

“Externally,” Jase said in its usual, calm, measured tones, “it is an ellipsoid. Fields up, it looks like a very small ship. It’s about ten metres long and two and a half in diameter. Internally it’s made up of millions of components, but the most important ones are the thinking and memory parts of the Mind proper; those are what make it so heavy because they’re so dense. It weighs nearly fifteen thousand tonnes. It is fitted with its own power, of course, and several field generators, any of which could be pressed into service as emergency motors, and indeed are designed with this in mind. Only the outer envelope is constantly in real space, the rest — all the thinking parts, anyway — stay in hyperspace.

“Assuming, as we must, that the Mind did what it said it was going to do, there is only one possible way it could have accomplished the task, given that it does not have a warp motor or Displacer.” Jase paused as Fal sat forward, her elbows on her knees, her hands clenched under her chin. It saw her shifting her weight on her backside and a tiny grimace appear fleetingly on her face. Jase decided she was getting uncomfortable on the hard stone bench, and ordered one of the lodge drones to bring some cushions. “The Mind does have an internal warping unit, but it is supposed to be used only to expand microscopic volumes of the memory so that there is more space around the sections of information — in the form of third-level elementary particle-spirals — which it wants to change. The normal volume limit on that warping unit is less than a cubic millimetre; somehow the ship Mind jury-rigged it so that it would encompass its entire body and let it appear within the planet’s surface. A clear air space would be the logical place to go for, and the tunnels of the Command System seem an obvious choice; that is where it said it would head for.”

“Right,” Fal said, nodding. “OK. Now, what are — oh…”

A small drone carrying two large cushions appeared at her side. “Hmm, thanks,” Fal said, levering herself up with one hand and placing one cushion beneath her, the other at her back. The small drone floated off to the lodge again. Fal settled herself. “Did you ask for these, Jase?” she asked.

“Not me,” Jase lied, secretly pleased. “What were you going to ask?”

“These tunnels,” Fal said, leaning forward more comfortably this time. “This Command System. What is it?”

“Briefly, it consists of a winding, paired loop of twenty-two-metre diameter tunnels buried five kilometres deep. The whole system is several hundred kilometres in length. The trains were designed to be the wartime mobile command centres of a state which once existed on the planet, when it was at the intermediate-sophisticated stage-three phase. State-of-the-art weaponry at the time was the fusion bomb, delivered by transplanetary guided rocket. The Command System was designed to—”

“Yes.” Fal waved her hand quickly. “Protect, keep mobile so they couldn’t be blown up. Right?”

“Yes.”

“What sort of rock cover did they have?”

“Granite,” Jase said.

“Batholithic?”

“Just a second,” Jase said, consulting elsewhere. “Yes. Correct: a batholith.”

“A batholith?” Fal said, eyebrows raised. “Just one?”

Just one.”

“This is a slightly low-G world? Thick crust?”

“Both.”

“Uh-huh. So the Mind’s inside these…” She looked along the terrace, not really seeing anything, but in her mind’s eye looking down kilometres of dark tunnels (and thinking there might be some pretty impressive mountains above them: all that granite; low-G; good climbing territory). She looked at the machine again. “So what happened? It’s a Planet of the Dead; did the natives eventually do it to themselves?”

“With biological weapons, not nukes, to the last humanoid, eleven thousand years ago.”

“Hmm.” Fal nodded. Now it was obvious why the Dra’Azon had made Schar’s World one of their Planets of the Dead. If you were a pure-energy superspecies long retired from the normal, matter-based life of the galaxy, and your conceit was to cordon off and preserve the odd planet or two you thought might serve as a fitting monument to death and futility, Schar’s World with its short and sordid history sounded like the sort of place you’d put pretty near the top of your list.

Something occurred to her. “How come the tunnels haven’t sealed up again over all that time? Five klicks’ worth of pressure…”

“We don’t know,” Jase sighed. “The Dra’Azon have not been very forthcoming with information. It is possible the System’s engineers devised a technique for withstanding the pressure over such a period. This is unlikely, admittedly, but then they were ingenious.”

“Pity they didn’t devote a little more ingenuity to staying alive rather than conducting mass slaughter as efficiently as possible,” Fal said, and made a little snorting noise.

Jase felt pleasure at the girl’s words (if not the snort), but at the same time detected in them a tinge of that mixture of contempt and patronising smugness the Culture found it so difficult not to exhibit when surveying the mistakes of less advanced societies, even though the source civilisations of its own mongrel past had been no less fallible. Still, the underlying point held; experience as well as common sense indicated that the most reliable method of avoiding self-extinction was not to equip oneself with the means to accomplish it in the first place.

“So,” Fal said, looking down as she tapped her one good heel on the grey stones, “the Mind’s in the tunnels; the Dra’Azon’s on the outside. What’s the Quiet Barrier limit?”

“The usual half-distance to the nearest other star: three hundred and ten standard light-days in the case of Schar’s World at the moment.”

“— And…?” She held out her hand to Jase and raised her head and her eyebrows. Flower shadows moved on her neck as the gentlest of breezes started and ruffled the blossoms on the trelliswork above her head. “What’s the problem?”

“Well,” Jase said, “the reason the Mind was allowed in at all was because—”

“In distress. Right. Go on.”

Jase, who had stopped being annoyed by Fal’s interruptions the first time she had brought it a mountain flower, went on, “There is a small base on Schar’s World, as there is on almost all the Planets of the Dead. As usual it is staffed from a small, nominally neutral, non-dynamic society of some galactic maturity—”

“The Changer,” Fal broke in, quite slowly, as though guessing the answer to a puzzle which had been troubling her for hours and ought to have been simple. She looked through the flower-strewn trellis, to a blue sky where a few small white clouds were moving slowly. She looked back to the machine. “I’m right, aren’t I? That Changer guy who… and that Special Circumstancer — Balveda — and the place where you have to be senile to rule. They’re Changers on Schar’s World and this bloke—” She broke off and frowned. “But I thought he was dead.”

“Now we’re not so sure. The last message from the GCU Nervous Energy seemed to indicate he might have escaped.”

“What happened to the GCU?”

“We don’t know. Contact was lost while it was trying to capture rather than destroy the Idiran ship. Both are presumed lost.”

“Capture it, eh?” Fal said tartly. “Another show-off Mind. But that’s it, isn’t it? The Idirans might be able to use this guy — what’s his name? Do we know?”

“Bora Horza Gobuchul.”

“Whereas we don’t have any Changers.”

“We do, but the one we have is on the other side of the galaxy on an urgent job not connected with the war; it would take half a year to get her there. Besides, she has never been to Schar’s World; the tricky part about this problem is that Bora Horza Gobuchul has.”

“Ho-ho,” Fal said.

“In addition, we have unconfirmed information that the same Idiran fleet which knocked out the fleeing ship also tried unsuccessfully to follow the Mind to Schar’s World with a small landing force. Thus the Dra’Azon concerned is going to be suspicious. It might let Bora Horza Gobuchul through, as he has served before with the caretaker staff on the planet, but even he is not certain to gain entry. Anybody else is very doubtful indeed.”

“Of course the poor devil might be dead.”

“Changers are not notoriously easy to kill, and besides, it would seem unwise simply to count on that possibility.”

“And you’re worried he might get to this precious Mind and bring it back to the Idirans.”

“It could just happen.”

“Just supposing it did happen, Jase,” Fal said, screwing up her eyes and leaning forward to look at the machine, “so what? Would it really make any difference? What would happen if the Idirans did get their hands on this admittedly resourceful kid Mind?”

“Assuming that we are going to win the war…” Jase said thoughtfully, “…it could lengthen the proceedings by a handful of months.”

“And how many’s that supposed to be?” Fal said.

“Somewhere between three and seven, I suppose. It depends whose hand you’re using.”

Fal smiled. “And the problem is that the Mind can’t destruct without making this Planet of the Dead even more dead than it is already, in fact without making it an asteroid belt.”

“Exactly.”

“So maybe the little devil shouldn’t have bothered saving itself from the wreck in the first place, and should have just gone down with the ship.”

“It’s called the instinct to survive.” Jase paused while Fal nodded, then it went on, “It’s programmed into most living things.” It made a show of weighing the girl’s injured leg in its field-held grip. “Though, of course, there are always exceptions…”

“Yes,” Fal said, giving what she hoped was a condescending smile, “very droll, Jase.”

“So you see the problem.”

“I see the problem,” Fal agreed. “Of course we could force our way in there, and blow the place to smithereens if necessary, and to hell with the Dra’Azon.” She grinned.

“Yes,” Jase conceded, “and put the whole outcome of the war in jeopardy by antagonising a power whose haziest unknown quantity is the exact extent of its immensity. We could also surrender to the Idirans, but I doubt we’ll do that either.”

“Well, so long as we’re considering all the options.” Fal laughed.

“Oh yes.”

“OK, Jase, if that’s all — let me think about this lot for a while,” Fal ’Ngeestra said, sitting up straight on the bench and stretching and yawning. “It sounds interesting.” She shook her head. “This is lap-of-the-gods stuff, though. Let me have… anything you think might be relevant. I’d like to concentrate on this bit of the war for a while; all the information we’ve got on the Sullen Gulf… all I can handle, anyway. OK?”

“OK,” Jase said.

“Hmm,” Fal murmured, nodding vaguely, her eyes unfocused. “Yes… all we’ve got on that general area… I mean volume…” She waved her hand round in a circle, in her imagination encompassing several million cubic light-years.

“Very well,” Jase said, and retreated slowly from the girl’s gaze. It floated back down the terrace in the shafts of sunlight and shade, towards the lodge, under the flowers.

The girl sat by herself, rocking backwards and forwards on her haunches and humming quietly, her hands at her mouth again and her elbows on her knees, one of which was bent, and one of which was straight.

Here we are, she thought, killing the immortal, only just stopping short of tangling with something most people would think of as a god, and here am I, eighty thousand light-years away if I’m a metre, supposed to think of a way out of this ridiculous situation. What a jokeDamn. I wish they’d let me be a Field Referer, out there where the action is, instead of sitting it out back here, so far away it takes two years just to get there. Oh well.

She shifted her weight and sat sideways on the seat so that her broken leg lay along the bench, then turned her face to the mountains glittering on the far side of the plain. She rested her elbow on the stone parapet, her hand supporting her head as her eyes drank in the view.

She wondered whether they really had kept their word about not watching her when she went climbing. She wouldn’t put it past them to have kept a small drone or micromissile or something near by, just in case anything did happen, and then — after the accident, after she’d fallen — left her lying there, frightened, cold and in pain, just to convince her they were doing no such thing, and to see the effect it had on her, as long as she wasn’t in any real danger of dying. She knew, after all, the way their Minds worked. It was the sort of thing she would consider doing, if she was in charge.

Maybe I should just pack it in; leave. Tell them to shove their war. Trouble isI like all this

She looked at one of her hands, golden brown in a beam of sunlight. She opened and closed it, looking at the fingers. Threeto seven… She thought of an Idiran hand. Depending

She looked back, over the shadow-strewn plain towards the distant mountains, and sighed.

5. Megaship

Vavatch lay in space like a god’s bracelet. The fourteen-million kilometre hoop glittered and sparkled, blue and gold against the jet-black gulf of space beyond. As the Clear Air Turbulence warped in towards the Orbital, most of the Company watched their goal approach on the main screen in the mess. The aquamarine sea, which covered most of the surface of the artefact’s ultradense base material, was spattered with white puffs of cloud, collected in huge storm systems or vast banks, some of which seemed to stretch right across the full thirty-five-thousand-kilometre breadth of the slowly turning Orbital.

Only on one side of that looped band of water was there any land visible, hard up against one sloped retaining wall of pure crystal. Although, from the distance they were watching, the sliver of land looked like a tiny brown thread lying on the edge of a great rolled-out bolt of vivid blue, that thread was anything up to two thousand kilometres across; there was no shortage of land on Vavatch.

Its greatest attraction, however, was and had always been the Megaships.

“Don’t you have a religion?” Dorolow asked Horza.

“Yes,” he replied, not taking his eyes away from the screen on the wall above the end of the main mess-room table. “My survival.”

“So… your religion dies with you. How sad,” Dorolow said, looking back from Horza to the screen. The Changer let the remark pass.

The exchange had started when Dorolow, struck by the beauty of the great Orbital, expressed the belief that even though it was a work of base creatures, no better than humans, it was still a triumphant testimony to the power of God, as God had made Man, and all other souled creatures. Horza had disagreed, genuinely annoyed that the woman could use even something so obviously a testament to the power of intelligence and hard work as an argument for her own system of irrational belief.

Yalson, who was sitting beside Horza at the table, and whose foot was gently rubbing the Changer’s ankle, put her elbows on the plastic surface beside the plates and beakers. “And they’re going to blow it away in four days’ time. What a fucking waste.”

Whether or not this would have worked as a subject-changing parry, she did not get a chance to find out, because the mess PA crackled once and then came clear with the voice of Kraiklyn, who was on the bridge: “Thought you might like to see this, people.”

The view of the distant Orbital was replaced by a blank screen onto which there then appeared a message in flashing letters.

WARNING/SIGNAL/WARNING/SIGNAL/WARNING/SIGNAL/WARNING: ATTENTION ALL CRAFT! VAVATCH ORBITAL AND HUB WITH ALL ANCILLARY UNITS WILL BE DESTROYED REPEAT DESTROYED MARAINTIME A/4872.0001 EXACT (EQUIVALENT G-HUB TIME 00043.2909.401: EQUIVALENT LIMB THREE TIME 09.256.8: EQUIVALENT IDIRTIMERELATIVE QU’URIBALTA 359.0021: EQUIVALENT VAVATCHTIME SEG 7TH.4010.5) BY NOVALEVEL HYPER-GRID INTRUSION AND SUBSEQUENT CAM BOMBARDMENT. SENT BY ESCHATOLOGIST (TEMPORARY NAME), CULTURE GENERAL SYSTEMS VEHICLE. TIMED AT A/4870.986: MARAINBASE ALLTRANS… SIGNAL SECTION END… SIGNAL REPETITION NUMBER ONE OF SEVEN FOLLOWS:…………………… WARNING/SIGNAL/WARNING/SIGNAL/WARNING…

“We just ran through that message shell,” Kraiklyn added. “See you later.” The PA crackled again, then was silent. The message faded from the screen and the Orbital filled it again.

“Hmm,” Jandraligeli said. “Brief and to the point.”

“Like I said.” Yalson nodded at the screen.

“I remember…” Wubslin said slowly, staring at the band of brilliant blue and white on the screen, “when I was very young one of my teachers floated a little toy metal boat on the surface of a bucketful of water. Then she lifted the bucket by the handle and held me up against her chest with her other arm, so that I was facing the same way she was. She started to go round and round, faster and faster, letting the spin send the bucket out away from her, and eventually the bucket was straight out, the surface of the water in it at ninety degrees to the floor, and I was held there with this great big adult hand across my belly and everything spinning around me and I was watching this little toy boat, which was still floating on the water, even though the water was straight up and down in front of my face, and my teacher said, ‘You remember this if you’re ever lucky enough to see the Megaships of Vavatch.’”

“Yeah?” Lamm said. “Well, they’re about to let the fucking handle go.”

“So let’s just hope we’re not still on the surface when they do,” Yalson said.

Jandraligeli turned to her, one eyebrow up: “After that last fiasco, dear, nothing would surprise me.”

“Easy in, easy out,” Aviger said, and the old man laughed.

The haul from Marjoin to Vavatch had taken twenty-three days. The Company had gradually recovered from the effects of the abortive attack on the Temple of Light. There were a few small sprains and grazes; Dorolow had been blind in one eye for a couple of days, and everybody had been quiet and withdrawn, but by the time Vavatch came into sight they were all starting to get so bored with life on board ship, even with less of them on it, that they were looking forward to another operation.

Horza kept the laser rifle which kee-Alsorofus had used, and carried out what rudimentary repairs and improvements the CAT’s limited engineering facilities would allow him to effect to his suit. Kraiklyn was full of praise for the one he had taken from Horza; it had lifted him out of the worst of the trouble in the hall of the Temple of Light, and, although it had still taken some heavy fire pulses, it was hardly marked, let alone damaged.

Neisin had said he’d never liked lasers anyway and wouldn’t use one again; he had a perfectly good rapid-firing light projectile rifle, and lots of ammunition. He would carry that in future when he wasn’t using the Microhowitzer.

Horza and Yalson had started sleeping together every night in what was now their cabin, the one the two women had occupied. During the long days of the voyage they had grown closer but spoken comparatively little, for new lovers. Both seemed to want it that way. Horza’s body had completed its regeneration after its impersonation of the Gerontocrat, and there was no longer any trace or sign of that role left on him. But while he told the Company that he was now the way he had always looked, he had in fact moulded his body to look like that of Kraiklyn. Horza was a little taller and fuller-chested than his neutral normal, and his hair was darker and thicker. His face, of course, he could not yet afford to Change, but under its light-brown surface it was ready. A short trance and he could pass for the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence; perhaps Vavatch would give him the opportunity he needed.

He had thought long and hard about what to do now that he was part of the Company, and relatively safe, but cut off from his Idiran employers. He could always just go on his own way, but that would let down Xoralundra, whether the old Idiran was alive or dead. It would also be running away from the war, from the Culture and the part he had chosen to play against it. In addition, at first, there was the idea Horza had been toying with anyway, even before he had heard that his next task was to involve going to Schar’s World, and that was the idea of returning to an old love.

Her name was Sro Kierachell Zorant. She was what they called a dormant Changer, one who had no training in and no desire to practise Changing, and had accepted the post on Schar’s World partly as a relief from the increasingly warlike atmosphere in the Changers’ home asteroid of Heibohre. That had been seven years before, when Heibohre was already within what was generally recognised as being Idiran space, and when many Changers were already employed by the Idirans.

Horza was sent to Schar’s World partly because he was being punished and partly for his own protection. A group of Changers had plotted to fire up the ancient asteroid’s power-plants and take it out of Idiran space, make their home and their species neutral again in the war they could see was becoming inevitable. Horza had discovered the plot and killed two of the conspirators. The court of the Academy of Military Arts on Heibohre — its ruling body in all but name — had compromised between popular feeling on the asteroid, which wanted Horza punished for taking other Changers’ lives, and the gratitude it felt towards Horza. The court had a delicate task, considering the not wholehearted support the majority of Changers gave to staying where they were and therefore within the Idiran sphere of influence. By sending Horza to Schar’s World with instructions to stay there for several years — but not punishing him otherwise — the court hoped to make all concerned feel their own particular view had carried the day. To the extent that there was no revolt, that the Academy remained the ruling force in the asteroid, and that the services of Changers were in demand as never before since the formation of their unique species, the court had succeeded.

In some ways, Horza had been lucky. He was without friends or influence; his parents were dead; his clan was all but defunct save for him. Family ties meant a lot in the Changer society, and with no influential relatives or friends to speak for him Horza had perhaps escaped more lightly than he had a right to expect.

Horza cooled his heels on Schar’s World’s snows for less than a year before leaving to join the Idirans in their fight against the Culture, both before and after it was officially termed a war. During that time he had started a relationship with one of the four other Changers there: the woman Changer Kierachell, who disagreed with almost everything Horza believed, but had loved him, body and mind, despite it all. When he left, he knew it had hurt her much more than it had hurt him. He had been glad of the companionship and he liked her, but he hadn’t felt anything like what humans were supposed to feel when they talked of love, and by the time he left he was starting, just starting, to grow bored. He told himself at the time that that was the way life was, that he would only hurt her more in the end by staying, that it was partly for her sake he was leaving. But the expression in her eyes the last time he’d looked into them had not been something he enjoyed thinking about, for a long time.

He had heard she was still there, and he thought of her and had fond memories; and the more he had risked his life and the more time had elapsed, the more he wanted to see her again; the more a quieter, less dangerous sort of existence appealed to him. He had imagined the scene, imagined the look in her eyes when he came back to her… Maybe she would have forgotten about him, or even be committed to some relationship with the other Changers at the base on Schar’s World, but Horza didn’t really think so; he thought of such things only as a sort of insurance.

Yalson made things a little difficult, perhaps, but he was trying not to build too much into their friendship and coupling, even though he was fairly sure it was only those two things to her as well.

So he would impersonate Kraiklyn if he could, or at least kill him and just take over, and hope he could get round the comparatively crude identity fidelities built into the CAT’s computer, or get somebody else to do so. Then he would take the Clear Air Turbulence to Schar’s World, rendezvous with the Idirans if he could, but go in anyway, assuming Mr Adequate — the pet name the Changers on the Schar’s World base had for the Dra’Azon being which guarded the planet — would allow him through the Quiet Barrier after the Idirans’ botched attempt to fool it with a hollowed-out chuy-hirtsi. He would, if at all possible, give the rest of the Company the chance to back out.

One problem was knowing when to strike at Kraiklyn. Horza was hoping that an opportunity would arise on Vavatch, but it was hard to make definite plans because Kraiklyn didn’t seem to have any of his own. He had simply talked of “opportunities” on the Orbital, which were “bound to arise” due to its impending destruction, whenever he had been asked during the journey.

“That lying bastard,” Yalson said, one night when they were about halfway to Vavatch from Marjoin. They were lying together in what was now their cabin, in the darkness of the ship night, in about a half-G on the cramped bedspace.

“What?” Horza said. “Don’t you think he’s going to Vavatch after all?”

“Oh, he’s going there all right, but not because there are unknown possibilities for a successful job. He’s going for the Damage game.”

“What Damage game?” Horza asked, turning to her in the darkness where her naked shoulders lay on his arm. He could feel their soft down against his skin. “You mean a big game? A real one?”

“Yeah. The Ring itself. Last I heard it was only a rumour, but it makes more sense every time I think about it. Vavatch is a certainty, provided they can get a quorum together.”

“The Players on the Eve of Destruction.” Horza laughed gently. “You think Kraiklyn means to watch or play?”

“He’ll try to play, I suppose; if he’s as good as he says he is, they might even let him, as long as he can raise the stake. That’s supposed to be how he won the CAT — not off anybody in a Ring game, but it must have been pretty heavy company if they were gambling ships. But I guess he’d be prepared to watch if it came to it. I bet that’s why we’re all going on this little holiday. He might try and come up with some sort of excuse, or fabricate some op, but that’s the real reason: Damage. Either he’s heard something or he’s making an intelligent guess, but it’s so fucking obvious…” Her voice died away, and Horza felt her head shake on his arm.

“Isn’t one of the Ring regulars—?” he said.

“Ghalssel.” Now Horza could feel the light, short-haired head nod against the skin of his arm. “Yeah, he’ll be there, if he possibly can be. He’d burn out the motors on the Leading Edge to get to a major Damage game, and the way things have been hotting up in this neck of the woods recently, presenting all those wonderful easy-in, easy-out opportunities, I can’t imagine him being far away.” Yalson’s voice sounded bitter. “Myself, I think Ghalssel’s the subject of Kraiklyn’s wet dreams. Thinks the guy’s a fucking hero. Shit.”

“Yalson,” Horza said into the woman’s ear, her hair tickling his nose, “one: how does Kraiklyn have wet dreams if he doesn’t sleep? And two: what if he has these cabins bugged?”

Her head turned towards him quickly. “So fucking what? I’m not afraid of him. He knows I’m one of the most reliable people he’s got; I shoot straight and I don’t fill my pants when it starts getting hot. I also think Kraiklyn’s the best excuse for a leader we’ve got on the ship or are likely to get, and he knows that. Don’t you worry about me. Anyway…” He felt her shoulders and head move again, and knew she was looking at him. “You’d settle it up if I got shot in the back, wouldn’t you?”

The thought had never occurred to him.

“Wouldn’t you?” she repeated.

“Well, of course I would,” he said. She didn’t move. He could hear her breathing.

“You would, wouldn’t you?” Yalson said. He brought his arms up and took her by the shoulders. She was warm, the down on her skin was soft, and the muscles and flesh underneath, over her slim frame, were strong and firm.

“Yes, I would,” he said, and only then realised that he meant it.

It was during this time, between Marjoin and Vavatch, that the Changer found out what he wanted to know about the controls and fidelities of the Clear Air Turbulence.

Kraiklyn wore an identity ring on the small finger of his right hand, and some of the locks in the CAT would work only in the presence of that ring’s electronic signature. The control of the ship depended on an audio-visual identity link; Kraiklyn’s face was recognised by the craft’s computer, as was his voice when he said, “This is Kraiklyn.” It was that simple. The ship had once had a retina recognition lock as well, but it had malfunctioned long before and been removed. Horza was pleased; copying somebody’s retina pattern was a delicate and tricky operation, requiring, amongst a lot of other things, the careful growth of lasing cells around the iris. It almost made more sense to go for a total genetic transcription, where the subject’s own DNA became the model for a virus which left only the Changer’s brain — and, optionally, gonads — unaltered. That wouldn’t be necessary to impersonate Captain Kraiklyn, however.

Horza found out about the ship’s fidelities when he asked the Man for a lesson on how to fly the vessel. Kraiklyn had been reluctant at first, but Horza had not pressed him, and had answered a few of Kraiklyn’s apparently casual questions about computers, which followed this request, with feigned ignorance. Seemingly convinced that teaching Horza how to fly the CAT would not carry the risk of him taking over the ship, Kraiklyn relented and allowed Horza to practise piloting the craft on manual, using the rather crude controls in simulator mode under Mipp’s instruction while the craft went on its way through space towards Vavatch on autopilot.

“This is Kraiklyn,” the ship PA announced to the mess a few hours after they ran through the Culture transmission warning of the Orbital’s destruction. They were sitting around after a meal, drinking or inhaling, relaxing or in Dorolow’s case, making the Circle of Flame sign on her forehead and saying the Prayer of Thanks. The big Orbital was still on the mess screen and had grown much larger, almost filling it with its inner surface daylight side but everybody had grown a little blasé about it and now gave it only the occasional glance. All the remaining Company were there save for Lenipobra and Kraiklyn himself. They looked at each other or the PA speaker when Kraiklyn spoke. “I’ve got a job for us, something I just had confirmed. Wubslin, you get the shuttle ready. I’ll meet the rest of you in the hangar in three ship hours, suited up, team. And don’t worry; this time there’ll be no hostiles. This time it really is you-know-what in and out.” The speaker crackled, then went silent. Horza and Yalson exchanged looks.

“So,” Jandraligeli said, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his neck. The scar marks on his face deepened slightly as he put on an expression of thoughtfulness. “Our esteemed leader has again found us something to employ our slight talents?”

“Better not be in another fuckin’ temple,” Lamm growled, scratching the small horn grafts where they joined his head.

“How are you going to find a temple on Vavatch?” Neisin said. He was slightly drunk, talking more than he normally did when with the others. Lamm turned his face towards the smaller man a few seats away and on the other side of the table.

“You’d better just sober up, friend,” he said.

“Seaships,” Neisin told him, taking the nippled cylinder from the table in front of him. “Nothing but big goddamned seaships on that place. No temples.” He closed his eyes, put his head back and drank.

“There might,” Jandraligeli said, “be temples on the ships.”

“There might be a fucking drunk on this spaceship,” Lamm said, watching Neisin. Neisin looked at him. “You’d better sober up fast, Neisin,” Lamm continued, pointing with one finger at the smaller man.

“Think I’ll head for the hangar,” Wubslin said, standing and walking out of the mess.

“I’m going to see if Kraiklyn wants a hand,” Mipp said, leaving in the opposite direction, through another door.

“Think we could see any of those Megaships yet?” Aviger was looking back at the screen. Dorolow looked up at it, too.

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Lamm told him. “They aren’t that big.”

“They’re big,” Neisin said, nodding to himself and the small cylinder. Lamm looked at him, then at the others, and shook his head. “Yeah,” Neisin said, “they’re pretty big.”

“They’re actually no more than a few kilometres long,” sighed Jandraligeli, sitting back in his chair and looking thoughtful, emphasising the scar marks still further. “So you won’t see them from this far out. But they certainly are large.”

“And they just go round and round the whole Orbital?” Yalson said. She already knew, but she would rather have the Mondlidician talking than Lamm and Neisin arguing. Horza smiled to himself. Jandraligeli nodded.

“For ever and ever. It takes them about forty years to go right round in a circle.”

“Don’t they ever stop?” Yalson asked. Jandraligeli looked at her and raised an eyebrow.

“It takes them several years just to get to full speed, young lady. They weigh about a billion tonnes. They never stop; they just keep going round in circles. Full-size liners go on excursions and act as tenders, and they use aircraft, too.”

“Did you know,” Aviger said, looking round those still seated at the table and leaning forward with his elbows tightly folded, “you actually weigh less on a Megaship? It’s because they go round in the opposite direction from the way the Orbital spins.” Aviger paused and frowned. “Or is it the other way round?”

“Oh fuck,” Lamm said, shaking his head violently, then getting up and leaving.

Jandraligeli frowned. “Fascinating,” he said.

Dorolow smiled at Aviger, and the old man looked round the others nodding. “Well, whatever; it’s a fact,” Aviger declared.

“Right.” Kraiklyn placed one foot up on the shuttle’s rear ramp and put his hands on his hips. He wore a pair of shorts; his suit stood ready to be put on, opened down the chest front like a discarded insect skin, just behind him. “I told you we’ve got a job. This is what it is.” Kraiklyn paused, looked at the Company, standing or sitting or leaning on guns and rifles throughout the hangar. “We’re going to hit one of the Megaships.” He paused, apparently waiting for a reaction. Only Aviger looked surprised and in any way excited; the rest, with only Mipp and the recently woken Lenipobra absent, seemed unimpressed. Mipp was on the bridge; Lenipobra was still struggling to get ready in his cabin.

“Well,” Kraiklyn said, annoyed, “you all know that Vavatch is going to get blown away by the Culture in a few days. People have been getting everything they can off the place, and the Megaships are all abandoned now apart from a few wrecking and salvage teams. I guess all the valuables are off them. But there is one ship called the Olmedreca, where a couple of the teams had a little argument. Some careless person let off a little nuke, and now the Olmedreca’s got a damn great hole in one side. It’s still afloat and it’s still scrubbing off speed, but, because the nuke went off on one side and that hole hasn’t done a lot for the ship’s streamlining, it’s started going round in a big curve, and it’s getting closer to the outside Edgewall all the time. The last transmission I picked up, nobody was sure whether it would hit before the Culture starts blasting or not, but they don’t seem happy to take the chance, so it looks like there isn’t anybody on board.”

“You want us to go onto it,” Yalson said.

“Yeah, because I’ve been on the Olmedreca, and I think I know something people will have forgotten in the rush to get off: bow lasers.”

A few of the Company looked sceptically from one to another. “Yeah, Megaships have bow lasers — especially the Olmedreca. It used to sail through stretches of the Circlesea a lot of the other ships didn’t go through, places where there was a lot of floating weeds or icebergs; it couldn’t exactly manoeuvre out of the way so it had to be able to destroy anything in its path, and have the firepower to do it. The Olmedreca’s front armament would put a few fleet battleships to shame. That thing could frazzle its way through an iceberg bigger than it was itself, and blast islands of floatweed out of the water so big that people used to think it was attacking the Edgeland. My guess — and it’s an educated one because I’ve been reading between the lines of the outcoming signals — is that nobody’s remembered about all that weaponry, and so we’re going to go for it.”

“What if this ship hits the wall while we’re on board?” Dorolow said. Kraiklyn smiled at her.

“We’re not blind, are we? We know where the wall is and we know where… we’ll be able to see where the Olmedreca is. We’ll go down, take a look, and then if we decide we have the time, we’ll remove a few of the smaller lasers… Hell, just one would do. I’m going to be down there, too, you know, and I’m not going to risk my own neck if I can see the Edge wall looming up, am I?”

“We taking the CAT?” Lamm said.

“Not over the top. The Orbital’s got just enough mass to make the warp a tricky proposition, and the fusions would get zapped by the Hub auto-defences; they’d think our motors were meteorites or something. No — we’ll leave the CAT here unmanned. I can always control it remotely from my suit if there’s an emergency. We’ll use the shuttle’s FFD; force fields work fine on an Orbital. Oh, that’s one thing I shouldn’t really have to remind you about; don’t try to use your AG on the place, OK? Anti-gravity works against mass, not spin, so you’d end up taking an unexpected bath if you jumped over the side expecting to fly round to the bows.”

“What do we do after we get this laser, if we get it?” Yalson said. Kraiklyn frowned briefly. He shrugged.

“Probably the best thing is to head for the capital. Its called Evanauth… a port where they used to build the Megaships. It’s on the land, of course…” He smiled, looking at some of the others.

“Yeah,” Yalson said. “But what do we do once we get there?”

“Well…” Kraiklyn looked hard at the woman. Horza kicked her heel with his toe. Yalson glared round at the Changer while Kraiklyn spoke. “We might be able to use the port facilities — in space, that is, on the underside of Evanauth — to mount the laser. But anyway, I’m sure the Culture will be prompt, so we might even just go to sample the last days of one of the most interesting combined ports of call in the galaxy. And its last nights, I might add.” Kraiklyn looked at several of the others, and there was some laughter and a few remarks. He stopped smiling and looked at Yalson again. “So it could be quite interesting, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. All right. You’re the boss, Kraiklyn.” Yalson grinned, then put her head down. Under her breath, to Horza, she hissed, “Guess where the Damage game is?”

“Won’t this big seaship go right through the wall and wreck the Orbital anyway, before the Culture does anything?” Aviger was saying. Kraiklyn smiled condescendingly and shook his head.

“I think you’ll find the Edgewalls are up to it.”

“Ho! I hope so!” Aviger laughed.

“Well, don’t worry about it,” Kraiklyn reassured him. “Now, somebody give Wubslin a hand to run a final check on the shuttle. I’m going up to the bridge to make sure Mipp knows what to do. We’ll be setting off in about ten minutes.” Kraiklyn stepped back and into his suit, gathering it up and putting his arms into the sleeves. He fastened the main chest latches, picked up his helmet and nodded to the Company as he walked by them and up the steps out of the hangar.

“Were you trying to annoy him?” Horza asked Yalson. She turned to the Changer.

“Ah, I just wanted to give him a hint that I could see through him; he doesn’t fool me.”

Wubslin and Aviger were checking the shuttle. Lamm was fiddling with his laser. Jandraligeli stood with arms crossed, his back resting against the hangar bulkhead near the door, eyes raised to the ceiling lights, a bored expression on his face. Neisin was talking quietly to Dorolow, who saw the small man as a possible convert to the Circle of Flame.

“You reckon Evanauth is where this Damage game’s going to be?” Horza asked. He was smiling. Yalson’s face looked very small inside the big, still open neck of her suit, and very serious.

“Yes I do. That devious bastard probably invented the whole goddamn op on this Megaboat thing. He’s never told me he’d been to Vavatch before. Lying bastard.” She looked at Horza, punched him in the suit belly, making him laugh and dance back. “What are you smiling at?”

“You,” Horza laughed. “So what if he wants to go and play a game of Damage? You keep saying it’s his ship and he’s the boss and all that crap, but you won’t let the poor guy have a bit of fun.”

“So why doesn’t he admit it?” Yalson nodded sharply at Horza. “Because he doesn’t want to share any of his winnings, that’s why. The rule is we divide everything we make, sharing it out according to—”

“Well, I can see his point if that’s what it is,” Horza said reasonably. “If he wins in a Damage game it’s all his own work; nothing to do with us.”

“That’s not the point!” Yalson yelled. Her mouth was set in a tight line, her hands were on her hips; she stamped her feet.

“OK,” Horza said, grinning. “So when you bet on me to win my fight with Zallin, why didn’t you give all your winnings right back again?”

“That’s different—” Yalson said in exasperation. But she was interrupted.

“Hey, hey!” Lenipobra came bounding down the steps into the hangar as Horza was about to say something. Both he and Yalson turned to the younger man as he skipped up to them, fastening his suit gloves to the cuffs. “D-d-did you see that message earlier?” He looked excited and didn’t seem to be able to keep still; he kept rubbing his gloved hands together and shuffling his feet. “Novagrade g-gridfire! Wow! What a spectacle! I love the C-Culture! And a C-C-CAM dusting — hoo-wee!” He laughed, doubled at the waist, slapped both hands on the hangar deck, bounced up and smiled at everybody. Dorolow scratched her ears and looked puzzled. Lamm glared at the youth over the barrel of his rifle, while Yalson and Horza looked at each other, shaking their heads. Lenipobra went dancing and shadow-boxing up to Jandraligeli, who raised one eyebrow and watched the gangly young man prancing about in front of him.

“The weaponry of the end of the universe, and this young idiot is practically coming in his pants.”

“Aw, you’re just a spoilsport, Ligeli,” Lenipobra said to the Mondlidician, stopping dancing and dropping his punching arms to turn away and slouch off towards the shuttle. As he passed Yalson and Horza he muttered, “Yalson, what the hell is C-CAM anyway?”

“Collapsed Anti-Matter, kid.” Yalson smiled as Lenipobra kept on walking. Horza laughed soundlessly as the young man’s head nodded inside the open neck of his suit. He walked into the open rear of the shuttle.

The Clear Air Turbulence rolled. The shuttle left the hangar and flew along the underside of the Vavatch Orbital, leaving the spacecraft flying underneath like a tiny silver fish under the hull of some great dark ship.

On a small screen, fitted at one end of the shuttle’s main compartment since its last outing, the suited figures could watch the seemingly endless curve of ultradense base material stretching off into the dark distance, lit by starlight. It was like flying upside-down over a planet made of metal; and of all the sights the galaxy held which were the result of conscious effort, it was one bested for what the Culture would call gawp value only by a big Ring, or a Sphere.

The shuttle crossed a thousand kilometres of the smooth undersurface. Then suddenly above it there was a wedge of darkness, a slant of something which looked even smoother than the base material, but which was clear, transparent and angling out from the base itself and slicing into space like the edge of a crystal knife for two thousand kilometres: the Edgewall. This was the wall bordered by sea, on the far side of the Orbital from the thread of land they had seen on their approach in the CAT. The first ten kilometres of the flat curve were dark as space; their mirror surface showed only when stars reflected on them, and looking at that perfect image the mind could spin, seeing for what looked like light-years when in fact the surface was only a few thousand metres away.

“God, that thing’s big,” Neisin whispered. The shuttle continued to rise, and above it there appeared through the wall a glow of light, a shining expanse of blue.

Into sunlight, hardly filtered through the transparent wall, the shuttle climbed in empty space beside the Edgewall. Two kilometres away there was air, even if it was thin air, but the shuttle climbed in nothing, angling out along with the wall as it sloped towards its line of summit. The shuttle crossed that knife-edge, two thousand kilometres up from the base of the Orbital, then started to follow the slope of wall back down on the inside; it passed through the Orbital’s magnetic field, a region where small magnetised particles of artificial dust blocked out some of the sun’s rays, so making the sea below it cooler than elsewhere on the world, producing Vavatch’s different climates. The shuttle continued to fall: through ions, then thin gases, finally into thin and cloudless air, shuddering in a coriolis jetstream. The sky above turned from black to blue. The Orbital of Vavatch, a fourteen million kilometre hoop of water seemingly hung naked in space, spread out before the falling craft like some vast circular painting.

“Well, at least we’re in daylight,” Yalson said. “Let’s just hope our captain’s information about exactly where this wonderful ship is turns out to be accurate.” The screen showed clouds. As the shuttle fell and flew, it was coming down onto a false landscape of water vapour. The clouds seemed to stretch for ever, along the curved inside surface of the Orbital, which even from that height looked flat, then sweeping up into the black sky above. Only much further away could they see the blue expanse of real ocean, though there were hints of smaller patches closer to hand.

“Don’t worry about the cloud,” Kraiklyn said over the cabin speaker. “That’ll shift as the morning wears on.”

The shuttle was still dropping, still flying forward through the thickening atmosphere. After a while they started going through the first few very high altitude clouds. Horza shifted slightly in his suit; ever since the CAT had matched velocities and curve with the big Orbital, and turned off its own AG, the craft and the Company had been under the same fake gravity of the construction’s spin — slightly more, in fact, because they were stationary relative to the base but further out from it. Vavatch, whose original builders had come from a higher-G planet, was spun to produce about twenty per cent more “gravity” than the accepted human average which the CAT’s generator was set for. So Horza, like the rest of the Company, felt heavier than he was used to. His suit was chafing already.

Clouds filled the cabin screen with grey.

“There it is!” Kraiklyn shouted, not trying to keep the excitement from his voice. He had been quiet for almost a quarter of an hour, and people had started to get restless. The shuttle had banked a few times, this way and that, apparently searching for the Olmedreca. Sometimes the screen had been clear, showing layers of cloud beneath; sometimes it hazed over with grey again as they entered another bank or pillar of vapour. Once it had iced over. “I can see the topmost towers!”

The Company crowded forward in the cabin, getting out of their seats and coming closer to the screen. Only Lamm and Jandraligeli stayed sitting down.

“About fucking time,” Lamm said. “How the hell do you have to look all this time for something four K long?”

“It’s easy when you’ve no radar,” Jandraligeli said. “I’m just thankful we didn’t hit the damn thing while we were flying through those awful clouds.”

“Shit,” Lamm said, and inspected his rifle again.

“…Look at that,” Neisin said.

In a wasteland of clouds, like some vast canyon torn in a planet made of vapour, through kilometres of levels and in a space so long and wide that even in the clear air between the piled clouds the view simply faded rather than ended, the Olmedreca moved.

Its lower levels of superstructure were quite hidden, invisible in the ocean-hugging bank of mist, but from its unseen decks rose immense towers and structures of glass and light metal, rearing hundreds of metres into the clear air. Seemingly unconnected, they moved slowly and smoothly over the flat surface of the low bank of cloud like pieces on an endless game board, casting dim and watery shadows on the opaque top of the mist as the sun of Vavatch’s system shone through layers of cloud ten kilometres above.

As those huge towers moved through the air, they left behind them wisps and strands of vapour, ruffled from the mist’s smooth top by the passage of the great ship beneath. In the small, clear spaces that the towers and higher levels of superstructure left in the mist, lower levels could be seen: walkways and promenades, the linked arches of a monorail system, pools and small parks with trees, even a few pieces of equipment like small flyers and bits of tiny, doll’s-house-like furniture. As the eye and brain grasped the scene, they could, from that height, make out the overall bulge in the surface of the cloud that the ship made — an area of slight uplift in the mist four kilometres long and nearly three wide, and shaped like a stubby pointed leaf or an arrowhead.

The shuttle came lower. The towers, with their glinting windows, their suspended bridges, flyer pads, ariels, railings, decks and flapping awnings, sailed by alongside, silent and dark.

“Well,” Kraiklyn’s voice said in a businesslike way, “looks like we’ll have a bit of a walk to the bows, team. I can’t take us under this lot. Still, we’re a good hundred kilometres away from the Edgewall, so we’ve got plenty of time. The ship isn’t heading straight for it anyway. I’ll put us down as close as I can.”

“Fuck. Here we go,” Lamm said angrily. “I might have known.”

“A long walk in this gravity is just what I need,” Jandraligeli said.

“It’s vast!” Lenipobra was still staring at the screen. “That thing is huge!” He was shaking his head. Lamm got up from his seat, pushed the youth out of the way and banged on the door of the shuttle flight deck.

“What is it?” Kraiklyn said over the cabin speaker. “I’m looking for a place to put down. If that’s you, Lamm, just sit down.”

Lamm stared at the door with a look first of surprise, then of annoyance. He snorted and went back to his seat, shoving past Lenipobra again. “Bastard,” he muttered, then put his helmet visor down and turned it to mirror.

“Right,” Kraiklyn said. “We’re putting down.” Those still standing sat again, and in a few seconds the shuttle bumped carefully down. The doors jawed and a cold gust of air entered through them. They filed out slowly, into the wide views of the silent, rock-steady Megaship. Horza sat in the shuttle waiting for the rest to go, then saw Lamm watching him. Horza stood and gave a mock bow to the darksuited figure.

“After you,” he said.

“No,” Lamm said. “You first.” He nodded his head to one side towards the open doors. Horza went out of the shuttle, followed by Lamm. Lamm always made a point of being last out of the shuttle; it was lucky for him.

They stood on a flyer landing pad, near the base of a large rectangular tower of superstructure, perhaps sixty metres tall. The decks of the tower soared into the sky above, while over the surface of the cloud bank in front, and to all sides of the pad, towers and small bulges in the mist showed where the rest of the ship was, though where it ended it was impossible to tell now that they were so low down. They couldn’t even see where the nuke had gone off; there was no list, not a tremor to reveal that they were really on a damaged ship travelling over an ocean, not standing in a deserted city with clouds moving smoothly past.

Horza joined some of the others by a low restraining wall at the edge of the pad, looking down about twenty metres to a deck just visible now and again through the thin surface of the mist. Streamers of vapour flowed across the area below in long sinuous waves, sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring a deck covered with patches of earth planted with small bushes, with little canopies and chairs scattered about and small tent-like buildings on the surface. It all looked deserted and forlorn, like a resort in winter, and Horza shivered inside his suit. Ahead of them, the view led to an implied point about a kilometre away, where a few small, skinny towers poked out of the cloud bank, near the unseen bows of the craft.

“Looks like we’re heading into even more cloud,” Wubslin said, pointing in the direction they were heading. There a great canyon wall of cloud hung in the air, stretching from one side of the horizon to the other, and higher than any tower on the Megaship. It shone for them in the increasing sunlight.

“Maybe it’ll go away as it gets warmer,” Dorolow said, not sounding convinced.

“If we hit that lot we can forget about these lasers,” Horza said, looking round from the rest towards the shuttle, where Kraiklyn was talking to Mipp, who was to stay on guard at the shuttle craft while the rest went forward to the bows. “With no radar we’ll have to lift off before we go into the cloud bank.”

“Maybe—” Yalson began.

“Well, I’m going to take a look down there,” Lenipobra said, bringing his visor down and putting one hand on the low parapet. Horza looked across at him.

Lenipobra waved. “See you at the b-bows; ya-hoo!”

He vaulted cleanly over the parapet and started to fall towards the deck five storeys below. Horza had opened his mouth to shout, and started forward to grab the youth, but, like the rest of them, he had realised too late what Lenipobra was doing.

One second he was there, the next he had leapt over.

“No!”

“Leni—!” Those not already looking down rushed to the parapet; the tiny figure was tumbling. Horza saw it and hoped that somehow it could pull up, stop, do something. The scream started in their helmets when Lenipobra was less than ten metres from the deck below; it ended abruptly the instant the spread-eagled figure crashed onto the border of a small earthed area. It bounced slackly for about a metre over the deck, then lay still.

“Oh my God…” Neisin suddenly sat down, took off his helmet and put his hand to his eyes. Dorolow put her head down and started to unfasten her helmet.

“What the hell was that?” Kraiklyn was running over from the shuttle, Mipp behind him. Horza was still looking over the parapet, down at the still, doll-like figure crumpled on the deck below. Mist thickened around it as the wisps and streamers grew thicker for a while.

“Lenipobra! Lenipobra!” Wubslin shouted into his helmet microphone. Yalson turned away and swore to herself softly, turning off her transmit intercom. Aviger stood, shaking, his face blank inside his helmet visor. Kraiklyn skidded to a halt at the parapet, then looked over.

“Leni—?” He looked round at the others. “Is that—? What happened? What was he doing? If any of you were fooling—”

“He jumped,” Jandraligeli said. His voice was shaky. He tried to laugh. “Guess kids these days just can’t tell their gravity from their rotating frame of reference.”

He jumped?” Kraiklyn shouted. He grabbed Jandraligeli by the suit collar. “How could he jump? I told you AG wouldn’t work, I told you all, when we were in the hangar…”

“He was late,” Lamm broke in. He kicked at the thin metal of the parapet, failing to dent it. “The stupid little bastard was late. None of us thought to tell him.”

Kraiklyn let go of Jandraligeli and looked around the rest.

“It’s true,” Horza said. He shook his head. “I just didn’t think. None of us did. Lamm and Jandraligeli were even complaining about having to walk to the bows when Leni was in the shuttle, and you mentioned it, but I suppose he just didn’t hear.” Horza shrugged. “He was excited.”

He shook his head.

“We all fucked up,” Yalson said heavily. She had turned her communicator back on. Nobody spoke for a while. Kraiklyn stood and looked round them, then went to the parapet, put both hands on it and looked down.

“Leni?” Wubslin said into his communicator, looking down too. His voice was quiet.

“Chicel-Horhava,” Dorolow made the Circle of Flame sign, closed her eyes and said, “Sweet lady, accept his soul in peace.”

“Wormshit,” Lamm swore, and turned away. He started firing the laser at distant, higher parts of the tower above them.

“Dorolow,” Kraiklyn said, “you, Wubslin and Yalson head down there. See what… ah, shit…” Kraiklyn turned round. “Get down there. Mipp, you drop them a line or the medkit, whatever. The rest of us… we’re going forward to the bows, all right?” He looked around them, challenging. “You might want to go back, but that just means he’s died for nothing.”

Yalson turned away, switching off her transmit button again.

“Might as well,” Jandraligeli said. “I suppose.”

“Not me,” Neisin said. “I’m not. I’m staying here, with the shuttle.” He sat with his head bowed between his shoulders, his helmet on the deck. He stared at the deck and shook his head. “Not me. No sir, not me. I’ve had it for today. I’m staying here.”

Kraiklyn looked at Mipp and nodded at Neisin. “Look after him.” He turned to Dorolow and Wubslin. “Get going. You never know; you might be able to do something. Yalson — you, too.” Yalson wasn’t looking at Kraiklyn but she turned and followed Wubslin and the other woman when they set off to find a way down to the lower deck.

A crash they felt through their soles made them all jump. They turned round to see Lamm, a distant figure against the far-away clouds, firing up at flyer-pad supports five or six decks above, the invisible beam licking flame around the stressed metal. Another pad gave way, flapping and spinning like a huge playing-card, smashing into the level they stood on with another deck-quivering thump. “Lamm!” Kraiklyn burst out. “Stop that!”

The black suit with the raised rifle pretended not to hear, and Kraiklyn lifted his own heavy laser and flicked the trigger. A section of deck five metres in front of Lamm ruptured in flame and glowing metal, heaving up, then collapsing back down, a blister of gases blowing out from it rocking Lamm off his feet so that he staggered and almost fell. He steadied and stood, visibly shaking with rage, even from that distance. Kraiklyn still had the gun pointing towards him. Lamm straightened and shouldered his own gun, coming back almost at a saunter, as though nothing had happened. The others relaxed slightly.

Kraiklyn got them all together; then they set off, following Dorolow, Yalson and Wubslin to the inside of the tower and a broad sweeping spiral of carpeted staircase which led down, into the Megaship the Olmedreca.

“Dead as a fossil,” Yalson’s voice said bitterly in their helmet speakers, when they were about halfway down. “Dead as a goddamned fossil.”

When they passed them on their way to the bows, Yalson and Wubslin were waiting by the body for the winch line Mipp was lowering from above. Dorolow was praying.

They crossed over the deck level Lenipobra had died on, down into the mist and along a narrow gangway with nothing but empty space on either side. “Just five metres,” Kraiklyn said, using the light needle radar in his Rairch suit to plumb the depths of vapour below them. The mist was getting slowly thinner as they went on, up again onto another deck, now clear, then down again, by outside stairs and long ramps. The sun was hazily visible a few times, a red disc which sometimes brightened and sometimes dimmed. They crossed decks, skirted swimming pools, traversed promenades and landing pads, went past tables and chairs, through groves and under awnings, arcades and arches. They saw towers above them through the mist, and a couple of times looked down into huge pits carved out of the ship and lined with yet more decks and opened areas, from the bottom of which they thought they could hear the sea. The swirling mist lay in the bottom of such great bowls like a broth of dreams.

They stopped at a line of small, open, wheeled vehicles with seats and gaily striped awnings for roofs. Kraiklyn looked around, getting his bearings. Wubslin tried starting the vehicles, but none of the small cars were working.

“There are two ways to go here,” Kraiklyn said, frowning as he looked forward. The sun was briefly bright above, turning the vapour over them and to each side golden with its rays. The lines of some unknown sport or game lay drawn out on the deck under their feet. A tower forced out of the mist to one side, the curls and whorls of mist moving like huge arms, dimming the sun again. Its shadow cut across the path in front of them. “We’ll split up.” Kraiklyn looked around. “I’ll go that way with Aviger and Jandraligeli. Horza and Lamm, you go that way.” He pointed to one side. “That’s leading down to one of the side prows. There ought to be something there; just keep looking.” He touched a wrist button. “Yalson?”

“Hello,” Yalson said over the intercom. She, Wubslin and Dorolow had watched Lenipobra’s body being winched up to the shuttle and then left, following the rest.

“Right,” Kraiklyn said, looking at one of the helmet screens, “you’re only about three hundred metres away.” He turned and looked back the way they had come. A collection of towers, some kilometres away, were strung out behind them now, mostly starting at higher levels. They could see more and more of the Olmedreca. Mist streamed quietly past them in the silence. “Oh yeah,” Kraiklyn said, “I see you.” He waved.

Some small figures on a distant deck at the side of one of the great mist-filled bowls waved back. “I see you, too,” Yalson said.

“When you get to where we are now, head over to the left for the other side prow; there are subsidiary lasers there. Horza and Lamm will—”

“Yeah, we heard,” Yalson said.

“Right. We’ll be able to bring the shuttle closer, maybe right down to wherever we find anything soon. Let’s go. Keep your eyes open.” He nodded at Aviger and Jandraligeli, and they went forward. Lamm and Horza looked at each other, then set off in the direction Kraiklyn had indicated. Lamm motioned to Horza to switch off his communicator transmit and open his visor.

“If we’d waited we could have put the shuttle down where we wanted to in the first place,” he said with his own visor open. Horza agreed.

“Stupid little bastard,” Lamm said.

“Who?” asked Horza.

“That kid. Jumping off the goddamned platform.”

“Hmm.”

“Know what I’m going to do?” Lamm looked at the Changer.

“What?”

“I’m going to cut that stupid little bastard’s tongue out, that’s what I’m going to do. A tattooed tongue should be worth something, shouldn’t it? Little bastard owed me money anyway. What do you think? How much do you think it’d be worth?”

“No idea.”

“Little bastard…” Lamm muttered.

The two men tramped along the deck, angling away from the dead-ahead line they had taken previously. It was difficult to tell where exactly they were heading, but according to Kraiklyn it was towards one of the side prows, which stuck out like enormous outriggers attached to the Olmedreca and formed harbours for the liners which had shuttled to and from the Megaship in its heyday, on excursions, or working as tenders.

They passed where there had evidently been a recent fire-fight; laser burns, smashed glass and torn metal littered an accommodation section of the ship, and torn curtains and wall hangings flapped in the steady breeze of the great ship’s progress. Two of the small wheeled vehicles lay smashed on their sides near by. They crunched over the debris and kept walking. The other two groups were heading forward, too, making reasonable progress according to their reports and chatter. Ahead of them there still lay the enormous bank of cloud they had seen earlier; it wasn’t growing any thinner or lower, and they could only be a couple of kilometres from it now, though distances were hard to estimate.

“We’re here,” Kraiklyn said eventually, his voice crackling in Horza’s ear. Lamm turned his transmit channel on.

“What?” He looked, mystified, at Horza, who shrugged.

“What’s keeping you two?” Kraiklyn said. “We had further to walk. We’re at the main bows. They stick further out than the bit you’re on.”

“The hell you are, Kraiklyn,” Yalson broke in from the other team, which was supposed to be heading for the opposite set of side prows.

“What?” Kraiklyn said. Lamm and Horza stopped to listen to the exchange over their communicators. Yalson spoke again:

“We’ve just come to the edge of the ship. In fact I think we’re a bit out from the main side… on some sort of wing or buttress… Anyway, there’s no side prow around here. You’ve sent us in the wrong direction.”

“But you…” Kraiklyn began. His voice died away.

“Kraiklyn, dammit, you’ve sent us towards the bow and you’re on a side prow!” Lamm yelled into his helmet mike. Horza had been coming to the same conclusion. That was why they were still walking and Kraiklyn’s team had reached the bows. There was silence from the Clear Air Turbulence’s captain for a few seconds, then he said:

“Shit, you must be right.” They could hear him sigh. “I guess you and Horza had better keep going. I’ll send somebody down in your direction once we’ve had a quick look round here. I think I can see some sort of gallery with a lot of transparent blisters where there might be some lasers. Yalson, you head back to where we split up and tell me when you get there. We’ll see who comes up with something useful first.”

“Fucking marvellous,” Lamm said, stamping off into the mist. Horza followed, wishing the ill-fitting suit didn’t rub so much.

The two men walked on. Lamm stopped to investigate some state rooms which had already been looted. Fine materials snagged on broken glass floated like the cloud around them. In one apartment they saw rich wooden furniture, a holosphere lying broken in a corner and a glass-sided water tank the size of a room, full of rotting, brilliantly coloured fish and fine clothes, floating together on the surface like exotic weeds.

Over their communicators Horza and Lamm heard the others in Kraiklyn’s group find what they thought was a door leading to the gallery where — they hoped — they would find lasers behind the transparent bubbles they had seen earlier. Horza told Lamm they had best not waste their time, and so they left the state rooms and went back out onto the deck to continue heading forward.

“Hey, Horza,” Kraiklyn said, as the Changer and Lamm walked along the deck and into a long tunnel lit by dim sunlight coming through mist and opaque ceiling panels. “This needle radar’s not working properly.”

Horza answered as they walked. “What’s wrong?”

“It isn’t going through cloud, that’s what’s wrong.”

“I never really got a chance to… What do you mean?” Horza stopped in the corridor. He felt something wrong in his guts. Lamm kept walking, away from him, down the corridor.

“It’s giving me a reading off that big cloud in front, right the way along and about half a K up.” Kraiklyn laughed. “It isn’t the Edgewall, that’s for sure, and I can see that’s a cloud, and it’s closer than the needle says it is.”

“Where are you now?” Dorolow broke in. “Did you find any lasers? What about that door?”

“No, just a sort of sun lounge or something,” Kraiklyn said.

“Kraiklyn!” Horza shouted. “Are you sure about that reading?”

“I’m sure. The needle says—”

“Sure isn’t much fucking sun to lounge—” somebody broke in, though it sounded as if it was accidental and they didn’t know their transmit was on. Horza felt sweat start out on his brow. Something was wrong.

“Lamm!” he shouted. Lamm, thirty metres away down the corridor, turned as he walked and looked back. “Come back!” Horza shouted. Lamm stopped.

“Horza, there can’t be anything—”

“Kraiklyn!” This time it was Mipp’s voice, calling from the shuttle. “There was somebody else here. I just saw another craft take off somewhere behind where we landed; they’ve gone now.”

“OK, thanks Mipp,” Kraiklyn said, his voice calm. “Listen, Horza, from what I can see from here, the bows where you are have just gone into the cloud, so it is a cloud… Shit, we can all see it’s a goddamn cloud. Don’t—”

The ship shuddered under Horza’s feet. He rocked. Lamm looked at him, puzzled. “Did you feel that?” Horza shouted.

“Feel what?” Kraiklyn said.

“Kraiklyn?” It was Mipp again. “I can see something…”

“Lamm, get back here!” Horza shouted, through the air and into his helmet mike together. Lamm looked around him. Horza thought he could feel a continuing tremor in the deck below.

“What did you feel?” Kraiklyn said. He was starting to get annoyed.

Yalson chipped in, “I thought I felt something. Nothing much. But listen, these things aren’t supposed to… they aren’t supposed to—”

“Kraiklyn,” Mipp said more urgently, “I think I can see—”

“Lamm!” Horza was backing off now, back down the long tunnel of corridor. Lamm stayed where he was, looking hesitant.

Horza could hear something, a curious growling noise; it reminded him of a jet engine or a fusion motor heard from a very long distance away, but it wasn’t either. He could feel something under his feet, too — that tremor, and there was some sort of pull, a tug that seemed to be dragging him forward, towards Lamm, towards the bows, as though he was in a weak field, or—

“Kraiklyn!” Mipp yelled. “I can! There is! I — you — I’m—” he spluttered.

“Look, will you all just calm down?”

“I can feel something…” Yalson began.

Horza started running, pounding back down the corridor. Lamm, who had started to walk back, stopped and put his hands on his hips when he saw the other man running, away from him. There was a distant roaring noise in the air, like a big waterfall heard from far down a gorge.

“I can feel something too, it’s as if—”

“What was Mipp yelling about?”

“We’re crashing!” Horza shouted as he ran. The roaring was coming closer, growing stronger all the time.

“Ice!” It was Mipp. “I’m bringing the shuttle! Run! It’s a wall of ice! Neisin! Where are you? Neisin! I’ve got—”

“What!”

ICE?”

The roaring noise grew; the corridor around Horza started to groan. Several of the opaque roof panels fractured and fell to the floor in front of him. A section of wall suddenly sprang out like an opening door and he just avoided running into it. The noise filled his ears.

Lamm looked round, and saw the end of the corridor coming towards him; the whole end section was closing off steadily with a grinding roar, advancing towards him at about running speed. He fired at it but it didn’t stop; smoke poured into the corridor. He swore, turned and ran, following Horza.

People were yelling and shouting from all over now. There was a babble of tiny voices in both Horza’s ears, but all he could really hear was the thundering noise behind him. The deck beneath his feet bucked and trembled, as though the whole gigantic ship was a building caught in an earthquake. The plates and panels which made up the corridor walls were buckling; the floor rose up in places; more roof panels shattered and fell. All the time the same sapping force was pulling him back, slowing him down as though he was in a dream. He ran out into daylight, heard Lamm not far behind.

“Kraiklyn, you stupid motherfucking son of a bitch’s bastard!” Lamm screamed.

The voices yammered in his ear; his heart pounded. He threw each foot forward with all his might, but the roaring was coming closer, growing stronger. He ran past the empty state rooms where the soft materials blew, the roof was starting to fold in on the apartments and the deck was tilting; the holosphere they had seen earlier came rolling and bouncing out of the collapsing windows. A hatch near Horza blew out in a gust of pressured air and flying debris; he ducked as he ran, felt splinters strike his suit. He skidded as the deck under him banged and leapt. Lamm’s steps came pounding behind him. Lamm continued to scream abuse at Kraiklyn over the intercom.

The noise behind him was like a gigantic waterfall, a big rock-slide, like a continuous explosion, a volcano. His ears ached and his mind reeled, stunned by the volume of the racket. A line of windows set in the wall ahead of him went white, then exploded towards him, throwing particles at his suit in a series of small hard clouds. He put his head down again, he headed for the doorway.

“Bastard bastard bastard!” Lamm bellowed.

“— not stopping!”

“— over here!”

“Shut up, Lamm.”

“Horzaaa…!”

Voices screamed in his ear. He was running on carpet now, inside a broad corridor; open doors were flapping, light fittings on the ceiling were vibrating. Suddenly a deluge of water swept across the corridor in front of him, twenty metres away, and for a second he thought he was at sea level, but knew he couldn’t be; when he ran over the place where the water had been he could see and hear it frothing and gurgling down a broad spiral stairwell, and only a few dribbles were falling from overhead. The tugging of the slowly decelerating ship seemed less now, but the roar of noise was still all around him. He was weakening, running in a daze, trying to keep his balance as the long corridor vibrated and twisted around him. Now a rush of air was flowing past him; some sheets of paper and plastic flapped past him like coloured birds.

“— bastard bastard bastard—”

“Lamm—”

There was daylight ahead, through a glassed-over sun deck of broad windows. He jumped through some big-leaved plants growing in large pots and landed in a group of flimsy chairs set round a small table, demolishing them.

“— fucking stupid bast—”

“Lamm, shut up!” Kraiklyn’s voice broke in. “We can’t hear—”

The line of windows ahead went white, cracking like ice then bursting out; he dived through the space, to skid over the fragments scattered on the deck beyond. Behind him, the top and bottom of the shattered windows started to close slowly, like a huge mouth.

“You bastard! You motherfu—”

“Dammit, change channels! Go to—”

He slipped on the shards of glass, almost falling.

Only Lamm’s voice sounded through his helmet now, filling his ears with oaths which were mostly drowned in the smothering roar of the endless wreck behind. He looked back, just for a second, to see Lamm throwing himself between the jaws of the crumpling windows; he careened over the deck, falling and rolling, then rising again, still holding his gun, as Horza looked away. It was only at that point he realised he no longer had his own gun; he must have dropped it, but he couldn’t remember where or when.

Horza was slowing down. He was fit and strong, but the above-standard pull of Vavatch’s false gravity and the badly fitting suit were taking their toll.

He tried, as he ran in something like a trance, as his breath streamed back and forth through his wide-open mouth, to imagine how close they had been to the bows, for how long that immense weight of ship behind would be able to compress its front section as its billion-tonne mass rammed into what must — if it had filled the cloud bank they had seen earlier — be a massive tabular iceberg.

As though in a dream, Horza could see the ship about him, still wrapped in clouds and mist but lit from above by the wash of golden sunlight. The towers and spires seemed unaffected, the whole vast structure still sliding forward towards the ice as the kilometres of Megaship behind them pressed forward with the vessel’s own titanic momentum. He ran by game courts, past tents of billowing silver, through a pile of musical instruments. Ahead there was a huge tiered wall of more decks, and above him were bridges, swaying and thrashing as their bow-ward supports, out of sight behind him, came closer to the advancing wave of wreckage and were consumed. He saw the deck to one side drop away into airy, hazy nothing. The deck under his feet started to rise, slowly, but for fifteen metres or more in front of him; he was fighting his way up a slope growing steeper all the time. A suspension bridge to his left collapsed, wires flailing; it disappeared into the golden mist, the noise of its fall lost in the crushing din assaulting his ears. His feet started to slide on the tilt of deck. He fell, landed heavily on his back and turned, looking behind him.

Against a wall of pure white towering higher than the Olmedreca’s tallest spire, the Megaship was throwing itself to destruction in a froth of debris and ice. It was like the biggest wave in the universe, rendered in scrap metal, sculpted in grinding junk; and beyond and about it, over and through, cascades of flashing, glittering ice and snow swept down in great slow veils from the cliff of frozen water beyond. Horza stared at it, then started to slide down towards it as the deck tilted him. To his left a huge tower was collapsing slowly, bowing to the breaking wave of compacted wreckage like a slave before a master. Horza felt a scream start in his throat as he saw decks and railings, walls and bulkheads and frames he had only just run past start to crumple and smash and come towards him.

He rolled over sliding shards and skidding fragments to the buckling rail at the edge of the deck, grabbed at the rails, caught them, heaved with both arms, kicked with one foot, and threw himself over the side.

He fell only one deck, crashing into sloped metal, winding himself. He got to his feet as fast as he could, sucking air through his mouth and swallowing as he tried to get his lungs to work. The narrow deck he was on was also buckling, but the fold-point was between him and the wall of towering, grinding wreckage; he slipped and slid away from it down the sloping surface as the deck behind him rose into a peak. Metal tore, and girders crashed out of the deck above like broken bones through skin. A set of steps faced him, leading to the deck he’d just jumped from, but to an area that was still level. He scrambled up to the level deck, which only then started to tip, canting away from the wave front of debris as its front edge lifted, crumpling.

He ran down the increasing slope, water from shallow ornamental pools cascading around him. More steps: he hauled himself towards the next deck.

His chest and throat seemed filled with hot coals, his legs with molten lead, and all the time that awful, nightmarish pull came from behind, dragging him back towards the wreckage. He stumbled and gasped his way from the top of the steps past the side of a broken, drained swimming pool.

“Horza!” a voice yelled. “Is that you? Horza! It’s Mipp! Look up!”

Horza lifted his head. In the mist, thirty metres above him, was the CAT’s shuttle. He waved weakly at it, staggering as he did so. The shuttle lowered itself through the mist ahead of him, its rear doors opening, until it was hovering just over the next deck above.

“I’ve opened the doors! Jump in!” Mipp shouted. Horza tried to reply, but could produce no sound apart from a sort of rasping wheeze; he staggered on, feeling as though the bones in his legs had turned to jelly. The heavy suit bumped and crashed around him, his feet slipped on the broken glass which covered the thrumming deck under his boots. Yet more steps towered ahead, leading to the deck where the shuttle waited. “Hurry up, Horza! I can’t wait much longer!”

He threw himself at the steps, hauled himself up. The shuttle wavered in the air, swivelling, its open rear ramp pointing at him, then away. The steps beneath him shuddered; the noise around him roared, full of screams and crashes. Another voice was shouting in his ears but he couldn’t make out the words. He fell onto the upper deck, lunged forward for the shuttle ramp a few metres away; he could see the seats and lights inside, Lenipobra’s suited body slumped in one corner.

“I can’t wait! I’ve—” Mipp shouted above the scream of the wreckage and the other shouting voice. The shuttle started to rise. Horza threw himself at it.

His hands caught the lip of the ramp just as it rose level with his chest. He was hoisted from the deck, swinging under outstretched arms and looking forward under the shuttle’s fuselage belly as the craft forced its way up into the air.

“Horza! Horza! I’m sorry,” Mipp sobbed.

“You’ve got me!” Horza yelled hoarsely.

“What?”

The shuttle was still climbing, passing decks and towers and the thin horizontal lines of monorail tracks. All Horza’s weight was taken by his fingers, hooked in their gloves over the edge of the ramp door. His arms ached. “I’m hanging onto the goddamn ramp!”

“You bastards!” screamed another voice. It was Lamm. The ramp started to close; the jerk almost broke Horza’s grip. They were fifty metres up and climbing. He saw the top part of the doors jawing down towards his fingers.

“Mipp!” he yelled. “Don’t close the door! Leave the ramp where it is and I’ll try to get in!”

“OK,” Mipp said quickly. The ramp stopped angling up, halting at about twenty degrees. Horza began swinging his legs from side to side. They were seventy, eighty metres up, facing away from the wave of wreckage and heading slowly away from it.

“You black bastard! Come back!” Lamm bellowed.

“I can’t, Lamm!” Mipp cried. “I can’t! You’re too close!”

“You fat bastard!” Lamm hissed.

Light flickered around Horza. The underside of the shuttle blazed in a dozen places as laser fire hit it. Something slammed into Horza’s left foot, on the sole of his boot, and his right leg was kicked out as his leg burned with pain.

Mipp screamed incoherently. The shuttle started to gather speed, heading back over the Megaship and diagonally across it. The air roared around Horza’s body, slowly tearing his grip away. “Mipp, slow down!” he shouted.

“Bastard!” Lamm yelled again. The mist to one side glowed as a fan of short-lived beams incandesced within it, then the laser fire shifted and the shuttle sparkled again, cracking with five or six small explosions around the front and nose section. Mipp howled. The shuttle increased speed. Horza was still trying to swing one leg onto the sloped ramp, but the clawed fingers of his gloves were slowly scraping along the roughened surface as his body was slipstreamed back behind the speeding craft.

Lamm screamed — a high, gurgling sound which went through Horza’s head like an electric shock, until the noise snapped off suddenly, replaced for an instant by sharp cracking, breaking noises.

The shuttle raced over the surface of the crashing Megaship, a hundred metres up. Horza felt the strength ebbing from his fingers and arms. He looked through the helmet visor at the interior of the shuttle only a few metres away as, millimetre by millimetre, he slipped away from it.

The interior flashed once, then an instant later blazed white, blindingly, unbearably. His eyes closed instinctively, and a burning yellow light came through his eyelids. His helmet speakers made a sudden, piercing, inhuman noise, like a machine screaming, then cut out altogether. The light faded slowly. He opened his eyes.

The shuttle interior was still brightly lit, but it was smouldering now, too. In the turbulent air whirling in from the open rear doors, wisps of smoke were tugged from scorched seats, singed straps and webbing, and the crisped black skin on Lenipobra’s exposed face. Shadows seemed to be burnt onto the bulkhead in front.

Horza’s fingers, one by one, came to the edge of the ramp.

My God, he thought, looking at the scorch marks and the smoke, that maniac had a nuke after all. Then the shock wave hit.

It slapped him forward, over the ramp and into the shuttle, just before it hit the machine itself, throwing it bucking and bouncing about the sky like a tiny bird caught in a storm. Horza was rattled about the interior from side to side, trying desperately to grab hold of something to stop himself falling back out through the open rear doors. His hand found some straps and fisted round them with the last of his strength.

Back through the doors, through the mist, a huge rolling fireball was climbing slowly into the sky. A noise like every clap of thunder he had ever heard vibrated through the hot, hazed interior of the fleeing machine. The shuttle banked, throwing Horza against one set of seats. A big tower flashed by the open rear doors, blocking out the fireball as the shuttle continued to turn. The rear doors seemed to try to close, then jammed.

Horza felt heavy and hot inside his suit, as the heat from the bomb’s flash seeped through from the surfaces which had been exposed to the initial fireball. His right leg hurt badly, somewhere below the knee. He could smell burning.

As the shuttle steadied and its course straightened, Horza got up and limped forward to the door set in the bulkhead, where the outlines of the seats and Lenipobra’s slumped body — now spread-eagled near the rear doors — were burnt in frozen shadows onto the off-white surface of the wall. He opened the door and went through.

Mipp was in the pilot’s seat, hunched over the controls. The monitor screens were blank, but the view through the thick, polarised glass of the shuttle’s windscreen showed cloud, mist, some towers sliding underneath and open sea beyond, covered with yet more cloud. “Thought you… were dead…” Mipp said thickly, half turning towards Horza. Mipp looked wounded, crouched in his seat, hunchbacked, eyelids drooped. Sweat glistened on his dark brow. There was smoke in the flight deck, acrid and sweet at once.

Horza took his helmet off and fell into the other seat. He looked down at his right leg. A neat, black-rimmed hole about a centimetre across had been punched through the back of the suit calf, matched by a larger and more ragged hole on the side. He flexed the leg and winced; just a muscle burn, already cauterised. He could see no blood.

He looked at Mipp. “You all right?” he asked. He already knew the answer.

Mipp shook his head. “No,” he said, in a soft voice. “That lunatic hit me. Leg, and my back somewhere.”

Horza looked at the back of Mipp’s suit, near where it rested against the seat. A hole in the bowl of the seat led to a long, dark scar on the suit surface. Horza looked down at the flight-deck floor. “Shit,” he said. “This thing’s full of holes.”

The floor was pitted with craters. Two were directly under Mipp’s seat; one laser shot had caused that dark scar on the side of the suit, the other must have hit Mipp’s body.

“Feels like that bastard shot me right up the ass, Horza,” Mipp said, trying to smile. “He did have a nuke, didn’t he? That’s what went off. Blew all the electrics away… Only the optic controls still working. Useless damn shuttle…”

“Mipp, let me take over,” Horza said. They were in cloud now; only a vague coppery light showed through the crystal screen ahead. Mipp shook his head.

“Can’t. You couldn’t fly this thing… with it in this shape.”

“We’ve got to go back, Mipp. The others might have—”

“Can’t. They’ll all be dead,” Mipp said, shaking his head and gripping the controls tighter, staring through the screen. “God, this thing’s dying.” He looked round the blank monitors, shaking his head slowly. “I can feel it.”

“Shit!” Horza said, feeling helpless. “What about radiation?” he said suddenly. It was a truism that in any properly designed suit, if you survived the flash and blast, you’d survive the radiation; but Horza wasn’t sure that his was a properly designed suit. One of the many instruments it lacked was a radiation monitor, and that was a bad sign in itself. Mipp looked at a small screen on the console.

“Radiation…” He shook his head. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Low on neutrons…” he grimaced with pain. “Pretty clean bomb; probably not what that bastard wanted at all. He should take it back to the shop…” Mipp gave a small, strangled, despairing laugh.

“We have to go back, Mipp,” Horza said. He tried to imagine Yalson, running away from the wreckage with a better start than he and Lamm had had. He told himself she’d have made it, that when the bomb had gone off, she’d have been far enough away not to be injured by it, and that the ship would finally stop, the metal glacier of wreckage slowing and halting. But how would she or any of the others get off the Megaship, if any of them had survived? He tried the shuttle’s communicator, but it was as dead as his suit’s.

“You won’t raise them,” Mipp said, shaking his head. “You can’t raise the dead. I heard them; they cut off, while they were running. I was trying to tell them—”

“Mipp, they changed channels, that was all. Didn’t you hear Kraiklyn? They swapped channels because Lamm was shouting so much.”

Mipp crouched in his seat, shaking his head. “I didn’t hear that,” he said after a moment. “That wasn’t what I heard. I was trying to tell them about the ice… the size of it; the height.” He shook his head again. “They’re dead, Horza.”

“They were well away from us, Mipp,” Horza said quietly. “At least a kilometre. They probably survived. If they were in shadow, if they’d run when we did… They were further back. They’re probably alive, Mipp. We’ve got to go back and get them.”

Mipp shook his head. “Can’t, Horza. They must be dead. Even Neisin. Went off for a walk… after you had all gone. Had to leave without him. Couldn’t raise him. They must be dead. All of them.”

“Mipp,” Horza said, “it wasn’t a very big nuke.”

Mipp laughed, then groaned. He shook his head again. “So what? You didn’t see that ice, Horza; it was—”

Just then the shuttle lurched. Horza looked quickly to the screen, but there was only the glowing light of the cloud they were flying through, all around them. “Oh God,” Mipp whispered, “we’re losing it.”

“What’s wrong?” Horza asked. Mipp shrugged painfully.

“Everything. I think we’re dropping, but I’ve no altimeter, no airspeed indicator, communicator or nav gear: nothing… Running rough because of all these holes and the doors being open.”

“We’re losing height?” Horza asked, looking at Mipp.

Mipp nodded. “You want to start throwing things out?” he said. “Well, throw things out. Might get us more height.” The shuttle lurched again.

“You’re serious,” Horza said, starting to get out of the seat. Mipp nodded.

“We’re dropping. I’m serious. Damn, even if we did go back we couldn’t take this thing over the Edgewall, not even with one or two of us just…” Mipp’s voice trailed off.

Horza levered himself painfully out of his seat and through the door.

In the passenger compartment there was smoke, mist and noise. The hazy light streamed through the doors. He tried to tear the seats from the walls, but they wouldn’t move. He looked at Lenipobra’s broken body and burned face. The shuttle lurched; for a second Horza felt lighter inside his suit. He grabbed Lenipobra’s suit by the arm and hauled the dead youth to the ramp. He pushed the corpse over the ramp, and the limp husk fell, vanishing into the mist below. The shuttle banked one way, then the other, almost throwing Horza off his feet.

He found some other bits and pieces: a spare suit helmet, a length of thin rope, an AG harness and a heavy gun tripod. He threw them out. He found a small fire extinguisher. He looked round but there didn’t seem to be any flames and the smoke hadn’t got any worse. He held onto the extinguisher and went through to the flight deck. The smoke appeared to be clearing there, too.

“How are we doing?” he asked. Mipp shook his head.

“Don’t know.” He nodded at the seat Horza had been sitting in. “You can unlock that from the deck. Throw it out.”

Horza found the latches securing the seat to the deck. He undid them and dragged the seat through the door, to the ramp, and threw it out along with the extinguisher.

“There are catches on the walls, near this bulkhead,” Mipp called, then grunted with pain. He went on, “You can detach the wall seats.”

Horza found the catches, and pushed first one line of seats, then the other, complete with straps and webbing, along the rails fixed to the shuttle interior, until they rolled out, bouncing on the ramp edge and then spinning away into the glowing mist. He felt the shuttle bank again.

The door between the passenger compartment and the flight deck slammed shut. Horza went forward to it; it was locked.

“Mipp!” he shouted.

“Sorry, Horza,” Mipp’s voice came weakly from the other side of the door. “I can’t go back. Kraiklyn would kill me if he isn’t dead already. But I couldn’t find them. I just couldn’t. It was only luck I saw you.”

“Mipp, don’t be crazy. Unlock the door.” Horza shook it. It wasn’t strong; he could break his way through it if he had to.

“Can’t, Horza… Don’t try to force the door; I’ll point her nose straight down; I swear it. We can’t be that high above the sea anyway… I can hardly keep her flying as it is… If you want, try closing the doors manually. There should be an access panel somewhere on the rear wall.”

“Mipp, for God’s sake, where are you going? They’re going to blow the place up in a few days. We can’t fly for ever.”

“Oh, we’ll ditch before that,” Mipp’s voice came from behind the closed door. He sounded tired. “We’ll ditch before they blow the Orbital up, Horza, don’t you worry. This thing’s dying.”

“But where are you going?” Horza repeated, shouting at the door.

“Don’t know, Horza. The far side maybe… Evanauth… I don’t know. Just away. I—” There was a thump as though something had fallen to the floor, and Mipp cursed. The shuttle juddered, heeling over briefly.

“What is it?” Horza asked anxiously.

“Nothing,” Mipp said. “I dropped the medkit, that’s all.”

“Shit,” Horza said under his breath, and sat down, back against the bulkhead.

“Don’t worry, Horza, I’ll… I’ll… do what I can.”

“Yes, Mipp,” Horza said. He got to his feet again, ignoring the ache of exhaustion in both legs and the stabbing pain in his right calf, and went to the rear of the shuttle. He looked for an access panel, found one and prised it open. It revealed another fire extinguisher; he threw it out, too. On the other wall the panel led to a hand crank. Horza twisted the grip. The doors started to close slowly, then jammed. He strained at the lever until it snapped; he swore and threw it out as well.

Just then the shuttle came clear of the mist. Horza looked down and saw the ruffled surface of a grey sea where slow waves rolled and broke. The bank of mist lay behind them, an indeterminate grey curtain beneath which the sea disappeared. The sunlight slanted across the layered mist, and hazy clouds filled the sky.

Horza watched the broken handle tumble down towards the sea, becoming smaller and smaller; it stroked a mark of white across the water, then it was gone. He reckoned they were about one hundred metres above the sea. The shuttle banked, forcing Horza to grab the side of the door; the craft turned to head almost parallel to the cloud bank.

Horza went to the bulkhead and banged on the door. “Mipp? I can’t get the doors closed.”

“It’s all right,” the other man replied faintly.

“Mipp, open the door. Don’t be crazy.”

“Leave me alone, Horza. Leave me alone, understand?”

“God-damn,” Horza said to himself. He went back to the open doors, buffeted by the wind curling back in from the slipstream. They seemed to be heading away from the Edgewall, judging by the angle of the sun. Behind them lay nothing but sea and clouds. There was no sign of the Olmedreca or any other craft or ship. The seemingly flat horizon to either side disappeared into a haze; the ocean gave no impression of being concave, only vast. Horza tried to stick his head round the corner of the shuttle’s open door to see where they were going. The rush of air forced his head back before he could take a proper look, and the craft lurched again slightly, but he had an impression of another horizon as flat and featureless as that on either side. He got further back into the shuttle and tried his communicator, but there was nothing from his helmet speakers; all the circuits were dead; everything seemed to have been knocked out by the electromagnetic pulse from the explosion on the Megaship.

Horza considered taking the suit off and throwing it out, too, but he was already cold, and if he took the suit off he’d be virtually naked. He would keep the device on unless they started losing height suddenly. He shivered, and his whole body ached.

He would sleep. There was nothing he could do for now, and his body needed rest. He considered Changing, but decided against it. He closed his eyes. He saw Yalson, as he had imagined her, running on the Megaship, and opened his eyes again. He told himself she was all right, just fine, then closed his eyes once more.

Maybe by the time he woke they would be out from under the layers of magnetised dust in the upper atmosphere, in the tropical or even just temperate zones, rather than the arctic region. But that would probably mean only that they would finally ditch in warm water, not cold. He couldn’t imagine Mipp or the shuttle holding together long enough to complete a journey right across the Orbital.

… assume it was thirty thousand kilometres across; they were making perhaps three hundred per hour…

His head full of changing figures, Horza slipped into sleep. His last coherent thought was that they just weren’t going fast enough, and probably couldn’t. They would still be flying over the Circlesea towards land when the Culture blew the whole Orbital into a fourteen million-kilometre halo of light and dust…

Horza woke rolling around inside the shuttle. In the first few blurred seconds of his waking he thought he had already tumbled out of the rear door of the shuttle and was falling through the air; then his head cleared and he found himself lying spread-eagled on the floor of the rear compartment, watching the blue sky outside tilt as the shuttle banked. The craft seemed to be travelling more slowly than he remembered. He could see nothing from the rear view out of the doors except blue sky, blue sea and a few puffy white clouds, so he stuck his head round the side of the door.

The buffeting wind was warm, and over in the direction the shuttle was banking lay a small island. Horza looked at it incredulously. It was tiny, surrounded by smaller atolls and reefs showing pale green through the shallow water, and it had a single small mountain sticking up from concentric circles of lush green vegetation and bright yellow sand.

The shuttle dipped and levelled, straightening on its course for the island. Horza brought his head back in, resting the muscles of his neck and shoulder after the exertion of holding his head out in the slipstream. The shuttle slowed yet more, dipping again. A slight juddering vibrated through the craft’s frame. Horza saw a torus of lime-coloured water appear in the sea behind the shuttle; he stuck his head round the side of the door again and saw the island just ahead and about fifty metres below. Small figures were running up the beach which the shuttle was approaching. A group of the humans were heading across the sand for the jungle, carrying what looked like a huge pyramid of golden sand on a sort of litter or stretcher, held on poles between them.

Horza watched the scene slide by underneath. There were small fires on the beach, and long canoes. At one end of the beach, where the trees cut down towards the water, there squatted a broad-backed, shovel-nosed shuttle, perhaps two or three times the size of the CAT’s. The shuttle flew over the island, through some vague grey pillars of smoke.

The beach was almost clear of people; the last few, who looked thin and almost naked, ran into the cover of the trees as though afraid of the craft flying over them. One figure lay sprawled on the sand near the module. Horza caught a glimpse of one human figure, more fully clothed than the others, not running but standing and pointing up towards him, pointing towards the shuttle flying over the island, with something in his hand. Then the top of the small mountain appeared just underneath the open shuttle door, blocking off the view. Horza heard a series of sharp reports, like small, hard explosions.

“Mipp!” he shouted, going to the closed door.

“We’ve had it, Horza,” Mipp said weakly from the other side. There was a sort of despairing jocularity in his voice. “Even the natives aren’t friendly.”

“They looked frightened,” Horza said. The island was disappearing behind. They weren’t turning back, and Horza felt the shuttle speeding up.

“One of them had a gun,” Mipp said. He coughed, then moaned.

“Did you see that shuttle?” Horza asked.

“Yeah, I saw it.”

“I think we should go back, Mipp,” Horza said. “I think we ought to turn round.”

“No,” Mipp said. “No, I don’t think we ought to… I don’t think that’s a good idea, Horza. I didn’t like the look of the place.”

“Mipp, it looked dry. What more do you want?” Horza looked at the view through the rear doors; the island was nearly a kilometre away already and the shuttle was still increasing speed, gaining height all the time.

“Got to keep going, Horza. Head for the coast.”

“Mipp! We’ll never get there! It’ll take us four days at least and the Culture’s going to blow this place apart in three!”

There was silence from the far side of the door. Horza shook its light, grubby surface with his hand.

“Just leave it, Horza!” Mipp screamed. Horza hardly recognised the man’s hoarse, shrill voice. “Just leave it! I’ll kill us both, I swear!” The shuttle suddenly tilted, pointing its nose at the sky and its open doors at the sea. Horza started to slide back, his feet slipping on the shuttle’s floor. He jammed the suit fingers into the wall slot the seats had been attached to, hanging there as the shuttle started to stall in its steep climb.

“All right, Mipp!” he shouted. “All right!”

The shuttle fell, side-slipping, throwing Horza forward and against the bulkhead. He was suddenly heavy as the craft bottomed out of its short dive. The sea slithered underneath, only fifty or so metres below.

“Just leave me alone, Horza,” Mipp’s voice said.

“OK, Mipp,” Horza said. “OK.”

The shuttle rose a little, gaining altitude and increasing speed. Horza went back, away from the bulkhead which separated him from the flight deck and Mipp.

Horza shook his head and went to stand by the open door, looking back towards the island with its lime shallows, grey rock, green-blue foliage and band of yellow sand. It all slowly shrank, the frame of the open shuttle doors filling with more and more sea and sky as the island lost itself in the haze.

He wondered what he could do, and knew there was only one course of action. There had been a shuttle on that island; it could hardly be in a worse state than the one he was in now, and their chances of being rescued at the moment were virtually nil. He turned round to look at the flimsy door leading to the flight deck, still holding onto the edge of the rear door, the warm buffeting air spilling in around him.

He wondered whether just to charge straight in or to try to reason with Mipp first. While he was still thinking about it the shuttle gave a shudder, then started to fall like a stone towards the sea.

6. The Eaters

Horza was weightless for a second. He felt himself caught by the eddying wind swirling through the rear doors, drawing him towards them. He grabbed at the channel in the wall he had held onto earlier. The shuttle dipped its nose, and the roar of the wind increased. Horza floated, his eyes closed, his fingers jammed into the wall slot, waiting for the crash; but instead the shuttle levelled out again, and he was back on his feet.

“Mipp!” he shouted, staggering forward to the door. He felt the craft turning and glanced out through the rear doors. They were still falling.

“It’s gone, Horza,” Mipp said faintly. “I’ve lost it.” He sounded weak, calmly despairing. “I’m turning back for the island. We won’t get there, but… we’re going to hit in a few moments… You’d best get down by this bulkhead and brace yourself. I’ll try to put her down as soft as I can…”

“Mipp,” Horza said, sitting down on the floor with his back to the bulkhead, “is there anything I can do?”

“Nothing,” Mipp said. “Here we go. Sorry, Horza. Brace yourself.”

Horza did exactly the opposite, letting himself go limp. The air roaring through the rear doors howled in his ears; the shuttle shook underneath him. The sky was blue. He caught a glimpse of waves… He kept just enough tension in his back to keep his head against the bulkhead surface. Then he heard Mipp shout; not words — just a shout of fear, an animal noise.

The shuttle crashed, slamming into something, forcing Horza hard back against the wall, then releasing him. The craft raised its nose slightly. Horza felt light for a moment, saw waves and white spray through the open rear doors, then the waves went, he saw sky, and closed his eyes as the shuttle’s nose dipped again.

The craft smashed into the waves, crashing to a stop in the water. Horza felt himself squashed into the bulkhead as though by the foot of some gigantic animal. The wind was forced out of him, blood roared, the suit bit at him. He was shaken and flattened, and then, just as the impact seemed to be over, another shock sledge-hammered into his back and neck and head, and suddenly he was blind.

The next thing he knew there was water everywhere about him. He was gasping and spluttering, striking out in the darkness and hitting his hands off hard, sharp, broken surfaces. He could hear water gurgling, and his own choked breath frothing. He blew water out of his mouth and coughed.

He was floating in a bubble of air, in darkness, in warm water. Most of his body seemed to be aching, each limb and part clamouring with its own special message of pain.

He felt gingerly round the small space he was trapped in. The bulkhead had collapsed; he was — at last — in the flight-deck area with Mipp. He found the other man’s body, crushed between seat and instrument panel, trapped and still, half a metre under the surface of the water. His head, which Horza could feel by reaching down between the seat head-rest and what felt like the innards of the main monitor screen, moved too easily in the neck of the suit, and the forehead had been crushed.

The water was rising higher. The air was escaping through the smashed nose of the shuttle, floating and bobbing bow-up in the sea. Horza knew he would have to swim down and back through the shuttle’s rear section and out through the rear doors, otherwise he’d be trapped.

He breathed as deeply as he could, despite the pain, for about a minute, while the rising water level gradually forced his head into the angle between the top of the craft’s instrument panel and the flight-deck ceiling. He dived.

He forced his way down, past the wreckage of the crushed seat Mipp had died in, and past the twisted panels of light metal which had made up the bulkhead. He could see light, vaguely green-grey, forming a rectangle beneath him. Air trapped in his suit bubbled round him, along his legs, upwards to his feet. He was slowed for a moment, buoyed up by the air in his boots, and for a second he thought he wasn’t going to make it, that he was going to hang there upside-down and drown. Then the air bubbled out through the holes in his boots punched there by Lamm’s laser, and Horza sank.

He struggled down through the water to the rectangle of light, then swam through the open rear doors and into the shimmering green depths of the water under the shuttle; he kicked and went up, breaking out into the waves with a gasp, sucking warm, fresh air into his lungs. He felt his eyes adjust to the slanted but still bright sunlight of late afternoon.

He grabbed hold of the shuttle’s dented, punctured nose — sticking above the water by about two metres — and looked around, trying to see the island, but without success. Still just treading water and letting his battered body and brain recover, Horza watched the up-tilted nose of the craft sink lower in the water and tip slowly forward so that the shuttle gradually floated almost level in the waves, its top surface just awash. The Changer, his arm muscles straining and hurting, eventually hauled himself onto the top of the shuttle, and lay there like a beached fish.

He started to shut off the pain signals, like a weary servant picking up the litter of breakables after an employer’s destructive rage.

It was only lying there, with small waves washing over the top surface of the shuttle’s fuselage, that he realised that all the water he had been coughing up and swallowing was fresh. It hadn’t occurred to him that the Circlesea would be anything other than salt, like most planetary oceans, but in fact there was not even the slightest tang of it, and he congratulated himself that at least he would not die of thirst.

He stood up carefully, in the centre of the shuttle roof, waves breaking round his feet. He looked around, and could see the island — just. It looked very small and far away in the early evening light, and, while there was a faint warm breeze blowing more or less towards the island, he had no idea which way any currents might be taking him. He sat down, then lay back, letting the waters of the Circlesea wash over the flat surface beneath him and break in small lines of surf against his much-damaged suit. After a while he just fell asleep, not really meaning to, but not stopping himself when he realised that he was, telling himself to sleep for only an hour or so.

He woke up to see the sun, though still high in the sky, looking dark red as it shone through the layers of dust above the distant Edgewall. He got to his feet again; the shuttle didn’t seem to have sunk any lower in the water. The island was still far away, but it looked a little nearer than it had earlier; the currents, or the winds, such as they were, seemed to be carrying him in roughly the right direction. He sat down again.

The air was still warm. He thought of taking the suit off but decided against it; it was uncomfortable but perhaps he would get too cold without it. He lay back again.

He wondered where Yalson was now. Had she survived Lamm’s bomb, and the wreck? He hoped so. He thought she probably had; he couldn’t imagine her dead, or dying. It was little enough to go on, and he refused to believe he was superstitious, but not being able to imagine her dead was somehow comforting. She’d survive. Take more than a tactical nuke and a billion-tonne ship impacting a berg the size of a small continent to polish that girl off… He found himself smiling, remembering her.

He would have spent more time thinking about Yalson, but there was something else he had to think about as well.

Tonight he would Change.

It was all he could do. Probably by now it was irrelevant. Kraiklyn was either dead or — if surviving — unlikely ever to meet Horza again, but the Changer had prepared for the transformation; his body was waiting for it, and he could think of nothing better to do.

The situation, he told himself, was far from hopeless. He wasn’t badly injured, he seemed to be heading for the island, where the shuttle might still be, and if he could make it in time there was always Evanauth, and that Damage game. Anyway, the Culture might be looking for him by now, so it wouldn’t do to keep the same identity for too long. What the hell, he thought; he would Change. He would go to sleep as the Horza the others knew him as, and he would wake up as a copy of the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence.

He prepared his bruised and aching body for the alteration as best he could: relaxing muscles and readying glands and groups of cells; sending deliberate signals from brain to body and face through nerves that only Changers possessed.

He watched the sun, dimming through red stages somewhere low over the ocean.

Now he would sleep; sleep, and become Kraiklyn; take on yet another identity, another shape to add to the many he had assumed already during his life…

Maybe there was no point, maybe he was only taking this new shape on to die in. But, he thought, What have I got to lose?

Horza watched the falling, darkening red eye of the sun until he entered the sleep of Changing, and in that Changing trance, though his eyes were closed, and beneath their lids also altering, he seemed to see that dying glare still…

Animal eyes. Predator’s eyes. Caged behind them, looking out. Never sleeping, being three people. Ownership; rifle and ship and Company. Not much yet maybe, but one day… with just a little, little luck, no more than everybody else had a right to… one day he would show them. He knew how good he was, he knew what he was fit for, and who was fit for him. The rest were just tokens; they were his because they were under his command; it was his ship, after all. The women especially — just game pieces. They could come and go and he didn’t care. All you had to do with any of them was share their danger and they thought you were wonderful. They couldn’t see that for him there was no danger; he had a lot left to do in life, he knew he wasn’t going to die some stupid, squalid little combat death. The galaxy, one day, would know his name, and either mourn him or curse him, when eventually he did have to die… He hadn’t decided yet whether it would be mourn or curse… maybe it depended on how the galaxy treated him in the meantime… All he needed was the tiniest break, just the sort of thing the others had had, the leaders of the bigger, more successful, better known, more feared and respected Free Companies. They must have had them… They might seem greater than he was now, but one day they would look up to him; everybody would. All would know his name: Kraiklyn!

Horza woke in the dawn light, still lying on the wave-washed shuttle roof, like something washed up and spread upon a table. He was half awake, half asleep. It was colder, the light was thinner and more blue, but nothing else had changed. He started to drift back to sleep again, away from pain and lost hopes.

Nothing else had changed… only him…

He had to swim for the island.

He had woken for the second time the same morning, feeling different, better, rested. The sun was angling up and out of the overhead haze.

The island was closer, but he was going past it. The currents were taking him and the shuttle away now, having swept no closer than two kilometres to the group of reefs and sandbanks round the isle. He cursed himself for sleeping so long. He got out of the suit — it was useless now and deserved to be ditched — and left it lying on the still just-awash shuttle roof. He was hungry, his stomach rumbled, but he felt fit and ready for the swim. He estimated it was about three kilometres. He dived in and struck out powerfully. His right leg hurt where he’d been hit by Lamm’s laser and his body still ached in places, but he could do it; he knew he could.

He looked back once, after he’d swum for a few minutes. He could see the suit but not the shuttle. The empty suit was like the abandoned cocoon of some metamorphosed animal, riding opened and empty, seeming just above the surface of the waves behind. He turned away and kept swimming.

The island came closer, but very slowly. The water was warm at first, but it seemed to get colder, and the aches in his body increased. He ignored them, switching them off, but he could feel himself slowing, and he knew that he’d started off too fast. He paused, treading water for a moment; then, after drinking a little of the warm fresh water, set off again, stroking more deliberately and steadily for the grey tower of the distant island.

He told himself how lucky he’d been. The shuttle crash hadn’t injured him badly — though the aches still plagued him, like noisy relatives locked in a distant room, disturbing his concentration. The warm water, though apparently getting colder, was fresh, so that he could drink from it and wouldn’t dehydrate; yet it crossed his mind that he would have been more buoyant had it been salty.

He kept going. It ought to have been easy but it was getting more difficult all the time. He stopped thinking about it; he concentrated on moving; the slow, steady, rhythmic beat of arms and legs forcing him through the water; up waves, over, down; up, over, down.

Under my own power, he told himself, under my own power.

The mountain on the island grew larger very slowly. He felt as though he was building it, as though the effort required to make it appear larger in his sight was the same as if he was toiling to construct that peak; heap it up rock by rock, with his own hands…

Two kilometres. Then one.

The sun angled, rose.

Eventually, the outer reefs and shallows; he passed them in a daze, into shallower water.

A sea of aching. An ocean of exhaustion.

He swam towards the beach, through a fan of waves and surf radiating from the reef-gap he’d swum through…

… and felt as though he’d never taken the suit off, as though he wore it still, and it was stiff with rust or age, or filled with heavy water or wet sand; dragging, stiffening, pulling him back.

He could hear waves breaking on the beach, and when he looked up he could see people on it: thin dark people, dressed in rags, gathered round tents and fires or walking between them. Some were in the water ahead of him, carrying baskets, large open-work baskets which they held on their waists, gathering things from the sea as they waded through it, putting what they collected in their baskets.

They hadn’t seen him, so he swam on, making a slow, crawling motion with his arms and kicking feebly with his legs.

The people harvesting the sea didn’t appear to notice him; they kept on wading through the surf, stooping occasionally to pick from the sands underneath, their eyes sweeping and probing, scanning and searching, but too close in; not seeing him. His stroke slowed to a gasping, dying crawl. He could not lift his hands free of the water, and his legs stayed paralysed…

Then through the surf noise, like something from a dream, he heard several people shouting nearby, and splashes coming close. He was still swimming weakly when another wave lifted him, and he saw several of the skinny people clad in loincloths and tattered tunics, wading through the water towards him.

They helped Horza in through the breaking waves, over sun-streaked shallows and onto the golden sands. He lay there while the thin and haggard people crowded round. They talked quietly to each other in a language he hadn’t heard before. He tried to move but couldn’t. His muscles felt like lengths of limp rag.

“Hello,” he croaked. He tried it in all the languages he knew, but none seemed to work. He looked into the faces of the people around him. They were human, but that word covered so many different species throughout the galaxy it was a continuing subject for debate who was and who wasn’t human. As in all too many matters, the consensus of opinion was starting to resemble what the Culture had to say on the subject. The Culture would lay down the law (except, of course, that the Culture didn’t have any real laws) about what being human was, or how intelligent a particular species was (while at the same time making clear that pure intelligence didn’t really mean much on its own), or on how long people should live (though only as a rough guide, naturally), and people would accept these things without question, because everybody believed the Culture’s own propaganda, that it was fair, unbiased, disinterested, concerned only with absolute truth… and so on.

So were these people around him really human? They were about Horza’s height, they seemed to have roughly the same bone structure, bilateral symmetry and respiratory system; and their faces — though each was different — all had eyes, mouth, nose and ears.

But they all looked thinner than they ought to have been, and their skin, regardless of hue or shade, looked somehow diseased.

Horza lay still. He felt very heavy again, but at least he was on dry land. On the other hand, it didn’t look as though there was much food on the island, judging by the state of the bodies around him. He assumed that was why they were so thin. He raised his head weakly and tried to see through the clumps of thin legs towards the shuttle craft he had seen earlier. He could just see the top of the machine, sticking up above one of the large canoes beached on the sands. Its rear doors were open.

A smell wafted under Horza’s nose and made him feel sick. He put his head down onto the sand again, exhausted.

The talking stopped and the people turned, their thin, tanned or anyway dark bodies shuffling round to face up the beach. A space opened in their ranks just above Horza’s head, and try as he might he couldn’t get up on one elbow or swivel his head to see what or who was coming. He lay and waited, then the people to his right all drew back and a line of eight men appeared on that side, holding a long pole together in their left hands, their other arms stuck out for balance. It was the litter he had seen being carried into the jungle the day before, when the shuttle had overflown the island. He watched to see what it held. Two lines of men turned the litter so that it faced Horza and set it down. Then all sixteen sat down, looking exhausted. Horza stared.

On the litter sat the most enormous, obscenely fat human Horza had ever seen.

He had mistaken the giant for a pyramid of golden sand the previous day, when he had seen the litter and its huge burden from the CAT’s shuttle. Now he could see that his first impression had been close in shape if not in substance. Whether the vast cone of human flesh belonged to a male or a female Horza couldn’t tell; great mammary-like folds of naked flesh spilled from the creature’s upper and middle chest, but they drooped over even more enormous waves of nude, hairless torso-fat, which lay partly cradled in the vast beefs of the giant’s akimboed legs and partly overflowing those to droop into the canvas surface of the litter. Horza could see no stitch of clothing on the monster, but no trace of genitals either; whatever they were, they were quite buried under rolls of golden-brown flesh.

Horza looked up to the head. Rising from a thick cone of neck, gazing out over concentric ramparts of chins, a bald dome of puffy flesh contained a limp and rambling length of pale lips, a small button nose, and slits where eyes must be. The head sat on its layers of neck, shoulder and chest fat like a great golden bell on top of a many-decked temple. The sweat-glistened giant suddenly moved its hands, rolling them round on the end of the bloated fat-bound balloons of its arms, until the merely chubby fingers met and clasped as tightly as their size would allow. As the mouth opened to speak, another one of the skinny humans, his rags slightly less tattered than those of the others, moved into Horza’s field of vision, just behind and to the side of the giant.

The bell of head moved a few centimetres to one side and swivelled round, saying something to the man behind that Horza couldn’t catch. Then the giant raised his or her arms with obvious effort and gazed round the skinny humans gathered around Horza. The voice sounded like congealing fat being poured into a jug; it was a drowning voice, Horza thought, like something from a nightmare. He listened, but couldn’t understand the language being used. He looked round to see what effect the giant’s words were having on the famished-looking crowd. His head spun for a moment, as though his brain had shifted while his skull stayed still; he was suddenly back in the hangar of the Clear Air Turbulence, when the Company had been looking at him, and he had felt as naked and vulnerable as he did now.

“Oh, not again,” he moaned in Marain.

“Oh-hoo!” said the golden rolls of flesh, the voice tumbling over the slopes of fat in a faltering series of tones. “Gracious! Our bounty from the sea speaks!” The hairless dome of head turned further round to the man standing by its side. “Mr First, isn’t this wonderful?” the giant burbled.

“Fate is kind to us, Prophet,” the man said gruffly.

“Fate favours the beloved, yes, Mr First. It sends our enemies away and brings us bounty — bounty from the sea! Fate be praised!” The great pyramid of flesh shook as the arms went higher, trailing folds of paler flesh as the turret-like head went back, the mouth opening to exposé a dark space where only a few small fangs glinted like steel. When the bubbling voice spoke again it was in the language Horza couldn’t make out, but it was the same phrase repeated over and over again. The giant was quickly joined by the rest of the crowd, who shook their hands in the air and chanted hoarsely. Horza closed his eyes, trying to wake from what he knew was not a dream.

When he opened his eyes the skinny humans were still chanting, but they were crowded around him again, blocking out his view of the golden-brown monster. Their faces eager, their teeth bared, their hands stretched out like claws, the crowd of starving, chanting humans fell on him.

They stripped off his shorts. He tried to struggle, but they held him down. In his exhaustion he was probably no stronger than anyone of them, and they had no difficulty pinning him; they rolled him over, pulled his hands behind him and tied them there. Then they tied his feet together and pulled his legs back until his feet were almost touching his hands, and bound them to his wrists by a short length of rope. Naked, trussed like an animal ready for the slaughter, Horza was dragged across the hot sand, past a weakly burning fire, then hauled upright and lowered over a short pole stuck into the beach, so that it ran up between his back and his tied limbs. His knees sank into the sand, taking most of his weight. The fire burned in front of him, sending acrid wood-smoke into his eyes, and the awful smell returned; it seemed to come from various pots and bowls spread around the fire. Other fires and collections of pans were littered across the beach.

The huge pile of flesh the man named Mr First had called “prophet” was set down near the fire. Mr First stood at the obese human’s side, staring at Horza through deep-set eyes contained within a pale and grubby face. The golden giant on the litter clapped chubby hands together and said, “Stranger, gift of the sea, welcome. I… am the great prophet Fwi-Song.”

The vast creature spoke a crude form of Marain. Horza opened his mouth to tell them his name, but Fwi-Song continued. “You have been sent to us in our time of testing, a morsel of human flesh on the tide of nothingness, a harvest-thing plucked from the tasteless wash of life, a sweetmeat to share and be shared in our victory over the poisonous bile of disbelief! You are a sign from Fate, for which we give thanks!” Fwi-Song’s huge arms lifted up; rolls of shoulder fat wobbled on either side of the turret-like head, nearly covering the ears. Fwi-Song shouted out in a language Horza didn’t know, and the crowd echoed the phrase, chanting it several times.

The fat-smothered arms were lowered again. “You are the salt of the sea, ocean-gift.” Fwi-Song’s syrupy voice changed back into Marain once more. “You are a sign, a blessing from Fate; you are the one to become many, the single to be shared; yours will be the gaining gift, the blessed beauty of transubstantiation!”

Horza stared, horrified, at the golden giant, unable to think of anything to say. What could you say to people like this? Horza cleared his throat, still hoping to say something, but Fwi-Song went on.

“Be told then, gift of the sea, that we are the Eaters; the Eaters of ashes, the Eaters of filth, the Eaters of sand and tree and grass; the most basic, the most loved, the most real. We have laboured to prepare ourselves for our day of testing, and now that day is gloriously near!” The golden-skinned prophet’s voice grew shrill; folds of fat shook as Fwi-Song’s arms opened out. “Behold us then, as we await the time of our ascension from this mortal plane, with empty bellies and voided bowels and hungry minds!” Fwi-Song’s pudgy hands met in a slap; the fingers interweaved like huge, fattened maggots.

“If I can—” croaked Horza, but the giant was talking to the crowd of grubby people again, the voice bubbling out over the golden sands and the cooking fires and the dull, malnourished people.

Horza shook his head a little and looked out over the expanse of beach to the open-doored shuttle in the distance. The more he looked at the craft, the more certain he became it was a Culture machine.

It was nothing he could pin down, but he grew more certain with every moment spent looking at the machine. He guessed it was a forty- or fifty-seater; just about big enough to take all the people he had seen on the island. It didn’t look particularly new or fast, and it didn’t look armed at all, but something about the whole way its simple, utilitarian form had been put together spoke of the Culture. If the Culture designed an animal-drawn cart or an automobile, they would still share something in common with the device at the far end of the beach, for all the gulf of time between the epochs each represented. It would have helped if the Culture had used some sort of emblem or logo; but, pointlessly unhelpful and unrealistic to the last, the Culture refused to place its trust in symbols. It maintained that it was what it was and had no need for such outward representation. The Culture was every single individual human and machine in it, not one thing. Just as it could not imprison itself with laws, impoverish itself with money or misguide itself with leaders, so it would not misrepresent itself with signs.

All the same, the Culture did have one set of symbols it was very proud of, and Horza didn’t doubt that if the machine he was looking at was a Culture craft, it would have some Marain writing on or in it somewhere.

Was it in some way connected with the mass of flesh still talking to the scrawny humans around the fire? Horza doubted it. Fwi-Song’s Marain was shaky and ill tutored. Horza’s own grasp of the language was far from perfect, but he knew enough about the tongue to realise Fwi-Song did it some violence when he or she used it. Anyway, the Culture was not in the habit of loaning out its vehicles to religious nutcases. Was it here to evacuate them, then? Lift them to safety when the Culture’s high-technology shit hit the rotating fan that was the Vavatch Orbital? With a sinking feeling, Horza realised this was probably the answer. So there was no escape. Either these crazies sacrificed him or did whatever it was they were set on doing to him, or it was a ride into captivity, courtesy of the Culture.

He told himself not to assume the worst. After all, he now looked like Kraiklyn, and it wasn’t that likely the Culture’s Minds had made all the correct connections between him, the CAT and Kraiklyn. Even the Culture didn’t think of everything. But… they probably did know he’d been on The Hand of God 137; they probably did know he’d escaped from it; they probably did know that the CAT was in that volume at the time. (He recalled the statistics Xoralundra had quoted to the Hand’s captain; yes, the GCU must have won the battle… He remembered the CAT’s rough-running warp motors; probably producing a wake any self-respecting GCU could track from centuries away)… Damn it; he wouldn’t put it past them. Maybe they were testing everybody they were picking up from Vavatch. They would know in seconds, from just a single sample cell; a skin flake, a hair; for all he knew he’d been sampled already, a micromissile sent from the nearby shuttle picking up some tiny piece of tissue… He dropped his head, his neck muscles aching with all the others in his battered, bruised, exhausted body.

Stop it, he told himself. Thinking like a failure. Too damn sorry for yourself. Get yourself out of this. Still got your teeth and your nailsand your brain. Just bide your time

“For lo,” Fwi-Song warbled, “the godless ones, the most hated, the despised-by-the-despised, the Atheists, the Anathematics, have sent us this instrument of the Nothingness, the Vacuum, to us…” As the giant said those words Horza looked up and saw Fwi-Song point along the beach to the shuttle. “But we shall not waver in our faith! We shall resist the lure of the Nothingness between the stars where the godless ones, the Anathematised of the Vacuum exist! We shall stay part of what is a part of us! We shall not treat with the great Blasphemy of the Material. We shall stand as the rocks and trees stand — firm, rooted, secure, staunch, unyielding!” Fwi-Song’s arms went out again, and the voice bellowed out. The gruff-voiced man with the dirty pale skin shouted something at the seated crowd, and they shouted back. The prophet smiled at Horza from across the fire. Fwi-Song’s mouth was a dark hole, with four small fangs protruding when the lips formed a smile. They shone in the sunlight.

“This the way you treat all your guests?” Horza said, trying not to cough until the end of his sentence. He cleared his throat. Fwi-Song’s smile vanished.

“Guest you are not, sea-wanton, salt-gift. Prize: ours to keep, mine to use. Bounty from the sea and the sun and the wind, brought to us by Fate. Hee-hee.” Fwi-Song’s smile returned with a girlish giggle, and one of the huge hands went to cover the pale lips, “Fate recognises its prophet, sends him tasty treats! Just when some of my flock were having second thoughts, too! Eh, Mr First?” The turret-head turned to the thin figure of the paler man, standing with arms folded, by the giant’s side. Mr First nodded:

“Fate is our gardener, and our wolf. It weeds out the weak to honour the strong. So the prophet has spoken.”

“And the word which dies in the mouth lives in the ear,” Fwi-Song said, turning the huge head back to look at Horza. At least, Horza thought, now I know it’s a male. For whatever that’s worth.

“Mighty Prophet,” Mr First said. Fwi-Song smiled wider but continued looking at Horza. Mr First went on, “The sea-gift should see the fate that awaits him. Perhaps the treacherous coward Twenty-seventh—”

“Oh, yes!” Fwi-Song clapped his huge hands together and a smile lit up his whole face. For a second Horza thought he saw small white eyes beyond the slits staring at him. “Oh let’s, yes! Bring the coward, let us do what must be done.”

Mr First spoke in ringing tones to the emaciated humans gathered around the fire. A few stood up and walked off behind Horza, towards the forest. The rest started singing and chanting.

After a few minutes Horza heard a scream, then a series of yells and screams, gradually coming closer. At last the people who had left came back, carrying a short, thick log, much like the one Horza was held by. Swinging on the pole was a young man, screaming, shouting in the language Horza didn’t understand, and struggling. Horza saw drops of sweat and saliva fall from the young man’s face and spot the sand. The log was sharpened at one end; that point was driven into the sand on the opposite side of the fire from Horza, so that the young man faced the Changer.

“This, my libation from the seas,” Fwi-Song said to Horza, pointing at the young man, who was quivering and moaning, his eyes rolling about in their sockets and his lips dribbling, “this is my naughty boy; called Twenty-seventh, since his rebirth. This was one of our respected, much loved sons, one of our anointed, one of our fellow morsels, one of our brotherly taste buds on the great tongue of life.” Fwi-Song’s voice chortled with laughter as he spoke, as though he knew the absurdity of the part he was playing and couldn’t resist hamming it up. “This splinter from our tree, this grain from our beach, this reprobate dared to run towards the seven-times-cursed vehicle of the Vacuum. He spurned the gift of burden with which we honoured him; he chose to abandon us and flee across the sands when the alien enemy passed over us yesterday. He did not trust our salving grace, but turned instead to an instrument of darkness and nothingness, towards the soaking shade of the soulless ones, the Anathematics.” Fwi-Song looked at the man, still shaking on the post across the fire from Horza. The prophet’s face went stern with reproach. “By the workings of Fate the traitor who ran from our side and put his prophet’s life at risk was caught — so that he might learn his sad mistake, and make good his terrible crime.” Fwi-Song’s arm dropped. The vast head shook.

Mr First shouted to the people round the fire. They faced the young man called Twenty-seventh and chanted. The ghastly smells Horza had sensed earlier came back, making his eyes mist and his nose tingle.

While the people chanted and Fwi-Song watched, Mr First and two of the women followers dug up small sacks from the sand. Out of them they brought some thin lengths of cloth which they proceeded to wrap round their bodies. As Mr First put his vestments on, Horza saw a large, cumbersome-looking projectile pistol, held in a string holster beneath the man’s grubby tunic. Horza presumed that was the gun fired at the shuttle the day before, when he and Mipp had overflown the island.

The young man opened his eyes, saw the three people in their cloths and started screaming.

“Hear how the stricken soul cries out for its lesson, pleads for its bounty of regret, its solace of refreshing suffering,” Fwi-Song smiled, looking at Horza. “Our child Twenty-seventh knows what awaits him, and while his body, already proved so weak, breaks before the storm, his soul cries out, ‘Yes! Yes! Mighty Prophet! Succour me! Make me part of you! Give me your strength! Come to me!’ Is it not a sweet and uplifting sound?”

Horza looked into the prophet’s eyes and said nothing. The young man went on screaming and trying to tear himself away from the stump. Mr First was crouched before him, on his knees, his head bowed, muttering to himself. The two women dressed in the dull cloth were preparing bowls of steaming liquid from the vats and pots around the fire, warming some over the flames. The smells came to Horza, turning his stomach.

Fwi-Song switched to the other language and spoke to the two women. They looked at Horza, then came up to him with the bowls. Horza drew his head away as they shoved the containers under his nose. He wrinkled his face up in disgust at what looked and smelled like fish entrails in a sauce of excrement. The women took the awful stuff away; it left a stink in his nose. He tried breathing through his mouth.

The young man’s mouth had been wedged open with blocks of wood, and his choking screams altered in pitch. While Mr First held him, the women ladled the liquids from the bowls into his mouth. The young man spluttered and wailed, choked and tried to spit. He moaned, then threw up.

“Let me show you my armoury, my benefaction,” Fwi-Song said to Horza, and reached behind his vast body. He brought back a large bundle of rags, which he started to unfold. Glittering in the sunlight, metal devices like tiny man-traps were revealed. Fwi-Song put one finger to his lips while he surveyed the collection, then picked up one of the small metal contraptions. He put it into his mouth, fitting both parts over the pins Horza had seen earlier. “Zhare,” Fwi-Song said, raising his mouth in a broad smile towards the Changer. “What’oo you shink of zhat?” The artificial teeth sparkled in his mouth; rows of sharp, serrated points. “Or zhese?” Fwi-Song swapped them for another set, full of tiny fangs like needles, then another, with angled teeth like hooks with barbs, then another, with holes set in them. “Goo’, eh?” He smiled at Horza, leaving the last pair in. He turned to Mr First. “Wha’ you shink, Nishtur Shursht? Ehs? Or…” Fwi-Song took out the set with the holes, put in another set, like long, blade-like spades. “Zheze? A ’ink eeg a rar ah nishe. Esh, rert ush zhtart wish eez. Ret’s punish zhoze naughty tootsiesh.”

Twenty-seventh’s voice was becoming hoarse. One of his legs was lifted out in front of him and held by four kneeling men. Fwi-Song was lifted and carried on the litter to just in front of the young man; he bared the blade-teeth, then leaned forward and with a quick; nodding motion, bit off one of Twenty-seventh’s toes.

Horza looked away.

In the next half-hour or so of leisurely paced eating, the enormous prophet nibbled at various bits of Twenty-seventh’s body, attacking the extremities and the few remaining fat deposits with his various sets of teeth. The young man gained fresh breath with each new site of butchery.

Horza watched and didn’t watch, sometimes trying to think himself into a kind of defiance that would let him work out a way to get back at this grotesque distortion of a human being, at other times just wanting the whole awful business to be over and done with. Fwi-Song left his ex-disciple’s fingers until last, then used the teeth with the holes in them like wire-strippers. “’Ery ’asty,” he said, wiping his blood-stained face with one gigantic forearm.

Twenty-seventh was cut down, moaning, covered in streaks of blood, and only semi-conscious. He was gagged with a length of rag, then pinned down flat, face up, on the sand, wooden spikes through the palms of his mangled hands and a huge boulder crushing his feet. He started screaming weakly again through the gag when he saw the prophet Fwi-Song on his litter being carried over towards him. Fwi-Song was lowered almost on top of the moaning form, then he struggled with some cords at the side of his litter until a small flap under his great bulk flopped open, over the face of the gagged, blood-spattered human on the sand beneath. The prophet gave a sign, and he was lowered on top of the man, quieting the sound of moaning. The prophet smiled, and settled himself with little movements of his huge body, like a bird nestling down over its eggs. His vast bulk obliterating all trace or shape of the human under him, Fwi-Song hummed to himself while the emaciated crowd looked on, singing very slowly and quietly, swaying together as they stood. Fwi-Song started to rock backwards and forwards softly, very slowly at first, then faster as sweat appeared in beads on the golden dome of his face. He panted, and made a rough gesture towards the crowd; the two women dressed in the lengths of cloth came forward and started to lick at the trickles of blood which had spilled from the prophet’s mouth, over the folds of his chins and down the expanse of his chest and breasts like red milk. Fwi-Song gasped, seemed to sag and stay still for a moment, and then, with a surprisingly fast and fierce motion, clouted both the lapping women across the head with his mighty arms. The women scurried off, rejoining the crowd. Mr First started a louder chant, which the others took up.

At last Fwi-Song ordered himself to be lifted again. The litter bearers hauled his massive frame into the air, to reveal the crushed body of Twenty-seventh, his moaning silenced for ever.

They lifted him out, beheaded the corpse and removed the top of the skull. They ate his brains, and it was only then that Horza threw up.

“And now we are become each other,” Fwi-Song intoned solemnly to the youth’s hollow head, then threw its bloody bowl over his shoulder into the fire. The rest of the body was taken down to the sea and thrown in.

“Only ceremony and the love of Fate distinguish us from the beasts, o mark of Fate’s devotion,” Fwi-Song warbled to Horza as the prophet’s vast body was cleaned and perfumed by the attendant women. Tied to his post, stuck in the ground, his mouth fouled, Horza breathed carefully and deliberately, and did not try to reply.

Twenty-seventh’s body floated slowly out to sea. Fwi-Song was towelled down. The skinny humans sat about listlessly, or tended the awful-smelling liquid in the bubbling vats. Mr First and his two women helpers took off their lengths of cloth, leaving the man in his grimy but whole tunic and the women in their tattered rags. Fwi-Song had his litter placed on the sand in front of Horza.

“See, bounty from the waves, harvest from the rolling ocean, my people prepare to break their fast.” The prophet swept one fat-wobbling arm about to indicate the people tending the fires and cauldrons. The smell of rotting food filled the air.

“They eat what others leave, what others will not touch, because they want to be closer to the fabric of Fate. They eat the bark from the trees and the grass from the ground and the moss from the rocks; they eat the sand and the leaves and the roots and the earth; they eat the shells and the entrails of sea-animals and the carrion of the land and the ocean; they eat their bodily products and share mine. I am the fount. I am the well-spring, the taste on their tongues.

“You, bubble of froth on the ocean of life, are a sign. Crop of the ocean, you will come to see, before the time of your unmaking, that you are all you have eaten, and that food is merely undigested excrement. This I have seen; this you will see.”

One of the attendant women came back from the sea with Fwi-Song’s freshly cleaned sets of teeth. He took them from her and put them in the rags somewhere behind him. “All shall fall but we, all go to their deaths, their unmakings. We alone will be made in our unmaking, brought into the glory of our ultimate consummation.”

The prophet sat smiling at Horza, while around him — as the long afternoon’s shadows drew out across the sands — the emaciated, ill-looking people sat down to their foul meals. Horza watched them try to eat. Some did, encouraged by Mr First, but most could keep nothing down. They gasped for breath and gulped at the liquids, but often as not they vomited up what they had just forced down. Fwi-Song looked on them sadly, shaking his head.

“You see, even my closest children are not ready yet. We must pray and entreat that they are ready when the time comes, as it must, in a few days’ time. We must hope that their bodies’ lack of grasp, of sympathy with all things, will not make them despised in the eyes and mouth of God.”

You fat bastard. You’re within range, if you only knew. I could blind you from here; spit in your little eyes and maybe

But, Horza thought, maybe not. The giant’s eyes were set so deep within the flabby skin of his brows and cheeks that even the venomous spittle with which Horza could have hit the golden monster might not find its way to the membranes of the eye. But it was all Horza could find to give him solace in his situation. He could spit at the prophet, and that was it. Perhaps there would come a point when it might make some difference, but to do it now would be stupid. A blind, enraged Fwi-Song struck Horza as something to try to avoid even more than a sighted, tittering one.

Fwi-Song talked on to Horza, never questioning, never really stopping, repeating himself more and more often. He told him about his revelations and his past life; as a circus freak, then as a palace pet for some alien satrap on a Megaship, then as a convert to a fashionable religion on another Megaship, his revelation occurring there, when he persuaded a few converts to join him on an island to await the End of All Things. More followers had arrived when the Culture announced what the fate of the Vavatch Orbital was going to be. Horza was only half listening, his mind racing as he tried to think of a way out.

“…We await the end of all things, the last day. We prepare ourselves for our final consummation by mixing the fruits of earth and sea and death with our fragile bodies of flesh and blood and bone. You are our sign, our aperitif, our scent. You must feel honoured.”

“Mighty Prophet,” Horza said, swallowing hard and doing his best to keep his voice calm. Fwi-Song stopped talking, the eyes narrowing still further and a frown forming. Horza went on, “I am indeed your sign. I bring you myself; I am the follower… the disciple numbered Last. I come to rid you of the machine from the Vacuum.” Horza looked over at the Culture shuttle, sitting with its rear doors open at the far end of the beach. “I know how to remove this source of temptation. Let me prove to you my devotion by performing this small service for your great and majestic self. Then you will know I am your last and most faithful servant: the one numbered Last, the one come before the unmaking, to… to steel your followers for the test to come and remove the Anathematics’ temptation device. I have mixed with the stars and the air and ocean, and I bring you this message, this deliverance.” Horza stopped there, his throat and lips dry, his eyes running as the highly spiced stench of the Eaters’ food drifted on a light breeze around him. Fwi-Song sat quite still on his litter, looking into Horza’s face with his slit-eyes narrowed and his bulbous brows creased.

“Mr First!” Fwi-Song said, turning to where the pale-skinned man in the tunic was massaging one of the Eaters’ bellies while the unfortunate follower lay moaning on the ground. Mr First rose and came over to the giant prophet, who nodded at Horza and spoke in the language the Changer couldn’t understand. Mr First bowed slightly, then went behind Horza, taking something from under his tunic as he went out of the Changer’s field of view. Horza’s heart thudded. He looked desperately back at Fwi-Song. What had the prophet said? What was Mr First going to do? Hands appeared over Horza’s head, gripping something. The Changer closed his eyes.

A rag was tied tightly over his mouth. It smelled of the foul food. His head was forced back against the stake. Then Mr First went back to the prone, groaning Eater. Horza stared at Fwi-Song, who said:

“There. Now, as I was saying…”

Horza didn’t listen. The fat prophet’s cruel faith was little different from a million others; only the degree of its barbarity made it unusual in these supposedly civilised times. Another side effect of the war, maybe; blame the Culture. Fwi-Song talked, but there was no point in listening.

Horza recalled that the Culture’s attitude to somebody who believed in an omnipotent God was to pity them, and to take no more notice of the substance of their faith than one would take of the ramblings of somebody claiming to be Emperor of the Universe. The nature of the belief wasn’t totally irrelevant — along with the person’s background and upbringing, it might tell you something about what had gone wrong with them — but you didn’t take their views seriously.

That was the way Horza felt about Fwi-Song. He had to treat him as the maniac he obviously was. The fact that his insanity was dressed in religious trappings meant nothing.

No doubt the Culture would disagree, claiming that there was ample common ground between insanity and religious belief, but then what else could you expect from the Culture? The Idirans knew better, and Horza, while not agreeing with everything the Idirans stood for, respected their beliefs. Their whole way of life, almost their every thought, was illuminated, guided and governed by their single religion/philosophy: a belief in order, place and a kind of holy rationality.

They believed in order because they had seen so much of its opposite, first in their own planetary background, taking part in the extraordinarily fierce evolutionary contest on Idir, and then — when they finally entered into the society of their local stellar cluster — around them, between and amongst other species. They had suffered because of that lack of order; they had died by the millions in stupid, greed-inspired wars in which they became involved through no fault of their own. They had been naïve and innocent, over-dependent on others thinking in the same calm, rational way they always did.

They believed in the destiny of place. Certain individuals would always belong in certain places — the high ground, the fertile lands, the temperate isles — whether they had been born there or not; and the same applied to tribes, clans and races (and even to species; most of the ancient holy texts had proved sufficiently flexible and vague to cope with the discovery that the Idirans were not alone in the universe. The texts which had claimed otherwise were promptly ditched, and their authors were first ritually cursed and then thoroughly forgotten). At its most mundane, the belief could be expressed as the certainty that there was a place for everything, and everything ought to be in its place. Once everything was in its place, God would be happy with the universe, and eternal peace and joy would replace the current chaos.

The Idirans saw themselves as agents in this great reordering. They were the chosen — at first allowed the peace to understand what God desired, and then goaded into action rather than contemplation by the very forces of disorder they gradually understood they had to fight. God had a purpose beyond study for them. They had to find their own place, in the whole galaxy at least; perhaps even outside that, as well. The more mature species could look to their own salvation; they had to make their own rules and find their own peace with God (and it was a sign of His generosity that He was happy with their achievements even when they denied Him). But the others — the swarming, chaotic, struggling peoples — they needed guidance.

The time had come to do away with the toys of self-interested striving. That the Idirans had realised this was the sign of it. In them, and in the Word that was their inheritance from the divine, the Spell within their genetic inheritance, a new message was abroad: Grow up. Behave. Prepare.

Horza didn’t believe in the Idirans’ religion any more than Balveda had, and indeed he could see in its over-deliberate, too-planned ideals exactly the sort of life-constricting forces he so despised in the Culture’s initially more benign ethos. But the Idirans relied on themselves, not on their machines, and so they were still part of life. To him, that made all the difference.

Horza knew the Idirans would never subdue all the less-developed civilisations in the galaxy; their dreamed-of day of judgement would never come. But the very certainty of that ultimate defeat made the Idirans safe, made them normal, made them part of the general life of the galaxy; just one more species, which would grow and expand and then, finding the plateau phase all non-suicidal species eventually arrived at, settle down. In ten thousand years the Idirans would be just another civilisation, getting on with their own lives. The current era of conquests might be fondly remembered, but it would be irrelevant by then, explained away by some creative theology. They had been quiet and introspective before; so they would be again.

In the end, they were rational. They listened to common sense before their own emotions. The only thing they believed without proof was that there was a purpose to life, that there was something which was translated in most languages as “God”, and that that God wanted a better existence for His creations. At the moment they pursued this goal themselves, believed themselves to be the arms and hands and fingers of God. But when the time came they would be able to assimilate the realisation that they’d got it wrong, that it was not up to them to bring about the final order. They would themselves become calm; they would find their own place. The galaxy and its many and varied civilisations would assimilate them.

The Culture was different. Horza could see no end to its policy of continual and escalating interference. It could easily grow for ever, because it was not governed by natural limitations. Like a rogue cell, a cancer with no “off” switch in its genetic composition, the Culture would go on expanding for as long as it was allowed to. It would not stop of its own accord, so it had to be stopped.

This was a cause he had long ago decided to devote himself to, Horza told himself, listening to Fwi-Song droning on. Also, a cause he would serve no more, if he didn’t get away from the Eaters.

Fwi-Song talked for a little longer, then — after a word from Mr First — had his litter turned round so that he could address his followers. Most of them were either being very ill or looking it. Fwi-Song switched to the local language Horza didn’t understand, and gave what was evidently a sermon. He ignored the occasional bout of vomiting from his flock.

The sun dipped lower over the ocean, and the day cooled.

The sermon over, Fwi-Song sat silently on his litter as, one by one, the Eaters came up to him, bowed and spoke earnestly to him. The prophet’s dome-like head wore a large smile, and every now and again it would nod with what looked like agreement.

Later, the Eaters sang and chanted while Fwi-Song was washed and oiled by the two women who had helped officiate at Twenty-seventh’s death. Then, his vast body gleaming in the rays of the falling sun, Fwi-Song was carried, waving cheerfully, off the beach and into the small forest beneath the island’s single stunted mountain.

Fires were stoked and wood was brought. The Eaters dispersed to their tents and camp fires, or set off in small groups with crudely made baskets, apparently to gather fresh debris they would later try to eat.

At about sunset, Mr First joined the five quiet Eaters who sat around the fire Horza was by now tired of facing. The emaciated humans had taken little or no notice of the Changer, but Mr First came and sat near the man tied to the post. In one hand he held a small stone, in the other some of the artificial teeth Fwi-Song had used on Twenty-seventh earlier that day. Mr First sat grinding and polishing the teeth while he talked to the other Eaters. After a couple of them had gone to their tents, Mr First went behind Horza and undid the gag. Horza breathed through his mouth to get rid of the stale taste, and exercised his jaw. He shifted, trying to ease the accumulating aches in his arms and legs.

“Comfortable?” Mr First said, squatting down again. He continued to sharpen the metal fangs; they flickered in the firelight.

“I’ve felt better,” Horza said.

“You’ll feel worse, too… friend.” Mr First made the last word sound like a curse.

“My name’s Horza.”

“I don’t care what your name is.” Mr First shook his head. “Your name doesn’t matter. You don’t matter.”

“I had started to form that impression,” Horza admitted.

“Oh, had you?” Mr First said. He got up and came closer to the Changer. “Had you really?” He lashed out with the steel teeth he held in his hand, catching Horza across the left cheek. “Think you’re clever, eh? Think you’re going to get out of this, do you?” He kicked Horza in the belly. Horza gasped and choked. “See — you don’t matter. You’re just a hunk of meat. That’s all anybody is. Just meat. And anyway,” he kicked Horza again, “pain isn’t real. Just chemicals and electrics and that sort of thing, right?”

“Oh,” Horza croaked, his wounds aching briefly, “yes. Right.”

“OK,” Mr First grinned. “You remember this tomorrow, OK. You’re just a piece of meat, and the prophet’s a bigger one.”

“You… ah, don’t believe in souls, then?” Horza said diffidently, hoping this wouldn’t lead to another kick.

“Fuck your soul, stranger,” Mr First laughed. “You’d better hope there’s no such thing. There’s people that are natural eaters and there’s those that are always going to get eaten, and I can’t see that their souls are going to be any different, so as you’re obviously one of those that are always going to get eaten, you’d better hope there isn’t any such thing. That’s your best bet, believe me.” Mr First brought out the rag he had taken from Horza’s mouth. He tied it back there, saying, “No — no soul at all would be the best thing for you, friend. But if it turns out you have got one, you come back and tell me, so I can have a good laugh, right?” Mr First pulled the knotted rag tight, hauling Horza’s head against the wooden stake.

Fwi-Song’s lieutenant finished sharpening the sets of gleaming metal teeth, then rose and spoke to the other Eaters sitting around the fire. After a while they went to some of the small tents, and soon they were all off the beach, leaving only Horza to watch the few dying fires. The waves crashed softly on the distant surf-line, stars arced slowly above, and the dayside of the Orbital was a bright line of light overhead. Shining in the starlight and the O-light, the silent, waiting bulk of the Culture shuttle sat, its rear doors open like a cave of safe darkness.

Horza had already tested the knots restraining his hands and feet. Shrinking his wrists wouldn’t work; the rope, twine or whatever they had used was tightening very slightly all the time; it would just take up the slack as quickly as he could produce it. Perhaps it shrank when drying and they had wet it before tying him. He couldn’t tell. He could intensify the acid content in his sweat glands where the rope touched his skin, and that was always worth a try, but even the long night of Vavatch probably wouldn’t give enough time for the process to work.

Pain isn’t real, he told himself. Crap.

He awoke at dawn, along with several of the Eaters, who walked slowly down to the water to wash in the surf. Horza was cold. He started shivering as soon as he woke, and he could tell that his body temperature had dropped a long way during the night in the light trance required for altering the skin cells on his wrists. He strained at the ropes, testing for some give, the slightest tearing of fibres or strands. There was nothing, just more pain from the palms of his hands where some sweat had run down onto skin unchanged and therefore unprotected from the acid his sweat glands had been producing. He worried about that for about a second, recalling that if he was ever to impersonate Kraiklyn properly he would need to lift the man’s finger and palm prints and so would need his skin in perfect Changing condition. Then he laughed at himself for worrying about that when he wasn’t even likely to see the day out.

He vaguely considered killing himself. It was possible; with only a little internal preparation, he could use one of his own teeth to poison himself. But, while there was still any chance, he could not bring himself to think of it seriously. He wondered how Culture people faced the war; they were supposed to be able to decide to die, too, though it was said to be more complicated than simple poison. But how did they resist it, those soft, peace-pampered souls? He imagined them in combat, auto-euthenising almost the instant the first shots landed, the first wounds started to appear. The thought made him smile.

The Idirans had a death trance, but it was only for use in cases of extreme shame and disgrace, or when a life’s work was completed, or a crippling disease threatened. And unlike the Culture — or the Changers — they felt their pain to the full, undampened by genofixed inhibitors. The Changers regarded pain as a semi-redundant hangover from their animal evolution; the Culture was simply frightened of it: but the Idirans treated it with a sort of proud contempt.

Horza looked across the beach, over the two big canoes towards the open rear doors of the shuttle. A pair of brightly coloured birds were strutting around on its top, making little ritualised movements. Horza watched them for a while, as the Eaters’ camp gradually woke up and the morning sun brightened. Mist rose from the thin forest and there were a few clouds, high up in the sky. Mr First came yawning and stretching out of his tent, then took the heavy projectile pistol out from under his tunic and fired it in the air. This seemed to be a signal for all the Eaters to wake and set about their daily business if they hadn’t already done so.

The noise of the crude weapon frightened the two birds on the roof of the Culture shuttle; they took to the air and flew away over the trees and shrubs, around the island. Horza watched them go, then let his eyes drop, staring at the golden sand and breathing slow and deep.

“Your big day, stranger,” Mr First said with a grin, coming up to the Changer. He put the pistol into the string holster under his tunic. Horza looked at the man, but said nothing. Another feast in my honour, he thought.

Mr First walked around Horza, looking down at him. Horza followed him with his eyes where he could and waited for the man to spot whatever damage the acid-sweat had succeeded in inflicting on the rope round his wrists, but Mr First didn’t notice anything, and when he reappeared in Horza’s view he was still smiling slightly, nodding his head a little, seemingly satisfied that the man tied to the stake was still well enough restrained. Horza did his best to stretch, straining at the bonds at his wrists. There was not even a hint of give. It hadn’t worked. Mr First left, to supervise the launching of a fishing canoe.

Fwi-Song was brought out of the forest on his litter not long before noon, as the fishing canoe was returning.

“Gift of the seas and air! Tribute of the great Circlesea’s vast wealth! See what a wondrous day awaits you now!” Fwi-Song had himself brought up to Horza, and was put down to one side of the fire. He smiled at the Changer. “All the night you have had time to think of what the day now holds; for all the darkness you have been able to look into the fruits of the Vacuum. You have seen the spaces between the stars, seen how much there is of nothing, how little there is of anything. Now you can appreciate what an honour lies in store for you; how lucky you are to be my sign, my offering!” Fwi-Song clapped his hands with delight, and his enormous body shook up and down. The chubby hands went to his mouth as he spoke, and the folds of flesh over his eyes lifted momentarily to reveal the whites within. “Ho-hoo! What fun we all shall have!” The prophet made a sign, and his litter carriers took him down to the sea to be washed and anointed.

Horza watched the Eaters prepare their food; they gutted the fish, throwing away the meat and keeping the offal and skins, heads and spikes. They removed the shells from the animals inside and threw the animals away. They ground up the shells with the weeds and some brightly coloured sea slugs. Horza watched all this happen in front of him, and saw just how run-down the Eaters really were; the scabs and sores, the deficiency diseases and general weakness. The colds and coughs, peeling skin and partly deformed limbs all spoke of a very gradually fatal diet. The dead meat and animals from the sea were returned to the waves via great blood-soaked baskets. Horza watched as closely as his gag and the distance would allow, but none of the Eaters seemed to take a surreptitious bite of the raw meat as they threw it from the baskets into the waves.

Fwi-Song, being dried on the sand just up the beach from the line of breakers, watched the food being thrown into the sea and nodded with approval, speaking quiet words of encouragement to his flock. Then he clapped his hands, and the litter was slowly carried along the beach to the fire and the Changer.

“Offertory thing! Benefaction! Prepare yourself!” Fwi-Song warbled, settling down in his litter with little movements which sent ripples all over the great folds and sweeps of his massive body. Horza started to breathe harder, felt his heart pound. He swallowed, and strained again at the rope holding his hands. Mr First and the two women were digging at the sand for the thin robes in their buried sacks.

All the Eaters gathered round the fire, facing Horza. Their eyes looked blank or vaguely interested, nothing more. There was a listlessness about their actions and expressions which Horza found even more depressing than outright hatred or sadistic glee would have been.

The Eaters began to chant and sing. Mr First and the two women were twisting the dull lengths of cloth around their bodies. Mr First looked at Horza and grinned.

“Oh happy moment in the ending days!” Fwi-Song said, raising his voice and hands, his choked tones ringing out towards the centre of the island. The smells of the Eaters’ foul cooking drifted past the Changer again. “Let this one’s unmaking and making be a symbol for us!” Fwi-Song continued, letting his arms drop back in enormous rolls of white flesh. The golden-brown surfaces gleamed in the sunlight as the prophet clasped his fat fingers together. “Let his pain be our delight, as our unmaking shall be our joining; let his flaying and consummation be our satisfaction and delectation!” Fwi-Song raised his head and spoke loudly in the language the others understood. Their chanting altered and grew louder. Mr First and the two women approached Horza.

Horza felt Mr First take the gag from his mouth. The pale-skinned man spoke to the two women, who went to the bubbling vats of stinking liquid. Horza’s head was feeling very light; there was a taste he knew too well at the back of his throat, as though some of the acid from his wrists had somehow found its way to his tongue. He strained again at his bonds behind him, feeling the muscles shake. The chanting went on; the women were ladling the foul broth into bowls. His empty stomach was churning already.

There are two main ways to escape bonds apart from those open to non-Changers [the Academy’s lecture notes said]: by acid-sweat pulse on a sustained level where the binding material is susceptible to such an attack, and by malleable preferential tapering of the limb-point involved.

Horza tried to coax a little more strength from his tired muscles.

Excessive acid-sweating can damage not only the adjacent skin surfaces, but also the body as a whole through dangerously altered chemical imbalances. Over-much tapering poses the risk of the muscles being so wasted and the bone so weakened that their subsequent use may be severely restricted in the short- and long-term escape attempt.

Mr First was approaching with the wooden blocks he would fit into Horza’s mouth. A couple of the larger Eaters had stood up near the front of the crowd and advanced slightly, ready to assist Mr First. Fwi-Song was reaching behind his back. The women started forward from the bubbling vats.

“Open wide, stranger,” Mr First said, holding out the two wooden blocks. “Or do we use a crowbar?” Mr First smiled.

Horza’s arms strained. His upper arm moved. Mr First saw the movement and halted momentarily. One of Horza’s hands jerked free. It shot round in an instant, nails ready to rake Mr First’s face. The pale-skinned man drew back, not quickly enough.

Horza’s nails caught Mr First’s robe and tunic as they flapped out from his dodging body. Already straining as far out from the stake as he could, Horza felt his clawed hand rip through the two layers of material without connecting with the flesh underneath. Mr First staggered back, bumping into one of the women carrying the bowls of stinking gruel, knocking it from her hands. One of the wooden wedges sailed from Mr First’s hand and landed in the fire. Horza’s arm completed its swing just as the two Eaters in the front of the crowd came forward quickly and caught the Changer by the head and arm.

“Sacrilege!” Fwi-Song screamed. Mr First looked at the woman he had bumped into, at the fire, at the prophet, then back with a furious look at the Changer. He lifted one arm to look at the tears in his robe and tunic. “The gift-filth desecrates our vestments!” Fwi-Song shouted. The two Eaters held Horza, pinning his arm back where it had been and his head to the stake. Mr First started towards Horza, taking the gun out from under his tunic and holding it by the barrel, like a club. “Mr First!” Fwi-Song snapped, stopping the pale-skinned man in his tracks. “Shtand gack! Hold gat arn out; ee’ll show gish naught goy how we geel wish hish short!”

Horza’s free arm was straightened out in front of him. One of the Eaters holding him put his leg round the back of the post, bracing himself there and trapping Horza’s other hand where it was. Fwi-Song had a set of gleaming steel teeth in his mouth, the holed ones. He glared at the Changer while Mr First stepped back, still holding the projectile pistol. The prophet nodded to another two Eaters in the crowd; they took Horza’s hand and prised the fingers apart, tying that wrist to a pole. Horza felt his whole body shake. He cut off all feeling in that hand.

“Naughty, naughty gisht ’rom the shee!” Fwi-Song said. He leant forward, buried Horza’s index finger in his mouth, closed the stripper teeth over them, cutting into the flesh, and then pulled quickly back.

The prophet chewed and swallowed, watching the Changer’s face as he did so, and frowning. “Not gery tashty, genegiction ’rom the oceansh currentsh!” The prophet licked his lips. “An’ not shore enush ’or you, eisher, sho it wood sheen? Letch shee ’ot elsh nee can…” Fwi-Song was frowning again. Horza looked past the Eaters holding him to the hand stretched out over the pole, one finger stripped bare, the bones limp, blood dripping from the thin tip.

Beyond that, Fwi-Song sat frowning on his litter on the sand, Mr First near his side, still glaring at Horza and holding the gun barrel. As Fwi-Song’s silence continued, Mr First looked at the prophet. Fwi-Song said, “…not elsh nee can… nee can…” Fwi-Song reached up and took the stripper teeth with some difficulty from his mouth. He laid them in front of him with the rest on their rag, and put one pudgy hand to his throat, the other onto the vast hemisphere of his belly. Mr First looked on, then back at Horza, who did his best to smile. The Changer opened his teeth glands and sucked poison.

“Mr First…” Fwi-Song began, then put out the hand on his belly towards the other man. Mr First seemed uncertain what to do. He transferred the gun from one hand to the other, and took the prophet’s offered hand with his free one. “I think I… I…” Fwi-Song said, as his eyes started to open from slits to small ovals. Horza could see his face changing colour already. Soon the voice, as the vocal cords react. “Help me, Mr First!” Fwi-Song took hold of a lump of fat round his throat as though trying to undo a scarf tied too tightly; he stuck his fingers into his mouth, down his throat, but Horza knew that wouldn’t work; the prophet’s stomach muscles were already paralysed — he couldn’t vomit the poison up. Fwi-Song’s eyes were wide now, glaring white; his face was going grey-blue. Mr First was goggling at the prophet and still holding his huge hand; his own was buried somewhere inside the great golden fist of Fwi-Song’s. “He-ll-p!” squeaked the prophet. Then nothing but choking noises. The white eyes bulged, the vast frame shook, the dome-head went blue.

Somebody in the crowd started screaming. Mr First looked at Horza, and brought up the big pistol. Horza tensed, then spat with all his might.

The spittle splashed across Mr First’s face, from mouth to one ear in a sickle shape which just took in one eye. Mr First staggered back. Horza breathed in, sucked more poison, then spat and blew at the same time, landing a second burst of spittle right across Mr First’s eyes. Mr First clutched at his face, dropping the gun. His other hand was still caught in Fwi-Song’s grip as the obese prophet shook and quivered, his eyes wide but seeing nothing. The people holding Horza wavered; he could feel it in them. More people in the crowd were crying out. Horza jerked his body and snarled, spitting again, at one of the men holding the pole his hand was tied to. The man screamed shrilly and fell back; the others let go of him or the pole and ran. Fwi-Song was going blue from the neck down, still quivering and clutching his throat with one hand and Mr First with the other. Mr First was on his knees, his face lowered, moaning as he tried to wipe the spittle from his face and remove the unbearable burning from his eyes.

Horza looked round quickly; the Eaters were watching either their prophet and his chief disciple, or him, but they weren’t doing anything either to aid them or to stop him. Not all of them were crying or screaming; some were still chanting, quickly and fearfully as though something they could say would stop whatever terrible things were happening. Gradually, though, they were backing off, away both from the prophet and Mr First, and from the Changer. Horza pulled and jerked his hand tied to the pole; it started to come free.

“Aah!” Mr First suddenly raised his head, hand clutching at one eye, and screamed for all his worth; his hand, still caught in that of the prophet, jerked out straight as he tried to pull free. Fwi-Song still held him in his grip, though, even as he quaked and stared and turned blue. Horza’s hand came free; he tugged at the bonds behind him and did his best with the crippled free hand to untie the knots. The Eaters were moaning now, some still chanting, but they were moving away. Horza roared — partly at them, partly at the stubborn knots behind him. Several in the crowd ran. One of the women dressed in the ragged vestment clothes screamed, threw her bowl of gruel at him, missing him, then fell sobbing to the sand.

Horza felt the ropes behind him give. He got the other arm free, then one foot. He stood shakily, watching Fwi-Song gargle and choke, while Mr First howled, shaking his head this way and that and pulling and swinging his gripped hand as though in some monstrous travesty of a handshake. Eaters were running for the canoes or the shuttle, or throwing themselves onto the sand. Horza struggled free at last, and staggered towards the grossly imbalanced duo of men linked by the hand. He plunged forward and grabbed the fallen pistol from the sands. As he knelt and then stood, Fwi-Song, as though suddenly seeing Horza again, gave one last gurgling, gagging splutter of noise, and tipped slowly towards the side Mr First was pulling and tugging from. Mr First fell to his knees again, still screaming as the venom seared the membranes of his eyes and attacked the nerves beyond. As Fwi-Song toppled and his arm and hand went slack, Mr First looked up and round, in time to see through his pain the vast bulk of the prophet falling towards him. He howled once, on an indrawn breath as he pulled his hand free at last from the now blue clump of chubby fingers; he started to rise to his feet, but Fwi-Song rolled over and crashed into him, knocking him to the sand. Before Mr First could utter another sound, the immense prophet had fallen over his disciple, flattening him into the sand from head to buttocks.

Fwi-Song’s eyes closed slowly. The hand at his throat flopped across the sand and into the outer edge of the fire, where it started to sizzle.

Mr First’s legs beat a tattoo on the sand just as the last of the Eaters ran away, jumping tents and fires and racing for the canoes or shuttle or forest. Then the two skinny legs sticking out from under the prophet’s body were reduced to spasms, and after a while they stopped moving altogether. None of their movements had succeeded in shifting Fwi-Song’s huge body a centimetre.

Horza blew some sand off the clumsy feeling pistol and moved upwind from the smell of the prophet’s hand burning in the fire. He checked the gun, looking round the deserted stretch of beach around the fires and tents. The canoes were being launched. Eaters were crowding into the Culture shuttle.

Horza stretched his aching limbs, looked at his bare-boned finger, then shrugged, put the gun under one armpit, put his good hand round the set of bones, pulled and twisted. His useless bones snapped from their sockets and he threw them onto the fire.

Pain isn’t real anyway, he told himself shakily, and started for the Culture shuttle at a slow run.

The Eaters in the shuttle saw him coming straight towards them, and started screaming again. They piled out. Some of them ran down the beach to wade out after the escaping canoes; others scattered into the forest. Horza slowed down to let them go, then looked warily at the open doors of the Culture craft. He could see seats inside, up the short ramp, and lights and a far bulkhead. He took a deep breath and walked up the gentle slope of ramp, into the shuttle.

“Hello,” said a crudely synthesised voice. Horza looked around. The shuttle looked pretty well used and old. It was Culture, he was fairly certain of that, but it wasn’t as neat and spanking-new as the Culture liked its products to look. “Why were those people so frightened of you?”

Horza was still looking round, wondering where and what to address.

“I’m not sure,” he said shrugging. He was naked and still holding the gun, with only a couple of strips of flesh on one finger, though the bleeding had quickly stopped. He thought he must look a threatening figure anyway, but maybe the shuttle couldn’t tell that. “Where are you? What are you?” he said, deciding to feign ignorance. He looked around in a very obvious manner, hamming up a display of looking forward, through a door in the bulkhead, to a control area forward.

“I’m the shuttle. Its brain. How do you do?”

“Fine,” Horza said, “just fine. How are you?”

“Very well, considering, thank you. I haven’t been bored at all, but it is nice to have somebody to talk to at last. You speak very good Marain; where did you learn?”

“Ah… I did a course in it,” Horza said. He did some more looking around. “Look, I don’t know where to look when I talk to you. Where should I look, huh?”

“Ha ha,” the shuttle laughed. “I suppose you’d best look up here; forward towards the bulkhead.” Horza did so. “See that little round thing right in the middle, near the ceiling? That’s one of my eyes.”

“Oh,” Horza said. He waved and smiled. “Hi. My name’s… Orab.”

“Hello, Orab. I’m called Tsealsir. Actually that’s only part of my name designation, but you can call me that. What was happening out there? I haven’t been watching the people I’m here to rescue; I was told not to, in case I got upset, but I did hear people screaming when they came near and they seemed frightened when they came inside me. Then they saw you and ran away. What is that you’re holding? Is it a gun? I’ll have to ask you to put that away for safe keeping. I’m here to rescue people who want to be rescued when the Orbital is destructed, and we can’t have dangerous weapons on board, in case somebody gets hurt, can we? Is that finger hurt? I have a very good medkit on board. Would you like to use it, Orab?”

“Yes, that might be an idea.”

“Good. It’s on the inward side of the doorway through to my front compartment on the left.”

Horza started walking past the rows of seats towards the front of the shuttle. For all its age, the shuttle smelled of… he wasn’t quite sure. All the synthetic materials it was made from, he supposed. After the natural but god-awful odours of the last day, Horza found the shuttle much more pleasant, even if it was Culture and therefore belonged to the enemy. Horza touched the gun he was carrying as though doing something to it.

“Just putting the safety catch on,” he told the eye in the ceiling. “Don’t want it to go off, but those people out there were trying to kill me earlier, and I feel safer with it in my hand, know what I mean?”

“Well, not exactly, Orab,” the shuttle said, “but I think I can understand. But you’ll have to give the gun to me before we take off.”

“Oh sure. As soon as you close those rear doors.” Horza was in the doorway between the main compartment and the smaller control area now. It was in fact a very short corridor, less than two metres long, with opened doors to each compartment. Horza looked round quickly, but he couldn’t see another eye. He watched a large flap open at about hip level to reveal a comprehensive medical kit.

“Well, Orab, I’d close those doors to make you feel a bit safer if I could, but you see I’m here to rescue people who want to be rescued when the time comes to destruct the Orbital, and I can’t close those doors until just before I leave, so that everybody who wants to can get on board. Actually I can’t really understand why anybody wouldn’t want to escape, but they told me not to get worried if some people stayed behind. But I must say I think that would be kind of silly, don’t you, Orab?”

Horza was rummaging through the medkit but looking above it at other outlines of doors set in the wall of the short corridor. He said, “Hmm? Oh, yeah, that would be. When is the place due to blow, anyway?” He poked his head round the corner, into the control compartment or flight deck, looking up at another eye set in the corresponding position to the one in the main compartment, but looking forward from the other side of the thick wall between the two. Horza grinned and gave a little wave, then ducked back.

“Hi,” the shuttle laughed. “Well, Orab, I’m afraid that we’re going to be forced to destruct the Orbital in forty-three standard hours. Unless, of course, the Idirans see sense and are reasonable and withdraw their threat to use Vavatch as a war base.”

“Oh,” Horza said. He was looking at one of the door outlines above the opened one the medkit was protruding from. As far as he could guess, those two eyes were back to back, separated by the thickness of the wall between the two compartments. Unless there was a mirror he couldn’t see, he was invisible to the shuttle while he remained in the short corridor.

He looked back, out through the open rear doors; the only movement came from the tops of some distant trees and the smoke from the fires. He checked the gun. The projectiles seemed to be hidden in some sort of magazine, but a little circular indicator with a sweep hand indicated either one bullet left or one expended out of twelve.

“Yes,” the shuttle said. “It’s very sad, of course, but these things are necessary in wartime I suppose. Not that I pretend to understand it all. I’m just a humble shuttle, after all. I’d actually been given away as a present to one of the Megaships because I was too old-fashioned and crude for the Culture, you know. I thought they could have upgraded me but they didn’t; they just gave me away. Anyway, they need me now, I’m happy to say. We have quite a job on our hands, you know, getting everybody who wants to get off away from Vavatch. I’ll be sorry to see it go; I’ve had some happy times here, believe me… But that’s just the way things go, I suppose. How’s that finger going, by the way? Want me to have a look at it? Bring the medkit stuff round into one of the two compartments so I can take a look. I might be able to help, you know? Oh! Are you touching one of the other lockers in that corridor?”

Horza was trying to lever open the door nearest the roof by using the barrel of the gun. “No,” he said, heaving away at it. “I’m nowhere near it.”

“That’s odd. I’m sure I can feel something. Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Horza said, putting all his weight behind the gun. The door gave way, revealing tubes, fibre-runs, metal bottles and various other unrecognisable bits of machinery, electrics, optics and field units.

“Ouch!” said the shuttle.

“Hey!” Horza shouted. “It just blew open! There’s something on fire in there!” He raised the gun, holding it in both hands. He sighted carefully; about there.

Fire!” yelped the shuttle. “But that’s not possible!”

“You think I can’t tell smoke when I see it, you crazy goddamned machine?” Horza yelled. He pulled the trigger.

The gun exploded, throwing his hands up and him back. The noise of the shuttle’s exclamation was covered by the crack and bang of the bullet hitting inside and exploding. Horza covered his face with his arm.

“I’m blind!” wailed the shuttle. Now smoke really was pouring from the compartment Horza had opened. He staggered into the control compartment.

“You’re on fire in here, too!” he yelled. “There’s smoke coming out everywhere!”

“What? But that can’t be—”

“You’re on fire! I don’t know how you can’t feel it or smell it! You’re burning!”

“I don’t trust you!” the machine yelled. “Put that gun away or—”

“You’ve got to trust me!” Horza yelled, looking all over the control area for where the shuttle’s brain might be located. He could see screens and seats, readout screens and even the place where manual controls might be hidden; but no indication of where the brain was. “Smoke’s pouring out everywhere!” he repeated, trying to sound hysterical.

“Here! Here’s an extinguisher! I’m turning mine on!” the machine shouted. A wall unit spun round, and Horza grabbed the bulky cylinder attached to the inside of the flap. He wrapped his four good fingers on his injured hand round the pistol grip. A hissing noise and a light vapour-like steam was appearing from various places in the compartment.

“Nothing’s happening!” Horza screamed. “There’s loads of black smoke and its — arrch!” He pretended to cough. “…Aargh! It’s getting thicker!”

“Where is it coming from? Quickly!”

“Everywhere!” Horza yelled, glancing all round the control area. “From near your eye… under the seats, over the screens, under the screens… I can’t see…!”

“Go on! I can smell smoke, too, now!”

Horza looked at the slight smudge of grey filtering into the control area from the spluttering fire in the short corridor where he had shot the craft. “It’s… coming from those places, and those info screens on either side of the end seats, and… just above the seats, on the side walls where that bit juts out—”

“What?” screamed the shuttle brain. “On the left facing forward?”

“Yes!”

“Put that one out first!” the shuttle screeched.

Horza dropped the extinguisher and gripped the gun in both hands again, aiming it at the bulge in the wall over the left-hand seat. He pulled the trigger: once, twice, three times. The gun blasted, shaking his whole body; sparks and bits of flying debris flew from the holes the bullets were smashing in the casing of the machine.

“EEEeee…” said the shuttle, then there was silence.

Some smoke rose from the bulge and it joined with that coming from the corridor to form a thin layer under the ceiling. Horza let the gun down slowly, looking around and listening.

“Mug,” he said.

He used the hand-held extinguisher to put out the small fires in the wall of the corridor and where the shuttle’s brain had been, then he went out into the passenger area to sit near the open doors while the smoke and the fumes cleared. He couldn’t see any Eaters on the sand or in the forest, and the canoes were out of sight, too. He looked for some door controls and found them; the doors closed with a hiss, and Horza grinned.

He went back to the control area and started punching buttons and opening sections of panelling until he got some life from the screens. They all suddenly blinked on while he was fiddling with some buttons on the arm of one of the couch-like seats. The noise of surf in the flight deck made him think the doors had opened again, but it was only some external microphones relaying the noise from outside. Screens flickered and lit up with figures and lines, and flaps opened in front of the seats; control wheels and levers sighed out smoothly and clicked into place, just ready to be held and used. Feeling happier than he had been in many days, Horza started an eventually successful but longer and more frustrating search for some food; he was very hungry.

Some small insects were running in orderly lines over the huge body collapsed on the sands, one hand of which was sticking, charred and blackened, into the dying flames of a fire.

The little insects started by eating the deep-set eyes, which were open. They hardly noticed as the shuttle rose, wobbling, into the air, picked up speed and turned inelegantly above the mountain, then roared off, through the early evening air, away from the island.

Interlude in darkness

The Mind had an image to illustrate its information capacity. It liked to imagine the contents of its memory store written out on cards; little slips of paper with tiny writing on them, big enough for a human to read. If the characters were a couple of millimetres tall and the paper about ten centimetres square and written on both sides, then ten thousand characters could be squeezed onto each card. In a metre long drawer of such cards maybe one thousand of them — ten million pieces of information — could be stored. In a small room a few metres square, with a corridor in the middle just wide enough to pull a tray out into, you could keep perhaps a thousand trays arranged in close-packed cabinets: ten billion characters in all.

A square kilometre of these cramped cells might contain as many as one hundred thousand rooms; a thousand such floors would produce a building two thousand metres tall with a hundred million rooms. If you kept building those squat towers, squeezed hard up against each other until they entirely covered the surface of a largish standard-G world — maybe a billion square kilometres — you would have a planet with one trillion square kilometres of floor space, one hundred quadrillion paper-stuffed rooms, thirty light-years of corridors and a number of potential stored characters sufficiently large to boggle just about anybody’s mind.

In base 10 that number would be a 1 followed by twenty-seven zeros, and even that vast figure was only a fraction of the capacity of the Mind. To match it you would need a thousand such worlds; systems of them, a clusterful of information-packed globes… and that vast capacity was physically contained within a space smaller than a single one of those tiny rooms, inside the Mind…

In darkness the Mind waited.

It had counted how long it had waited so far; it had tried to estimate how long it would have to wait in the future. It knew to the smallest imaginable fraction of a second how long it had been in the tunnels of the Command System, and more often than it needed to it thought about that number, watched it grow inside itself. It was a form of security, it supposed; a small fetish; something to cling to.

It had explored the Command System tunnels, scanning and surveying. It was weak, damaged, almost totally helpless, but it had been worthwhile taking a look around the maze-like complex of tunnels and caverns just to take its attention off the fact that it was there as a refugee. The places it could not get to itself it sent its one remaining remote drone into, so that it could have a look, and see what there was to be seen.

And all of it was at once boring and frighteningly depressing. The level of technology possessed by the builders of the Command System was very limited indeed; everything in the tunnels worked either mechanically or electronically. Gears and wheels, electric wires, superconductors and light-fibres; very crude indeed, the Mind thought, and nothing it could possibly interest itself in. A glance through any of the machines and devices in the tunnel was sufficient to know them exactly — what they were made of, how they had been made, even what they were made for. No mystery, nothing to employ the mind.

There was something too about the inexactitude of it all that the Mind found almost frightening. It could look at some carefully machined piece of metal or some delicately moulded bit of plastic, and know that to the people who had built the Command System — to their eyes — these things were exact and precise, constructed to fine tolerances with dead straight lines, perfect edges, smooth surfaces, immaculate right angles… and so on. But the Mind, even with its damaged sensors, could see the rough edges, the crudity of the parts and the components involved. They had been good enough for the people at the time, and no doubt they had fulfilled the most important criterion of all; they worked…

But they were crude, clumsy, imperfectly designed and manufactured. For some reason the Mind found this worrying.

And it would have to use this ancient, crude, shop-soiled technology. It would have to connect with it.

It had thought it through as best it could, and decided to formulate plans for what to do if the Idirans did get somebody through the Quiet Barrier and threatened it with discovery.

It would arm, and it would make a place to hide in. Both actions implied damage to the Command System, so it would not act until it knew it was definitely threatened. Once it knew it was, it would be forced to risk the Dra’Azon’s displeasure.

But it might not come to that. It hoped it wouldn’t; planning was one thing, execution was another. It was unlikely to have very much time either to hide or to arm. Both plans might perforce be rather crudely implemented, especially as it had only one remote drone and its own badly crippled fields with which to manipulate the engineering facilities of the System.

Better than nothing, though. Better still to have problems than to let death eradicate them all…

There was, however, another less immediately relevant, but more intrinsically worrying, problem it had discovered, and it was implied in the question: who was it?

Its higher functions had had to close down when it had transferred from four- to three-dimensional space. The Mind’s information was held in binary form, in spirals composed of protons and neutrons; and neutrons — outside a nucleus, and also outside hyperspace — decayed (into protons, ha-ha; not too long after entering the Command System, the vast majority of its memory would have consisted of the stunningly illuminating message: “0000000…”). So it had effectively frozen its primary memory and cognitive functions, wrapping them in fields which prevented both decay and use. It was working instead on back-up picocircuitry, in real space, and using real-space light to think with (how humiliating).

In fact, it could still access all that stored memory (though the process was complicated, and so slow), so all was not lost there… But as for thinking, as for being itself — another matter entirely. It wasn’t its real self. It was a crude, abstracted copy of itself, the mere ground plan for the full labyrinthine complexity of its true personality. It was the truest possible copy its limited scale was theoretically capable of providing, and it was still sentient; conscious by even the most rigorous of standards. Yet an index was not the text, a street plan was not the city, a map not the land.

So who was it?

Not the entity it thought it was, that was the answer, and it was a disconcerting one. Because it knew that the self it was now could never think of all the things its old self would have thought of. It felt unworthy. It felt fallible and limited and… dull.

But think positively. Patterns, images, the telling analogymake the ill work to good. Just think

If it was not itself, then it would be not itself.

As it was now to what it had been before, so the remote drone was to it now (nice connection).

The remote drone would be more than just its eyes and ears on the surface, in or near the Changers’ base, keeping look-out; more than just its assistant in the doubtless frantic preparations to equip and secrete which would ensue if the drone did raise the alarm; more. And less.

Look on the happy side, think of the good things. Hadn’t it been clever? Yes, it had.

Its escape from the spare-parts warship had been, though it thought it itself, quite breathtakingly masterful and brilliant. Its courageous use of warp so deep into a gravity well would have been foolhardy in the extreme in anything else but the dire circumstances it had found itself in, but was anyway superbly skilled… And its stunning cross-realm transfer, from hyper- to real space, was not simply even more brilliant and even braver than anything else it had done, it was almost certainly a first; there was nothing anywhere in its vast store of information to indicate that anybody had ever done that before. It was proud.

But after all that, here it was, trapped; an intellectual cripple, a philosophical shadow of its former self.

Now all it could do was wait, hoping that whoever came to find it would be friendly. The Culture must know; the Mind was certain its signal had worked and that it would be picked up somewhere. But the Idirans knew as well. It didn’t think they would just try to storm in, because they knew as well as it did that antagonising the Dra’Azon was a bad idea. But what if the Idirans found a way in and the Culture couldn’t? What if the whole region of space around the Sullen Gulf was now Idiran held? The Mind knew there was only one thing it could do if it fell into Idiran hands, but not only did it not want to destruct for purely personal reasons, it didn’t want to destruct anywhere near Schar’s World anyway, for the same reason that the Idirans wouldn’t come charging in. But if it was captured in the planet, that might be the last time it would have a chance to destroy itself. By the time it was taken off the planet the Idirans might have found a way of stopping it from destructing.

Perhaps it had made a mistake in escaping at all. Perhaps it should have just destructed along with the rest of the ship and saved all this complication and worry. But it had seemed like an almost heaven-sent opportunity to escape — finding itself so close to a Planet of the Dead when it had been attacked. It wanted to live anyway, but it would have been… wasteful to throwaway such a great chance even if it had been perfectly sanguine about its own survival or destruction.

Well, there was nothing to be done about it now. It was here and it just had to wait. Wait and think. Consider all the options (few) and possibilities (many). Rack those memories as best it could for anything that might be relevant, that might help. For example (and the one really interesting bit would be a bad one), it had discovered that the Idirans had probably employed one of the Changers who had actually served with the caretaker staff on Schar’s World. Of course perhaps the man was dead, or busy on something else, or too far away, or the information had been incorrect in the first place and the intelligence-gathering section of the Culture had got it wrong… But if not, then that man would be the one obvious person to send after something hiding in the Command System tunnels.

It was part of the Mind’s very construction — at every level — to believe that there was no such thing as bad knowledge except in very relative terms, but it really did wish that it hadn’t had that bit of information in its memory banks; it would just as soon not have known anything about this man, this Changer who knew Schar’s World and probably worked for the Idirans. (Perversely, it found itself wishing it knew this man’s name.)

But with any luck he would be irrelevant, or the Culture would get here first. Or the Dra’Azon being would recognise a fellow Mind in trouble and help, or… anything.

In darkness the Mind waited.

…Hundreds of those planets were empty; the hundred million room towers were there; the little rooms, the cabinets and the trays and the cards and the spaces for the numbers and letters were there; but nothing was written, nothing held, on any of the cards… (Sometimes the Mind liked to imagine travelling down the narrow spaces between the cabinets, one of its remote drones floating between the banked files of memory in the thin corridors, from room to room, for floor after floor, kilometre after kilometre, over buried continents of rooms, filled-in oceans of rooms, levelled ranges, felled forests, covered deserts of rooms.)… These whole systems of dark planets, those trillions of square kilometres of blank paper, represented the Mind’s future; the spaces it would fill in its life to come.

If it had one.

7. A Game of Damage

“Damage — the game banned everywhere. Tonight, in that unprepossessing building across the square under the dome, they’ll gather: the Players of the Eve of Destruction… the most select group of rich psychotics in the human galaxy, here to play the game that is to real life what soap opera is to high tragedy.

“This is the bi-port city of Evanauth, Vavatch Orbital, the very same Vavatch Orbital that in about eleven standard hours from now is due to be blasted into its component atoms as the Idiran-Culture war in this part of the galaxy, near the Glittercliff and Sullen Gulf, reaches a new high in standing-by-your-principles-regardless and a new low in common sense. It’s that imminent destruction that’s attracted these scatological vultures here, not the famous Megaships or the azure-blue technological miracles of the Circlesea. No, these people are here because the whole Orbital is doomed to be blown away shortly, and they think it’s kind of amusing to play Damage — an ordinary card game with a few embellishments to make it attractive to the mentally disturbed — in places on the verge of annihilation.

“They’ve played on worlds about to suffer massive comet or meteorite strikes, in volcanic calderas about to blow, in cities due for nuclear bombardment in ritualistic wars, in asteroids heading for the centre of stars, in front of moving cliffs of ice or lava, inside mysterious alien spacecraft discovered empty and deserted and set on courses aiming them into black holes, in vast palaces about to be sacked by android mobs, and just about everywhere you can think of you’d rather not want to be immediately after the Players leave. It might seem like a strange sort of way to get your kicks, but it takes all sorts to make a galaxy, I guess.

“So here they’ve come, these hyper-rich dead-beats, in their rented ships or their own cruisers. Right now they’re sobering up and coming down, going through plastic surgery or behaviour therapy — or both — to make them acceptable in what passes for normal society, even in these rarefied circles, after months spent in whatever expensive and unlikely debauchery or perversion particularly appeals to them or happens to be in fashion at the moment. At the same time, they or their minions are scraping together their Aoish credits — all actual; no notes — and scouting hospitals, asylums and freeze-stores for new Lives.

“Here, too, have come the hangers-on — the Damage groupies, the fortune seekers, the past failures at the game desperate for another try if they can only raise the money and the Lives… and Damage’s very own special sort of human debris: the moties, victims of the game’s emotional fall-out; mind-junkies who only exist to lap at the crumbs of ecstasy and anguish falling from the lips of their heroes, the Players of the Game.

“Nobody knows exactly how all these different groups hear about the game or even how they all get here in time, but the word goes out to those who really need to or want to hear about it, and like ghouls they come, ready for the game and the destruction.

“Originally Damage was played on such occasions because only during the breakdown of law and morality, and the confusion and chaos normally surrounding Final Events, could the game be carried out in anything remotely resembling part of the civilised galaxy; which, believe it or not, the Players like to think they’re part of. Now the subsequent nova, world-busting or other cataclysm is seen as some sort of metaphysical symbol for the mortality of all things, and as the Lives involved in a Full Game are all volunteers, a lot of places — like good old pleasure-oriented, permissive Vavatch — let the game take place with official blessing from the authorities. Some people say it’s not the game it used to be, even that it’s become something of a media event, but I say it’s still a game for the mad and the bad; the rich and the uncaring, but not the careless; the unhinged… but well connected. People still die in Damage, and not just the Lives, either, or the Players.

“It’s been called the most decadent game in history. About all you can say in the game’s defence is that it, rather than reality, occupies the warped minds of some of the galaxy’s more twisted people; gods know what they would get up to if it wasn’t there. And if the game does any good apart from reminding us — as if we needed reminding — how crazy the bipedal, oxygen-breathing carboniform can become, it does occasionally remove one of the Players and frighten the rest for a while. In these arguably insane times, any lessening or attenuation of madness is maybe something to be grateful for.

“I’ll be filing another report again some time during the course of the game, from within the auditorium if I can get in there. But in the meantime, goodbye and take care. This is Sarble the Eye, Evanauth City, Vavatch.”

The image on the wrist screen of a man standing in sunlight on a plaza faded; the half-masked, youngish face disappearing.

Horza put his terminal screen back onto his cuff. The time display winked slowly with the countdown to Vavatch’s destruction.

Sarble the Eye, one of the most famous of the humanoid galaxy’s freelance reporters, and also one of the most successful at getting into places he wasn’t supposed to, would now probably be trying to enter the games hall — if he hadn’t got in already; the broadcast Horza had just watched had been recorded that afternoon. Doubtless Sarble would be in disguise, so Horza was glad he’d bribed his way in before the reporter’s broadcast went out and the security guards round the hall got even more wary; it had been hard enough as it was.

Horza, in his new guise as Kraiklyn, had posed as a motie — one of the emotional junkies who followed the erratic, secretive progress of the major game series round the more tawdry fringes of civilisation, having discovered that all but the most expensive reserved places had been sold out the day before. The five Aoish credit Tenths he had started out with that morning were now reduced to three; though he also had some money keyed into a couple of credit cards he’d bought. That currency would shrink in real value, though, as the destruction time drew nearer.

Horza took a deep, satisfying breath and looked around the big arena. He had climbed as high as he could up the banked steps, slopes and platforms, using the interval before the game began to get an overview of the whole thing.

The dome of the arena was transparent, showing stars and the bright shining line that was the Orbital’s far side, now in daylight. The lights of shuttles coming and going — mostly going — traced lines across the still points. Beneath the dome cover hung a smoky haze, lit with the popping lights of a small firework display. The air was filled, too, with the chanting of massed voices; a choir of scalecones stood banked on the far side of the auditorium. The humanoids forming the choir appeared identical in all but stature and in the tones they produced from their puffed-out chests and long necks. They seemed to be making the ambient racket, but as he looked around the arena Horza could make out the faint purple edges in the air where other, more localised sound fields held command, over smaller stages where dancers danced, singers sang, strippers stripped, boxers boxed, or people just stood around talking.

Banked all around, the paraphernalia of the game seethed like a vast storm. Maybe ten or even twenty thousand people, mostly humanoid but some utterly different, including not a few machines and drones, they sat or lay or walked or stood, watching magicians, jugglers, fighters, immolators, hypnotics, couplers, actors, orators and a hundred other types of entertainers all doing their turns. Tents had been pitched on some of the larger terraces; rows of seats and couches remained on others. Many small stages frazzled with lights, smoke and glittering holograms and soligrams. Horza saw a 3-D maze spread out over several terraces, full of tubes and angles, some clear, some opaque, some moving, some staying still. Shadows and forms moved inside.

A slow-motion animal trapeze act arced gradually overhead. Horza recognised the beasts performing it; it would become a combat act later on.

Some people walked by Horza: tall humanoids in fabulous clothes, glittering like a gaudy night city seen from the air. They chattered in almost inaudibly high voices, and from a network of fine, golden coloured tubes branching all around their bright red and dark purple faces, tiny puffs of incandescent gas pulsed out, wreathing their semi-scaled necks and naked shoulders, and trailing and dimming behind them in a fiery orange glow. Horza watched them pass. Their cloaks, flowing out behind as though hardly heavier than the air through which they moved, flickered with the image of an alien face, each cloak showing part of one huge moving image, as though a projector overhead was focused on the capes of the moving group. The orange gas touched Horza’s nostrils and his head swam for a second. He let his immune-glands deal with the narcotic, and continued to look around the arena.

The eye of the storm, the still, quiet spot, was so small it could easily have been missed in even a slow and attentive scan of the auditorium. It was not in the centre, but set at one end of the ellipsoid of level ground forming the lowest visible level of the arena. There, under a canopy of still dark lighting units, a round table stood, just about large enough to accommodate at its rim the sixteen large, differently styled chairs which each faced a wedge of colour fixed to the top of the table. A console set into the table itself faced each chair, on which straps and other restraining devices lay opened. Behind each of the seats lay an area of clear space on which small seats, twelve in all, were placed. A small fence separated them from the larger seats in front, and another fence cordoned off the set of twelve seats from a larger area behind where people, most of them moties, were already quietly waiting.

The game seemed to have been delayed. Horza sat down on what was either an over-designed seat or a rather unimaginative piece of sculpture. He was almost on the highest level of the terraces of the arena, with a good view over most of the rest. There was nobody near by. He reached deep inside his heavy blouse and peeled off some artificial skin from his abdomen. He rolled the skin into a ball and threw it into a large pot that held a small tree, just behind where he sat; then he checked the Aoish credit Tenths, the negotiable memory card, the pocket terminal and the light CRE pistol which had been hidden by the paunch of fake skin. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a small, darkly dressed man approach. The man looked at Horza with his head tilted, from about five metres off, then came closer.

“Hey, you want to be a Life?”

“No. Goodbye,” Horza said. The small man sniffed and walked off, stopping further along the walkway to prod a shape lying near the edge of a narrow terrace. Horza looked over and saw a woman there raise her head groggily, then shake it slowly, moving sinuous lengths of bedraggled white hair. Her faced showed briefly in the light of an overhead spot; she was beautiful but looked very tired. The small man spoke to her again, but she shook her head and made a motion with one hand. The small man walked off.

The flight in the ex-Culture shuttle had been relatively uneventful; after some confusion, Horza had succeeded in patching through to the Orbital’s navigation system, discovered where he was in relation to the Olmedreca’s last known position, and set off to find whatever was left of the Megaship. He’d accessed a news service while gorging himself on Culture emergency rations, and found a report on the Olmedreca in the index. The pictures showed the ship, listing a little and fractionally bow-down, floating in a calm sea surrounded by ice, the first kilometre of its hull seemingly buried inside the huge tabular berg. Small aircraft and a few shuttles hovered and flew about the gigantic wreck, like flies above the carcass of a dinosaur. The commentary accompanying the visuals spoke of a mysterious second nuclear explosion aboard the craft. It also reported that when police craft had arrived, the Megaship had proved to be deserted.

Hearing that, Horza had immediately altered the shuttle’s destination, swinging the craft round, to head for Evanauth.

Horza had had three Tenths of an Aoish credit. He had sold the shuttle for five Tenths. It was absurdly cheap, especially given the imminent destruction of the Orbital, but he had been in a hurry, and the dealer who accepted the craft was certainly taking a risk handling the machine; it was very obviously a Culture design, the brain had equally obviously been shot out of it, so there could be little doubt it had been stolen. The Culture would treat the destruction of the craft’s consciousness as murder.

In three hours Horza had sold the shuttle, bought clothes, cards, a gun, a couple of terminals and some information. All except the information had been cheap.

Horza now knew that there was a craft answering the description of the Clear Air Turbulence on the Orbital, or rather underneath it, inside the ex-Culture General Systems Vehicle called The Ends of Invention. He found that hard to believe, but there was no other craft it could be. According to the information agency, a ship fitting the CAT’s description had been brought on board by one of the Evanauth Port shipbuilders to have repairs made to its warping units; it had arrived under tow two days previously, with only its fusion motors working. He could not, however, find out its name or exact location.

It sounded to Horza like the CAT had been used to rescue the survivors of Kraiklyn’s band; it must have come over the O wall on remote control, using its warp units. It had picked the Free Company up, then hopped back over again, damaging its warp motors in the process.

He had also been unable to find out who the survivors might be, but assumed Kraiklyn must be one of them; nobody else could have brought the CAT over the Edgewall. He hoped he’d find Kraiklyn at the Damage game. Either way, Horza had decided to make for the CAT afterwards. He still intended to head for Schar’s World, and the Clear Air Turbulence was the most likely way of getting there. He hoped Yalson was alive. He also hoped it was true about The Ends of Invention being totally demilitarised, and the volume around Vavatch being free of Culture ships. After all this time he wouldn’t have put it past the Culture’s Minds to have found out about the CAT being in the same volume of space as The Hand of God 137 when it came under attack, and to have made a connection or two.

He sat back in the seat — or sculpture — and relaxed, letting the internal pattern of the motie drop from his mind and body. He had to start thinking like Kraiklyn again; he closed his eyes.

After a few minutes he could hear things starting to happen down in the lower reaches of the arena. He brought himself to and looked around. The white-haired woman who had been lying on the nearby terrace had got up; she was walking, a little unsteadily, down into the arena, her long, heavy dress sweeping over the steps. Horza got up, too, following quickly down the stairs in the wake of her perfume. She didn’t look at him when he skipped past her. She was fiddling with an askew tiara.

The lights were on over the coloured table where the game would be played. Some of the stages in the auditorium were starting to close up or go dim. People were gradually gravitating towards the game table, to the seats and loungers and standing areas overlooking it. In the glare of the overhead lights, tall figures in black robes moved slowly, checking pieces of the game equipment. They were the adjudicators: Ishlorsinami. The species was renowned for being the most unimaginative, humourless, prissy, honest and incorruptible group in the galaxy and they always officiated at Damage games because hardly anybody else could be trusted.

Horza stopped by a food stall to stock up on food and drink; he watched the game table and the figures around it while his order was prepared. The woman with the heavy dress and long white hair passed him, still going down the steps. Her tiara was almost straight, though her long, loose gown was crumpled. She yawned as she went past. Horza paid for his food with a card, then followed the woman again, going towards the growing crowd of people and machines starting to cluster all around the outer perimeter of the game area. The woman looked suspiciously at him when he half ran, half walked down the steps past her again.

Horza bribed his way into one of the better terraces. He pulled the hood of his heavy blouse out from the thick collar, stretching it over his forehead and out a little so that his face was in shadow. He didn’t want the real Kraiklyn to see him now. The terrace jutted out over lower ones, slanting down with an excellent view of the table itself and the gantries above. Most of the fenced areas around the table were visible too. Horza settled onto a soft lounger near a noisy group of extravagantly dressed tripedals who hooted a lot and kept spitting into a large pot in the centre of their group of gently rocking couches.

The Ishlorsinami seemed to have satisfied themselves that everything was working and was set up fairly. They walked down a ramp set into the surface of the arena’s ellipsoid floor. Some lights went off; a quietfield slowly cut off the sounds from the rest of the auditorium.

Horza took a quick look round. A few stages and sets still showed lights, but they were going out. The slow-motion animal trapeze act was still going on, though, high up in the darkness below the stars; the huge ponderous beasts were swinging through the air, field harnesses glittering. They somersaulted and twisted, but now as they did so, passing each other in mid-air, they reached out with their clawed paws, slashing slowly and silently at each other’s fur. Nobody else seemed to be watching.

Horza was surprised to see the woman he had passed twice on the stairs walk past him again and drape herself over a vacant couch which had been reserved near the front of the terrace. Somehow he hadn’t thought she would be rich enough to afford this area.

Without a fanfare or announcement, the Players of the Eve of Destruction appeared, coming up the ramp in the arena floor, led by a single Ishlorsinami. Horza checked his terminal; it was exactly seven hours standard to the Orbital’s destruction. Applause, cheers and, near Horza at least, loud hooting greeted the contestants, though the quietfields muffled everything. As they appeared from the shadows on the ramp, some of the Players acknowledged the crowd who had come to see them play, while other Players totally ignored them.

Horza recognised few of them. The ones he did know, or had at least heard of, were Ghalssel, Tengayet Doy-Suut, Wilgre and Neeporlax. Ghalssel of Ghalssel’s Raiders — probably the most successful of the Free Companies. Horza had heard the mercenary ship arrive from about eleven kilometres away, while he was making the deal with the shuttle saleswomen. She had frozen at the time; her eyes glazed. Horza didn’t like to ask whether she thought the noise was the Culture coming to destroy the Orbital a few hours early or just coming to get her for buying a hot shuttle craft.

Ghalssel was an average-looking man, stocky enough to be obviously from a high-G planet, but without the look of compressed power that most such people possessed. He was simply dressed and his head was clean shaven. Supposedly only a Damage game, where such things were banned, could force Ghalssel out of the suit he always wore.

Tengayet Doy-Suut was tall, very dark and also simply dressed. The Suut was the champion Damage Player, on both game average, wins and maximum credits. He had come from a recently Contacted planet twenty years before, and had been a champion player of games of chance and bluff there, too. That was where he had had his face removed and a stainless-steel mask grafted on; only the eyes looked alive: expressionless soft jewels set in the sculpted metal. The mask had a matt finish, to prevent his opponents seeing his cards reflected in his face.

Wilgre had to be helped up the ramp by some slaves from his retinue. The blue giant from Ozhleh, clad in a mirror robe, looked almost as though he was being rolled up the slope by the small humans behind, although the hem of his robe kicked out now and again to show where his four stubby legs were scrabbling to propel his great body up the ramp. In one of his two hands he held a large mirror, in the other a whip lead on the end of which a blinded rogothuyr — its four paws encrusted with precious metals, its snout encased in a platinum muzzle and its eyes replaced by emeralds — padded like a lithe nightmare in pure white. The animal’s giant head swept from side to side as it used its ultrasonic sense to map out its surroundings. On another terrace, almost opposite Horza’s, all thirty-two of Wilgre’s concubines threw aside their body veils and went down on their knees and elbows, worshipping their lord. He waved the mirror at them briefly. Virtually every magnifier and micro-camera smuggled into the auditorium also swivelled to focus on the thirty-two assorted females, reputedly the finest one-sex harem in the galaxy.

Neeporlax presented something of a contrast. The youth was a shambling, gaunt, shoddily clothed figure, blinking in the lights of the arena and clutching a soft toy. The boy was perhaps the second-best Damage Player in the galaxy, but he always gave his winnings away, and the average meterbed hotel would have thought twice about admitting him; he was diseased, half blind, incontinent and albino. His head was liable to shake out of control at an anxious moment in a game, but his hands held holocards as though the plastics had been set in rock. He, too, was assisted up the ramp, by a young girl who helped him to his seat, combed his hair and kissed his cheek, then went to stand in the area behind the twelve seats set immediately aft of the youth’s chair.

Wilgre raised one of his chubby blue hands and threw a few Hundredths at the crowd beyond the fences; people scrabbled for the coins. Wilgre always mixed in a few higher denominations as well. Once, at a game a few years previously inside a moon heading for a black hole, he had thrown a Billion away with the small change, disposing of perhaps a tenth of a per cent of his fortune with just one flick of the wrist. A decrepit asteroid tramp, who had just been turned down as a Life because he had only one arm, ended up buying his own planet.

The rest of the Players were a pretty varied-looking bunch as well; but with one exception, Horza didn’t recognise them. Three or four of the others were greeted with shouts and some fireworks, so presumably they were well known; the rest were either disliked or unknown. The last player to come up the ramp was Kraiklyn.

Horza settled back in his lounger, smiling. The Free Company leader had had a little temporary facial alteration done — probably pull-off — and his hair was dyed, but it was him all right. He wore a light-coloured one-piece fabric suit, he was clean shaven and his hair was brown. Perhaps the others on the CAT wouldn’t have recognised him, but Horza had studied the man — to see how he carried himself, how he walked, how the muscles in his face were set — and to the Changer, Kraiklyn stood out like a boulder in a pebble-field.

When all the Players were seated, their Lives were led in to sit on the seats immediately behind each Player.

The Lives were all humans; most already looked half dead anyway, though they were all physically whole. One by one they were taken to their seats, strapped in and helmeted. The lightweight black helmets covered their faces except for the eyes. Most slumped forward once they were strapped in; a few sat more upright, but none raised their eyes or looked round. All the regular Players had the full complement of Lives allowed; some had them specially bred, while others had their agents supply all they wanted. The less rich, not so well known Players, like Kraiklyn, had the sweepings of prisons and asylums, and a few paid depressives who had willed their share of any proceeds to somebody else. Often members of the Despondent sect could be persuaded to become Lives, either for free or for a donation to their cause, but Horza couldn’t see any of their distinctive tiered head-dresses or bleeding-eye symbols.

Kraiklyn had only managed to find three Lives; it didn’t look as though he would be staying all that long in the game.

The white-haired woman in the reserved seat near the front of the terrace got up, stretched and walked up the terrace, between the couches and loungers, a bored expression on her face. Just as she drew level with Horza’s couch, a commotion erupted on a terrace behind them. The woman stopped and looked. Horza turned round. Even through the quietfield he could hear a man shouting; what looked like a fight had broken out. A couple of security guards were trying to restrain two people rolling about on the floor. The crowd on the terrace had made a circle about the disturbance and were looking on, dividing their attention between the preparations for the Damage game and the fisticuffs on the terrace beside them. Eventually the two people on the floor were brought to their feet, but instead of both being restrained, only one was — a youngish man who looked vaguely familiar to Horza, though he appeared to have been disguising himself with a blond wig which was now slipping off his head.

The other person who had been fighting, another man, produced some sort of card from his clothes and showed it to the young man, who was still shouting. Then the two uniformed guards and the man who had brandished the card led the young man away. The man with the card took something small from behind one of the young man’s ears as he was frog-marched off to an access tunnel. The young woman with the long white hair crossed her arms and walked on up the terrace. The circle of people on the terrace above closed again, like a hole in cloud.

Horza watched the woman weave her way through more couches until she left the terrace and he lost sight of her. He looked up. The duelling animals still spun and leapt; their white blood seemed to glow as it matted their shaggy hides. They snarled silently and scythed at each other with their long forelimbs, but their acrobatics and their aiming had deteriorated; they were starting to look tired and clumsy. Horza looked back to the game table; they were all ready, and the game was about to begin.

Damage was just a fancy card game: partly skill, partly luck and partly bluff. What made it interesting was not just the high sums involved, or even the fact that whenever a player lost a life he lost a Life — a living, breathing human being — but the use of complicated consciousness-altering two-way electronic fields around the game table.

With the cards in his or her hand, a player could alter the emotions of another player, or sometimes of several others. Fear, hate, despair, hope, love, camaraderie, doubt, elation, paranoia; virtually every emotional state the human brain was capable of experiencing could be beamed at another player or used for oneself. From far enough away, or in a field shield close in, the game could look like a pastime for the deranged or the simple-minded. A player with an obviously strong hand might suddenly throw it in; somebody with nothing at all might gamble all the credits they had; people broke down weeping or started laughing uncontrollably; they might moan with love at a player known to be their worst enemy or claw at their restraining straps to free themselves for a murdering attack on their best friend.

Or they could kill themselves. Damage players never did get free from their chairs (should they ever do so, an Ishlorsinami would shoot them with a heavy stun gun) but they could destroy themselves. Each game console, from which the emotor units radiated the relevant emotions, on which the cards were played and where the players could see the time and the number of Lives they each had left, contained a small hollow button, inside which a needle filled with poison lay ready to inject any stabbing finger which pushed it.

Damage was one of those games in which it was unwise to make too many enemies. Only the very strong-willed indeed could defeat the urge to suicide implanted in their brains by a concerted attack of half a table of players.

At the finish of each hand of cards, when the money which had been gambled was taken by the player with the most card points, all the other players who had stayed with the betting lost a Life. When they had none left they were out of the game, as they would be if they ran out of money. The rules said the game ended when only one player had any Lives left, though in practice it finished when the remaining contestants agreed that if they stayed any longer they were likely to lose their own Lives to whatever disaster was about to ensue. It could get very interesting at the end of a game when the moment of destruction was very close, the hand had gone on for some time, a great deal of money had been gambled on that one hand, and one or several players would not agree to call it a day; then the sophisticates really were separated from the simians, and it became even more a game of nerve. Quite a few of the best Damage players of the past had perished trying to out-dare and out-stay each other in such circumstances.

From a spectator’s point of view, Damage’s special attraction was that the closer you stood to the emotor unit of any particular player, the more of the emotions they were experiencing affected you directly, too. A whole subculture of people hooked on such third-hand feelings had grown up in the few hundred years since Damage had become such a select but popular game: the moties.

There were other groups playing Damage. The Players of the Eve of Destruction were simply the most famous and the richest. The moties could get their emotional fix in lots of places throughout the galaxy, but only in a full game, only on the edge of annihilation, only with the very best players (plus a few hopefuls) could the most intense experiences be obtained. It was one of these unfortunates Horza had impersonated when he had discovered that an access pass could not be had for less than twice the amount of money he had made on the shuttle. Bribing a door guard had been a lot cheaper.

The real moties were packed tightly behind the fence separating them from the Lives. Sixteen clumps of sweating, nervous-looking people — like the game players, mostly male — they jostled and pressed forward, trying to get near to the table, near to the Players.

Horza watched them as the cards were dealt by the chief Ishlorsinami. Moties jumped up and down, trying to see what was happening, and security guards fitted with baffle helmets to keep out the emotor pulses patrolled the perimeter of the fence, tapping nerver prods on their thighs or palms and watching warily.

“…Sarble the Eye…” somebody near by said, and Horza turned to see. A cadaverous-looking human lying on a couch behind and to Horza’s left was talking to another and pointing up to the terrace where the disturbance had occurred a few minutes earlier. Horza heard the words “Sarble” and “caught” a few more times from elsewhere around him as the news spread. He turned round to watch the game as the Players started to inspect their hands; the betting began. Horza thought it was a pity the reporter had been caught, but it might mean that the security guards relaxed a little, giving him a better chance of not being asked for his pass.

Horza was sitting a good fifty metres from the nearest player, a woman whose name he had heard mentioned but had forgotten. As the first hand progressed, only mild versions of what she was feeling and was being made to feel impinged upon his consciousness. Nevertheless, he didn’t enjoy the sensation, and switched on the lounger’s baffle field, using the small control set on one arm of the couch. Had he wanted, he could have cancelled the immediate effect of the player he just happened to be sitting behind and substituted the effects of any of the other emotor units on the table. The effect would have been nothing like as intense as what the moties or the Lives were experiencing, but it would certainly have given a good idea of what the Players were going through. Most of the other people around him were using their lounger’s controls in that way, flicking from one player to another in an attempt to judge the overall state of the game. Horza would concentrate on Kraiklyn’s broadcast emotions later, but for now he just wanted to settle in and get the general feel of the game.

Kraiklyn dropped out of the first hand early enough to be sure of avoiding losing a Life when it finished; with so few Lives of his own it was the wisest course unless he had a very strong hand. Horza watched the man carefully as he sat back in his seat and relaxed, his emotor unit dormant. Kraiklyn licked his lips and wiped his brow. Horza decided in the next hand he would eavesdrop on what Kraiklyn was going through, just to see what it was like.

The hand finished. Wilgre won. He waved, acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. Some moties had fainted already; at the other end of the ellipsoid, in its cage, the rogothuyr snarled. Five Players lost Lives; five seated humans, sitting hopeless and despairing as the effects of the emotor fields still resounded in them, went suddenly slack in their chairs as their helmets sent a neural blast through their skulls strong enough to stun the Lives sitting around them and to make the nearest moties, and the Player each Life belonged to, flinch.

Ishlorsinami undid the restrainers on the dead humans’ seats and carried them away down the access ramp. The remaining Lives gradually recovered, but they sat as listless as before. The Ishlorsinami claimed they always checked that each volunteering Life was genuine, and that the drugs they gave them simply stopped them from becoming hysterical, but it was rumoured that there were ways round the Ishlorsinami screening process, and that some people had succeeded in disposing of their enemies by drugging or hypnotising them and “volunteering” them for the game.

As the second hand began, and Horza switched on his couch monitor to experience Kraiklyn’s emotions, the white-haired woman came back down the aisle and resumed her place in front of Horza, at the front of the terrace, draping herself tiredly over the piece of furniture as though she was bored.

Horza did not know enough about Damage as a card game to be able to follow exactly what was going on with the cards, either by reading the various emotions being passed round the table, or by analysing each hand after it was finished — as the first hand was already being analysed by the hooting tripeds near him — when the cards as they had been dealt and played were flashed up on the arena’s internal broadcast circuits. But he tuned in to Kraiklyn’s feelings just to see what they were like.

The captain of the Clear Air Turbulence was being hit from various directions. Some of the emotions were contradictory, which Horza guessed meant that there was no concerted effort being made on Kraiklyn; he was just taking most people’s secondary armament. There was a considerable urge to like Wilgre — that attractive blue colour… and with those four little comical feet, he couldn’t really be much of a threat… A bit of a clown, really, for all his money… The woman sitting on Kraiklyn’s right, on the other hand, stripped to the waist, with no breasts, and a sheath for a ceremonial sword slung across her naked back: she was one to watch… But it was a laugh really… Nothing really matters; everything is just a joke; life is, the game is… one card’s pretty much like another when you come to think about it… For all it matters might as well throw the lot in the air… It was nearly his turn to play… First that flat-chested bitch… boy, did he have a card he was going to hit her with…

Horza switched off again, unsure whether he was hearing Kraiklyn’s own thoughts about the woman, or ones somebody else was trying to get him to think about her.

He picked up Kraiklyn’s thoughts later on in the hand, when the woman was out and sitting back and relaxing, her eyes closed. (Horza looked briefly at the white-haired woman on the couch down in front of him; she was watching the game apparently, but one leg was slung over the side of her lounger, swinging to and fro, as though her mind was somewhere else.) Kraiklyn was feeling good. First of all that slut next to him was out, and he was sure it was because of some of the cards he had played, but also there was a sort of inner exhilaration… Here he was, playing with the best players in the galaxy… the Players. Him. Him… (a sudden inhibitory thought blocked out a name he was about to think)… and he really wasn’t doing that badly at all… He was keeping up… In fact this hand was looking pretty damn good… At last things were going right… He was going to win something… Too many things had… well, there was that… Think about the cards! (suddenly) Think about here and now! Yes, the cardsLet’s seeI can hit that fat blue oaf with… Horza switched off again.

He was sweating. He hadn’t fully realised the degree of feedback from the Player’s mind that was involved. He had thought it was just the emotions beamed at them; he hadn’t dreamed he would be so much in Kraiklyn’s mind. Yet this was only a taste of what Kraiklyn himself was getting full blast, and the moties and Lives behind him. Real feedback, only just under control, only just stopping from becoming the emotional equivalent of a loudspeaker howl, building to destruction. Now the Changer realised the attraction of the game, and why people had been known to go mad when playing it.

Much as he disliked the experience, Horza felt new respect for the man he intended at least to remove and replace, and most likely to kill.

Kraiklyn had a sort of advantage in as much as the thoughts and emotions being beamed back at him were at least partly emanating from his own mind, whereas the Lives and the moties had to put up with extremely powerful blasts of what was entirely somebody else’s way of feeling something. All the same, it had to take a considerable strength of character, or a vast amount of hard training, to be able to handle what Kraiklyn was obviously coping with. Horza switched back in again and thought, How do the moties stand it? And, Watch out; maybe this is how they started.

Kraiklyn lost the hand, two rounds of betting later. The half-blind albino, Neeporlax, was defeated, too, and the Suut raked in his winnings, his steel face glowing in the light reflected from the Aoish credits in front of him. Kraiklyn was slumped in his seat, feeling, Horza knew, like death. A pulse of a sort of resigned, almost grateful agony swept through Kraiklyn from behind as his first Life died, and Horza felt it, too. He and Kraiklyn both winced.

Horza switched off and looked at the time. Less than an hour had passed since he had bluffed his way past the guards at the outer doors of the arena. He had some food, on a low table by his couch, but he got up all the same and walked away from the table, up the terrace towards the nearest walkway, where food stalls and bars waited.

Security guards were checking passes. Horza saw them moving from person to person on the terrace. He kept his face to the front but flicked his eyes from side to side, watching the guards as they moved. One was almost directly in his path, bending to ask an old-looking female, who was lying on an airbed which blew perfumed fumes round her thin, exposed legs. She was sitting watching the game with a big smile on her face, and she took a while to notice the guard. Horza walked a little faster so that, when the guard straightened, he would be past her.

The old lady flashed her pass and turned quickly back to the game. The guard put out an arm in front of Horza.

“May I see your pass, sir?”

Horza stopped and looked into the face of the young, burly woman. He looked back down to the couch he had been on.

“I’m sorry, I think I left it down there. I’ll be back in a second; can I show it to you then? I’m in a bit of a hurry.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and bent a little at the waist. “I got wrapped up in the last hand there. Too much to drink before the game started; always the same; never learn. All right?” He put out his hands, looked a little sheepish, and made as if to clap the guard on her shoulders. He shifted his weight again. The guard looked down to where Horza had indicated he had left his pass.

“For now, sir. I’ll look at it later. But you really shouldn’t go leaving it lying about. Don’t do it again.”

“Right! Right! Thank you!” Horza laughed and went off at a quick walk, onto the circular walkway and then to a toilet, just in case he was being watched. He washed his face and hands, listened to a drunk woman singing somewhere in the echoing room, then left by another exit and walked round to another terrace, where he got something else to eat and had a drink. He bribed his way into a different terrace again, this one even more expensive than the one he had been on originally, because it was next to the one which held Wilgre’s concubines. A soft wall of shining black material had been erected at the rear and sides of their terrace to keep out the nearer eyes, but their body scent wafted strongly over the terrace Horza now found himself on. Genofixed before conception not only to be stunningly attractive to a wide variety of humanoid males, the females in the harem also had highly accentuated aphrodisiac pheromones. Before Horza knew what was happening he had an erection and had started to sweat again. Most of the men and women around him were in a state of obvious sexual arousal, and those not plugged into the game on some sort of exotic double-fix were engaged in sexual foreplay or actual intercourse. Horza made his immune glands start up again, and walked stiffly to the front of the terrace, where five couches had been vacated by two males and three females, who were rolling around on the ground in front, just behind the restraining barrier. Clothes lay scattered on the terrace floor. Horza sat on one of the five free couches. A female head, beaded with sweat, appeared from the tangle of heaving bodies long enough to look at Horza and breathe, “Feel free; and if you would like to…” Then her eyes rolled upwards and she moaned. Her head disappeared again.

Horza shook his head, swore and made his way out of the terrace. His attempt to recover the money he had spent bribing his way in was met with a pitying laugh.

Horza ended up sitting on a stool in front of a combined bar and betting stall. He ordered a drug bowl and made a small bet on Kraiklyn to win the next hand, while his body gradually freed itself of the effects of the concubines’ doctored sweat glands. His pulse lowered and his breathing shallowed; perspiration stopped rolling down his brow. He sipped his drug bowl and sniffed the fumes, while watching Kraiklyn lose first one and then another hand, though in the first one he pulled out early enough not to lose a Life. Nevertheless, he was down to one Life now. It was possible for a Damage player to gamble his own life if he had no other remaining behind him, but it was a rare thing, and in games where the very best met hopefuls, as in this one, the Ishlorsinami tended to forbid it.

The captain of the Clear Air Turbulence was taking no chances. He dropped out of every game before he could lose a Life, obviously waiting for a hand that would be almost unbeatable before gambling for what might be the last time in the game. Horza ate. Horza drank. Horza sniffed. Sometimes he tried to look over at the terrace he had been on at first, where the bored-looking woman was, but he couldn’t see for the lights. Now and again he looked up at the fighting animals on the trapezes. They were tired now, and injured. The elaborate choreography of their earlier movements was gone, and they were reduced to hanging grimly onto their trapeze with one limb and striking out at each other with the other clawed arm whenever they happened to come close enough. Drops of white blood fell like sparse snow and settled on an invisible force field twenty metres beneath them.

Gradually the Lives died. The game went on. Time, according to who you were, dragged or flashed by. The price of drinks and drugs and food went up slowly as the destruction time crept closer. Through the still transparent dome of the old arena the lights of departing shuttles blazed now and again. A fight broke out between two punters at the bar. Horza got up and moved away before the security guards came to break it up.

Horza counted his money. He had two Aoish credit Tenths left, plus some money credited to the negotiable cards, which were becoming harder and harder to use as the accepting computers in the Orbital’s financial network were closed down.

He leant on a restraining bar on a circular walkway, watching the game progress on the table below. Wilgre was leading; the Suut was just behind. They had both lost the same number of Lives, but the blue giant had more money. Two of the hopefuls had left the game, one after trying unsuccessfully to persuade the officiating Ishlorsinami that he could afford to gamble with his own life. Kraiklyn was still in there; but, from the close-up of his face which Horza caught on a monitor screen in a drug bar he passed, the Man was finding the going hard.

Horza toyed with one of the Aoish credit Tenths, wishing the game would end, or at least that Kraiklyn would get put out. The coin stuck to his hand, and he looked down into it. It was like looking into a tiny, infinite tube, lit from the very bottom. By bringing it up to your eye, with the other closed, you could experience vertigo.

The Aoish were a banker species, and the credits were their greatest invention. They were just about the only universally acceptable medium of exchange in existence, and each one entitled the holder to convert a coin into either a given weight of any stable element, an area on a free Orbital, or a computer of a given speed and capacity. The Aoish guaranteed the conversion and never defaulted, and although the rate of exchange could sometimes vary to a greater extent than was officially allowed for — as it had during the Idiran-Culture war — on the whole the real and theoretical value of the currency remained predictable enough for it to be a safe, secure hedge against uncertain times, rather than a speculator’s dream. Rumour — as ever, contrary enough to be suspiciously believable — had it that the group in the galaxy which possessed the greatest hoard of the coins was the Culture; the most militantly unmoneyed society on the civilised scene. Horza didn’t really believe that rumour either, though; in fact he thought that it was just the sort of rumour the Culture would spread about itself.

He pushed the coins away into a pocket inside his blouse as he saw Kraiklyn reaching to the centre of the game table and toss some coins into the large pile already there. Watching carefully now, the Changer made his way round to the nearest money-changer’s bar, got eight Hundredths for his single Tenth (an exorbitant rate of commission, even by Vavatch standards) and used some of the change to bribe his way into a terrace with some unoccupied couches. There he plugged into Kraiklyn’s thoughts.

Who are you? The question leapt out at him, into him.

The sensation was one of vertigo, a stunning dizziness, a vastly magnified equivalent of the disorientation which sometimes affects the eyes when they fasten on a simple and regular pattern, and the brain mistakes its distance from that pattern, the false focus seeming to pull at the eyes, muscles against nerves, reality against assumptions. His head did not swim; it seemed to sink, foundering, struggling.

Who are you? (Who am I?) Who are you?

Slam, slam, slam: the sound of the barrage falling, the sound of doors closing; attack and incarceration, explosion and collapse together.

Just a little accident. A slight mistake. One of those things. A game of Damage, and a high-tech impressionist… unfortunate combination. Two harmless chemicals which, when mixed—… Feedback, a howl like pain, and something breaking…

A mind between mirrors. He was drowning in his own reflection (something breaking), falling through. One fading part of him — the part which didn’t sleep? Yes? No? — screamed from down the deep, dark pit, as it fell: ChangerChangerChange—… (eee)

… The sound faded, whisper-quieted, became the wind-moan of stale air through dead trees on a barren midnight solstice, the soul’s midwinter in some calm, hard place.

He knew—

(Start again…)

Somebody knew that somewhere a man sat in a seat, in a big hall in a city in… on a big place, a big threatened place; and the man was playing… playing a game (a game which killed). The man still there, living and breathing… But his eyes did not see, his ears did not hear. He had one sense now: this one, inside here, fastened… inside here.

Whisper: Who am I?

There’d been a little accident (life a succession of same; evolution dependent on garbling; all progress a function of getting things wrong)

He (and forget who this “he” is, just accept the nameless term while this equation works itself out)… he is the man in the chair in the hall on the big place, fallen somewhere inside himself, somewhere inside… another one. A double, a copy, somebody pretending to be him.

… But something wrong with this theory…

(Start again…)

Marshal forces.

Need clues, reference points, something to hold onto.

Memory of a cell dividing, seen in time lapse, the very start of independent life, though still dependent. Hold that image.

Words (names); need words.

Not yet, butsomething about turning inside out; a place

What am I looking for?

Mind.

Whose?

(Silence)

Whose?

(Silence)

Whose?…

(Silence)

(… Start again…)

Listen. This is shock. You were hit, hard. This is just some form of shock, and you’ll recover.

You are the man playing the game (as are we all)Still something wrong, though, something both missing and added. Think of those vital errors; think of that dividing cell, same and not-same, the place that’s turned inside out, the cell cluster turning itself inside out, looking like a split brain (unsleeping, moving). Listen for somebody trying to talk to you

(Silence)

(This from that very pit of night, naked in the wasteland, the ice-wind moaning his only covering, alone in the freezing darkness under a sky of chill obsidian:)

Whoever tried to talk to me? When did I ever listen? When was I ever other than just myself, caring only for myself?

The individual is the fruit of mistake; therefore only the process has validitySo who’s to speak for him?

The wind howls, empty of meaning, a soak for warmth, a cess for hope, distributing his body’s exhausted heat to the black skies, dissolving the salty flame of his life, chilling to the core, sapping and slowing. He feels himself falling again, and knows that this time it is a deeper plunge, to where the silence and the cold are absolute, and no voice cries out, not even this one.

(Howled like the wind:) Whoever cared enough to talk to me?

(Silence)

Whoever ever cared

(Silence)

Who—?

(Whisper:) Listen: “The Jinmoti of

Bozlen Two.

Two. Somebody had spoken once. He was the Changer, he was the error, the imperfect copy.

He was playing a different game from the other one (but he still intended to take a life). He was watching, feeling what the other was feeling, but feeling more.

Horza. Kraiklyn.

Now he knew. The game was… Damage. The place was… a world where a ribbon of the original idea was turned inside out… an Orbital: Vavatch. The Mind in Schar’s World. Xoralundra. Balveda. The (and finding his hate, he hammered it into the wall of the pit, like a peg for a rope) Culture!

A breach in the cell wall; waters breaking; light freeing; illumination… leading to rebirth.

Weight and cold and bright, bright light…

Shit. Bastards. Lost it all, thanks to a Pit of Self-Doubt Treble

A wave of despondent fury swept over him, and something died.

Horza tore the flimsy headset away. He lay quivering on the couch, his eyes gummed and smarting, staring up at the auditorium lights and the two white fighting animals hanging half-dead from the trapezes overhead. He forced his eyes closed, then pulled them open again, away from the darkness.

Pit of Self-Doubt. Kraiklyn had been hit by cards which made the target player question their own identity. From the tenor of Kraiklyn’s thoughts before he’d pulled the headset off, Horza thought Kraiklyn hadn’t been too terrified by the effect, just disorientated. He’d been sufficiently distracted by the attack to lose the hand, and that was all his opponents had been aiming for. Kraiklyn was out of the game.

The effect on him, trying to be Kraiklyn but knowing he wasn’t, had been more severe. That was all it was. Any Changer would have had the same problem; he was certain…

The trembling began to fade. He sat up and swung his feet off the couch. He had to leave. Kraiklyn would be going, so he had to.

Pull yourself together, man.

He looked down to the playing table. The breastless woman had won. Kraiklyn glared at her as she raked in her winnings and his straps were unfastened. On the way out of the arena, Kraiklyn passed the limp, still warm body of his last Life as it was released from its seat.

He kicked the corpse; the crowd booed.

Horza stood up, turned and bumped into a hard, unyielding body.

“May I see that pass now, sir?” said the guard he’d lied to earlier.

He smiled nervously, aware that he was still trembling a little; his eyes were red, and his face was covered in sweat. The guard gazed steadily at him, her face expressionless. Some of the people on the terrace were watching them.

“I’m… sorry…” the Changer said slowly, patting his pockets with shaking hands. The guard put out her hand and took his left elbow.

“Perhaps you’d better—”

“Look,” Horza said, bending closer to her. “I… I haven’t got one. Would a bribe do?” He started to reach inside his blouse for the credits. The guard kicked up with her knee and twisted Horza’s left arm behind his back. It was all done in the most expert fashion, and Horza had to jump to ride the kick tolerably. He let his left shoulder disconnect and started to crumple, but not before his free hand had lightly scratched the guard’s face (and that, he realised as he fell, had been an instinctive reaction, nothing reasoned; for some reason he found this amusing).

The guard caught Horza’s other arm and pinned both his hands behind his back, using her lock-glove to secure them there. With her other hand she wiped blood from her cheek. Horza knelt on the terrace surface, moaning the way most people would have with an arm broken or dislocated.

“It’s all right, everybody; just a little problem over a pass. Please continue with your enjoyment,” the guard said. Then she pulled her arm up; the locked glove hauled Horza up, too. He yelped with pretended pain, and then, head down, was pushed up the steps to the walkway. “Seven three, seven three; male code green incoming walk seven spinwards,” the guard told her lapel mike.

Horza felt her start to weaken as soon as they got to the walkway. He couldn’t see any other guards yet. The pace of the woman behind him faltered and slowed. He heard her gasp, and a couple of drunks leaning on an auto-bar looked at them quizzically; one turned on his bar stool to watch.

“Seven… thr—” the guard began. Then her legs buckled. Horza was dragged down with her, the locked glove staying tight while the muscles in the woman’s body relaxed. He connected his shoulder again, twisted and heaved; the field filaments in the glove gave way, leaving him with livid bruises already starting to form on his wrists. The guard lay on her back on the walkway floor, her eyes closed, breathing lightly. Horza had scraped her with a non-lethal poison nail, he thought; anyway he had no time to wait and see. They were sure to come looking for the guard soon, and he couldn’t afford to let Kraiklyn get too far ahead of him. Whether he was heading back to the ship, as Horza expected he would, or staying to observe more of the game, Horza wanted to stay close.

His hood had fallen back during the fall. He pulled it forward, then hoisted the woman up, dragged her to the bar where the two drunks sat and heaved her onto a bar stool, putting his arms crossed on the bar in front and letting her head rest on them.

The drunk who had watched what had happened grinned at the Changer. Horza tried to grin back. “Look after her, now,” he said. He noticed a cloak at the foot of the other drunk’s bar stool and lifted it up, smiling at its owner, who was too busy ordering another drink to notice. Horza put the cloak round the woman guard’s shoulders, hiding her uniform. “In case she gets cold,” he told the first drunk, who nodded.

Horza walked off quietly. The other drunk, who hadn’t noticed the woman until then, got his drink from the flap in the counter in front of him, turned round to talk to his friend, noticed the woman draped across the bar, nudged her and said, “Hey, you like the cloak, uh? How about I get you a drink?”

Before he left the auditorium, Horza looked up. The fighting animals would fight no more. Beneath the shining hoop that was Vavatch’s far — and, at the moment, day — side, one beast lay, in a broad, shallow pool of milky blood, high in the air, its huge four-limbed frame an X poised over the proceedings beneath, the dark fur and heavy head gashed, white flecked. The other creature hung, swaying gently, from its trapeze; it dripped white blood and twisted slowly, hanging by one closed and locked set of talons, as dead as its fallen adversary.

Horza racked his brains, but could not recall the names of these strange beasts. He shook his head and hurried away.

He found the Players’ area. An Ishlorsinami stood by some double doors in a corridor deep underneath the arena surface. A small crowd of people and machines stood or sat around. Some were asking the silent Ishlorsinami questions; most were talking amongst themselves. Horza took a deep breath, then, waving one of his now useless negotiable account cards, elbowed his way through the crowd, saying, “Security; come on, out of the way there. Security!” People protested but moved. Horza planted himself in front of the tall Ishlorsinami. Steely eyes looked down at him from a thin, hard face. “You,” Horza said, snapping his fingers. “Where did that Player go? The one in the light one-piece suit, brown hair.” The tall humanoid hesitated. “Come on, man,” Horza said. “I’ve been chasing that card-sharp round half the galaxy. I don’t want to lose him now!”

The Ishlorsinami jerked his head in the direction of the corridor leading to the main arena entrance. “He just left.” The humanoid’s voice sounded like two pieces of broken glass being rubbed together. Horza winced, but nodded quickly and, pushing his way back through the crowd, ran up the corridor.

In the vestibule of the arena complex there was an even bigger crowd. Guards, wheeled security drones, private bodyguards, car drivers, shuttle pilots, city police; people with desperate looks waving negotiable cards; others listing those who were buying space on shuttle buses and hovers running out to the port area; people just hanging around waiting to see what was going to happen or hoping that an ordered taxi was about to show up; people just wandering around with lost expressions on their faces, their clothes torn and dishevelled; others with smiles, all confidence, clutching bulky bags and pouches to themselves and frequently accompanied by a hired guard of their own: they all milled around in the vast expanse of noisy, bustling space which led from the auditorium proper to the plaza outside, in the open air, under the stars and the bright line of the Orbital’s far side.

Pulling his hood further over his face, Horza pushed through a barricade of guards. They still seemed concerned with keeping people out, even at this late stage in the game and in the countdown to destruction, and he was not hindered. He looked over the swirling mass of heads, capes, helmets, casings and ornamentation, wondering how he was going to catch Kraiklyn in this lot, or even see him. A wedge of uniformed quadrupeds pushed past him, some tall dignitary carried on a litter in their midst. As Horza was still staggering, a soft pneumatic tyre rolled over his foot as a mobile bar touted its wares. “Would you like a drug-bowl cocktail, sir?” said the machine.

“Fuck off,” Horza told it, and he turned to head after the wedge of four-legged creatures making for the doors.

“Certainly, sir; dry, medium or—?”

Horza elbowed his way through the crowd after the quadrupeds. He caught up with them, and in their wake had an easy passage to the doors.

Outside, it was surprisingly cold. Horza saw his breath in front of him as he looked quickly around, trying to spot Kraiklyn. The crowd outside the arena was hardly less thick and rowdy than that inside. People hawked wares, sold tickets, staggered about, paced to and fro, tried to beg money from strangers, picked pockets, scanned the skies or peered down the broad spaces between buildings. A constant bright stream of machines appeared, roaring out of the sky or sweeping up the boulevards, stopped, and after taking people on, raced off again.

Horza just couldn’t see properly. He noticed a huge hire-guard: a three-metre-tall giant in a bulky suit, holding a large gun and looking about with a vacant expression on a broad, pale face. Wisps of bright red hair poked from underneath his helmet.

“You for hire?” Horza asked, doing a sort of breast stroke to get to the giant through a knot of people watching some fighting insects. The broad face nodded gravely, and the huge man came to attention.

“That I am,” the great voice rumbled.

“Here’s a Hundredth,” Horza said quickly, shoving a coin into the man’s glove, where it looked quite lost. “Let me up on your shoulders. I’m looking for somebody.”

“All right,” the man said, after a second’s thought. He bent down slowly on one knee, the rifle in his hand put out to steady him, butt first on the ground. Horza slung his legs over the giant’s shoulders. Without being asked, the man straightened and stood again, and Horza was hoisted high above the heads of the people in the crowd. He pulled the hood of the blouse over his face again, and scanned the mass of people for a figure in a light one-piece suit, although he knew that Kraiklyn might have changed by now, or even have left. A tight, nervous feeling of desperation was building in Horza’s belly. He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter that much if he lost Kraiklyn now, that he could still make his way alone to the port area and so to the GSV that the Clear Air Turbulence was on; but his guts refused to be calmed. It was as though the atmosphere of the game, the terminal excitement of the Orbital, the city, the arena in their last hours, had altered his own body chemistry. He could have concentrated on it and made himself relax, but he couldn’t afford to do that now. He had to look for Kraiklyn.

He scanned the gaudy collection of individuals waiting in a cordoned area for shuttles, then recalled Kraiklyn’s thought about having wasted a lot of money. He looked away and surveyed the rest of the crowd.

He saw him. The captain of the Clear Air Turbulence was standing, his suit partly covered by a grey cloak, his arms folded and his feet apart, in a queue of people waiting to get buses and taxis, thirty metres away. Horza dipped forward and leant over until he was looking at the hire-guard’s upside-down face. “Thanks. You can put me down now.”

“I have no change,” the man rumbled as he stooped; the vibration went up through Horza’s body.

“That’s OK. Keep it.” Horza jumped off the guard’s shoulders. The giant shrugged as Horza ran, swerving and ducking to get past people, towards where he had seen Kraiklyn.

He had his terminal fastened to his left cuff; the time was minus two and a half hours. Horza squeezed and shoved and excused and apologised his way through the crowd, and on his way saw many people squinting at watches, terminals and screens, heard many little synthesised voices squawk the hour, and nervous humans repeat it.

There was the queue. It looked surprisingly orderly, Horza thought, then he noticed that it was being supervised by the same security guards who had been inside the arena. Kraiklyn was near the front of the queue now, and a bus had almost finished filling up. Road cars and hovers waited behind it. Kraiklyn pointed at one of them as a security guard with a notescreen talked to him.

Horza looked at the row of waiting people and guessed there must be several hundreds of them in it. If he were to join it he would lose Kraiklyn. He looked around quickly, wondering what other way there might be of following.

Somebody crashed into him from behind, and Horza turned round to the noise of shouting and voices and a press of brightly dressed people. A masked woman in a tight silver dress was shouting and screaming at a small, puzzled-looking man with long hair, clad only in intricate loops of dark green string. The woman shouted incoherently at the small man and struck out at him with her open hands; he backed off, shaking his head. People watched. Horza checked that he hadn’t had anything stolen when he was bumped into, then looked round again for some transport, or a taxi tout.

An aircraft flew overhead noisily and dropped leaflets written in a language Horza didn’t understand.

“…Sarble,” a transparent-skinned man said to a companion as they both squeezed out of the nearby crowd and went past Horza. The man was trying to look at a small terminal screen as he walked. Horza caught a glimpse of something which puzzled him. He turned his own terminal onto the appropriate channel.

He was watching what looked like the same incident he had seen for real in the auditorium a few hours earlier: the disturbance on the terrace above his own when he’d heard that Sarble the Eye had been caught by the security guards. Horza frowned and brought the screen on his cuff closer.

It was that same place, it was that incident, seen from almost exactly the same angle and apparent distance he’d watched it from. He grimaced at the screen, trying to imagine where the picture he was watching now could have been taken from. The scene ended and was replaced by candid shots of various eccentric-looking beings enjoying themselves in the auditorium, as the Damage game went on somewhere in the background.

If I’d stood up, Horza thought, and moved over just a

It was the woman.

The woman with the white hair he’d seen early on, standing in the highest part of the arena, fiddling with a tiara: she’d been on that same terrace, been standing by his lounger when the incident on the terrace above took place. She was Sarble the Eye. Probably the tiara was the camera and the person on the higher terrace was a decoy, a plant.

Horza snapped off the screen. He smiled, then shook his head as though to dislodge the small, useless revelation from the centre of his attention. He had to find some transport.

He started walking quickly through the crowd, threading his way through people in groups and lines and queues, looking for a free vehicle, an open door, a tout’s eyes. He caught a glimpse of the queue Kraiklyn was in. The CAT’s commander was at the open door of a red road car, apparently arguing with its driver and two other people in the queue.

Horza felt sick. He started to sweat; he wanted to kick out, to throw all the people crowding around him out of his path, away from him. He doubled back. He would have to risk trying to bribe his way into Kraiklyn’s queue at the front. He was five metres away from the queue when Kraiklyn and the two other people stopped arguing and got into the taxi, which drove off. As he turned his head to watch it go past, his stomach sinking, his fists clenching, Horza saw the white-haired woman again. She wore a hooded blue cloak, but the hood fell back as she squeezed out of the crowd to the edge of the road, where a tall man put his arm round her shoulders and waved into the plaza. She pulled the hood up again.

Horza put his hand into his pocket and onto the gun, then went forward towards the couple — just as a sleek, matt-black hover hissed out of the darkness and stopped beside them. Horza stepped forward quickly as the hover’s side door winged open and the woman who was Sarble the Eye stooped to enter.

Horza reached out and tapped the woman on the shoulder. She whirled round to face him. The tall man started towards him, and Horza shoved his hand forward and up in his pocket, so that the gun pressed out. The man stopped, looking down, uncertain; the woman froze, one foot on the door’s sill.

“I think you’re going my way,” Horza said quickly. “I know who you are.” He nodded at the woman. “I know about that thing you had on your head. All I want is a lift to the port. That’s all. No fuss.” He gestured with his head in the direction of the security guards at the head of the main queue.

The woman looked at the tall man, then at Horza. She stepped back slowly. “OK. After you.”

“No, you first.” Horza motioned with the hand in his pocket. The woman smiled, shrugged and got in, followed by the tall man and Horza.

“What’s he—?” began the driver, a fierce-looking bald woman.

“A guest,” Sarble told her. “Just drive.”

The hover rose. “Straight ahead,” Horza said. “Fast as you like. I’m looking for a red-coloured wheeled car.” He took the gun out of his pocket and pivoted round so that he faced Sarble the Eye and the tall man. The hover accelerated.

“I told you they put that ’cast out too soon,” the tall man hissed in a hoarse high voice. Sarble shrugged. Horza smiled, glancing occasionally out of the window at the traffic around the cab, but watching the other two people from the corner of his eye.

“Just bad luck,” Sarble said. “I kept bumping into this guy inside the place, too.”

“You really are Sarble, then?” Horza said to the woman. She didn’t look round and didn’t reply.

“Look,” the man said, turning to Horza, “we’ll take you to the port, if that’s where this red car’s going, but just don’t try anything. We’ll fight if we have to. I’m not afraid to die.” The tall man sounded frightened and angry at the same time; his yellow-white face looked like a child’s, about to cry.

“You’ve convinced me.” Horza grinned. “Now, why not watch out for the red car? Three wheels, four doors, driver, three people in the back. Can’t miss it.”

The tall man bit his lip. Horza motioned him to look forward, with a small movement of the gun.

“That it?” the bald-headed driver said. Horza saw the car she meant. It looked right.

“Yes. Follow it; not too close.” The hover dropped back a little.

They entered the port area. Cranes and gantries were lit in the distance; parked road vehicles, hovers and even light shuttles lay scattered on either side of the road. The car was just ahead now, following a couple of struggling hover buses up a shallow ramp. Their own hover’s engine laboured as they climbed.

The red car branched off the main route and followed a long curve of roadway, water glittering darkly on either side.

Are you really Sarble?” Horza asked the white-haired woman, who still didn’t turn to him. “Was that you earlier, outside the hall? Or not? Is Sarble really lots of people?”

The people in the car said nothing. Horza just smiled, watching them carefully, but nodding and smiling to himself. There was silence in the hover, only the wind roaring.

The car left the roadway and angled down a fenced boulevard past huge gantries and the lit masses of towering machinery, then sped along a road lined on both sides with dark warehouses. It started to slow by the side of a small dock.

“Pull back,” Horza said. The bald-headed woman slowed the hover as the red car cruised by the dockside, under the square cages of crane legs.

The red car drew up by a brightly lit building. A pattern of lights revolving round the top of the construction spelt out “SUB-BASE ACCESS 54” in several languages.

“Fine. Stop,” Horza said. The hover stopped, sinking on its skirts. “Thanks.” Horza got out, still facing the man and the white-haired woman.

“You’re just lucky you didn’t try anything,” the man said angrily, nodding sharply, his eyes glistening.

“I know,” Horza said. “Bye now,” he winked at the white-haired woman. She turned and made what he suspected was an obscene gesture with one finger. The hover rose, blasted forward, then skidded round and roared off the way it had come. Horza looked back at the sub-plate shaft entrance, where the three people who had got out of the car stood silhouetted against the light inside. One of them might have looked back down the dock towards Horza; he wasn’t sure they did, but he shrank back into the shadows of the crane above him.

Two of the people at the access tube went into the building and disappeared. The third person, who might have been Kraiklyn, walked off towards the side of the dock.

Horza pocketed the gun again and hurried on, underneath another crane.

A roaring noise like the one that Sarble’s hover had made when it drew away from him — but much louder and deeper — came from inside the dock.

Lights and spray filled the sea-end of the dock as a huge air-cushion vehicle, similar in principle to but vastly bigger than the hover Horza had commandeered, swept in from the expanse of black ocean. Lit by starlight, by the glow of the Orbital’s daylight side arcing overhead and by the craft’s own lights, the billows of spray kicked up into the air with a milky luminescence. The big machine lumbered between the walls of the dock, its engines shrieking. Beyond it, out to sea, Horza could see another couple of clouds, also lit from inside by flashing lights. Fireworks burst from the leading craft as it came slowly up the dock. Horza could make out an expanse of windows, and what appeared to be people dancing inside. He looked back down the dockside; the man he was following was mounting the steps to a footbridge which crossed high over the dock. Horza ran quietly, ducking behind the legs of cranes and leaping over lengths of thick hawsers. The lights of the hover flashed on the dark superstructure of the cranes; the scream of the jets and impellers echoed between concrete walls.

As though pointing out the comparative crudity of the scene, a small craft — dark, and silent but for the tearing noise its passage made through the atmosphere — rushed overhead, zooming and disappearing into the night sky, specking once against the loop of the Orbital’s daytime surface. Horza gave it a glance, then watched the figure on the small bridge, lit by the flashing lights of the hover still making its lumbering way up the dock underneath. The second craft was just swinging into position outside the dock to follow it.

Horza came to the steps leading to the walkway of the narrow suspension bridge. The man, who walked like Kraiklyn and wore a grey cloak, was about halfway across. Horza couldn’t see much of what the terrain was like on the other side of the dock, but guessed he stood a good chance of losing his quarry if he let him get to the other side before he started after him. Probably the man — Kraiklyn, if it was him — had worked this out; Horza guessed he knew he was being followed. He set off across the bridge. It swayed slightly underneath him. The noise and lights of the giant hovercraft were almost underneath; the air filled with swirling dark spray, kicked up from the shallow water in the dock. The man didn’t look round at Horza, though he must have felt Horza’s footsteps swinging the bridge with his own.

The figure left the bridge at the far end. Horza lost sight of him and started running, the gun out in front of him, the air-cushion vehicle beneath blasting gusts of spray-soaked air about him, soaking him. Loud music blared from the craft, audible even through the scream of the engines. Horza skidded along the bridge at its end and ran quickly down the spiral steps to the dockside.

Something sailed out of the darkness under the spiral of steps and crashed into his face. Immediately afterwards something slammed into his back and the rear of his skull. He lay on something hard, groggily wondering what had happened, while lights swept over him, the air in his ears roared and roared, and music played somewhere. A bright light shone straight into his eyes, and the hood over his face was thrown back.

He heard a gasp: the gasp of a man tearing a hood away from a face only to see his own face staring back at him. (Who are you?) If that was what it was, then that man was vulnerable now, shocked for just a few seconds (Who am I?)… He had enough strength to kick up hard with one leg, forcing his arms up at the same time and grabbing some material, his shin connecting with a groin. The man started to go over Horza’s shoulders, heading for the dock; then Horza felt his own shoulders grasped, and as the man he held thumped to the ground to one side and behind him, he was pulled over—

Over the side of the dock; the man had landed right on the edge and had gone over, taking Horza with him. They were falling.

He was aware of lights, than shadow, the grip he had on the man’s cloak or suit and one hand still on his shoulder. Falling: how deep was the dock? The noise of wind. Listen for the sound of—

It was a double impact. He hit water, then something harder, in a crumpling collision of fluid and body. It was cold, and his neck ached. He was thrashing about, unsure which way was up, and groggy from the blows to his head; then something pulled at him. He punched out, hit something soft, then pulled upright and found himself standing in a little over a metre of water, staggering forward. It was bedlam — light and sound and spray everywhere, and somebody hanging onto him.

Horza flailed out again. Spray cleared momentarily, and he saw the wall of the dock a couple of metres to his right and, directly in front of him, the rear of the giant hovercraft, receding slowly five or six metres ahead. A powerful gust of oily, fiery air knocked him over, splashing into the water again. The spray closed over him. The hand let go, and he fell back through the water once more, going under.

Horza struggled upright in time to see his adversary heading off through the spray, following the slowly moving hovercraft up the dock. He tried to run, but the water was too deep; he had to force his legs forward in a slow-motion, nightmarish version of a run, angling his torso so that his weight carried him forward. With exaggerated twistings of his body from side to side he strode after the man in the grey cloak, using his hands like paddles in an attempt to gain speed. His head was reeling; his back, face and neck all hurt terribly, and his vision was blurred, but at least he was still chasing. The man in front seemed more anxious to get away than to stay and fight.

The blattering exhaust of the still moving hover blew another hole in the spray towards the two men, revealing the slab of stern rising above the bulbous wall of the machine’s skirt, bowing out from fully three metres above the surface of the water in the dock. First the man in front of him, and then Horza, was blown back by the pulse of hot, choking fumes. The water was getting shallower. Horza found that he could bring his legs out of the water far enough to wade faster. The noise and spray swept over them again, and for a moment Horza lost sight of his quarry; then the view ahead was clear, and he could see the big air-cushion vehicle on a dry area of concrete. The walls of the dock extended high on either side, but the water and the clouds of spray were almost gone. The man in front staggered to the brief ramp leading from the now only ankle-deep water onto the concrete, staggered and almost fell, then started running weakly after the hovercraft, now powering faster along the level concrete down the canyon of the dock.

Horza finally splashed out of the water and ran after the man, following the wetly flapping grey cloak.

The man stumbled, fell and rolled. As he started to rise Horza slammed into him, bowling them both over. He lashed out at the man’s face, shadowed in the light coming from behind him, but missed. The man kicked out at Horza, then tried to get away again. Horza threw himself at the man’s legs, bringing him down once more, the wet cloak flopping over his head. Horza scrambled over on all fours and rolled him over face up. It was Kraiklyn. He drew his hand back for a punch. The pale, shaved face underneath him was twisted in terror, put in shadow by some lights coming from behind Horza, where another great roaring noise was… Kraiklyn screamed, looking not at the man wearing his own real face, but behind him, above him. Horza whirled round.

A black mass blowing spray rushed towards him; lights blazed high above. A siren sounded, then the crushing black bulk was over him, hitting him, knocking him flat, pounding at his eardrums with noise and pressure, pressing, pressing, pressing… Horza heard a gurgling sound; he was being rammed into Kraiklyn’s chest; they were both being rubbed into the concrete as though by an immense thumb.

Another hovercraft; the second one in the line he’d seen.

Abruptly, with a single sweeping stroke of pain bruising him from feet to head, as if a giant was trying to sweep him up off the floor with a huge hard brush, the weight was lifted off. In its place was utter darkness, noise fit to burst skulls, and violent, turbulent, crushing air pressure.

They were under the skirts of the big vehicle. It was right above them, moving slowly forward or maybe — it was too dark to see anything — stationary over the concrete apron, perhaps about to settle on the concrete, crushing them.

As though it was just another part of the maelstrom of battering pain, a blow thudded into Horza’s ear, knocking him sideways in the darkness. He rolled on the rough concrete, pivoting on one elbow as soon as he could and bracing one leg while he struck out with the other in the direction the punch had come from; he felt his foot hit something yielding.

He got to his feet, ducking as he thought of whirling impeller blades just overhead. The eddies and vortices of hot oil-filled air rocked him like a small boat bobbing in a chopping sea. He felt like a puppet controlled by a drunk. He staggered forward, his arms out, and hit Kraiklyn. They started to fall again, and Horza let go, punching with all his might at the place he guessed the man’s head was. His fist crashed into bone, but he didn’t know where. He skipped back, in case there was a retaliatory kick or punch on its way. His ears were popping; his head felt tight. He could feel his eyes vibrating in their sockets; he thought he was deaf but he could feel a thudding in his chest and throat, making him breathless, making him choke and gasp. He could make out just a hint of a border of light all around them, as though they were under the middle of the hovercraft. He saw something, just an area of darkness, on that border, and lunged at it, swinging his foot from low down. Again he connected, and the dark part of the border disappeared.

He was blown off his feet by a crushing down-draught of air and tumbled bodily along the concrete, thumping into Kraiklyn where he lay on the ground after Horza’s last kick. Another punch hit Horza on the head, but it was weak and hardly hurt. Horza felt for and found Kraiklyn’s head. He lifted it and banged it off the concrete, then did it again. Kraiklyn struggled, but his hands beat uselessly off Horza’s shoulders and chest. The area of lightness beyond the dim shape on the ground was enlarging, coming closer. Horza banged Kraiklyn’s head against the concrete one more time, then threw himself flat. The rear edge of the skirt scrubbed over him; his ribs ached and his skull felt as though somebody was standing on it. Then it was over, and they were in the open air.

The big craft thundered on, trailing remnants of spray. There was another one fifty metres down the dock and heading towards him.

Kraiklyn was lying still, a couple of metres away.

Horza got up onto all fours and crawled over to the other man. He looked down into his eyes, which moved a little.

“I’m Horza! Horza!” he screamed, but couldn’t even hear anything himself.

He shook his head, and with a grimace of frustration on the face that was not really his own and which was the last thing the real Kraiklyn ever saw, he gripped the head of the man lying on the concrete and twisted it sharply, breaking the neck, just as he had broken Zallin’s.

He managed to drag the body to the side of the dock just in time to get out of the way of the third and last hovercraft. Its towering skirt bulged past two metres away from where he half lay, half sat, panting and sweating, his back against the cold wet concrete of the dock, his mouth open and his heart thudding.

He undressed Kraiklyn, took off the cloak and the light-coloured one-piece day suit he wore, then climbed out of his own torn blouse and bloody pantaloons and put on what Kraiklyn had been wearing. He took the ring Kraiklyn wore on the small finger of his right hand. He picked at his own hands, at the skin where palm became wrist. It came away cleanly, a layer of skin sloughing off his right hand from wrist to fingertips. He wiped Kraiklyn’s limp, pale right palm on a damp bit of clothing, then put the skin over it, pressing it down hard. He lifted the skin off carefully and positioned it back on his own hand. Then he repeated the operation using his left hand.

It was cold and it seemed to take a very long time and a lot of effort. Eventually, while the three big air-cushion vehicles were stopping and letting passengers off half a kilometre down the dock, Horza finally staggered to a ladder of metal rungs set into the concrete wall of the dock, and with shaking hands and quivering feet hauled himself to the top.

He lay for a while, then got up, climbed the spiral stairs to the small footbridge, staggered across it and down the other side, and entered the circular access building. Brightly dressed and excited people, just off the big hovers and still in a party mood, quietened when they saw him wait near the elevator doors for the capsule which would take them down to the spaceport area half a kilometre under their feet. Horza couldn’t hear very much, but he could see their anxious looks, sense the awkwardness he was causing with his battered, bloody face and his ripped, soaking clothes.

At last the elevator appeared. The party goers piled in, and Horza, supporting himself on the wall, stumbled in too. Somebody held his arm, helping him, and he nodded thanks. They said something which he heard as a distant rumble; he tried to smile and nod again. The elevator dropped.

The underside greeted them with an expanse of what looked like stars. Gradually, Horza realised it was the light-speckled top of a spacecraft larger than anything he’d ever seen or even heard about before; it had to be the demilitarised Culture ship, The Ends of Invention. He didn’t care what it was called, as long as he could get aboard and find the CAT.

The elevator had come to a halt in a transparent tube above a spherical reception area hanging in hard vacuum a hundred metres under the base of the Orbital. From the sphere, walkways and tube tunnels spread out in all directions, heading for the access gantries and open and closed docks of the port area itself. The doors to the closed docks, where ships could be worked on in pressurised conditions, were all open. The open docks themselves, where ships simply moored and airlocks were required, were empty. Replacing them all, directly underneath the spherical reception area, just as it was directly underneath almost the entire port area, was the ex-Culture General Systems Vehicle The Ends of Invention. Its broad, flat top stretched for kilometre after kilometre in all directions, almost totally blocking out the view of space and stars beyond. Instead its top surface glittered with its own lights where various connections had been made with the access tubes and tunnels of the port.

He felt dizzy again, registering the sheer scale of the vast craft. He hadn’t seen a GSV before, far less been inside one. He knew of them and what they were for, but only now did he appreciate what an achievement they represented. This one was theoretically no longer part of the Culture; he knew it was demilitarised, stripped bare of most equipment, and without the Mind or Minds which would normally run it; but just the structure alone was enough to impress.

General Systems Vehicles were like encapsulated worlds. They were more than just very big spaceships; they were habitats, universities, factories, museums, dockyards, libraries, even mobile exhibition centres. They represented the Culture — they were the Culture. Almost anything that could be done anywhere in the Culture could be done on a GSV. They could make anything the Culture was capable of making, contained all the knowledge the Culture had ever accumulated, carried or could construct specialised equipment of every imaginable type for every conceivable eventuality, and continually manufactured smaller ships: General Contact Units usually, warcraft now. Their complements were measured in millions at least. They crewed their offspring ships out of the gradual increase in their own population. Self-contained, self-sufficient, productive and, in peacetime at least, continually exchanging information, they were the Culture’s ambassadors, its most visible citizens and its technological and intellectual big guns. There was no need to travel from the galactic backwoods to some distant Culture home-planet to be amazed and impressed by the stunning scale and awesome power of the Culture; a GSV could bring the whole lot right up to your front door…

Horza followed the brightly dressed crowds through the bustling reception area. There were a few people in uniform, but they weren’t stopping anybody. Horza felt in a daze, as though he was only a passenger in his own body, and the drunken puppeteer he had felt in the control of earlier was now sobered up a little and guiding him through the crowds of people towards the doors of another elevator. He tried to clear his head by shaking it, but it hurt when he did that. His hearing was coming back very slowly.

He looked at his hands, then sloughed the imprinter-skin from his palms, rubbing it on each of the lapels of the daysuit until it rolled off and fell to the floor of the corridor.

When they got off the second elevator they were in the starship. The people dispersed through broad, pastel-shaded corridors with high ceilings. Horza looked one way then another, as the elevator capsule swished back up towards the reception sphere. A small drone floated towards him. It was the size and shape of a standard suit backpack, and Horza eyed it warily, uncertain whether it was a Culture device or not.

“Excuse me, are you all right?” the machine said. Its voice was robust but not unfriendly. Horza could just hear it.

“I’m lost,” Horza said, too loudly. “Lost,” he repeated, more quietly, so that he could hardly hear himself. He was aware that he was swaying a little as he stood there, and he could feel water trickling into his boots and dripping off the sodden cloak onto the soft, absorbent surface under his feet.

“Where do you want to go?” the drone asked.

“To a ship called…” Horza closed his eyes in weary desperation. He didn’t dare give the real name. “…The Beggar’s Bluff.”

The drone was silent for a second, then said, “I’m afraid there is no such craft aboard. Perhaps it is in the port area by itself, not on the Ends.”

“It’s an old Hronish assault ship,” Horza said tiredly, looking for somewhere to sit down. He spotted some seats set into the wall a few metres away and made his way over there. The drone followed him, lowering itself as he sat so that it was still at his eye level. “About a hundred metres long,” the Changer went on, no longer caring if he was giving some sort of game away. “It was being repaired by some port shipbuilders; had some damage to its warping units.”

“Ah. I think I have the one you want. It’s more or less straight down from here. I have no record of its name, but it sounds like the one you want. Can you manage to get there yourself, or shall I take you?”

“I don’t know if I can manage,” Horza said truthfully.

“Wait a moment.” The drone stayed floating silently in front of Horza for a moment or two; then it said, “Follow me, then. There is a traveltube just over here and down a deck.” The machine backed off and indicated the direction they should head in by extending a hazy field from its casing. Horza got up and followed it.

They went down a small open AG lift shaft, then crossed a large open area where some of the wheeled and skirted vehicles used on the Orbital had been stored; just a few examples, the drone explained, for posterity. The Ends already had a Megaship aboard, stored in one of its two General bays, thirteen kilometres below, in the bottom of the craft. Horza didn’t know whether to believe the drone or not.

On the far side of the hangar they came to another corridor, and there they entered a cylinder, about three metres in diameter and six long, which rolled its door closed, flicked to one side and was instantly sucked into a dark tunnel. Soft lights lit the interior. The drone explained that the windows were blanked out because, unless you were used to it, a capsule’s journey through a GSV could be unsettling, due both to its speed and to the suddenness of the changes of direction, which the eye saw but the body didn’t feel. Horza sat down heavily in one of the folding seats in the middle of the capsule, but only for a few seconds.

“Here we are. Smallbay 27492, in case you need it again. Innerlevel S-10-right. Goodbye.” The capsule door rolled down. Horza nodded to the drone and stepped out into a corridor with straight, transparent walls. The capsule door closed, and the machine vanished. He had a brief impression of it flickering past him, but it happened so fast he could have been wrong. Anyway, his vision was still blurred.

He looked to his right. Through the walls of the corridor he looked into clear air. Kilometres of it. There was some sort of roof high above, with just a suggestion of wispy clouds. A few tiny craft moved. Level with him, far enough away for the view to be both hazy and vast, were hangars: level after level after level of them. Bays, docks, hangars — call them what you wanted; they filled Horza’s sight for square kilometres, making him dizzy with the sheer scale of it all. His brain did a sort of double take, and he blinked and shook himself, but the view did not go away. Craft moved, lights went on or off, a layer of cloud far below made the view further down still more hazy, and something whizzed by the corridor Horza stood in: a ship, fully three hundred metres long. The ship passed along the level he was on, swooped, and far far away did a left turn, banking gracefully in the air to disappear into another bright and vast corridor which seemed to pass by at right angles to the one Horza stood staring at. In the other direction, the one that the ship had appeared from, was a wall, seemingly blank. Horza looked closer and rubbed his eyes; he saw that the wall had an orderly speckle of lights in a grid across it: thousands and thousands of windows and lights and balconies. Smaller craft flitted about its face, and the dots of traveltube capsules flashed across and up and down.

Horza couldn’t take much more. He looked to his left and saw a smooth ramp leading down underneath the tube the capsule travelled in. He stumbled down it, into the welcomingly small space of a two hundred metre long Smallbay.

Horza wanted to cry. The old ship sat on three short legs, square in the centre of the bay, a few bits and pieces of equipment scattered around it. There was nobody else in the bay that Horza could see, just machinery. The CAT looked old and battered, but intact and whole. It appeared that repairs were either finished or not yet started. The main hold lift was down, resting on the smooth white deck of the bay. Horza went over to it and saw a light ladder leading up into the brightness of the hold itself. A small insect landed briefly on his wrist. He flapped a hand at it as it flew off. How very untidy of the Culture, he thought absently, to allow an insect on board one of their sparkling vessels. Still, officially at least, the Ends was no longer the Culture’s. Wearily he climbed the ladder, hampered by the damp cloak and accompanied by the squelching noises coming from his boots.

The hold smelled familiar, though it looked oddly spacious with no shuttle in it. There was nobody about. He went up the stairs from the hold to the accommodation section. He walked along the corridor towards the mess, wondering who was alive, who was dead, what changes had been made, if any. It had only been three days, but he felt as though he had been away for years. He was almost at Yalson’s cabin when the door was quickly pulled open.

Yalson’s fair-haired head came out, an expression of surprise, even joy, starting to form on it. “Haw—” she said, then stopped, frowned at him, shook her head and muttered something, ducking back into her cabin. Horza had stopped.

He stood there, thinking he was glad she was alive, realising he hadn’t been walking properly — not like Kraiklyn. His tread had sounded like his own instead. A hand appeared from Yalson’s door as she pulled on a light robe, then she came out and stood in the corridor, looking at the man she thought was Kraiklyn, her hands on her hips. Her lean, hard face looked slightly concerned, but mostly wary. Horza hid his hand with the missing finger behind his back.

“What the hell happened to you?” she said.

“I got in a fight. What does it look like?” He got the voice right. They stood looking at each other.

“If you want any help—” she began. Horza shook his head.

“I’ll manage.”

Yalson nodded, half smiling, looking him up and down. “Yeah, all right. You manage, then.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, in the direction of the mess. “Your new recruit just brought her gear aboard. She’s waiting in the mess, though if you look in now she might not think it’s such a wonderful idea to join up.”

Horza nodded. Yalson shrugged, then turned and walked up the corridor, through the mess towards the bridge. Horza followed her. “Our glorious captain,” she said to somebody in the room as she went through. Horza hesitated at Kraiklyn’s cabin door, then went forward to stick his head round the door of the mess.

A woman was sitting at the far end of the mess table, her legs crossed over a chair in front of her. The screen was switched on above her as though she had been watching it; it showed a view of a Megaship being lifted bodily out of the water by hundreds of small lifter tugs clustered under and around it. They were recognisably antique Culture machines. The woman had turned from the sight, though, and was gazing towards Horza when he looked round the side of the door.

She was slim and tall and pale. She looked fit, and her black-coloured eyes were set in a face just starting to show worried surprise at the battered face looking at her from the doorway. She had on a light suit, the helmet of which lay on the table in front of her. A red bandanna was tied round her head, below the level of her close-cropped red hair. “Oh, Captain Kraiklyn,” she said, swinging her feet off the seat and leaning forward, her face showing shock and pity. “What happened?”

Horza tried to speak, but his throat was dry. He couldn’t believe what he saw. His lips worked and he licked them with a dry tongue. The woman started to rise from the table, but he put out one hand and gestured her to stay where she was. She sat slowly back down, and he managed to say, “I’m all right. See you later. Just… just stay… there.” Then he pushed himself away from the door and stumbled down the corridor to Kraiklyn’s cabin. The ring fitted into the door, and it swung open. He almost fell inside.

In something like a trance he closed the door, stood there looking at the far bulkhead for a while, then slowly sat down, on the floor.

He knew he was still stunned, he knew his vision was still blurred and he wasn’t hearing perfectly. He knew it was unlikely — or, if it wasn’t, then it was very bad news indeed, but he was sure; absolutely certain. As certain as he had been about Kraiklyn when he first walked up that ramp to the Damage table, into the arena.

As though he hadn’t had enough shocks for one evening, the sight of the woman sitting at the mess-room table had all but silenced him and stopped his mind from working. What was he going to do? He couldn’t think. The shock was still resounding through his mind; the image seemed stuck behind his eyes.

The woman in the mess room was Perosteck Balveda.

8. The Ends of Invention

Maybe she’s a clone, Horza thought. Maybe it’s coincidence. He sat on the floor of Kraiklyn’s cabin — his cabin now — staring at the locker doors in the far wall; aware that he needed to do something, but not sure what it ought to be. His brain wasn’t able to take all the knocks and shocks it had had. He needed to sit and think for a moment.

He tried telling himself he was mistaken, that it wasn’t really her, that he was tired and confused and getting paranoid, seeing things. But he knew it was Balveda, though sufficiently altered so that probably only a close friend or a Changer could possibly recognise her, but definitely her, alive and well and probably armed to the teeth…

He got up, mechanically, still staring straight ahead. He took off the wet clothes and went out of the cabin, down to the wash area, where he left the clothes to dry and cleaned himself up. Back in the cabin he found a robe and put it on. He started inspecting the small, packed space and finally came across a small voice recorder. He flicked it back and listened.

“…ahhh… including, ahh, Yalson,” Kraiklyn’s voice said from the small speaker in the machine, “who I guess was, umm… in her relationship, with ahh… Horza Gobuchul. She’s… been pretty abrupt, and I don’t think I’ve had the support from her… which she… which I ought to get… I’ll have a word with her if it goes on, but, ahhh… for now, during the repairs and such… there doesn’t seem much point… I’m not putting off… ah… I just think we’ll see how she shapes up after the Orbital’s blown and we’re on our way.

“Ahh… now this new woman… Gravant… she’s all right. I get the impression she might… ah, need… need a bit of ordering around… seems to need discipline… I don’t think she’ll have, ah, too much conflict with anybody. Yalson, especially, I was worried about, but I don’t think… ah, I think it’ll be fine. But you can never tell with women, ah… of course, so… but I like her… I think she’s got class and maybe… I don’t know… maybe she could make a good number two if she shapes up.

“I really need more people… Umm… things haven’t gone all that well recently, but I think I’ve been… they’ve let me down. Jandraligeli, obviously… and I don’t know; I’ll see if maybe I can do something about him because… he’s really sort of just been… ahh… he’s betrayed me; that’s the way… that’s what it is I think; anybody would agree. So maybe I’ll have a word with Ghalssel, at the game, assuming he arrives… I don’t think the guy’s really up to standard and I’ll tell Ghalssel as much because we’re both… in the same, ah… business, and I’m… I know that he’ll have heard… well, he’ll listen to what I have to say, because he knows about the responsibilities of leadership and… just, ah… the way I do.

“Anyway… I’ll do some more recruiting after the game, and after the GSV takes off there’ll be some time… we have enough time still to run in this bay and I’ll put the word out. There’s bound to be… a lot of people ready to sign on… Ah, oh yeah; mustn’t forget about the shuttle tomorrow. I’m sure I can get the price down. Ah, I could just win at the game, of course—” The small voice from the speaker laughed: a tinny echo. “…and just be incredibly rich and—” The laughter came again, distorted. “…and not give a fuck about any of this crap any more… shit, just… ha… give the CAT away… well, sell it… and retire… But we’ll see…”

The voice faded. Horza switched off the machine in the silence. He put it down where he had found it, and rubbed the ring on the small finger of his right hand. Then he took off the robe and put his — his — suit on. It started talking to him; he told it to turn its voice off.

He looked at himself in the reverser field on the locker doors, drew himself up, made sure the plasma pistol strapped to his thigh was switched on, pushed the pains and tiredness to the back of his mind, then went out of the cabin and up the corridor to the mess.

Yalson and the woman who was Balveda were sitting talking in the long room, at the far end of the table under the screen, which had been turned off. They looked up when he came in. He went over and sat a couple of seats down from Yalson, who looked at his suit and said, “We going somewhere?”

“Maybe,” Horza said, looking briefly at her, then switching his gaze to the Balveda woman, smiling and saying, “I’m sorry, Ms Gravant; but I’m afraid, having reconsidered your application, I have to turn you down. I’m sorry, but there’s no place for you on the CAT. I hope you understand.” He clasped his hands on the table and grinned again. Balveda — the more he looked the surer he was that it was her — looked crestfallen. Her mouth opened slightly; she looked from Horza to Yalson then back again. Yalson was frowning deeply.

“But—” Balveda began.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Yalson said angrily. “You can’t just—”

“You see,” Horza smiled, “I’ve decided that we need to cut down on the numbers on board, and—”

“What?” Yalson exploded, slapping the table with the palm of her hand. “That’s six of us left! What the hell are six of us meant to do…?” Her voice trailed off, then came back lower and slower, her head twisting to one side, her eyes narrowing as she looked at him. “…Or have we just struck lucky in… oh, a game of chance perhaps, and don’t want to cut in more directions than absolutely necessary?”

Horza looked briefly at Yalson again, smiled and said, “No, but you see I’ve just re-hired one of our ex-members, and that does alter the plans a bit… The place I had intended to slot Ms Gravant into in the ship’s company is now filled.”

“You got Jandraligeli to come back, after what you called him?” laughed Yalson, stretching back in her seat.

Horza shook his head.

“No, my dear,” he said. “As I would have been able to tell you if you hadn’t kept interrupting, I just met our friend Mr Gobuchul in Evanauth, and he’s keen to rejoin.”

“Horza?” Yalson seemed to shake a little, her voice on an edge of tension, and he could see her trying to control herself. Oh gods, a small voice inside him said, why does this hurt so much? Yalson said, “Is he alive? Are you sure it was him? Kraiklyn, are you?”

Horza switched his gaze rapidly from one woman to the other. Yalson was leaning forward over the table, her eyes glittering in the mess-room light, her fists clenched. Her lean body seemed tensed, the golden down on her dark skin shining. Balveda looked uncertain and confused. Horza saw her start to bite her lip, then stop.

“I wouldn’t kid you about it, Yalson,” Horza assured her. “Horza is alive and well, and not very far away.” Horza looked at the repeater screen on his suit cuff, where the time showed. “As a matter of fact, I’m meeting him at one of the port reception spheres in… well, just before the GSV takes off. He said he had one or two things to work out in the city first. He said to say… ahhh… he hoped you were still betting on him…” He shrugged. “Something like that.”

“You’re not kidding!” Yalson said, her face creasing with a smile. She shook her head, put a hand through her hair, slapped the table softly a couple of times. “Oh…” she said, then sat back again in her seat. She looked from the woman to the man and shrugged, silent.

“So you see, Gravant, you just aren’t needed right now,” Horza told Balveda. The Culture agent opened her mouth, but it was Yalson who spoke first, coughing quickly and then saying.

“Oh, let her stay, Kraiklyn. What difference does it make?”

“The difference, Yalson,” Horza said carefully, thinking hard about Kraiklyn, “is that I am captain of this ship.”

Yalson seemed about to say something, but instead she turned to Balveda and spread her hands. She sat back, one hand picking at the edge of the table, her eyes lowered. She was trying not to smile too much.

“Well, Captain,” Balveda said, rising from her seat, “you do know best. I’ll get my gear.” She walked quickly from the mess. Her footsteps merged with others, and Horza and Yalson both heard some muffled words. In a moment, Dorolow, Wubslin and Aviger, gaily dressed and looking flushed and happy, piled into the mess, the older man with his arm around the small, plump woman.

“Our captain!” Aviger shouted. Dorolow held one of his hands at her shoulder. She smiled. Wubslin waved dreamily; the stocky engineer looked drunk. “Been at the wars, I see,” Aviger went on, staring at Horza’s face, which still showed signs of being in a fight, despite his internal attempts to minimise the damage.

“What has Gravant done, Kraiklyn?” Dorolow squeaked. She seemed merry, too, and her voice was even higher than he remembered it.

“Nothing,” Horza said, smiling at the three mercenaries. “But we’re getting Horza Gobuchul back from the dead, so I decided we didn’t need her.”

Horza?” Wubslin said, his large mouth opening wide in an almost exaggerated expression of surprise. Dorolow looked past Horza at Yalson, the look on her face saying, “Is this true?” through her grin. Yalson shrugged and looked happily, hopefully, still slightly suspiciously, at the man she thought was Kraiklyn.

“He’ll be coming aboard shortly before the Ends leaves,” Horza said. “He had some sort of business in the city. Maybe something shady.” Horza smiled in the condescending way Kraiklyn sometimes had. “Who knows?”

“There,” Wubslin said, looking unsteadily at Aviger over Dorolow’s stooped frame. “Maybe that guy was looking for Horza. Maybe we should warn him.”

“What guy? Where?” Horza asked.

“He’s seeing things,” Aviger said, waving one hand. “Too much liverwine.”

Rubbish!” Wubslin said loudly, looking from Aviger to Horza, and nodding. “And a drone.” He held both hands out in front of his face, palms together, then separated them by about a quarter-metre. “Little bugger. No bigger’n that.”

“Where?” Horza shook his head. “Why do you think somebody might be after Horza?”

“Out there, under the traveltube,” Aviger said, while Wubslin was saying:

“Way he came out of that capsule, like he expected to be in a fight any second, and… aww, I can just tell… that guy was… police… or something…”

“What about Mipp?” asked Dorolow. Horza was silent for a second, frowning at nothing and nobody in particular. “Did Horza mention Mipp?” Dorolow asked him.

“Mipp?” he said, looking at Dorolow. “No.” He shook his head. “No, Mipp didn’t make it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Dorolow said.

“Look,” Horza said, staring at Aviger and Wubslin, “you think there’s somebody out there looking for one of us?”

“A man,” Wubslin nodded slowly, “and a little, tiny, really mean-looking drone.”

With a chill, Horza recalled the insect which had settled momentarily on his wrist in the smallbay outside, just before he had boarded the CAT. The Culture, he knew, had machines — artificial bugs — that size.

“Hmm,” Horza said, pursing his lips. He nodded to himself, then looked at Yalson. “Go and make sure Gravant gets off the ship, quickly, all right?” He stood up and got out of the way while Yalson moved. She went down the corridor to the cabins. Horza looked at Wubslin and motioned the engineer forward towards the bridge, with his eyes. “You two stay here,” he said quietly to Aviger and Dorolow. Slowly they let go of each other and sat down in a couple of seats. Horza went through to the bridge.

He pointed Wubslin to the engineer’s seat and sat down in the pilot’s. Wubslin sighed heavily. Horza closed the door, then quickly reeled through all he had learned about the procedures on the bridge during the first weeks he had been aboard the CAT. He was reaching forward to open the communicator channels when something moved under the console, near his feet. He froze.

Wubslin peered down, then bent with an audible effort and stuck his big head down between his legs. Horza smelled drink.

“Haven’t you finished yet?” Wubslin’s muffled voice said.

“They took me off to another job; I only just got back,” wailed a small, thin, artificial voice. Horza sat back in his seat and looked under the console. A drone, about two thirds the size of the one which had escorted him from the elevator to the CAT’s bay, was disentangling itself from a jumble of fine cables protruding from an open inspection hatch.

“What,” Horza said, “is that?”

“Oh,” Wubslin said wearily, belching, “same one that’s been here… you remember. Come on, you,” he said to the machine. “The captain wants to do a communication test.”

“Look,” the little machine said, its synthesised voice full of exasperation, “I have finished. I’m just tidying everything away.”

“Well, get a move on,” Wubslin said. He withdrew his head from underneath the console and looked apologetically at Horza. “Sorry, Kraiklyn.”

“Never mind, never mind.” Horza waved his hand. He powered up the communicator. “Ah…” He looked at Wubslin. “Who’s controlling traffic movements around here? I’ve forgotten who to ask for. What if I want the bay doors opened?”

“Traffic? Doors opened?” Wubslin looked at Horza with a puzzled expression. He shrugged and said, “Well, just traffic control, I suppose, like when we came in.”

“Right,” Horza said; he flicked the switch on the console and said, “Traffic control, this is…” His voice trailed off.

He’d no idea what Kraiklyn had called the CAT instead of its real name. He hadn’t got that as part of the information he’d bought, and it was one of the many things he had meant to learn once he’d accomplished the most immediate task of getting Balveda off the ship, and with luck following a false trail. But the news that there might be somebody looking for him in this bay — or anybody, for that matter — had rattled him. He said, “…This is the craft in Smallbay 27492. I want immediate clearance to leave the bay and the GSV; we’ll quit the Orbital independently.”

Wubslin stared at Horza.

“This is Evanauth Port traffic control, GSV temporary section. One moment, Smallbay 27492,” said the speakers set in Horza and Wubslin’s seat headrests. Horza turned to Wubslin, switching off the communicator send button.

“This thing is ready to fly, isn’t it?”

“Wha—? Fly?” Wubslin looked perplexed. He scratched his chest, looked down at the drone still working to stuff the wires back under the console. “I suppose so, but—”

“Great.” Horza started switching everything on, motors included. He noticed the bank of screens carrying information about the bow laser flickering on along with everything else. At least Kraiklyn had had that repaired.

“Fly?” Wubslin repeated. He scratched his chest again and turned towards Horza. “Did you say ‘fly’?”

“Yes. We’re leaving.” Horza’s hands flicked over the buttons and sensor switches, adjusting the systems of the waking ship as though he really had been doing it for years.

“We’ll need a tug…” Wubslin said. Horza knew the engineer was right. The CAT’s anti-gravity was only strong enough to produce an internal field; the warp units would blow so close to (in fact, inside) a mass as great as the Ends, and you couldn’t reasonably use the fusion motors in an enclosed space.

“We’ll get one. I’ll tell them it’s an emergency. I’ll say we’ve got a bomb aboard, or something.” Horza watched the main screen come on, filling the previously blank bulkhead in front of him and Wubslin with a view of the rear of the Smallbay.

Wubslin got his own monitor screen to display a complicated plan which Horza eventually identified as a map of their level of the GSV’s vast interior. He only glanced at it at first, then ignored the view on the main screen and looked more carefully at the plan, and finally put a holo of the GSV’s whole internal layout onto the main screen, quickly memorising all he could.

“What…” Wubslin paused, belched again, rubbed his belly through his tunic and said, “What about Horza?”

“We’ll pick him up later,” Horza said, still studying the layout of the GSV. “I made other arrangements in case I couldn’t meet him when I said.” Horza punched the transmit button again. “Traffic control, traffic control, this is Smallbay 27492. I need emergency clearance. Repeat, I need emergency clearance and a tug straight away. I have a malfunctioning fusion generator I can’t close down. Repeat, nuclear fusion generator breakdown, going critical.”

“What!” a small voice screeched. Something banged into Horza’s knee, and the drone working under the console wobbled quickly into view, festooned with cables like a streamer-draped party goer. “What did you say?”

“Shut up and get off the ship. Now,” Horza told it, turning up the gain on the receiver circuits. A hissing noise filled the bridge.

“With pleasure!” the drone said, and shook itself to get rid of the cables looped round its casing. “As usual I’m the last to be told what’s going on, but I know I don’t want to stick around this—” it was muttering when the hangar lights went out.

At first Horza thought the screen had blown, but he slid the wavelength control up, and a dim outline of the bay reappeared, showing its appearance on infra-red. “Oh-oh,” said the drone, turning first to the screen, then looking back at Horza. “You lot did pay your rent, didn’t you?”

“Dead,” Wubslin announced. The drone got rid of the last of its cables. Horza looked sharply at the engineer.

“What?”

Wubslin pointed at the transceiver controls in front of him. “Dead. Somebody’s cut us off from traffic control.”

A shudder ran through the ship. A light blinked, indicating that the main hold lift had just slammed up automatically.

A draught briefly stirred the air in the flight deck, then died. More lights started flashing on the console. “Shit,” Horza said. “Now what?”

“Well, goodbye chaps,” the drone said hurriedly. It shot past them, sucked the door open and whooshed down the corridor, heading for the hangar stairwell.

“Pressure drop?” Wubslin said to himself, scratching his head for a change and knotting his brows as he looked at the screens in front of him.

“Kraiklyn!” Yalson’s voice shouted from the seat headrest speakers. A light on the console showed that she was calling from the hangar.

“What?” Horza snapped.

“What the hell’s going on?” Yalson shouted. “We were nearly crushed! The air’s going from the Smallbay and the hangar lift just emergencied on us! What’s happening?”

“I’ll explain,” Horza said. His mouth was dry, and he felt as though there was a lump of ice in his guts. “Is Ms Gravant still with you?”

“Of course she’s still fucking with me!”

“Right. Come back up to the mess room right away. Both of you.”

“Kraiklyn—” Yalson began, then another voice cut in, starting from a distance but quickly coming closer to the mike.

“Closed? Closed? Why is this lift door closed? What is going on on this vessel? Hello, bridge? Captain?” A sharp tap-tap noise came from the headrest speakers, and the synthesised voice went on, “Why am I being obstructed? Let me off this ship at—”

“Get out of the way, you idiot!” Yalson said, then: “It’s that goddam drone again.”

“You and Gravant get up here,” Horza repeated. “Now.” Horza closed down the hangar com circuit. He wheeled out of the seat and patted Wubslin on the shoulder. “Strap in. Get us ready to roll. Everything.” Then he swung through the open door. Aviger was in the corridor, coming from the mess to the bridge. He opened his mouth to speak but Horza squeezed quickly past him. “Not now, Aviger.” He put his right glove to the lock on the armoury door. It clicked open. Horza looked inside.

“I was only going to ask—”

“…what the hell’s going on?” Horza completed the old man’s sentence for him as he lifted the biggest neural stun pistol he could see, slammed the armoury doors shut and paced quickly down the corridor, through the mess room where Dorolow was sitting asleep in a chair, and into the corridor through the accommodation section. He switched the gun on, turned its power control to maximum, then held it behind his back.

The drone appeared first, flying up the steps and darting along the corridor at eye level. “Captain! I really must prot—”

Horza kicked a door open, caught the bevelled front of the drone as it came towards him and threw the machine into the cabin. He slammed the door shut. Voices were coming up the steps from the hangar. He held onto the handle of the cabin door. It was pulled hard, then thumped. “This is outrageous!” a distant, tinny voice wailed.

“Kraiklyn,” Yalson said as her head appeared at the top of the steps. Horza smiled, readying the gun he held behind his back. The door resounded again, shaking his hand.

“Let me out!”

“Kraiklyn, what is going on?” Yalson said, coming along the corridor. Balveda was almost up the stairs, carrying a large kitbag over her shoulder.

“I’m going to lose my temper!” The door shook again.

A whine, high and urgent, came from behind Yalson, from Balveda’s kitbag; then a static-like crackle. Yalson didn’t hear the high-pitched whine — which was an alarm. Horza, though, was distantly aware of Dorolow stirring somewhere behind him in the mess room. At the burst of static, which was a highly compressed message or signal of some sort, Yalson started to turn back to Balveda. At the same moment Horza leapt forward, taking his hand off the cabin door handle and bringing the heavy stun gun round to bear on Balveda. The Culture woman was already dropping the kitbag, one hand flashing — so fast even Horza could hardly follow the movement down to her side. Horza threw himself into the space between Yalson and the corridor bulkhead, knocking the woman mercenary to one side. At the same time, with the big stun gun pointing straight at Balveda’s face, he pulled the trigger. The weapon hummed in his hand as he continued forward, dropping. He tried to keep the gun pointing at Balveda’s head all the way down. He hit the deck just before the sagging Culture agent did.

Yalson was still staggering back after being thumped against the far bulkhead. Horza lay on the deck watching Balveda’s feet and legs for a second, then he quickly scrambled up, saw Balveda move groggily, her red-haired head scraping on the deck surface, her dark eyes opening briefly. He pulled the stun-gun trigger again, keeping it depressed and pointing the gun at the woman’s head. She shook spastically for a second, saliva drooling from one corner of her mouth, then went limp. The red bandanna rolled off her head.

“Are you crazy?” Yalson screamed. Horza turned to her.

“Her name isn’t Gravant; it’s Perosteck Balveda, and she’s an agent in the Culture’s Special Circumstances section. That’s their euphemism for Military Intelligence, in case you didn’t know,” he said. Yalson was backed up almost to the mess-room entrance, her eyes full of fear, her hands clutching at the surface of the bulkhead on either side of her. Horza went up to her. She shrank from him, and he sensed her getting ready to strike out. He stopped short of her, turned the stun gun round and handed it to her, grip first. “If you don’t believe me we’ll probably all end up dead,” he said, edging the gun forward towards her hands. She took it eventually. “I’m serious,” he told her. “Search her for weapons. Then get her into the mess and strap her into a seat. Tie her hands down, tight. And her legs. Then strap in yourself. We’ve leaving; I’ll explain later.” He started to go past her, then he turned and looked into her eyes.

“Oh, and keep stunning her every now and again, on maximum power. Special Circumstancers are very tough.” He turned and went towards the mess room. He heard the stun gun click.

“Kraiklyn,” Yalson said.

He stopped and turned round again. She was pointing the gun straight at him, holding it in both hands and level with his eyes. Horza sighed and shook his head.

“Don’t,” he said.

“What about Horza?”

“He’s safe. I swear it. But he’ll be dead if we don’t get out of here now. And if she wakes up.” He nodded past Yalson at the long, inert form of Balveda. He turned again, then walked into the mess, the back of his head and the nape of his neck tingling with anticipation.

Nothing happened. Dorolow looked up from the table and said, “What was that noise?” as Horza went past.

“What noise?” Horza said as he went through to the bridge.

Yalson watched Kraiklyn’s back as he walked through the mess room. He said something to Dorolow, then he was through to the bridge. She let the stun gun down slowly; it hung in one hand. She looked at the gun thoughtfully and said to herself, quietly, “Yalson, my girl, there are times when I think you’re a little too loyal.” She raised the gun again as the cabin door opened just a crack and a small voice said, “Is it safe out there yet?”

Yalson grimaced, pushed the door open and looked at the drone, which was retreating further into the cabin. She nodded her head to the side and said, “Get out here and give me a hand with this bod, you liverless piece of clockwork.”

“Wake up!” Horza kicked Wubslin’s leg as he swung back into his chair. Aviger was sitting in the third seat in the flight deck, looking anxiously at the screens and controls. Wubslin jumped, then looked round with bleary eyes.

“Eh?” he said, then: “I was just resting my eyes.”

Horza pulled out the CAT’s manual controls from their recess in the edge of the console. Aviger looked at them with apprehension.

“Just how hard did you knock your head?” he said to Horza.

Horza smiled coldly at him. He scanned the screens as fast as he could and threw the safety switches on the ship’s fusion motors. He tried traffic control once more. The Smallbay was still dark. The outside pressure gauge registered zero. Wubslin was talking to himself as he checked over the craft’s monitoring systems.

“Aviger,” Horza said, not looking at the older man, “I think you’d better strap in.”

“What for?” Aviger asked quietly, measuredly. “We can’t go anywhere. We can’t move. We’re stuck here until a tug arrives to take us out, aren’t we?”

“Of course we are,” Horza said, adjusting the readying controls of the fusion motors and putting the ship leg controls on automatic. He turned and looked at Aviger. “Tell you what; why don’t you go and get that new recruit’s kitbag? Take it down to the hangar and shove it into a vactube.”

“What?” Aviger said, his already creased face becoming more lined as he frowned. “I thought she was leaving.”

“She was, but whoever is trying to keep us in here started evacuating the air from the Smallbay before she could get off. Now I want you to take her kitbag and all the other gear she may have left lying around and stow it in a vactube, all right?”

Aviger got up from the seat slowly, looking at Horza with a tense, worried expression on his face. “All right.” He started to leave the bridge, then hesitated, looking back at Horza. “Kraiklyn, why am I putting her kitbag in the vactube?”

“Because there’s almost certainly a very powerful bomb in it; that’s why. Now get down there and do it.

Aviger nodded and left, looking even less happy. Horza turned back to the controls. They were almost ready. Wubslin was still talking to himself and hadn’t strapped in properly, but he seemed to be doing his part competently enough, despite frequent belches and pauses to scratch his chest and head. Horza knew he was putting the next bit off, but it had to be done. He pressed the ident button.

“This is Kraiklyn,” he said, and coughed.

“Identification complete,” the console said immediately. Horza wanted to shout, or at least to sag in his seat with relief, but he hadn’t the time to do either, and Wubslin would have thought it a little strange. So might the ship’s computer, for that matter: some machines were programmed to watch for signs of joy or relief after the formal identification was over. So he did nothing to celebrate, just brought the fusion motor primers up to operating temperature.

“Captain!” The small drone dashed back into the bridge, coming to a halt between Wubslin and Horza. “You will let me off this ship at once and report the irregularities taking place aboard immediately, or—”

“Or what?” Horza said, watching the temperature in the CAT’s fusion motors soar. “If you think you can get off this ship you’re welcome to try; probably Culture agents would blow you to dust even if you did get out.”

“Culture agents?” the small machine said with a sneer in its voice. “Captain, for your information this GSV is a demilitarised civilian vessel under the control of the Vavatch Hub authorities and within the terms laid down in the Idiran-Culture War Conduct Treaty drawn up shortly after the commencement of hostilities. How—”

“So who turned the lights off and let the air out, idiot?” Horza said, turning to the machine briefly. He looked back to the console, turning the bow radar up as high as it would go and taking readings through the blank wall of the rear of the Smallbay.

I don’t know,” the drone said, “but I rather doubt it would be Culture agents. Who or what do you think these supposed agents are after? You?”

“What if they were?” Horza took another look at the holo display of the GSV’s internal layout. He briefly magnified the volume around Smallbay 27492 before switching the repeater screen off. The drone was silent for a second, then backed off through the doorway.

“Great. I’m locked in an antique with a paranoid lunatic. I think I’ll go and look for somewhere safer than this.”

“You do that!” Horza yelled down the corridor after it. He turned the hangar circuit back on. “Aviger?” he said.

“I’ve done it,” said the old man’s voice.

“Right. Get to the mess fast and strap in.” Horza killed the circuit again.

“Well,” Wubslin said, sitting back in his seat and scratching his head, looking at the bank of screens in front of him with their arrays of figures and graphs, “I don’t know what it is you’re intending to do, Kraiklyn, but whatever it is, we’re as ready as we’ll ever be to do it.” The stout engineer looked across at Horza, lifted himself slightly from his seat and pulled the restraining straps over his body. Horza grinned at him, trying to look confident. His own seat’s restrainers were a little more sophisticated, and he just had to throw a switch for cushioned arms to swing over and inertia fields to come on. He pulled his helmet over his head from the hinged position and heard it hiss shut.

“Oh my God,” Wubslin said, looking slowly away from Horza to stare at the almost featureless rear wall of the Smallbay shown on the main screen. “I sure as hell hope you’re not going to do what I think you are.”

Horza didn’t reply. He hit the button to talk to the mess. “All right?”

“Just about, Kraiklyn, but—” Yalson said. Horza killed that circuit, too. He licked his lips, took the controls in his gloved hands, sucked in a deep breath, then flicked the thumb buttons on the CAT’s three fusion motors. Just before the noise started he heard Wubslin say:

“Oh, my God, you are—”

The screen flashed, went dark, then flashed again. The view of the Smallbay’s rear wall was lit by three jets of plasma bursting from underneath the ship. A noise like thunder filled the bridge and reverberated through the whole craft. The two outboard motors were the main thrust, vectored down for the moment; they blasted fire onto the deck of the Smallbay, scattering the machinery and equipment from underneath and around the craft, slamming it into walls and off the roof as the blinding jets of flame steadied under the vessel. The inboard, lift-only nose motor fired raggedly at first, then settled quickly, starting to burn its own hole through the thin layer of ultradense material which covered the Smallbay floor. The Clear Air Turbulence stirred like a waking animal, groaning and creaking and shifting its weight. On the screen, a huge shadow veered across the wall and the roof in front as the infernal light from the nose fusion motor burned under the ship; rolling clouds of gas from burning machinery were starting to haze over the view. Horza was amazed that the walls of the Smallbay had held out. He flicked the bow laser at the same time as increasing the fusion motor power.

The screen detonated with light. The wall ahead burst open like a flower seen in time lapse, huge petals throwing themselves towards the ship and a million pieces of wreckage and debris flashing past the vessel’s nose on the shock wave of air bursting in from the far side of the lasered wall. At the same time, the Clear Air Turbulence lifted off. The leg-weight readouts stopped at zero, then blanked out as the legs, glowing red with heat, stowed themselves inside the hull. Emergency undercarriage cooling circuits whined into action. The craft started to slew to one side, shaking with its own power and with the impact of debris swirling about it. The view ahead cleared.

Horza steadied the ship, then gunned the rear motors, flinging some of their power backwards, towards the Smallbay doors. A rear screen showed them glowing white hot. Horza would dearly have liked to head that way, but reversing and ramming the doors with the CAT would have probably been suicidal, and turning the craft in such a confined space impossible. Just going forward was going to be hard enough…

The hole wasn’t big enough. Horza saw it coming towards him and knew straight away. He used one shaking finger on the laser beam-spread control set in the semi-wheel of the controls, turning the spread up to maximum then firing once more. The screen washed out with light again, all around the perimeter of the hole. The CAT stuck its nose and then its body into another Smallbay. Horza waited for something to hit the sides or roof of the white-hot gap, but nothing happened; they sailed through on their three pillars of fire, throwing light and wreckage and waves of smoke and gas before them. The dark waves blasted out over shuttles; the whole Smallbay they were now moving slowly through was full of shuttles of every shape and description. They were floating over them, battering them and melting them with their fire.

Horza was aware of Wubslin sitting on the seat beside him, his eyes locked onto the view ahead, his legs drawn up as far as possible so that his knees stuck up above the edge of the console, and his arms locked in a sort of square over his head, each hand grasping the bicep of the other arm. His face was a mask of fear and incredulity when Horza turned round to glance at him, and grinned. Wubslin pointed frenziedly at the main screen. “Watch!” he shrieked over the racket.

The CAT was shaking and bouncing, rocked by the stream of superheated matter pouring from under its hull. It would be using the atmosphere around it to produce plasma, now that there was air available, and in the relatively confined space of the Smallbays the turbulence created was enough to shake the vessel bodily.

There was another wall ahead, coming up faster than Horza would have liked. They were slewing slightly again as well; he narrowed the laser angle again and fired, pulling the ship round at the same time. The wall flashed once around its edges; the roof and floor of the Smallbay flashed in loops of flame where the laser caught them, and dozens of parked shuttles ahead of them pulsed with light and heat.

The wall ahead started to fall slowly back, but the CAT was coming up on it faster than it was crumpling. Horza gasped and tried to pull back; he heard Wubslin howl, as the vessel’s nose hit the undamaged centre of the wall. The view on the main screen tilted as the ship rammed into the wall material. Then the nose came down, the Clear Air Turbulence quivered like an animal shaking water from its fur, and they were rocking and yawing into yet another Smallbay. It was totally empty. Horza gunned the engines a little more, took a couple of bursts with the laser at the next wall, then watched in amazement as this wall, instead of falling back like the last one, crashed down towards them like a vast castle drawbridge, slamming in one fiery piece onto the deck of the empty Smallbay. In a fury of steam and gas, a mountain of water appeared over the top of the collapsing wall and poured out in a huge wave towards the approaching ship.

Horza heard himself shouting. He rammed the motor controls full on and kept the laser fire button hard down.

The CAT leapt forward. It flashed over the surface of the cascading water, enough of the plasma heat smashing into its liquid surface to instantly fill all the space of Smallbays its passage had created with a boiling fog of steam. As the tide of water continued to pour from the flooded Smallbay and the CAT screeched above it, the air about the ship filled with superheated steam. The external pressure gauge went up too quickly for the eye to follow; the laser blasted even more vapour off the water in front, and with an explosion like the end of the world the next wall blew out ahead of the vessel — weakened by the laser and finally blasted away by the sheer pressure of steam. The Clear Air Turbulence shot out from the tunnel of linked Smallbays like a bullet from a gun.

Motors flaming, in the middle of a cloud of gas and steam which it quickly outdistanced, it roared into a canyon of air-filled space between towering walls of bay doors and opened accommodation sections, lighting up kilometres of wall and cloud, screaming with its three flame-filled throats, and seemingly pulling after it a tidal wave of water and a volcano-like cloud of steam, gas and smoke. The water fell, turning from a solid wave into something like heavy surf, then spray, then just rain and water vapour, following the huge flapping card of the bay door tumbling through the air. The CAT wrenched itself round, twisting and slewing through the air in an attempt to check its headlong rush towards the far wall of Smallbay doors facing it across that vast internal canyon. Then its motors flickered and went out. The Clear Air Turbulence started to fall.

Horza gunned the controls, but the fusion motors were dead. The screen showed the wall of doors to other bays on one side, then air and clouds, then the wall of bay doors on the other side. They were in a spin. Horza looked over at Wubslin as he fought with the controls. The engineer was staring at the main screen with a glazed expression on his face. “Wubslin!” Horza screamed. The fusion motors stayed dead—

“Aaah!” Wubslin seemed to have woken up to the fact that they were falling out of control; he leapt at the controls in front of him. “Just fly it!” he shouted. “I’ll try the primers! Must have over-pressured the motors!”

Horza wrestled with the controls while Wubslin tried to restart the engines. On the screen, walls spun crazily about them and clouds beneath them were coming up fast — beneath them; really beneath them; a dead flat layer of clouds. Horza shook the controls again.

The nose motor burst into life, guttering wildly, sending the spinning craft careering off towards one side of the artificial cliff of bay doors and walls. Horza cut the motor out. He steered into the spin, using the craft’s control surfaces rather than the motors, then he aimed the whole ship straight down and put his fingers on the laser buttons again. The clouds flashed up to meet the vessel. He closed his eyes and squeezed the laser controls.

The Ends of Invention was so huge it was built on three almost totally separate levels, each over three kilometres deep. They were pressure levels, there because otherwise the differential between the very bottom and the very top of the giant ship would have been the difference between standard sea level and a mountain top somewhere in the tropopause. As it was, there existed a three and a half thousand metre difference between the base and roof of each pressure level, making sudden journeys by traveltube from one to the other inadvisable. In the immense open cave that was the hollow centre of the GSV the pressure levels were marked by force fields, not anything material, so that craft could pass from one level to another without having to go outside the vessel, and it was towards one of those boundaries, marked by cloud, that the Clear Air Turbulence was falling.

Firing the laser did no good whatsoever, though Horza didn’t know that at the time. It was a Vavatch computer, which had taken over the internal monitoring and control from the Culture’s own Minds, which opened a hole in the force field to let the falling vessel through. It did so in the mistaken assumption that less damage would be caused to The Ends of Invention by letting the rogue vessel fall through than having it impact.

In the centre of a sudden maelstrom of air and cloud, in its own small hurricane, the CAT burst through from the thick air at the bottom of one pressure level and into the thin atmosphere at the top of the one below. A vortex of rag-clouded air blew out after it like an inverted explosion. Horza opened his eyes again and saw with relief the distant floor of the GSV’s cavernous interior, and the climbing figures on the main fusion motors’ monitor screens. He hit the engine throttles again, this time leaving the nose motor alone. The two main engines caught, shoving Horza back in his seat against the cloying hold of the restrainer fields. He pulled the nose of the diving craft up, watching the floor far below gradually disappear from view as it was replaced by the sight of another wall of opened bay doors. The doors were much larger than those of the Smallbays in the level they had just left, and the few craft Horza could see either nosing into or appearing out of the lit lengths of the huge hangars were full-size starships.

Horza watched the screen, piloting the Clear Air Turbulence exactly like an aircraft. They were travelling quickly along a vast corridor over a kilometre across, with the layer of clouds about fifteen hundred metres above them. Starships were moving slowly through the same space, a few on their own AG fields, most towed by light lifter tugs. Everything else was moving slowly and without a fuss; only the CAT disturbed the calm of the giant ship’s interior, screaming through the air on twin swords of brilliant flame pulsing from white-hot plasma chambers. Another cliff-face of huge hangar doors faced them. Horza looked about him at the curve of main screen and pulled the CAT over on a long banking left turn, diving a little at the same time to head down an even broader canyon of space. They flashed over a slow-moving clipper being towed towards a distant open Mainbay, rocking the starship in their wake of superheated air. The wall of doors and opened entrances slanted towards them as Horza tightened the turn. Ahead, Horza could see what looked like a cloud of insects: hundreds of tiny black specks floating in the air.

Far beyond them, maybe five or six kilometres away, a thousand metre square of blackness, bordered with a slowly flashing strip of subdued white light, was the exit from The Ends of Invention. It was a straight run.

Horza sighed and felt his whole body relax. Unless they were intercepted, they had done it. With a little luck now, they might even get away from the Orbital itself. He gunned the engines, heading for the inky square in the distance.

Wubslin suddenly sat forward, against the pull of acceleration, and punched some buttons. His repeater screen set in the console magnified the centre section of the main screen, showing the view ahead. “They’re people!” he shouted.

Horza frowned over at the man. “What?”

“People! Those are people! They must be in AG harnesses! We’re going to go right through them!”

Horza looked briefly over at Wubslin’s repeater screen. It was true; the black cloud which almost filled the screen was made up of humans, flying slowly about in suits or ordinary clothes. There were thousands of them, Horza saw, less than a kilometre ahead, and closing quickly. Wubslin was staring at the screen, waving his hand at the people. “Get out the way! Get out the way!” he was shouting.

Horza couldn’t see a way round, over or beneath the mass of flying people. Whether they were playing some curious mass aerial game or were just enjoying themselves, they were too many, too close, too widespread. “Shit!” Horza said. He got ready to cut the rear plasma motors before the Clear Air Turbulence went into the cloud of humans. With luck they might make it through before they had to relight them, and so not incinerate too many people.

“No!” Wubslin screamed. He threw the restraining straps off, leapt across towards Horza and dived at the controls. Horza tried to fend the bulky engineer off, but failed. The controls were wrenched from his hands, and the view on the main screen tipped and swirled, pointing the nose of the speeding ship away from the black square of the GSV exit, away from the huge cloud of airborne people, and towards the cliff of brightly lit Mainbay entrances. Horza clouted Wubslin across the head with his arm, sending the man falling to the floor, stunned. He grabbed the controls back from the relaxing fingers of the engineer, but it was too late to turn away. Horza steadied and aimed. The Clear Air Turbulence darted for an open Mainbay; it flashed through the open entrance and swept over the skeleton of a starship being rebuilt in the bay, the light from the CAT’s motors starting fires, singeing hair, smouldering clothes and blinding unprotected eyes.

Horza saw Wubslin lying unconscious on the floor out of the corner of his eye, rocking gently as the CAT careered through the half kilometre length of Mainbay. The doors to the next bay were open, and the next and the next. They were flying through a two kilometre tunnel, racing over the repair and docking facilities of one of Evanauth’s displaced shipbuilders. Horza didn’t know what was at the far end, but he could see that before they got there they would have to fly over the top of a large spaceship which almost filled the third bay along. Horza vectored the fusion fire ahead so that they started to slow. Twin beams of fire flashed on either side of the main screen as the fusion power kicked forward. Wubslin’s unrestrained body slid forward on the floor of the bridge, wedging under the console and his own seat. Horza lifted the CAT’s nose as the blunt snout of the parked spacecraft sitting in the bay ahead approached.

The Clear Air Turbulence zoomed towards the ceiling of the Mainbay, flashed between it and the top surface of the ship, then fell on the other side and, although still slowing, shot through the final Mainbay and into another corridor of free air space. It was too narrow. Horza dived the craft again, saw the floor coming up and fired the lasers. The CAT burst through a rising cloud of glowing wreckage, bumping and shaking, Wubslin’s squat frame sliding out from under the console and floating back up towards the rear door of the bridge.

At first Horza thought they were out at last, but they weren’t; they were in what the Culture called a General bay.

The CAT fell once more, then levelled out again. It was in a space which seemed even larger than the main interior of the GSV. It was flying through the bay they had stored the Megaship in: the same Megaship Horza had seen on the screen earlier being lifted out of the water by a hundred or so ancient Culture lifter craft.

Horza had time to look around. There was plenty of space, lots of room and time. The Megaship lay on the floor of the giant bay, looking for all the world like a small city sitting on a great slab of metal. The Clear Air Turbulence flew past the stern of the Megaship, past tunnels full of propeller blades tens of metres across, round the side of its rearmost outrigger, where beached pleasure craft waited for a return to water, over the towers and spires of its superstructure, then out over its bows. Horza looked forward. The doors, if they were doors, of the General bay faced him, two kilometres away. They were that same distance from top to bottom, and twice that across. Horza shrugged and checked the laser again. He was becoming, he realised, almost blasé about the whole thing. What the hell? he thought.

The lasers picked a hole in the wall of material ahead, punching a slowly widening gap which Horza aimed straight for. A vortex of swirling air was starting to form around the hole; as the CAT rushed closer, it was caught in a small horizontal cyclone of air and started to twist. Then it was through, and in space.

In a quickly dispersing bubble of air and crystals of ice, the craft burst from the body of the General Systems Vehicle, swooping into vacuum and star-washed darkness at last. Behind it, a force field slammed across the hole its passage had created in the doors of the General bay. Horza felt the plasma motors stutter as their supply of outside air disappeared, then the internal tanks took up the slack. He was about to cut them and slide gently into the start-up procedure for the craft’s warp engines when the speakers in his headrest crackled.

“This is Evanauth port police. All right, you son of a bitch, just keep on that heading and slow right down. Evanauth port police to rogue craft: halt on that heading. A—”

Horza pulled on the controls, taking the CAT on a huge accelerating arc up over the stern of the GSV, flashing past the outside of the kilometre-square exit he had been heading for earlier. Wubslin, moaning now, bumped around the inside of the bridge as the CAT lifted its nose to head straight up, towards the maze of abandoned docks and gantries that was Evanauth port. As it went it turned, still twisting slightly from the spin it had picked up from the vortex of air bursting from the General bay. Horza let it twist, steadying it only as they approached the top of the loop, the port facilities coming up fast then sliding underneath as the craft levelled out.

“Rogue ship! This is your last warning!” the speakers blared. “Stop now or we’ll blow you out of the sky! God, he’s heading for—” The transmission cut off. Horza grinned to himself. He was indeed heading for the gap between the underside of the port and the top of the GSV. The Clear Air Turbulence flashed through spaces between traveltube connections, elevator shafts, graving dock gantries, transit areas, arriving shuttle craft and crane towers. Horza guided the ship through the maze with the fusion motors still blazing at maximum boost, throwing the small craft through the few hundred metres of crowded space between the Orbital and the General Systems Vehicle. The rear radar pinged, picking up following echoes.

Two towers, hanging under the Orbital like upside-down sky-scrapers, between which Horza was aiming the CAT, suddenly blossomed with light, scattering wreckage. Horza cringed in his seat as he corkscrewed the ship into the space between the two clouds of debris.

“Those were across the bows,” crackled the speakers again. “The next ones will be straight up your ass, boy racer.” The CAT shot out over the dull grey plain of slanting material that was the start of the Ends’ nose. Horza turned the CAT over and dived down, following the slope of the vast craft’s bows. The rear radar signal stopped briefly, then reappeared.

He flipped the ship over again. Wubslin, his arms and legs waving weakly, was dumped onto the CAT’s bridge ceiling and stuck there like a fly while Horza did a section of an outside loop.

The ship was racing, powering away from the Orbital port area and the big GSV, heading for space. Horza remembered about Balveda’s gear, and quickly reached over to the console, closing the vactube circuit from there. A screen showed that all the vactubes had been rotated. The rear screen showed something flame inside the twin plumes of plasma fire. The rear radar pinged insistently.

“Goodbye, stupid!” the voice in the headrest speakers said. Horza threw the ship to one side.

The rear screen went white, then black. The main screen pulsated with colours and broken lines. The speakers in Horza’s helmet, as well as the speakers set into the seat, howled. Every instrument on the console flashed and wavered.

Horza thought for a second they had been hit, but the motors were still blasting, the main screen was starting to clear, and the other instruments were recovering, too. The radiation meters were bleeping and flashing. The rear screen stayed blank. A damage monitor indicated that the sensors had been knocked out by a very strong pulse of radiation.

Horza started to realise what had happened when the rear radar didn’t start pinging again after it recovered. He threw back his head and laughed.

There had indeed been a bomb in Balveda’s kitbag. Whether it had gone off because it was caught in the CAT’s plasma exhaust or because somebody — whoever had been trying to keep the ship on board the GSV in the first place — had detonated it remotely the instant the fleeing craft was far enough away from the Ends not to cause too much damage, Horza didn’t know. Whatever; the explosion seemed to have caught the pursuing police vessels.

Laughing uproariously, Horza angled the CAT further away from the great circle of brilliantly lit Orbital, heading straight out towards the stars and readying the warp engines to take over from the plasma motors. Wubslin, back on the deck, one leg caught on the arm of his own chair, moaned distantly.

“Mother,” he said. “Mother, say it’s only a dream…”

Horza laughed louder.

“You lunatic,” breathed Yalson, shaking her head. Her eyes were wide. “That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen you do. You’re mad, Kraiklyn. I’m leaving. I resign as of now… Shit! I wish I’d gone with Jandraligeli, to Ghalssel… You can just drop me off first place we get to.”

Horza sat down wearily in the seat at the head of the mess-room table. Yalson was at the far end, under the screen, which was switched into the bridge main screen. The CAT was proceeding under full warp, two hours out on its journey from Vavatch. There had been no further pursuit following the destruction of the police craft, and now the CAT was gradually coming round to the course Horza had set, into the war zone, towards the edge of the Glittercliff, towards Schar’s World.

Dorolow and Aviger were sitting, plainly still shaken, to one side of Yalson. The woman and the elderly man were both staring at Horza as though he was pointing a gun at them. Their mouths were open, their eyes were glazed. On the other side of Yalson the slack form of Perosteck Balveda was leaning forward, head down, her body pulling against the restraining straps of the seat.

The mess room was chaotic. The CAT hadn’t been readied for violent manoeuvring, and nothing had been stowed away. Plates and containers, a couple of shoes, a glove, some half-unravelled tapes and spools and various other bits and pieces now lay strewn about the floor of the mess. Yalson had been hit by something, and a small trickle of blood had dried on her forehead. Horza hadn’t let anybody move, apart from brief visits to the heads, for the last two hours; he’d told everybody to stay where they were over the ship PA while the CAT headed away from Vavatch on a twisting, erratic course. He had kept the plasma motors and laser warm and ready, but no further pursuit came. Now he reckoned they were safe and far enough away to warp straight.

He had left Wubslin on the bridge, nursing the battered and abused systems of the Clear Air Turbulence as best he could. The engineer had apologised for grabbing at the controls and had become very subdued, not meeting Horza’s eyes but tidying up one or two bits of loose debris on the bridge and stuffing some of the loose wires back under the console. Horza told Wubslin he had nearly killed them all, but on the other hand so had he, so they would forget it this time; they’d escaped intact. Wubslin nodded and said he didn’t know how; he couldn’t believe the ship was virtually undamaged. Wubslin wasn’t undamaged; he had bruises everywhere.

“I’m afraid,” Horza said to Yalson once he had sat down and put his feet up, “our first port of call is rather bleak and underpopulated. I’m not sure you’ll want to be dropped off there.”

Yalson put the heavy stun pistol down onto the table surface. “And just where the hell are we going? What’s going on, Kraiklyn? What was all that craziness back on the GSV? What’s she doing here? Why is the Culture involved?” Yalson nodded at Balveda during this speech, and Horza kept looking at the unconscious Culture agent when Yalson stopped, waiting for an answer. Aviger and Dorolow were looking at him expectantly, too.

Before Horza could answer, the small drone appeared from the corridor leading from the accommodation section. It floated in, looked round the mess room, then sat itself bodily on the table in the middle. “Did I hear something about it being explanation time?” it said. It was facing Horza.

Horza looked away from Balveda, to Aviger and Dorolow, then to Yalson and the drone. “Well, you might as well all know that we are now heading for a place called Schar’s World. It’s a Planet of the Dead.”

Yalson looked puzzled. Aviger said, “I’ve heard of those. But we won’t be allowed in.”

“This is getting worse,” the drone said. “If I were you, Captain Kraiklyn, I would turn back to The Ends of Invention and surrender yourself there. I’m sure you’d get a fair trial.”

Horza ignored the machine. He sighed, looking round at the mess, stretched his legs and yawned. “I’m sorry you’re all being taken, perhaps against your will, but I’ve got to get there, and I can’t afford to stop anywhere to let you off. You’ve all got to come.”

“Oh we do, do we?” said the small drone.

“Yes,” Horza said, looking at it, “I’m afraid so.”

“But we won’t be able to get anywhere near this place,” Aviger protested. “They don’t let anybody in. There’s some sort of zone around them they don’t let people into.”

“We’ll see about that when we get there.” Horza smiled.

“You’re not answering my questions,” Yalson said. She looked at Balveda again, then down at the gun lying on the table. “I’ve been zapping this poor bitch every time she flicks an eyelid, and I want to know why I’ve been doing it.”

“It’ll take a while to explain it all, but what it boils down to is there’s something on Schar’s World which both the Culture and the Idirans want. I have… a contract, a commission from the Idirans, to get there and find this thing.”

“You really are a paranoid,” the drone said incredulously. It rose off the table and turned round to look at the others. “He really is a lunatic!”

“The Idirans are hiring us — you — to go after something?” Yalson’s voice was full of disbelief. Horza looked at her and smiled.

“You mean this woman,” Dorolow said, pointing at Balveda, “was sent by the Culture to join us, infiltrate… Are you serious?”

“I’m serious. Balveda was looking for me. Also for Horza Gobuchul. She wanted to get to Schar’s World, or to stop us from getting there.” Horza looked at Aviger. “There was a bomb in amongst her gear, by the way; it went off just after I rotated it out the tubes. It blew the police ships away. We all got a blast of radiation, but nothing lethal.”

“And what about Horza?” Yalson said, looking grimly at him. “Was that just some trick, or did you really meet him?”

“He is alive, Yalson, and as safe as any of us.”

Wubslin appeared through the door from the bridge, still with an apologetic look on his face. He nodded at Horza and sat down near by. “All looking fine, Kraiklyn.”

“Good,” Horza said. “I was just explaining to everybody else about our journey to Schar’s World.”

“Oh,” Wubslin said. “Yeah.” He shrugged at the others.

“Kraiklyn,” Yalson said, leaning forward on the table and looking intently at Horza, “you just about got us all killed fuck knows how many times back there. You probably did kill quite a few people during those… in-door aerobatics. You’ve saddled us with some secret agent from the Culture. You’re practically kidnapping us to take us towards a planet in the middle of a war zone where nobody’s even allowed in, to look for something both sides want enough to… Well, if the Idirans are hiring a decimated bunch of second-rate mercenaries, they must be pretty desperate; and if the Culture really was behind the attempt to keep us in that bay, they must be scared stiff to risk violating the neutrality of the Ends and breaking some of their precious rules of war.

“You may think you know what’s going on and think the risk is worth it, but I don’t, and I don’t like this feeling of being kept in the dark at all, either. Your track record recently’s been crap; let’s face it. Risk your own life if you want to, but you don’t have any right to risk ours, too. Not any more. Maybe we don’t all want to side with the Idirans, but even if we did prefer them to the Culture, none of us signed up to start fighting in the middle of the war. Shit, Kraiklyn, we’re neither… equipped nor trained well enough to go up against those guys.”

“I know all that,” Horza said. “But we shouldn’t be encountering any battle forces. The Quiet Barrier round Schar’s World extends far enough out so that it’s impossible to watch it all. We go in from a randomly picked direction, and by the time we’re spotted, there’s nothing anybody could do about it, no matter what sort of ship they have. A Main Battle Fleet couldn’t keep us out. When we leave it’ll be the same.”

“What you’re trying to say is,” Yalson said, sitting back in her seat, “ ‘Easy in, easy out’.”

“Maybe I am,” laughed Horza.

“Hey,” Wubslin said suddenly, looking at his terminal screen, which he had just taken from his pocket. “It’s nearly time!” He got up and disappeared through the doors leading to the bridge. In a few seconds the screen in the mess changed, the view swivelling round until it showed Vavatch. The great Orbital hung in space, dark and brilliant, full of night and day, blue and white and black. They all looked up at the screen.

Wubslin came back in and sat in his seat again. Horza felt tired. His body wanted rest, and lots of it. His brain was still buzzing from the concentration and the amount of adrenalin it had required to pilot the CAT through and out of The Ends of Invention, but he couldn’t rest yet. He couldn’t decide what was the best thing to do. Should he tell them who he was, tell them the truth, that he was a Changer, that he had killed Kraiklyn? How loyal were any of them to the leader they didn’t yet know was dead? Yalson the most, perhaps; but surely she would be glad to know that he was alive… Yet she was the one who had said that perhaps they weren’t all on the Idirans’ side… She had never shown any sympathy for the Culture before when he had known her, but perhaps she had changed her mind.

He could even Change back; there was a fairly long journey now during which it shouldn’t be beyond him, perhaps with the help of Wubslin, to change the fidelities in the CAT’s computer. But should he tell them — should he let them know? And Balveda: what was he going to do with her? He had had some idea of using her to bargain with the Culture, but it looked as though they had escaped now, and next stop was Schar’s World, where she would at best be a liability. He ought to kill her now, but he knew, first of all, that that might not go down well with the others, especially Yalson. He also knew, although he didn’t like to admit it, that he would find it personally painful to kill the Culture agent. They were enemies, they had both been very close to death and the other had done little or nothing to intervene, but actually to kill her would be very difficult.

Or maybe he only wanted to pretend that he would find it very difficult; maybe it would be no bother at all, and the sort of bogus camaraderie of doing the same job, though on different sides, was just that: a fake. He opened his mouth to ask Yalson to stun the Culture agent again.

“Now,” Wubslin said.

With that, Vavatch Orbital started to disintegrate.

The view of it on the mess-room screen was a compensated hyperspace version, so that, although they were already outside the Vavatch system, they were watching it virtually in real time. Right at the appointed hour the unseen, unnamed, very much still militarised General Systems Vehicle which was somewhere in the vicinity of the Vavatch planetary system started its bombardment. It was almost certainly an Ocean class GSV, the same one which had sent the message that they had all watched some days ago on the mess screen, heading in towards Vavatch. That would make the warcraft very much smaller than the behemoth of The Ends of Invention, which was — for war purposes — obsolete. One Ocean class could fit inside either of the Ends’ General bays, but while the larger craft — by that time an hour out from the Orbital — was full of people, the Ocean class would be packed with other warships, and weaponry.

Gridfire struck the Orbital. Horza paused and watched the screen as it lit up suddenly, flashing once over its whole surface until the sensors coped with the sudden increase in brilliance and compensated. For some reason Horza had thought the Culture would just splash the gridfire all over the massive Orbital and then spatter the remains with CAM, but they didn’t do that; instead a single narrow line of blinding white light appeared right across the breadth of the day side of the Orbital, a thin fiery blade of silent destruction which was instantly surrounded by the duller but still perfectly white cover of clouds. That line of light was part of the grid itself, the fabric of pure energy which lay underneath the entire universe, separating this one from the slightly younger, slightly smaller antimatter universe beneath. The Culture, like the Idirans, could now partially control that awesome power, at least sufficiently to use it for the purposes of destruction. A line of that energy, plucked from nowhere and sliced across the face of the three-dimensional universe, was down there: on and inside the Orbital, boiling the Circlesea, melting the two thousand kilometres of transparent wall, annihilating the base material itself, straight across its thirty-five-thousand-kilometre breadth.

Vavatch, that fourteen million kilometre hoop, was starting to uncoil. A chain, it had been cut.

There was nothing left now to hold it together; its own spin, the source of both its day-night cycle and its artificial gravity, was now the very force tearing it all apart. At about one hundred and thirty kilometres per second, Vavatch was throwing itself into outer space, unwinding like a released spring.

The livid line of fire appeared again, and again, and again, working its way methodically round the Orbital from where the original burst had struck, neatly parcelling the entire Orbital into squares, thirty-five thousand kilometres to a side, each containing a sandwich of trillions upon trillions of tonnes of ultradense base material, water, land and air.

Vavatch was turning white. First the gridfire seared the water into a border of clouds; then the outrushing air, spilling from each immense flat square like heavy fumes off a table, turned its load of water vapour to ice. The ocean itself, no longer held by the spin force, was shifting, spilling with infinite slowness over one edge of every plate of ruptured base material, becoming ice and swirling away into space.

The precise, brilliant line of fire marched on, going back in reverse-spin direction, neatly dissecting the still curved, still spinning sections of the Orbital with its sudden, lethal flashes of light — light from outside the normal fabric of reality.

Horza remembered what Jandraligeli had called it, back when Lenipobra had been enthusing about the destruction.

“The weaponry of the end of the universe,” the Mondlidician had said. Horza watched the screen and knew what the man had meant.

It was all going. All of it. The wreck of the Olmedreca, the tabular berg it had collided with, the wreck of the CAT’s shuttle, Mipp’s body, Lenipobra’s, whatever was left of Fwi-Song’s corpse, Mr First’s… the living bodies of the other Eaters — if they hadn’t been rescued, or had still refused… the Damage game arena, the docks and Kraiklyn’s dead body, the hovercraft… animals and fishes, birds, germs, all of it: everything flash-burned or flash-frozen, suddenly weightless, spinning into space, going, dying.

The relentless line of fire completed its circuit of the Orbital, back almost to where it had started. The Orbital was now a rosette of white flat squares backing slowly away from each other towards the stars: four hundred separate slabs of quickly freezing water, silt, land and base material, angling out above or underneath the plane of the system’s planets like flat square worlds themselves.

There was a moment of grace then, as Vavatch died in solitary, blazing splendour. Then at its dark centre, another blazing star patch rose, bursting white as the Hub was struck with the same terrible energy which had smashed the world itself.

Like a target, then, Vavatch blazed.

Just as Horza thought that the Culture would be content with that, the screen lit up once more. Everyone of those flat cards, and the Hub, of the exploded Orbital blazed once with an icy, sparkling brilliance as though a million tiny white stars were shining through each shattered piece.

The light faded, and those four hundred expanses of flat worlds with their centre Hub were gone, replaced by a grid of diced shapes, each exploding away from the others as well as from the rest of the disintegrating Orbital.

Those pieces flashed, too, bursting slowly with a billion pinpricks of light which, when they faded, left debris almost too small to make out.

Vavatch was now a swollen and spiralled disc of flashing, glittering splinters, expanding very slowly against the distant stars like a ring of bright dust. The glinting, sparkling centre made it look like some huge, lidless and unblinking eye.

The screen flashed one final time. No single points of light could be made out this time. It was as though the whole now vague but bloated image of the shattered circular world glowed with some internal heat, making a torus-shaped cloud out of it, a halo of white light with a fading iris at its centre. Then the show was over, and only the sun lit up the slowly blooming nimbus of the annihilated world.

On other wavelengths there would probably be a lot still to see, but the mess-room screen was on normal light. Only the Minds, only the starships, would see the whole destruction perfectly; only they would be able to appreciate it for all that it had to offer. Of the entire range of the electromagnetic spectrum, the unaided human eye could see little more than one per cent: a single octave of radiation out of an immense long keyboard of tones. The sensors on a starship would see everything, right across that spectrum, in far greater detail and at a much slower apparent speed. The whole display that was the Orbital’s destruction was, for all its humanly perceivable grandeur, quite wasted on the animal eye. A spectacle for the machines, thought Horza; that was all it was. A sideshow for the damn machines.

“Chicel…” Dorolow said. Wubslin exhaled loudly and shook his head. Yalson turned and looked at Horza. Aviger stayed with his head turned to the screen.

“Amazing what one can accomplish when one puts one’s mind to it, eh… Horza?”

At first, stupidly, he thought that Yalson had said it, but of course it was Balveda.

She brought her head up slowly. Her deep, dark eyes were open; she looked groggy, and her body still sagged against the webbing of the seat straps. The voice had been clear and steady, though.

Horza saw Yalson reaching for the stun gun on the table. She reached out and brought the gun closer to her but left it lying on the table. She was looking suspiciously at the Culture agent. Aviger and Dorolow and Wubslin were staring at her, too.

“Are the batteries on that stun gun running down?” Wubslin said. Yalson was still looking at Balveda, her eyes narrowed.

“You’re a little confused, Gravant, or whoever you are,” Yalson said. “That’s Kraiklyn.”

Balveda smiled at Horza. He left his face blank. He didn’t know what to do. He was exhausted, worn out. It was too much of an effort. Let what was going to happen, happen. He’d had enough of deciding. “Well,” Balveda said to him, “are you going to tell them, or shall I?”

He said nothing. He watched Balveda’s face. The woman drew a deep breath and said, “Oh all right, I’ll tell them.” She turned to Yalson. “His name is Bora Horza Gobuchul, and he’s impersonating Kraiklyn. Horza’s a Changer from Heibohre and he works for the Idirans. Has done for the last six years. He’s Changed to become Kraiklyn. I imagine your real leader is dead. Horza probably killed him, or at least left him somewhere in or around Evanauth.

“I’m very sorry.” She looked around the others, including the small drone. “But unless I’m much mistaken we’re all taking a little trip to a place called Schar’s World. Well, you are, anyway. I have a feeling my own journey might be a little shorter — and infinitely longer.” Balveda smiled ironically at Horza.

“Two?” the drone on the table said to nobody in particular. “I’m stuck in a leaky museum-piece with two paranoid lunatics?”

“You’re not,” Yalson was saying, ignoring the machine and gazing at Horza. “You’re not, are you? She’s lying.”

Wubslin turned and looked at him. Aviger and Dorolow exchanged glances. Horza sighed and took his feet off the table, sitting a little straighter in his seat. He leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, his chin in his hands. He was watching, feeling, trying to gauge the mood of the various people in the room. He was aware of their distances, the tension in their bodies, and how much time he would need to get to the plasma pistol on his right hip. He raised his head and looked at all of them, settling his gaze on Yalson. “Yes,” he said, “I am.”

Silence filled the mess room. Horza waited for a reaction. Instead the sound of a door opening came from down the corridor through the accommodation section. They all looked at the doorway.

Neisin appeared, wearing only a pair of grubby, stained shorts. His hair was sticking out in every direction, his eyes were slits, his skin was patchy with dry and moist areas, and his face was very pale. A smell of drink gradually worked its way through the mess. He looked round the room, yawned, nodded at them, pointed vaguely at some of the still uncleared debris lying around and said, “This place is nearly in as big a mess as my cabin. You’d think we’d been manoeuvring or something. Sorry. Thought it was time to eat. Think I’ll go back to bed.” He yawned again and left. The door closed.

Balveda was laughing quietly. Horza could see some tears in her eyes. The others just looked confused. The drone said:

“Well, Mr Observant there is probably the only person on this mobile asylum with an untroubled mind at the moment.” The machine turned on the table, scratching the surface as it faced Horza. “Are you really claiming to be one of these fabled human impersonators?” it asked with a sneer in its voice.

Horza looked down the table, then into Yalson’s wary, frowning eyes. “That’s what I am.”

“They’re extinct,” Aviger said, shaking his head.

“They’re not extinct,” Balveda told him, her thin, finely moulded head turning briefly to the old man. “But they’re part of the Idiran sphere now; absorbed. Some of them always did support the Idirans, the rest either left or decided they might as well throw in their lot with them. Horza’s one of the first lot. Can’t stand the Culture. He’s taking you all to Schar’s World to kidnap a shipwrecked Mind for his Idiran masters. A Culture Mind. So that the galaxy will be free from human interference and the Idirans can have a free run at—”

“All right, Balveda,” Horza said. She shrugged.

You’re Horza,” Yalson said, pointing at him. He nodded. She shook her head. “I don’t believe it. I’m starting to come round to the drone’s way of thinking; you’re both crazy. You took a nasty blow to the head, Kraiklyn, and you, lady” — she looked at Balveda — “have had your brains scrambled by this thing.” Yalson picked up the stun gun and then put it down again.

“I don’t know,” Wubslin said, scratching his head and looking at Horza as though he was some sort of exhibit. “I thought the captain seemed a bit strange. I couldn’t imagine him doing what he just did in the GSV.”

“What did you do, Horza?” Balveda said. “I seem to have missed something. How did you get away?”

“I flew out, Balveda. Used the fusion motors and the laser and blasted out.”

“Really?” Balveda laughed again, throwing her head back. She went on laughing, but her laughter was a little too loud, and the tears were coming too quickly to her eyes. “Ho ho. Well, I am impressed. I thought we had you.”

“When did you find out?” he asked her quietly. She sniffed and tried to wipe her nose on her shoulder.

“What? That you weren’t Kraiklyn?” She played her tongue along her top lip. “Oh, just before you came aboard. We had a microdrone pretending to be a fly. It was programmed to land on anybody approaching the ship while it was in the Smallbay and take a skin cell or hair or something away with it. We identified you from your own chromosomes. There was another agent outside; he must have used his effector on the bay controls when he monitored you starting to get ready to leave. I was supposed to… do whatever I could if you appeared. Kill you, capture you, disable the ship: anything. But they didn’t tell me until too late. They knew somebody might overhear if they warned me, but they must have started to get worried.”

“That was the noise you heard from her kitbag,” Horza told Yalson, “just before I zapped her.” He looked back at Balveda. “I got rid of the gear, by the way, Balveda. Dumped it all through the vactubes. Your bomb went off.”

Balveda seemed to sag a little further in her seat. He guessed that she had been hoping her gear was on board. At the very least she might have been hoping the bomb had still to be triggered and that, while she would die, she would not die in vain, or alone.

“Oh yes,” she said, looking down at the table, “the vactubes.”

“What about Kraiklyn?” Yalson asked.

“He’s dead,” Horza said. “I killed him.”

“Oh well,” Yalson tutted, and rapped her fingers on the table surface. “That’s that. I don’t know if you two really are mad or if you’re telling the truth; both possibilities are pretty awful.” She looked from Balveda to Horza, raising her eyebrows at the man and saying, “By the way, if you really are Horza, it’s a lot less pleasant to see you back than I thought it was going to be.”

“I’m sorry,” he told her. She turned her head away from him.

“I still think the best thing to do is to head back for The Ends of Invention and lay the whole thing before the authorities.” The drone rose fractionally above the surface of the table and looked round at them all. Horza leant forward and tapped its casing. It faced him.

“Machine,” he said, “we’re going to Schar’s World. If you want to go back to the GSV I’ll gladly put you in a vactube and let you make your own way back. But you mention returning and getting a fair trial one more time and I’m going to blast your synthetic fucking brains out, understand?”

“How dare you speak to me like that!” the drone bellowed. “I’ll have you know I am an Accredited Free Construct, certified sentient under the Free Will Acts by the Greater Vavatch United Moral Standards Administration and with full citizenship of the Vavatch Heterocracy. I am near to paying off my Incurred Generation Debt, when I’ll be free to do exactly what I like, and have already been accepted for a degree course in applied paratheology at the University of—”

“Will you shut your goddamn… speaker and listen?” Horza shouted, breaking into the machine’s breathless monologue. “We’re not on Vavatch, and I don’t care how god-damn smart you are, or how many qualifications you’ve got. You’re on this ship and you do as I say. You want to get off? Get off now and float back to whatever’s left of your precious fucking Orbital. Stay, and you obey orders. Or get junked.”

“Those are my choices?”

“Yes. Use some of your accredited free will and decide right now.”

“I…” The drone rose from the table, then sank again. “Hmm,” it said. “Very well. I shall stay.”

“And obey all orders.”

“And obey all orders…”

“Good, at—”

“…within reason.”

“Machine,” Horza said, reaching for the plasma pistol.

“Oh good grief, man!” the drone exclaimed. “What do you want? A robot?” Its voice sneered. “I don’t have an Off button on my reasoning functions; I can’t choose not to have free will. I could quite easily swear to obey all orders regardless of the consequences; I could vow to sacrifice my life for you if you asked me to; but I’d be lying, so that I could live.

“I swear to be as obedient and faithful as any of your human crew… in fact as the most obedient and faithful of them. For pity’s sake, man, in the name of all reason, what more can you ask?”

Sneaky bastard, Horza thought. “Well,” he said, “I suppose that will just have to do. Now, can—”

“But I am obliged to serve immediate notice on you that under the terms of my Retrospective Construction Agreement, my Incurred Generation Debt Loan Agreement and my Employment Contract, your forcible removal of myself from my place of work makes you liable for the servicing of said debt until my return, as well as risking civil and criminal proceedings—”

“Fucking hell, drone,” Yalson interrupted. “Sure it wasn’t law you were going to study?”

“I take full responsibility, machine,” Horza told it. “Now, shut—”

“Well, I hope you’re properly insured,” the drone muttered.

“— up!”

“Horza?” Balveda said.

“Yes, Perosteck?” He turned to her with a sense of relief. Her eyes were glittering. She licked her top lip again, then looked back at the surface of the table, her head down. “What about me?”

“Well,” he said slowly, “it did cross my mind to blow you out a vactube…” He saw her tense. Yalson, too: she turned in her seat to face him, clenching her fists and opening her mouth. Horza went on, “…But you may be of some use yet, and… oh, call it sentiment.” He smiled. “You’ll have to behave, of course.”

Balveda looked up at him. There was hope in her eyes, but also the piteousness of those who don’t want to hope too soon. “You mean that, I hope,” she said quietly. Horza nodded.

“I mean it. I couldn’t possibly get rid of you anyway, before I find out how the hell you got off The Hand of God.”

Balveda relaxed, breathing deeply. When she laughed it was softly. Yalson was looking with a jaundiced expression at Horza and still rapping her fingers on the table. “Yalson,” Horza said, “I’d like you and Dorolow to take Balveda and… strip her. Take her suit and everything else off.” He was aware of them all looking at him. Balveda was arching her eyebrows with faked shock. He went on, “I want you to take the surgery equipment and run every sort of test you can on her once she’s naked to make sure she hasn’t got any skin pouches, implants or prosthetics; use the ultrasound and the X-ray gear and the NMR and anything else we’ve got. Once you’ve done that you can find something for her to wear. Put her suit in a vactube and dump it. Also any jewellery or other personal possessions of any sort or size, regardless of how innocent they may look.”

“You want her washed and anointed, put in a white robe and placed on a stone altar, too?” Yalson said acidly. Horza shook his head.

“I want her clean of anything, anything at all that could be used as a weapon or that could turn into one. The Culture’s latest gadgetry for the Special Circumstancers includes things called memoryforms; they might looked like a badge, or a medallion…” He smiled at Balveda, who nodded back wryly, “…or anything else. But do a certain something to them — touch them in the right place, make them wet, speak a certain word — and they become a communicator, a gun or a bomb. I don’t want to risk there being anything more dangerous than Ms Balveda herself on board.”

“What about when we get to Schar’s World?” Balveda said.

“We’ll give you some warm clothes. If you wrap up well, you’ll be all right. No suit, no weapons.”

“And the rest of us?” asked Aviger. “What are we supposed to do when you get to this place? Assuming they’ll let you in, which I doubt.”

“I’m not sure yet,” Horza said truthfully. “Maybe you’ll have to come with me. I’ll have to see what I can do about the ship’s fidelities. Possibly you’ll all be able to stay on board; perhaps you’ll all have to hit dirt with me. However, there are some other Changers there, people like myself but not working for the Idirans. They should be able to look after you if I’m to be gone for any amount of time. Of course,” he said, looking at Yalson, “if any of you want to come along with me, I’m sure that we can treat this as a normal operation in terms of share-outs and so forth. Once I’m finished with the CAT, those of you who so desire may want to take it over for yourselves, run it any way you like; sell it if you want; it’s up to you. At any rate, you’ll all be free to do as you wish, once I’ve accomplished my mission on Schar’s World — or done my best to, at least.”

Yalson had been looking at him, but now she turned away, shaking her head. Wubslin was looking at the deck. Aviger and Dorolow stared at each other. The drone was silent.

“Now,” Horza said, rising stiffly, “Yalson and Dorolow, if you wouldn’t mind seeing to Ms Balveda…” With a show of some reluctance, Yalson sighed and got up. Dorolow started to undo some of the restraining straps around the Culture agent’s body. “And do be very careful with her,” Horza continued. “Keep one person well away from her with the gun pointed in her direction the whole time, while the other does the work.”

Yalson muttered something under her breath and leaned to pick up the stun gun from the table. Horza turned to Aviger. “I think somebody should tell Neisin about all the excitement he’s missed, don’t you?” Aviger hesitated, then nodded.

“Yes, Kraik—” He stopped, spluttered, then said no more. He got up from his seat and went quickly down the corridor towards the cabins.

“I think I’ll open up the forward compartments and have a look at the laser, Kraiklyn, if that’s all right with you,” Wubslin said. “Oh, I mean Horza.” The engineer stood, frowning and scratching his head. Horza nodded. Wubslin found a clean undamaged beaker and took a cold drink from the dispenser, then went down the corridor through the accommodation section.

Dorolow and Yalson had freed Balveda. The tall, pale-skinned Culture woman stretched, closing her eyes and arching her neck. She ran a hand through her short red hair. Dorolow watched warily. Yalson held the stun gun. Balveda flexed her shoulders, then indicated she was ready.

“Right,” Yalson said, waving Balveda forward with the gun. “We’ll do this in my cabin.”

Horza stood up to let the three women by. As Balveda passed, her long, easy stride unencumbered by the light suit, he said, “How did you get off The Hand of God, Balveda?”

She stopped and said, “I killed the guard and then sat and waited, Horza. The GCU managed to take the cruiser intact. Eventually some nice soldier drones came and rescued me.” She shrugged.

“Unarmed, you killed an Idiran in full battle armour and toting a laser?” Horza said sceptically. Balveda shrugged again.

“Horza, I didn’t say it was easy.”

“What about Xoralundra?” Horza asked through a grin.

“Your old Idiran friend? Must have escaped. A few of them did. At any rate, he wasn’t among the dead or captured.”

Horza nodded and waved her by. Followed by Yalson and Dorolow, Perosteck Balveda went down the corridor to Yalson’s cabin. Horza looked at the drone sitting on the table.

“Think you can make yourself useful, machine?”

“I suppose, as you obviously intend to keep us all here and take us to this unattractive-sounding rockball on the edge of nowhere, I might as well do what I can to make the journey as safe as possible. I’ll help with the vessel’s maintenance, if you like. I would prefer, though, if you called me by my name, and not just by that word you manage to make sound like an expletive: ‘machine’. I am called Unaha-Closp. Is it asking too much for you to address me as such?”

“Why, certainly not, Unaha-Closp,” Horza said, trying to look and sound sufficiently bogus in his abjection. “I shall most assuredly ensure that I call you that in future.”

“It might,” the drone said, rising from the table to the level of Horza’s eyes, “seem amusing to you, but it matters to me. I am not just a computer, I am a drone. I am conscious and I have an individual identity. Therefore I have a name.”

“I told you I’d use it,” Horza said.

“Thank you. I shall go and see if your engineer needs any help inspecting the laser housing.” It floated to the door. Horza watched it go.

He was alone. He sat down and looked at the screen, down at the far end of the mess. The debris that had been Vavatch glowed with a barren glare; that vast cloud of matter was still visible. But it was cooling, dead and spinning away; becoming less real, more ghostly, less substantial all the time.

He sat back and closed his eyes. He would wait a while before going to sleep. He wanted to give the others time to think about what they had found out. They would be easier to read then; he would know if he was safe for the moment or whether he would have to watch them all. He also wanted to wait until Yalson and Dorolow had finished with Balveda. The Culture agent might be biding her time, now she thought she had longer to live, but she might still try something. He wanted to be awake in case she did. He still hadn’t decided whether to kill her now or not, but at least he, too, now had time to think.

The Clear Air Turbulence completed its last programmed course correction, swinging its nose towards the Glittercliff face; not in the precise direction of the Schar’s World star, but onto the general bearing.

Behind it, still expanding, still radiating, still slowly dissolving in the system to which it had given its name, the unnumbered twinkling fragments of the Orbital called Vavatch blew out towards the stars, drifting on a stellar wind that rang and swirled with the fury of the world’s destruction.

Horza sat alone in the mess room a little longer, watching the remnants dissipate.

Light against the darkness, a fat torus of nothing, just debris. An entire world just wiped out. Not merely destroyed — the very first cut of the Grid energies would have been enough to do that — but obliterated, taken carefully, precisely, artistically apart; annihilation made into an aesthetic experience. The arrogant grace of it, the absolute-zero coldness of that sophisticated viciousness… it impressed almost as much as it appalled. Even he would admit to a certain reluctant admiration.

The Culture had not wasted its lesson to the Idirans and the rest of the galactic community. It had turned even that ghastly waste of effort and skill into a thing of beauty… But it was a message it would regret, Horza thought, as the hyper-light sped and the ordinary light crawled through the galaxy.

This was what the Culture offered, this was its signal, its advertisement, its legacy: chaos from order, destruction from construction, death from life.

Vavatch would be more than its own monument; it would commemorate, too, the final, grisly manifestation of the Culture’s lethal idealism, the overdue acknowledgement that not only was it no better than any other society, it was much, much worse.

They sought to take the unfairness out of existence, to remove the mistakes in the transmitted message of life which gave it any point or advancement (a memory of darkness swept through him, and he shivered)… But theirs was the ultimate mistake, the final error, and it would be their undoing.

Horza considered going to the bridge to switch the view on the screen to real space, and so see the Orbital intact again, as it had been a few weeks before when the real light the CAT was now travelling through had left the place. But he shook his head slowly, though there was nobody there to see, and watched the quiet screen at the far end of the disordered and deserted room instead.

State of play: two

The yacht dropped anchor within a wooded bay. The water was clear, and ten metres beneath the sparkling waves the sandy floor of the anchorage was visible. Tall everblues were spread in a rough crescent around the small inlet, their dusty-looking roots sometimes visible on the ochre sandstone they clung to. There were some small cliffs of the same rock, sprinkled with bright flowers and overlooking golden beaches. The white yacht, its long reflection flickering on the water like a silent flame, feathered its tall sails and swung slowly into the faint breeze coming through one arm of the woods and over the cupped bay.

People took small canoes or dinghies to the shore, or jumped into the warm water and swam. Some of the ceerevells, which had escorted the yacht on its voyage from its home port, stayed to play in the bay; their long red bodies slipped through the water under and around the vessel’s hull, and their snorting breath echoed from the low cliffs facing the water. Sometimes they nudged the boats heading for the shore, and a few of the swimmers played with the sleek animals, diving to swim with them, touch them, hold onto them.

The shouts of the people in the boats drew gradually further away. They beached the small craft and disappeared into the woods, going to explore the uninhabited island. The small waves of the inland sea lapped at the disturbed sand.

Fal ’Ngeestra sighed and, after walking once around the yacht, sat down near the stern on a padded seat. She played absently with one of the ropes tied between the stanchions, rubbing it with her hand. The boy who had been talking to her during the morning, when the yacht was sailing slowly out from the mainland towards the islands, saw her sitting there, and came to talk to her.

“Aren’t you going to look at the island?” he said. He was very thin and light looking. His skin was a deep, almost golden yellow. There was a sheen about it which made Fal think of a hologram because it looked somehow deeper than his skinny arms and legs were thick.

“I don’t feel like it,” Fal said. She hadn’t wanted the boy to talk to her earlier and she didn’t want to talk to him now. She was sorry she’d agreed to come on the cruise.

“Why not?” the boy said. She couldn’t remember his name. She hadn’t been paying attention when he started talking to her, and she wasn’t even sure he had told her his name, though she assumed he had.

“I just don’t.” She shrugged. She wasn’t looking at him.

“Oh,” he said. He was silent for a while. She was aware of the sunlight reflecting from his body, but she still didn’t turn to look at him. She watched the distant trees, the waves, the ruddy bodies of the ceerevells hump-backing on the surface of the water as they rose to vent and then dive again. The boy said, “I know how you feel.”

“Do you?” she said, and turned to look at him. He looked a little surprised. He nodded.

“You’re fed up, aren’t you?”

“Maybe,” she said, looking away again. “A little bit.”

“Why does that old drone follow you about everywhere?”

She darted a glance at the boy. Jase was below decks just then, getting a drink for her. It had come aboard at the port with her and had stayed not too far away all the time — the hovering, protective way it usually did. She shrugged again and watched a flock of birds rise from the interior of the island. They called and dipped and wheeled in the air. “It looks after me,” she said. She stared at her hands, watching the sunlight reflect from her nails.

“Do you need looking after?”

“No.”

“Then why does it look after you?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re very mysterious, you know,” he said. She wasn’t looking, but she thought she heard a smile in his voice. She shrugged soundlessly. “You’re like that island,” he said. “You’re strange and mysterious like it is.”

Fal snorted and tried to look scathing; then she saw Jase appearing from a doorway, carrying a glass. She got up quickly, followed by the boy, walked down the deck, and met the old drone, taking the glass from it and smiling at it gratefully. She buried her face in the container and sipped at the drink, looking out through the glass at the boy.

“Well, hello, young man,” Jase said. “Aren’t you going to have a look at the island?” Fal wanted to kick the machine because of its hearty voice and the way it had said almost what the boy had said to her.

“I might,” the boy said, looking at her.

“You should,” Jase said, starting to float towards the stern. The old machine extended a curved field, like a shadow without something to cast it, out from its casing and round the boy’s shoulders. “By the way, I couldn’t help overhearing you when you were talking earlier,” it said, gently guiding the boy down the deck. His golden head turned over his shoulder to look at Fal, who was still drinking her drink very slowly, and just starting to follow Jase and the boy, a couple of paces behind. The boy looked away from her and towards the drone at his side, which was saying, “You were talking about not getting into Contact…”

“That’s right.” The boy’s voice was suddenly defensive. “I was talking about that, so?” Fal continued to walk behind the drone and the boy. She smacked her lips. Ice in the glass clinked.

“You sounded bitter,” Jase said.

“I’m not bitter,” the boy said quickly. “I just think it isn’t fair, that’s all.”

“That you weren’t picked?” Jase asked. They were approaching the seats round the stern where Fal had sat a few minutes earlier.

“Well, yes. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, and I think they made a mistake. I know I’d be good. I thought with the war and all that they would need more people.”

“Well, yes. But Contact has far more applicants than it can use.”

“But I thought one of the things that they considered was how much you wanted to get in, and I know nobody could have wanted to get in as much as I do. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted…” The boy’s voice trailed off as they came to the seats. Fal sat down; so did the boy. Fal was looking at him now but not listening. She was thinking.

“Perhaps they don’t think you’re mature enough yet.”

“I am mature!”

“Hmm. They very rarely take people so young, you know. For all I know they’re looking for a special sort of immaturity when they do take people your age.”

“Well, that’s silly. I mean, how do you know what to do if they don’t tell you what they want? How can you prepare? I think it’s all really unfair.”

“In a way I think it’s meant to be,” Jase replied. “They get so many people applying, they can’t take them all or even just take the best because there are so many of them, so they choose at random from them. You can always reapply.”

“I don’t know,” the boy said, sitting forward and putting his elbows on his knees and his head into his hands, staring at the polished wood of the deck. “Sometimes I think they just tell you that so you won’t feel bad when they reject you. I think they do maybe take the very best. But I think they’ve made a mistake. But because they won’t tell you why you’ve failed, what can you do about it?”

… She was thinking about failure too.

Jase had congratulated her on her idea about finding the Changer. Only that morning, when they were on the ancient steam funicular down from the lodge, they had heard about the events at Vavatch, when the Changer called Bora Horza Gobuchul had appeared and escaped on the pirate ship, taking their agent Perosteck Balveda with him. Her hunch had been right, and Jase was effusive in its praise, making the point that it wasn’t her fault the man had got away. But she was depressed. Sometimes being right, thinking the correct thing, predicting accurately, depressed her.

It had all seemed so obvious to her. It hadn’t been a supernatural omen or anything silly like that when Perosteck Balveda suddenly turned up (on the battle-damaged but victorious GCU Nervous Energy, which was towing most of a captured Idiran cruiser), but it had seemed so… so natural that Balveda ought to be the one to go in search of the missing Changer. By that time they’d had more information about what had been going on in that volume of space when that particular duel had been going on; and the reported, possible and probable movements of various ships had pointed (again, she thought, fairly obviously) to the privateer craft called the Clear Air Turbulence. There were other possibilities, and they were followed up, too, as far as the already stretched resources of Contact’s Special Circumstances section would allow, but she was always certain that if any of the branching possibilities was going to bear fruit it would be the Vavatch connection. The captain of the Clear Air Turbulence was called Kraiklyn; he played Damage. Vavatch was the most obvious site for a full Damage game in years. Therefore the most likely place to intercept the vessel — apart from Schar’s World if the Changer already had control — was Vavatch. She had stuck her neck out by insisting that Vavatch was the most likely place, and that the woman agent Balveda should be one of those to go there, and now it had all come true and she realised it wasn’t really her neck she had stuck out at all. It was Balveda’s.

But what else could be done? The war was accelerating throughout an immense volume; there were many other urgent missions for the few Special Circumstances agents, and anyway Balveda was the only really good one within range. There was one young man they’d sent in with her, but he was only promising, not experienced. Fal had known all along that if it came to it, Balveda would risk her own life, not the man’s, if infiltrating the mercenaries was the only chance of getting to the Changer and through him to the Mind. It was brave but, Fal suspected, it was mistaken. The Changer knew Balveda; he might well recognise her, no matter how much she’d altered her own appearance (and there hadn’t been time for Balveda to undergo radical physical change). If the Changer realised who she was (and Fal suspected he had), Balveda had far less chance of completing her mission than even the most callow and nervous but unsuspected rookie agent. Forgive me, lady, Fal thought to herself. I’d have done better by you if I could

She had tried to hate the Changer all that day, tried to imagine him and hate him because he had probably killed Balveda, but apart from the fact that she found it hard to imagine somebody when she had no idea what he might look like (the ship’s captain, Kraiklyn?), for some reason the hatred would not materialise. The Changer did not seem real.

She liked the sound of Balveda; she was brave and daring, and Fal hoped against hope that Balveda would live, that somehow she would survive it all and that one day, maybe, they would meet, perhaps after the war…

But that didn’t seem real, either.

She couldn’t believe in it; she couldn’t imagine it the way she had imagined, say, Balveda finding the Changer. She had seen that in her mind, and had willed it to happen… In her version, of course, it was Balveda who won, not the Changer. But she couldn’t imagine meeting Balveda, and somehow that was frightening, as though she had started to believe in her own prescience so much that the inability to imagine something clearly enough meant that it would never happen. Either way, it was depressing.

What chance had the agent of living through the war? Not a good one at the moment, Fal knew that, but even supposing Balveda did somehow save herself this time, what were the chances she’d wind up dead anyway, later on? The longer the war went on, the more likely it was. Fal felt, and the general concensus of opinion among the more clued-up Minds was, that the war would last decades rather than years.

Plus or minus a few months, of course. Fal frowned and bit her lip. She couldn’t see them getting the Mind; the Changer was winning, and she had all but run out of ideas. All she had thought of recently was a way — perhaps, just maybe — of putting Gobuchul off: probably not a way of stopping him completely, but possibly a way of making his job harder. But she wasn’t optimistic, even if Contact’s War Command agreed to such a dangerous, equivocal and potentially expensive plan…

“Fal?” Jase said. She realised she was looking at the island without seeing it. The glass was growing warm in her hand, and Jase and the boy were both looking at her.

“What?” she said, and drank.

“I was asking what you thought about the war,” the boy said. He was frowning, looking at her with narrowed eyes, the sunlight sharp on his face. She looked at his broad, open face and wondered how old he was. Older than her? Younger? Did he feel like she did — wanting to be older, yearning to be treated as responsible?

“I don’t understand. What do you mean? Think about it in what way?”

“Well,” the boy said, “who’s going to win?” He looked annoyed. She suspected it had been very obvious that she hadn’t been listening. She looked at Jase, but the old machine didn’t say anything, and with no aura field there was no way of telling what it was thinking or how it was feeling. Was it amused? Worried? She drank, gulping down the last of the cool drink.

We are, of course,” she said quickly, glancing from the boy to Jase. The boy shook his head.

“I’m not so sure,” he said, rubbing his chin. “I’m not sure we have the will.”

“The will?” Fal said.

“Yes. The desire to fight. I think the Idirans are natural fighters. We aren’t. I mean, look at us…” He smiled, as though he was much older and thought himself much wiser than she, and he turned his head and waved his hand lazily towards the island, where the boats lay tilted against the sand.

Fifty or sixty metres away Fal saw what looked like a man and woman coupling, in the shallows under a small cliff; they were bobbing up and down, the woman’s dark hands clasped round the man’s lighter neck. Was that what the boy was being so urbane about?

Good grief, the fascination of sex.

No doubt it was great fun, but then how could people take it so seriously? Sometimes she felt a sneaking envy for the Idirans; they got over it; after a while it no longer mattered. They were dual hermaphrodites, each half of the couple impregnating the other, and each usually bearing twins. After one or occasionally two pregnancies — and weanings — they changed from their fertile breeder stage to become warriors. Opinion was divided on whether they increased in intelligence or just underwent a personality alteration. Certainly they became more cunning but less open-minded, more logical but less imaginative, more ruthless, less compassionate. They grew by another metre; their weight almost doubled; their keratinous covering became thicker and harder; their muscles increased in bulk and density; and their internal organs altered to accommodate these power-increasing changes. At the same time, their bodies absorbed their reproductive organs, and they became sexless. All very linear, symmetrical and tidy, compared to the Culture’s pick-your-own approach.

Yes, she could see why this gangly idiot sitting in front of her with his nervously superior smile would find the Idirans impressive. Young fool.

“This is—” Fal was annoyed, enough to be a little stuck for words. “This is just us now. We haven’t evolved… we’ve changed a lot, changed ourselves a lot, but we haven’t evolved at all since we were running around killing ourselves. I mean each other.” She sucked her breath in, annoyed with herself now. The boy was smiling tolerantly at her. She felt herself blushing. “We are still animals,” she insisted. “We’re natural fighters just as much as the Idirans.”

“Then how come they’re winning?” the boy smirked.

“They had a head start. We didn’t begin properly preparing for war until the last moment. Warfare has become a way of life for them; we’re not all that good at it yet because it’s been hundreds of generations since we had to do it. Don’t worry,” she told him, looking down at her empty glass and lowering her voice slightly, “we’re learning quite fast enough.”

“Well, you wait and see,” the boy said, nodding at her. “I think we’ll pull out of the war and let the Idirans get on with their expansion — or whatever you want to call it. The war’s been sort of exciting, and it’s made a change, but it’s been nearly four years now, and…” He waved one hand again. “…we haven’t even won anything much yet.” He laughed. “All we keep doing is running away!”

Fal stood up quickly, turning away in case she started to cry.

“Oh shit,” the boy was saying to Jase. “I suppose I’ve gone and said something now… Did she have a friend or a relation…?”

She walked down the deck, limping a little as the newly healed leg started to hurt again with a distant, nagging ache.

“Don’t worry,” Jase was saying to the boy. “Leave her alone and she’ll be all right…”

She put her glass inside one of the dark, empty cabins of the yacht, then kept going, heading for the forward superstructure.

She climbed up a ladder to the wheelhouse, then up another ladder to its roof, and sat there with her legs crossed (the recently broken leg hurt, but she ignored it) and looked out to sea.

Far away, almost on the haze-limit, a ridge of whiteness shimmered in the near-still air. Fal ’Ngeestra let out a long, sad breath and wondered if the white shapes — probably only visible because they were high up, in clearer air — were snowy mountain tops. Maybe they were just clouds. She couldn’t remember the geography of the place well enough to work it out.

She sat there, thinking of those peaks. She remembered when once, high in the foothills where a small mountain stream levelled out onto a marshy plateau for a kilometre or so, arcing and swerving and bowing over the sodden, reed-covered land like an athlete stretching and flexing between games, she had found something which had made that winter day’s walk memorable.

Ice had been forming in clear, brittle sheets at the side of the flowing stream. She had spent some time happily marching through the shallows of the water, crunching the thin ice with her boots and watching it drift downstream. She wasn’t climbing that day, just walking; she had waterproofs on and carried little gear. Somehow the fact she wasn’t doing anything dangerous or physically demanding had made her feel like a young child again.

She came to a place where the stream flowed over a terrace of rock, from one level of moor down to another, and there a small pool had carved itself into the rock just beneath the rapids. The water fell less than a metre, and the stream was narrow enough to jump: but she remembered that stream and that pool because there in the circling water, caught beneath the splashing rapids, floated a frozen circle of foam.

The water was naturally soft and peaty, and a yellow-white foam sometimes formed in the mountain streams of that area, blown by the winds and caught in the reeds, but she had never seen it collected into a circle like that and frozen. She laughed when she saw it. She waded in and carefully picked it up. It was only a little greater in diameter than the distance between her outstretched thumb and little finger and a few centimetres thick, not as fragile as she had at first feared.

The frothy bubbles had frozen in the cold air and almost freezing water, making what looked like a tiny model of a galaxy: a fairly common spiral galaxy, like this one, like hers. She held the light confection of air and water and suspended chemicals and turned it over in her hands, sniffing it, sticking her tongue out and licking it, looking at the dim winter sun through it, flicking her finger to see if it would ring.

She watched her little rime galaxy start to melt, very slowly, and saw her own breath blow across it, a brief image of her warmth in the air.

Finally she put it back where she had found it, slowly revolving in the pool of water at the base of the small rapids.

The galaxy image had occurred to her then, and she thought at the time about the similarity of the forces which shaped both the little and the vast. She had thought, And which is really the most important? but then felt embarrassed to have thought such a thing.

Every now and again, though, she went back to that thought, and knew that each was exactly as important as the other. Then later she would go back to her second thoughts on the matter and feel embarrassed again.

Fal ’Ngeestra took a deep breath and felt a little better. She smiled and raised her head, closing her eyes for a moment and watching the red sun-haze behind her eyelids. Then she ran a hand through her curly blonde hair and wondered again if the distant, wavering, unsure shapes over the shimmering water were clouds, or mountains.

9. Schar’s World

Imagine a vast and glittering ocean seen from a great height. It stretches to the clear curved limit of every angle of horizon, the sun burning on a billion tiny wavelets. Now imagine a smooth blanket of cloud above the ocean, a shell of black velvet suspended high above the water and also extending to the horizon, but keep the sparkle of the sea despite the lack of sun. Add to the cloud many sharp and tiny lights, scattered on the base of the inky overcast like glinting eyes: singly, in pairs, or in larger groups, each positioned far, far away from any other set.

That is the view a ship has in hyperspace as it flies like a microscopic insect, free between the energy grid and real space.

The small, sharp lights on the undersurface of the cloud cover are stars; the waves on the sea are the irregularities of the Grid on which a ship travelling in hyperspace finds traction with its engine fields, while that sparkle is its source of energy. The Grid and the plain of real space are curved, rather like the ocean and the cloud would be round a planet, but less so. Black holes show as thin and twisting waterspouts from clouds to sea; supernovae as long lightning flashes in the overcast. Rocks, moons, planets, Orbitals, even Rings and Spheres, hardly show at all…

The two “Killer” class Rapid Offensive Units Trade Surplus and Revisionist raced through the hyperspace, flashing underneath the web of real space like slim and glittering fish in a deep, still pond. They wove past systems and stars, keeping deep beneath the empty spaces where they were least likely to be traced.

Their engines were each a focus of energy almost beyond imagining, packing sufficient power within their two hundred metres to equal perhaps one per cent of the energy produced by a small sun, flinging the two vessels across the four-dimensional void at an equivalent speed in real space of rather less than ten light-years per hour. At the time, this was considered particularly fast.

They sensed the Glittercliff and Sullen Gulf ahead. They twisted their headlong rush to angle them deep inside the war zone, aiming themselves at the system which contained Schar’s World.

Far in the distance, they could see the group of black holes which had created the Gulf. Those flutes of plunging energy had passed through the area millennia before, clearing a space of consumed stars behind them, creating an artificial galactic arm as they headed in a long spiral closer towards the centre of the slowly spinning island of stars and nebulae that was the galaxy.

The group of black holes was commonly known as the Forest, so closely were they grouped, and the two speeding Culture craft had instructions to try to force their way between those twisted, lethal trunks, if they were seen and pursued. The Culture’s field management was considered superior to the Idirans’, so it was thought they would have a better chance of getting through, and any chasing craft might even break off rather than risk tangling with the Forest. It was a terrible risk even to contemplate, but the two ROUs were precious; the Culture had not yet built many, and everything possible had to be done to make sure that the craft got back safely or, if the worst came to the worst, were destroyed utterly.

They encountered no hostile ships. They flashed across the inward face of the Quiet Barrier in seconds and delivered their prescribed loads in two short bursts, then twisted once and tore away at maximum speed, out through the thinning stars and past the Glitter-cliff, into the empty skies of the Sullen Gulf.

They registered hostile craft stationed near the Schar’s World system starting off in pursuit, but they had been seen too late, and they quickly outdistanced the probing beams of track lasers. They set course for the far side of the Gulf, their strange mission completed. The Minds on board, and the small crew of humans each vessel carried (who were there more because they wanted to be than for their utility), hadn’t been told why they were blasting empty space with expensive warheads, shooting off CREWSs at each other’s target drones, dumping clouds of CAM and ordinary gas and releasing odd little unpowered signalling ships which were little more than unmanned shuttles packed with broadcasting equipment. The entire effect of this operation would be to produce a few spectacular flashes and flares and a scattering of radiation shells and wide-band signals before the Idirans cleared up the debris and blasted or captured the signal craft.

They had been asked to risk their lives on some damn-fool panic mission which seemed designed to convince nobody in particular that there had been a space battle in the middle of nowhere when there hadn’t. And they had done it!

What was the Culture coming to? The Idirans seemed to relish suicide missions. You could easily form the impression that they considered being asked to carry out any other sort something of an insult. But the Culture? Where even in the war forces “discipline” was regarded as a taboo word, where people always wanted to know why this and why that?

Things had come to a pretty pass indeed.

The two ships raced across the Gulf, arguing. On board, heated discussions were taking place between members of their crews.

It took twenty-one days for the Clear Air Turbulence to make the journey from Vavatch to Schar’s World.

Wubslin had spent the time carrying out what repairs he could to the craft, but what the ship needed was another thorough overhaul. While structurally it was still sound, and life support functioned nearly normally, it had suffered a general degradation of its systems, though no catastrophic failures. The warp units ran a little more raggedly than before, the fusion motors were not up to sustained use in an atmosphere — they would get them down to and up from Schar’s World, but not provide much more in-airflying time — and the vessel’s sensors had been reduced in numbers and efficiency to a level not far above operational minimum.

They had still escaped lightly, Horza thought.

With the CAT under his control, Horza was able to switch off the computer’s identity circuits. He didn’t have to fool the Free Company, either; so, as the days passed, he Changed slowly to resemble his old self a little more. That was for Yalson and the other members of the Free Company. He was really striking two thirds of a compromise between Kraiklyn and the self he had been on the CAT before it had reached Vavatch. There was another third in there which he let grow and show itself on his face for nobody on board, but for a red-haired Changer girl called Kierachell. He hoped she would recognise that part of his appearance when they met again, on Schar’s World.

“Why did you think we’d be angry?” Yalson asked him in the CAT’s hangar one day. They had set up a target screen at one end and put their lasers onto practice. The screen’s built-in projector flashed images for them to shoot at. Horza looked at the woman.

“He was your leader.”

Yalson laughed. “He was a manager; how many of them are liked by their staff? This is a business, Horza, and not even a successful one. Kraiklyn managed to get most of us retired prematurely. Shit! The only person you needed to fool was the ship.”

“There was that,” Horza said, aiming at a human figure darting across the distant screen. The laser spot was invisible, but the screen sensed it and flashed white light where it hit. The human figure, hit in the leg, stumbled but did not fall: half marks. “I did need to fool the ship. But I didn’t want to risk somebody being loyal to Kraiklyn.”

It was Yalson’s turn, but she was looking at Horza, not the screen.

The ship’s fidelities had been bypassed, and now all that was needed to command it was a numeric code, which only Horza knew, and the small ring he wore, which had been Kraiklyn’s. He had promised that when they got to Schar’s World, if there was no other way off the planet, he would set the CAT’s computer to free itself of all fidelity limitations after a given time, so that if he didn’t come back out of the tunnels of the Command System the Free Company would not be stranded. “You would have told us,” Yalson said, “wouldn’t you, Horza? I mean you would have let us know eventually.”

Horza knew she meant, would he have told her? He put his gun down and looked her in the eyes. “Once I was sure,” he said, “sure about the people, sure about the ship.”

It was the honest answer, but he wasn’t certain it was the best one. He wanted Yalson, wanted not just her warmth in the ship’s red night, but her trust, her care. But she was still distant.

Balveda lived; perhaps she wouldn’t still be alive if Horza hadn’t wanted Yalson’s regard. He knew that, and it was a bitter thought, making him feel cheap and cruel. Even knowing that it was a definite thing would have been better than being uncertain. He couldn’t say for sure whether the cold logic of this game dictated that the Culture woman should die or be left alive, or even if, the former being comfortably obvious, he could have killed her in cold blood. He had thought it through and still he didn’t know. He only hoped that neither woman had guessed that any of this had gone through his mind.

Kierachell was another worry. It was absurd, he knew, to be concerned about his own affairs at such a time, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the Changer woman; the closer they came to Schar’s World, the more he remembered of her, the more real his memories became. He tried not to build it up too much, tried to recall the boredom of the Changers’ lonely outpost on the planet and the restlessness he had felt there even with Kierachell’s company, but he dreamt about her slow smile and recalled her low voice in all its fluid grace with some of the heartache of a youth’s first love. Occasionally he thought Yalson might sense that, too, and something inside him seemed to shrink with shame.

Yalson shrugged, hoisted her gun to her shoulder and fired at a four-legged shadow on the practice screen. It stopped in its tracks and dropped, seeming to dissolve into the line of shady ground at the bottom of the screen.

Horza gave talks.

It made him feel like some visiting lecturer at a college, but that’s what he did. He felt he had to explain to the others why he was doing what he was, why the Changers supported the Idirans, why he believed in what they were fighting for. He called them briefings, and ostensibly they were about Schar’s World and the Command System, its history, geography and so on, but he always (quite intentionally) ended up talking about the war in general, or about totally different aspects of it unrelated to the planet they were approaching.

The briefing cover gave him a good excuse to keep Balveda confined to her cabin while he paced up and down on the deck of the mess talking to the members of the Free Company; he didn’t want his talks turning into a debate.

Perosteck Balveda had been no trouble. Her suit and a few items of harmless-looking jewellery and other bits and pieces had been jettisoned from a vactube. She had been scanned with every item the CAT’s limited sick-bay equipment could provide and had come up clean, and she seemed quite happy to be a well-behaved prisoner, confined to the ship as they all were and, apart from at night, locked in her cabin only occasionally. Horza didn’t let her near the bridge, just in case, but Balveda showed no signs of trying to get to know the ship especially well — the way he had done when he came on board. She didn’t even try to argue any of the mercenaries round to her way of thinking about the war and the Culture.

Horza wondered how secure she felt. Balveda was pleasant and seemed unworried; but he looked at her sometimes and thought he saw, briefly, a glimpse of inner tension, even despair. It relieved him in one way, but in another it gave him that same bad, cruel feeling he experienced when he thought about exactly why the Culture agent was still alive. Sometimes he was simply afraid of getting to Schar’s World, but increasingly as the voyage dragged on he came to relish the prospect of some action and an end to thought.

He called Balveda to his cabin one day, after they had all eaten in the mess. The woman came in and sat down on the same small seat he had sat in when Kraiklyn had summoned him just after he had joined the ship.

Balveda’s face was calm. She sat elegantly in the small seat, her long frame at once relaxed and poised. Her deep dark eyes gazed out at Horza from the thin, smoothly shaped head, and her red hair — now turning black — shone in the lights of the cabin.

“Captain Horza?” she smiled, crossing her long-fingered hands on her lap. She wore a long blue gown, the plainest thing she had been able to find on the ship: something that had once belonged to the woman Gow.

“Hello, Balveda,” Horza said. He sat back on the bed. He wore a loose gown. For the first couple of days he had stayed in his suit, but while it stayed commendably comfortable, it was bulky and awkward in the confines of the Clear Air Turbulence, so he had discarded it for the voyage.

He was about to offer Balveda something to drink, but somehow, because that was what Kraiklyn had done with him, it didn’t seem the right thing to do.

“What was it, Horza?” Balveda said.

“I just wanted to… see how you were,” he said. He had tried to rehearse what he would say; assure her she was in no danger, that he liked her and that he was sure that this time the worst that would happen to her really would be internment somewhere, and maybe a swap, but the words would not come.

“I’m fine,” she said, smoothing her hand over her hair, her eyes glancing around the cabin briefly. “I’m trying to be a model captive so you won’t have an excuse for ditching me.” She smiled, but again he thought he sensed an edge to the gesture. Yet he was relieved.

“No,” he laughed, letting his head rock back on his shoulders with the laugh. “I’ve no intention of doing that. You’re safe.”

“Until we get to Schar’s World?” she said calmly.

“After that, too,” he said.

Balveda blinked slowly, looking down. “Hmm, good.” She looked into his eyes.

He shrugged. “I’m sure you’d do the same for me.”

“I think I… probably would,” she said, and he couldn’t tell whether she was lying or not. “I just think it’s a pity we’re on different sides.”

“It’s a pity we’re all on different sides, Balveda.”

“Well,” she said, clasping her hands on her lap again, “there is a theory that the side we each think we’re on is the one that will triumph eventually anyway.”

“What’s that?” he grinned. “Truth and justice?”

“Not either, really,” she smiled, not looking at him. “Just…” She shrugged. “Just life. The evolution you talked about. You said the Culture was in a backwater, a dead end. If we are… maybe we’ll lose after all.”

“Damn, I’ll get you on the good guys’ side yet, Perosteck,” he said, with just a little too much heartiness. She smiled thinly.

She opened her mouth to say something, then thought the better of it and closed it again. She looked at her hands. Horza wondered what to say next.

One night, six days out from their destination — the system’s star was fairly bright in the sky ahead of the ship, even on normal sight — Yalson came to his cabin.

He hadn’t expected it, and the tap at the door brought him from a state between waking and sleep with a jarring coldness which left him disorientated for a few moments. He saw her on the door-screen and let her in. She came in quickly, closing the door after her and hugging him, holding him tight, soundless. He stood there, trying to wake up and work out how this had happened. There seemed to be no reason for it, no build-up of tension of any sort between them, no signs, no hints: nothing.

Yalson had spent that day in the hangar, wired up with small sensors and exercising. He had seen her there, working away, sweating, exhausting herself, peering at readouts and screens with her critical eyes, as though her body was a machine like the ship and she was testing it almost to destruction.

They slept together. But as though to confirm the exertions she had put herself through during the day, Yalson fell asleep almost as soon as they lay down; in his arms, while he was kissing and nuzzling her, breathing in the scent of her body again after what seemed like months. He lay awake and listened to her breathe, felt her move very slightly in his arms, and sensed her blood beat slower and slower as she fell into a deep sleep.

In the morning they made love, and afterwards he asked her, while he held her and their sweat dried, “Why?” as their hearts slowed. “What changed your mind?” The ship hummed distantly around them.

She gripped him, hugging tighter still, and shook her head.

“Nothing,” she said, “nothing in particular, nothing important.” He felt her shrug, and she turned her head away from his face, into his arm, towards the humming bulkhead. In a small voice she said, “Everything; Schar’s World.”

Three days out, in the hangar, he watched the members of the Free Company work out and practise firing their guns at the screen. Neisin couldn’t practise because he still refused to use lasers after what had happened in the Temple of Light. He had stocked up on magazines of micro projectiles during his few sober moments in Evanauth.

After firing practice, Horza had each of the mercenaries test their AG harnesses. Kraiklyn had purchased a cheap batch of them and insisted that the Free Company members who didn’t already have an anti-gravity unit in their suit buy a harness from him, at what he claimed was cost price. Horza had been dubious at first, but the AG units seemed serviceable enough, and certainly might be useful for searching the Command System’s deeper shafts.

Horza was satisfied that the mercenaries would follow him in if they had to, down into the Command System. The long delay since the excitement of Vavatch, and the boring routine of the life on the Clear Air Turbulence, had made them hanker after something more interesting. As Horza had — honestly — described it, Schar’s World didn’t sound too bad. At least it was unlikely they would find themselves in a fire-fight, and nobody, including the Mind they might end up helping Horza search for, was going to start blowing things up, not with a Dra’Azon to reckon with.

The sun of the Schar’s World system shone brightly ahead of them now, the brightest thing in the sky. The Glittercliff was not a visible feature of the sky ahead, because they were still inside the spiral limb and looking out, but it was noticeable that all the stars ahead were either quite close or very far away, with none in the gap between.

Horza had changed the CAT’s course several times, but kept it on a general heading which, unless they turned, wouldn’t take it closer than two light-years from the planet. He would turn the craft and head in the following day. So far the journey had been uneventful. They had flown through the scattered stars without encountering anything out of the ordinary: no messages or signals, no distant flashes from battles, no warp wakes. The area around them seemed calm and undisturbed, as though all that was happening was what always happened: just the stars being born and dying, the galaxy revolving, the holes twisting, the gases swirling. The war, in that hurried silence, in their false rhythm of day and night, seemed like something they had all imagined, an inexplicable nightmare they had somehow shared, even escaped.

Horza had the ship watching, though, ready to alarm at the first hint of trouble. They were unlikely to find out anything before they got to the Quiet Barrier, but if everything was as peaceful and serene as that name implied, he thought he might not go arrowing straight in. Ideally he would like to rendezvous with the Idiran fleet units which were supposed to be waiting near by. That would solve most of his problems. He would hand Balveda over, make sure Yalson and the rest of the mercenaries were safe — let them have the CAT — and pick up the specialised equipment Xoralundra had promised him.

That scenario would also let him meet Kierachell alone, without the distraction of the others being there. He would be able to be his old self without making any concessions to the self the Free Company and Yalson knew.

Two days out, the ship’s alarm went off. Horza was dozing in his bed; he raced out of the cabin and forward to the bridge.

In the volume of space before them, all hell seemed to have been let loose. Annihilation light washed over them; it was the radiation from weapon explosions, registering pure and mixed on the vessel’s sensors, indicating where warheads had gone off totally by themselves or in contact with something else. The fabric of three-dimensional space bucked and juddered with the blast from warp charges, forcing the CAT’s automatics to disengage its engines every few seconds to prevent them being damaged on the shock waves. Horza strapped in and brought all the subsidiary systems up. Wubslin came through the door from the mess.

“What is it?”

“Battle of some sort,” Horza said, watching the screens. The volume of affected space was more or less directly on the inward side of Schar’s World; the direct route from Vavatch passed that way. The CAT was one and a half light-years away from the disturbance, too far away to be spotted on anything except the narrow beam of a track scanner and therefore almost certainly safe; but Horza watched the distant blasts of radiation, and felt the CAT ride the ripples of disturbed space with a sensation of nausea, even defeat.

“Message shell,” Wubslin said, nodding at a screen. There, sorting itself out from the noise of radiation, a signal gradually appeared, the words forming a few letters at a time like a field of plants growing and flowering. After a few repetitions of the signal — and it was being jammed, not simple interfered with by the battle’s background noise — it was complete enough to read.

VESSEL CLEAR AIR TURBULENCE. MEET UNITS

NINETY — THIRD FLEET

DESTINATION/S.591134.45 MID. ALL SAFE.

“Damn,” breathed Horza.

“What’s that mean?” Wubslin said. He punched the figures on the screen into the CAT’s navigational computer. “Oh,” the engineer said, sitting back, “it’s one of the stars near by. I guess they mean to rendezvous halfway between it and…” He looked at the main screen.

“Yes,” Horza said, looking unhappily at the signal. It had to be a fake. There was nothing to prove it was from the Idirans: no message number, code class, ship originator, signatory; nothing genuine at all.

“That from the guys with three legs?” Wubslin said. He brought a holo display onto another screen, showing stars surrounded by spherical grids of thin green lines. “Hey, we’re not all that far away from there.”

“Is that right?” Horza said. He watched the continuing blasts of battle-light. He entered some figures into the CAT’s control systems. The vessel brought its nose round, angling it further over towards the Schar’s World system. Wubslin looked at Horza.

“You don’t think it is from them?”

“I don’t,” Horza said. The radiation was fading. The engagement appeared to be over, or the action broken off. “I think we might turn up there and find a GCU waiting for us. Or a cloud of CAM.”

“CAM? What — that stuff they dusted Vavatch with?” Wubslin said, and whistled. “No thanks.”

Horza switched the screen with the message off.

Less than an hour later it all happened again: shells of radiation, warp disturbance, and this time two messages, one telling the CAT to ignore the first message, the other giving a new rendezvous point. Both seemed genuine; both were affixed with the word “Xoralundra”. Horza, still chewing the mouthful of food he’d been eating when the alarm went off for the second time, swore. A third message appeared, telling him personally to ignore those two signals and directing the CAT to yet another rendezvous area.

Horza shouted with anger, sending bits of soggy food arcing out to hit the message screen. He turned the wide-band communicator off completely, then went back to the mess.

“When do we reach the Quiet Barrier?”

“A few more hours. Half a day perhaps.”

“Are you nervous?”

“I’m not nervous. I’ve been there before. How about you?”

“If you say it’ll be all right, I believe you.”

“It should be.”

“Will you know any of the people there?”

“I don’t know. It’s been a few years. They don’t rotate personnel often, but people do leave. I don’t know. I’ll just have to wait and see.”

“You haven’t seen any of your own people for a long time, have you?”

“No. Not since I left there.”

“Aren’t you looking forward to it?”

“Maybe.”

“Horza… look, I know I told you we didn’t ask each other about… about everything before we came aboard the CAT, but that was… before a lot of things changed—”

“But it’s the way we’ve been, isn’t it?”

“You mean you don’t want to talk about it now?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. You want to ask me about—”

“No.” She put her hand to his lips. He felt them there in the darkness. “No, it’s OK. It’s all right; never mind.”

He sat in the centre seat. Wubslin was in the engineer’s chair to Horza’s right, Yalson to his left. The rest had crowded in behind them. He had let Balveda watch; there was little that could happen which she could affect now. The drone floated near the ceiling.

The Quiet Barrier was coming up. It showed as a mirrorfield directly in front of them, about a light-day in diameter. It had suddenly appeared on the screen when they were an hour out from the barrier. Wubslin had worried it was giving their position away, but Horza knew that the mirrorfield existed only in the CAT’s sensors. There was nothing there for anybody else to see.

Five minutes out, every screen went black. Horza had warned the rest about it, but even he felt anxious and blind when it happened.

“You’re sure this is meant to happen?” Aviger said.

“I’d be worried if it didn’t,” Horza told him. The old man moved somewhere behind him.

“I think this is incredible,” Dorolow said. “This creature is virtually a god. I’m sure it can sense our moods and thoughts. I can feel it already.”

“Actually, it’s just a collection of self-referencing—”

“Balveda,” Horza said, looking round at the Culture woman.