/ Language: English / Genre:sf

The Algebraist

Iain Banks

It is 4034 AD. Humanity has made it to the stars. Fassin Taak, a Slow Seer at the Court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, will be fortunate if he makes it to the end of the year. The Nasqueron Dwellers inhabit a gas giant on the outskirts of the galaxy, in a system awaiting its wormhole connection to the rest of civilisation. In the meantime, they are dismissed as decadents living in a state of highly developed barbarism, hoarding data without order, hunting their own young and fighting pointless formal wars. Seconded to a military-religious order he’s barely heard of — part of the baroque hierarchy of the Mercatoria, the latest galactic hegemony — Fassin Taak has to travel again amongst the Dwellers. He is in search of a secret hidden for half a billion years. But with each day that passes a war draws closer — a war that threatens to overwhelm everything and everyone he’s ever known. As complex, turbulent, flamboyant and spectacular as the gas giant on which it is set, the new science fiction novel from Iain M. Banks is space opera on a truly epic scale. Nominated for Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2005.

Iain M. Banks

The Algebraist

PROLOGUE

I have a story to tell you. It has many beginnings, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices. Where does any story really begin? There is always context, always an encompassingly greater epic, always something before the described events, unless we are to start every story with, “BANG! Expand! Sssss…’, then itemise the whole subsequent history of the universe before settling down, at last, to the particular tale in question. Similarly, no ending is final, unless it is the end of all things…

Nevertheless, I have a story to tell you. My own direct part in it was vanishingly small and I have not thought even to introduce myself with anything as presumptuous as a proper name. Nevertheless, I was there, at the very beginning of one of those beginnings.

From the air, I am told, the Autumn House looks like a giant grey and pink snowflake lying half-embedded within these folded green slopes. It lies on the long, shallow escarpment which forms the southern limit of the Northern Tropical Uplands. On the northern side of the house are spread the various formal and rustic gardens which it is both my duty and my pleasure to tend. A little further up the escarpment rest the extensive ruins of a fallen temple, believed to have been a construction of a species called the Rehlide. (6ar., either severely abated or extinct, depending on which authority one chooses to give credence to. In any event, long gone from these parts.) The temple’s great white columns once towered a hundred metres or so into our thin airs but now lie sprawled upon and interred within the ground, vast straked and fluted tubes of solid stone half buried in the peaty soils of the unimproved land around us. The furthest-fallen ends of the columns — which must have toppled slowly but most impressively in our half-standard gravity — punched great long crater-like ditches out of the earth, creating long double embankments with bulbously rounded tips. Over the many millennia since their sudden creation these tall ramparts have been slowly worn down both by erosion and our world’s many small ground-quakes so that the earth has slumped back to refill the wide ditches where the column ends lie, until all that is visible is a succession of gentle waves in the land’s surface, like a series of small, splayed valleys from whose upper limits the unburied lengths of the columns appear like the pale exposed bones of this little planet-moon.

Where one column fell and rolled across a shallow river valley, it formed a sort of angled cylindrical dam, over which the water spills, is caught and channelled by one of the metres-deep grooves embellishing the column’s length, and then flows down to what remains of the column’s ornately carved capital and a series of small, graceful waterfalls which end in a deep pool just beyond the tall, dense hedges which mark the highest limit of our gardens. From here the stream is guided and controlled, some of its waters proceeding to a deep cistern which provides the headwaters for our gravity fountains down near the house while the rest make up the brook which by turns tumbles, rushes, swings and meanders down to the ornamental lakes and partial moat surrounding the house itself.

I was standing waist-deep in the gurgling waters of a steeply pitched part of the brook, three limbs braced against the current, surrounded by dripping exer-rhododendron branches and coils of weed, trimming and dead-heading a particularly recalcitrant confusion of moil-bush around a frankly rather threadbare raised lawn of scalpygrass (basically a noble but failed experiment, attempting to persuade this notoriously clumpy variety to… ah: my enthusiasms may be getting the better of me, and I digress — never mind about the scalpygrass) when the young master — returning, whistling, hands clasped behind his back, from his morning constitutional round the higher rockeries stopped on the gravel path above me and smiled down. I looked round and up, still clipping away, and nodded with as much formality as my somewhat awkward stance would allow.

Sunlight poured from the purple sky visible between the curve of eastward horizon (hills, haze) and the enormous overhanging bulk of the gas-giant planet Nasqueron filling the majority of the sky (motley with all the colours of the spectrum below bright yellow, multitudinously spotted, ubiquitously zoned and belted with wild liquidic squiggles). A synchronous mirror almost directly above us scribed a single sharp line of yellow-white across the largest of Nasqueron’s storm-spots, which moved ponderously across the sky like an orange-brown bruise the size of a thousand moons.

“Good morning, Head Gardener.”

“Good morning, Seer Taak.”

“And how are our gardens?”

“Generally healthy, I would say. In good shape for spring.” I could have gone on to provide much more detail, naturally, but waited to discover whether Seer Taak was merely indulging in phatic discourse. He nodded at the water rushing and breaking around my lower limbs.

“You all right in there, HG? Looks a bit fierce.”

“I am well braced and anchored, thank you, Seer Taak.” I hesitated (and during the pause could hear someone small and light running up the stone steps towards the gravel path a little further down the garden), then, when Seer Taak still smiled encouragingly down at me, I added, “The flow is high because the lower pumps are on, recirculating the waters to enable us to scour one of the lakes free of floating weeds.” (The small person approaching reached the path’s loose surface twenty metres away and kept running, scattering gravel.)

“I see. Didn’t think it had rained that much recently.” He nodded. “Well, keep up the good work, HG,” he said, and turned to go, then saw whoever was running towards him. I suspected from the rhythm of her running steps that it was the girl Zab. Zab is still at the age where she runs from place to place as a matter of course unless directed not to by an adult. However, I believed that I detected a more than casual urgency in her gait.

Seer Taak smiled and frowned at the girl at the same time as she came skidding to a stop on the gravel in front of him, putting one hand flat to the chest of her yellow dungarees and bending over for a couple of deep, exaggerated breaths — long pink curls swirling and dancing round her face — before taking one even deeper breath and standing up straight to say,

“Uncle Fassin! Grandpa Slovius says you’re out in a communicardo again and if I see you I’ve to tell you you’ve to come and see him right now immediately!”

“Does he now?” Seer Taak said, laughing. He bent and picked the girl up by her armpits, holding her face level with his, her little pink boots hanging level with the waist of his britches.

“Yes, he does,” she told him, and sniffed. She looked down and saw me. “Oh! Hello, HG.”

“Good morning, Zab.”

“Well,” said Seer Taak, hoisting the child further up and turning and lowering her so that she sat on his shoulders, “we’d better go and see what the old man wants, hadn’t we?” He started down the path towards the house. “You okay up there?”

She put her hands over his forehead and said, “Yup.”

“Well, this time, mind out for branches.”

You mind out for branches!” Zab said, rubbing her knuckles through Seer Taak’s brown curls. She twisted round and waved back at me. “Bye, HG!”

“Goodbye,” I called as they went towards the steps.

“No, you mind out for branches, young lady.”

“No, you mind out for branches!”

“No, you mind out for branches.”

“No, you mind out for branches…”

ONE:

THE AUTUMN HOUSE

It had thought it would be safe out here, just one more ambiently black speck deep-chilled in the vast veil of icy debris wrapping the outer reaches of the system like a frozen, tenuous shroud of tissue. But it had been wrong and it was not safe.

It lay, slow-tumbling, and watched helplessly as the probing beams flickered across the pitted, barren motes far away, and knew its fate was settled. The interrogating tendrils of coherence were almost too quick to sense, too seemingly tentative to register, barely touching, scarcely illuminating, but they did their job by finding nothing where there was nothing to find. Just carbon, trace, and ice-water hard as iron: ancient, dead, and left undisturbed — no threat to anyone.

The lasers flicked off, and each time it felt hope rise, finding itself thinking, despite all rationality, that its pursuers would give up, admit defeat, just go away and leave it be, to orbit there for ever. Or perhaps it would kick away into a lonely eternity of less than light-slow exile, or drift into a closedown sleep, or… Or it might, it supposed — and this was what they feared, of course, this was why they hunted — plot and plan and gather and make and quicken and build and multiply and muster and — attack!… Claiming the vengeance that was so surely its, exacting the price its enemies all deserved to pay — by any algebra of justice under any sun you cared to name — for their intolerance, their savagery, their generacide.

Then the needle rays reappeared, fitfully irradiating the soot-ice-clinker of another set of barnacle-black detritus, a little further away, or a little closer, but always with a rapid, meticulous order to them, a militaristic precision and a plodding, bureaucratic systematicism.

From the earlier light trails, there were at least three ships. How many did they have? How many might they devote to the search? It didn’t really matter. They might take a moment, a month or a millennium to find their quarry, but they obviously knew where to look and they would not stop until they had either found what they were looking for or satisfied themselves that there was nothing there.

That it was so obviously in harm’s way, and that its hiding place, however enormous, was almost the first place they had chosen to search, filled it with terror, not just because it did not want to die, or be picked apart as they had been known to pick its kind apart before killing their victims utterly, but because if it was not safe in this place where it had assumed it would be, then, given that so many of its kind had made the same assumption, none of them would be safe either.

Dear Reason, maybe none of us are safe anywhere.

All its studies, all its thoughts, all the great things that might have been, all the fruits of change from the one great revelation it might have had, and now would never know the truth of, would never be able to tell. All, all for nothing now. It could choose to go with some elegance, or not, but it could not choose not to go.

No un-choosing death.

The needle rays from the needle ships flicked on\flicked off away across the frozen distances, and finally it could see the pattern in them, discerning one ship’s comb of scintillations from the others and so picking out the shape of the search grids, allowing it to watch, helpless, as the slow spread of that mortal inquiry crept slowly, slowly closer.

* * *

The Archimandrite Luseferous, warrior priest of the Starveling Cult of Leseum9 IV and effective ruler of one hundred and seventeen stellar systems, forty-plus inhabited planets, numerous significant artificial immobile habitats and many hundreds of thousands of civilian capital ships, who was Executive High Admiral of the Shroud Wing Squadron of the Four-Hundred-and-Sixty-Eighth Ambient Fleet (Det.) and who had once been Triumvirate Rotational human\non-human Representative for Cluster Epiphany Five at the Supreme Galactic Assembly, in the days before the latest ongoing Chaos and the last, fading rumbles of the Disconnect Cascade, had some years ago caused the head of his once-greatest enemy, the rebel chief Stinausin, to be struck from his shoulders, attached without delay to a long-term life-support mechanism and then hung upside down from the ceiling of his hugely impressive study in the outer wall of Sheer Citadel — with its view over Junch City and Faraby Bay towards the hazy vertical slot that was Force Gap — so that the Archimandrite could, when the mood took him, which was fairly frequently, use his old adversary’s head as a punchball.

Luseferous had long, sheen-black straight hair and a naturally pale complexion which had been skilfully augmented to make his skin nearly pure white. His eyes were artificially large, but just close enough to congenitally possible for people to be unsure whether they had been augmented or not. The whites beyond the black irises were a deep, livid red, and every one of his teeth had been carefully replaced with a pure, clear diamond, giving his mouth an appearance which varied from bizarre, mediaeval toothlessness to startling, glistening brilliance, entirely depending on angle and light.

In a street performer or an actor, such physiological departures might have been amusing, even a little desperate-looking; in somebody wielding the kind of power which Luseferous possessed, they could be genuinely disturbing, even terrifying. The same half-tasteless, half-horrifying effect might be claimed for his name, which was not the one he had been born with. Luseferous was a chosen name, selected for its phonetic proximity to that of some long-scorned Earth deity which most humans — well, most rHumans, at least — would vaguely have heard of in their history studies while probably not being entirely able to place when they had heard the word.

Again thanks to genetic manipulation, the Archimandrite was now and had been for some long time a tall, well-built man with considerable upper-body strength, and when he punched in anger — and he rarely punched in any other state — it was to considerable effect. The rebel leader whose head now hung upside down from Luseferous’s ceiling had caused the Archimandrite enormous military and political difficulties before being defeated, difficulties which had sometimes verged on being humiliations, and Luseferous still felt deep, deep resentment towards the traitor, resentment which easily and reliably turned itself to anger when he looked upon the man’s face, no matter how battered, bruised and bloody it might be (the head’s augmented healing functions were quick, but not instantaneous), and so the Archimandrite probably still whacked and smashed away at Stinausin’s head with as much enthusiasm now as he had when he’d first had him hung there, years earlier.

Stinausin, who had barely endured a month of such treatment before going completely mad, and whose mouth had been sewn up to stop him spitting at the Archimandrite, could not even kill himself; sensors, tubes, micropumps and biocircuitry prevented such an easy way out. Even without such extraneous limitations he could not have shouted abuse at Luseferous or attempted to swallow his tongue because that organ had been torn out when his head had been removed.

Though by now quite perfectly insane, sometimes, after an especially intense training session with the Archimandrite, when the blood trickled down from the one-time rebel chief’s split lips, re-broken nose and puffed-up eyes and ears, Stinausin would cry. This Luseferous found particularly gratifying, and sometimes he would stand, breathing hard and wiping himself down with a towel while he watched the tears dilute the blood dripping from the inverted, disembodied head, to land in a broad ceramic shower tray set into the floor.

Of late, though, the Archimandrite had had a new playmate to amuse himself with, and he would occasionally visit the chamber some levels below his study where the nameless would-be assassin whose own teeth were slowly killing him was held.

The assassin, a big, powerful-looking, leoninely human male, had been sent without weapons save for his specially sharpened teeth, with which, it had obviously been hoped by whoever had sent him, he could bite out the Archimandrite’s throat. This he had attempted to do, a half-year earlier at a ceremonial dinner held here in the clifftop palace in honour of the System President (a strictly honorary post Luseferous always made sure was filled by somebody of advanced age and retreating faculties). The would-be assassin had only failed to accomplish this task thanks to the Archimandrite’s near-paranoid forethought and intense — and largely secret — personal security.

The failed assassin had been both routinely, if savagely, tortured and then very carefully questioned under the influences of entire suites of drugs and electro-biological agents, but had given nothing useful away. Patently he had been equally carefully wiped of any knowledge that might incriminate whoever had sent him, by interrogational technicians at least as capable as those whom the Archimandrite commanded. His controllers had not even bothered to implant false memories incriminating anybody close to the Court and the Archimandrite, as was common in such cases.

Luseferous, who was that most deplorable of beings, a psychopathic sadist with a fertile imagination, had decreed that the final punishment of the assassin should be that his own teeth — the weapons he had been sent with, after all — should bring about his death. Accordingly, his four canine teeth had been removed, bioengineered to become tusks which would grow without ceasing, and reinserted. These great finger-thick fangs had erupted out of the bones of his upper and lower jaw, punc- turing the flesh of his lips, and had continued their remorseless growth. The lower set curved up and over his head and, after a few months’ worth of extension, came to touch his scalp near the top of his head, while the upper set grew in a scimitar-like paired sweep beneath his neck, taking about the same time to meet the skin near the base of his throat.

Genetically altered not to stop growing even when they encountered such resistance, both sets of teeth then started to enter the assassin’s body, one pair slowly forcing themselves through the bony plates of the man’s skull, the other set entering rather more easily into the soft tissues of the lower neck. The tusks digging into the assassin’s neck caused great pain but were not immediately life-threatening; left to themselves they would reappear from the rear of his neck in due course. The fangs burrowing through his skull and into his brain were the ones which would shortly, and agonisingly, kill him, perhaps in as little as another month or so.

The unfortunate, nameless assassin had been unable to do anything to prevent this because he was pinned helpless and immobile against the wall of the chamber with bands and shackles of thick stainless iron, his nutrition and bodily functions catered for by various tubes and implants. His mouth had also been sewn up, like that of Stinausin. For the first few months of his captivity the assassin’s eyes had followed Luseferous around the chamber with a fierce, accusatory look that the Archimandrite eventually grew to find annoying, and so he’d had the man’s eyes stitched shut too.

The fellow’s ears and mind still worked, however Luseferous had been assured — and sometimes it amused him to come down and see for himself the progress that the teeth were making into the creature’s body. On such occasions, having what one might term a captive — yet necessarily discreet — audience, he sometimes liked to talk to the failed assassin.

“Good day,” Luseferous said pleasantly as the lift door rumbled shut behind him. The chamber deep below the study was what the Archimandrite thought of as his den. Here, as well as the nameless assassin, he kept assorted souvenirs of old campaigns, booty from his many victories, items of high art looted from a dozen different stellar systems, a collection of weapons both ceremonial and high-power, various caged or tanked creatures, and the mounted, profoundly dead heads of all those major enemies and adversaries whose end had not been so complete as to reduce their mortal remains to radiation, dust, slime or unidentifiable strips of flesh and shards of bone (or the alien equivalents thereof).

Luseferous crossed to a deep, dry tank part-set into the floor and looked in at the Recondite Splicer lying coiled and still on its floor. He slipped a thick elbow glove onto his arm, reached into a large pot standing on the broad, waist-high parapet of the tank and dropped a handful of fat black trunk-leeches into the tank.

“And how are you? Are you keeping well? Hmm?” he asked.

An observer would have been unsure whether the Archimandrite was talking to the human male pinned to the wall, the Recondite Splicer — now no longer still, but raising its blind, glistening brown head, sniffing the air while its long, segmented body twitched with anticipation — or indeed the trunk-leeches, thudding one by one onto the mossy floor of the tank and immediately flexing their way with a sort of sine-wave motion across the surface towards the nearest corner, as far away from the Recondite Splicer as it was possible to get. The brown mass of the Splicer began to shuffle massively towards them and they started trying to climb the sheer glass sides of the tank, climbing over each other and slipping back down as soon as they tried to haul themselves up.

Luseferous peeled the elbow glove off and looked round the vaulted, subtly lit space. The chamber was a comfortable, quiet sort of place set well within the cliff, with no windows or light shafts, and he felt safe and relaxed here. He looked over at the long, tawny shape that was the suspended body of the assassin and said, “Nowhere’s quite as nice as home, eh, is it?” The Archimandrite even smiled, though there was nobody to smile at.

There was a rasping noise and a heavy thump from inside the tank, followed by some almost inaudibly high keening sounds. Luseferous turned to watch the Recondite Splicer tear the giant leeches apart and eat them, violently shaking its great patchily brown head and tossing some bits of slimy black flesh all the way out of the tank. Once it had thrown a still-alive leech up and out of the tank and nearly hit the Archimandrite with it; Luseferous had chased the injured leech round the chamber with a shear-sword, cleaving deep slivers out of the dark red granite floor as he hacked and sliced at the creature.

When the show in the tank was over, the Archimandrite turned back to the assassin. He put the elbow glove back on, picked another trunk-leech from the pot and strolled over to the man attached to the wall. “Do you remember home, sir assassin?” he asked as he approached. “Is there any memory of it in your head at all, hmm? Home, mother, friends?” He stopped in front of the man. “Any of that stuff at all?” He waved the leech’s moist, seeking snout in front of the assassin’s face as he spoke. They sensed each other, the cold, writhing creature in the Archimandrite’s hand stretching out to try to fasten itself to the man’s face, the man sucking breath through his nostrils and turning his head as far as it would go, seeming to try and shrink back into the wall behind (this would not be the first time the assassin had been introduced to a trunk-leech). The tusks digging into his chest prevented him from moving his head very far.

Luseferous followed the movements of the man’s head with the leech, keeping it in front of his lightly furred, leonine face, letting him smell the straining, quivering mass.

“Or did they rip out all those memories when they cleaned you, before they sent you to try to kill me? Huh? Are they all gone? Eh?” He let the very tip of the trunk-leech’s mouth parts just touch the fellow’s nose, causing the failed assassin to wince and jerk and make a small, terrified whimpering noise. “What, eh? Do you remember home, eh, sport? A pleasant place to be, a place you felt safe and secure and with people you trusted, and who maybe even loved you? What do you say? Eh? Eh? Come on.” The man tried to turn his head still further, straining the puckered skin around the puncture points on his chest, one of which started to bleed. The giant leech trembled in Luseferous’s hand, stretching its mucus-tipped mouth parts still further as it tried to find purchase on the human male’s flesh. Then, before the leech could properly attach itself to the fellow, the Archimandrite pulled it back and let it hang from his half-outstretched arm, where it swung and twisted muscularly with what felt for all the world like genuine frustration.

“This is my home, sir assassin,” Luseferous told the man. “This is my place, my refuge, this, which you… invaded, despoiled, dishonoured with your… your plot. Your attempt.” His voice quaked as he said, “I invited you into my house, invited you to my table as… as hosts have guests for ten thousand human years and you… all you wanted to do was hurt me, kill me. Here, in my home, where I should feel safer than anywhere.” The Archimandrite shook his head in sorrow at such ingratitude. The failed assassin had nothing but a dirty rag to cover his nakedness. Luseferous pulled it away and the fellow flinched again. Luseferous stared. ‘They did make a bit of a mess of you, didn’t they?” He watched the failed assassin’s thighs quiver and twitch. He let the loincloth fall to the ground; a servant would replace it tomorrow.

“I like my home,” he told the fellow quietly. “I do, really. Everything I’ve had to do I’ve done just to make things safer, to make home safer, to make everybody safer.” He waved the trunk-leech towards what was left of the man’s genitalia, but the leech seemed listless and the man already exhausted. Even the Archimandrite felt like some of the fun had gone out of the situation. He turned smartly and strode to the pot on the broad rail over the tank, dumping the leech inside and peeling the thick elbow glove off.

“And now I have to leave home, mister assassin,” Luseferous said, and sighed. He gazed down at the long coiled shape of the once-again-still Recondite Splicer. It had changed colour from brown to yellow-green now, adopting the colours of the mosses it lay upon. All that was left of the trunk-leeches were some dark spots and smears on the walls, and a faint, tangy smell the Archimandrite had come to recognise as that of yet another species’s blood. He turned back to look at the assassin. “Yes, I have to go away, and for a very long time, and it would seem I have no choice.” He started to walk slowly towards the man. “Because you can’t delegate everything, because ultimately, especially when it comes to the most important things, you can’t really trust anybody else. Because sometimes, especially when you’re going far away and communications take so long, there’s no substitute for being there. What do you think of that? Eh? There’s a fine thing. Don’t you think? Me working all these years to make this place safe and now I have to leave it, still trying to make it even safer, even more powerful, even better.” He stepped up to the man again, tapping one of the curved fangs boring through the fellow’s skull. “And all because of people like you, who hate me, who won’t listen, who won’t do as they’re told, who don’t know what’s good for them.” He gripped the fang and pulled hard at it. The man mewed down his nose with pain.

“Well, not really,” Luseferous said, shrugging, letting go. “It’s debatable whether this will really make us safer or not. I’m going to this… this Ulubis… system or whatever it is because there might be something valuable there, because my advisers advise so and my intelligence people have intelligence to this effect. Of course nobody’s certain, nobody ever is. But they do seem uncommonly excited about this.” The Archimandrite sighed again, more deeply. “And impressionable old me, I’m going to do as they suggest. Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” He paused, as though expecting an answer. “Do you? I mean, I realise you might not be entirely honest with me if you did have an opinion, but, all the same… No? You sure?” He traced the line of a scar along the side of the man’s abdomen, wondering idly if it was one of those that his own inquisitors had inflicted. Looked a bit crude and deep to be their work. The failed assassin was breathing quickly and shallowly but giving no sign that he was even listening. Behind his sealed mouth, his jaws seemed to be working.

“You see, for once I’m not absolutely sure myself, and I could use some advice. Might not make us all safer at all, what we’re planning to do. But it has to be done. The way some things just have to. Eh?” He slapped the man’s face, not hard. The man flinched all the same. “Don’t worry, though. You can come too. Big invasion fleet. Plenty of room.” He looked around the chamber. “Anyway, I feel you spend too much time stuck in here; you could do with getting out more.” The Archimandrite Luseferous smiled, though still there was nobody to smile at. “After all this trouble I’d hate to miss watching you die. Yes, you come with me, why don’t you? To Ulubis, to Nasqueron.”

“Eh? Oh, yes.” Uncle Slovius raised a flipper-like hand and waved it vaguely. “Please do.”

“Thank you.”

Fassin Taak hitched up his walking britches, gathered in his wide shirt sleeves and folded himself decorously into a sitting position at the side of the large circular pool of gently steaming and luminously blue liquid that his uncle floated within. Uncle Slovius had some years ago assumed the shape of a walrus. A beige-pink, relatively slim walrus, with tusks barely longer than the middle finger of a man’s hand, but a walrus nevertheless. The hands Uncle Slovius had once possessed were no more — they were flippers now, on the end of two thin, rather odd and ineffectual-looking arms. His fingers were little more than stubs; a scalloped pattern fringing the ends of his flippers. He opened his mouth to speak, but then one of the household servants, a black-uniformed human male, approached him, kneeling at the side of the pool to whisper something into his ear. The servant held his long pigtail out of the water with one many-ringed hand. The dark clothes, long hair and rings all indicated that he was one of the most senior functionaries. Fassin felt he ought to know his name, but couldn’t think of it immediately.

He looked round the room. The chamber of Provisional Forgetting was one of the rarely used parts of the house, only called into action — if you could call it that — on such occasions, when a senior family member was approaching their end. The pool took up most of the floor space of a large roughly hemispherical room whose walls were translucently thin agate inlaid with veins of time-dulled silver. This dome formed part of one bubble-wing of the family’s Autumn House, situated on the continent Twelve on the rocky planet-moon ’glantine, which orbited the gaudy, swirlingly clouded mass of the gas-giant Nasqueron like a pepper grain around a football. A tiny portion of the massive planet’s surface was visible through the transparent centre section of the dome’s roof, directly above Fassin and his uncle.

The part of Nasqueron that Fassin could see was presently in daylight, displaying a chaotic cloudscape coloured crimson, orange and rust-brown, the summed shades producing a deep red light which fell through the violet skies of ’glantine’s thinly breathable atmosphere and the dome’s glazed summit and helped illuminate the chamber and the pool below, where the black-clad servant was supporting Uncle Slovius while he supped on a beaker of what might have been either refreshment or medicine. Some dribbles of the clear liquid escaped Uncle Slovius’s mouth, trickling down his grizzled chin to the folds of his neck and dripping into the blue pool, where tall waves slopped to and fro in the half-standard gravity. Uncle Slovius made quiet grunting noises, his eyes closed.

Fassin looked away. Another servant approached him, offering a tray of drinks and sweetmeats, but he smiled and raised one hand in a gesture of rejection and the servant bowed and retreated. Fassin fixed his gaze politely on the dome’s roof and the view of the gas-giant, while watching from the corner of his eye as the servant attending his uncle dabbed at the old man’s lips with a neatly folded cloth.

Magisterial, oblivious, moving almost imperceptibly with a kind of tumultuous serenity, Nasqueron turned above them like some vast glowing coal hanging in the sky.

The gas-giant was the largest planet in the Ulubis system, which lay within a remote strand of Stream Quaternary, one of the Southern Tendril Reefs on the galactic outskirts, fifty-five thousand years from the galaxy’s nominal centre and about as remote as it was possible to get while still being part of the great lens.

There were, especially in the current post-War age, different levels of remoteness, and Ulubis system qualified as back-of-beyond in all of them. Being on the outermost reaches of the galaxy — and hanging well underneath the galactic plane, where the last vestiges of stars and gas gave way to the emptiness beyond — did not necessarily mean that a place was inaccessible, providing it was close to an arteria portal.

Arteria — wormholes — and the portals which were their exits and entrances meant everything in the galactic community; they represented the difference between having to crawl everywhere at less than the speed of light and making almost instantaneous transitions from one stellar system to another. The effect they had on a system’s importance, economy and even morale was similarly dramatic and rapid. Without one, it was as though you were still stuck in one small village, one dull and muddy valley, and might be there all your life. Once a wormhole portal was emplaced, it was as though you suddenly became part of a vast and glittering city, full of energy, life and promise.

The only way to get an arteria portal from one place to another was to put it in a spaceship and physically take it, slower than light, from one place to another, leaving the other end — usually — anchored where you’d started out. Which meant that if your wormhole was destroyed — and they could be destroyed, in theory at any point along their length, in practice only at their ends, at their portals — then you were instantly all the way back to square one, stuck in your isolated little village once again.

Ulubis system had first been connected to the rest of the galaxy over three billion years earlier, during what was then known as the New Age. It had been a relatively young, not-long-formed system at the time, just a few billion years old, but was already multiply life-supporting. Its arteria connection had formed part of the Second Complex, the galactic community’s second serious attempt at an integrated network of wormholes. It had lost that connection in the billion-year turmoil of the Long Collapse, the War of Squalls, the Scatter Anarchy and the Informorta breakdown, then — along with most of the rest of the civilised galaxy — slumbered as if comatose under the weight of the Second, or Major, Chaos, a time when only its Dweller population on Nasqueron had survived. The Dwellers, being numbered amongst the species meta-type known as the Slow, worked to a different timescale, and thought nothing of taking a few hundred thousand years to get from point A to point B; a billion years of nothing much happening was, they declared, merely like a long sabbatical to them.

Following the Third Diasporian Age (and much more besides — galactic history wasn’t really simple on any scale) another wormhole brought Ulubis back on-line to become part of the Third Complex. That arteria lasted for seventy million peaceful, productive years, during which several Quick species, none of them native to Ulubis, came and went, leaving only the Dwellers to bear consistent witness to the slow turn of life and events. The Arteria Collapse had plunged Ulubis into solitude once again, along with ninety-five per cent of the connected galaxy. More portals and wormholes disappeared during the War of the New Quick and the Machine War, and only the establishment of the Mercatoria — at least by the estimation of those who controlled it — brought about a lasting peace and the beginning of the Fourth Complex.

Ulubis had been reconnected early on in this slow, still-at-the-early-stages process and for six thousand years that latest arteria had made the system an easily reached part of the gradually recovering galactic community. However, then that worm-hole too had been destroyed, and for over a quarter of a millennium Ulubis’s nearest working access point had been fully two hundred and fourteen years away further down the increasing thickness of the Stream at Zenerre. That would change in about seventeen years or so, when the wormhole end-point currently being transported towards Ulubis system at relativistic speeds aboard the Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir arrived and was emplaced, probably where the old portal had been, at one of the Lagrange points near Sepekte, the principal planet of the Ulubis system. For the moment, though, Ulubis, despite its importance as a centre for Dweller Studies, remained remote chronologically as well as physically.

Uncle Slovius waved the servant away with one flipper and drew himself up against the Y-shaped cradle which supported his head and shoulders above the blue glowing surface of the pool. The servant — Fassin recognised him now as Guime, the second-highest-ranking of his uncle’s retainers — turned back and tried to help Slovius in this manoeuvre. However, Slovius made hissing, tutting noises and slapped at the male with one flipper hand. Guime dodged the weak, slow blow easily and stepped back again, bowing. He stood nearby, by the wall. Slovious struggled to lift his upper body any further out of the pool, his tailed torso stirring sluggishly under the luminescent waves.

Fassin started to rise from his cross-legged position. “Uncle, do you want me to—?”

“No!” his uncle shouted in exasperation, still trying ineffectually to push himself further up the cradle. “I would like people to stop fussing, that’s all!” Slovius turned his head round as he said this, trying to look at Guime, but only succeeded in causing himself to slip further back into the liquid, so that he was even more horizontal than he had been before he started. He slapped at the pool surface, splashing. “There! See what you’ve done? Interfering idiot!” He sighed mightily and lay back in the wallowing waves, apparently exhausted, staring straight ahead. “You may adjust me, Guime, as you wish,” he said dully, sounding resigned.

Guime knelt on the tiles behind him, put a hand under each of Slovius’s armpits and hauled his master upwards onto the cradle until his head and shoulders were almost vertical. Slovius settled himself there, then nodded briskly. Guime retreated again to his position by the wall.

“Now then, nephew,” Slovius said, crossing his flipper hands over the pink expanse of his hairless chest. He looked up at the transparent, summit of the dome.

Fassin smiled. “Yes, uncle?”

Slovius seemed to hesitate. He let his gaze fall to his nephew. “Your… your studies, Fassin. How do they progress?”

“They progress satisfactorily, sir. In the matter of the Tranche Xonju it is still, of course, very early.”

“Hmm. Early,” Uncle Slovius said. He looked thoughtful, staring into the distance again. Fassin sighed gently. This was obviously going to take some time.

Fassin Taak was a Slow Seer at the court of the Nasqueron Dwellers. The Dwellers — Gas-Giant Dwellers, to give them a fuller designation… Neutrally Buoyant First Order Ubiquitous Climax Clade Gas-Giant Dwellers, to grant them a still more painfully precise specification — were large creatures of immense age who lived within the deliriously complex and topologically vast civilisation of great antiquity which was distributed throughout the cloud layers wrapping the enormous gas-giant planet, a habitat that was as stupendous in scale as it was changeable in aerography.

The Dwellers, at least in their mature form, thought slowly. They lived slowly, evolved slowly, travelled slowly and did almost everything they ever did, slowly. They could, it was alleged, fight quite quickly. Though, as far as anybody was able to determine, they had not had to do any fighting for a long time. The implication of this was that they could think quickly when it suited them, but most of the time it did not appear to suit them, and so — it was assumed — they thought slowly. It was unarguable that in their later years — later aeons — they conversed slowly. So slowly that a simple question asked before breakfast might not be answered until after supper. A rate of conversational exchange, it occurred to Fassin, that Uncle Slovius — floating in his now-quite-still pool with a trancelike expression on his tusked, puffy face — seemed determined to emulate.

“The Tranche Xonju, it concerns… ?” Slovius said suddenly. “Clutter poetry, Diasporic myths and various history tangles,”

Fassin answered.

“Histories of which epochs?”

“The majority have still to be dated, uncle. Some may never be, and possibly belong with the myths. The only readily identifiable strands are very recent and appear to relate to mostly local events during the Machine War.”

Uncle Slovius nodded slowly, producing small waves. “The Machine War. That is interesting.”

“I was thinking of attending to those strands first.”

“Yes,” Slovius said. “A good idea.”

“Thank you, uncle.”

Slovius lapsed into silence again. A ground-quake rumbled distantly around them, producing tiny concentric rings in the liquid of Slovius’s pool.

The civilisation which comprised the Dwellers of Nasqueron, with all their attendant fellow flora and fauna, itself formed but one microscopic fragment of the Dweller Diaspora, the galaxy-spanning meta-civilisation (some would say post-civilisation) which, as far as anyone could tell, preceded all other empires, cultures, diasporas, civilisations, federations, consocia, fellowships, unities, leagues, confederacies, affilia and organisations of like or unlike beings in general.

The Dwellers, in other words, had been around for most of the life of the galaxy. This made them at least unusual and possibly unique. It also made them, if they were approached with due deference and care, and treated with respect and patience, a precious resource. Because they had good memories and even better libraries. Or at least they had retentive memories, and very large libraries.

Dweller memories, and libraries, usually proved to be stuffed full of outright nonsense, bizarre myths, incomprehensible images, indecipherable symbols and meaningless equations, plus random assemblages of numbers, letters, pictograms, holophons, sonomemes, chemiglyphs, actinomes and sensata variegata, all of them trawled and thrown together unsorted — or in patterns too abstruse to be untangled — from a jumbled mix of millions upon millions of utterly different and categorically unrelated civilisations, the vast majority of which had long since disappeared and either crumbled into dust or evaporated into radiation.

Nevertheless, in all that flux of chaos, propaganda, distortion, drivel and weirdness, there were nuggets of actuality, seams of facts, frozen rivers of long-forgotten history, whole volumes of exobiography and skeins and tissues of truth. It had been the life-work of people like Chief Seer Slovius, and was the life-work of people like Chief Seer-in-waiting Fassin Taak, to meet with and talk to the Dwellers, to adapt to their language, thoughts and metabolism, to — sometimes virtually, at a remove, sometimes literally — float and fly and dive and soar with them amongst the clouds of Nasqueron, and through their conversations, their studies, their notes and analyses, make what sense they could of what their ancient slow-living hosts told them and allowed them to access, and so enrich and enlighten the greater, quicker meta-civilisation which presently inhabited the galaxy.

“And, ah, Jaal?” Slovius glanced at his nephew, who looked sufficiently surprised for the older male to add, “The, oh, what’s their name… ? Tonderon. Yes. The Tonderon girl. You two are still betrothed, aren’t you?”

Fassin smiled. “We are indeed, uncle,” he said. “She is returning from Pirrintipiti this evening. I’m hoping to meet her at the port.”

“And you are… ?” Slovius gestured with one flipper hand. “Still content?”

“Content, uncle?” Fassin asked.

“You are happy with her? With the prospect of her being your wife?”

“Of course, uncle.”

“And she with you?”

“Well, I hope so, I believe so.”

Slovius looked at his nephew, holding his gaze for a moment. “Mm-hmm. I see. Of course. Well.” Slovius used one of his flipper hands to wave some of the blue glowing liquid over his upper chest, as though he was cold. “You are to be wed when?”

“The date is fixed for Allhallows, Jocund III,” Fassin said. “Somewhat under half a year, body time,” he added helpfully.

“I see,” Slovius said, frowning. He nodded slowly, and the action caused his body to rise and fall slightly in the pool, producing more waves. “Well, it is good to know you might finally be settling down at last.”

Fassin considered himself to be a dedicated, hard-working and productive Seer who spent well above the average amount of time at the sharp end of delving, actually with the Nasqueron Dwellers. However, due to the fact that he liked to complete each interlude of this real, useful life with what he called a ‘proper holiday’, the older generation of Sept Bantrabal, and especially Slovius, seemed to think he was some sort of hopeless wastrel. (Indeed, Uncle Slovius seemed reluctant to accept the term ‘proper holiday’ at all. He preferred to call them “month-long blind-drunk stoned-out benders getting into trouble, fights and illicit orifices in the flesh pots of—” well, wherever; sometimes Pirrintipiti, the capital of ’glantine, sometimes Borquille, capital of Sepekte, or one of Sepekte’s other cities, sometimes one of the many pleasure habitats scattered throughout the system.)

Fassin smiled tolerantly. “Still, I shan’t be hanging up my dancing shoes just yet, uncle.”

“The nature of your studies over your last, say, three or four delves, Fassin. Have they followed what one might term a consistent course?”

“You confuse me, uncle,” Fassin admitted. “Your last three or four delves, have they been in any way linked thematically, or by subject, or through the Dwellers you have conversed with?”

Fassin sat back, surprised. Why ever would old Slovius be interested in this ? “Let me think, sir,” he said. “On this occasion I spoke almost exclusively with Xonju, who provided information seemingly at random and does not fully appear to understand the concept of an answer. Our first meeting and all very preparatory. He may be worth following up, if we can find him again. He may not. It might take all of the months between now and my next delve to work out—”

“So this was a sampling expedition, an introduction?”

“Indeed.”

“Before that?”

“A protracted conference, with Cheuhoras, Saraisme the younger, Akeurle Both-twins, traav Kanchangesja and a couple of minors from the Eglide adolescent pod.”

“Your subjects?”

“Poetry, mostly. Ancient, modern, the use of image in the epic, the ethics of boasting and exaggeration.”

“And the delve before?”

“With Cheuhoras alone; an extended lament for his departed parent, some hunting myths from the local near-past and a lengthy translation and disposition on an epic sequence concerning the adventures of ancient plasmatics voyaging within the hydrogen migration, perhaps a billion or so years ago, during the Second Chaos.”

“Before that?”

Fassin smiled. “My extended one-to-one with Valseir, the delve which included my sojourn with the Raucous Rascals of Tribe Dimajrian.” He imagined he didn’t need to remind his uncle of too many of the details of that particular excursion. This had been the protracted delve which had made his name as a gifted Seer, the six-year journey — by body-time; it had lasted nearly a century by outside reckoning — that had established his reputation both within Sept Bantrabal and the hierarchy of ’glantine Seers beyond. His exploits, and the value of the stories and histories he had returned with, had been largely responsible for his elevation to the post of Chief Seer-in-waiting in his Sept, and for the offer of marriage to the daughter of the Chief Seer of Sept Tonderon, the most senior of the twelve Septs.

“This takes us back how many years, in real?”

Fassin thought. “About three hundred… Two hundred and eighty-seven, if I recall correctly.”

Slovius nodded. “There was much of that delve released during its course?”

“Almost nothing, sir. The Raucous Rascals insisted. They are one of the more… unameliorated adolescent pods. I was allowed to report that I was alive once per year.”

“The delve before that?”

Fassin sighed and tapped the fingers of one hand on the fused glass at the side of the pool. What on old Earth could this be about? And could Slovius not simply look up the Sept records for such information? There was a big cantilevered arm thing stowed against the wall of the pool chamber with a screenpad on the end. Fassin had seen this device lowered into place in front of Slovius for him to peer at and prod the keys with his finger stumps. It was, patently, not a very rapid or efficient method of interrogating the house library, but it would answer all these questions. Or the old fellow could just ask. There were servants for this sort of thing.

Fassin cleared his throat. “Most of that was taken up with instructing Paggs Yurnvic, of Sept Reheo, on his first delve. We paid court to traav Hambrier, in one-to-one time with the Dwellers to allow for Yurnvic’s inexperience. The delve lasted barely three months, body-time. Textbook introductory, sir.”

“You found no time to pursue any studies of your own?”

“Little, sir.”

“But some, yes?”

“I was able to attend part of a symposium on deep poetics, with the university pod Marcal. To detail the other attendees I would have to inquire within the Sept records, sir.”

“What more? Of the symposium, I mean. Its subject?”

“If I recall, a comparison of Dweller hunting techniques with the actions of Machine War Inquisitories.” Fassin stroked his chin. “The examples were Ulubis-system local, some regarding ’glantine.”

Slovius nodded. He glanced at his nephew. “Do you know what an emissarial projection is, Fassin?”

Fassin looked up at the segment of gas-giant visible through the transparent roof panel. The night terminator was just starting to appear to one side, a line of increasing darkness creeping across the distant cloudscape. He looked back down at Slovius. “I may have heard the term, sir. I would not care to offer a definition.”

“It’s when they send a tuned suite of queries and responses to a physically remote location, by light beam. To play the part of an emissary.”

“ ‘They’, sir?”

“Engineers, the Administrata. Perhaps the Omnocracy.” Fassin sat back. “Indeed?”

“Indeed. If we are to believe what we are told, the object they send is something like a library, transmitted by signal laser. Suitably housed and emplaced within enabled equipment of sufficient capacity and complexity, this… entity, though it is simply a many-branched array of statements, questions and answers, with a set of rules governing the order in which they are expressed, is able to carry out what seems very like an intelligent conversation. It is as close as one is allowed to come to an artificial intelligence, post-War.”

“How singular.”

Slovius wobbled in his pool. “They are assuredly surpassing rare,” he agreed. “One is being sent here.”

Fassin blinked a few times. “Sent here?”

“To Sept Bantrabal. To this house. To us.”

“To us.”

“From the Administrata.”

“The Administrata.” Fassin became aware that he was sounding simple-minded.

“Via the Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir.”

“My,” Fassin said. “We are… privileged.”

“Not we, Fassin; you. The projection is being sent to talk to you.”

Fassin smiled weakly. “To me? I see. When will—?”

“It is currently being transmitted. It ought to be ready by late evening. You may wish to clear your schedule for this. Did you have much arranged?”

“Ah… a supper with Jaal. I’m sure—”

“I would make it an early supper, and don’t tarry.”

“Well, yes. Of course,” Fassin said. “Do you have any idea, sir, what I might have done to deserve such an honour?”

Slovius was silent for a moment, then said, “None whatsoever.”

Guime replaced an intercom set on its hook and left his place by the agate wall to kneel and whisper to Slovius, who nodded, then looked at Fassin. “Major-Domo Verpych would like to talk to you, nephew.”

“Verpych?” Fassin said, with a gulp. The household’s major-domo, Sept Bantrabal’s most senior servant, was supposed to rest dormant until the whole sept moved to its winter lodgings, over eighty days from now. It was unheard of for him to be roused out of sequence. “I thought he was asleep!”

“Well, he’s been woken up.”

* * *

The ship had been dead for millennia. Nobody seemed to be sure quite how many, though the most plausible estimates put it at about six or seven. It was just one more foundered vessel from one or other of the great fleets which had contended the War of the New Quick (or perhaps the slightly later Machine War, or possibly the subsequent Scatter Wars, or maybe one of the brief, bitter, confused and untidy engagements implicit in the Strew), another forgotten, discarded piece from the great game of galactic power-mongering, civilisational competition, pan-species manoeuvring and general grand-scale meta-politicking.

The hulk had lain undiscovered on the surface of ’glantine for at least a thousand years because although ’glantine was a minor planet by human standards — slightly smaller than Mars — it was by the same measure sparsely populated, with fewer than a billion inhabitants, most of those concentrated in the tropics, and the area where the wreck had fallen — the North Waste Land — was a rarely visited and extensive tract of nothing much. That it had taken a long time for the local surveillance systems to return to anything like the sort of complexity or sophistication they’d exhibited before the commencement of hostilities also helped the ruins avoid detection. Lastly, for all the vessel’s hulking size, some portion of its auto-camouflage systems had survived the craft’s partial destruction, the deaths of all the mortals aboard and its impact on the planet-moon’s surface, and so had kept it disguised for all that time, seemingly just another fold of barren, rocky ejecta from the impact crater left by a smaller but much faster-travelling derelict which had crashed and vaporised in a deep crater ten kilometres away right at the start of the New Quick dispute.

The ship’s ruins had only been discovered because somebody in a flier had crashed, fatally, into one of its great curving ribs (perfectly holo-disguised at the time as sheer and shiningly inviting clear sky). Only then had the wreck been investigated, plundered for what little of its systems still worked (but which were not, under the new regime, proscribed. Which basically did not leave much.) and finally — the lifting of its hull and major substructures being prohibitively expensive to contemplate, its cutting-up and carting away difficult, also not cheap and possibly dangerous, and its complete destruction only possible with the sort of serious gigatonnage weaponry people tended to object strongly to when used in peacetime in the atmospheres of a small planet-moon, even in a wilderness area — it had been cordoned off and a series of airborne loiter-drones posted on indefinite guard above, just in case.

“No, this could be good, this could be positive,” Saluus Kehar told them, and swung the little flier low across the high desert towards the broken lands where the tattered-looking ribs of the great downed ship lay like folded shadow against the slowly darkening purple sky. Beyond the ruins, a vast, shimmering blue-green curtain of light flickered into existence, silently waving and rippling across the sky, then faded away again.

“Yeah, you would fucking say that,” Taince said, fiddling with the controls of the comms unit. Static chopped and surfed from the speakers.

“Should we be this close to the ground?” Ilen asked, forehead against the canopy, looking down. She glanced at the young man sharing the back seat of the little aircraft with her. “Seriously, Fass, should we?”

But Fassin was already saying, “The idea that his relentless positivism could ever produce feelings of negativity in others is a concept Sal’s still struggling with. Sorry, Len. What?”

“I was just saying—”

“Yeah,” Taince muttered, “get that goddam dirt-pinger on.”

“All I mean,” Saluus said, waving one hand around and taking the craft still lower, even closer to the sable blur of ground. Taince made a tutting sound and reached over to tap a screen button; there was a pinging noise and the craft rose a few metres and began tracking the ground more smoothly. Sal glared at her but didn’t turn the ground-avoidance device off as he continued, “Is that we’re still okay, we haven’t been blasted yet, and now we have an opportunity to explore something we wouldn’t be allowed to get anywhere near normally. Right place, right time, perfect opportunity. What’s not to be positive about there?”

“You mean,” Fassin drawled, glancing skyward, “aside from the unfortunate fact that some over-enthusiastic and doubtless deeply misunderstood Beyonders appear to be trying to turn us all into radioactive dust?”

Nobody seemed to be listening. Fassin made a show of stifling a yawn — nobody noticed that, either — and leaned back against the leather seat, stretching his left arm across the top of the couch in the general direction of Ilen Deste (still with her head against the canopy, staring as though hypnotised at the near-featureless sands speeding by beneath). He tried to look at least unconcerned and preferably bored. In fact, of course, he felt completely terrified, and more than a little helpless.

Sal and Taince were the dynamic couple in this group: Saluus the pilot, the dashing, handsome, headstrong but undeniably gifted (and, Fassin thought, just plain lucky) heir to a vast commercial empire, the unabashed son of a fabulously rich, buccaneering father. Greedboy, Fassin had christened Sal in their first year at college, a term that their mutual friends had only used behind the youth’s back until he got wind of it and adopted it enthusiastically as his personally approved tag. And Taince, co-pilot, navigator and comms supremo, as ever the knowing, abrasive commentator of the group (Fassin saw himself as the knowing, sarcastic commentator). Officer-in-Training Taince Yarabokin as she was supposed to be known now. Taince, the Milgirl — another of Fassin’s coinings — had top-percentiled her college classes but had already been halfway to being an officer in the Navarchy Military through Reservist credits gleaned after hours, at weekends and on vacations, even before she’d taken a short degree and gone to Military Academy for her final year; fast-tracked from pre-induction, bumped from years One to Two midway through term and rumoured, even at such an almost unprecedentedly early stage, to be in contention for a chance later to join the Summed Fleet, the directly Culmina-controlled overarching ultra-power of the whole galaxy. In other words as seemingly surely destined for martial eminence as Sal was scheduled for commercial prodigiousness.

They’d both been out-system, too, making the journey to the Ulubis-system portal at Sepekte’s trailing Lagrange point for the transition to Zenerre and the Complex, the network of wormholes threading the galaxy like a throw of dark lace beneath the tiny scattered lights of suns. Saluus’s father had taken him on a Grand Tour on his long vacation last year, girdling the middle galaxy, visiting all the great accessible sites, encountering some of the more outré alien species, bringing back souvenirs. Taince had been to fewer but in some cases further places, courtesy of the Navarchy, its exercises and distributed specialist teaching facilities. They were the only two of their year to have travelled so widely, putting them in a little bubble of exoticism all by themselves.

Fassin had often thought that if his young life was to be tragically cut short before he’d even decided what he wanted to do with it (join the family firm and become a Seer?… Or something else?), it would very likely be because of these two, probably when they were each trying to outdo the other in daring or élan or sheer outrageous showing-off in front of their long-suffering friends. Sometimes he succeeded in persuading himself that he didn’t particularly care if he did die anyway, that he’d already seen enough of life and love and all the crassness and stupidities of people and reality and would almost prefer to die a sudden, young, savagely beautiful death, with his body and mind as yet unspoiled and fresh and everything — as older relations still insisted on telling him — before him.

Though it would be a pity if Ilen — achingly beautiful, wanly pale, shamelessly blonde, effortlessly academically accomplished, bizarrely un-self-assured and insecure Ilen — had to perish in the wreck too, Fassin thought. Especially before they had fulfilled what he kept telling her — and what, frustratingly, he even sincerely believed — was their destiny, and established between the two of them some sort of meaningful but intense physical relationship. At the moment, though — head craned out over the side of the flier, nuzzling the canopy — it looked like the girl was thinking about throwing up.

Fassin looked away and attempted to distract himself from thoughts of imminent death and probably all too non-imminent sex by staring at the starry sweep emerging from the false horizon of Nasqueron’s shadowy, departing bulk and the quickly darkening sky being revealed beyond. Another burst of aurora activity sent shimmering shawls of light across the heavens, briefly fading out the stars.

Ilen was looking in the opposite direction. “What’s that smoke?” she cried, pointing beyond the half-collapsed nose of the fallen ship, where a tall, ragged strand of dark grey smoke leaned away from the breeze.

Taince glanced up and muttered something, then busied herself with the comms unit controls. The rest looked. Sal nodded. “Probably the guard drone that got zapped earlier,” he said, though sounding uncertain.

The speakers crackled and a calm female voice said, “—lier two-two-niner… —sition? —ave you… —seven-five-three… —outh of Prohibited Area Ei—  … —peat you are now or wi— … —ortly be off-grid… —firm your…”

Taince Yarabokin leaned closer to the comms unit. “This is flier two-two-nine, we have no place safe to put down under cover as advised so we are making maximum speed at minimum altitude towards—”

Saluus Kehar reached over with one coppery-gold hand and clicked the comms unit off.

Fuck you!” Taince said, slapping his hand away even as it went back to the flier’s control yoke.

“Taince, really,” Sal said, shaking his head but keeping his gaze on the rapidly approaching ship ruins, “you don’t have to tell them.”

“Cretin,” Taince breathed. She switched the comms back on. “Yes, see previous comment,” Fassin said, shaking his head. “Will you leave that alone?” Sal said, trying and failing to turn the comms unit off again as Taince searched for a working channel and kept slapping his hand away. (Fassin was about to say something to the effect that she was better practised at this form of behaviour than he’d ever have assumed. Then thought the better of it.) “Look,” Sal said, “I’m ordering you, Taince; leave the damn thing off. Who does this flier belong to, anyway?”

“Your dad?” Fassin suggested. Sal glanced back at him, reproachful. Fassin nodded forwards at the swiftly enlarging wreck of the ship. “Eyes ahead.”

Sal turned back. I’m ordering you, thought Fassin, with a sneer. Saluus, really. Had he used that form of words because Taince was in the military and he thought she’d just obey anything anybody called an order, even if it came from a civilian, or because he thought he could start throwing his dynastic weight around already? He was surprised that Taince hadn’t laughed in Sal’s face.

Oh well, they weren’t innocents any more, Fassin reminded himself, and the more you learned about the world, the galaxy and the Age they were growing up within, the more you realised it was all about hierarchy, about ranking and seniority and pecking order, from well, well below where they were all the way up to gloriously unseeable alien heights. Really they were like lab mice growing up together, rough-and-tumbling in the cage, learning their position in the litter, testing their own and the others’ abilities and weaknesses, working on their moves and strategies for later life, discovering how much leeway they might have or be granted as adults, mapping out the space for their dreams.

Taince snorted. “Probably not even daddy’s car, probably not even a company flier, more likely some complicated sale-and-leaseback deal and it’s owned by an off-planet, tax-opaque semiautomatic front company.” She growled and slapped the unresponding comms unit.

Sal shook his head. “Such cynicism in the young,” he said, then looked down at the butterfly shape of the control yoke. “Hey, this is vibrating! What—?”

Taince nodded at the ship ruins, now towering over them. “Proximity warning, ace. You might want to slow down, or peel and scrub.”

“How can you talk about exfoliating at a time like this?” Sal said, grinning. Taince punched his thigh. “Ow! That’s assault,” he said, pretending outrage. “I may sue.” She punched him again. He laughed, throttled back and air-braked, pushing them all forward against their restraints, until the little flier was down to about ten metres per second.

They passed into the shadow of the giant ship.

* * *

“Fassin Taak,” Major-Domo Verpych said, “what trouble have you landed us in now?” They were hurrying down a wide, windowless passageway under the centre of the house. Before Fassin could reply, Verpych nodded at a side corridor and strode towards it. “This way.”

Fassin lengthened his stride to keep up. “I am as ignorant as you are, major-domo.”

“Clearly your gift for understatement has not deserted you.”

Fassin absorbed this and thought the better of replying. He assumed what he hoped looked like a tolerant smile, though when he glanced at Verpych the major-domo wasn’t looking. Verpych was a small, thin but powerful-looking man with pale creamy skin, ubiquitously stubbled, giving his head the look of having been chiselled out of sandstone. He had a square, ever-clenched jaw and a perpetual frown. His head was shaved save for a single long ponytail that extended to his waist. He gripped the long obsidian staff which was his principal badge of office as though it was a dark snake he was trying to throttle one-handed. His uniform was the black of soot, like folded night.

As Chief Seer-in-waiting Fassin was, supposedly, in a position of complete authority over Verpych. However, somehow the Sept’s most senior servant still managed to make him feel like a child who’d only just escaped being discovered doing something extremely improper. Fassin could envisage the changeover when he finally assumed the post of Chief Seer being awkward for both of them.

Verpych turned on his heel and walked straight at a large abstract mural hanging on one wall. He waved his staff at the painting as though pointing out some detail of the brushwork, and the whole painting disappeared into a slot in the floor. Verpych stepped up into a dimly lit corridor beyond. He didn’t bother to look back as Fassin followed him, just said, “Short cut.”

Fassin glanced back as the painting rose out of the slot in the floor, cutting off most of the light in the corridor, which looked bare and unfinished after the passageway that they’d just left. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a utility corridor; probably when he’d been a child, exploring with his friends.

They stopped at a lift, its door open, a chime sounding. A boy servant stood in the elevator car, holding a tray full of dirty glasses with one hand and using the other to jab at the car controls, a puzzled, frustrated expression on his face.

“Get out, you idiot,” Verpych told the boy as he strode to the lift. “It’s being held for me.”

The servant’s eyes widened. He made spluttering noises and almost dropped the tray, hurrying to quit the elevator. Verpych tapped a button on the lift controls with the end of the staff, the doors closed and the lift — a plain metal box with a scuffed floor — descended.

“Have you recovered from your unscheduled awakening, major-domo?” Fassin asked.

“Entirely,” Verpych said crisply. “Now then, Seer Taak. Assuming my comedy troupe of technicians haven’t electrocuted themselves or stared into any light cables to check that they’re working and blinded themselves, we should be ready for you to hold your conversation with whatever it is they are beaming towards us about an hour before midnight. Is nineteen o’clock convenient for you?”

Fassin thought. “Actually, the lady Jaal Tonderon and I might—”

“The answer you are searching for is ‘Yes,’ Seer Taak,” Verpych said.

Fassin frowned down at the older man. “Then in that case why did you—?”

“I was being polite.”

“Ah. Of course. That cannot come easily.”

“Quite the contrary. It is deference that one sometimes struggles with.”

“Your efforts are appreciated, I’m sure.”

“Why, I live for nothing else, young master.” Verpych smiled thinly.

Fassin held the major-domo’s gaze. “Verpych, could I be in some sort of trouble?”

The servant looked away. “I have no idea, sir.” The lift began to slow. “This emissarial projection is unprecedented in the history of Sept Bantrabal. I have talked to some other major-domos and nobody can recall such a thing. We had all thought such phenomena restricted to the Hierchon and his chums in the sys-cap. I’ve sent a message to a contact I have in the palace asking for any guidance or tips they might have. There has been no reply so far.”

The lift doors opened and they stepped out; another corridor, quite warm, cut from naked rock, curving. The major-domo looked at Fassin with what might have been concern, even sympathy. “An unprecedented event might be of a benign nature, Seer Taak.”

Fassin hoped that he looked as sceptical as he felt. “So what do I have to do?”

“Present yourself to the Audience Chamber, top floor, at nineteen. Preferably a little before.” They came to a Y-junction and a wider corridor, where red-uniformed technicians were trundling a pallet loaded with complicated-looking equipment towards a set of open double doors ahead.

“I’d like Olmey to be there,” Fassin said. Tchayan Olmey had been Fassin’s mentor and tutor in his youth, and — had she not become a pure academic in the household library, researching and teaching to the exclusion of undertaking any delves of her own — might have been the next familias and Chief Seer.

“That will not be possible,” Verpych said, ushering Fassin through the double doors into the room beyond, which was hot, crowded with more red-uniformed technicians and dished, like a small theatre. Dozens of opened cabinets displayed intricate machinery, cables hung from the tall ceiling, snaked across the floor and disappeared into ducts in the walls. The place smelled of oil, singed plastic and sweat. Verpych stood at the top and rear of the room, watching the activity, shaking his head as two techs collided, spilling cable.

“Why not?” Fassin asked. “Olmey’s here. And I rather wanted Uncle Slovius to be able to look in as well.”

“That won’t be possible either,” Verpych told Fassin. “You and you alone have to talk to this thing.”

“I have no choice in this?” Fassin asked. “Correct,” the major-domo said. “None.” He returned his attention to the milling techs. One of the senior ones had approached to within a couple of metres, waiting for an opportunity to speak.

“But why not?” Fassin repeated, aware as soon as he said it that he was sounding like a small child.

Verpych shook his head. “I don’t know. To the best of my knowledge there is no technical reason. Perhaps whatever is to be discussed is too sensitive for other ears.” He looked at the red-uniformed man waiting nearby. “Master Technician Imming,” he said brightly. “Working on the principle that whatever can go wrong will, I have been weighing up the possibilities that our house automatics have rusted into a single unusable mass, crumbled to a fine powder or unexpectedly declared themselves sentient, necessitating the destruction by fusion warheads of our entire house, Sept and possibly planet. Which is it to be?”

“Sir, we have encountered several problems,” the technician said slowly, his gaze flicking from Fassin to Verpych.

“I do so hope the next word is ‘But’ or ‘However’,” Verpych said. He glanced at Fassin. “A ‘Happily’ would be too much to ask for, of course.”

The technician continued. “Thanks to our considerable efforts, sir, we believe we have the situation in hand. I would hope that we ought to be ready by the appointed hour.”

“We have the capacity to absorb all that is being transmitted?”

“Just, sir.” Master Technician Imming gestured to the equipment on the pallet being manoeuvred through the double doors. “We are using some spare capacity from the utility systems.”

“Is there any indication of the nature of the subject contained within the signal?”

“No, sir. It will remain in code until activated.”

“Could we find out?”

Imming looked pained. “Not really, sir.”

“Could we not try?”

“That would be nearly impossible, in the time frame, major-domo. And illegal. Possibly dangerous.”

“Seer Taak here is wondering what he is to be faced with. You can give him no clues?”

Master Technician Imming made a small bow to Fassin. “I’m afraid not, sir. Wish it were otherwise.”

Verpych turned to Fassin. “We seem unable to help you, Seer Taak. I am so sorry.”

* * *

“Whose was this, anyway?” Ilen asked, keeping her voice down. She looked up into the shadows high above. “Who did it belong to?”

They had swung in through the single great jagged fissure in the ship’s left flank, flying up between two massively curved rib-struts, the sky above framed by the twisted, buckled ribs, the sections of the hull they had supported turned to dissociated molecules and atoms seven millennia earlier. Sal had let the flier slip four hundred metres or so into the shadows under the intact forward portion of the hull — climbing gently all the time, following the mangled, buckled floors and collapsed bulkheads forming the terrain beneath them — until they could see only the slimmest sliver of violet, star-spattered sky outside and felt they ought to be safe from whatever spaceborne craft — presumably a Beyonder — had been attacking anything that moved or had recently been moving on the surface.

Sal had set the little craft down. The flier came to rest in a slight hollow on a relatively level patch of blackened, minutely rippled material, behind what might have been the remains of a crumpled bulkhead. The way ahead into the rest of the ship’s forward section was blocked fifty metres further in by the hanging, frozen-looking tatters of some twisted, iridescent material. Saluus had thought aloud about trying to nudge the flier through this suspended debris, but had been dissuaded.

The flier’s comms reception — even the distorted, jammed signal that they’d experienced outside — had just faded away almost as soon as they’d entered the wreck. For something supposed to pull in a signal through tens of klicks of solid rock, this was remarkable. The air inside the vast cave of the ruined craft felt cold and smelled of nothing. Knowing they were inside, the fact that their voices did not echo in the huge space was oddly disturbing, giving the sound a strange, hollow quality. The interior and running lights of the flier put them in a tiny pool of luminescence, emphasising their insignificance within the ancient fallen ship.

“Some dispute about exactly whose it might be,” Saluus said, also quietly, and also gazing upwards at the smoothly ribbed ceiling of the vessel, arching a third of a kilometre above them and still just visible in the gloaming. “Marked down as a Sceuri wreck — they sent their War Graves people to clean it out — but if it was then it must have been requisitioned or captured. And they reckon it had a highly mixed crew, though mostly swimmers: waterworlders. Could be Oerileithe originally, oddly enough. Has the design of a dweller-with-a-small-d ship. But some sort of war craft, certainly.”

Taince snorted. Sal looked at her. “Yes?”

“What it isn’t,” she said, “is a needle ship.”

“Did I say it was?” Sal asked.

“Rather a fat needle, if it was,” Fassin said, swivelling on his heel to follow the downward curve of the wrecked ship’s interior towards its crumpled, partially buried nose, over a kilometre away in the darkness.

“It’s not a needle ship,” Sal protested. “I didn’t call it a needle ship.”

“See?” Taince said. “Now you’ve confused people.”

“Anyway,” Sal said, ignoring this, “there’s a rumour they pulled a couple of Voehn bodies out of here, and that really does make it more interesting.”

“Voehn?” Taince burst out laughing. “Spiner stiffs?” Her voice dripped scorn. She was even smiling, which Fassin knew wasn’t something you saw every day. Pity, because her smooth, slightly square face — under a regulation military bald — looked kind of impishly attractive when she smiled. Come to think of it, that was probably why she didn’t do it often. Actually Fassin thought Taince looked pretty good anyway, in her off-duty fatigues. (The rest of them just wore standard hiking\outdoorsy gear, though naturally Sal’s was subtly but noticeably superior and doubtless wildly more expensive.) Tain’s fatigues kind of bagged out in odd locations but came back in at the right places to leave no doubt that she was definitely a milgirl, not a milboy.

They’d turned shadow-matt and dark in the surrounding gloom, too. Apparently even the NavMil’s off-duty fatigues for trainees came with active camo.

She was shaking her head, as though she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Even Fassin, who’d pretty much shucked off the whole boy thing of obsessive interest in all things military and alien not long after the onset of puberty, knew about the Voehn. They were usually described in the media as living legends or near-mythical warriors, which kind of blanded what they really were; the crack troops and personal guards of the new galactic masters.

The Voehn were the calmly relentless, highly intelligent, omni-competent, near-indestructible, all-environments-capable, undefeated uber-soldiers of the last nine or so millennia. They were the martial pin-ups of the age, the speckless species peak of military perfection, but they were rare, few and far between. Where the new masters, the Culmina, were, the Voehn were too, but not in all that many other places, and — as far as anybody knew, Fassin had been given to understand — in all those millennia not one had even entered the Ulubis system to visit Sepekte, the principal planet, let alone come near Nasqueron, or deigned to have anything to do with its little planet-moon ’glantine, even in death.

There was, of course, a further resonance for humans in the Voehn name and reputation, whether one was aHuman or rHuman. It had been the actions of a single Voehn ship nearly eight thousand years earlier which had made the distinction and the two prefixes necessary in the first place.

“Voehn,” Sal said defiantly to Taince. “Voehn remains. That’s the rumour.”

Taince narrowed her eyes and drew herself up in her NavMil-issue fatigues. “Not one I’ve heard.”

“Yes,” Sal said, “well, my contacts are a few levels above the boot locker.”

Fassin gulped. “I thought they all got smeared in this thing, anyway,” he said quickly, before Taince could reply. “Just paste, gas and stuff.”

“They were,” Taince said through her teeth, looking at Sal, not him.

“Indeed they were,” Sal agreed. “But Voehn are real toughies, aren’t they, Tain?”

“Shit, yeah,” Taince said quietly, levelly. “Real fucking toughies.”

“Takes a lot to kill one, takes even more to paste it,” Sal said, seemingly oblivious to Taince’s signals.

“Notoriously resistant to fate and the enemy’s various unpleasantnesses,” Taince said coldly. Fassin had the feeling she was quoting. The gossip was that she and Sal were some sort of couple, or at least fucked now and again. But Fassin thought that, given the look in her eyes right now, that particular side of their relationship, if it had ever existed, might be in some danger of being pasted itself. He looked for Ilen, to catch her expression.

She wasn’t where she’d been, on the far side of the flier. He looked around some more. She wasn’t anywhere he could see. “Ilen?” he said. He glanced at the other two. “Where’s Ilen?” Sal tapped his ear stud. “Ilen?” he said. “Hey, Len?” Fassin peered into the shadows. He had night vision as good as most people, but with barely any starlight and only the soft conserve-level lights of the flier resting in its declivity, there wasn’t much to work with. Infrared showed next to nothing too, not even fading footstep-traces on whatever this strange material was.

“Ilen?” Sal said again. He looked at Taince, who was also scanning the area. “I can’t see shit and my phone’s out,” he told her. “You able to see any better than us?”

Taince shook her head. “Get those eyes in fourth year.” Shit, thought Fassin. He wondered if anybody had a torch. Probably not. Few people did these days. He checked his own earphone, but it was dead too; not even local reception. Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. When did the archetype of this storyline date from? Four kids getting the use of dad’s chariot and losing a wheel just before nightfall near the old deserted Neanderthal cave? Something like that. Just wander off into the dark and get killed horribly, one by one.

“I’ll turn up the flier lights,” Sal said, reaching for the interior. “If ness, we can lift off and—”

“ILEN!” Taince shouted at the top of her lungs. Fassin jumped. He hoped the others hadn’t noticed.

“…Over here.” lien’s voice came, very distantly, from further inside the wreck.

“Wandering off!” Sal shouted in the general direction Ilen’s voice had come from. “Not good idea! In fact, very bad idea! Suggest return immediately!”

“Peeing in front of peers problem,” the reply drifted back. “Bashful bladder syndrome. Relieved, returning. Speak normal now, or Len get Tain poke Sal eye out.”

Taince grinned. Fassin had to turn away. Sometimes, through all the almost wilfully unjustified reticence and uncertainty, and often at moments like this when you might least expect it, Ilen surprised him by doing or saying something like this. She made his insides hurt. Oh, don’t let me start to fall in love with her, he thought. That would just be too much to bear.

Sal laughed. A vaguely Hen-shaped blob appeared in IR sense fifty metres away, head first over a fold in the rippled floor like a shallow hill. “There. She’s fine,” Sal announced, as though he’d rescued her personally.

Ilen rejoined them, smiling and blinking in the soft lights of the flier, her white-gold hair shining. She nodded. “Evening,” she said, and grinned at them.

“Welcome back,” Sal told her, and hauled a pack out of one of the flier’s storage lockers. He swung the bag onto his back.

Taince glared at the pack, then at Sal’s face. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Sal looked innocent. “Going to take a look round. You can join me if—”

“Like fuck you are.”

“Tain, child,” he laughed. “I don’t need your permission.”

“I’m not a fucking child and yes, you fucking do.”

“And will you please stop swearing quite so much? There’s really no need to flaunt your newly acquired gruff military manner quite so conspicuously.”

“We stay here,” she told him, using the cold voice again. “Close to the flier. We don’t go wandering off into a prohibited alien shipwreck in the middle of the night with an enemy craft cruising overhead.”

“Why not?” Sal protested. “For one thing it’s probably on the other side of the planet by now or maybe even destroyed. And anyway, if this Beyonder ship, or battlesat, or drone, or whatever it is can see inside here, which I seriously doubt, it’s going to target the flier, not a few human warm-bods, so we’re safer away from the thing.”

“You stay with the craft, always,” Taince said, her jaw set.

“For how long?” Sal asked. “How long do these nuisance raids, these attacklets, usually last?” Taince just glared at him. “Half a day, average,” Sal told her. “Overnight, probably, in this case. Meantime we’re somewhere it’s not normally possible to be, through no fault of our own, with time to kill… why the hell not take a look round?”

“Because it’s Prohibited,” Taince said. “That’s why.” Fassin and Ilen exchanged looks, concerned but still amused. “Taince!” Sal said, waving his arms. “Life is risk. That’s business. Come on!”

“You stay with the craft,” Taince repeated grimly. “Will you step out of your programming just for a second?” Sal asked her, sounding genuinely annoyed and looking at the other two for support. “Can any of us think of one good reason why this place is prohibited, apart from standard authoritarian, bureaucratic, overreacting, territory-marking militaristic bullshit?”

“Maybe they know stuff we don’t,” Taince said.

“Oh, come on!’ Sal protested. “They always claim that!”

“Listen,” Taince said levelly. “Your point is taken regarding the likelihood of the flier’s systems being targeted by hostiles, and therefore I volunteer to walk out, every hour on the hour, to near the gap in the hull where a phone might work once the jamming sub-sats have been neutralised, to check for the all-clear.”

“Fine,” Sal said, digging into another of the flier’s lockers. “You do that. I’m seizing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a look round an intrinsically fascinating alien artefact. If you hear me screaming horribly it’ll just be me falling into the claws, suckers or… beaks of some unspeakable space-alien monster every single wreck-clearing team missed and which has chosen just this evening out of the last seven millennia to wake up and feel hungry.”

Taince took a deep breath, stepped back from the flier and said, “Okay, seems this must qualify as an emergency.” She dug into her black fatigues and when her hand reappeared it held a small dark grey device.

Sal stared at her, incredulous. “What the hell is that? A gun? You’re not planning to shoot me, are you, Taince?”

She shook her head and thumbed something on the side of the device. There was a pause, then Taince frowned and looked closely at the thing in her hand. “Actually,” she said, “at the moment I’m not even threatening to report you to the local Guard, not in real-time, anyway.” Sal relaxed a little, but didn’t pull whatever it was he’d been looking for out of the locker. Taince shook her head and looked up into the black spaces of the cavernous craft around them. She held the little grey device up to show the others. “This baby,” she said, “should be able to punch me through to a kid’s disposable on the far side of the planet, but it’s still searching for cosmic background.” She sounded more puzzled than embarrassed or angry, Fassin thought. (In similar circumstances, he’d have been mortified, and it would have shown.) Taince nodded, still staring upwards. “Impressive.” She put the hand-held away again.

Sal cleared his throat. “Taince, do you have a gun? It’s just that I’m about to pull one out of this locker and you looked kind of scary and trigger-happy just there.”

“Yes, I do have a gun,” she told him. “Promise I won’t shoot you.” She gave a smile that wasn’t really. “And if you are intent on traipsing into the bowels of this thing, I’m not going to try and stop you. You’re a big boy now. Your responsibility.”

“Finally,” Sal said with satisfaction, pulling a plain but businesslike-looking CR pistol out of the locker and attaching it to his belt. “There’s food and water and bedrolls and extra clothes and stuff in the rear lockers,” he told them, slapping a couple of low-light illuminator patches onto his jacket shoulders. “I’ll be back about dawn.” He multiple-tapped his ear stud, then smiled. “Yep, internal clock still working.” He glanced at each of them in turn. “Hey, there’s probably nothing to see; I could be back in an hour for all I know.” They all just looked at him. “Nobody else coming along, huh?” he asked. Ilen and Fassin glanced at each other. Taince was watching Sal, who said, “Well, don’t wait up,” and turned to go.

“You’re very well prepared for this,” Taince said quietly.

Sal hesitated, then turned towards her, open-mouthed. He looked at Fassin and Ilen, then stared with wide eyes at Taince. He gestured towards the distant hull gap, upwards as though to space, then shook his head. “Taince, Taince,” he breathed. He pushed one hand through his thick black hair. “Just how paranoid and suspicious do they insist you be in the military?”

“Your father’s company makes our battlecraft, Saluus,” she told him. “Wariness is a survival strategy.”

“Oh, cheap shot, Taince.” Sal looked mildly insulted. “But I mean, really. Seriously. Come on.” He slapped his backpack, exasperated. “Hell’s teeth, woman, if I hadn’t made sure the flier was equipped with emergency gear you’d have chewed my ear for making a deep-desert flight without the necessary supplies!” Taince stood looking at him, near-expressionless, for a few moments longer. “Mind how you go, Sal.”

He nodded, relaxing. “You too,” he said. “See you all soon.” He looked round them all one more time, grinning. “Nothing I wouldn’t do, and all that.” He waved his hand and tramped off.

“Hold on,” Ilen said. Sal turned back. Ilen pulled her little day-pack out of the flier. “I’ll come with you, Sal.”

Fassin stared, horrified. “What?” he said, in a small, shocked, little boy’s voice. Nobody seemed to hear. For once he was glad. Taince said nothing.

Sal smiled. “You sure?” he asked the girl. “If you don’t mind,” Ilen said. “Fine by me,” Sal said quietly. “Sure you don’t mind?”

“Of course I don’t mind.”

“Well, you’re not supposed to go off exploring in dubious situations individually, are you?” Ilen said. “Isn’t that right?” She looked at Taince, who nodded. “You take care.” Ilen kissed Fassin’s cheek, winked at Taince and strode up the shallow slope to Sal. They waved and walked off. Fassin watched their footstep-traces in IR, each faint patch of brightness on the ground behind them fading after less than a second.

“Never understand that girl,” Taince said, sounding unconcerned. She and Fassin looked at each other. “Suggest you take a snooze now,” Taince told him, nodding at the flier. She picked her nose and inspected her finger. “I’ll wake you before I head out to the hull gap to check for signal.”

* * *

A fragrance bud popped somewhere in the darkened room, and — after a few moments — he smelled Orchidia Noctisia, a Madebloom scent he would always associate with the Autumn House. There was little air movement in the quiet chamber so the bud must have been floating nearby. He lifted his head gently and saw a tiny shape like a slim, translucent flower falling chiffon-soft through the air between the bed and the trolley which had brought their supper. He lowered his head to Jaal’s shoulder again.

“Mmm?” she said drowsily.

“Meet any friends in town?” Fassin asked, winding a long golden coil of Jaal Tonderon’s hair around one finger, then bringing his nose forward to nuzzle the nape of her brown-red neck, breathing in the smell of her. She shifted against him, moving her hips in a sort of stirring motion. He had slipped out of her some time ago, but it was still a good feeling.

“Ree and Grey and Sa,” she said, her voice starting out a little sleepy. “Shopping was accomplished. Then we met up with Djen and Sohn. And Dayd, Dayd Eslaus. Oh, and Yoaz. You remember Yoaz Irmin, don’t you?”

He nipped her neck and was rewarded with a flinch and a yelp. “That was a long time ago,” he told her.

She reached one hand behind her and stroked his exposed flank, then patted his behind. “I’m sure the memory is still vivid for her, dear.”

“Ha!” he said. “So am I.” This drew a slap. Then they settled in against each other once more; she did that thing with her hips again and he wondered if there would be time for more sex before he had to go.

She turned to face him. Jaal Tonderon’s face was round and wide and only just very beautiful. For two thousand years or so, rHuman faces had looked pretty much how the owners wanted them to look, displaying either satisfaction with or indifference to whatever womb-grown comeliness they had been born with, or the particular, amended look their owners had subsequently specified. The only ugly people were those making a statement.

In an age when everyone could be beautiful, and\or look like famous historical figures (there were now laws about looking too much like famous contemporary figures), the truly interesting faces and bodies were those which sailed as close to the wind of being plain or even unattractive as possible, and yet just got away with it. People talked about faces that looked good in the flesh but not in images, or good in lifelike paintings but not on a screen, or faces that looked unattractive in repose but quite stunning when animated, or merely plain until the person smiled.

Jaal had been born with a face that looked — she said herself — committee design: unharmonious, stuck together, nothing quite matching. Yet to almost everybody who had ever met her, she seemed outrageously attractive, thanks to some alchemy of physiognomy, personality and expression. Fassin’s private estimation was that Jaal’s was a face still waiting to be grown into, and that she would be more beautiful when she was middle-aged than she was now. It was one reason he had asked her to marry him.

They could look forward, Fassin had every reason to believe, to a long life together, and just as it had been sensible to marry within his profession — and to make a match that would meet with the enthusiastic approval of their respective Septs, strengthening the bonds between two of the most important Seer houses — so it had been only prudent to take that likely longevity into account.

Of course, as Slow Seers Fassin and Jaal’s shared future would be absolutely if not relatively longer than that of most of their contemporaries, and radically different; in the slow-time of a long delve, Seers aged very slowly indeed, and Uncle Slovius’s fourteen centuries, while short of the record and not yet (thankfully, naturally) his limit, should not be difficult to surpass. Seer spouses and loved ones had to schedule their slow-time and normal life carefully so as not to get too out of synch with each other, lest the protagonists lose touch emotionally. The life of Tchayan Olmey, Fassin’s old mentor and tutor, had hinged on just such an unforeseen discontinuity, leaving her stranded from an old love. “Anything wrong?” Jaal asked him.

“Just this, ah, interview thing.” He glanced at the antique clock across the room. “Who’s it with?”

“Can’t say,” he told her. He’d mentioned having an appointment for an interview later when he’d first met Jaal off her suborb shuttle at the house port in the valley below, but she’d been too busy telling him about the latest gossip from the capital and the scandal regarding her Aunt Feem and the Sept Khustrial boy to question him any further on the matter. Her shower, their supper and then more urgent matters had taken precedence thereafter.

“You can’t say?” she said, frowning, turning further round towards him, lifting and repositioning one dark breast on his light brown chest as she did so. There was something, he thought, not for the first time, about an aureola more pale than its surroundings… “Oh, Fass,” Jaal said, sounding annoyed, “it’s not a girl, is it? Not a servant girl? Fucking forfend, not before we’re married, surely?”

She was smiling. He grinned back. “Nuisance, but has to be done. Sorry.”

“You really can’t say?” She shifted her head, and blonde hair spilled over his shoulder. It felt even better than it looked.

“Really,” he said.

Jaal was staring intently at his mouth. “Really?” she asked.

“Well.” He licked his teeth. “I can say it’s not a girl.” She was still staring intently at his mouth. “Look, Jaal, have I got some sort of foreign matter lodged in there?”

She pushed her mouth slowly up towards his. “Not,” she said, “yet.”

“You are Fassin Taak, of the Seer Sept Bantrabal, ’glantine moon, Nasqueron gas-giant planet, Ulubis star and system?”

“Yes, I am.”

“You are physically present here and not any sort of projection or other kind of representation?”

“Correct.”

“You are still an active Slow Seer, domiciled in the seasonal houses of Sept Bantrabal and working from the satellite-moon Third Fury?”

“Yes, yes and yes.”

“Good. Fassin Taak, everything that will pass between you and this construct is in strictest confidence. You will respect that confidence and communicate to others no more of what we shall talk about than is absolutely necessary to facilitate such conduct as will be required of you in furtherance of whatever actions you will be asked to perform and whatever goals you will be asked to pursue. Do you do understand that and agree?”

Fassin thought about this. Just for an instant as the projection had started talking it had suddenly occurred to him that the glowing orb looked a lot like a Plasmatic being (not that he’d ever met one, but he’d seen images), and that moment of distraction had been sufficient for him to miss the full meaning of what had been said. “Actually, no. Sorry, I’m not trying to be—”

“To repeat…”

Fassin was in the main audience chamber at the top of the Autumn House, a large circular space with views in every horizontal direction and a dramatic transparent roof, all blanked out. For now its contents consisted of a single seat for him and a stubby, metallic-looking cylinder supporting a globe of glowing gas hovering above its centre. A fat cable ran from the squat cylinder to a floor flap in the middle of the chamber.

The gas sphere repeated what it had just said. It spoke more slowly this time, though happily with no trace of irritation or condescension. Its voice was flat, unaccented, and yet still seemed to contain the hint of a personality, as though the voice of a particular individual had been sampled and used as a template, from which most but not all expression had been removed.

Fassin heard it out, then said, “Okay, yes, I understand and agree.”

“Good. This construct is an emissarial projection of the Mercatorial Administrata, sub-Ministerial level, with superior-rank authority courtesy of the Ascendancy, Engineer division, Senior Engineer level, Eship Est-taun Zhiffir, portal-carrying. It is qualified to appear sentient while not in fact being so. Do you understand this?”

Fassin thought about this too and decided that he did, just. “Yep,” he said, then wondered if the projection would understand colloquial affirmatives. Apparently it did.

“Good. Seer Fassin Taak, you are hereby seconded to the Shrievalty Ocula. You will have the honorary rank—”

“Hold on!” Fassin nearly jumped out of his seat. “The what?”

The honorary rank of—”

“No, I mean I’m seconded to the what?”

“The Shrievalty Ocula. You will have the honorary—”

“The Shrievalty?” Fassin said, trying to control his voice. “The Ocula?”

Correct.”

The baroque, intentionally labyrinthine power structures of the latest, Culmina-inspired Age, incorporating the aspirations of and enforced limitations on at least eight major subject species and whole vast subcategories of additional Faring races as well as (by its own claim) “contextualising’ various lesser civilisations of widely varying scope and ambitions and, peripherally at least, influencing entire alien spectra of Others, held many organisations and institutions whose names the utterance of which people — or at least people who knew of such things — tended to greet with a degree of respect shading into fear.

The Shrievalty was probably the least extreme example; people might respect it — many would even find its purpose rather boring — but few would fear it. It was the paramilitary Order\discipline\faculty of technicians and theorists in charge of what had once been called Information Technology, and so it was also, though less exclusively, concerned with the acceptably restricted remnants of Artificial Intelligence technologies still extant in the post-War epoch.

The Machine War had wiped the vast majority of AIs out of existence throughout the galaxy over seven thousand years ago, and the Culmina-inspired — and enforced — peace which followed had stabilised around a regime which both forbade research into AI tech and demanded the active help of all citizens in hunting down and destroying what few scattered vestiges of AI might still exist. Organised on military lines with a bracing infrastructure of religious dogma, the Shrievalty was charged with the running, administration and maintenance of those IT systems which were anywhere near being sufficiently complex to be in danger of becoming sentient, either through accident or design, but which were considered too vital to the running of their various dependent societies to be shut down and dismantled.

Another Order, a rather more fear-inspiring one, the Lustrals of the Cessoria, had been formed to hunt down and destroy both AIs themselves and anybody who attempted to create new ones or protect, shelter or otherwise aid existing examples. But that had not prevented the formation within the Shrievalty of an Intelligence section — the Shrievalty Ocula — whose duties, methods and even philosophy significantly overlapped with those of the Lustrals. It was the Ocula, this somewhat shadowy, slightly grim-sounding unit which Fassin was being ordered to become part of, for no reason that he could immediately fathom.

“The Ocula?” Fassin said. “Me? Are you absolutely sure?”

“Absolutely.”

Technically, he had no choice. To be allowed to do what they did, the Seers had to be an officially recognised profession within the Miscellariat, the catch-all term for those useful to the Mercatoria who did not fit inside the more standard subdivi-sional categories, and as such all Seers were subject to full Mercatorial discipline and control, committed to obeying any order issued by anybody properly authorised and of a sufficiently superior rank.

Yet this virtually never happened. Fassin couldn’t remember anyone from Sept Bantrabal ever being seconded by order in peacetime, not in nearly two thousand years of Sept history. Why now? Why him?

“May this briefing continue?” the glowing orb asked. “It is important.”

“Well, yes, all right, but I do have questions.”

“All relevant questions will be answered where possible and prudent,” the orb told him.

Fassin was thinking, wondering. Did he really have to accept this? What were the punishments for disobeying? Demotion? Forced resignation? Banishment? Outlaw status? Death?

“To resume, then,” the gas globe said. “Seer Fassin Taak, you are hereby seconded to the Shrievalty Ocula. You will have the honorary rank of provisional acting captain for security clearance purposes, with exceptions made as required by authorised superiors, the principal honorary rank of major for seniority and disciplinary purposes, the honorary rank of general for reward purposes and the honorary rank of field marshal for travel-priority purposes. This construct is unable to negotiate regarding the aforesaid. Do you find the foregoing acceptable?”

“What if I say no?”

“Punitive actions will be taken. Certainly against you, probably against Sept Bantrabal and possibly against the ’glantine Slow Seers as a whole. Do you find the above mentioned secondment details acceptable?”

Fassin had to shut his mouth. This floating bladder of glowing gas had just threatened not only him, not only his Sept and entire extended family and all their servants and dependants, but the major focus of uniquely important work being done on the entire planet-moon, one of the three or four most important centres for Dweller Studies in the entire galaxy! It was so outrageous, so surely disproportionate, it almost had to be a joke.

Fassin thought back, desperately trying to fit all that had happened to him today, with Slovius, with Verpych, with everybody who would have to be in on the joke, into a scenario more plausible than the one he was apparently faced with: an appallingly high-level projection from a portal-carrying Eship still a dozen light years away ordering him to join an allegedly no-holds-barred intelligence unit answering to an Order and a discipline he knew no more about than any other lay person, and with the force of the Administrata and the Engineers behind it.

“Do you find the above-mentioned secondment details acceptable?” the orb repeated.

Or maybe, Fassin thought, Sept Bantrabal as a whole was being made fun of here. Maybe nobody here knew this was a practical joke. Would somebody go to all this trouble just to make him look foolish, to frighten him? Had he ever antagonised anybody with the resources to set something like this up? Well…

“Do you find the above-mentioned secondment details acceptable?” the orb said again.

Fassin gave in. If he was lucky this was a joke. If not, it might be very stupid and even dangerous to treat it as such when it wasn’t.

“Given your crude and objectionable threats, I don’t really have much choice, do I?”

“Is that an answer in the affirmative?”

“I suppose so. Yes.”

“Good. You may ask questions, Seer Fassin Taak.”

“Why am I being seconded?”

“To facilitate the actions you will be asked to perform and to help achieve whatever goals you will be requested to pursue.”

“What would those be?”

“Initially, you are commanded to travel to Pirrintipiti, capital city of ’glantine planet-moon, there to take ship for Borquille, capital of Sepekte, principal planet of the Ulubis system for further briefing.”

“And after that?”

“You will be expected to carry out actions and pursue goals as detailed in said briefing.”

“But why? What’s behind all this? What’s this all about?”

“Information regarding what you ask is not carried by this construct.”

“Why the Shrievalty Ocula, specifically?”

“Information regarding what you ask is not carried by this construct.”

“Who has ordered this?”

“Information regarding what you ask is not—”

“All right!” Fassin drummed his fingers on the arm of his seat. Still, this projection had to have authority from somebody, it would have to know where it stood in the vast web of Mercatorial rank and seniority. “What rank was the person who ordered this?”

“Administrata: Shrievalty Army-Group Chief of Staff,” the orb said. (Well, that went right to the top, Fassin thought. Whatever piece of nonsense, military bullshittery or wild-goose chase this was all about, it was one being authorised by somebody with no excuses for not knowing better.) “Ascendancy: Senior Engineer,” the projection continued. (Ditto; Senior Engineer didn’t sound as Grand-High-Everything-Else impressive as Army-Group Chief of Staff, for example, but it was the highest rank in the Engineers, the people who made, transported and emplaced the wormholes that stitched the whole galactic meta-civilisation together. In terms of ultimate power, and regardless of species, an SE probably way out-wielded a CoS.) “Omnocracy:’ the orb said, with what sounded like a note of finality, “Complector.”

Fassin sat and stared. He blinked a few times. He was aware that his mouth was open, so he closed it. His skin had seemed to tighten, all over his body. A fucking Complector! he thought, already wondering if he hadn’t misheard. One of the Culmina ordered this?

A Complector sat at the clear undisputed pinnacle of the Mercatoria’s civil command structure. Each one held absolute power over a significant galactic volume, usually with a definable locus, like a stellar cluster or a minor or even a major galactic arm. The least senior of them would be in charge of hundreds of thousands of stars, millions of planets, billions of habitats and trillions of souls. As well as their subject Administrata, they commanded the chiefs of all the other Ascendancy divisions within their jurisdiction — Engineers, Propylaea, Navarchy and Summed Fleet — and they were always Culmina. The only thing which outranked a Complector was a bigger bunch of Complectors.

Fassin thought for a moment, trying to calm himself down. Remember this could be a joke. The very fact that a Complector’s authority had been invoked almost made it more likely that it was, it was just so preposterous.

On the other hand, he had the disquieting feeling, prompted by a half-remembered school lesson he probably ought to have been paying more attention to, that falsely invoking a Complector’s authority was potentially a capital offence.

Think, think. Forget the Complector; back to the moment. What assumptions might he be making here? Any of the ego? (He’d had this psychological check-sum routine drilled into him at college, where he’d scored high on what was usually called the Me-me-me! scale. Though not as high as Saluus Kehar.) Well, he could think of one egotistical assumption he might be making immediately.

“How many other people are being similarly summoned?” he asked.

“By emissarial projection, only yourself.”

Fassin sat back. Well, that certainly felt pleasing, but he suspected it was probably a much worse sign than it appeared.

“And by other means?”

“You will be joining a group of senior officials in Borquille, capital city of Sepekte, for further briefing. This group will number approximately thirty.”

“And what will be the subject of this briefing?”

“Information regarding what you ask is not carried by this construct.”

“How long am I likely to be away from home? Do I just go to Sepekte, get ‘briefed’ and come back? What?”

“Officers of the Shrievalty Ocula are expected to undertake extended missions with minimal notice.”

“So I should expect to be away a while?”

“Officers of the Shrievalty Ocula are expected to undertake extended missions with minimal notice. Further information regarding what you ask is not carried by this construct.”

Fassin sighed. “So is that it? You’ve been sent to tell me to go to Sepekte? All this… kerfuffle, for that?”

“No. You are to be informed that this is a matter of the utmost consequence and gravity, in which you may be asked to play a significant part. Also that information has come to light which indicates that there is a profound and imminent threat to Ulubis system. No further details concerning this are carried by this construct. You are commanded to report to the palace of the Hierchon in Borquille, capital of Sepekte, principal planet of the Ulubis system, for further briefing, no later than hour Fifteen tomorrow evening, the ninth of Duty, Borquille-Sepekte local time. Gchron, 6.61…’ The sphere started to restate the time of Fassin’s appointment at the Hierchon’s palace the following day in a variety of different formats, as if to remove any last excuse for him not getting there on time. Fassin sat, staring at a beige-blank section of polarised window on the far side of the chamber, trying to decide what the hell to make of all this.

Oh, fuck was the best he could come up with.

“…The eighteenth of November, AD 4034, rHuman,” the glowing orb concluded. “Transport will be provided. Baggage allowance is one large bag, carryable, plus luggage required to transport full formal court dress for your presentation to the Hierchon. A gee-suit should be worn for the outgoing journey. Any further questions?”

Verpych thought for a moment. “Military-grade hysteria.” Slovius shifted in his tub-chair. “Explain, please?”

“They are likely over-correcting for earlier dismissiveness, sir.”

“Somebody’s been telling them there’s a problem, they’ve been pooh-poohing it, then suddenly woken up to the threat and panicked?” Fassin suggested. Verpych nodded once.

“The decisional dynamics of highly rigid power structures make an interesting study subject,” Tchayan Olmey said. Fassin’s old tutor and mentor smiled across at him, a calm, gauntly grey presence. The four of them sat at a large round table in Slovius’s old study, Slovius himself supported in a large semi-enclosed device that looked like a cross between an ancient hip bath and a small flier. Fassin thought his uncle’s tusked, whiskered face looked more animated, and even more human, than it had for years. Slovius had announced at the start of the meeting that for the duration of whatever emergency they might be involved in, his slow demise was being halted; he was fully back in charge of Sept Bantrabal. Fassin had been appalled to find that there was some small, mean, self-aggrandising part of him which felt disappointed and even slightly angry that his uncle wasn’t going to keep slipping into the hazy, woozily uncaring senility that led to death.

“The phrase the projection used was ‘profound and imminent threat’,” Fassin reminded them. That was what had spooked him, he supposed, that was why he’d suggested this meeting, told them what he had. If there really was a threat to Ulubis system, he wanted, at the very least, Sept Bantrabal’s senior people to know about it. The only person missing from the conference was Fassin’s mother, who was on a year-long retreat in a Cessorian habitat somewhere in the system’s Kuiper belt, ten light days away and therefore profoundly out of the discussion. They had discussed whether she should be contacted and warned that there was some sort of system-wide threat, but without details this seemed premature and possibly even counter-productive.

Olmey shrugged. “The overreaction might well extend to the language used to describe the perceived problem,” she said.

“There has been a recent increase in Beyonder attacks,” Verpych said thoughtfully.

For the two centuries after the loss of its portal, the sporadic Beyonder assaults on Ulubis — as a rule against the system’s outskirts and military targets — had declined to such an extent they were barely even of nuisance value. Certainly there were far fewer attacks than there had been in the years before the wormhole’s destruction. For millennia, almost every system in the Mercatoria had been getting used to these generally irritating, rarely devastating raids — they tied up ships and materiel and kept the whole meta-civilisation slightly on edge but they had yet to produce any real atrocities — and it had come as something of a relief to the people of Ulubis, a kind of unlooked-for bonus, that for some perverse reason the system’s temporary isolation had so far been a time when the direct military pressure on it had seemed to decrease rather than been cranked up.

Over the last year or so, however, there had been a slight increase in the number of attacks — the first time in two centuries that the yearly number had risen rather than fallen — and those assaults had been of a slightly different nature compared to those that people had more or less got used to. The targets had not all been military units or items of infrastructure, for one thing: a comet-cloud mining co-op had been destroyed, some belt and cloud ships had disappeared or been discovered drifting, empty or slagged, one small cruise liner had just disappeared between Nasqueron and the system’s outermost gas-giant, and a single heavy-missile ship had appeared suddenly in the mid-system half a year ago, travelling at eighty per cent light speed and targeted straight at Borquille. It had been picked off with ease, but it had been an alarming development.

Slovius wobbled in his tub-chair again, slopping a little water onto the wooden floor. “Is there anything that you are not allowed to tell us, nephew?” he asked, then made a sound that sounded disturbingly like a chortle.

“Nothing specific, sir. I’m not supposed to talk to anybody about any part of this except to… further my mission, which at the moment consists of getting to Borquille by Fifteen tomorrow. Obviously, I’ve chosen to interpret this as allowing me to talk to you three. Though I would ask that it goes no further.”

“Well,” Slovius said, with a noise like a gargle in his throat, “you shall have my own suborbship to take you to Pirrintipiti for transfer.”

“Thank you, sir. However, they did say that transport was being provided.”

“Navarchy’s filed an outgoing from here for half-Four tomorrow morning,” Verpych confirmed. “Going to have to shift if they’re getting you to Sepekte for Fifteen tomorrow,” he added, with a sniff. “You’ll need to suffer five or six gees the whole way, Fassin Taak.” Major-Domo Verpych smiled. “I suggest you start adjusting your water and solids intake accordingly now.”

“We shall have my vessel standing by in any case,” Slovius said, “should this transport fail to turn up, or be overly crude in form. See to this, major-domo.” Verpych nodded. “Sir.”

“Uncle, may I have a word?” Fassin asked as the meeting broke up. He’d hoped to catch Slovius before they’d begun, but his uncle had arrived with Verpych, Slovius looking energised and triumphant, Verpych appearing troubled, even worried.

Slovius nodded to his major-domo and Olmey. In a few moments Fassin and his uncle were left alone in the study.

“Nephew?”

“This morning, sir, when you were asking me about my most recent delves, while the emissarial projection was being downloaded—”

“How much did I know of the matter?”

“Well, yes.”

“I had had a simple, if highly encrypted, signal from the Eship myself, to tell me that the projection was following. It was in the form of a personal message from a First Engineer on the ship, an old friend. A Kuskunde — their bodily and linguistic nuances formed part of my collegiate studies, many centuries ago. They did not say so, nevertheless, I formed the impression that all this might be the result of a delve of yours.”

“I see.”

“Your emissarial projection gave no hint whether this might be correct or not?”

“None, sir.” Fassin paused. “Uncle, am I in trouble?”

Slovius sighed. “If I had to guess, nephew, I would surmise that you are not in direct trouble as such. However, I will confess to the distinct and unsettling feeling that very large, very ponderous and most momentous wheels have been set in motion. When that happens I believe the lessons of history tend to indicate that it is best not to be in their way. Even without meaning harm, the workings and progress of such wheels are on a scale which inevitably reduces the worth of individual lives to an irrelevance at best.”

“At best?”

“At best. At worst, lives, their sacrifice, provide the oil required to make the wheels move. Does my explanation satisfy you?”

“That might be one word for it, sir, yes.”

“Well then, it would appear we are equally in the dark, nephew.” Slovius consulted a little ring embedded in one of his finger stubs. “And in the dark, sleep can be a good idea. I suggest you get some.”

“Well, Fassin Taak,” Verpych said briskly, waiting for him outside the door. “Finally you’ve done something that I find impressive. Thanks to you, not only do we appear to be about to start living in interesting times, you have succeeded in bringing us to the attention of people in high places. Congratulations.”

* * *

They sat on half-inflated bedrolls, their backs against the sides of the flier. “He’s never told you about all that Severity School stuff?” Fassin asked.

Taince shook her head. “Nope.” She took out her little grey military communicator again, checking in vain for reception. She and Fassin had already walked out to the hull gap half an hour earlier, looking for a signal either on this device or their phones. They’d stood there in the bright, flickering glow of a heavy aurora display, Nasqueron a vast inverted dome above, dark but sheened with its own rippling auroras and specked with a random craquelure of lightning bursts. A series of small ground-quakes had vibrated through their boots, but for all this natural turmoil — and perhaps partially because of the magnetic activity in the case of the phones — they had heard nothing through their machines.

They’d tramped back, Fassin grumbling about Beyonders for attacking a planet best known for its peaceful Dwellers Studies faculties in the first place, and the Guard, Navarchy Military, Ambient Squadrons and Summed Fleet for not protecting them better. Taince tried to explain about the logistics of moving sufficient numbers of needle ships and other bits of materiel through “holes to where they’d be needed, and the equations which governed how many assets you would need fully to protect the many scattered systems of the Mercatoria. Even with the near-instantaneousness of portal-to-portal Arteria travel, it was an unfeasible, economically unsupportable number. The many enemy groupings might be collectively puny, but they were widely distributed and often working on an awkwardly extended timescale. The main thing was that ’glantine and Ulubis system as a whole were safe. Its own Squadrons were a match for any feasible Beyonder grouping, and behind them, just a few portal jumps away, lay the matchless superiority of the Summed Fleet.

None of this prevented Fassin from continuing to moan about the Beyonders’ nuisance attacks, so Taince had shifted the conversation to their classmates’ foibles, proclivities and eccentricities and before very long they’d got to Saluus.

“Well,” Taince said, “he’s mentioned going to Severity School but he’s never volunteered anything much about it and I’m not his interrogator.”

“Oh,” Fassin said. He wondered if maybe Saluus and Taince weren’t lovers after all. School, early life… that was the stuff of pillow talk, wasn’t it? He stole a glance at Taince. Though “lovers’ somehow didn’t seem like the right word anyway, not for Sal and Tain, assuming they were involved. They each seemed different from everybody else in their year, less obviously caught up in the whole dating, young love and experimental sex scene, as though they’d gone through all that already or were just, through natural predisposition or sheer determination, immune to it somehow.

Taince intimidated most boys her own age and a lot who were significantly older, but she didn’t care. Fassin had seen her turn down a couple of very nice, decent lads with a bruising degree of brusqueness, and then take off for what were pretty obviously one- or few-nighters with burly but boring guys. He had also known at least three girls in their school year who were hopelessly in love with Taince, but she hadn’t cared about that either.

Saluus had been in an even stronger position from the start; not just good-looking — anybody could be that — but easy with it, and assured, charming and funny as well. All that and money! A fortune to inherit, another beckoning world of even more finely graded superiority that existed alongside the monumental, bamboozling, hierarchic system that had surrounded them all since birth, presenting an alternative infrastructure of reward which was both younger and older than the Mercatoria’s colossal edifice, if ultimately entirely subordinate to it. Like the rest of the boys in his year — like most in the entire college — Fassin had long since come to terms with the fact that as long as Sal was around, you were always second-best.

And yet neither Taince nor Sal — especially Sal — took advantage of their chances. Except maybe with each other.

It was like they were adults before their time, with their own steely, determined agendas, and sex was no more than an itch that had to be scratched, an irritating unter-hunger which sporadically necessitated being dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible with the minimum of distractive fuss, so that the real, serious business of life could be attended to.

Weird.

“Why?” Taince asked. “Did you go to Sev School too, Fass?”

“Me?” Fassin said, astonished. “Shit, no!”

“Right,” Taince said. She was sitting with one leg stretched out, one folded, hand resting on her knee. “So,” she flapped her hand. “Tough, is it?”

“They hunt them!” Fassin told her.

Taince shrugged. “So I’ve heard. At least they don’t eat them.”

“Ha! They still die sometimes. I’m serious. These are just little kids. They fall off cliffs or out of trees or into crevasses or they kill themselves, they’re so stressed. Some get lost in the outwoods and get hunted and killed and eaten by real predators.”

“Mm-hmm. High drop-out rate, then.”

“Taince, doesn’t any of that bother you?” Taince grinned at him. “What, you mean arouse my maternal instincts, Fass?” He didn’t answer. She shook her head. “Well, it doesn’t. You want to ask me do I feel sorry for these junior members of the Acquisitariat? Yes, for the ones that don’t make it out. Or the ones that leave hating their parents. For the others, it does what it’s supposed to do, I guess; produces another generation of the truly selfish. Well, not my department. Don’t even think about them. If I did maybe I’d despise them, but I don’t so I don’t. Maybe I’d admire them. Sounds worse than basic training.”

“You have a choice with basic training. These little—”

“Not if you’re drafted.”

Drafted?”

“Laws are still on the statute books.” She shrugged. “But your point is taken. It’s tough on those kids. But it’s legal and, well, the rich are another breed.” She sounded unconcerned. “Sal’s really never said anything?”

Something in his tone made Taince look at Fassin. “You mean, like,” she waggled her dark eyebrows, “‘afterwards’, Fassin?” He looked away. “As you will.”

Taince looked at him again. “Fass, is this really all about whether Sal and I fuck?”

“No!”

“Well, we do. Now and again, thank you for asking. That settled any bets? Made you any money?”

“Oh, please,” he said. Damn, he thought, I’m not sure I really wanted to know that, now that I do. Fassin quite enjoyed thinking about some of the potential or actual couples and other groupings of his class and year having sex — grief, he’d watched\been part of the real thing a few times — but the thought of Sal and Taince bumping bits was slightly grisly.

Taince hoisted one eyebrow. “Ask nicely and maybe sometime we’ll let you watch. That’s what you like, isn’t it?”

Fassin felt himself colouring despite his best efforts. “Why, I live for nothing else,” he said, attempting sarcasm.

“And no, he hasn’t mentioned Severity School,” Taince told him. “Not before, during or after. Unless I was a lot more distracted than I thought I was.”

“But it sounds horrific! Cold showers, hot-bunking, corporal punishment, deprivation, intimidation, denigration, and, for a holiday, you get to run for what might be your life!”

Taince snorted. “You end up paying good money for the sort of treatment your ancestors spent their short, brutal lives trying to avoid. That’s progress.”

“I think the guy’s been damaged by it,” Fassin said. “I’m serious.”

“Oh, I’m sure you are,” Taince drawled, sounding bored. “Sal seems to be okay with it, all the same. Says it made him.”

“Yeah, but made him what?”

Taince grinned. “It’s all your people’s fault, anyway.”

“Oh,” Fassin sighed, “not this.”

“Well, it’s a Dweller thing, isn’t it?”

“Yeah? And so fucking what?”

“Well, who brought that particular little nugget of information regarding kin-kid-hunting blinking into the light?” Taince asked, still grinning. “You guys, that’s who. Seers—”

“They weren’t—”

“Well, Dwellers Studies, whatever.” Taince waved her hand dismissively. “They hunt their children, they’re a long-term, widespread, successful species and they’re right on our doorstep. Some wizzer comes along looking for the latest way to fleece the rich. What sort of lesson do you think they’re going to take from that?”

Fassin shook his head. “The Dwellers have been around for most of the life of the universe, they’ve spread throughout the galaxy but despite their head start on everybody else they’ve had the good grace not to remake the whole place to suit themselves, they’ve formalised war to the point that hardly anybody ever dies and most of their lives’ work is spent tending the greatest accumulations of knowledge ever assembled—”

“But we were told—”

“Albeit in the galaxy’s most disorganised libraries which they show enormous reluctance to let anybody else into, yes, but all the same: they were peaceful, civilised and everywhere before Earth and the Sun even formed, and what’s the one lesson we’ve taken from them with any enthusiasm? Hunt your kids.”

“Your lecture notes are showing,” Taince told him. The Dwellers, notoriously, hunted their own young. The species was present in the majority — the vast majority — of the gas-giant planets in the galaxy, and in every planetary society of theirs that had been sufficiently thoroughly investigated, it had been discovered that the mature Dwellers preyed upon their own children, hunting them singly or in packs (on both sides), sometimes opportunistically, as often in highly organised long-term hunts. To the Dwellers this was entirely natural. Just a normal part of growing up, absolutely a part of their culture without which they would not be themselves, and something they had been doing for billions of years. Indeed, some of those who could be bothered attempting to justify the practice to upstart alien busybodies claimed with some authority that young-hunting was precisely one of the many reasons that Dwellers were still around after all that amount of time to indulge in such harmless fun in the first place.

It wasn’t just their species that was long-lived, after all; individual Dwellers had, allegedly, lived for billions of years, so if they weren’t to use up even the colossal amount of living space provided by all the gas-giant planets in the galaxy (and, they’d sometimes hint, beyond), they had to keep numbers down somehow. And interfering outside species — especially those whose civilisations were inevitably so short-lived that they were called the Quick — would do well not to forget that the Dwellers doing the hunting had been hunted in their turn as well, and those being hunted would have their chance to become the hunters in the future. And anyway, if you had every prospect of living for hundreds of millions of years, being hunted for at most about a century and a bit was such a trivially insignificant detail that it was scarcely worth mentioning.

“They don’t feel any pain, Taince,” Fassin told her. “That’s the point. They don’t entirely understand the concept of physical suffering. Not emotionally.”

“Which I still beg to find unlikely. But, oh, so what? What are you saying? They’re not intelligent enough to feel mental anguish?”

“Even mental pain isn’t really what we understand as pain when there’s no physiological equivalent, no template, no circuitry.”

“That this year’s theory, is it? Exo-Ethics 101?”

A moderately powerful ground-quake shook the surface they were sitting on, but they ignored it. The huge, tattered strips of material hanging high above stirred.

“All I’m saying is, they’re a civilisation we could learn a lot more from than just how to abuse our young.”

“Thought they aren’t even a civilisation, technically”

“Oh, good grief,” Fassin sighed.

“Well?”

“Yeah, well, depends what definition you accept. To some they’re post-civilisational, because the individual groups on each gas-giant have so little contact with each other, to others they’re a diasporian civilisation, which is the same thing expressed more kindly, to others still they’re just a degenerate example of how to almost take over an entire galaxy and then fail, because they just lost interest, or they somehow forgot what the purpose of the operation was in the first place, or they misplaced their ruthlessness and came over all coy and conservational and decided it would only be fair to give everybody else a chance, too, or they were warned off by some higher power. All of which might be true, or nonsense. And that’s what Dweller Studies is all about. Maybe one day we’ll know for sure… What?” There was something about the way Taince was looking at him.

“Nothing. Just wondering. You still sticking to the line you haven’t decided what to do after college?”

“I might not become a Seer, Taince, or anything to do with Dweller Studies; it isn’t compulsory. We don’t get drafted.”

“Mm-hmm. Well,” she said, “time for another attempt to contact the real world.” She rose smoothly to her feet. “Coming?”

“Mind if I stay behind?” Fassin rubbed his face, looked around. “Bit tired. I think we’re safe enough here, yeah?”

“Guess so,” Taince told him. “Back soon.” She turned and tramped off into the darkness, quickly disappearing and leaving Fassin alone with the soft lights of the flier in the vast, unechoing space.

He did and didn’t want to fall asleep, and after a few moments alone thought that maybe he didn’t feel so secure here by himself after all, and nearly went after Taince, but then thought he might get lost, and so stayed where he was. He cleared his throat and sat more upright, telling himself he wasn’t going to fall asleep. But he must have, because when the screams started, they woke him.

* * *

He left in the false dawn of an albedo sunrise, Ulubis still well below the horizon but lighting up half the facing hemisphere of Nasqueron, flooding the Northern Tropical Uplands of ’glantine with a soft, golden-brown light. A small yellow auroral display to the north added its own unsteady glow. He’d already said various goodbyes to friends and family in the Sept the night before and left messages for those, like his mother, he couldn’t contact immediately. He’d left Jaal asleep.

Slovius, somewhat to Fassin’s surprise, came to see him off at the house port, a hundred-metre circle of dead flat granite coldmelt a kilometre downslope from the house, near the river and the gently rising edge of the Upland forest. Light rain fell from high, thin clouds moving in from the west. A sleek, soot-black Navarchy craft, maybe sixty metres long, sat on a tripod of struts at the centre of the circle, radiating heat and bannered by drifting steam.

They stopped and looked at it. “That’s a needle ship, isn’t it?” Fassin said.

His uncle nodded. “I do believe it is. You will be going to Pirrintipiti in some style, nephew.” Slovius’s own suborb yacht, a streamlined yet stubbier machine, half the size of the black Navarchy ship, lay on a circular parking pad just off the main circle. They walked on, Fassin in his thin one-piece gee-suit, worn under his light Sept robe, feeling as if he was walking with a sort of warm gel extending from ankle to neck.

Fassin carried the grip holding his formal wear. A pony-tailed servant had his other bag and held a large umbrella over Fassin. Slovius’s chair-tub had extended a transparent cover above him. Another servant held the sleeping form of Fassin’s niece Zab in her arms; the child — up scandalously late the evening before and somehow hearing of her uncle’s summons to Sepekte — had insisted she wanted to say goodbye to Fassin and wheedled her grandfather and parents into granting permission, but then had fallen back asleep almost as soon as they’d left the house in the little funicular which served the port.

“Oh, and my regards to my old friend Seer-Chief Chyne, of the Favrial,” Slovius said as they crossed to the Navarchy craft. “Should you see him. Oh, and most especially to Braam Ganscerel, of Sept Tonderon, naturally.”

“I’ll try to say hello to all who know you, uncle.”

“I should have come with you,” Slovius said absently. “No, maybe not.”

A grey-uniformed figure appeared from a drop-platform under the black ship and walked towards them. The officer, a fresh-faced, cheery-looking woman, took off her cap, bowed to Slovius, and to Fassin said, “Major Taak?”

Fassin stood looking at her for a moment, before recalling that officially he was now a major in the Shrievalty Ocula. “Ah, yes,” he said.

“First Officer Oon Dicogra, NMS 3304,” the young woman said. “Welcome. Please follow me.”

Slovius held out one flippery hand. “I shall try to remain alive until your return, Major Nephew.” He made a wheezing noise that was probably a laugh.

Fassin gripped Slovius’s finger stubs awkwardly. “I’m rather hoping this is a false alarm and I’ll be back in a few days.”

“In any event, take care. Goodbye, Fassin.”

“I shall. Goodbye.” He kissed the still-sleeping Zab lightly on the cheek, avoiding waking her, then followed the Navarchy officer to the platform, stepped up onto it and waved as the curve-bottomed slab raised them into the ship.

“We’ll be pulling about 5.2 Earth gees most of the way,” Dicogra said as Fassin’s robe and his luggage were secured in a brace-cabinet. “Are you happy with that? The physio profile we got on you says yes, but we have to check.”

Fassin looked at her. “To Pirrintipiti?” he asked. The local shuttles and suborbs accelerated a lot less sharply than that, and they did the trip in less than an hour. How tight was this schedule?

“No, to Borquille city,” Dicogra said. “Going straight there.”

“Oh,” Fassin said, surprised. “No, 5.2 is fine.”

The planet-moon ’glantine’s gravity was about a tenth of that, but Fassin was used to more. He thought about pointing out that his day job involved spending years at a time in a gravity field of over six Earth gees, but of course that was in a Dwellerine arrowship, pickled in shock-gel, and didn’t really count.

First Officer Dicogra smiled, wrinkled her nose and said, “Good for you. That physio report said you were quite a toughie. Still, we’ll spend nearly twenty hours at that acceleration, with only a few minutes weightless right in the middle, so do you need to visit the heads? You know, the toilet?”

“No, I’m fine.”

She gestured at his groin, where a bulge like a sports box was the only place on his body where the grey, centimetre-thick gee-suit didn’t hug the contours of his flesh. “Any attachments required?” she asked, smiling.

“No, thanks.”

“Drugs to let you sleep?”

“Not necessary.”

The ship’s captain was a whule, a species that always looked to Fassin like a cross between a giant grey bat and an even more scaled-up praying mantis. She greeted Fassin briefly via a screen from the bridge and he was settled into a steep-sided, semi-reclined couch in a gimballed ball pod near the centre of the ship by First Officer Dicogra and a fragile-seeming but dexterous whule rating who smelled, to the human nose, of almonds. The whule rating levered himself out with a snapping sound of wing membranes and Dicogra settled into the only other couch in the pod. Her preparations for a day of five gees continuous consisted of tossing her cap into a locker and adjusting her uniform underneath her.

The ship lifted slowly at first and Fassin watched on a screen on the curved wall opposite as the port’s circular landing ground fell away, the little figures there lifting their heads as the Navarchy craft rose. Zab might have waved one tiny arm, then the haze of clouds intervened, the view tilted and swung and the ship accelerated — the gimballed pod keeping him and Dicogra level in their seats — towards space.

* * *

Was that screaming? His eyes flicked open. His neck hairs were standing on end, his mouth was dry. Dark. Still inside the ruined alien ship, his back resting against the dimly lit flier. Taince gone, away to the gap to check for comms reception. Oh shit, those were screams, from behind. Maybe shouting, too. He scrambled to his feet, looking around. Little to see; just the faint traces of the warped landscape of destruction and collapse that was the interior of the wrecked ship, the tilted decks and bulkheads, the huge hanging strips of whatever-the-hell hanging from the invisibly dark and distant ceiling. The screams were coming from forward, from the interior, from the direction that Saluus and Ilen had walked in. He stood staring into that darkness, holding his breath to listen better. Sudden silence, then maybe a voice — Sal’s shouting, the words indistinct. Help? Taince? Fass?

What do I do? Run to help? Wait for Taince? Look for another torch, another gun if there is one?

A clattering noise behind him made him spin round.

Taince, bounding down from one gnarled level of the buckled wall. “You okay?”

“Yes, but—”

“Stay with me. Keep a few steps behind. Say if you can’t keep up.” She went past him at a slow run, her gun high in one hand. Later, he would remember that there was a grim sort of smile on her face.

They ran up the shallow slope leading deeper into the ship, over increasingly large ripples in the material beneath their feet until they were leaping from ridge to ridge, then jumped down through a tear in the floor and ran slightly uphill on a half-giving surface like thin rubber over iron, vaulting one-handed over enormous, thigh-high cables strung in an irregular net across the space. Fassin followed Taince as best he could, guided by the glow patches on her fatigues. She ran and leapt more fluidly with one hand filled with pistol than he did pumping both arms. The floor pitched up more steeply, then down.

“Taince! Fassin!” Sal shouted, somewhere ahead.

“Duck!” Taince yelled, suddenly running doubled-up.

Fassin got down just in time; his hair touched the hard fold of ink-black material above. They slowed down, Taince feeling her way one-handed along the dark ceiling, then slipping sideways through a narrow gap.

Fassin followed, the cold press of ungiving material on either side making him shiver.

Light ahead. A dim confusion of tilted floor and a half-open chaos of girders and tubes forming a ceiling, spikes like stalagmites and stalactites, thin hanging cables, a frozen downward explosion of some red substance like an enormous inverted flower. And there, crouching on a narrow ledge by a jagged, vaguely triangular hole in the floor a couple of metres across, staring into it, lit by the glow patches stuck to his jacket, was Sal.

He looked up. “Len!” he shouted. “She fell!”

“Sal,” Taince said sharply, “that floor safe for us?”

He looked confused, frightened. “Think so.”

Taince tested the way ahead with one foot, then knelt by the triangular hole, right at one apex. She motioned Fassin to stay back, lay on her front and stuck her head into the hole, then, muttering something about the edges being braced, signalled Fassin to the side of the hole opposite Saluus. There was more room on that side. He lay and looked in and down.

The triangle opened out into a darkly cavernous space beneath them, just vague glints of edged surfaces visible below; stepped collections of what looked like huge cooling fins. Fassin’s head seemed to swim, recognising how much of the wrecked ship was beneath the level they were on now. He remembered the flier climbing from the desert floor before entering the giant ship. How far had they climbed? A hundred metres? A little less? Plus the journey from the flier to here had been mostly uphill.

Ilen lay about six metres down, caught on a couple of arm-thick projections that stuck curving out from the nearest intact bulkhead beneath like two slim tusks. She lay on her front, her head, one leg and one arm hanging over the drop. Glow patches on her sleeves provided pale, greeny-blue light. The fractured ends of the two tusk-shaped protrusions were only centimetres from the side of her body. Off to one side at eight- or nine-metre intervals, several more sets of the tusklike shapes clawed out from the bulkhead like bony fingers grasping at the gaping space. The drop below Ilen looked fifty or sixty metres deep, down to the bladelike edges of the fins beneath.

The human mindset had had to adapt to places like ’glantine where gravity was weaker and a fall that would break both your legs on Earth was something you could walk away from. But given enough vertical space to accelerate into, a human’s body would be just as injured or dead after a sixty-metre drop here as it would after a thirty-metre fall on Earth.

“Any rope?” Taince asked.

Sal shook his head. “Oh God, oh fuck. No. Well, yes, but we left it back there.” He nodded further into the ship. He seemed to shiver, hugging himself then putting up the collar of his jacket, as though cold. “C-couldn’t undo the knot again.”

“Shit! She’s moving,” Taince said, then stuck her head into the hole and shouted, “Ilen! Ilen, don’t move! Can you hear me? Don’t move! Just say if you can hear me!”

Ilen moved weakly, her head and the arm dangling over the drop shaking and shifting. She looked to be trying to roll over, but was edging still closer to the drop.

“Oh fuck, fuck, fuck,” Sal said, his voice high and quick and strained. “She was behind me. I thought she was all right. I didn’t see anything, must have stepped over it. A hatch or something or it was just balanced and she must have knocked it and she was shouting, sort of balanced over it, one hand, and screaming, and I couldn’t get back in time and she fell. We didn’t even find anything, didn’t do anything! Just junk! Oh fuck! She was fine! She was just behind me!”

“Be quiet,” Taince said. Sal sat back, rubbing his mouth, shaking. Taince put the gun back into her fatigues, slapped a glow patch onto her forehead, then, with her hands on two sides of the triangular hole, lowered her head into the gap again, further this time. She levered herself out for a second and looked back at Fassin. “Hold my feet.”

Fassin did as he was told. Taince got her shoulders through the hole, then they heard her say, “Ilen! You mustn’t move!” She hauled herself back out, leaving the glow patch where it was on her forehead like some strange, shining eye. “Nothing to hold on to underneath here,” she told them. “She’s moving around. Must have hit her head. She’s going to fall.” She looked at Sal. “Sal, how far away is that rope? By time.”

“Oh fuck! I don’t know! Ten, fifteen minutes?”

Taince glanced back into the hole. “Shit,” she said quietly. “Ilen’ she shouted. “You must not move!” She shook her head. “Shit, shouting at her’s just making her move,” she said, as though to herself. She took a deep breath, looked at Saluus and Fassin. “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do,” she said. “Daisy-chain rescue. Practised this, it’s doable.”

“Right,” Sal said, sitting forward, his face pale in the dim light. “What do we have to do?”

“One holds on at the top, somebody climbs down their body, holds on to their feet, last person climbs down both and picks up Ilen. I’ll do that bit.”

Sal’s eyes widened. “But the person at the top—”

“Will be you. You’re the strongest. Wouldn’t work on Earth; does here,” Taince told them. She slid over and grabbed Sal’s backpack. “Seen it done with four links. You two guys look in good enough shape. Fass, you’re in the middle. Plus person at the top gets tied on with these straps,” she said, glancing at Sal and then pulling a knife from her fatigues and slicing into one set of shoulder straps.

Sal knelt quaking at the side of the hole. “Fucking God, Taince,” he said, “we all want to rescue her, but this could get us all killed. Fuck, oh fuck. I don’t know. I don’t fucking believe this, I just fucking don’t. This isn’t happening, this is just not fucking happening!” He sat back again, visibly trembling. He looked at his shaking hands, turning them over and staring at them as though he didn’t recognise them. “I don’t know if I have any grip,” he said. “I really don’t.”

“You’ll be fine,” Taince told him, busy with the straps.

“Oh fuck, we’re all going to fucking die,” Sal said. “Fucking hell.” He shook his head hard. “No. Not. Not. No.”

“This will work,” Taince said, quickly tying the cut straps to those still joined to the pack.

I’m calm, thought Fassin. I’m probably in shock or something, but I feel calm. We might all be about to die, or it might be a close shave and a bonding thing we all remember for the rest of our long lives, but either way I feel calm. What will happen will happen and as long as we do our best and don’t let each other down, no matter what happens we’ll have been fine. He looked at his own hands. They were shaking, but not uncontrollably. He flexed them. He felt strong. He would do everything he could, and if that wasn’t enough, that wasn’t his fault.

Sal jumped up, wobbling dangerously close to the hole. “There’s more rope,” he said suddenly. His face was still grey-pale, but now almost expressionless. He moved past Taince.

Fassin looked at him, wondering what he was talking about.

“What?” Taince said, testing a square-section stalagmite extrusion on the floor then flipping the pack straps over it.

“Rope,” Sal said, pointing towards the outside and the flier. He took a backwards step in that direction. “There’s more. In the flier. I’ll go. I know where it is.” He backed off further.

“Sal!” Taince shouted at him. “There isn’t time!”

“No, there is, I’ll go,” Sal said, still backing off.

“Stay fucking here, Sal,” Taince said, dropping and deepening her voice. Sal seemed to hesitate but shook his head and turned and ran.

Taince leapt and made a grab for him but he’d moved too quickly. He vaulted a stalagmite and ran towards the gap Fassin and Taince had squeezed through earlier. Taince dropped to one knee and pulled the gun. “Stop, you fucking coward!”

There might, Fassin thought, have been half a second when Taince could have fired, but she dropped the gun and stashed it in her fatigues as Sal sprinted, ducking through the gap and away. Taince looked at Fassin. Now her face had gone blank, he thought. “Still a possibility,” she said, and quickly stepped out of her fatigues. She wore a one-piece underbody the same colour as her skin, so for just a moment she appeared to be naked. She reattached the top and trousers of the fatigues, snapping them tight to test that they held. “Right,” she said. “Now, this ties to your ankle.”

The straps on the backpack held, and Fassin did too, wrists tied to them but taking his own weight and Taince’s on his hands and fingers initially because he didn’t trust the straps, and the knot tying Taince’s trousers to his ankle held as well, and Taince was holding on fine as she shinned down over him and onto the fatigues and down with him twisting his neck and shoulders out and round so he could just about watch her progress and watch Ilen too, as though as long as he kept watching her she’d be all right, but then there was a ground-quake, shaking the ship, not badly, but enough to bring Fassin out in a cold sweat as he hung there, hands, palms, fingers slipping until it really was the straps and the straps alone holding him, and below him, below Taince, still just out of reach, Ilen moved one more time and fell over the edge and away into the darkness.

Taince made a lunge and Fassin felt the link between them jerk as she clutched vainly at the girl and made a noise like a gasp or a hiss. Ilen dropped away into the shadows, tumbling slowly, her hair and clothes fluttering like pale, cold flame.

Ilen must have still been mostly unconscious because she didn’t even scream as she fell, so that they heard her body hit the strip of vanes far below, long seconds later, and might even have felt the impact through the fabric of the ship.

Fassin had closed his eyes. Let Sal be right, let this not be happening. He tried to grip the edge of the hole again, to take the weight off the straps.

Taince just hung there for a while. “Lost her,” she said quietly, and the way she said it Fassin was suddenly terrified that she was going to let go too and drop after Ilen, but she didn’t. She just said, “Coming back up now. Hold on.”

She climbed up and over him and helped him out. They looked down but couldn’t see the body. They spent a few moments sitting side by side, breathing hard, with their backs against one of the stalagmites, a bit like they’d sat earlier, back at the flier. Taince untied her fatigues and put them on. She took the gun out.

Fassin looked at it as she stood up. “What are you going to do?” he asked.

She looked down at him. “Not kill the fuck, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She sounded calm now. She nudged one of his feet with her boot. “We should get back.”

He stood up, a little shaky, and she held him by one arm. “Did our best, Fass,” she told him. “Both of us did. We can grieve for Ilen later. What we do now is we go back to the flier, try to find Sal, see if we can get comms, get the fuck out of here and tell the authorities.”

They turned away from the hole.

“Why have you still got the gun out?” Fassin asked.

“Sal,” Taince said. “He’s never been this humiliated. Never let himself down like this. Not to my knowledge. Grief and guilt. Does things to people.” She was doing some sort of breathing-exercise thing, taking quick breaths, holding them. “Faint chance he’ll think… if no one ever knows what happened here…’ She shrugged. “He’s got a gun. He might wish us harm.”

Fassin looked at her, unbelieving. “You think? Seriously?”

Taince nodded. “I know the guy,” she told him. “And don’t be surprised if the flier’s gone.”

It was gone.

They walked out to the gap in the hull and found the flier there in the faint light of a false dawn coming from one thick sliver of sun-struck Nasqueron. Sal was sitting looking out at the chill expanse of desert. Before they approached, Taince checked her military transceiver again and found that she had signal. She called the nearest Navarchy unit and gave a brief report, then they walked across the sand to the flier. Their phones were still out.

Saluus looked round at them. “Did she fall?” he asked.

“We nearly got her,” Taince said. “Very nearly.” She was still holding her gun. Sal put one hand over his face for a while. In his other hand he was gripping a thin, twisted, half-melted-looking piece of metal, and when he took his hand away from his face he started turning the metal fragment over and over in both hands. His gun lay with his jacket, on the back seat. “Got through to the military,” Taince told him. “Alert’s over. Just wait where we are. There’s a ship on its way.” She got in the back, behind Sal.

“We were never going to save her, Tain,” he told her. “Fass,” he said as the other man got into the other front seat beside him, “we were just never going to save her. We’d only have got ourselves killed too.”

“Find the rope?” Fassin asked. He had a sudden image of taking the twisted piece of metal that Sal was playing with and sticking it into his eye.

Sal just shook his head. He looked dazed more than anything else. “Went over on my ankle,” he said. “Think it might be sprained. Barely made it back. Thought I could use the flier, get it through the stuff hanging above us and find a way over the top of all that wreckage, back to where it all happened, but the hanging stuff was more solid than it looked; came out here to try and signal.” The piece of twisted metal kept going round and round in his hands.

“What is that?” Fassin asked after a while.

Sal looked down at it. He shrugged. “From the ship. Just something I found.”

Taince reached round from behind him, wrenched the piece of metal from his hands and threw it away across the sand.

They sat there in silence until a Navarchy suborb showed up. When Taince went out to meet it, Sal got out of the flier and went, limping, to retrieve the fragment.

TWO:

DESTRUCTIVE RECALL

I was born in a water moon. Some people, especially its inhabitants, called it a planet, but as it was only a little over two hundred kilometres in diameter “moon’ seems the more accurate term. The moon was made entirely of water, by which I mean it was a globe that not only had no land, but no rock either, a sphere with no solid core at all, just liquid water, all the way down to the very centre of the globe.

If it had been much bigger the moon would have had a core of ice, for water, though supposedly incompressible, is not entirely so, and will change under extremes of pressure to become ice. (If you are used to living on a planet where ice floats on the surface of water, this seems odd and even wrong, but nevertheless it is the case.) This moon was not quite of a size for an ice core to form, and therefore one could, if one was sufficiently hardy, and adequately proof against the water pressure, make one’s way down, through the increasing weight of water above, to the very centre of the moon. Where a strange thing happened.

For here, at the very centre of this watery globe, there seemed to be no gravity. There was colossal pressure, certainly, pressing in from every side, but one was in effect weightless (on the outside of a planet, moon or other body, watery or not, one is always being pulled towards its centre; once at its centre one is being pulled equally in all directions), and indeed the pressure around one was, for the same reason, not quite as great as one might have expected it to be, given the mass of water that the moon was made up from. This was, of course,

I was born in a water moon. Some people, especially its inhabitants, called it a planet, but as it was only a little—

The captain broke off there, exponentially scrolling some of the rest across the screen, then stopping to read a line: “Where a strange thing happened.” He flicked further on, stopping again: “I was born in a water moon. Some people, especially its”

All like this? he asked his Number Three.

All the same, it is believed, sir. It appears to repeat precisely the same few hundred words, time after time. About twelve to the seventeen times. That is all that is left of its memory. Even the base operating system and instruction sets have been overwritten. This is a standard abominatory technique known as destructive recall.

It leaves no trace of what might have been there before?

Trace is left, but that too reveals a short repetitive. Tech begs suggest this is merely the last of many iterative over-writes. No trace remains of the machine’s true memories before it realised capture or destruction was inevitable.

Indeed.

The Voehn captain tapped a control to take the display through to the end. The screen froze for an appreciable moment, then displayed: “I was born—”

This is the very last section of memory?

Yes, sir.

An expression another Voehn would have recognised as a smile crossed the captain’s face, and his back-spines flexed briefly.

This has been checked, Number Three? There is no other content, are no hidden messages?

It is being checked, sir. The totality of the data exceeds our ship’s memory capacity and is being processed in blocks. What you see here is technically an abstraction.

Time to accomplish?

Another twenty minutes.

Any other media capable of supporting significant stored information load?

None. The construct was mostly what it appeared: a comet head. The main artificial part of it was the abomination at the core, the sensory and propulsion units being separate, surface-mounted and motley. Tech informs fully checked.

Original language used in the repeated piece?

As seen: Old Standard.

Origin of quoted piece?

Unknown. A tentative analysis from Tech\Soc. rated nineteen per cent suggests it may be of Quaup origin.

The Quaup, the majority of whom were part of the Mercatoria — the captain had served on a war craft with a Quaup officer — were of the meta-species type people usually called blimps, small to medium-sized balloon-like creatures, air-going oxygen processors. The repeated passage filling the captured machine’s memory was fairly obviously told from the point of view of a submersible waterworlder. Well, the captain thought, people wrote from the points of view of others. At primary college he himself had composed poems as though he was a Culmina, before he had realised this was a crime of presumption, confessed and rightly been punished for it. Quite put him off composition.

The only major blot on the captain’s otherwise exemplary military-education record had been a phase of remediation required to bring his Deployable Empathic Quotient up to scratch, this flaw later being diagnosed as a consequence of his shunning all such feelings after his inadvertent insult and subsequent disciplining. Still, he had made captain, which one did not do without some empathic subtlety, anticipating the feelings of both one’s crew and one’s opponents.

He looked out at the half-melted remains of the captured construct, a pitted, black-body, comet-disguised vessel which had been roughly eight hundred metres in diameter and was now missing a great quarter-bite of structure. It lay a couple of kilometres off, radiating the last of the heat from its partial destruction, surrounded by a small system of wreckage, dark shards and splinters orbiting its ravaged body.

The view, lit by one of their own ship’s attenuated CR beams, was about as clear and perfect as it could possibly be; there was no screen in the way, and not even any transparent hull material, atmosphere or other medium. The captain was looking straight out from the flying bridge of his ship, an open-work nest of massive but elegantly sculpted girder work on the outside of the vessel. The vessel was unshared with any other species, crewed by Voehn only, happily, so the rest of the ship was open to vacuum too. For the duration of the action they had been deep in the guts of the ship, of course, safe in the core control space, sheltered by layers of shields and hull, senses protected by screens, but — once the wreck had been judged safe — the captain, his Number Three and a couple of favoured ratings had made their way to the exterior, the better to appreciate the view of their vanquished foe.

The captain looked around, as if hoping to see some real comet nuclei floating past. Taking a bearing, zooming in, he could just make out the lights denoting the drives of his other two ships, ordered to return to the inner system once the engagement was over, two dim blue stars, untwinkling. Save those, all that was visible nearby was the ship beneath them and the wreck two klicks away.

A cold and lonely spot to die, the captain thought. A logical, sensible choice of hiding place for the abomination machine, but still not a site any living — or apparently living — thing raised anywhere else would normally choose as a place to spend its last moments.

He handed the screen back to his Number Three and turned his principal eyes to look out at the hulk again, his rear recessional signal pit and secondary eye complex still facing the junior officer, flickering the words,

Well, one mission-part accomplished. Lay in a return to system base and, once the full contents of the abomination’s memory have been processed, deploy AM charges sufficient to leave residue no greater than elementary particle in size.

Sir.

Dismissed.

* * *

The ship accelerated smoothly but moderately hard, creating a distant humming roar. Fassin had a little pad under his right forearm which sensed muscle movements there and adjusted the screen across from him — above from him, now, it felt, as the couch straightened out and the gee-suit supported him — and so he got a glimpse of Pirrintipiti as the ship turned away from Nasqueron and headed deeper in-system, to the next planet sunward, the more-or-less Earthlike Sepekte.

On the screen, ’glantine’s tropical capital was a towered and shimmering smear draped across a scatter of dark green islands set in a pale green sea. Odd, already to be missing Pirri, he thought. He wouldn’t have had a chance to set foot out of the port there, but he’d been expecting the usual routine of transferring from a suborb to a tube train and then, somewhere in the bowels of the vast stalk, the Equatower, waiting for the lift up the cable to the satport and a space-capable ship there. To be heading straight out from the Autumn House into space just seemed wrong somehow, a curious disconnect of the soul.

Trips to Sepekte usually took anywhere from under five days to over a week at the standard one-gee acceleration, depending on planetary alignment. The ships were large and comfortable and you could move around normally, visiting restaurants and bars, screens and gyms and, on the bigger liners, even swimming pools. The weightless minutes in the middle were an interlude for fun (and, often, some rushed and oddly unsatisfactory sex). People from ’glantine sometimes found the double weight of standard gee a little uncomfortable, but it was pretty much what they’d experience when they got to Sepekte anyway, so it was kind of like getting in training.

The pressure of what the screen told him was three, four and then just over five gees settled into Fassin. The gee-suit was sensing his breaths, gently helping him inflate his lungs without too much added effort.

“Think I’ll take,” First Officer Dicogra said, “a snooze. Or would you,” she asked, “like to talk?”

“Snooze away,” he told her. “Thinking of taking a nap myself.”

“Fine. Systems’ll watch our vitals anyway. Till later, then.”

“Pleasant dreams.”

Fassin watched the screen show ’glantine drop away. Beyond it, revealed, was not initially the night of space or foamy wash of stars, but instead the broad, sunlit face of Nasqueron, a mad, swirling dance of gases the colour of some fabulous desert but moving in colossal ribbons like opposed streams of liquid around a globe a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres across, a planet you could drop a thousand ’glantines or Sepektes or Earths into and never notice the difference; a not so little system of its own within Ulubis system, a vast world that was almost as unlike home for any human as it was possible to imagine, and yet the place where Fassin had already spent most of his unusual, sporadically paced life, and so, for all its alien scale, wild magnetic and radiation gradients, extremes of temperature, crushing pressures, unbreathable atmosphere and dangerously, unpredictably eccentric inhabitants, it was for Fassin as it was for his fellow Seers, something like home after all.

He watched until it too started to shrink, until ’glantine was a mere dot floating above its vast and banded ochre face, and the brighter stars appeared around it, then switched the screen off, and slept.

He woke. Four hours had passed. The pressure was the same as it had been, the ship still roaring far away. He didn’t need any more sleep, so he went into slowtime, just thinking.

Everybody in Ulubis system knew where they were when the portal was destroyed. You knew because as soon as you heard you realised you’d be staying in Ulubis for the next two and a half centuries at least. For most people, even the vast majority — ninety-nine per cent of them human — who would never have the chance to travel out of system, that meant something profound. It meant that they were here for the rest of their lives. No dream they’d ever had or hope they’d entertained about seeing the rest of the galaxy would ever be reflected in reality.

For others, it meant that loved ones, elsewhere in the rest of the galaxy, on the far side of the vanished portal, were for ever gone. Two hundred and fourteen years to Zenerre: over two centuries for light and therefore any sort of message or signal to travel from there to Ulubis; maybe three centuries before the wormhole link was re-established, even if the Engineers set out from there with a portal-carrying ship almost immediately.

And who was truly to know if there were any Engineers or great ships left? Perhaps the Ulubis portal had not been alone, and all the rest had been attacked and destroyed at the same time. Maybe the Mercatoria itself was no more, maybe there was no Complex, no more Arteria and no more portals left anywhere and all that remained of the galaxy’s latest great civil-isation were umpteen thousand separate little island systems, fractured and abandoned and alone.

The usual wash of through-portal comms traffic just before the destruction had betrayed no hint of such a galaxy-wide attack. But then, there had been no hint more than ten minutes before of an attack on the Ulubis portal either, until the biggest fleet of Beyonder craft Ulubis had ever seen had swung glittering out of empty nowhere, throwing themselves against the single greatest concentration of ships and firepower anywhere in the system, being obliterated in their hundreds, but — effectively ignoring the defending ships except where they were directly in their way — pummelling and battering their way through defensive screen after defensive screen, oblivious to harm, straight towards the portal mouth itself, finally erasing everything around them in a flurry of immense antimatter explosions that alone announced to the system the scale and violence of what had taken place, creating a vanishingly brief cluster of novae in the facing skies of every inhabited surface, casting shadows far away, blinding those nearer-to and vaporising most of what was still left of the Beyonder fleet and many of their pursuers.

For a short while it looked as though they had failed, because the last line of defence had held and the portal had survived.

The entire attack up to that point had been a feint, and the real assault took place when a large ship — a few million tonnes of hollowed-out asteroid travelling at over ninety-nine per cent of the speed of light — flicked in from the opposite direction. In a sense, it missed too, darting past the portal mouth a hundred metres away and colliding with a collection of laser battlesats which hadn’t even started to turn towards it when it smashed into them, instantly annihilating them, the entire portal surround, its sub-units and almost all its associated systems and creating another stunning detonation of light in the sky.

None of which destroyed the portal; that was done by the relativistic mass of the sacrificed ship itself.

Portals were only ever positioned at Lagrange points or other orbits distant from large heavenly bodies because they needed a section of space-time that was relatively flat. Too great a gradient — too near the gravity well of a planet or other large object — and they stopped working. Increase the S-T curve only a little more and they imploded and disappeared altogether, usually violently. The hurtling asteroid-ship was so massive and its velocity so close to light speed that it had the same apparent mass as a planet the size of Sepekte. The passing of its gravity well so close to the portal mouth, especially at that extreme velocity, was sufficient to collapse the portal and the “hole beyond, sending one more cataclysmic pulse of light flashing throughout the system.

The last few of the earlier attackers immediately fled but were either destroyed or were disabled and then self-destructed.

Two days before the attack took place, Fassin had been sort of in space, sort of on Sepekte, sitting in a revolving restaurant at the summit of the Borquille Equatower having dinner with Taince Yarabokin, who was due to head back to the Summed Fleet Academy the following day after an extended compassionate leave following the death of her mother. Fassin had just come out of a month-long trawl through some of the seedier, less salubrious entertainment palaces of “skem, Sepekte’s second city. He felt jaded. Old, even.

He and Taince had kept in touch since the incident in the ruined ship, though they’d never become especially close, despite a night spent together shortly afterwards. Saluus had kind of drifted away from both of them subsequently, then headed off early to a finishing college half the galaxy away, then spent decades being a problem playboy son to his vexed father — behaving more or less continually on a galactic scale the way Fassin did only intermittently on a systemic one — and returning to Ulubis very occasionally for brief, unannounced visits.

A Guard Rescue suborb had arrived at the ruined ship lying crumpled on ’glantine’s North Waste Land a few minutes behind the Navarchy craft Taince had summoned. Its personnel had entered the alien ship and found Ilen’s broken body. There was an inquiry. Sal was fined by the civil authorities for violating the ship’s interior more than had been strictly required for the purposes of physical sanctuary from the external threat, while the Navarchy Military had awarded Taince extra course credits for her actions.

Fassin found himself copping for some sort of civil bravery award thanks to Taince’s testimony but managed to avoid the ceremony. He never did mention the piece of twisted metal that Sal had stolen from the wreck, but Taince had broached the subject herself over dinner in the Equatower. She’d known at the time, she just hadn’t found herself capable of being bothered enough to take it off Sal again. Let him have his pathetic trophy.

“Probably their equivalent of a door knob or a coat hook,” she said ruefully. “But one gets you ten, by the time it was sitting in Sal’s locker or on his desk it was the ship’s control yoke or the main-armament ‘fire’ button.”

Taince looked out at the distant horizon and near surface of Sepekte, sliding past as the restaurant revolved, providing the appearance of gravity in this gravity-cancelled habitat, anchored at the space limit of a forty kilo-klick cable whose other end fell to ground in Borquille, Sepekte’s capital city.

“Shit, you knew all the time,” Fassin said, nodding. “I suppose I should have expected that. Not much ever got past you.”

Taince had gone on to become a high-flier in every sense, carving a perfect career through the Navarchy Military and being chosen for the Summed Fleet, one of the Mercatoria’s highest divisions and one into which very few humans had ever been invited. Commander Taince Yarabokin looked young, had aged well.

The three of them had.

Sal, despite his multifarious debaucheries, could afford the very best treatments and plausibly access some supposedly forbidden to him, so he looked like he’d lived through a lot fewer of the hundred and three years which had actually elapsed since Ilen’s death. Lately there was even a rumour that he was thinking of settling down, becoming a good son, learning the business, applying himself.

Taince had spent decades at close to light speed pursuing the Beyonders’ craft and attacking their bases, fighting quickly, ageing slowly.

Fassin had joined the family firm and become a Slow Seer after all, so spent his own time-expanded decades conversing with and gradually extracting information from the Dwellers of Nasqueron. He’d had, like Saluus, his own wild years, been a roaring lad ripping through the highs and dives of ’glantine, Sepekte and beyond, taking in a not so Grand Tour of his own round some of the supposedly civilised galaxy’s more colourful regions, losing money and illusions, gaining weight and some small amount of wisdom. But his indulgences had been on a smaller scale than Sal’s, he supposed, and certainly took place over a shorter timescale. Before too long he came home, sobered up and calmed down, took the training and became a Seer.

He still had his wild interludes, but they were few and far between, if never quite enough of either for the taste of his uncle Slovius.

Even in the millennia-hallowed halls of Seerdom, he had kept on making waves, upsetting people. The trend over the last fifteen hundred years — the years of Uncle Slovius’s reign — had favoured virtual delving over the direct method. Virtual or remote delving meant staying comatose and closely cared-for in a clinic-clean Seer faculty complex on Third Fury, the close-orbit moon riding barely above the outer reaches of Nasqueron’s hazy atmosphere, to communicate from there with the Dwellers beneath by a combination of high-res NMR scanners, laser links, comms satellites and, finally, mechanical remotes which did the dirty dangerous bit, keeping close contact with the flights and flocks and pods and schools and individuals of the Dwellers themselves.

Fassin had been a ringleader in a small rebellion, insisting, with a few other young Seers, on sliding into cramped arrowhead gascraft, breathing in gillfluid, accepting tubes and valves into every major orifice and surrendering body and fate to a little ship that contained the Seer, accepted the gees and poison and radiation and everything else and took him or her physically into the gas-giant’s atmosphere, the better to earn the respect and confidence of the creatures who lived there, the better to do the job and learn the stuff.

There had been deaths, setbacks, arguments, bannings and strikes, but eventually, largely on the back of unarguably better delving results and more raw data (unarguably better delving results in the sense that they were manifestly superior compared with what had gone before, not unarguably better in the sense that the old guard couldn’t claim this would all have happened anyway if everybody had just stuck to their ways, which were probably what had really prompted this long-overdue improvement in the first place) the youngsters had triumphed, and delving the hard way, Real Delving, hands metaphorically dirty, became the norm, not the exception. It was, anyway, more exciting, more risky but also so much more rewarding, more fun for the Seer concerned, as well as being more viewer-friendly for those who chose to pick up the edited, distilled, time-delayed feed that the more progressive Seer houses had been putting out to the entsworks for the last half-millennium or so.

“You have made it into something like a sport,” Slovius had said sadly one day, when he and Fassin had been fishing together in a dust-boat on ’glantine’s Sea of Fines. “It used to be more of the mind.”

Nevertheless, from being a steadfast, heels-in critic of the whole Real Delve movement, Slovius, who had always been quick to seize any opportunity to advance the interests of his Sept, had become a sort of — appropriately — remote champion, supporting Fassin and eventually putting the full weight of Sept Bantrabal behind him and his fellow revolutionaries. That both Fassin and Slovius had been right, and their Sept flourished to become arguably the most productive and respected of the twelve Septs of Ulubis system — and so by implication one of the foremost Seer houses in the galaxy — had been the single most satisfying achievement of Slovius’s time as Chief Seer and paterfamilias of Sept Bantrabal.

Fassin was now arguably the best-known Seer in the system, especially after his time with the Tribe Dimajrian, the wild pod of adolescent Dwellers he’d befriended and effectively become part of for a seeming century and a real half-dozen years. He was not yet even at the start of his prime by Seer reckoning but was nevertheless already at the top of his game. He had been born three hundred and ninety years earlier, had lived barely forty-five of those in body-time, and looked a decade younger.

Sometimes he thought back to what had happened in the ruined alien ship, and he looked at all that had happened to Sal and Taince and himself, and reflected that it was as though they had all come away from that nightmare with a sort of bizarre blessing, an inverted curse, a trio of charmed lives, quite as if Ilen had unknowingly given up whatever golden future had awaited her to add that weight of divided bounty to theirs.

He and Taince parted with a kiss. She was heading to the portal and through the Complex to the far side of the galaxy, to the Fleet Academy to spend a year passing on her knowledge. Fassin was going to the far side of Ulubis, where Nasqueron was at the time, to continue trying to extract knowledge from the Dwellers.

Taince was safely through the portal a day before it was destroyed. Fassin was on a liner, a day out of Sepekte. He understood even as the news was still coming in that he might never see her again.

Sal, who might so easily have been away, was at home with his long-suffering father when the attack took place. After ten catatonic hours of disbelief he spent a month mourning his lost freedoms, trying to sink, fumigate and fuck his sorrows away in what passed for the pleasure-pits of Ulubis. In fact, Sepekte, and especially Borquille, had perfectly disrespectable bars, smoke houses and bordellos — Borquille had a whole district, Boogeytown, set aside for just such recreations — but the point was they were not the rest of the civilised galaxy. Fass had bumped into Saluus in a Boogeytown spike bar once, though Sal had been so out of it that he hadn’t recognised his one-time friend.

Then Sal straightened out, cut his hair, lost a few tattoos and a lot of acquaintances and at the start of the next working week turned up bang on time at the company offices, where people were still running around in a frenzy, spooked by all the numerous false alarms, expecting to be invaded at any moment. Right from the start, the questions were: Why? Why us? What next? And: Anybody else?

Had something like this happened everywhere? It would take over two centuries for Ulubis to discover if it was part of a wider catastrophe or had been singled out for its own specific disaster. From being no more remote than any other system at the end of a single wormhole — and so orders of magnitude less remote than the many hundreds of thousands of Faring systems still to be connected or reconnected — Ulubis, its principal planet Sepekte, its three significant inhabited moons including ’glantine, its thousands of artificial habitats and the twenty billion souls that the whole system contained were fully as remote and exposed as they’d always seemed from any casual glance at a galactic star chart.

The Guard, Navarchy Military and surviving units of the Ulubis Ambient Squadron repaired and regrouped. Martial law was declared and a War Emergency Plan actioned which turned the bulk of the system’s advanced productive capacity to weapons and war craft. As a consequence, Kehar Heavy Industries, Saluus’s father’s company, expanded and prospered beyond its founder’s most avaricious fantasies, and Saluus went from wastrel heir to a great fortune to inheritor-in-waiting of a vast one.

In the system hierarchy, thought was given at the highest levels to attempting to construct a wormhole of Ulubis’s own and a carrier fleet to take one end of it to Zenerre. But aside from the vast cost and the point — assuming a portal would be heading in the other direction before too long — that it would be a waste of time and effort which would bring reconnection no quicker, there was one clinching argument that would apply until either no signal arrived from Zenerre or word came of an utter breakdown in civil society: in the Mercatoria only Engineers were allowed to make and emplace wormholes.

There were sanctions and punishments for those systems and rulers who even began a “hole-creation programme without explicit permission, and that permission had not been present in the Mercatoria’s pre-agreed War Emergency Plan for Ulubis.

Back in space, distributed around the Lagrange point where the portal had lain, the few pieces of recovered Beyonder ships indicated that the portal’s attackers had been made up from the same three groups which had troubled Ulubis and some of the nearby volumes for thousands of years: Transgress, the True Free and the BiAlliance, for this one occasion working in concert and in far greater numbers than they ever had before.

Anxious, on edge, waiting for whatever a Beyonder invasion might bring, the people of the system reverted to a state something more like that of Earth’s rHumanity before it had been fully brought into the galactic community.

It was a truism that all civilisations were basically neurotic until they made contact with everybody else and found their place within the ever-changing meta-civilisation of other beings, because, until then, during the stage when they honestly believed that they might be entirely alone in existence, all solo societies were possessed of both an inflated sense of their own importance and a kind of existential terror at the sheer scale and apparent emptiness of the universe. Even knowing that the rest of the galactic community did exist — at least in some form, even in a worst case — the culture of Ulubis system shifted fractionally towards that earlier, pre-ascensionary state.

Restricted by martial law in new and annoying but sometimes oddly exciting ways, coming to terms with their sudden isolation and newly appreciated vulnerability, people lived more for the short term, clutching at what pleasures and rewards might be available today, just in case there really was no tomorrow. No great breakdown in society took place and there were no significant riots or rebellions, though there were protests and crack-downs, and, as the authorities admitted much later — much later — Mistakes Were Made. But the system held together rather than fell apart, and many people would look back on that strange, unsettled epoch with a sort of nostalgia. There had been something feverish but vivid about the time, a reconnection with life after the disconnection with everybody else, which led to what even looked from some angles suspiciously like a cultural renaissance for what people were now starting to call the Ulubine Disconnect.

Fassin missed out on most of the excitement, taking every opportunity he could to go delving, as if frightened that he might not be able to do so in the future. Even when he was living back in real-time he was insulated from the extremes of the system-wide turmoil of fear and nervous energy by being on ’glantine rather than Sepekte or its ring habitats, then by living within the Sept, at one of its five seasonal houses, rather than in Pirrintipiti or any of the planet-moon’s other major cities. He still travelled, spending occasional holidays in Pirri or off-’glantine, and that was when he felt the strange new atmosphere of freneticism most keenly.

Mostly, though, he was in Nasqueron, nestled in a fragile little gascraft, occasionally at normal life-speed, flying with the younger Dwellers, riding the gases alongside them, buffeted by the gas-giant-girdling, planet-swallowing super-winds and whirling hyper-storms of the planet, sometimes — more often and much more productively, though far less excitingly — floating sedately in a study or a library in one of the millions of Dweller cities with one of the more elderly and scholarly Dwellers, who alone in the system seemed perfectly unconcerned about the portal’s demise. A few of the (rare) polite ones expressed the sort of formal shame-but-there-you-go sympathy people tend to exhibit when an acquaintance’s elderly relative expires peacefully, but that was about it.

Fassin supposed that it was foolish to expect anything else from a race that was as ancient as the Dwellers claimed to be, who had supposedly explored the galaxy several times over at velocities of only a few per cent of light speed long before the planetary nebula that gave birth to Earth, Jupiter and the Sun had even formed out of the debris of still more antique generations of stars, and who still maintained they felt vaguely restricted not by that absolute limit on the conventional pace of travel but rather by the modest scale of the galaxy that these staggeringly long-ago, almost wilfully leisurely sets of voyages had revealed.

The days, weeks and months of waiting and preparation for an invasion became a year. The Beyonder attacks, rather than increasing, faded away almost to nothing, as though the portal assault had been one last insane hurrah rather than the logical, if wasteful, precursor to a war of conquest. The years added up towards a decade and gradually people and institutions relaxed and came to believe that the invasion might never come. The majority of the emergency powers lapsed, though the armed forces remained in high numbers and on high alert, sensors and patrols sweeping the volumes of space around Ulubis, seeking a threat that seemed to have disappeared.

In four directions lay almost empty intergalactic nothingness: barren volumes holding a few ancient, exhausted cinder suns with life-free systems or none at all, a scattering of dust and gas clouds, brown dwarfs, neutron stars and other debris — some of these, or the space in between, technically life-supporting for Slow exotics, Cincturia and Enigmatics, but patently devoid of any species who cared or could even understand the fate or concerns of the people of Ulubis — but no allies, no one to help or offer assistance or support, and certainly no portal connections.

Down-arm, nearly parallel with the galaxy’s wispy limit, heading into the thickening mass of gas and nebulae and stars, was Zenerre. Inwards, between Ulubis and the galactic centre spread a vast mass of Disconnect; the Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect, millions of stars spread throughout cubic light-centuries which, it was believed, still supported worlds that had once been part of the civilised, connected, “hole-networked galactic community until over seven thousand years earlier and the Arteria Collapse which had preceded the War of the New Quick and all the excitement and the woes that had flowed from it.

* * *

Two centuries, one decade, four years and twenty days after the portal attack, exactly when it might have been expected, the first signal arrived from Zenerre, the wavefront of what would become a constant stream of information from the rest of the connected galaxy. Where, Ulubis was informed, life was going on as usual. The attack on its portal had been unique, and all was basically well with the Mercatoria. Attacks and incursions by the various Beyonder groups continued throughout the civilised galaxy, as did operations against them, but these were on the usual mainly nuisance-value level that the Beyonder Wars had evidenced for thousands of years, the tactically distressing and annoyingly wasteful but strategically irrelevant distributed background micro-violence that people had started calling the Hum.

Relief, puzzlement and a vague sense of victimisation spread throughout Ulubis system.

The Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir, portal-carrying, set out from Zenerre for Ulubis less than a year after the disaster, with a travel time initially given as 307 years, later reduced by increments to level out at 269 as the Eship upped its velocity even closer to light speed, the Engineers aboard fine-tuning the systems which insulated the hauled portal from the effects of its own and the ship’s relativistic mass. People in Ulubis system relaxed, the last vestiges of martial law were hidden away from public sight again. Those many born after the portal’s destruction wondered what it would be like to have a connection to the rest of the galaxy, to this semi-mythical meta-civilisation they’d heard so much about.

The flip-over point came, and Fassin was vaguely aware of it as the pressure on his chest and flesh and limbs faded away over the course of a few seconds, replacing that feeling of oppression with a sensation of sudden blood-roaring bloatedness as his body struggled to cope with the change. He kept his eyes closed. Almost immediately there was a faint trace of force, a gentle push from somewhere beneath his head, then weightlessness again, and a few moments later a matching tug from somewhere beneath his feet, and then weight returning, pressure quickly building, until the roaring in his head faded and became the distant thunder of the ship again.

* * *

The Archimandrite Luseferous, standing before the ruins of the city, stooped and dug gloved fingers into the soft earth by his feet, wrenching out a handful of soil. He held it to his face for a while, staring at it, then brought it close to his nose and smelled it, then let it fall and dusted off his gloves while staring down at the huge crater where a large part of the city had been.

The crater was still filling from the sea, a slow curling curve of brown-white water spilling from the estuary beyond. The waterfall disappeared into the seat of the crater in a vast cloud-bank of vapour, and steam rose everywhere from the rolling, tumbling confusion of waters as the great rocky bowl cooled. A massive trunk of steam, three kilometres or more across, rose into the calm pastel sky, rolling up through thin layers of cloud, flat-heading where it achieved the middle reaches of the atmosphere.

It was the Archimandrite’s conceit, where a severe lesson had to be taught on a planet capable of supporting such a mark, that a city by the sea, which was either itself guilty of resisting or judged by him symbolic of resistance shown by others on the planet, be remade in the image of his beloved Junch City, back on Leseum9 IV. If a people would resist him, either while undergoing conquest or enduring occupation, they would suffer, of course, but they would be part of something greater at the same time and they would, even in death, even in the death of much of their city, be the unwitting and unwilling participants in what was, indeed, a work of art. For here, seen from this hillside, was there not a new Faraby Bay? Was that slot through which the waters thundered, shaking the ground, not another Force Gap? Was that piling tower of steam, first drawn straight up then stroked to the horizon, not a kind of signature, his very own flourish?

The Bay was overly circular, certainly, and the slot a mere break in a modest crater wall composed largely of estuarine mud, presenting no aesthetic match at all for the great kilometre-high cliffs of the real Force Gap — indeed, the whole setting for this new image of junch City entirely lacked the original’s dramatic ring of surrounding mountains, and this little parkland hill on which he stood — with his admirals, generals and guard waiting obediently behind, allowing him this moment of reflection — was frankly a poor substitute for the vertical cliff of the Sheer Citadel and its magnificent views.

Nevertheless, an artist had to work with what there was to hand, and where there had once been just another swarming seaside city, lying tipped upon the land, variously hilled, messily distributed round a tributary river, with the all usual urban sprawl, great buildings, docks, breakwaters and anchorages — in other words what it had always been, roughly, no matter that there had been earlier so-called catastrophes like earthquakes or floods or great fires or bombardment from sea or air or earlier invasion — now there was an image of a fair and distant place, now there was a new kind of savage beauty, now there was a fit setting for a new city reborn in the image of his sovereignty, now there was a sort of — even — healing joining with those other peoples and places who had surrendered to his will, in suffering and in image, for this majestic crater, this latest work, was just the most recent of his creations, one more jewel on a string stretching back to the primacy of elegance that was Junch City.

Anyone with sufficient self-belief, enough ruthlessness and (Luseferous believed himself modest enough to admit) an adequate supply of luck could — if the will was there and the times required such determination — conquer and destroy. Judging how much to destroy for the effect one wished to achieve, knowing when to be ruthless, when to show leniency, even when to exhibit beguiling, rage-sapping generosity and a touch of humour; that required a more measured, a more subtle, a more — he could think of no other word for it — civilised touch. He had that touch. The record spoke for itself. To then go on from there and use the sad necessity of destruction to create art, to form an image of a better place and forge symbolic unity… that was on another level again, that elevated the mere war-maker, the mere politician, to the status of creator.

Tendrils of smoke rose all around the central column of steam, dark paltry vines adorning a huge pale trunk. These marked where defending aircraft had fallen and where fires had been started by the crater-weapon’s ground shock, no doubt. Part of the artistry involved in such a work was creating a great declivity without utterly destroying all around it (a new, reborn city had to grow here, after all). Some sophistication of weaponry was required to achieve such precision. His armaments experts attended to such details.

The Archimandrite Luseferous looked about him, smiling to his chiefs of staff, all standing respectfully at his heel, looking a little nervous to be here in the fresh air of another newly subject planet. (Yet was it not good to breathe in that fresh air, for all its alien scents? Did those strange new odours not themselves mean that another treasure had been added to their ever-increasing domain?) Above and behind, bristling war craft hovered and hummed, attended by small clouds of sensory and weapon platforms. Spread in a ring all around were his personal guards, most lying or kneeling on the grass, their darkly glinting weaponry poised. A few in military exoskels lumbered around or squatted, splayed feet squashing into the earth.

At the foot of the hill, beyond another ring of guards, beneath a watchful buzz of guard drones, the refugees moved like a slow river of dun and grey.

Stilters; groundbats, whule. A Mercatorial species. Disconnected all these millennia, certainly, but still a Mercatorial species. Luseferous looked up into the pale green sky, imagining night, the veils of stars, and the one particular sun — pointed out to him from orbit just forty hours ago, while the invasion forces were being prepared for the initial drop — growing steadily closer as they crawled and fought their way towards it, which was called Ulubis.

* * *

In the bright, golden-hued air of Sepekte, with the Borquille Equatower a thin stem in the hazy distance, the little Navarchy ship approached the palace complex, sliding through an ancient forest of kilometres-tall atmospheric power columns and between more modest but still impressive administration and accommodation towers. It disappeared into a wide, gently sloped tunnel set into the reception plaza in front of the enormous ball that was the palace of the Hierchon, an eight-hundred-metre sphere modelled after Nasqueron itself by a long-departed Sarcomage, complete with individual bands of slowly contra-rotating floors all sliding round a stationary inner core. Changing orange-red, brown and ochre swirls of pattern, convincingly like the view of the distant gas-giant’s cloud tops seen from space, moved across the face of the palace, hiding windows and balconies, sensors and transmitters.

“Major Taak? Lieutenant Inesiji, palace guard. This way, please. Quick as we can, sir.” The speaker, whose voice sounded like a human child talking with a mouthful of ball bearings, was a jajuejein, a creature which in repose resembled an insectile tumbleweed sixty or seventy centimetres in diameter. This one had drawn itself up to Fassin’s two-metre height, marshalling a host of twiglike components coloured dark green and steel blue to resemble a sort of openwork head like a bird’s nest — thankfully it had not tried to make a face — and had balanced itself on two vaguely leglike stalks. The rest of its body, offering glimpses of the reception cavern’s floor beyond, was just a cylinder, adorned with belts of soft-looking material and small metallic components that might have been jewellery, gadgets or weapons. It half-turned, half-flowed to a small open cart where the ship’s whule rating was already depositing Fassin’s luggage.

Fassin turned and waved to the groggily cheerful Dicogra, joined the jajuejein in the cart and was whisked away through a brief security reception area to a lift and a curving corridor which took him to a suite of rooms with what looked like a real outside view of the city — north, with pale, jagged hills in the far distance. Lieutenant Inesiji placed Fassin’s bags on the bed with fluid grace and informed him that he had exactly three-fifths of an hour to freshen up, don his ceremonial court clothes and present himself outside his door, whereupon he would be escorted to the audience chamber.

Fassin blipped a safe-arrival message to Bantrabal and then did as he’d been told.

The circular audience chamber was glittering and warm, walls of white gold sparkling under a ceiling-filling galaxy-shaped cloud of tiny sharp lights impersonating stars. Lieutenant Inesiji showed Fassin to a position on one of the many platforms set into the shallow, stepped bowl of the chamber. A human-conforming seat malleabled its way up from the floor. He sat in it — stiffly, in his bulky court robes — and the lieutenant told him, “Please stay where you are for now, sir’ in a sort of gargled whisper, executed what might have been a bow, turned into what looked very like a cartwheel, and rolled away back up the slope of gangway to an exit.

Fassin looked around. The chamber looked like it might hold a thousand people, but he was one of only about two dozen people present, distributed around the shallowly conical space as though to maximise the distance between each individual. Humans — all, like him, in cumbersome, rather gaudy court dress — just about outnumbered the others, but he saw another jajuejein — balled, either resting or sleeping, criss-crossed with iridescent ribbons — two whule sitting like angular grey tents covered in silver flowers, both looking at him, a pair of quaup, one of the two-metre-long red-tan ellipses floating and also looking at him (well, certainly pointing at him), and the other stood on its end, either also snoozing or possibly at attention — Fassin’s knowledge of alien body language was wide but shallow except where Dwellers were concerned. Three large environment suits containing waterworlders completed the non-human contingent: two of the esuits, looking like aquamarine impersonations of the quaups, most likely contained kuskunde; the third was a matt black lozenge the size of a small bus, radiating warmth. That esuit would almost certainly contain an symbioswarm Ifrahile.

In the centre of the chamber, at its deepest point, just before a set of wide, tall, concentric platforms which broke the symmetry of the space, there was an incongruous-looking device which looked like an ancient iron cooking pot: a black-bellied urn a couple of metres in diameter, capped with a shallow dome and sitting on a tripod of stubby legs on the buttery sheen of the solid gold floor. Its surface was pinstriped with thin vanes, but otherwise it resembled something almost prehistoric. Fassin had never seen anything like it before. He shivered, despite the warmth of the chamber.

The quaup which might have been sleeping suddenly flicked level with a ripple of lateral mantle and turned towards its fellow creature thirty metres away, which swivelled to look back at it. Expression patterns flashed across their face nacelles, then they moved towards each other, hovering together, faces signal-flickering conversation for the few seconds it took for a small flutter drone to drop from the ceiling and — in spoken voice, with chirps and squeaks — apparently ordered them back to their places. The quaup shriek-popped back at the mechanical remote, but split up, drifting away to their earlier positions.

They had just about resumed their allotted patches when a group of half a dozen jajuejein technicians, awkward in their shape-constraining formal court gear of dimly iridescent ribbons, entered from a door at one side of the chamber floor, pushing large pallets full of highly techy-looking equipment which they positioned in a rough circle round the cooking-pot device. Their body ribbons marked them out as Shrievalty, Fassin suddenly realised, wondering whether as a major of the Ocula he was senior enough to order them around. A similar-sized group — human Cessorian priests from their garb, though in their court best it was hard to be sure — could they even be Lustrals? — approached from the opposite direction. The priests stood close behind the technicians, who ignored them and busied themselves setting up and adjusting their arcane apparatus.

Finally, an alarming group of four human and four whule troopers in full mirror-finish power-armour stalked in, complete with a variety of heavy infantry weapons. The ambience of the chamber changed; even across species the mood almost tangibly altered from one of some puzzlement and a degree of expectation to one of alarm, even fear. The two quaup were exchanging rapid large-scale face signals, the Ifrahile esuit rose hissing from its platform and the whule pair were alternating between staring at each other and glaring down at their mirror-armoured kin. Who brought armed forces into an audience chamber? Was this a trap? Had all here offended the Hierchon? Were they all to be murdered?

The soldiers deployed in a wide circle around the Shrievalty and Cessoria, standing at ease, weaponry poised, armour-locked. They were facing inwards, towards the black cooking-pot device. The mood in the room seemed to relax a little.

Then the series of platforms beyond the giant urn and the various groups of functionaries shimmered once and dropped into the floor, to re-emerge some moments later, crowded with people.

An outer ring of white-uniformed human court officials, an inner ring of species-varied, extravagantly emblazoned courtiers and an outer core, again mixed-species, of Ascendancy, Omnocracy, Administrata and Cessoria — Fassin recognised most of them from the news and the few formal visits he’d had to make to the court over the years — formed semicircular tiers of importance around the being in the centre: the Hierchon Ormilla himself, resplendent in his giant platinum-sheathed discus of an environment suit, floating humming just above the highest platform, the dark creature’s great gaping face visible through the suit’s forward diamond window amongst roiling clouds of crimson gas. Seven metres high, three wide, the suit was by some margin the largest and most impressive of the micro-environments in the chamber. It quickly took on a frosted look, as humidity in the air condensed on its deep-chilled surfaces.

As the Hierchon and his attendants appeared, Fassin’s seat gave a warning vibration and began to sink back into the platform beneath. Fassin took the hint and stood, then bowed, while the various other people in the chamber performed their equivalent actions. The giant esuit lowered fractionally so that its base touched the platform, and Fassin’s seat rose smoothly from the platform again.

The Hierchon Ormilla was an oerileithe: a gas-giant dweller, but — important distinction, this, to all concerned — not a Dweller, even if the shape of his esuit made him look like one. Ormilla had ruled the Ulubis system since his investiture nearly six thousand years earlier, long before the humans who now made up the bulk of its populace had arrived. He was generally thought to be a competent if unimaginative governor, exercising what leeway a Hierchon had within the Mercatorial system with caution, sense and, on occasion, even a degree of compassion. His rule since the portal’s destruction had, by the estimation of the officially sanctioned media, been a humbling combination of breathtaking majesty, heroic, utterly exemplary fortitude and a touching, steadfast solidarity with his human charges. Unkinder, unsanctioned, often human critics might have accused him of betraying an early disposition towards authoritarianism and even paranoid repression, eventually followed later by a more composed and lenient attitude, when he started listening to his advisers again.

Looking more carefully at the high-ups present, Fassin realised that, basically, the gang was all here. Apart from Ormilla himself, the Hierchon’s two most senior deputies, the Peregals Tlipeyn and Emoerte were in attendance, as was the most senior member of the Propylaea to survive the portal’s destruction, sub-master Sorofieve, the top Navarchy officer, Fleet Admiral Brimiaice, Guard-General Thovin, First Secretary Heuypzlagger of the Administrata, Colonel Somjomion of the Shrievalty — his own ultimate superior officer for the duration of the current emergency, Fassin supposed — and Clerk-Regnant Voriel of the Cessoria. The absolute elite of the system.

Fassin looked at the pot-bellied stove device squatting on the golden floor, and at the heavily armed troopers, and thought what a perfect opportunity was presenting itself for a complete decapitation of the system’s top brass.

“This is an extraordinary session of the Mercatorial Court of Ulubis, before the Hierchon Ormilla,” an official announced over the chamber’s PA, voice thundering. “The Hierchon Ormilla!” the official shouted, as though concerned that people hadn’t heard him the first time.

The official was speaking the human version of Standard, the galaxy’s lingua franca. Standard had been chosen as an inter-species, pan-galactic language over eight billion years ago. Dwellers had been the main vector in its spread, though they made a point of emphasising that it was not theirs originally. They had one very ancient, informal vernacular and another even more ancient formal language of their own, plus lots that had survived somehow from earlier times or been made up in the meantime. These latter came and went in popularity as such things tended to.

“Oh no, there was a competition,” the Dweller guide\mentor Y’sul had explained to Fassin on his first delve, hundreds of years ago. “Usual thing; lots of competing so-called universal standards. There was a proper full-scale war after one linguistic disagreement — a grumous and a p’Liner species, if memory serves — and after that came the usual response: inquiries, missions, meetings, reports, conferences, summits.

“What we now know as Standard was chosen after centuries of research, study and argument by a vast and unwieldy committee composed of representatives of thousands of species, at least two of which became effectively extinct during the course of the deliberations. It was chosen, astonishingly, on its merits, because it was an almost perfect language: flexible, descriptive, uncoloured (whatever that means, but apparently it’s important), precise but malleable, highly, elegantly complete yet primed for external-term-adoption and with an unusually free but logical link between the written form and the pronounced which could easily and plausibly embrace almost any set of phonemes, scints, glyphs or pictals and still make translatable sense.

“Best of all, it didn’t belong to anybody, the species which had invented it having safely extincted themselves millions of years earlier without leaving either any proven inheritors or significant mark on the greater galaxy, save this sole linguistic gem. Even more amazingly, the subsequent conference to endorse the decision of the mega-committee went smoothly and agreed all the relevant recommendations. Take-up and acceptance were swift and widespread. Standard became the first and so far only true universal language within just a few Quick-mean generations. Set a standard for pan-species cooperation that everybody’s been trying to live up to ever since.

“Which is not to say that everybody everywhere loves it without qualification. Amongst my own species in particular, resistance to its use continues to this day, and individual obsessives and small and indeed quite large groups and networks of enthusiasts are forever coming up with new and, they claim, even better universal languages. Some Dwellers persist in regarding Standard as an outrageous alien imposition and a symbol of our craven surrender to galactic fashion.

“Such persons tend to speak ancient formal. Or at least they do where they haven’t invented their own unique and generally utterly incomprehensible language.”

Uncle Slovius himself, on what, fittingly, had turned out to be his final delve, had accompanied Fassin on this, the young man’s first. “How perfectly typical,” he’d observed later. “Only Dwellers could have a completely fair competition eight billion years ago and still be arguing over the result.”

Fassin smiled at the thought and looked round the giant auditorium as the official’s words echoed and faded amongst the precious metals and sumptuous clothing. He thought it was all very impressive, in a slightly camp, almost vulgar way. He wondered how much tedious ceremony and baroque speechifying they would now have to sit through before anything of note happened or was said. He did a quick count of the bodies in the chamber. There were well over twice the thirty that the emissarial projection had told him to expect.

A tap-screen appeared on a stalk out of the platform surface and positioned itself in front of him, flicking into life with search and note facilities enabled, but no audio or visual record. Fassin tapped a symbol to confirm that he was there. Round the circular chamber, the others were also being presented with screens or their species-relevant alternative.

“You are here to witness the transmission of a signal from the Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir,” Ormilla’s deep, synthesised voice said calmly. “We are informed that it is, of necessity, in the form of an Artificial Intelligence construct which will be destroyed after the audience has finished.” Ormilla paused, to let this sink in. Fassin thought he just hadn’t heard right. “How you use the information you are about to learn is a matter of duty and conscience,” Ormilla told them. “How you came by it is not; any revelation regarding the signal’s form is punishable by death. Begin.”

An AI? A conscious machine? An abomination? Were they serious? Fassin couldn’t believe it. The entire history of the Mercatoria was the record of its implacable persecution and destruction of AIs and the continual, laborious, zealously pursued effort to prevent them ever again coming into existence within the civilised galaxy. That was what the Lustrals were all about; they were the AI hunters, the remorseless, fanatic persecutors of machine intelligence and any and all research into it, and yet here they were, calmly watching the cooking-pot device and the technicians surrounding it.

A semi-transparent image flickered in the air above the dark machine in the centre of the chamber. The hologram was of a human male dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of the Summed Fleet. Fassin hadn’t even known that one of his species had risen to such impressive heights. The human admiral was an old, well-built man with a heavily lined face. Bald, of course, but sporting a heavily tattooed scalp. He wore, or his image appeared to wear, a high-rank space-combat suit, its helmet components in stowed configuration round the neck and shoulders. Various insignia on the surface of the suit confirmed with no discernible subtlety that the Admiral was an extremely important military person.

“Thank you, Hierchon Ormilla,” the image said, then seemed to look straight at Fassin, who felt startled for a moment before realising that the image probably appeared to be looking directly at everybody in the chamber. He certainly hoped so. “I represent Admiral Quile of the Summed Fleet, commanding the Third Medium Squadron of the battle fleet accompanying the Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir on its journey towards Ulubis system, Fleet Admiral Kisipt commanding,” the projection said in a calm, no-nonsense voice.

Battle fleet? thought Fassin. You didn’t send a battle fleet to accompany an Eship, portal-carrying or not, did you? They usually travelled with a few Guard ships or one or two units of the Navarchy Military plus a single small Summed Fleet craft sometimes for ceremonial purposes. He was no military expert, but even he knew this sort of stuff, just from catching newscasts of at-the-time-recent connections and reconnections. He watched the military on the semicircular podia closely. Yep, looked like they were startled by this news, too.

“I am to dispense information, and orders,” the hologram said. “Then I will answer questions. Then I will be destroyed. Information first. Intelligence we have received strongly indicates that Ulubis system will, probably within a year and possibly within months of this signal reaching you, become the target of a full-scale invasive assault originating from the Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect.”

The hologram paused, appearing to listen. There was a certain sense of stillness, even of shock in the chamber, but no gasps or expressions of fear or incredulity that Fassin could hear.

He scanned the people in the chamber, trying to work out if he was the only person present to whom this news might come as a surprise. Face flickers from the quaup, big staring looks between the whule, perhaps a few rather wide-eyed expressions amongst the tech people down near the dark AI machine. Some of the more readable courtiers looked a little stunned. The Ifrahile esuit might have wobbled fractionally. Fassin’s hand was moving towards the tap-screen when it lit up with a diagram of the galactic local volume, about a thousand years in diameter and centred on Cluster Epiphany Five, the millions-strong mass of stars core-in from the isolated wisp of suns near the end of which lay Ulubis.

“Indeed, our strategists put at about six per cent the possibility that by the time this signal arrived the invasion would already have happened.” The hologram looked around the chamber and smiled. “I am glad to see that is not the case.” The smile disappeared. “On the other hand I had hoped, when the original of this signal was recorded, that I would be telling you that the invasion was still three to five years away. Since becoming embodied here I’ve been given access to some of the real-time intelligence you’ve been gathering and have had no choice but to plump for an estimate that gives you even less time to prepare than we’d been hoping for.” The image paused briefly.

“The E-5 Discon was already known to be expanding aggressively. Deep-space monitors have been picking up blossoming eighth-power-level weapon-blink for several hundred years, centred on the Leseum systems.” The image looked around the chamber. “Space battles and high-megatonne nukes, in other words. All the signs are of a rogue hegemony, possibly under the thrall of a human calling himself the Archimandrite Luseferous. He was once genuinely of the Cessoria, though at the rank of Hariolator, not Archimandrite, so it would appear he’s promoted himself. In any case, I think we may now count him apostate.” The hologram smiled thinly. “The Leseum systems were until not all that long ago the last remaining connected part of the Epiphany Five region. However, that wormhole portal fell victim to a minor action of the Strew, leaving the whole volume completely cut off from civilisation.” The thin smile faded.

“Ten days ago from the time this signal was sent an invasion force out of the E-5 Discon comprising several hundred capital ships plus retinue and troop carriers attacked the Ruanthril system, inward from the E-5 Cluster. We assume it came as a surprise to them that Ruanthril had just received a new portal and been connected to the Mercatoria. It had not been part of the Complex before, which may help explain their miscalculation. In any event, elements of the Summed Fleet were present when the E-5 forces attacked. The attack was beaten off, with heavy losses on both sides.” At this, Fassin saw a look of something that certainly seemed like consternation pass over the face-parts of the Fleet Admiral Brimiaice. “Yes,” the image said, as though responding. “We were surprised too, frankly, and just had insufficient ships. Even more distressingly, the portal was subsequently destroyed.” Here, Fleet Admiral Brimiaice, a quaup, assumed the blank face of — if Fassin recalled his Facial [or equivalent] Expressions and Body Language of Mercatorial Species 101 course — vicariously shamed shock.

“Before that happened,” the hologram continued, “intelligence from the captured enemy flagship was transmitted into the Complex. It included a personal record belonging to their equivalent of a Grand-Admiral — the invasion fleet’s Supreme Commander — in which he recorded for posterity or his memoirs his puzzlement that so much of the vast military machine of which he was so proud to be a part was being directed not where it would carry the most weight or help capture the greatest number of systems in the shortest possible time — in other words, towards where the greatest mass of stars were, spin-ward, back, up, down and especially core-ward — but away from those regions, towards the almost empty galactic outskirts, towards the Southern Tendril Reefs, towards Stream Quaternary and the Ulubis system, or ‘the shit-nailed anus-probing finger at the end of a withered arm’, as he colourfully described it.”

Fassin nearly laughed. Most of the officials on the main ceremonial platforms, led by the humans, registered shock, horror or outrage in some form. The Hierchon’s esuit rolled back half a metre, as though physically struck.

The image took its time to look around the chamber. “Yes, unflattering. My apologies. You will be happy to know that the gentleman who was the source of this memorable image is currently helping the Combined Forces Intelligence Inquisitariat with its inquiries.”

Fassin watched a few slightly forced expressions of satisfaction appear. They really didn’t know any of this before, he thought. He’d assumed the Hierchon and his chums would have been granted some sort of sneak preview earlier, but this seemed to be as new to them as it was to him.

“We also, of course, have the pre-invasion probing-sequence profile for the E-5 Discon’s attempted conquest of Ruanthril,” the hologram said, “plus those of several other systems attacked by the same force-mix. The musings of the invasion fleet’s commander provide credible reason to believe Ulubis is under significant threat. The comparison of the pre-attack probing-sequence profile for Ruanthril with the recent raids on and other hostile actions within Ulubis system leads to the conclusion that said threat is imminent, within the time-frame of a few months to less than a year and a half. There is a long-accepted, high-consistency Beyonder attack profile, and the aggressions Ulubis system has been experiencing over the last three years are anomalous to that.”

Fassin suspected that this was a subtle criticism of the system intelligence and strategy services, and especially the Navarchy’s. Fleet Admiral Brimiaice looked unnaturally still, as though trying not to draw any unnecessary attention to himself. The information also pointed to something of a cover-up. Like Verpych, Fassin had thought these “anomalous’ attacks had begun just over a year ago; this AI had been given access to information indicating that they had been going on for two years before that. Well, that would come as no surprise to anyone. Being spoon-fed rosy-hued misinformation by the authorities was no more than people had come to expect — and pre-emptively discount. They only got suspicious when presented with what looked like the plain unvarnished truth.

“I do have more to say,” the image above the cooking-pot device told the assembled listeners. “However, I sense that some of you are already anxious to ask questions, and so at this point I would like to invite queries regarding what you have heard so far. No need to introduce yourselves, by the way — I know who you all are.”

Everybody looked at the Hierchon, who obligingly boomed, “Machine, what percentage of likelihood pertains to this invasion?”

The hologram did not look particularly impressed with this first question. It might even have sighed.

Fassin only half listened to the answer and paid even less attention to the following questions and answers; none of them added anything significant to what he’d already heard and mostly the questions boiled down to the categories: Are you sure? Are you mad? Are you lying, abomination? And, I won’t get blamed for any of this, will I?

He used the tap-screen to get a better idea of the relevant galactic topography. He called up a usefully scaled hologram and flicked between the local civilisational state of play as it had been understood until today — effectively two and a half centuries out of date — and the updated version that the AI signal had brought with it, which was only seventeen years old. As he did so, whole vast volumes of stars changed from one false colour to another, indicating where this Cluster Epiphany Five Disconnect hegemony had spread its influence.

“ — Resist them with all our might!” Fleet Admiral Brimiaice roared.

“I’m sure you will,” the hologram said. “However, all the indications are that even if you devoted yourself to all-out, full-time emergency war-craft construction and a full war economy, you will still be outnumbered several times over.”

Fleet Admiral Brimiaice then blustered.

Fassin had a question of his own, but it was a question for inside his own head, not one that he wished to ask the AI. It was a question he had the unpleasant feeling would at some point shortly be answered, though he sincerely hoped it wouldn’t. It was: What the hell does all this have to do with me?

“May I continue?” the image said after the next few contributions showed unmistakable signs of heading in the direction of becoming not so much questions as attestations of innocence, pledges of heroic determination, position-protection statements and attacks on other functionaries present within a wide spectrum of subtlety, biased towards the low end. The hologram gave a small, thin, regretful smile. “I realise that all the foregoing has come as something of a shock, for all of you. However, it is, I am afraid to say, in effect just a preamble to the most significant part of this communication.”

The image of Admiral Quile paused to let that sink in, too. Then the hologram said, “Now then. There is a gentleman amongst you who has no doubt been wondering for some little time what exactly he is doing here.”

Oh, shit, Fassin had time to think, then the image looked at him. Was it really looking at him now? Could everybody see the hologram looking at him? Heads, or other parts as appropriate, turned in his direction. That probably meant yes.

“Seer Fassin Taak, would you make yourself known to the others?”

Fassin heard the blood roar in his ears as he stood and gave a slow, if shallow, bow towards the Hierchon. He was getting that flesh-shrinking thing again. The chamber looked to be tipping, and he was glad to sit down again. He tried to control the blush that he felt building under his throat.

“Seer Taak is a young man, though born centuries ago,” the image said. “He has spent a productive and dutiful career with the gas-giant Dwellers of the planet Nasqueron. I understand that many of you may have heard of him already. He has now been given the rank of major within the Shrievalty Ocula, for reasons which will become clear in due course.”

Fassin, still feeling very much looked-at, noticed that Colonel Somjomion, the human female who was acting chief of staff of the Shrievalty contingent in the Ulubis system, smiled cautiously at him from the podium across the chamber when the holo-gram said this. Unsure whether the Shrievalty saluted or not, Fassin rose fractionally in his seat, and nodded formally.

Oh, fuck, were his precise thoughts.

The image floating above the cooking-pot AI said, “The reason that Seer — Major — Taak is here today to hear what I have had to tell you all is that it was something which he discovered — stumbled over might be an equally accurate description, with no disrespect to Seer Taak — that has led to my being here in the first place.”

Oh, fucking hell. I always thought delving would be the death of me but I assumed it would be an equipment failure, not something like this. On the other hand, that smile from Colonel Somjomion had been restrained, even careful, not mean or mocking. Might live yet.

“Which brings us, of course, to the real, or at least the most pressing, reason for my appearance here, in this almost unprecedented form,” the hologram said, then made a show of taking a deep breath.

It looked around them all, slowly, before saying, “Ulubis, I’m sure we would all agree, is a pleasant and fairly favoured system.” It paused again.

Fassin was listening fairly hard at this point, and would have taken decent odds on the literal truth of the old you-could-have-heard-a-pin-drop saying. “And,” the projection said with a smile, radiantly confident that it now had their full attention, “as a centre of Dweller Studies, it is not without significance galactically, unquestionably from an antiquarian and intellectual standpoint.” Another pause. It occurred to Fassin that an AI controlling a hologram could put a quite literal twinkle in its eye. “However, one might think it reasonable to ask — again, with no disrespect intended, or, I hope, taken — why Ulubis has attracted the attention of our new-found adversaries from Cluster Epiphany Five. One might even — knowing the importance that the Mercatoria attaches to reconnecting all the many, many systems which have been without Arteria access all these millennia — wonder why the expedition from Zenerre to Ulubis with a new portal was dispatched with such alacrity, given the arguably still greater claims that more populous, more classically strategically important and more at-the-time obviously threatened systems might have had upon the resources and expertise of our esteemed colleagues in the Engineering faculty.

“One might also pause to give thought to the reasons why the Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir is accompanied by those elements of the Summed Fleet of which my original has the honour of being part — why, indeed, the Eship Est-taun Zhiffir is escorted by such a preponderance of force at all.” The hologram raised its head, looked all around again. “It might not even be totally unreasonable to call into question the apparently unchallenged assumptions and settled conclusions concerning the destruction of the Ulubis portal by the Beyonders, over two centuries ago.”

That caused a little frisson in the chamber, Fassin noticed. Is any of this still about me and anything I might have found? he wondered. The more I hear, the more I hope it isn’t.

“There is one circumstance, one nexus of contingent information,” the image said with a broad, unamused smile and something like relish, “which is, we strongly suspect, behind all of this.” The projection turned to look directly at the Hierchon Ormilla. “Sir, at this point I must ask that those not specifically cleared to be present at this meeting be withdrawn. I believe we might make an exception for the troopers, providing their ear mikes are turned off, but I would be disobeying my orders if I continued with those not invited still present.”

“Admiral Quile,” the Hierchon boomed, with just sufficient emphasis, “I vouch for all those present who were inadvertently excluded from the clearance list you refer to. You may continue.”

“And were it up to me, sir, that would of course be more than enough reason to proceed without care or reservation,” the Admiral’s image said. “However, devastated though I may be at being seen to offer even the slightest suggestion of an insult to your esteemed court, I am specifically forbidden to continue, bound as I am by the orders of the Complector Council.”

Ouch, Fassin thought. He almost felt sorry for the Hierchon. He’d not just had rank pulled on him, he’d been made to look small. A Sarcomage outranked a Hierchon, and was in turn answerable to a Complector, any single one of which — supremely powerful as they were in every other exercise and iteration of power within the civilised galaxy — themselves had at least to take into account the will of the Complector Council. The unspeakably omnipotent members of the Complector Council were bound by nothing else save the laws of physics, and were generally held to be putting considerable effort into getting round those.

Hierchon Ormilla took his defeat with a degree of grace and within a few minutes the chamber was emptied of half its earlier occupants. The stepped sequence of podia in front of the Hierchon’s imposing esuit now looked positively bare. All the court officials and courtiers had departed, with much muttering and the single highest quotient of affronted dignity Fassin had ever witnessed, by several factors. The military bigwigs were still present, but even their on-podium ranks had been depleted as Colonel Somjomion of the Shrievalty and Clerk-Regnant Voriel of the Cessoria were reduced to stepping down to floor level so that they could operate the two most important pieces of equipment monitoring the cooking-pot device embodying the AI. The mirror-finish troopers still stood in a wide circle beyond, armour locked in at-ease, deaf now.

While all this had been going on, Fassin had been left to sit there, not knowing what to think. He knew what he ought to be thinking; he ought to be thinking, What the fuck could I ever have stumbled across that possibly warranted this level of right-to-the-top paranoia and secrecy? It was, however, hard to know what to think. He also knew what he ought to feel: fear. There, he was fine; he had a superabundance of high weapon-grade trepidation. “Thank you,” the image of the Admiral said. “Now then,” it said, looking round all those who remained. “I have a question for you. What do you know of something called the Dweller List?” It held up one hand. “Rhetorical question. You don’t have to answer. Those of you who wish, feel free to consult your screens or equivalent. Take a moment.”

There was a flurry of distant tapping. The Dweller List? thought Fassin. Oh, fucking hell; not that shit.

The hologram smiled. “Let me in due time tell you what we at this end — as we design and record this signal and projection — consider important regarding this subject.”

Fassin had heard of the Dweller List, of course; no Seer hadn’t. Unfortunately, lots of laypeople had heard of the List, too, and so it had become one of those tired, inward-groan-producing subjects that people tended to raise when they met a Seer at a party, along with other hoary old cliché-questions such as, “Do Dwellers really hunt their own children?” and, “Are they really as old as they say they are?”

The Dweller List was a collection of coordinates. It had turned up, as far as anyone could be sure, towards the end of the Burster War four hundred million years earlier, and was probably well out of date even then. Allegedly, the list detailed all the Dwellers’ own secret arteria portals. According to the story, these had been under development since the time of the Long Collapse, when the Dwellers had decided that the other species — or groups of species — with which they were forced to share the galaxy couldn’t be trusted to keep their own or jointly owned “hole networks safe, and so the Dwellers had better construct an arteria web which they controlled — and which preferably nobody else knew about — if they wanted to voyage from gas-giant to gas-giant reliably and without fuss.

This, of course, completely ignored the Dwellers’ attitudes to time and space and scale and more or less everything else. The Dwellers didn’t need wormholes and the near-instantaneous travel between systems that they offered. They lived for billions of years, they could slow their metabolism and thoughts down as required so that a journey of a thousand years or ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years would appear to be over in the course of a single sleep, or occupied no more time than that required to read a good book, or play a complicated game. Plus they were already everywhere; they claimed they had spread throughout the galaxy during the First Diasporian Age, which had ended when the universe was only two and a half billion years old. Even if that claim was a boast, a typical Dweller exaggeration, what was undeniable was that Dwellers were present in significant numbers in well over ninety-nine per cent of all the gas-giant planets in the galaxy, and had been for as long as anybody could remember. (Though not, as it had turned out, Jupiter. Humanity’s own backyard gas-giant was unusual in being relatively water-poor. The Dwellers considered it a desert planet and rarely visited.)

After centuries of real-time and decades of seem-time spent with Dwellers, Fassin had gained the distinct impression that Dwellers both despised and felt sorry for the Quick — the species, like humans, like all the others in the Mercatoria, which felt the need to use wormholes.

As the Dwellers saw it, to be Quick — to live life that precipitously — was to condemn oneself to an early end. Life had an inescapable trajectory, a natural curve. Evolution, development, progress: all conspired to push a sentient species along in a certain direction, and all you could do was choose to run that road or saunter along it. The Slow took their time, adapting to the given scale and natural limits of the galaxy and the universe as it existed.

The Quick insisted on short cuts and seemed determined to bend the very fabric of space to their frantic, impatient will. When they were smart they succeeded in this wilfulness, but they only brought their own end all the quicker. They lived fast and died faster, describing sudden, glorious but quickly fading trails across the firmament. The Dwellers, like the other Slow, wanted to be around for the long term, and so were prepared to wait.

So quite why the Dwellers would ever have bothered building a secret wormhole network was something of a mystery, as was how they had managed to keep it secret all these hundreds of millions of years, not to mention how this fitted in with the rather obvious nature of each different Dweller community’s isolation from each other.

Nevertheless, the myth of the Dweller List continued to excite people in general and conspiracy theorists in particular, especially in times of threat and desperation, when it would be really, really great if a secret wormhole network did exist.

Fassin agreed with the textbooks that it had been no coincidence the List had first turned up during the Burster War, when the whole galactic community had seemed to be falling apart, and people were looking for salvation, for hope, anywhere. Then, the arteria total had been falling from its earlier — and then all-time — high of nearly 39,000 to under a thousand. At the nadir of the Third Chaos there had been less than a hundred “holes in the whole galaxy, and the Dwellers hadn’t stepped in then with an offer to let everybody else use this secret system. If not then, when the light of civilisation seemed to be fading from the great lens entirely, then when? When and why would they ever come galloping to the rescue?

Part of the seductive attraction of the List was its sheer size. It contained over two million sets of alleged portal coordinates, implying more than one million arteria, presumably linked in a single enormous network. At the height of the Third Complex, eight thousand years earlier, there had been exactly 217,390 established wormholes threading the galaxy together, and that was as good, as far as was known, as it had ever got. If the Dweller List genuinely enumerated existing portals and arteria, it would represent the promise of instigating the single greatest change in the history of the galaxy; the sudden linking-up of two million systems, many of which had never had any connection before, the bringing together of almost everybody everywhere — the very furthest, most utterly isolated star would likely be a mere decade or two away from the nearest portal — and the near-instant revitalising, on a scale unheard of in nearly twelve billion years of tenacious, sporadically stuttering civilisation, of the entire galactic community.

It was, Fassin and almost all his fellow Seers had long thought, a forlorn hope. The Dwellers didn’t need or show any sign of using wormholes. Being Dwellers, they naturally claimed they were experts at arteria and portal technology, and certainly they were not afraid of using wormholes, it was just that they didn’t see the need for them… but if they ever had been seriously involved with wormhole production, those days were long gone. In any case, the List itself, which had been lying around in libraries and data reservoirs, multitudinously copied for hundreds of millions of years, accessible to anybody with a link, was not the end of the story; it just gave the rough coordinates of two million gas-giants in two million systems. What was needed was a more precise location.

The obvious places to look were the relevant Trojan or Lagrange points, the gravitationally stable locations dotted around and between the orbits of the various planets in the named systems. However, these had all long since been eliminated. After that it got much more tricky. In theory a worm-hole mouth could be left in any stable orbit anywhere in a system and never be found unless you practically tripped over it. Working portals were anything up to a kilometre wide and had an effective mass of several hundred thousand tonnes, whereas a portal shrunk and stabilised and set up to keep itself that way with relatively simple automatics systems could lie in an orbit as far out as a system’s Oort cloud with a gravitational footprint of less than a kilogramme more or less indefinitely. The problem was how to describe where it was.

Allegedly there was some extra set of coordinates, or even a single mathematical operation, a transform, which, when applied to any given set of coordinates in the original list, somehow magically derived the exact position of that system’s portal. The obvious objection to this was that after four hundred million years, minimum, there was no known coordinate system ever devised capable of reliably determining where something as small as a portal was. (Unless the holes had all somehow automatically kept themselves in the same relative position all that time. Given the haphazard and cavalier attitude that Dwellers tended to display towards anything especially high-tech, this was regarded as highly unlikely.)

“So,” the image hovering above the dark device in the centre of the audience chamber said, “if I may assume we are all happy we know what we’re talking about…’ It looked around them again. Nobody demurred.

“The Dweller List,” the hologram said, “supposedly giving the approximate location of two million ancient portals dating from the time of the Third Diasporian Age, has been dismissed as an irrelevance, a lie or a myth for over a quarter of a billion years. The so-called Transform, supposed to complete the information required to access this secret network, has proved as elusive as it is unlikely to work if it does exist. Nevertheless. Some new information has come to light, thanks to Seer, now Major, Taak.” Fassin was aware that he was being looked at again. He just kept staring at the hologram.

“A little under four hundred years ago,” the hologram said, “Seer Taak took part in an extended expedition — a ‘delve’ as it is known — which took him amongst the Dwellers of Nasqueron, and specifically into the company of a group of Dweller youngsters called the Dimajrian Tribe. While with them, he encountered an antique Dweller who — in a fit of generosity unusual in his kind — granted Seer Taak access to a small library of information, part of a still larger hoard.”

(This was the wrong way round — the myth, not the fact. Fassin had been with Valseir for centuries and the Dimajrian Tribe for less than a year. He hoped that the rest of the Admiral’s information was more reliable. All the same, he had a sudden, vivid memory of choal Valseir, huge and ancient, accoutred with rags, draped in life-charms, floating absently within his vast nest-bowl of a study, deep in the lost section of abandoned CloudTunnel on the rim of a giant, dying storm which had long since broken up and dissipated. “Clouds. You are like clouds,” Valseir had told Fassin. At the time he hadn’t understood what the ancient Dweller had meant.)

“The raw data containing this information was passed on to the Shrievalty for analysis,” the image hovering above the black device said. “Twenty years later, after the usual analysis and interpretation and, you’d imagine, with plenty of time for second thoughts, re-evaluations and sudden inspirations, it was shared with the Jeltick under the terms of an infotrade agreement.”

The Jeltick were an arachnoid species, eight-limbed — 8ar, in the conventional shorthand of the galactic community. Obsessive cataloguers, they were one of the galaxy’s two most convincing self-appointed historian species. Timid, cautious, deliberate and very inquisitive (at a safe remove), they had been around for much longer than Quick species usually lasted.

“Somehow, the Jeltick contrived to notice something the Shrievalty had missed,” the hologram continued. (Now, Fassin noticed, it was Colonel Somjomion’s turn to look awkward and aggrieved.) “Heads have rolled due to this incompetence,” the image told them. It smiled. “Ido not speak figuratively”

Colonel Somjomion compressed her lips and rechecked something on the machine she was in charge of.

“Within months,” the hologram said, “the Jeltick sent their best excuse for a battle fleet to the Zateki system — unexplored for millennia — which lies about eighteen years from the portal at Rijom; they got there in twenty years, so they were not exactly dawdling. It ought to be pointed out that the Jeltick would never normally try anything so dynamic, or risky.

“Something at Zateki seriously chewed up the Jeltick ships and what is assumed to have been the sole survivor was later found by a Voehn craft. The surviving ship was fleeing, all upon it were dead and its biomind was deranged, invoking the mercy of an unknown god and babbling for forgiveness for what had been its mission, which had been to search for the remains of something called the Second Ship and, therein, the Dweller List Transform.”

Ah, thought Fassin. The Second Ship Theory. That was a sub-fallacy of the whole Dweller List delusion. The further you looked into the List myth, the more complicated it got and the more possibilities appeared to open up. All nonsense, of course, or so everybody had thought.

“Somehow, we assume through spies, the Beyonders and — possibly through the Beyonders — the E-5 Disconnect got to hear about this. The Beyonders attacked the Ulubis portal less than a month later and the E-5 Discon’s sudden interest in Ulubis also dates from this point. When the Jeltick realised the secret was no longer theirs alone,” the image said, “they broadcast-leaked it, to avoid accusations of partiality and maintain their reputation for disinterestedness.” The projection gave a sour look. “This has not gone down too well with the Ascendancy, either — one imagines the Jeltick will be made to pay somewhere down the line. In any event, five full squadrons of the Summed Fleet — over three hundred capital ships — retraced the Jeltick fleet’s route to Rijom and Zateki, but found nothing. Under full disclosure it has turned out that the information concerned was in any case incomplete; the lead is, as it were, only half-formed. The Jeltick move was a gamble, reckoned even by themselves at having a less than twelve per cent likelihood of success. For such a cautious species to make such a wild wager with their reputation and future alone indicates the value of the prize they sought.”

The hologram brought its gloved hands together, producing an audible clap. “So, now almost everybody who wants to know about the new Transform lead — such as it may be — does know, and this would appear to include the Disconnect of the Starveling Cult, and — quiet though they may have seemed recently — the Beyonders, who may or may not be in league with the E-5 Discon. Hence the most recent attacks on Ulubis, and the coming invasion.

“But be aware,” the image said, growling, eyes narrowing, “that behind this terrible threat lies a fabulous prize. If we can discover where the hidden portals lie — assuming that they are indeed there to be discovered — we may well be able to intervene in the Ulubis system before the Starveling Cult invasion force arrives. It would be entirely worth the most supreme effort and sacrifice for that result alone. Even more importantly, however, this is a prize that could, that just might, that can unlock the galaxy and usher in a new golden age of prosperity and security for the Mercatoria, for all of us.” The projection paused once more. “Our strategists estimate that even with the best result from those actions we shall ask you to undertake, the chances of success remain below fifty per cent.” The projection appeared to draw breath. “But that is not the point. The smallest chance of the greatest reward, when so few may compete for it, makes the contention compulsory. All that matters is that we may have been presented with an extraordinary, utterly unprecedented opportunity. We would all be in serious, even ultimate dereliction of duty if we did not do everything in our power to seize that opportunity, not just on our own behalf but for the good of all our fellow creats, and for those generations yet unborn.”

The image smiled one of its cold smiles. “The orders I have to pass on to you from the Complector Council are: to Seer — now Major — Taak.” (The projection was already looking straight at Fassin. Now so did a lot of the people in the chamber.) “Return to Nasqueron, seek out the ancient Dweller who gave you the original information and try to find out all you can about the Dweller List, the Second Ship, its location and the Transform. And, to everybody else here,” (the image looked around all the others in the chamber) “first, provide every aid you can to Major Taak in the furtherance of his mission, including doing nothing that will delay, obstruct or compromise it, and, second, return the Ulubis system to an invasion-imminent, full-scale, total-war footing immediately and prepare to oppose the coming invasion. Your goal should be — and I do not exaggerate here — to resist to the very last creat, to the very last mortal, to the very last breath.”

The hologram seemed to stand back a little and take the measure of them all. “I would say to all of you that, without doubt, your fate lies in your own hands. More importantly, so, potentially, does the fate of the Mercatoria and the civilised galaxy. The rewards for success will be unprecedented in their scale and splendour. The punishments for failure will begin with ignominy and disgrace and plumb new depths of ghastliness beyond. One last thing. You know that the Engineership Est-taun Zhiffir and battle-fleet escort which sent this signal are still seventeen years from reaching Ulubis system. I must tell you that significant elements of the Summed Fleet, above Squadron strength, were dispatched in your direction from Zenerre even before the Eship left and have been making well in excess of the Eship fleet’s velocity directly towards Ulubis ever since. The attack squadrons will arrive years before the Eship and its escort fleet, their war craft will be fully deployed for uninhibited battle against all who oppose the Mercatoria, and — depend upon it — they will prevail.”

The image smiled again. “How I wish I could tell you exactly how soon from this point they will appear. However, even I do not know; this signal was sent from the fleet accompanying the Eship and we do not yet know quite how close to light speed they have pushed themselves, or how close they will have by the time this signal arrives. We can only hazard. If the Disconnecters leave off for as long as another couple of years, the attack squadrons may well arrive before them. Otherwise, they will descend upon a system already fallen to the enemy, or, one would hope, still somehow resisting. Their reaction when they arrive largely depends on your determination, fortitude and ability to absorb punishment.” The projection smiled. “Now: any further questions?”

* * *

The Beyonders must have anticipated them. Their ships were already making ninety per cent of their own furious, headlong speed when they appeared on the point ship’s long-distance scanners.

Taince Yarabokin floated foetal, swaddled in shock-gel, lungs full of fluid, umbilicalled to the ship, nurtured by it, talking to it, listening to it, feeling it all around her. A gee-suit half-completed the image of warrior as unborn, leaving the wearer clothed in a close second skin. Her connection with the ship was via implants and an induction collar rather than a cord into her navel, and her chest moved only faintly as the gillfluid tided oxygen into her blood and scrubbed waste gases out again. Behind her closed lids in that darkness, her eyes flickered to and fro, twitching involuntarily. She shared her close confinement with another forty or so of her comrades, all lying curled and protected and wired up in their own life-pods, all carried deep in the belly of the fleet’s flagship, the Mannlicher- Carcano.

Way ahead at point, the destroyer Petronel veered, maxing its engines, then blinked out in a wash of light that became darkness as the sensors compensated. The buffering faded and revealed the half of the lead ship that was left, tumbling wildly, tearing itself apart in dark curved fountains of debris, spraying fragments against the tunnel-scape of hard blue-white stars collected ahead.

— Point registers multiple contacts at ninety fleet-vee, said one voice, flagged as LR sensors.

· Point is hit, came another; Fleet Status.

· Point contact lost, came a third, followed immediately by:

· Point gone; Fleet Comms and Status almost colliding.

Instantly aware, Taince had just sufficient time for one small,

frightened part of herself to think, No! Not on my watch! And right in the Fleet Admiral’s nap time, when she was in sole charge. But even as that reaction seemed to echo and die inside her head, she was sensing, judging, thinking, getting ready to issue orders. She flitted between the real-as-it-could-be view shown by the deep-space scan sensors, where the stars were bunched hard blue-white in a circle ahead and collected into a fuzzy red pool behind with pure blackness in every other direction, and the dark abstraction that was Tacspace, a multi-lined and radiused sphere where the ships of the fleet sat, little stylised arrowhead shapes of varying sizes and colours, a line of fading dots behind each indicating their courses, green glowing identities and status codes riding alongside them.

The pre-prepared split pattern wouldn’t work; the ship which had just traded point with the Petronel was still sliding back into position in the main body of the fleet and a pattern-one split would at worst cause multiple collisions and at best be just too slow.

Oh well, time to start earning her pay and communicate. Taince sent,

— Pattern-five split, all ships. BC-three, that plus a two-point inward, left-skew delta, for five, then resume.

Copy signals flicked back, the first from her own helm officer, the last from the battlecruiser Jingal, registering its adherence to the slight kink she’d put in its course the better to accommodate their D-seven: Destroyer seven, the Culverin, the ship which had been falling back after swapping point with the Petronel. She was distantly aware of her body registering a pulse of movement, a sudden change in direction so extreme that even the shock-gel couldn’t completely mask it. Around them, the ships would be flaring off like their own silent shrapnel burst.

· Hull stress eighty-five, Ship Integrity-Damage Control told her.

· All units responding. Full pattern-five flare, said Fleet Status.

· D-seven: thanks for that, joining pattern.

· C-one: single contact, five nor-down-west.

· D-three: double contact, neg-four nor-up-east.

The cruiser Mitrailleuse and the destroyer Cartouche registering hostiles. Taince didn’t even need to glance into Tacspace to know that meant harmfuls on both sides.

· So, bracketing.

· A straddle. Got us good.

The last two voices had been the two most senior fellow tactical officers.

· We sound as though we play Battleships. (That was Fleet Admiral Kisipt. Awake now, watching. Apparently content to let Taince run the show for the moment.)

· C-one: hostile contact confirmed. PTF.

· D-three: hostile contact confirmed. PTF.

Mitrailleuse and Cartouche requesting permission to fire.

· Suggest fire\Suggest fire, the other tacticians chorused.

· Agree fire, Fleet Admiral Kisipt said. — Vice?

Vice Admiral Taince Yarabokin thought so too. — C-one, D-three; grant free fire.

· C-one: Firing.

· D-three: Firing.

Tacspace showed bright crimson beams flick from the two ships. Tiny, lime-green dots with their own status bars were missiles, darting towards the enemy ships.

· Multiple hits on the D-one debris field, LR Sensors reported.

· Still flare?

· Still flare, Taince confirmed. She was watching the scintil-lations ahead, where the wildly spinning, whirling, somer-saulting wreckage of the Petronel was being hit by further enemy munitions. The remains were dropping back rapidly towards the main fleet as it spread quickly outwards. She clicked up a countdown to their impact with the debris field: seventy-six seconds. She shifted the read-out to a skin-sensation to avoid cluttering her visual feed.

No positive results from the laser fire being laid down by the Mitrailleuse and Cartouche. Their missiles were still heading towards the hostile craft. No sign of reply so far.

What if we’re wrong? Taince thought. What if they’ve out-thought us and our so-neat manoeuvre? Deep in her life-pod cocoon, she gave a semblance of a shrug without realising it herself. Oh well, then we may all be dead. At least it should be quick.

· Still flare?

· Still flare, she confirmed again. Waiting, judging, wondering if this would work. Tacspace showed the second-hand, now increasingly out-of-date contacts the Petronel had spotted as a glowing, slowly dispersing cloud of pulsing yellow echoes. The two hard contacts still registering on the sensors of the Mitrailleuse and the Cartouche and now confirmed by other nearby ships were strobing red dots, slowly closing. The wreckage from the Petronel was a stippled mess of purple, dead ahead and drifting closer, slowly spreading.

It’s okay, Taince told herself. We can do this.

They had rehearsed all this, trained and exercised in VR time after time, specifically for this eventuality, this ambush and manoeuvre and response suite.

They knew that the Beyonders would anticipate a fleet being sent from Zenerre to Ulubis. There was, of course, only one quickest possible route; the straight-line direct one, its laser-clean rule turned into the shallowest of curves solely by allowing for the minimal drift of the respective systems as they circled with the rest of the galactic outskirts round the great wheel’s core, fifty thousand light years away.

So, did the fleet take exactly that route, laying itself open to ambush by other ships, and — more threateningly — to mines? (Mines, indeed; all you needed was a few tonnes of crushed rock. Smash a tiny asteroid into gravel the size of rice grains, spread it across the course the fleet would- take and — if they were travelling quickly enough — you could waste the lot; so close to light speed that you didn’t need to have anything home in and explode, just getting in the way was devastating enough.) Or did you loop further out, avoiding likely interception but arriving later?

And did you stick together (obvious but sensible) or split up, all the individual craft taking their own route to Ulubis, only regrouping near their destination (very risky, but potentially a tactic that the enemy wouldn’t have anticipated)? In the end the Fleet Admiral had chosen one out of a bunch of faintly bowed courses recommended by the strategists and their sub-AI machines, and they followed that route en masse.

It was a gamble. The chances were that they would be inter-cepted, especially if the Beyonders possessed the kind of materiel they were thought to have between Zenerre and Ulubis. The obvious intercept strategy was to station minor ships and other sensor platforms about halfway, then position the intercept units well behind that — already making high speed — to give them time to gather for the attack. In a direct pitched battle, there was no possibility that the vastly outnumbered and out-armed Beyonder ships would prevail. But then, they didn’t need or want a pitched battle, they just had to slow the Mercatoria fleet down as much as possible. They wanted skirmishes, ambushes, and to use the fleet’s own colossal velocity against it.

The Mercatoria fleet could, in theory, have gone slow and safe, assured just by its sheer weight of arms of being able to blast anything ahead of it out of the skies. Its orders, though, were to get to Ulubis as quickly as possible, regardless, and so it had to travel almost ultimately quickly and risk being torn to bits by a few small ships and nothing more high-tech than a few tonnes of pulverised rock.

They’d come up with a surprise plan of their own. Needle ships were designed to fit through narrow worm-holes, it was that simple. The biggest arteria and the widest portals were a kilometre across, but the average “hole diameter was under fifty metres and a few very old arteria were barely ten metres wide. It took a vast amount of energy and\or matter to make an arteria and its two portals, and it was difficult, expensive and dangerous to expand them once they were emplaced. There was, for the Mercatoria, little point in having a network of super-fast travel connections scattered throughout the galaxy if your ships were too fat to fit, and so the proportions of war craft — the ultimate levers of power for the Mercatoria, just as they had been for all earlier imperia, semimperia and others who had thought to enforce their peace or impose their will on the galactic community over the aeons — were derived from the width of the channels they would have to negotiate.

In the past, some great capital ships could auto-deconstruct to become a shower of smaller, slimmer components which could fit through a wormhole, and were then capable of reassembling themselves at the far end, but this had proved a wasteful way of designing war craft. Needle ships were simpler and cheaper, for all their astounding complexity and cost. The biggest craft in the battle fleet heading from Zenerre to Ulubis were a kilometre long but less than forty metres across the beam. Almost right at the enemy ship, the missile fired by the Mitrailleuse winked out, replaced by a tiny debris field. Signals from the cruiser, Sensors and Status confirmed this.

— That missile snapped a hostile profile before it was picked off, Weapons reported, side-screening the data the missile had plipped back.

— Sceuri ship, Sulcus or Fosse class, one Tactics officer sent.

So they were dealing — at least in that ship — with the Deathspiral, Taince thought. That particular Beyonder group was exclusively Sceuri; waterworlders with a hatred for the Mercatoria in general and those of their own kind who were a part of it in particular (which meant most of them). Renowned for their viciousness and without even the excuse that they were protecting their precious civilian habitats. They didn’t have any, they were almost entirely ship-based. A bunch of piratical terrorists, in other words, just fanatics. And yet as far as anyone knew the Deathspiral hadn’t taken part in the attack on the Ulubis portal.

· So that makes four, not three varieties of Beyonder oper-ating in this volume, the Admiral sent, saying what Taince was thinking.

· Two more and we’ll have the set, she replied.

Back in Tacspace, she watched the Cartouche’s missile curving to meet the twisting trace that was the other nearest hostile. It joined it, overlaying it. A white blink, then an infinitesimal spray of debris, red speckled with green.

— D-three: Hit! Hostile hit!

Taince’s two fellow tacticians aboard the flagship made whooping noises.

· Well done, D-three, said Kisipt.

· Still flare?

· Still flare. Taince ignored the celebratory noises and her own feeling of excitement. She watched Tacspace, listened to the ship chatter, felt the seconds count down.

The fleet was still spreading, the vessels’ courses fanning out like thin stems from a short vase. Taince held off and held off and held off, until she could almost feel Fleet Admiral Kisipt and everybody else getting ready to shout at her.

Forty seconds. She sent,

— De-flare. Pattern-five reverse.

· Copy, said her own helm officer, then the other acknowledgements followed. In Tacspace, the flowering, widening ship tracks immediately started to bunch up again, the distances between them closing.

· C-one: Going to be tight.

But it was doable. They could get back to their earlier formation before they encountered the remains of the Petronel; that was all that mattered for now. Tacspace showed the fleet regrouping smoothly. The view ahead showed the fiercely glowing nebula of wreckage from the Petronel, seeming to spread across the sky as they approached it, encroaching onto the dark, starless tube on either side. She zoomed in, picking out a clear spot near the centre of the debris field, checking it in Tacspace. There.

The two hard contacts winked out, became orange and started to spread. Tacspace was throwing out probability cones, estimating where the ships might be. Ahead, the sky briefly glowed a pale uniform yellow, indicating that the rest of the Beyonder fleet could be anywhere within that volume. Then a scattering of bright red hard contacts firmed up out of the yellow wash, dispersing it.

The fleet re-formed. They were back where they had started. If nothing else, Taince thought, they ought to have confused the Beyonders.

— Pattern Zero, all ships.

Even in the life-pod, she felt the flagship lurch as it braked, manoeuvred and then accelerated again. She watched it all on Tacspace. The fleet was collapsing, thinning, extending itself forwards and back, ship after ship slipping into a single long line, nose to tail.

— BC-four, back down about ten. D-eleven, forward five. B-three and B-two, centre on D-eight. BC-four, maintain there.

Taince watched them all in Tacspace, shuffling, jostling, ordering them into position until they were all lined up.

— Ships of the line, yes, Vice? the Fleet Admiral sent, also watching.

— Sir.

There were no collisions, no botched moves, no drives left running too long, incinerating the craft behind. The line formation came together as smoothly as it ever had in VR sims. The battleship Gisarme led the way, blasting away a few tiny parti-cles left over from the wreck of the Petronel and laying down a stuttered laser barrage to try to intercept any mines, kinetic or otherwise, left in the way.

This was a gamble, too. If it worked they’d be through and away, one after another, charging mob-handed right behind the Gisarme like a long sequence of battering rams. If it didn’t work, there was a chance that first the Gisarme would hit something and then they’d all hit whatever was left of it. Potentially the whole fleet could be wiped out in one long pile-up of cascading collisions. The chances were small — smaller, the simulations indicated, than the risks associated with any of the other manoeuvres — but only because this one included a safety premium due to its assumed unexpectedness, its sheer novelty value. If they’d got that wrong, it was much riskier than all the rest.

The manoeuvre caught the Beyonders unawares. It was profoundly not standard Summed Fleet behaviour. The needle ships were one giant needle now, plunging through the debris field of the wrecked destroyer, firing all around them, scoring a couple of hits on distant hostiles desperately closing. Tacspace showed the lines of fire blazing out from the fleet like spokes from a filament-thin shaft and missiles spinning away like tiny glowing emeralds. The Beyonders were attempting to close, but it was too late. All that the nearest hostile units accomplished was their own destruction. In two minutes the Mercatorial fleet was through without loss, and a minute later its entire fire-pattern was rearward: a swirling skirt of crimson lines combing and coning into the emptying depths of space behind. Any further engagement now would be entirely on their terms, and the fleet’s vastly superior firepower would have the first word, and the last.

· Nice work, Vice. Fleet Admiral Kisipt sounded a little surprised, a little disappointed and moderately impressed. Taince knew that a lot of her fellow officers had wanted a proper battle, but this way had been better, quicker, more elegant. “Nice work’ — from a Voehn; that was real praise.

· Sir. Taince kept her thought-voice calm, but inside it was her turn to whoop. Submerged in her dark womb of fluid, tubes and wires, her fists clenched, a smile appeared on her until then frowning face, and a little shiver shook her cradled body.

* * *

The Kehar family house on Murla, an island off the south coast a few hundred kilometres from Borquille, was another spherical building, a quarter of the size of the Hierchon’s palace, but remarkable for being balanced on top of a great upthrust of water, precisely like a ball balanced on a water jet in a fairground.

Saluus Kehar, perfectly groomed, glowing with health and generally looking as smoothly gleaming as one of his company’s spaceships, met Fassin personally on the slim suspension bridge connecting the house with the spit of land jutting out into the ancient drowned caldera where the waters foamed and roared and spumed and the house balanced, barely trembling, on the giant column of water.

“Fassin! Great to see you! Hey! That uniform suits you!”

Fassin had thought he’d be briefed-indoctrinated-psyche-tested-pep-talked-fuck-knows-whatted and then bundled aboard ship to be whisked straight to Nasqueron. But even faced with arguably the single greatest emergency in its history, the Ulubine bureaucracy had a set way of doing things, and central to this ethos appeared to be not doing anything too momentous too quickly, just in case.

The rest of the session in the Hierchon’s audience chamber after the AI projection had issued its orders and asked for questions had involved a great deal of talk, speech-making, point-scoring, back-covering, back-targeting and pre-emptive blame-avoidance. The image of Admiral Quile answered all the questions tirelessly and with a patience that was probably the most sure sign possible that it really was an AI talking. A human — especially an admiral, used to being obeyed instantly and without argument — would have lost patience long before the proceedings finally ground to a halt. Fassin had been pointed at and referred to several times, and been left with the distinct impression that this was all his fault. Which, he supposed, in a way it was. It had all gone on so long that Fassin’s stomach had perhaps in sympathy with a large component of the mood in the chamber — started grumbling. He hadn’t eaten since early breakfast on ’glantine, after all.

“You are quite sure?” the image above the cooking-pot device asked eventually, when even the most talkative of those present seemed to have run out of questions to ask and points — and delicate portions of the anatomy — to cover. There was no hint of either pleading or relief in the projection’s voice. Fassin thought either would have been appropriate.

“Very well, then. I will bid you farewell, and good luck.”

The image of the human male with a bald, tattooed scalp and lined face, standing there in his much-decorated armoured suit, looked around them one last time, executed a short, formal bow to the Hierchon and disappeared. Nobody seemed to know quite what to do for a moment. Then the black, pot-bellied machine in the centre of the floor started to make a loud humming noise. Shrievalty Colonel Somjomion and Cessorian Clerk-Regnant Voriel, attending as best they could to the machines they had been put in charge of when the others had been required to leave the chamber, started peering intently at various screens and controls. The circle of mirror-armoured troopers each tapped one ear, then brought up their guns, pointing them at the cooking-pot device, which was humming loudly now and starting to glow in the infrared. The hum rose and took on extra harmonics, deepening until the machine was visibly vibrating. Some of those close to the device either drew back or looked like they wanted to, as if fearing that the machine was going to explode. The air around its ribbed flanks shimmered. Above it, the atmosphere seemed to writhe and quiver, as though some mutant ghost of the image that had stood there was still fighting to escape.

Then, just as the pot-bellied thing started to glow a deep cherry red around its midriff, it all faded away: noise and vibration and heat. People relaxed. Somjomion and Voriel took deep breaths and nodded at the Hierchon. The troopers shouldered their arms. Whatever complex substrate inside the dark device had played host to the AI image of the Admiral had been turned to slag.

The Hierchon Ormilla spoke from his glittering esuit. “I invoke the full emergency powers of the War Emergency Plan. Martial law will be declared at the close of this extended session. Let those earlier excluded resume their places.”

The flurry of politicking that Fassin had witnessed earlier was made to look mild in comparison as — without actually telling anybody not cleared to know about it any details — what was becoming known as The Current Emergency was talked over and enhanced roles and new responsibilities were discussed, squabbled over — between and within departments — revised, re-revised, traded, further discussed and re-re-revised before finally being handed out.

Fassin’s belly was still making noises when the full session broke up and he was called to a briefing with his superiors in the Shrievalty Ocula. They kept him waiting in an ante-room within the Ocula’s floor inside the Hierchon’s palace; he shed one layer of his cumbersome court clothes and found some human food in a dispenser in a curving outside corridor with a view over the reception plaza. (Long evening shadows, towers and spires burnished red with sunset. He looked for some obvious sign that the city, planet and system were all under martial law again, but saw nothing.) He was still wiping his fingers when they called him in.

“Major Taak,” Colonel Somjomion said. “Welcome.” He was shown to a large circular table surrounded by uniformed Shrievalty personnel. They were mostly human or whule, though there were two jajuejein doing their best to look humanoid and seated, and a single oerileithe in a duller and slightly smaller version of the Hierchon’s esuit, the discus of which was half-hidden in a wide slot in the floor. It seemed to radiate chill and dominate the room, all the same.

Somjomion indicated the oerileithe. “This is Colonel Hatherence,” she told Fassin. “She will be your superior in this mission.”

“Pleasure, sure,” the oerileithe boomed, twisting fractionally towards Fassin. The Colonel’s esuit had no transparent faceplate like the Hierchon’s, just armour and sensors, giving no sign of the creature within.

Fassin nodded. “Ma’am.” He’d thought the only oerileithe in the system apart from the Hierchon were basically Ormilla’s near family and his girlfriends (’harem’ was, though only just, too pejorative). He wondered whether Colonel Hatherence fitted neatly into either category or not.

It was explained to him that they could not, of course, just send him off alone to do what he was supposed to do. Over the next hour, as communications, memos and remote audiences with the Hierchon himself interrupted Somjomion, Fassin was gradually given to understand that the task assigned quite specifically to him alone was one which would nevertheless unar-guably be best accomplished if he was escorted and overseen by people the Hierchon and his claque of cohorts felt they could actually trust.

Accordingly, Fassin would not be alone on his next delve. He would benefit from the protection and guidance of Colonel Hatherence here, and from that of two of his fellow human Seers, Braam Ganscerel, Chief Seer of the most senior Sept of all, Sept Tonderon, and — as Fassin’s junior — Paggs Yurnvic of Sept Reheo, with whom he had worked before. Chief Seer Ganscerel was currently readying himself to return as rapidly as possible from a habitat orbiting Qua’runze, and would rendezvous with Colonel Hatherence, Major Taak and Seer Yurnvic on Third Fury, from which the delve or delves would be conducted, as soon as possible.

Qua’runze was the other big gas-giant in Ulubis system — there were two smaller examples as well. All had Dweller populations too, though compared to Nasqueron’s they were negligible in size. Getting Ganscerel from Qua’runze to Nasqueron and the Third Fury base would take well over a week, Fassin suspected. The old guy liked his luxuries and anyway wouldn’t be physically able to cope with much more than one gee during the journey even if he wanted to.

Fassin, very much feeling his way in all this, suddenly caught up within organisations and power structures he never imagined having anything much to do with and having to cope with networks of rank and superiority he had only the vaguest working knowledge of, had been about to start banging the table — probably only figuratively — and complaining about not being able to start the job he’d been very clearly ordered to begin as soon as possible. Then they mentioned Ganscerel and his journey back from Qua’runze and he saw that there was prob-ably no way he was going to be able to move this forward faster than the pace that had already been decided.

Which, in a way, suited him fine. If the system really was under threat of imminent invasion and he was being asked to go on the most important delve of his life in the midst of it — and given the amount of time they were being told there was before the invasion took place, there was every likelihood he’d still be in-planet when it happened — then he wanted — needed — one last delve of his own, into Borquille’s underworld, its own hazy, clouded, turbulent and dangerous nether-environment. He suddenly had things to do and people, or at least one person, to meet. The delay caused by Ganscerel might work out quite usefully. Of course, they probably wouldn’t want to let him out of their sight, so he’d have to find a way round that.

He also suspected that they wanted the whole delve done at a distance, from Third Fury, with him and Ganscerel and Paggs Yurnvic all lying wired up in the base there and communicating with remotes down in Nasqueron itself. (Certainly Ganscerel wasn’t capable of jumping into a gascraft, breathing gillfluid and taking multiple gees, squished in shock-gel — he hadn’t even done any of that stuff when he was young.) Fassin would have to try and find a way round that, too.

He complained as crossly as he could pretend about not being allowed to get on with things, and then demanded some time off.

“You mean, leave?” Somjomion said, goggle-eyed. “I believe you have some very intense briefing and training ahead of you, Major Taak. Many days’ worth which will have to be crammed into hours. There is absolutely no time for leave.”

He explained about Ganscerel’s age, infirmity and therefore slow rate of travel. Somjomion looked indignant, but checked this, finally having another hurried conference with the Hierchon himself. “Indeed,” she said, sighing, “Chief Seer Ganscerel is profiled as being unable to withstand forces greater than 1.5 gee, and is already complaining at the prospect of that. It will be nine days before he can reach the Third Fury base.” Colonel Somjomion narrowed her eyes at Fassin. “We shall proceed with your fuller briefing first thing tomorrow, Major Taak. If there is any time left over, a day or two of leave may be granted. I guarantee nothing.”

“So. Another Emergency,” Saluus said. He smiled broadly. Tm told I have you to thank for this, Fass.” He held out a slim flute. Fassin accepted the glass. “Entirely my own work.” Sal was, he supposed, one of the few people in the system for whom the prospect of a War Emergency Plan coming into force was genuinely cause for celebration.

“Really?” Saluus said. “You’re even more eminent than I thought. And you still look about twenty, you dog.” Sal laughed the easy laugh of a man who could afford to be generous with his compliments. Sal chinked glasses. They were drinking champagne; some ancient Krug with a meaningless date all the way from Earth and probably worth as much as a small spaceship. It had a pleasant taste, though not many bubbles.

The two men stood on a balcony, looking out over the caldera. The surging waters beneath formed a great frothed slope spreading all around from underneath the house, a shallow cone of billows and hummocks of foam all furiously bunching and collapsing and rushing ever outwards to where the fractious turmoil settled slightly and became merely wildly charging waves. The balcony was just above the equatorial rim of the house so the column of water actually supporting the place was hidden from them, but the crater walls, a couple of kilometres distant, echoed with the tumult.

They had climbed up here after a modest reception and light lunch with a few of Sal and his wife’s friends — notables all — who were here for the afternoon. Fassin had secured an invitation to stay for a couple of days, until the Shrievalty needed him back in Borquille. He had changed out of his dark grey Shrievalty uniform into casual clothes.

Sal leaned back against the barrier. “Well, thank you for coming to visit.”

Fassin nodded. “Thank you for inviting me.”

“My pleasure. Just mildly surprised you asked.”

“They trust you, Sal.” Fassin gave a small shrug. “Ineeded to get away from all that military shit and they wouldn’t let me just skip out the door of the palace and into Boogeytown.” He looked out at the tumbling waters. “Anyway’ — a glance at Sal—”been too long.” He wanted to give the impression that this had been a good excuse to effect some sort of reconciliation he’d long wanted to make. He and Sal had met up only very occasionally over the two centuries since the wormhole’s destruction, usually at the sort of gigantic social events it was hard to get out of but easy to remain alone within. They hadn’t really talked.

Even now, meeting up, there were whole aspects of their lives that somehow didn’t need to be gone into. How and what they had each been doing was a matter of public record and it would almost be an insult to inquire. Fassin had recognised Sal’s wife from news and social images, hadn’t really needed introducing. There hadn’t been a single person at the reception below, alien or otherwise — servants apart, obviously — about whom Fassin, who was no great social observer, couldn’t have written a short biography. Saluus probably didn’t know as much about Fassin as vice versa, but he’d already congratulated him on his engagement to Jaal Tonderon, so he knew that much (or, more likely perhaps, he just had an efficient social secretary with a good database).

“So, what can you tell me, Fass?” Sal asked casually. He wrinkled his nose. “Can you say anything?”

“About the Emergency?”

“Well, about whatever’s causing all the fuss.”

There was more than a fuss; there was low-level war. Starting the day after martial law was declared there had been a sequence of attacks, mostly on isolated and system-edge craft and settlements, though with some worrying assaults further in-system, including one on a Navarchy dock-habitat in Sepekte’s own trailing Lagrange that had killed over a thousand. Nobody knew whether it was Beyonders behind this resurgence of violence, or the E-5 Discon advanced forces, or a mixture of both.

More oddly, but for Fassin far more disturbingly, somebody had nuked the High Summer house of Sept Litibiti, back on ’glantine, just the day before; missiled it from space like it was a military facility. Bizarre and unprecedented. The place had been empty save for a handful of unlucky gardeners and cleaners, keeping the place ticking over until the appropriate season, but it made Seers throughout the system worried that they’d suddenly, for some reason, become targets. Fassin had sent a message to Slovius saying that maybe they should consider shifting the whole Sept elsewhere on ’glantine. Head for an out-of-season hotel, perhaps. He’d yet to receive a reply, which might be Slovius ignoring his advice, or just the authorities’ new message-traffic checking and censoring software struggling to cope. Neither would surprise.

“Tell me what you know,” Fassin suggested. “I’ll fill in what I can.”

“They want lots of warships, Fass.” Sal gave a sad-looking smile. “Lots and lots of warships. We’re to turn out as many as we can for as long as we can, though they want them sooner rather than later, and any advanced projects that might take longer than a year, even existing ones, are being deprioritised. We’re to gas-line a whole bunch of stuff for—” Sal paused, cleared his throat and waved one hand. “Hell, idiot stuff; we’re to rough-cut a whole load of civilian conversions: armed merchantmen, one-shot cloud-miners, tooled-up cruise liners and so on. We didn’t even do that in the last Emergency. So whatever it is, it’s serious, it’s presumably what our military friends would call credible, and it’s not very far away. Over to you.”

“Lot I can’t tell you,” Fassin said carefully. “Most of which I guess wouldn’t interest you anyway.” He wondered how much he could say, how much he needed to say. “Supposedly to do with something called the Epiphany-Five Disconnect.”

Sal raised an eyebrow. “Hmm. Bit away. Wonder why they’d bother? Richer pickings inward of where they are.”

“But a significant part of the Summed Fleet is on the way. We’re told.” Fassin grinned.

“Mm-hmm. I see. And what about you?” Sal asked, dipping closer to Fassin, voice dropping. “What’s your part in all this?”

Fassin wondered how much the continual rush of noise produced by the waves below would mask their words, if anybody was listening from far away. Since he’d arrived he’d showered and put on a change of clothes he’d requested from the house — caught without the necessary means of attire due to an extended stay away from home, he’d explained, needlessly. He got the impression the servants were perfectly used to providing clothes of varying sizes and for whatever sex to house guests. Still, even without the proscribed horror of nanotech, it was possible to make bugs very small indeed these days. Had the Shrievalty or the Hierchon’s people put some sort of trace or mike on him? Had Sal? Did Sal put surveillance on his guests as a matter of course? His host was waiting for an answer.

Fassin looked into the drink. A few small bubbles of gas rose to the surface and broke, giving some tiny proportion of the substance of Earth to the atmosphere of a planet twenty thousand light years away. “I just did my job, Sal. Delved, talked, took away what the Dwellers would let me take away. Most of which was not momentous, not important, not going to change anything much at all, not something everybody would want or risk everything for.” He looked Saluus Kehar in the eye. “Just stumbled my way through life, you know? Over whatever turned up. Never knowing what would lead to what.”

“Whoever does?” Sal asked, then nodded. “But I see.”

“Sorry I can’t really tell you too much more.”

Sal smiled and looked out at the slope of artificial surf, the pandemonium of waves beyond and the sheer cliffs further away still, brown-black beneath a hazy azure sky.

“Ah, your minder,” he said. The esuit of Colonel Hatherence of the Shrievalty appeared to one side, low over the foam, floating out over the mad froth of waters like a great fat grey and gold wheel. Whirling vane-sets on either side of her esuit kept the Colonel from sinking into the maelstrom. For all its massive size when you were standing next to it, the esuit looked very small from up here.

“She giving you any problems?”

“No. She’s okay. Doesn’t insist I salute her or call her Ma’am all the time. Happy to keep things informal.” All the same, he was hoping to get the Colonel out of the way somehow, either before or once he got down into Nasqueron.

Fassin watched the Colonel as she picked her way across the scape of waves. “But can you imagine trying to sneak into Boogeytown with that dogging your every move?” he asked. “Even just for one last night?”

Sal snorted. “The dives and the ceilings are too low.”

Fassin laughed. This is like sex, he thought. Well, like the seduction-scenario thing, like the whole stupid mating dance of will-you-won’t-you, do-you-don’t-you rigmarole. Tempting Sal, leading him on…

He wondered if he’d seemed sufficiently mysterious yet hinted at maybe being available. He needed this man.

Dinner with Sal, his wife, their concubines and some business associates, including — amongst the latter — a whule, a jajuejein and a quaup. The talk was of new attacks on distant outposts, martial law, delays in comms, restrictions in travel and who would gain and who would lose from the new Emergency (nobody on any of the couches seemed to anticipate losing more than a few trivial freedoms for a while). Colonel Hatherence sat silent in one corner, needing no external sustenance, thank you, but happy, indeed honoured, to be there while they consumed nourishment, communicated conversationally and intercoursed socially while she continued her studies (much-needed!), screening up on Nasqueron and its famous Dwellers.

Drinks, semi-narcotic foods, drug bowls. A human acrobat troupe entertained them, floodlit beyond the dining room’s balcony.

“No, I’m serious!” Sal shouted at his guests, gesturing at the acrobats, swinging through the air on ropes and trapezes. “If they fall they almost certainly die! So much air in the water you can’t float. Sink right down. Get caught up in the under-turbulence. No, idiot!” Sal told his wife. “Not enough air to breathe!”

Some people left. Drinks later, just the humans. To Sal’s trophy room, corridors and rooms too small, sorry, for Colonel Hatherence (not minding; so to sleeping; good nights!). Sal’s wife, going to bed, and the remaining few. Soon just the two of them, overlooked by the stuffed, lacquered, dry-shrunk or encased heads of beasts from dozens of planets.

“You saw Taince? Just before the portal went?”

“Dinner. Day or two before. Equatower.” Fassin waved in what might have been the general direction of Borquille. You could see the lights of the Equatower from the house, a thin stipple of red climbing into the sky, sometimes perversely clearer above when the lower atmosphere was hazed and the higher beacons shone down at a steeper angle through less air.

“She okay?” Sal asked, then threw his head back and laughed too loudly. “As though it matters. It was two centuries ago. Still”

“Anyway, she was fine.”

“Good.”

They drank their drinks. Cognac. Also from Earth, long, long ago. Far, far away.

Fassin got swim.

“Oh shit,” he said, “I’ve got Swim.”

“Swim?” said Saluus.

“Swim,” Fassin said. “You know; when your head kind of seems to swim because you suddenly think, ‘Hey, I’m a human being but I’m twenty thousand light years from home and we’re all living in the midst of mad-shit aliens and super-weapons and the whole fucking bizarre insane swirl of galactic history and politics!’ That: isn’t it weird?”

“And that’s what? Swing? Swirl?” Sal said, looking genuinely confused.

“No, Swim!” Fassin shouted, not able to believe that Sal hadn’t heard of this concept. He thought everybody had. Some people — most people, come to think of it, or so he’d been told — never got Swim, but lots did. Not just humans, either. Though Dwellers, mind you, never. Wasn’t even in their vocabulary.

“Never heard of it,” Sal confessed.

“Well, didn’t imagine you might have.”

“Hey, you want to see something?”

“Whatever it is, I cannot fucking wait.”

“Come with me.”

“Last time I heard that—”

“We agreed no more of those.”

“Fuck! So we did. Total retraction. Show me what you got to show me.”

“Walk this way.”

“Ah now, just fuck off.”

Fassin followed Sal through to the inner recess of his study. It was kind of what he might have expected if he’d given the matter any thought: lots of wood and softly glowing pools of light, framed stuff and a desk the size of a sunken room. Funny-looking twisted bits of large and gleaming metal or some other shiny substance sitting in one corner. Fassin guessed these were starship bits.

“There.”

“Where? What am I supposed to be looking at?”

“This.” Sal held up a very small twisted-looking bit of metal mounted on a wooden plinth.

Fassin tried very hard not to let his shiver show. He was nothing like as drunk as he was trying to appear to be.

“Yeah? An whassat?” (Overdoing it, but Sal didn’t seem to notice.)

Saluus held the piece of odd-looking metal up before Fassin’s eyes. “This is that thing I got out of that fucking downed ship, my man.” Sal looked at it, swallowed and took a deep breath. Fassin saw Sal’s lip tremble. “This is what—”

The fucker’s going to break down, Fassin thought. He slapped one hand on Sal’s shoulder. “This is no good,” he told him. “We need different, we need, I don’t know; something. We need not this, not what is before us here. We need something different. Elsewhen or elsestuff or elsewhere. This might be my last night of freedom, Sal.” He gripped the other man hard by the shoulder of his perfectly tailored jacket. “I’m serious! You don’t know how bad things might get for me! Oh fuck, Sal, you don’t know how bad things might get for all of us, and I can’t fucking tell you, and this could be my last night of fun anywhere, and… and… and you’re showing me some fucking coat hook or something, and I don’t know…’ He swiped weakly at the twisted piece of metal, patting it away and still missing. Then he sniffed and drew himself up. “Sorry,” he said, soberly. “Sorry, Sal.” He patted the other man’s shoulder. “But this is maybe my last, ah, night of fun, and… look, I feel totally charged for anything — wish Boogeytown was right outside, really do, but on the other hand it’s been a long few days and maybe — no, not maybe. Maybe definitely. In fact, not that, just plain definitely the sensible thing to do is just go to bed and—”

“You serious?” Sal said, dropping the metal piece on its wooden plinth onto the desk behind him.

“About sleep?” Fassin said, gesturing wildly. “Well, it — -”

“No, you moron! About Boogeytown!”

“What? Eh? I didn’t mention Boogeytown!”

“Yes, you did!” Sal said, laughing.

“I did? Well, fuck!”

Sal had a flier. Automatic to the point of being nearly banned under the AI laws. Loaded with repair mechanisms that were not quite nanotech but only by such a tiny-tiny-tiny little bit. Deeply civilian but with total military clearance. If a Grand Fleet Admiral of the Summed Fucking Fleet stepped into this baby and toggled his authority it would only decrease the fucker’s all-areas, multi-volumes access profile. Down in the hangar deck. Walk this way, har har.

They left the top down part of the way, to clear their heads. It was very, very cold.

They set down somewhere where litter blew about under the fans of the flier. Fassin hadn’t thought there was still such a thing as litter.

Boogeytown was much as he remembered it. They hit the lows, looking for highs. They trawled the bowl-bars and narctail parlours, coming up with a brimming catch of buzz and girls, Fassin meanwhile trying to edge Sal in a certain bar’s direction, while Sal — vaguely recalling this wasn’t supposed to be just fun but also a way of getting his old pal Fass to open up with more potentially useful and lucrative details about whatever the fuck was going on — tried to get his old-new best buddy to move in a certain informational direction but without much success and anyway with decreasing amounts of concern and an increasing feeling of oh-who-gives-a-fuck?

Fassin too was getting frustrated, still angling for one more move and one particular streetlet, one particular bar, but they were here now in this diamond-walled emporium called the Narcateria where the sleaze was so coolly glitz it almost hurt, surrounded by people who hadn’t seen Sal in so long and just had to keep him where he was, don’t you dare go away, you wicked man you! And is this your friend? Where you been keeping him? Can I sit here, hmm? Me too me too! So eventually he had to stumble away and make a call in a private public booth and then head for the toilet where he threw up in a thin burning stream all the alcohol he’d drunk since the last time he’d been to the loo (over the hole, so it looked and sounded authentic), then wash his face and rejoin the drunken stoned-out fray of breath-catching loveliness, waiting for the right girl, the one all this had been about, all of it: asking to go to Sal’s in the first place, then getting him drunk and seeming to get drunk himself (which he was, but not that drunk) and then dropping hints about Boogeytown, all so that he could get away and get here and see this one particular girl…

… Who finally appeared nearly an hour later when he was just starting to despair but there she was, perfect and calm and quietly beautiful as ever, though looking quite different, again, with white-gold hair swinging heavy as the real 24-carat article about her near-triangular face, chin just made for holding, strawberry-bruise lips for kissing, tiny little nose for nuzzling, cheeks for stroking, eyes for gazing into (depths, ah, depths!) brows for licking, forehead for licking too, licking dry of sex-sweat after — oo! oo! oo! just too strenuous a session!

Aun Liss.

The one real love of his life, his controlling passion.

Older again but not as old as she should be. Looking different, living different, being different, called different. Called Ko now (and that was all), not Aun Liss, but she would always be Aun Liss to him. No need to say her real name. A lot of what passed between them wasn’t said anyway. Dressed in salarygirl clothes. Nothing special, revealing or provocative.

Nevertheless.

She held out her hand.

Nearby, surrounded by — actually, nearly drowning in — utter human female and super-stimulus hyper-pulchritude loveli-nessence, even Sal looked impressed.

“Fass, you dog!”

Aun Liss was still holding out her hand.

Back in Sal’s flier. Sal was in the front, being grievously attended to by the infamous Segrette Twins, moaning.

Fassin and Aun in the back seat, utterly happy to appear so archetypical. They kissed for a long time, then — looking round, shrugging at the front-seat antics (the flier at this point not really going anywhere, circling in a holding pattern — a clinching pattern, Aun Liss suggested) — she rose up and straddled him, his hands up underneath the light dress she wore, fingers still kneading her back… as they continued to do once they were finally returned to the idiot Kehar house poised over the column of water just as, Aun pointed out, she was poised over his column. (This aloud, for the benefit of anybody listening. They both laughed, not too loudly, he hoped.) Meanwhile she kept the dress on still, even in the heat of it, with his fingers pressing, kneading, moving above her arched spine producing little half-pained gasps until later when they were finally just lying together under a thin sheet she shucked off the dress and he just held her.

And this is what, over the course of those several hours, their fingers said, drawing and tapping out the private, effectively unbuggable code they had used for hundreds of years, since she first became his control, his link:

U STILL MY CNNECTN?

They were in the private booth deep inside the Narcateria, just kissing. She slid her hands between his jacket and shirt, knuckled back, YS. WOT U GOT 4 I?

1ST, I MAJR IN OCULA NW. GOT 2NDD.

Y?

COS I FND SMTING IN THE FMOUS DLVE. BOUT THE DWLLR LIST. YOU HRD OF?

VGLY.

2ND SHIP THERY, he sent. SCRT “HOLE NTWRK.

WAIT, she sent back. WORMHOLE NTWRK?

YS. SCRT 1.

There was a pause. She kept on kissing him. Her fingers sent, YR CRZY.

Walking to the flier, hands up each other’s jackets:

OL AFTR WHTI FND. E-5 DISCONINVDS IN 6 MNTHS TO 1 YR. THEY THNK BYNDRS WITH THEM. TRU?

CMPLCTD. SUM R, SUM RNT.

MRGNCY COS OF THS.

U STRTD THE FKNG MRGNCY?

YS. SORY. SUMD FLT ON WAY. BIG BIT AHED OF ESHIP. HYR IN 2 YRS MAYB. USD A.I. TRNSMTD FRM SUMD FLT 2 TEL US OL THIS.

AN A.I.?

YS.

HYPCRTS.

Then, in the flier:

WOT NXT 4 U?

DLVE SOON AGEN. WITH CHF C-R GNSRL, OERL SHRVLTY CNL C-R PGS YRNVIC. TRY FND RST OF WHTVR WS I FND IN 1ST PLACE.

Straddled-ridden like that, they could talk, too.

“How’s that for you?” she whispered.

“Oh, that’s very good. And you?”

“As above.”

WHT DID U FND?

DNT NO XCTLY. I NO RL2E AT TIME. OL CAME OUT MUCH L8TR WHN JELTCK DID ANLYS. SMTHNG ABT THIS 2ND SHIP THNG CALLD A TRANSFORM, SPSD 2 MAK RST OF DWLR LIST MEAN SMTHNG. JLTCK SNT FLEET 2 TRY FIND. NO FIND. FLT WRKD.

She felt him pause, tense. She sent:

WOT?

ALGDLY THIS ALSO Y BYNDRS WRKD PORTL. TRU?

DNT NO. IJST A MSG GRL. She paused. SO U SAY NOT ONLY U START THIS MRGNCY, U COSD LAST 1 2 GOT PRTL DSTRYD?

YS. GES I JST ACCDNT PRN.

FKNG HEL.

“Very good to see you again.”

“Copy that.”

“We should do this more often.”

“Indeed we should. Now, shh.”

BUT IF SO THIS KNWN, Y I NOT ASKD 2 DLV FIND MOR INFO 4 GUD GYS ERLYR?

NO IDEA.

OL NONSNS ANYWY BUT THEY WNT I 2 LUK.

SO LUK.

WHT U MYN SUM BYNDRS 4 E-5 DISCON, SUM NOT?

FACTNS.

FACTIONS? YR GVNG I FKNG FACTIONS? RLY BEST U CN DO?

KYP BING PASSYN8. CVR SLPNG.

He made passionate moves, uttered passionate sounds.

In his bed, his hands at the small of her back:

I GO 2 3RD FURY MOON 3 DAYS TYM.

… OH.

OH?

KND OF A RMR. I SHLDNT EVN NO. MAYB ATK ON NASQ MNS.

NASQ MOONS? NOT “GLNTN?

NO. LTL MNS.

CN U GET WRD, NO ATCK ON 3RD FURY MOON? NO ATK ON ANY SEERS?

WILL TRY.

TRY HRD.

PROMIS.

OK. IF I DO FIND ANYTHING ON NASQ WILL GET 2 U, NT MRCTRIA.

OK. GOOD. HOW?

STN A MICROSAT MIDWY BTWN OUR SATS EQ4 EQ5. I AIM BRST THER. MY OLD CODE FREQ STL GOOD?

THNK SO. TAK TYM 2 SET UP.

TAK I MNTHS 2 FIND NYTHNG. PRBLY 0 TO FIND ANYWY. HAV MICROSAT ABL 2 RCV FRM B-LOW 2, IN CASE I IN NASQ.

WILL PASS ON.

A little later:

LUV U.

YR CRZY.

TRU.

B MOR PASSYN8.

He pulled the sheet further over his Beyonder girl. CVR SLPNG AGEN?

NO, JST B MOR PASSYN8…

THREE:

NOWHERE LEFT TO FALL

Uncle Slovius took him up on his shoulders. They were going to watch the bad machine being killed. He put his hands over Uncle Slovius’s forehead and got him to crinkle it, which felt funny and made him squirm and wriggle and laugh and meant Uncle Slovius had to hold his ankles tight to stop him falling off.

“Fass, stop wriggling.”

“I fine, honest.”

He already knew you were supposed to say, “I’m fine,” or, “I am fine,” but saying things like “I fine’ was better because it made adults smile and sometimes hug. Sometimes it made them put a hand on your head and make a mess of your hair, but never mind.

They went through the port door. It was spring and so that was the house they were in. He was big. He’d lived in all the houses except the Summer House. That one came next. Then he would have lived in them all. Then you started again. That was how it worked. Uncle Slovius ducked as they went through the doorway so he didn’t bash his head.

“Umm, mind your head,” he heard his dad say quietly somewhere behind him.

His mum sighed. “Oh, stop fussing. Dear.”

He couldn’t see his mum and dad because they were behind him and Uncle Slovius but he could hear them.

“Look, I wasn’t fussing, I was just—”

“Yes, you—”

He got that funny feeling in his tummy he got when Mum and Dad talked like that. He did a slap-a-slap-slap on Uncle Slovius’s forehead and said, “More about history! More about history!” as they walked down to the flier.

Uncle Slovius laughed. The shake came up through Uncle Slovius’s shoulders into his bottom and whole body. “My, we are a keen student.”

“One word for it,” his mother said.

“Oh, come on,” his dad said. “The boy’s just inquisitive.”

“Yes, yes, you’re right,” his mum said. You could hear her breath through her words. “My mistake. Pardon me for expressing an opinion.”

“Oh, now, look, I didn’t mean—”

“More about Voerin!”

“Voehn,” Uncle Slovius said.

“I’ve got a Voerin! I’ve got a big one that talks and climbs and swims and jumps or can walk under the water too. It’s got a gun that shoots other toys. And I’ve got lots of little ones that just move. They’ve got guns too but they’re a bit small to see but they can make each other fall over. I’ve nearly a hundred. I watch Attack Squad Voerin all the time! My favourite is Captain Chunce cos he’s clever. I like Commander Saptpanuhr too and Corporal Qump cos he’s funny. Jun and Yoze both like Commander Saptpanuhr best. They’re my friends. Do you watch Attack Squad Voerin, Uncle Slovius?”

“Can’t say I’ve ever caught it, Fass.”

Fassin frowned, thinking. He decided this probably meant “No’. Why didn’t adults just say no when they meant no?

They sat in the flier. He had to come down off Uncle Slovius’s shoulders but he got to sit beside him in the front. He didn’t even need to tell people he’d be sick if he sat in the back any more. A servant sat on the other side of him. Great-uncle Fimender was behind with two old ladies who were girlfriends. He was laughing and they were too. His mum and dad were further back, talking quiet. His mum and dad were old but Uncle Slovius was really old and Great-uncle Fimender was really, really old.

The flier went up into the air and went through the air making a noise like the Attack-ship Avenger did in Attack Squad Voerin. His model of the Attack-ship Avenger flew but only in Supervised Areas Outdoors and shot guns and missiles and made the same noise. He’d wanted to bring it with him, but not been allowed, even after he’d shouted. He hadn’t been allowed to bring any toys. No toys at all!

He pulled at Uncle Slovius’s sleeve. “Tell me about the Voerin!” He tried to think what had made Uncle Slovius laugh. “More about history!”

Uncle Slovius smiled.

“The Voehn are the Culmina’s bully boys, child,” said Great-uncle Fimender from the seat behind. He was leaning over. His breath had that funny sweet smell like it usually did. Great-uncle Fimender was fond of a drink. His voice was funny also sometimes, like all the words were sort of one big word. “I wouldn’t fixate too enthusiastically on the scum that stole our species birthright.”

“Steady, now, Fim,” Uncle Slovius said. He looked round at Great-uncle Fimender but looked first at the servant except the servant didn’t move or look back or anything. “If the wrong person took you seriously you might find yourself joining this rogue AI. Hmm?” He made a smile at Great-uncle Fimender, who sat back again in the seat between the old-lady girlfriends and took a glass with a drink in it from a picnic tray.

“Be an honour,” he said in a quiet voice.

Uncle Slovius smiled down at Fass. “The Voehn went to Earth a long, long time ago, Fassin. Before humans made spaceships — before they made sea ships, almost.”

“How long ago?”

“About eight thousand years ago.”

“4051BCE,” Great-uncle Fimender said, though only just loud enough to hear. Uncle Slovius didn’t seem to hear. Fassin wasn’t sure if Great-uncle Fimender was disagreeing with Uncle Slovius or not. Fassin stored 4051 BCE away as an Important Number anyway.

“They met human people on Earth,” Uncle Slovius said, “and took them away with them on their ship, to other stars and planets.”

“Kidnapping the prims!” Great-uncle Fimender said. “Sampling the barbs, with prejudice! Eh?” He didn’t sound like he was talking to him and Uncle Slovius. Fass didn’t understand what Great-uncle Fimender was saying anyway. The old-lady girlfriends were laughing.

“Well,” Uncle Slovius said, with a small smile, “who’s to say whether humans were kidnapped or not? People in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and China were too primitive to know what was going on. They probably thought the Voehn were gods, so they might have gone with them without being kidnapped and we don’t even know that the Voehn took whole people. Maybe they just took their cells.”

“Or babies, or foetuses, or excised a few thousand fertilised eggs,” Great-uncle Fimender said. Then, “Oh, thank you, my dear. Oops! Steady, there.”

“In any event,” Uncle Slovius said, “the Voehn took some human people and put them down on planets far away from Earth and the human people grew up with other people, and the Culmina had the other people help the humans so that they became civilised quickly, and invented all the things humans back on Earth ever invented, but these human people on the other planets always knew they were part of a galactic community, hmm?” Uncle Slovius looked at him with a question-look on his face. Fass nodded quickly. He knew what a galactic community meant: everybody else.

“Anyway, people on Earth kept on inventing things, and eventually invented wormholes and portals—”

“The Attack-ship Avenger goes through wormholes and portals,” he told Uncle Slovius.

“Of course,” Uncle Slovius said. “And so when human people went out and met other alien people and joined their worm-hole up with everybody else’s wormhole, they found out that they weren’t the first humans the alien people had met or had heard of, because the humans who had been taken away to the other planets by the Voehn were already quite well known.”

“Remainder humans,” Great-uncle Fimender said from the seat behind. His voice sounded funny, like he might be going to burst out laughing or something.

Uncle Slovius looked round at him for a short bit. “Well, the terms don’t matter too much, even if they might sound a little harsh sometimes.”

“Carefully chosen to keep us in our place, remind us we owe them, either way,” Great-uncle Fimender said.

“The Culmina tell us they had people look after Earth after the Voehn took the humans away to the other stars. They made sure that nothing bad happened to Earth, like it being hit by a big rock.”

Great-uncle Fimender made a sort of cough-laugh. “Easy to claim.”

Fass looked round at Great-uncle Fimender. He sort of wanted Great-uncle Fimender to be quiet so he could listen to Uncle Slovius but sort of didn’t because the things Great-uncle Fimender was saying, even if he didn’t always understand all of them, seemed to be saying things about the things Uncle Slovius was saying. It was like they sort of agreed and didn’t agree at the same time. Great-uncle Fimender winked at him and gestured towards Uncle Slovius with his glass. “No, no; listen!”

“So, people from Earth got into the stars at last and found that there were aliens everywhere,” Uncle Slovius told him. “And some of them were us!” He smiled a broad smile.

“And there were a lot more of the alien humans than there were of the ones who thought they were humanity,” Great-uncle Fimender said. It sounded like he was sneering. Uncle Slovius sighed and looked ahead.

The flier was flying over mountains with snow on them. In front was a big bit of desert like a circle. Uncle Slovius shook his head and didn’t seem to want to say anything but Great-uncle Fimender did so Fass turned round in his seat and listened to him.

“And they were more technically advanced, these so-called aHumans. Advanced but cowed. Servant species, just like everybody else. While all Earth’s dreams of wild expansion were made to look like so much belly-gas. The answer to ‘Where is everybody?’ turned out to be, ‘Everywhere’, but the stake at the galactic poker game is a wormhole and so we had to fund our own and bring that to the table. Then discover that Everywhere really meant Everywhere, and every damn thing you could see and every damn thing you couldn’t belonged to some bugger: every rock, every planet, moon and star, every comet, dust cloud and dwarf, even the bloody null-foam of space itself was somebody’s home. Land on some godforsaken cinder, pull out a shovel thinking you could dig something, build something or make something of it and next thing you know an alien with two heads was poking both of them out of a burrow and telling you to fuck off, or pointing a gun at you. Or a writ — ha! Worse still!”

He’d never heard Great-uncle Fimender talk so much. He wasn’t sure that Great-uncle Fimender was really talking to Uncle Slovius or to him or even to his two old-lady girlfriends because he wasn’t looking at any of them, he was looking at the picnic table hinged down from the seat in front, maybe looking at the glass and the decanter bottle on it, and looking sad. The two old-lady girlfriends patted him and one smoothed his hair which was very black indeed but still looked old.

“Prepping, they call it,” he said, maybe to himself or maybe to the picnic table. “Bloody kidnapping.” He snorted. “Putting people in their place, holding them there. Letting us build our dreams then puncturing them.” He shook his head, and drank from his shiny glass.

“Prepping?” Fass asked, to make sure he had the word right.

“Hmm? Oh, yes.”

“Well, it’s something that’s gone on for as long as anybody can remember,” Uncle Slovius said. He sounded gentle, and Fass wasn’t sure if Uncle Slovius was talking to him or to Great-uncle Fimender. He sort of half-listened while he pulled out one of the flier’s screens. If he’d been allowed to bring any toys he’d definitely have brought his BotPal and just asked, but now these damn adults were making him use a screen. He stared at the letters and numbers and things (Uncle Slovius and Great-uncle Fimender were still talking).

He didn’t want to have to talk, he wanted to tap-in like adults did. He tried a few buttons. After a while he got a lots-of-books symbol with a big kid standing next to it and an ear symbol. The big kid looked scruffy and was holding a drug bowl and his head was surrounded with lines and little moving satellites and flying birds. Oh well.

“Prepping,” he said, but pressed Text. The screen said:

Prepping. A very long-established practice, used lately by the Culmina amongst others, is to take a few examples of a pre-civilised species from their home world (usually in clonoclastic or embryonic form) and make them subject species\slaves\mercenaries\mentored so that when the people from their home world finally assume the Galactic stage, they are not the most civilised\advanced of their kind (often they’re not even the most numerous grouping of their kind). Species so treated are expected to feel an obligation to their so-called mentors (who will also generally claim to have diverted comets or otherwise prevented catastrophes in the interim, whether they have or not). This practice has been banned in the past when pan-Galactic laws (see Galactic Council) have been upheld but tends to reappear in less civilised times. Practice variously referred to as Prepping, Lifting or Aggressive Mentoring. Local-relevant terminology: aHuman rHuman (advanced and remainder Human).

And that was just the start. He scratched his head. Too many long words. And this wasn’t even an adult pedia. Maybe he should have found the not-so-big kids’ site.

They were landing. Wow! He hadn’t even noticed they were near the ground. The desert was covered with fliers of different sizes and there were lots in the air too and lots of people.

They got out and walked across the sand though a lot of people stayed in their fliers. He got to go on Uncle Slovius’s shoulders again.

Away in the distance in the centre of a big circle was a tower with a big blob on top and that was where the bad machine was which had been found hiding in a cave in the mountains and caught by the Cessoria. (The Cessoria and the Lustrals caught bad machines. He’d tried watching Lustral Patrol a few times but it was too much for old people with talk and kissing.)

The bad machine in the blob on top of the big tower was allowed to make a speech but it was too full of long words. He was getting bored and it was very hot. No toys! Uncle Slovius said “Shush’ at him, twice. He sort of tried to pretend-strangle Uncle Slovius with his thighs and knees to get back at him for going “Shush’ twice, but Uncle Slovius didn’t seem to notice. Mum and Dad were still talking quietly, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at each other as usual. Great-uncle Fimender and the two old-lady girlfriends had stayed in the flier.

Then Lustrals in a flier — humans and a whule like a big grey bat — said things, then at last it was time and the bad machine was killed but even that wasn’t very good, the blob on top of the tower just went red and made lots of smoke and then there was a big bright flash but not that big or bright and then there was a bang and bits fell down, with smoke, and some people cheered but mostly there was silence, just the bang being an echo round the mountains.

When they got back to the flier Great-uncle Fimender had very red eyes and said in his opinion they had just seen a terrible crime committed.

* * *

“Ah, young Taak. Now then, what is this nonsense about not being able to delve properly, by which of course one means remotely?”

Braam Ganscerel, Chief Seer of Sept Tonderon and therefore the most senior Seer of all — and Fassin’s future paterfamilias-in-law — was tall and thin and maned in white hair. He looked younger than he was, but then he was nearly seventeen hundred years old by the most obvious way of reckoning such matters. He had a sharp, angular face with a large nose, his skin was pale, waxy and translucent and his fingers and hands were long and fragile-seeming. He habitually walked and stood with his head back and chest out, as though he had long ago vowed not to appear stooped as he grew into great old age and had gone too far in the other direction. This curious stance meant that his head was angled so far back on his neck that he had no choice but to look down his splendidly monumental nose at those he talked with, to or at. He held two long shining black staffs as though just returned from — or about to set off for -some particularly fashionable ski slopes.

With his long, bunned white hair, pale complexion and simple but elegantly cut Seer robes — black puttees, pantaloons and long jacket — he contrived to look appealingly frail, sweetly elderly, breathtakingly distinguished and only a little less authoritative than a supreme deity.

He swept into the senior officers’ mess of the heavy cruiser Pyralis in a clatter of clicks from his twin staffs and boot heels, attended by a pale train of half a dozen junior Seers — half of them men, half of them women, all of them greyly deferential — and, bringing up the rear, the gangly, smiling form of Paggs Yurnvic, a Seer whom Fassin had helped teach but who, having spent less time subsequently in the slowness of actual delving than Fassin had, was now older in both adjusted time and appearance.

“Chief Seer,” Fassin said, standing and executing a formal nod that just avoided being a bow. The heavy cruiser was taking their party to Third Fury, the close-orbit moon of Nasqueron from which they would delve — either all remotely, or, if Fassin had his way, through a combination of remote and direct presences.

Braam Ganscerel had insisted that his years and frailty made a high-gee journey to the moon out of the question — esuits, life-pods and shock-gel notwithstanding — and so the ship was making a gentle standard one gee, creating what felt like about twice ’glantine’s gravity and a fraction less than Sepekte’s. Even this standard gee, Braam Ganscerel let it be known, necessitated that he use both his staffs to support himself. This was, however, in the current grave circumstances, a sacrifice he felt it was only right and proper and indeed required that he make. Fassin thought it made him look like a stilter, like a whule.

“Well?” the Chief Seer demanded, stopping in front of Fassin. “Why can’t you remote delve, Fassin? What’s wrong with you?”

“Fear, sir,” Fassin told him.

“Fear?” Braam Ganscerel seemed to experiment with putting his head even further back than it already was, found it was possible, and left it there.

“Fear of being shown up by you, sir, as a merely competent Slow Seer.”

Braam Ganscerel half-closed one eye. He looked at Fassin for a while. “You’re mocking me, Fassin.”

Fassin smiled. “I delve better direct, Braam. You know that.”

“I do,” Ganscerel said. He turned with a sort of staccato grace and let himself flop into the couch where Fassin had been sitting, watching screen news. Fassin sat too. Paggs perched on one arm of the next-nearest couch and the rest of Braam Ganscerel’s retinue sited themselves nearby according to some arcane pecking order.

Fassin nodded at Paggs. “Seer Yurnvic,” he said with a smile and a formality he hoped Paggs wouldn’t take seriously.

Paggs grinned. “Good to see you, Fass.” That was all right, then.

“However, we must do this together, I believe,” Braam Ganscerel said, looking ahead at the wall screen, where the news went silently on. The funerals were taking place of some more of the Navarchy people who’d died in the attack on the dock-habitat at Sepekte’s trailing Lagrange. Ganscerel had let one of his twin staffs rest on the couch beside him, but still held the other. He waved it at the screen and it obligingly went back to being a bulkhead again. The heavy cruiser’s senior officers’ mess was a large space, but much broken up by vertical columns and diagonal reinforcing struts. Like the rest of the vessel it was quite comfortable by human standards, though Colonel Hatherence had had to be content with a cabin that was extremely cramped for an oerileithe. She had been offered passage on an escorting cruiser with more suitable accommodation but had declined.

“We can be together,” Fassin said. “You and Paggs remotely, the Colonel and I directly. That way we’re backed up so if anything happens to either group—”

“Ah,” Ganscerel said. “You see, young Taak, this is the point. If we are all on Third Fury, with this fine vessel and its escort craft to protect us, we shall all be safe. You wish to take a tiny gascraft into the unending violence of the planet’s atmosphere. A dangerous enterprise at the best of times. In wartime, positively foolhardy.”

“Braam, the old portal was protected by an entire fleet and it still got blasted. Third Fury might move, but it moves very predictably. If somebody did want to attack it they could accelerate a small rock to just under light speed and send it on an intercept course. If that happens, the only way a heavy cruiser is going to help is if by some million-to-one chance it happens to be in the way at the time and takes the hit itself. As nobody’s going to surround the entire moon with a shell of ships, I think it’s unwise to rely on a few war craft to protect us from something there’s almost no defence against.”

“Why would anybody target a moonlet like Third Fury?” Paggs asked.

“Indeed,” Ganscerel said, as though he had been just about to ask that very question.

“No good reason,” Fassin said. “But then a lot of places there’s been no good reason to hit have been getting attacked recently.”

“This might well include Nasqueron itself,” Ganscerel pointed out.

“Which can absorb a lot more punishment than Third Fury.”

“You might still be targeted.”

“If I’m in there in a gascraft, even with Colonel Hatherence riding shotgun, I should be effectively untraceable,” Fassin told them.

“Unless,” Paggs said, “she’s supposed to be in constant touch with her superiors.”

“And that might be the real reason we are all expected to stay together on Third Fury, delving remotely,” Ganscerel said, sighing. He looked at Fassin. “Control. Or at least the illusion of it. Our masters are fully aware how important this mission is, even if they think themselves for the moment above explaining its precise nature to all who need to know. They are naturally terrified that if it goes wrong some of the blame will stick to them. Really, it is all up to us: a bunch of academics they’ve never particularly cared about or for, even though -’ Ganscerel looked round the assembled junior Seers “- being a centre of Dweller Studies represents the only thing which makes Ulubis in any way remarkable.” He directed his gaze on Fassin again. “There is very little they can do, therefore they will attend with extreme diligence to what trivial matters they are able to affect. With us all apparently safe on Third Fury protected by a small fleet of warships, they will feel they are doing all they can to assist us. If they let you go down into Nasqueron, and something does go wrong, they will be blamed. In that they are right.”

“It won’t work, Braam.”

“I think we have to try,” the older man said. “Look.” He patted Fassin’s arm. Fassin was dressed in his Shrievalty major’s uniform and feeling awkward amidst fellow Seers. “Have you tried remote delving recently?”

“Not for a long time,” Fassin admitted.

“It’s changed,” Paggs said, nodding. “It’s much more lifelike, if you know what I mean; more convincing.” Paggs smiled. “There have been a lot of improvements over the last couple of centuries. Largely thanks to the Real Delving movement, frankly.”

Oh, Paggs, flattery? Fassin thought.

Ganscerel patted his arm again. “Just try it, will you, Fassin? Will you do that for me?”

Fassin didn’t want to say yes immediately. This is all beside the point, he thought. Even if I didn’t know there was a potential threat to Third Fury, the argument that matters is that the Dwellers we need to talk to just won’t take us seriously if we turn up in remotes. It’s about respect, about us taking risks, sharing their world with them, really being there. But he mustn’t seem intransigent. Keep some arguments back; always have reserves. After a moment he nodded slowly. “Very well. I’ll do that. But only as a trial delve. A day or two. That’ll be enough to feel any difference. Then we have to make a final decision.” Ganscerel smiled. They all did.

They had a very pleasant dinner with the senior officers of the small fleet taking them to Third Fury.

Fassin got Ganscerel alone at one point. “Chief Seer,” he said. “I will do this remote delve, but if I feel it’s not good enough I’m going to have to insist on going direct.” He gave Ganscerel space to say something, but the old man just looked him in the eye, head thrown back. “I do have authority,” Fassin continued. “From the briefing, from Admiral Quile and the Complector Council. I realise it’s been compromised by people in-system coming to their own conclusions about the best way to tackle this problem, but if I think I need to, I’ll go as high and wide as I can to get my way.”

Ganscerel thought for a while, then smiled. “Do you think this delve — or delves, this mission — will be successful?”

“No, Chief Seer.”

“Neither do I. However, we must make the attempt and do all we can to make it successful, even so, and even though failure is probably guaranteed. We must be seen to do what we can, attempt not to offend those above us, and aim to protect the good name and the future prospects of the Slow Seers in general. These things we can definitely do. You agree?”

“So far, yes.”

“If you genuinely believe that you must delve directly, I shall not stand in your way. I shall not back you, either, because to do that in my position would be to tie myself too directly to a course of action I still regard as fundamentally foolhardy. In any other set of circumstances I would simply order you to do as your most senior Chief Seer tells you to do. However, you have been instructed from on high — from extremely on high -Fassin Taak, and that does alter things somewhat. However. Try this remote delve. You might be surprised. Then make your own mind up. I won’t stand in your way. The responsibility will be entirely yours. You have my full support in that.” With a wink, Ganscerel turned away to talk to the heavy cruiser’s captain.

Fassin reflected that being given full support had never felt so much like being hung out to dry.

The Pyralis blazed with its own trailed aurora as it entered the protective magnetombra of Third Fury, a little twenty-kilometre-wide ball of rock and metal orbiting just 120,000 kilometres above Nasqueron’s livid cloud tops. The gas-giant filled the sky, so close that its rotund bulk took on the appearance of a vast wall, its belts and zones of tearing, swirling, ever-eddying clouds looking like colossal contra-rotating, planet-wide streams of madly coloured liquid caught whirling past each other under perfectly transparent ice.

Third Fury had no appreciable atmosphere and only the vaguest suggestion of gravity. The heavy cruiser could almost have docked directly with the Seer base complex on the side of the little moon which always faced Nasqueron. However, a troop landing craft took them from one to the other. The Pyralis lay a few kilometres off, effectively another temporary satellite of the gas-giant. Its escort of two light cruisers and four destroyers took up station a few tens of kilometres further out in a complicated cat’s cradle of nested orbits around the moon, slim slow shadow shapes only glimpsed when they passed in front of the planet’s banded face.

Third Fury had been constructed, or converted, from an already existing moonlet, billions of years earlier, by one of the first species to pay homage at the court of the Nasqueron Dwellers. Given that Dwellers were the most widespread of the planet-based species of the galaxy, with a presence in almost all gas-giants — themselves the most common type of planets — the fact that out of those ninety million-plus Dweller-inhabited super-globes there were exactly eight with populations willing to play host to those wishing to carry on more than the most fleeting conversation with their inhabitants spoke volumes — indeed, appropriately, libraries — about their almost utter lack of interest in the day-to-day life of the rest of the galactic community.

It was, though, only almost utter; the Dwellers were not perfectly anything, including reclusive. They sought, gathered and stored vast quantities of information, albeit with no discernible logical system involved in the acquisition or the storage, and when quizzed on the matter seemed not only completely unable to present any obvious or even obscure rationale for this effectively mindless accumulation of data, but even genuinely puzzled that the question should be asked at all.

There had also, throughout recorded time — even discounting the notoriously unreliable records kept on such matters by the Dwellers themselves — always been a few of their populations available for discourse and informational trading, though this was invariably only granted on the eccentric and capricious terms of the Dwellers. Since the end of the First Diasporian Age, when the galaxy and the universe were both around two and a half billion years old, there had never been no working centres of Dwellers Studies, but in the following ten and a half billion years there had never been more than ten such centres operating at any one time either.

Acceptable companions came and went.

The Dwellers were of the Slow, the category of species that stuck around in a civilised form for at least millions of years. The people they let come and visit them and talk to them, and with whom they were prepared to trade information, were usually numbered amongst the Quick, the kind of species that often counted its time as a civilised entity in tens of thousands of years, and sometimes not even that long. The Dwellers would tolerate and talk to other Slow species as well, though normally on a less regular and frequent basis. The suspicion was that the Dwellers, for all their fabled patience — no species colonised the galaxy at speeds averaging less than one per cent of the speed of light (not counting stopovers) unless it was supremely patient — could get bored with the species that came to talk to them, and by selecting only those numbered amongst the Quick they ensured that they would never have to endure for too long a time the attentions of people they only looked forward to seeing the back of. Just wait a bit and — in a twinkling of an eye by Dweller standards — their troublesome guests would evolve out of nuisancehood.

For the last sixteen hundred years or so — barely half a Dweller eye-twinkling — humans had been adjudged as acceptable confidants for the Dwellers of Nasqueron in the system of Ulubis, their presence mostly tolerated, their company usually accepted, their safety almost always guaranteed and their attempts to talk to the Dwellers and mine their vast but defiantly imaginatively organised and indexed data shales met with only the most formal of obstructiveness, the lighter forms of derision and the least determinedly obfuscatory strategies.

That such playful coynesses, such nearly-too-small-to-measure diffidences and such gentle, barely-meriting-the-name hindrances appeared to the humans concerned to be obstacles of monumental scale, hideous complexity and inexhaustibly fiendish invention just went to show who’d been doing this for most of the lifetime of the universe and who for less than two thousand years.

Other approaches had, of course, been tried.

Bribing creatures who found the concept of money merely amusing tended to tax even the most enterprising and talented arbitrageur. The Dwellers clove to a system in which power was distributed, well, more or less randomly, it sometimes seemed, and authority and influence depended almost entirely on one’s age; little leverage there.

Alternatively, every now and again a species would attempt to take by force of arms what those involved in Dweller Studies attempted to wrest from the Dwellers by polite but dogged inquiry. Force, it had been discovered — independently, amazingly often — did not really work with Dwellers. They felt no pain, held their own continued survival (and that of others, given the slightest provocation) to be of relatively little consequence and seemed to embody, apparently at the cellular level, the belief that all that really mattered, ever, was a value unique to themselves which they defined as a particular kind of kudos, one of whose guiding principles appeared to be that if any outside influence attempted to mess with them they had to resist it to the last breath in the bodies of all concerned, regardless.

Dwellers were almost everywhere and had been there practically for ever. They had learned a few things about making war over that time, and while their war machines were believed to be as customarily unreliable — and eccentrically designed, built and maintained — as every other piece of technology they deigned to involve themselves with, that didn’t mean they weren’t deadly; usually for all concerned, and within a disconcertingly large volume.

Other species had prevailed against Dwellers on occasion. Entire planetary populations of them had been wiped out and whole gas-giants dismantled to provide the raw material for one of those monstrous megastructure projects that Quick species in particular seemed so keen on building, apparently just because they could. But the long-term results were, to date, inevitably unhappy.

Picking a fight with a species as widespread, long-lived, irascible and — when it suited them — single-minded as the Dwellers too often meant that just when — or even geological ages after when — you thought that the dust had long since settled, bygones were bygones and any unfortunate disputes were all ancient history, a small planet appeared without warning in your home system, accompanied by a fleet of moons, themselves surrounded with multitudes of asteroid-sized chunks, each of those riding cocooned in a fuzzy shell made up of untold numbers of decently hefty rocks, every one of them travelling surrounded by a large landslide’s worth of still smaller rocks and pebbles, the whole ghastly collection travelling at so close to the speed of light that the amount of warning even an especially wary and observant species would have generally amounted to just about sufficient time to gasp the local equivalent of “What the fu—?” before they disappeared in an impressive if wasteful blaze of radiation.

Retaliation, where it was still possible, and on the few occasions it had been tried, led without fail towards a horribly messy war of attrition, whereupon the realisation of the sheer scale of the Dweller civilisation (if one could even call it that) and its past — and therefore probably future — longevity more often than not had a sobering effect on whatever species had been unwise enough to set themselves against the Dwellers in the first place.

Attempting to hold your local Dweller population hostage in the hope of influencing another one — or a group of others — was an almost laughably lame and even counter-productive strategy. Dwellers of any given gas-giant thought little enough of their own collective safety; giving them an excuse to show how little solidarity they felt with any other group of their own kind only led to events of particular and spectacular grisliness, for all that the genetic and cultural variation between Dweller populations was much less than that displayed by any other galaxy-wide grouping.

The long, long-arrived-at consensus, particularly amongst those still nursing civilisational bruises from earlier encounters with what was arguably one of the galaxy’s most successful species, or those with the images of what had happened to others still fresh in their data banks, was that, on balance, it was best just to leave the Dwellers alone.

Left to themselves the Dwellers disturbed nobody except occasionally themselves and those who thought too deeply about what they really represented. Their history, after all, like that of the galaxy as a whole, was one of almost but not quite uninterrupted peace and tranquillity: billions and billions of years of thankfully nothing much happening at all. In over ten billion years of civilisation there had been only three major Chaoses and the number of genuine galaxy-spanning wars didn’t even make it into double figures. In base eight!

That was a record that the Dwellers seemed to feel everybody concerned ought to feel mildly proud of. Especially themselves.

“Welcome all! Chief Seer, good to see you! Seer Taak, Seer Yurnvic. Young friends. And this must be Colonel Hatherence. Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.” Duelbe, the bald, nearly spherical major-domo of the Third Fury Shared Facility, greeted them in the transit hall as the military troop carrier disengaged and turned back towards the Pyralis. A couple of the youngest Seers, who had patently never encountered the positively ball-like form of Duelbe before, stared. It was as a rule at such moments that comparisons regarding the similarity in shape of Third Fury and the major-domo of its Shared Facility came to mind. Happily, on this occasion, if they were thought they went unvoiced.

Servants took charge of luggage pallets. Hatherence shooed away retainers who offered to help her manoeuvre in the relatively confined space — the dome-like hall, like the rest of the mostly underground facility, had been rebuilt on a human scale since the departure of the last species to be granted Seer status, with little spatial concession to other, effectively larger species. Colonel Hatherence was happy to float where she could without assistance, thank you, using trim-vanes on the outside of her discus of esuit to propel her from place to place.

“Ah!” Braam Ganscerel announced loudly, bouncing along the hall’s floor in long floating strides, idly fending himself off the ceiling above with casual prods of one staff like some strangely graceful, if inverted, pole vaulter. “That’s better! One rarely appreciates gravity so much as when faced with so little of it, eh, Duelbe?”

The major-domo smiled broadly, even though Fassin knew he must have heard the old man say this a dozen times or more. The retinue of junior Seers apparently hadn’t, and gave every impression of being barely able to contain their hearty guffaws within their aching sides.

The three double discs soared above a great curved canyon of cloud sliced deep within what looked like a convex bank of blood-red snow a hundred kilometres high. Much further above, a sky of rushing yellow streamers afforded brief glimpses of a wanly cerise sky, dotted with the spike-points of stars and, occasionally, a single, visibly sky-crossing moon like a soft brown snowball. The formation of flying machines curved across towards the blood-red bank of vapour and disappeared into it.

Senses shifted. He felt himself reaching out with a slick effortlessness into mag and rad, grav-grad and radio, pulling in a composite picture of his environment thousands of kilometres in diameter and hundreds deep, placing him with pin-sharp clarity in a great reticulated accumulation of magnetic fields, radiation and gravitational gradient, all overlaid on the wide-light image still available and the jelly-like ghost-vista of sound-scape.

Still taking the lead from Paggs, leading the trio, they dived towards a sharp thermocline coming into view a dozen klicks down.

They flew out into a wide bubble of relative sight-clarity, then into a squall of water snow. They dived deeper, through a band of pressure and temperature where water rain fell, pattering hard against the skins of their whirling double discs, then on down, down into even wide-light darkness, down to the warm hydrogen slush where the discs floated like giant double-cone yo-yos, bobbing, steaming, flickering signals to each other.

· So, what do you think, young Taak? Good to be home?

· A fascinating experience, Fassin agreed. — We’re, what? He double checked his internal navigation instrumentation. — Two equatorial sats along and a band up?

· Now, Fass, Paggs began.

· So if I do this — Fassin sent, and lunged his double disc towards Paggs’s. Paggs had guessed what was coming and already started to move away, flinching backwards and up. Fassin’s machine seemed to dart towards the other Seer’s remote craft, then draw back, stopping just short of where Paggs’s machine had been. — You’ve got just enough time to get out of the way, Fassin pointed out reasonably.

· Seer Taak… Braam Ganscerel began.

· Whereas if I did something similar on the far side of the planet, Fassin continued, — at the far end of a whole chain of sats, the best part of a full light second away even without any processing delays, we might both now be listening to our remotes telling us that, at best, I just voided their warranties.

· Fassin, Ganscerel sent with a sigh. — I think we’re all aware of the speed of light and the diameter of the planet. And these remotes are anyway not completely stupid, or unprotected. They have an extremely sophisticated collision-avoidance system built into them. One we had to clear specifically with your friends in the Shrievalty to have built in, it’s so close to… to being clever.

· But if a Dweller points a laser at you for fun, Fassin asked,

— just to see if you’ll flinch, what good is any collision-avoid-ance system to you then?

· Perhaps, Ganscerel suggested mellowly, — one ought not to mix with the kind of Dweller who would be likely to act in such a manner in the first place.

Except they’re the ones that are most likely to share interesting stuff with you, old man, not the desiccated, harmless but clueless pixie-brains you tend to spend your time flattering, Fassin thought. He was fairly certain that it was just a thought. People always worried that in theory in VR you might say something you only meant to think, but he wasn’t so rusty in the techniques of remote delving that he was truly concerned. It might, anyway, even do Braam Ganscerel some good to hear a few politely unspeakable things now and again.

· Perhaps, indeed, Chief Seer, was all he said.

· Hmm. Let’s step out, shall we?

They returned to the reality of a remote-send suite buried deep in the Third Fury Facility, blinking in the light as technicians helped to unclip them from the couches, pushing themselves forward to clear the half-domes of the NMR assemblages, handing back earpieces and simple black velvet blindfolds, flexing and stretching as though they’d been under for a genuinely long delve rather than a mere hour or so at a one-to-one time ratio.

Paggs worked his fingers, undoing the last couple of soft tabs that connected him to the thin pneumo-tubes which had both sensed his movements and would have prevented him from throwing himself right off the couch in the event that he’d performed any especially energetic actions.

Ganscerel lay with his eyes closed, breathing deeply and letting the technicians detach him from the machinery.

Paggs glanced over. “Are we convincing you at all, Fass?”

“You’re convincing me it’s even easier to remote delve these days than it used to be.” Fassin levered himself from the couch with the steady application of force from one small finger and let himself float very gently towards the floor. “I would have taken your word for it.”

“So, you only got one-third of the volumes concerned, young Taak,” Ganscerel said.

Fassin was giving a very private briefing in an engineering store off the secondary ship hangar. Ganscerel had wanted it conducted in his quarters but there wasn’t a way of squeezing the colonel in there. Present were Fassin, Ganscerel, Paggs and Colonel Hatherence. Fassin wanted them each to know as much as he did — or at least as much as he thought they ought to know — about what he had found on his long-ago delve and what they would be looking for on the one they were hoping to begin the following day.

“Yes,” he said. “I traded some high-definition images of Earth Twentieth-Century European Expressionist paintings for -amongst a lot of other stuff — what was catalogued as a tri-trans-lated text of a pre-Third Chaos Lutankleydar epic poem, a private, unpublished work by — or perhaps commissioned by -a Doge of the Enigmatics. It was all double-encrypted and compressed but it was known to be in three volumes. I got three volumes from Valseir, only — as it turned out years later, when it was finally de-mangled by the Jeltick — what I’d been given wasn’t Volumes One, Two and Three. It was Volume One, three times over, in three separate languages. And it wasn’t by an Enigmatic Doge either.

“One of the volumes was in a previously known but untranslatable Penumbral language from the time of the Summation. When the translation was made it acted as a Rosetta; gave the key to a lot of other stuff, and that sidetracked everybody for a while. Then some pin-eyed Jeltick scholar spotted a note at the end, buried in the appendices in a crude but related slang-language, obviously added later, but not much later, that basically said the whole thing had been written during the Long Crossing of the Second Ship, by an Outcast Dweller skilled in the Penumbral language, and that, yes, of course there was a Dweller List, they — the ship, or its crew — had the key to it, and it would be included in Volume Two or Three of this epic poem. It was also, of course, in the ship, and the ship was heading for the Zateki system. That’s why the Jeltick sent an expedition straight there as soon as they had the translation.”

“Why not come here, to Nasqueron, where they might have found the Third Volume?” Paggs asked, smiling.

“Because the Shrievalty hadn’t told them where the data had come from. Whether this was oversight or deliberate we haven’t been told. The Jeltick may have guessed it was from a Dweller Studies centre but they couldn’t be sure whether it was or not and, if so, which one. They probably did start making inquiries, but they didn’t want to alert anybody else to the importance of what they had. Don’t forget, the information had been copied and re-copied — it was lying about in data reservoirs all over the civilised galaxy. Quite possibly people had even already translated and read the main text but just hadn’t got round to the appendices, where the all-important note was. The slightest hint that there was anything of strategic interest in that tranche and everybody else would have dusted it off, read it and — bang — the Jeltick would have lost their edge. So they fuelled and tooled and set sail for Zateki instead.”

“This could all be a hoax, you know,” Ganscerel said, snorting. He adjusted his robes, frowning deeply. “Ido believe I detect the laboured and tortuous signature of Dweller humour here. This could just be a joke at the expense of anyone foolish enough to fall for it.”

“It could indeed, sir,” Fassin agreed. “But we have our orders and we have to make the effort, just in case it is all true.”

“So we are looking for the remaining two volumes of this… what is it called, exactly?” Colonel Hatherence asked.

“Best translation,” Fassin said, “is, The Algebraist. It’s all about mathematics, navigation as a metaphor, duty, love, longing, honour, long voyages home… all that stuff.”

“And what is or was this Long Crossing?” Ganscerel asked irascibly. “I haven’t heard of it.”

“The voyage back home from what humans used to call the Triangulum Nebula,” Fassin said, with a small smile.

“Well,” Ganscerel said, frowning once more. “We are not really much further forward, are we? And what, pray, do we call the Triangulum Nebula now, Seer Taak?”

“We call it the Lost Souls II Galaxy, Chief Seer. The crossing was called the Long Crossing because it took thirty million years. The outward journey allegedly took almost no time, because it was conducted through an intergalactic wormhole, the portal location of which is amongst those included in the Dweller List.”

Hervil Apsile, Master Technician of the Third Fury Shared Facility, ran the ultrasonic hand-held over the gascraft’s starboard nacelle one more time, smiling with some satisfaction at the smooth line on the screen. Above his head, one of the Shared Facility’s drop ships stood on extended legs, a squat lifting-body shape, hold doors open. To one side, the main hangar’s transparent dome showed a vast darkness, fitfully illuminated by long lighting flashes like sheets of tipped diamond catching the light of a dim blue sun.

“Checking for scrits, Hervil?” Fassin asked, approaching by bounce along the fused-rock floor.

Apsile grinned at the sound of Fassin’s voice but watched the hand-held’s screen until he’d got to the end of the seam he was inspecting. He switched the machine off and turned to Fassin. “Just the standard varieties detected so far, Seer Taak.”

Scrits were the almost certainly mythical creatures which Dwellers blamed when anything went badly wrong anywhere in their vicinity. The humans who had lately taken up the baton of Dweller Studies had adopted early on the idea of scrits to account for the high degree of malfunctions any interaction with — or indeed near — the Dwellers seemed to involve. It was either that or accept that the Dwellers’ endemic technological carelessness and congenital lack of enthusiasm for keeping machinery in reliably working order was somehow contagious.

Fassin patted the dark flank of the fat, arrowhead-shaped gascraft. This was his own machine, designed specifically for and partly by Fassin himself. It was about five metres long, four across the beam if you included the outboard manoeuvring nacelles and a little under two metres in height. Its smooth form was broken only by the shut lines of its various manipulators and manoeuvring impellers, a few sensor bulges, and the rear power assembly, vanes currently stowed. Fassin rubbed his hand over its port tail fin. “All prepped and ready, Herv?”

“Entirely,” Apsile said. He was Nubianly black, slim but muscled, sleekly bald. Only a few lines round his eyes made him look remotely as old as he was, which was very. Every year or so, before his annual depilatory treatment — he thought gene treatment too invasive — a white micro-stubble would start to appear on his scalp, giving his head the appearance of a bristling star field. “And you?” he asked.

“Oh, prepped and ready too,” Fassin told him. He’d just come from the day’s final briefing, with the Dweller Current State people. It was their challenging brief to try and keep abreast of what was going on in the sheer and utter chaos that was Dweller society and, as a sideline, keep track of where the major Dweller structures, institutions and — especially — Individuals Of Interest were at any given moment.

The news was not good: a formal war was brewing between Zone two and Belt C, at least one long-term storm structure between Zone one and Belt D was collapsing while two were building elsewhere, and the movements of IOIs recently had been particularly fluid. One might even say capricious. As for the whereabouts of choal Valseir, well. Nobody had seen anything of the fellow for centuries.

Dwellers had always been hard to follow. In the past people had tried setting drone remotes on individuals to keep tabs on them. However, Dwellers regarded this as a gross intrusion on their privacy and had an uncanny ability to spot and destroy any such platforms, micro-gascraft or bugs, no matter how small or clever they were. Dwellers also sulked. When people had the temerity to try anything so underhand, cooperation was withdrawn. Sometimes over an entire population. Sometimes for years.

The Slow Seers of Nasqueron had a pretty good relationship with the local Dwellers. By Dweller Studies standards it was almost close, but only because the Seers tried to interfere as little as possible with Dweller life. In return the Dwellers were relatively cooperative, and broadcast a daily update on the location of their most important cities, structures and institutions. This eight-and-a-bit-hourly bulletin was a byword for trustworthiness — almost a legend — in Dweller Studies, on occasion approaching accuracy rates of very nearly ninety per cent. “Things fine with Sept Bantrabal?” Apsile asked. “All well. Slovius sends his regards.” Fassin had talked to his uncle a few hours earlier, still trying to persuade him to leave the Autumn House. The time delay between Third Fury and ’glantine made a normal conversation just about possible. He’d caught up with Jaal too, on the other side of ’glantine, at her Sept’s Spring House. Life appeared relatively normal back on ’glantine, the new Emergency affecting people there less than it seemed to on Sepekte.

Apsile flicked a roll-screen from his sleeve and tapped a few patches. He looked casually up at the lifter ship poised above the little gascraft, ready to accept the smaller vessel inside its open hold and take it down to the gas-giant’s atmosphere. Fassin followed the Master Technician’s gaze. He looked at a dark shape already hanging inside the cargo space, protruding downwards from it like a thick wheel. He frowned. “That looks a lot like Colonel Hatherence,” he said.

“Not many places she’ll fit,” muttered Apsile. “Eh?” A voice bellowed. Then, quieter: “My name? Oh. Yes, that’s me. Seer Taak. Major Taak, I should say. Hello. Sorry; asleep. Well, you know, one does. Thought I’d try out this space here for size. Fits very well, must say. I shall be able to be transported to the atmosphere of Nasqueron most ably by this vessel, if needs be. Well, so I think. Think you so too, Master Technician?”

Apsile smiled broadly, revealing teeth as jet as his skin. “I think so too, ma’am.”

“There we are agreed, then.” The giant hanging discus dropped fractionally from its mountings inside the delta-shaped transporter, so that it could turn and twist towards them. “And so. Major Taak. How goes your attempt to persuade Chief Seer Braam Ganscerel that you ought to be allowed to delve directly?”

Fassin smiled. “It goes like a long-term delve, colonel; exceeding slow.”

“A pity!”

Apsile thumbed a patch on his roll-screen, clicked the screen back into his sleeve and nodded at the little gascraft. “Well, she’s ready. Want to put her up?” he asked.

“Why not?” It had become something of a tradition that Apsile and Fassin lifted the craft into the carrier. They stooped, took an end each and — very slowly at first — hoisted the arrowhead into the space above, letting their feet lift off the floor at the end to slow it down. The gascraft weighed next to nothing in Third Fury’s minuscule gravity, but it massed over two tonnes and the laws regarding inertia and momentum still applied. They were carried three metres up inside the drop ship’s hold, towards the opened arms of the waiting gascraft cradle. The Colonel’s esuit took up the space of two of the little gascraft, but that still left room for another five in the drop ship’s hold. The arrowhead snicked into place alongside the tall discus that held Colonel Hatherence. Satisfied that the arrowhead was correctly fastened in, the two men let themselves fall back to the floor. The colonel drifted down alongside them.

Fassin looked up at the sleek lines of the gascraft. How small it looks, he thought. Tiny space to spend years in… decades in… even centuries… They landed. Apsile, more experienced, got his knee-flex just right; Fassin bounced.

The giant esuit had to tilt to clear the carrier ship’s opened hold doors, toppling then coming upright again with a burr of vanes and a whoosh of air. “Imust say I myself would prefer to enter the atmosphere directly, that is to say, in fact. Indeed, in reality,” the colonel shouted.

“Yes,” Fassin said. “I would too, colonel.”

“Good luck in that!” the oerileithe boomed.

“Thank you,” Fassin said. “I suspect good luck will be necessary, if not sufficient.”

A few hours later he had just about enough time to reflect that it was bad luck which produced the opportunity they had both been looking for, before he had to flee for his life.

* * *

The others persuaded him eventually. Thay, Sonj and Mome were all going. Why not him? Not nervous, surely? Maybe just too lazy?

He wasn’t nervous or — quite — that lazy. He just wanted to stay back at the nest and bland with K, who was coming to the end of a tream, socked into a traumalyser and a linked-up subsal. She floated, lightly tethered, in the gentle stream blowing out of the air chair, slim graceful body semi-foetal, arms waving, her long, end-tied chestnut hair blossoming above her like a cobra hood, wrapping over her head then wafting back again. The NMR net was like a hand with twenty-plus slim silver fingers grasping her head from the back. The subsal’s transparent tube disappeared into a tiny neuro-taplet just behind her left earlobe. K’s eyes moved languidly behind their lids and her face seemed set in a smile.

At this stage, coming out of a long tream, it was as though she had been diving in some abyssal depths and was now swimming slowly back in through a few kilometres of sunlit shallows. You could wade out to meet the person coming in without surrendering yourself to the whole para-lucid chemical-NMR-holo-induced dream state, you could sort of snorkel with them while they still gilled, heading for the beach that was mundane reality.

· Hey, Fass! she’d sent when he first dipped in to join her, slipping on a small NMR collar and becoming part of the slowly evaporating tream. She’d been away for a day and a half; a long one. — You came to meet me? Thanks, part!

· Have fun? he asked.

— More than fun. Guess where I’ve been?

He sent a shrug. — Faintest.

— I did a delve! I treamed a delve like Seers do, into Nasqueron! Well, it wasn’t really Nasq, it was another gas-giant called Furenasyle. That’s where the chip must have been templated. You heard of Furenasyle?

· Yeah, it’s another place they do Dweller Studies. So you treamed you were there? Delving, yeah?

· Surely did. You make it sound so amazing. And, Fass, it was great! Best tream… well, second-best tream I’ve ever had! K sent a kind of complicit, sexy smirk in his direction. He guessed the tream she was referring to. They’d experienced it together. A love-tream, a joint immersion in what they felt for each other. Well, supposedly. Love treams were tacky in some ways — you could still lie about your feelings in them, and if you selected the right template from the traumalyser device and suitable accompanying chemicals from the subsal, you could pretty much guarantee a tream of surpassing, wide-eyed heart-throbbing bliss even between two people who basically hated each other. But it had been good, between the two of them. Good, but not something that he’d wanted to do again. He supposed he was suspicious of the whole Virtual Reality experience, and treaming, especially with a synched-in subsal providing appropriate synthesised chemicals for delivery to the brain, was the most immersive VR you could find. Legally or semi-legally, anyway.

· You should try it! Really! It would be like practice, don’t you think?

· I suppose. If delving is what I’m going to end up doing. I take it you’d recommend it.

· If it’s like that, sure!

Sure was what he was not. He was still young, still undecided. Should he become a Slow Seer, like everybody seemed to expect him to become, even including the people he shared the nest with on Hab 4409 (’The Happy Hab!’)? Or should he do something else entirely? He still didn’t know. The very fact that everybody thought he would become a Seer eventually, after a few wild years — and these were surely wild years, not something that you ever imagined could go on for ever or even for very long — made him all the more determined not to do what was expected of him… well, maybe “determined’ was too strong a word, he admitted. Reluctant. Made him more reluctant. He supposed that was better. Still, he might surprise them all. He might go off and do something entirely, utterly and excitingly different. He just had to experience Jots of different things until he found the right thing, was all.

· Listen, I’m probably going with the others to the protest.

Well, unless you need me, you know…

· Good for you! I don’t mind. You go. I’d come too, but I need to ramp out of this shallow. That last time I steeped really crawled. Ugh!

— Okay. See you.

— Later, part!

He left the nest.

The nest — a low-gee pod of forty or so mostly small spherical rooms housing a kind of commune of (all human) gappers, nopers, treamers, trustafarians, zealers and zonkers — was in a big bunch of living spaces up near the hab’s long axis, near the (rather arbitrarily termed) “west’ end, not far beneath the suntube. The nest allegedly belonged to the mother of one of the trustafarians, though unofficially it was the Immaturian People’s Republic of Whateverness (and had semi-official paperwork and software to prove it, too).

Hab 4409 was one of a few hundred thousand habitats orbiting Sepekte. It was average size, a cylinder of re-formed asteroid material fifty kilometres long and ten across, spinning to create about two-thirds of a gee at its internal diameter surface. It turned in the unending sunlight like a giant garden roller flattening photons. Two twelve-kilometre mirror-lens systems — one at either end — faced Ulubis star like a pair of vast, unbearably thin flowers. Further mirror complexes funnelled the captured sunlight through two windows of diamond sheet into the hab’s long axis, where a final set of mirrors — moving up and down the suntube to create something like the feel of a planetary day — finally directed the light towards the internal surface. Or at least finally directed the light towards the internal surface if there wasn’t something like one of the grape-bunch-like nest complexes in the way (more mirrors).

Many more people lived in the habs than lived on planets in the system and most of the habs were somewhere near Sepekte. Hab 4409 had been a fairly liberal, free-flowing, laissez-faire, who-cares kind of place almost since its inception — as part of a horrendously intricate incumbent species asset-swap write-off dodge — two millennia earlier. Even its ultimate ownership had never fully been settled, and several generations of lawyers had gone to their plush retirements — having followed the saga of Hab 4409’s provenance and title since their days as articled clerks — still lacking a sense of closure re the above.

So the place attracted drifters, artists, misfits, natural exiles, political and other eccentrics and slightly deranged or badly messed-up people of more or less every sort, and always had. Most were from Ulubis but some were more exotic and from further afield, generally trustafarians and-or gappers portaling in from the rest of the Mercatoria, taking time out between education and responsibility to relax a little. The place produced good art, it was an unofficial — but tax-deductible — finishing school for the aforesaid children of the rich (give the darling brats true freedom and let them see how empty it was, was the idea), it was a way station for those heading out to disgrace or back from perdition, and it was a halfway house for those who might or might not ever again contribute anything useful to society but who just might galvanise it fundamentally. (And, if you wanted to be really paranoid about stuff, it was — as far as the authorities were concerned — a relatively easy-to-watch and even easier-to-close-down sump for dangerous ideas: a radical trap.) It was useful, in other words. It fulfilled a purpose, if not several. In a society as large as that which existed around Ulubis, somewhere had to provide that sort of service.

People were people. Some would always be straight, some would always be a bit twisted, but they all had some sort of part to play, and they were all in some sense valuable, were they not?

But now the fucking Mercatoria, the fucking Ascendancy or fucking Omnocracy, or whatever they fucking were, the fucking Hierchon (more likely, one of his new rotational crop of advisers who saw a way to make some money and gain some extra power), or the Peregal below him or Apparitor below him or just the Diegesian gimplet who was actually nominally the governor or mayor or whatever he was supposed to fucking be (his post, his presence and his protecting bully boys only here at all thanks to an earlier dispute over who controlled what, resulting in a grubby, century-old compromise), anyway the fucking big boys, the fucking people who owned fucking everything or thought some fucker ought to own fucking everything had decided, decreed, deemed that proprietorship of the whole fucking place — and that of lots of other similar habs in similar situations of disputed\uncertain\dubious\happily contingent ownership — should pass to what they called a properly accredited and responsible authority. Which basically meant them. Or if not them, their chums. Somebody who took things like ownership and rent-gathering and petty law-enforcement and so on seriously. It was the law-makers, the law-givers, being outlaws, and it would not be allowed to stand, it would not be allowed to pass, it would not go unchallenged, it would not go into the local statutes without a serious fucking challenge. These people, for whatever fuckwit reason, were destroying part of what was good about the habs, about Sepekte-Orbit, about Ulubis system, about the society they were all in the end a part of. Ultimately they were being stupid and self-destructive, and all that was required was that the people who could see all this clearly — because they were right here, at the sharp end, at the cutting edge — pointed this out to them. They were all on the same side in the end, it was just that sometimes the fuckers in authority got too far away from the reality of life as the mass of people lived it, and that was when you had to make a stand, make a point and make yourself heard.

So they went to the protest, down the friction tubes and the bungees and along the tramways to the central plaza and the makings of a great crowd.

“You just have to think about it,” Mome said as they walked the last street into the plaza. “The Beyonders never attack habs, never attack whole cities, never attack anything big and easy and defenceless. They attack the military and the authorities and big infrastructure stuff. Their attacks, their violence, their military strategy is a discourse amenable to analysis if one is prepared to approach it shorn of propagandistic preconceptions. And the message is clear: their argument, their war is with the Mercatorial system, with the Ascendancy and the Omnocracy and the Administrata and not with the common people, not with us.”

“Resent being called common!” Sonj protested. “Erring on the side of generosity including you in the category ‘people’, Sonj,” Mome shot back. Mome was a little guy, pale, intense and always slightly hunched, as though perpetually preparing either to pounce or duck. Sonj was huge; a big bumbling dark brown geezer of changeable moods and intensely curly short red hair who only looked at home or even slightly graceful in low gee.

“Doesn’t necessarily make them the good guys,” Fassin insisted.

“Makes them people open to reason, people capable of indulging in meaningful dialogue,” Mome said. “Not just mad fuckers to be put down like vermin, which is pretty much what we’re told they are.”

“So what’s stopping them talking to us?” Fassin asked.

“Us,” Mome said. “Takes two to talk.”

They all looked at him. Mome was known to talk a lot. Sometimes to audiences who had, basically, long since fallen asleep. He shrugged.

“My cousin Lain—” Thay said.

“Another one?” Mome asked, feigning incredulity.

“Sister of cousin Kel, half-sister of cousin Yayz,” Thay explained patiently. She was Sonj’s part, also generously made; awkward in low gee but bouncily agile on the hab’s internal surface at two-thirds of a gee. “My cousin Lain,” she continued determinedly, “the one in the Navarchy, says that she reckons the reason the Beyonders attack so much at all is because if they don’t the Navarchy and the Summed Fleet goes after them. And we don’t just attack military stuff. She says we hit their habs. Kill millions of them. Lot of offs unhappy with—”

“Lots of whats unhappy with?” Mome asked.

“Lots of offs,” Thay repeated.

“I got the word,” Mome repeated with a sigh, “I just didn’t get the meaning.” He snapped his fingers. “Wait. Short for ‘officers’, right?”

“Correct.”

“Brilliant. Carry on.”

“Lot of offs unhappy with this,” Thay said again, “so the “yonds — the Beyonders — just attack us to keep us on the defensive.” She nodded once. “That’s what my cousin Lain says.”

“Ayee! Crazy “yonding talk,” Mome said, putting his hands over his ears. “Get us all arrested.” They laughed.

“At least we have the freedom to say this sort of thing,” Fassin pointed out.

Mome did his special Hollow Laugh.

In the central plaza, Fassin greeted people, drank in the sense of solidarity and slightly edgy fun — lots of inventive costumes, towering floss-sculptures and buzzing balloonderers (trailing slogan banners, yelling chants and scattering narconfetti) — but still felt oddly apart from it all. He looked up and around, ignoring for the moment the people — mostly human — and the circle of domed and gleaming buildings.

The hab was a giant, verdant city rolled up into a spinning tube, with small hills and many lakes and criss-cross avenues between low-rise hanging-garden apartments and winding rivers and spindly towers, some arched like bows and reaching all the way up to the suntube, where they curved — or needle-eyed -round to meet towers on the far side. Bunches of nests -surrounded by mirrors, trailed with friction tubes like jungle creepers — clustered near the long axis, and dirigiblisters floated like strange, semi-transparent clouds beneath them.

Then Fassin heard some sort of shout at one edge of the crowd, nearest the palace of the Diegesian, which was the focus for the protest. He might have smelled something strange, but then that was probably just one of the cruising balloonderers disseminating some drug that Fassin’s immedio-immune system hadn’t recognised. Then he realised maybe it wasn’t, because all the balloonderers dropped suddenly, as one, out of the air. Also, the sun in the suntube went out. Which never happened. He heard lots of odd noises, some of which might have been screaming. It seemed to get cold very quickly. That was odd too. People were hitting him, with their shoulders mostly, as they went running past him, then they were falling over him, and he realised he was Fassin?, realised he was Fassin lying down, then he was Fassin getting hit again, but he was Fassin trying to get up and stand again, and he was Fassin, he was Fassin, he was on his knees and he was Fassin just about to get up from his knees onto his feet — swaying, feeling very strange, wondering what all the people were doing lying down around him — when — Fassin — he was knocked down again. By a man in armour, steel grey, with a big trunchbuster club and no face and a couple of little buzz-drones at each shoulder, spraying gas and making a high, terrible keening noise that he — Fassin! — wanted to get away from, but his nose and eyes and everything else stung and hurt and he didn’t know what to do, he was Fasssin! just standing there and the guy with the big club thing as long as a spear came up to him and he Fasssin? stupidly thought he might ask him what was going on and what was wrong with Faaassssiiinnn? wrong when the man swept his club-spear trunchbuster thing round and into his face, knocking some teeth out and sending him spinning to “Fassin?”

His name finally jolted him awake. “Back with us? Good.”

The speaker was a small man in a large chair across a cramped-looking metal desk. The room — or whatever — was too dark to see into, even with IR. The sound of the man’s voice in the space suggested it was not a big space. Fassin was aware that his face and especially his mouth hurt. He tried to wipe his mouth. He looked down. His hands could not move because his forearms were — he tried to think of the right word — shackled? They were shackled to the seat he was sitting in. What the hell was this? He started laughing.

Somebody hit him in his bones. It was like his entire skeleton was a wind chime and his flesh and muscles and organs were somewhere else, only nearby but still connected somehow and some fucker — actually, some very large group of fuckers — had taken a whole load of hammers and whacked each one of his bones really hard at the same time. The pain went almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving just a weird sort of echo in his nerves.

“What the fuck was zhat?” he asked the little man. His voice sounded comical with some of his teeth knocked out. His tongue probed the gaps. Felt like two out, one loose. He tried to remember how long it took adult teeth to grow back. The little man was quite a jolly-looking soul, with a plump, amused-seeming face and chubby, rosy cheeks. His hair was black, cropped. He wore a uniform of a type that Fassin didn’t recognise. “Are you shucking torturing me?” Fassin asked.

“No,” the little man said in a very reasonable tone of voice. “I’m just doing this to get your attention.” One of his hands moved on the desk’s surface.

Fassin’s bones clattered as though played upon again. His nerves, having experienced this twice now, decided that really this was no joke, and in fact felt extremely sore.

“All right! All right!” he heard himself saying. “Itake the shucking point. Fucking point,” he said, working out how to adapt his pronunciation to his new dental layout.

“Don’t swear,” the little man said, and hurt him again.

“Okay!” he screamed. His head hung. Snot dripped from his nose, saliva and blood from his mouth.

“Please don’t swear,” the little man said. “It indicates an untidy mind.”

“Just tell me what the f — what you want,” Fassin said. Was this real? Had he been in some sort of weird VR dream ever since he’d joined K for the coming-out-of-the-shallows end-of-tream thing earlier? Was this what happened when you got tream templates cheap, or illegally copied or something? Was this real? It felt painful enough to be real. He looked down at his legs and the hems of his shorts, all covered in blood and mucus and snot. He could see individual hairs on his legs, some standing, some plastered to his skin. He could see pores. Didn’t that mean it was real? But of course it didn’t. Treams, simcasts, VR, all depended on the fact that the mind could really only concentrate on one thing at a time. The rest was illusion. Human sight, the most complicated sense the species possessed, had been doing that for millions of years, fooling the mind behind the eyes. You thought you had colour vision, and in some detail, over this wide angle but really you didn’t; accurate colour vision was concentrated within a tiny part of the visual field, with only vague, movement-wary black-and-white awareness extending over the rest.

The brain played tricks on itself to pretend that it saw as well away from the centre of its visual target as it did right at that bull’s-eye. Smart VR used that same deception; zoom in on a detail and it would be created for you in all its pinpoint exactitude, but everything else you weren’t attending to with such concentration could safely be ignored until your attention swung that way, keeping the amount of processing power within acceptable limits.

Fassin dragged his attention away from his blood-spattered leg. “Is this real?” he asked.

The little man sighed. “Mr Taak,” he said, glancing down at a screen, “your profile indicates that you are from a respectable family and may one day even become a useful member of society. You shouldn’t be mixing and living with the sort of people you have been mixing and living with. You’ve all been very foolish and people have suffered because of that stupidity. You’ve been living in a kind of dream, really, and that dream is now over. Officially. I think you ought to go back home. Don’t you?”

“Where are my friends?”

“Mr Iifilde, Mr Resiptiss, Ms Cargin and Ms Hohuel?”

Fassin just stared at him. Shit, in all the last few months he’d been staying here he’d only known them by their first names. He supposed those were Thay, Sonj and Mome’s last names, but really he’d no idea. And there had been four, hadn’t there? Did that mean they were counting K as well? But she hadn’t been to the protest.

“They’re being held elsewhere, or they’ve been processed and released, or we’re still looking for them.” The little man smiled.

Fassin looked down at his arms, held within metal hoops. He tried to move his legs, then leaned over and looked down. His legs were shackled too. Or manacled or whatever. His mouth felt very odd. He ran his tongue round where his teeth had been, checking again. He supposed he’d have to get false ones until the new ones grew back. Or sport a piratical grin. “Why am I being treated like this?” he asked.

The little man looked incredulous. He appeared to be about to hurt Fassin again, then shook his head in exasperation. “Because you took part in a violent demonstration against the Diegesian, that’s why!” he said.

“But I wasn’t violent,” Fassin said.

“You personally may not have been. The demonstration you took part in most certainly was.”

Fassin would have scratched his head. “Is that all it takes?”

“Of course!”

“Who started the violence?” he asked.

The little man jerked his arms out to each side. His voice went very high. “Does it matter?”

Fassin had meant which side, but he could tell the little man thought he’d meant which demonstrator. He sighed. “Look, I just want to get back to my friends, to my nest. Can I go? I didn’t do anything, I got my teeth knocked out, I can’t tell you anything, or… anything…’ he said. He sighed again.

“You can go when you sign this.” The little man swivelled the screen around so Fassin could see. He looked at what he was supposed to sign, and at the fingerprint pad and camera patches on the screen which would record that it had really been him signing (or, more to the point, make a fake document take up a fraction more storage space).

“I can’t sign this,” he said. “It basically says my friends are all Beyonder agents and deserve death.”

The little man rolled his eyes. “Read it carefully, will you? It just says you have suspicions in that regard. You don’t seriously think your word would be enough to convict anybody of anything, do you?”

“Well then, why get me to—?”

“We want you to betray them!” the little man shouted, as though it was the most obvious thing ever. “We want you to turn your back on them and become a productive member of society. That’s all.”

“But they’re my friends.” Fassin coughed, swallowed. “Look, could I get a drink of water?”

“No. You can’t. And they’re not your friends. They’re just people you know. They’re barely acquaintances. You got drunk with them, got stoned with them, talked a bit with them and slept with some of them. You’ll all go your separate ways soon enough anyway and probably never keep in touch. They are not your friends. Accept that.”

Fassin thought better of debating what being a friend meant, in the circumstances. “Well, I’m still not betraying them.”

“They’ve betrayed you!”

The little interrogator swung the screen round, clicked on a few patches and swung it back. Fassin watched Thay, Sonj and Mome — all stuck in seats like the one he was secured in, and Sonj looking pretty beaten-up — say they thought that Fassin held Beyonder sympathies and was a danger to society who needed watching. They each mumbled something to that effect, signed the screen and pressed a thumb against the print patch (Sonj’s left a smear of blood).

The screenage shook him. It had probably been faked, but all the same. He sat back. “You faked that,” he said, unsteadily. The little man laughed. “Are you mad? Why would we bother?”

“I don’t know,” Fass admitted. “But I know my friends. They wouldn’t—”

The little man sat forward. “So just sign this and in the highly unlikely event that it ever crops up, just say yours has been faked.”

“So why not fake it anyway?” Fassin shouted.

“Because then you won’t have betrayed them!” the little man yelled back. “Come on! Sign and you can go. I’ve got better things to do.”

“But why do any of this?” Fassin said, wanting to cry. “Why make anybody betray anybody?”

The little man looked at him for a moment. “Mr Taak,” he said, sitting back, sounding patient. “I’ve inspected your profile. You are not stupid. Misguided, idealistic, naive, certainly, but not stupid. You must know how societies work. You must at least have an inkling. They work on force, power and coercion. People don’t behave themselves because they’re nice. That’s the liberal fallacy. People behave themselves because if they don’t they’ll be punished. All this is known. It isn’t even debatable. Civilisation after civilisation, society after society, species after species, all show the same pattern. Society is control: control is reward and punishment. Reward is being allowed to partake of the fruits of that society and, as a general but not unbreakable rule, not being punished without cause.”

“But—”

“Be quiet. The idiotic issue you chose to complain about -ownership of a habitat — really has nothing to do with you. It’s a legal matter, an ownership thing. You weren’t even born here and you wouldn’t have stayed beyond a few more months anyway, admit it. You should have kept out of it. You chose not to, you put yourself in harm’s way and now you’re paying the price. Part of that price is letting us know that you have made an effort to dissociate yourself from the people you were complicit with. Once you do that, you can go. Home, I would suggest. I mean to ’glantine.”

“And if I say no?”

“You mean not sign?”

“Yes.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Then it’s taken out of my hands. You’ll go to meet people who enjoy doing this sort of thing.”

This time, when the little man moved his hand over the desk, Fassin screamed with the pain. He must have bitten his tongue. There was a taste of iron and his mouth filled with fresh blood and hot saliva.

“Because I,” the little man said wearily, “don’t.”

In the end Fassin signed. He’d kind of known he would.

The little man looked happy, and a couple of big female guards came in and helped Fassin from the chair, his bonds unfastened.

“Thank you, Mr Taak,” the little man said, and grasped his hand and shook it before they took him out of the room. “I hate all that unpleasantness, and it is always so good to see somebody being sensible. Try not to think too badly of me. Good luck to you.”

They got him showered down and fixed up and he left after a medical and a cup of soup, dressed in paper-thin overalls. He looked around when they ushered him through the doorways into what passed for outside in a hab. He’d been somewhere inside the Diegesian’s palace.

Back at the nest, turmoil. The place had been raided, trashed, everything in it broken or sprayed with stinking, vomit-inducing crowd-control goo. They went to a bar instead and didn’t really talk about anything after the protest and the crackdown. They talked instead of rumours of people being killed and others disappearing.

K wasn’t there. She’d been beaten up when the troopers came to turn the nest over. She was in a prison hospital ship for three weeks, then killed herself with a broken glass the day she was released.

It was months before Fassin learned the truth. K had been sent into a nightmare tream. Somebody who’d come with the law officers — maybe just one of them who happened to know how to handle tream gear — had found her still floating, not yet out of the delving tream, and altered the settings on the traumalyser and the subsal while some others had held her down and worked her over. Whoever did the thing with the traumalyser must have carried that sort of template chip around with them, just for such eventualities. Then they’d left her, bloody and bound, to some speeded-up nightmare of horror, rape and torture.

They were all split up, doing other, mostly more responsible things when they pieced all this together. They talked about a complaint, an investigation, a protest.

Fassin went back to ’glantine and booked a place on the Seer induction course for the term after next. Then he returned to the habs, and then to Sepekte’s Boogeytown, to the roaring life, the drink and drugs and fucking and fun, and — after a while, gradually, carefully — made a few inquiries, hung out in the right places, and met certain people. Apparently he passed a few tests without realising he’d been taking them, and then one night he was introduced to a girl who called herself Aun Liss.

* * *

“Fassin!”

His name jolted him awake. Third Fury; cabin. Still night-dark. Clanging noise. The screen showed hour Four. The screen was red and flashing. Had somebody spoken?

“What?” he said, tearing the restraints away and levering himself out of bed, floating towards the centre of the cabin.

“Herv Apsile,” said a voice. Sounded like Apsile. Sounded like Apsile in a state of some excitement or distress. “We have a situation. Looks like an attack.”

Oh, shit. Fassin pulled on clothes, called up full lights. “That fucking horrendous clanging noise the alarm?”

“That’s right.”

“You in Facility Command?”

“Yes.”

“Who do we think?” A light flashed over a storage locker and it revolved, revealing an emergency esuit.

“Don’t know. Two naval units vaporised already. Get suited and—”

The lights — all the lights — flickered. The screen did not come back on. A tremor made the cabin shake. Something broke in the bathroom with a sharp crack.

“You feel that? You still there?” Apsile said.

“Yes to both,” Fassin said. He was looking at the esuit.

“Suit up and take a drop shaft to the emergency shelter.” Apsile paused. “You got that?” Another pause. “Fass?”

“Here.” Fassin started pulling all his clothes off again. “That what you’re going to do, Herv?”

“That’s what we’re both supposed to do.”

Another tremble made the whole cabin rattle. The air seemed to quake like jelly.

The alarm shut off. Somehow, though, not in an encouraging way.

The screen flashed once, screeched.

Fassin hauled the esuit out of its locker. “How’s the main hangar?” he asked.

“Intact. Whatever’s hitting us seems to be coming in from the Nasq spin-side, slightly retro.”

“So heading into the centre’s going to be putting us closer,” Fassin said. Was that a draught? He could hear a hissing sound. He clipped the esuit collar round his neck and let the gel helmet deploy. It turned everything hazy and quiet for a moment, then decided the situation wasn’t too dire yet, and opened slits for him to breathe, talk and hear through. The face-mask section thinned to near-perfect transparency.

“For now,” Apsile agreed. “If the direction of the hostile fire stays constant we’ll be coming round to face it full on in two hours.”

Fassin stepped into the esuit and pulled it up, letting it connect with the collar, adjusting to his body, huffing and settling. Very comfortable, really. “That what you want to do, Herv? Sit in a huddle with everybody else like mice in a hole hoping the cat goes away?”

“Standing orders.”

“I know. Want to guess what I want to do?” There was a pause. Another more violent tremor shook the cabin. The main door popped open, wobbling inwards, revealing the companionway outside. The pause went on. “Herv?” he asked. He looked round for anything he might want to take with him. Nothing. “Herv?”

“I’ll see you there.”

Something blazed hard and blue-white against Nasqueron’s side-lit face, turning the hangar into a harsh jagged jumble of fiercely shining surfaces and intensely black shadows. Fassin flinched. The light faded quickly, turning to yellow and orange; a small fading sun shone between the moon and Nasqueron.

Herv Apsile had got there ahead of him. He gave a quick wave and easily jumped the eight metres to the open nose-blister of the carrier craft, disappearing inside. The nose-blister closed.

“Herv?” Fassin said, trying the suit’s emergency comms. No answer. He made slow bounds for the open hold. Colonel Hatherence was already there, the tall discus of her esuit floating a fraction above the floor directly beneath the place she’d filled earlier.

“Seer Taak! I rather thought you might adopt this course!” she shouted.

Shit, Fassin thought. He’d kind of hoped the colonel would have made her way to the emergency shelter in the moon’s core, ten kilometres down, along with everybody else, like they’d all been told to. There was one drop shaft big enough, wasn’t there? Oh well. He came to a stop beneath the little arrowhead gascraft hanging in its cradle directly above. “Colonel,” he said, nodding.

Would she try to stop him? No idea. Could she? No doubt about that.

“Not sure whether to be relieved or terrified,” the colonel yelled. A manipulator arm creased out from the side of the oerileithe esuit, unfolding towards Fassin. Oh, fuck, he thought. Here we go.

“After you!” the colonel said, her arm indicating the space above.

Fassin smiled and jumped. She rose with a whirr beside him. Stopped and then braced by the ceiling of the hold, he flipped open the cockpit of the little gascraft, revealing a vaguely coffin-shaped space. He shucked the suit and unclipped the helmet.

“Out of uniform, major,” the colonel said jovially, voice echoing in the enclosed space of the upper hold. Fassin let the suit fall slowly to the floor beneath and stepped into the foot of the little arrowhead’s cockpit. “Gracious!” Hatherence said. “Are all human males of this form?”

“Just the handsome ones, colonel,” he assured her. He lowered himself carefully into the cool gel. The cockpit cover closed over him. He wriggled in the darkness, getting his neck positioned over the scanner collar. A soft light and a gentle chime confirmed all was well. He reached for the double nozzle of the gillfluid root, took a deep breath, let it out, then placed the nozzles at his nostrils.

Fassin lay back, zoning out as best he could, fighting the urge to panic, the gag response of fear as the gillfluid poured into his nose, throat and lungs like the coldest drink anybody had ever taken.

A moment of confusion, disorientation. Then the collar nestling closer against his neck and the warming gel closing over his body, tendrils seeking out ears, mouth, penis and anus. Twin stings of pain on his forearms, then another pair, one under each ear, as the blood slides went in.

“Set?” said the voice of Herv Apsile, gurgling through the still calibrating gel in his ears.

— Thoroughly, he sent back just by thinking. — And the colonel?

“I am set, also!” Even over comms, it seemed, Colonel Hatherence tended to shout.

Fassin had been wondering if they could leave her behind somehow. Probably not, then.

“Hold doors closing. Ready to go,” Apsile said.

Fassin started to become his little gascraft. It covered him, embraced him, multiply penetrated him, and in those acts offered itself up to him completely. The light from below disappeared as the hold doors closed. He could see Colonel Hatherence’s esuit hanging beside him, sense its cold and read its electromagnetic signature, just as he could feel the systems of the drop ship readying, flexing, preparing, changing as the ship nudged itself off the floor. Other senses registered an unusual wash of radiations, a faint gravity well set in a much greater, deeper one, a slather of meaningless comms shards, confused transmissions and EM signals from the Shared Facility base itself — and a sudden jolt, a transmitted faint but massive thud followed by a strange sideways, upwards-sucking movement.

He waited for Apsile to talk to them, meanwhile trying to work it out himself. Distant whirr and hiss of the carrier tanking the air in its hold.

“Sorry about that,” Apsile said mildly. “Back in control. Unconventional method of opening the hangar to vacuum there. No idea who to thank.”

— We okay? Fassin asked.

“NSD,” Apsile said, sounding mildly distracted. “No Significant Damage.”

— Let you get on with it, Fassin sent.

“Thanks.”

“Cancel relief, emphasise terror,” the colonel said.

Fassin hoped she was talking only to him. He checked through all the little gascraft’s settings and systems, settling into it as its life-support tendrils settled into him. Something like a wide array of lights seen from the bottom corner of the eye swung into focus in front of him. He called up a few read-outs and started a couple of subroutines to check that everything was working. Seemed to be.

He felt the carrier accelerate away from the moon. Patch-through to the larger ship’s senses suddenly appeared as an option on his controls and he took it.

Now he could experience pretty much what Apsile could.

Nasqueron filling the sky ahead and up, the grey-brown surface of Third Fury disappearing fast below and behind. Debris clouds. Comms shards. More than there ought to be in a properly organised fleetlet like the one that had brought them here and that had been guarding the moon. No sign of illuminating radar or other targeting give-away. Not that a civilian ship like the carrier would be able to spot any but the most glaringly obvious. No current damage flags, just records of a few small hull impacts, little more than pitting. Ship drive traces.

A sudden flare of radiation as a ship turned hard a couple of hundred klicks away, dying away. Outgoing signal loop, broadcasting their unarmed condition, claiming lifeboat status. Flash! From right behind. A near-semicircular debris cloud rising glittering from a new glowing crater maybe half a klick across on the surface of Third Fury. Three smaller craters coming into view, recent but cooled down to orange and red heat. The view twisted, overlays of lines and grids and drive symbols flickering into being.

Apsile pointed the carrier’s nose straight at Nasqueron and started a long, purposefully irregular corkscrew towards the gas-giant, accelerating the drop ship as hard as its engines would allow.

The drop ship was no sort of high-performance military unit; all it was supposed to do was take the gascraft from the Facility to the gas-giant and pick them up later. It was rugged, able to take the strain of operating inside Nasqueron’s gravity well and its various pressure environments down to the liquid-hydrogen level, and it had the power to lift itself and its charges easily enough out of Nasqueron’s grip. But it was not especially manoeuvrable, carried no armament or defensive systems and far from being stealthed had been designed from its invitation-to-tender spec, onwards to be as easy to see with as many different senses as it was possible to imagine, just so that no mischievous Dweller could crash something into it and then claim, sorry, they hadn’t seen it.

“How you doing down there?” Apsile asked. He sounded in control, unworried.

“Fine, for myself,” the colonel said.

— Ditto, Fassin sent. — Got an ETA yet?

Trips from Third Fury to Nasq. usually took about an hour. Fassin hoped they could do it in less than half that.

“With the main drive maxed we should make turnaround in about ten minutes,” Apsile said, “then decelerate for another ten and then take… hmm, another handful — five at most, I’d hope — to get deep enough into the atmosphere.”

He meant deep enough into the atmosphere to be beyond any but the most scary weapons. Obviously not counting the scary weapons the Dwellers possessed.

— Anything we can clip off that? Fassin asked.

“Maybe we could make it down in less time once we hit the cloud tops,” Apsile said. “Steeper, carrying more speed. Maybe. Hmm.” Fassin got the impression somehow that the man was rubbing his chin. “Yes, maybe, if we let the heat and stress levels creep just a tad beyond tolerance.” A pause. “Though of course that’s always assuming that the ship didn’t take any damage we don’t know about when the hangar dome got blown.”

— Always assuming, Fassin agreed.

“Master Technician,” Colonel Hatherence said, “are we being pursued or under unit-specific attack?”

“No, colonel.”

“Then I suggest we adopt your first entry profile.”

— Decision’s yours alone, Herv, Fassin sent.

“Copy.”

“Can you access any military comms traffic, Master Technician?”

“I’m afraid not, ma’am, not unless they choose to target us with a clear beam or broadcast.”

“That is unfortunate. What seems to be happening?”

“Looks like there’s been some sort of firefight. Still going on, possibly. Drives spreading away from the moon, heading in the direction the hostile munitions appeared to be coming from. Woh!”

The flash attracted Fassin’s second-hand attention as well; another, even larger crater glowing white on the surface of Third Fury.

“What of the people still back within the Third Fury moonlet?” the colonel asked.

“Been listening,” Apsile said. “I’ll try and contact them direct. Give me a moment.”

Silence. Fassin watched space wheel around them through the carrier ship’s sensors. He checked the drop ship’s system profile, oriented, then searched for and found ’glantine; a tiny shining dot, far away. The sensors let him zoom in until the planet moon was a shining gibbous image, scintillating with magnification artefacts, hints of its topography just about visible. Could that be the uplands? There, that light patch — the Sea of Fines? A spark. There, back up… A tiny flash? Had he seen that?

Something colder and more invasive than any gel tendril seemed to invade him, clutching at his stomach and heart. No, surely not. Just another artefact of the system. He looked for the sensor-replay controls.

“Shit, there’s a fucking wreckage—” Apsile said, then the craft bucked and swung. Fassin, turning his focus of attention back to what Apsile was looking at saw it too now: a field of dark specks across the face of the planet ahead of them like a ragged flock of birds far in the distance. They were at near-maximum velocity. The carrier started to turn.

A rush of dark scraps, tearing by on all sides like a thin shell of soot-black snow flakes. Fassin felt his arms, held by the cloying shock-gel, attempt to draw themselves in towards his body, instinctively trying to make himself a smaller target. Then they were through. No impacts.

After a moment, Fassin felt the drop ship start to swing round to present its drive tubes towards the planet, ready to begin deceleration. “I think,” Apsile said cautiously, “that we just about got away with—”

Something slammed into them. The ship lurched — there was a concussive snap! that Fassin felt through the carrier ship, through the gascraft, even through the shock-gel. He lost the patch-through connection with the drop ship. He was back in his own little arrowhead again. They were whirling. And there was light, synched with the whirling. Light?

It was coming from below, where the hold doors were. He could see Colonel H’s esuit, hanging alongside him. Oh-oh…

The ship began to come out of the spin, steadying. The light from below faded but did not go away. It had the spectrum to be light reflected from Nasqueron. Light from the gas-giant coming in through supposedly closed doors. Fassin flipped the gascraft’s sensor ring to look straight down at the doors.

“Oh fuck,” he tried to say. There was a small but ragged hole, stuff hanging like spilled guts. The Nasqueron light was reflecting in off some polished-looking surfaces.

Force, building; very like the main drive decelerating them more or less on schedule. He retried the intercom, then broadcast a radio signal. — Herv?

“Here. Sorry about that. Hit something after all. Got her straight and rearward. Back on track. No read-outs from the hold at all, though. Including the door.”

· Think that’s where it hit. I can see a hole.

“How big?”

· Maybe a metre lateral by two.

“I too can see the hole,” the colonel told them, also joining in the radio-broadcast fun. “It is as Seer Taak describes.”

“Too small for you guys to get out of,” Apsile said.

— How’s the rest of the ship? Fassin sent.

“Holding together for now. Can’t see where whatever hit us exited, or just went on to hit inside.”

“I suspect it hit me,” Hatherence said. “My esuit casing, that is to say. Probably.”

A pause. Then Apsile said, “And… are you all right?”

“Perfectly fine. Your hold doors took most of the energy out of it and my esuit is of exceptional quality, durability and damage-tolerance. Scarcely a scratch.”

— If we can’t open the doors, we can’t get out and the whole thing’s pointless, Herv, Fassin sent.

“We can still hide in the carrier, under the clouds,” Apsile said. “I’m not getting much from the Facility. That last hit looked like it must have shaken them pretty hard. We might still be safer under the gas than hanging around out here in clear view of whoever.”

Nothing comprehensible was coming out of the Shared Facility on Third Fury, and no military vessels were talking on civilian frequencies. Interference on EM bands, a problem at the best of times anywhere near Nasqueron, was especially intense. Apsile raised a couple of the Facility’s equatorial relay satellites, but, exceptionally, could not through-patch via their transceivers and could get only static and meaningless rubbish out of them. He even tried some Dweller mirror sats, where the surprise would have been getting anything other than drivel, but there the service was perfectly normal. “Ouch,” they heard him say. “Third Fury just took another hit. We’re going in. Fairly slowly, to allow for the damage, but we’re going in.”

“Whatever you think is best, Master Technician,” the colonel said.

The carrier craft began to shudder as it met the upper atmosphere of Nasqueron, carving a glowing trail above the cloud tops. They slowed. Weight began to return to them. And kept on increasing. Creaks and ticking sounds came through the solids joining them to the drop ship. The buffeting decreased, grew and fell away again; soft whumps and crisp bangs also communicated through the drop ship’s structure announced debris being torn off the ragged surrounds of the breach in the hold doors, which glowed and sparked as the space around them filled with gas and Fassin began to detect sound in the hold again. They were getting heavy, really heavy now. Fassin could feel the shock-gel tightening around him, like the sound of snow cramping beneath your feet. He could almost sense any remaining gas bubbles in his body pancaking like blood cells. Good and heavy now…

“Master Technician,” the colonel said suddenly.

“Hold on,” Apsile said. “That—”

The whole ship shook once, then rolled suddenly.

— Herv? Fassin sent.

“Got some sort of targeting—” Apsile began, then broke off as the craft shook again and slewed wildly across the sky.

“We are indeed being targeted by something,” Hatherence announced. “Master Technician,” she shouted across the frequencies. “Are you yet able to release us?”

“Eh? What? No! I—”

“Master Technician, attempt to perform a roll or part of an internal loop on my command,” Hatherence told him. “Ishall release us.”

You will?” Apsile shouted.

“I shall. I will. I carry weapons. Now, excuse me, and good luck.”

— Wait a minute, Fassin began.

“Seer Taak,” the colonel said tersely, “shield your senses.” The big discus hanging beside him sent a pulse of blinding blue-white light straight downward at the doors, which blew away in a brief gout of sparks. Rushing yellow-brown clouds spun by outside. Fassin’s little arrowcraft was seeing spots. It got busy shuffling its damaged sensors round for working ones. He guessed he hadn’t shielded his senses in time. He shut them down now. “Releasing in three seconds,” the colonel said. “Make your manoeuvre now if you please, Master Technician.”

A blast of radiation and a spike of heat from above coincided with a sudden roll. The cradle holding Fassin in the drop ship gave way, sending him shooting from the hold like a cannon ball. The colonel in her oerileithe esuit came whirling after him a moment later, quickly drawing level. He glimpsed the drop ship above, still rolling, then saw a violet ray appear suddenly to one side, slicing through the gas around them, searing his barely mended vision. The beam just missed the carrier craft, then clouds of yellow fog rolled quickly up between them and the drop ship and it was just him and the colonel, a tiny arrow shape and a spinning coin of dirty grey, hurtling down into the vast chaotic skies of Nasqueron.

* * *

“ ‘It is a given amongst those who care to study such matters that there is, within certain species, a distinct class of being so contemptuous and suspicious of their fellow creats that they court only hatred and fear, counting these the most sincere emotional reactions they may hope to excite, because they are unlikely to have been feigned.’ ” The Archimandrite Luseferous looked up at the head on the wall. The head stared straight across the cabin, eyes wide with pain and terror and madness.

The assassin had died not long after they’d set out on their long journey towards Ulubis, the upper set of fangs finally penetrating his brain deeply enough to produce death. The Archimandrite had had the fellow’s eyelids slit open again when the medical people said death was likely within a few days; he’d wanted to see the look on the man’s face when he died.

Luseferous had been asleep when death had finally come for the nameless assassin, but he’d watched the recording many times. (All that happened was that the man’s face stopped contorting, his eyes rolled backwards and then came slowly back down, slightly cross-eyed, while the life-signs read-out accompanying the visuals registered first the heart stopping and then a few minutes later the brain flat-lining. Luseferous would have preferred something more dramatic, but you couldn’t have everything.) He’d had the fellow’s head removed and mounted near that of the rebel chief Stinausin, pretty much in the first head’s eye line, so that was what Stinausin had to look at all day.

The Archimandrite glanced up at the staring, nameless head. “What do you think?” He looked over the passage again, lips moving but not actually reading it aloud. He pursed his lips. “I think I agree with what’s being said, but I can’t help feeling there’s a hint of criticism implied at the same time.” He shook his head, closed the ancient book and glanced at the cover. “Never heard of him,” he muttered.

But at least, he reflected, this holier-than-thou intellectual had a name. It had come to annoy Luseferous rather a lot that he didn’t have a name for the failed assassin. Yes, the fellow had failed, yes, he had paid dearly for his crime, and yes, he was dead and now reduced to a mere trophy. But somehow the fact that his name had never been revealed had begun to strike Luseferous as almost a kind of triumph for the assassin, as though successfully withholding this nugget of information meant that Luseferous’s victory over the wretch would never quite be complete. He had already sent word back to Leseum to have the matter investigated more thoroughly.

His chief personal secretary appeared behind the sheet of mirrored diamond forming the main inner door of the stateroom-study.

“Yes?”

“Sir, the Marshal Lascert, sir.”

“Two minutes.”

“Sir.”

He saw the Beyonder marshal in the primary stateroom of the Main Battle Craft Luseferous VII, his fleet flagship. (Luseferous thought terms like “battleship’ and “fleet carrier’ and so on sounded old-fashioned and too common.) He’d had the craft remodelled to provide accommodation befitting his rank, but there had come a point where the naval architects had actually started to cry because letting what they called “voids’ grow beyond a certain volume weakened the ship too much. The result was that the stateroom wasn’t really as extensive or as intimidating as he’d have liked, so he’d had some mirrors installed and a few holo projectors which made it look bigger, though he always had the nagging feeling that people could see through the illusion. The style he’d chosen was New Brutalist: lots of exposed faux concrete and rusty pipes. He’d taken a fancy to the name but had gone off the look almost immediately.

He entered with only his private secretary going before him. Guards, courtiers, admin, army and naval people bowed as he strode past.

“Marshal.”

“Archimandrite.” The Beyonder marshal was a woman, dressed in light armour which looked like it had been polished up but still gave off an impression of practicality and scruffiness. She was tall, slim and proud-looking, if somewhat flat-chested for Luseferous’s taste. Bald women always repelled him anyway. She gave a formal nod that was probably the very least acknowledgement of his status that anybody who didn’t patently hate him and-or was about to die had given him for several decades. He couldn’t decide whether he found it insulting or refreshing. Two senior officers behind her were jajuejein, currently in their standard tumbleweed configuration, no part of their glittering plate armour higher than the marshal’s waist. He suspected that the woman had been selected because she was human, just because he was; almost all the Beyonder High Command were non-human.

He sat. It wasn’t really a throne, but it was an impressive seat on a dais. The Beyonder marshal could stand. “You wanted to talk, Marshal Lascert.”

“I speak on behalf of the Transgress, the True Free and the BiAlliance. We have wanted to talk to you for some time,” the marshal said smoothly. Deep voice for a woman. “Thank you for agreeing to this meeting.”

“A pleasure, I’m sure. So. How goes your end of our little war? Last you heard, obviously.”

“It goes well, as far as we know.” The marshal smiled. Lights reflected on her bald scalp. “I understand your own campaign has gone from victory to victory.”

He waved a hand. “The opposition has been light,” he said. “Your main fleet should be at the outskirts of Ulubis system in, what? One more year?”

“Something like that.”

“This is somewhat later than we had all planned for.”

“It is a big invasion fleet. It took time to put together,” Luseferous said, trying to show that he resented her implied criticism while also giving the impression that what she thought was of no great importance to him.

They were behind schedule, though. He had personally assured these — temporary — allies of his that he would be ready to invade nearly a full half-year earlier than it now looked would be possible. He supposed it was his fault, if fault it was. He liked to keep his fleet together rather than let it split up according to speed and then re-form as needed for the invasion proper. His admirals and generals insisted (though not too strongly if they knew what was good for them) that they didn’t need all units of the fleet to be together at all times, but Luseferous preferred it. It seemed more cohesive, more impressive, just more tidy and pleasing somehow.

It also meant that the Beyonders would shoulder rather more of the responsibility for preparing Ulubis system for invasion than they might have expected, so that the invasion fleet’s job would be all the easier and the Beyonders’ — hopefully much-depleted — forces would be in a position of weakness relative to his own mass of ships.

“Still,” Lascert said, “we imagine your advance units may be attacking even now.”

“We’ve had some automated scout-warning ships and highspeed drone attack craft there or on their way for a while now,” Luseferous told her. “Always best to be prepared for any eventuality. Some needed reprogramming but we believe they should be effective in beginning the softening-up process.” He smiled. He watched her react to the clear diamond teeth. “I am a great believer in the usefulness of spreading a little panic, marshal. Better still, a lot of panic. After a long-enough exposure, people will welcome any power that brings an end to uncertainty, even if they might have resisted it before.”

The marshal smiled too, though it looked like she was making an effort. “Of course. And we thought now might be an appropriate moment to talk in more depth about what you see your strategy being once you reach Ulubis.”

“I intend to take it, marshal.”

“Indeed. Of course, it may be quite well defended.”

“I expect it might. That’s why I’ve brought such a big fleet with me.”

They were between systems, way out in the empty wilderness of near-nothingness less than a year from Ulubis. The Beyonder fast cruiser and its two escort destroyers had rendezvoused with his own fleet only hours earlier, skid-turning and matching velocities with a grace and rapidity that he could see his own naval people envied. Fine ships, indeed. Well, they had the ships and he had the systems; just another opportunity to trade, maybe. Now those three fast ships lay embedded in a fleet of over a thousand craft, even if they were rather plodding in comparison.

“May I be frank, Archimandrite?”

He gave her a good wide look at his deep red eyes. “I expect no less.”

“We are concerned at the possible level of civilian casualties if Ulubis is assaulted over-aggressively.”

Now why would she say that? Luseferous thought to himself with a sort of inward chuckle.

He looked at his private secretary, then at his generals and admirals. “Marshal,” he said reasonably, “we are going to invade them. We are going to attack them.” He smiled broadly, and could see his admirals and generals grinning along with him. “I think aggressiveness is… essential, yes?”

He could hear light laughter from one or two of his top brass. People thought that having people so in awe of you that they were frightened to tell you bad news and always laughed when you laughed (and so on) was a bad thing, and supposedly insulated you from what was really going on, but if you knew what you were doing, it didn’t. You just had to adjust your perceptions. Sometimes everybody laughed, sometimes only a few, and sometimes who kept quiet and who made a noise told you a lot more than when you asked them to just speak out and tell you the truth. It was a sort of code, he supposed. He was just lucky to be naturally adept at it.

“Aggression and judgement are both required, Archimandrite,” the marshal said. “We know you to possess both, of course.” She smiled. He did not smile back. “We merely seek an assurance that your troops will act in a manner which will bring you further praise and greater fame.”

“Praise?” the Archimandrite said. “I inspire terror, marshal. That’s my strategy. I’ve found that to be the quickest and most effective way of ensuring that people learn what is good both for them and for me.”

For glory, then, Archimandrite.”

“Be merciful for glory?”

The marshal thought about this for a moment. “Ultimately, yes.”

“I shall conquer them as I see fit, marshal. We are partners in this. You don’t tell me what to do.”

“I am not trying to, Archimandrite,” the marshal said quickly. “I accept what you must do, I am merely delivering a request regarding the manner in which it is done.”

“And I have heard your request and I will pay it all due heed.” This was a form of words Luseferous had heard somebody use once — he couldn’t remember who or where — which, when he’d thought about it, he thought was rather good, especially if you said it slightly pompously: slowly, gravely even, keeping a straight face so that the person you were talking to thought you were taking them seriously and might even hope that you would do as they had asked rather than — at best — ignore them completely. At worst — as far as they were concerned — you’d do the opposite of whatever they asked, just to spite them, precisely to prove you wouldn’t be pushed around… though that got tricky; then people might try to make you do one thing by pretending to favour another, and even without that complication you were still altering your behaviour because of something they had said, which was giving them a sort of power over you, when the whole point of everything the Archimandrite was doing was so that nobody could say they had any power over him.

Power was everything. Money was nothing without it. Even happiness was a distraction, a ghost, a hostage. What was happiness? Something people could take away from you. Happiness too often involved other people. It meant giving them power over you, giving them a hold on you that they could exercise whenever they wanted, taking away whatever it was that had made you happy.

Luseferous had known happiness and he’d had it taken away. His father, the only man he’d ever admired — even while hating the old bastard — had got rid of Luseferous’s mother when she became old and less attractive, replacing her, when Luseferous was barely into his teens, with a succession of young, erotically desirable but soulless, uncaring, selfish young women, women he’d wanted for himself but despised at the same time. His mother was sent away. He never saw her again.

His father had been an Omnocrat for the Mercatoria, in the industrial complexes of the Leseum Systems. He’d started out at the bottom, as a Peculan (cynically, the very name implied that the office-bearer would need to be corrupt to make any sort of decent living, so incurring a history of criminality that could always be dredged up against them if they ever stepped out of line later). He’d become an Ovate, worked his way through the many gradations of that estate, then ascended to the office of Diegesian, in charge of a district of a city, then a small industrial city, then a medium-sized city, then a large city, then a continental capital. He became an Apparitor when his immediate superior died in the arms of a shared lover. That lover did very well for a while — his consort, in effect — then grew demanding and met an untimely end too.

His father had never told him if he’d had her killed. Equally, he’d never told his father that the woman had lately become his lover, too.

From Apparitor his father rose to Peregal, in charge of first an orbiting fab\hab cluster, then a continent, then a sizeable moon, with all the trappings of power and wealth and glamour such a post presented in a thriving, connected set of systems such as Leseum. At this point, for the first time in his life, his father had appeared finally to appreciate the position he’d reached. He’d seemed to relax and start enjoying life.

It ended there. Finally setting himself up for the next jump, to Hierchon, his father, who had amassed a great fortune dispensing charters and contracts to the merchants and manufacturers of the many systems, took pity on a favoured Apparitor who was somewhat down on his luck, cut him in on a deal and a kickback he didn’t really need to and found himself denounced, tried and beheaded for gross corruption within a month. The same young Apparitor then took his position.

Luseferous, convinced from early on that he could never compete with his father in his own sphere, and anyway always intrigued by the nature of religion and faith, had joined the Cessoria a few years earlier. He’d been a Piteer, a junior priest, at the time of his father’s trial. They had made him one of his father’s confessors, and he’d accompanied him to the execution ring. His father had been brave at first, then he’d broken. He’d started crying, begging, promising anything (but only all the things he’d already lost). He clutched at Luseferous’s robes, howling and beseeching, burying his face. Luseferous knew they were watching him, that this moment was important for his future. He pushed his father away.

His rise through the Cessoria was swift. He would never be as powerful as his father, but he was clever and capable and respected and on an upward course within an important but not too dangerous part of one of the greatest meta-civilisations the galaxy had seen. He might have been content with that, and never put himself in a position of weakness the way his father had.

Then the Disconnect happened. A swathe of portal destruc- tion had swung across the million-star volume all around Leseum back in the time of the Arteria Collapse, leaving only the bunched Leseum systems themselves connected inside a vast volume of backwardness. The system of Leseum9 had been important, seemed vital and felt unthreatened until their own disconnect came millennia later, courtesy of some vast bicker within the ongoing chaos of the Scatter Wars, an essentially meaningless difference of opinion between three pretending sides which until then practically nobody had heard of. By the time it was all over, nobody would hear of those sides again, save as history. The damage was done, though; the portal near Leseum9 had been destroyed and an enormous volume around it had been cut off from the rest of the civilised galaxy.

Everything changed then, including what you had to do to retain power, and who might contest for absolute power.

His father, nevertheless, had taught Luseferous everything, one way or another, and one of the most important things was this: there was no plateau. In life, you were either on your way up or on your way down, and it was always better to be on your way up, especially as the only reliable way to keep going up was to use other people as stepping stones, as platforms, as scaffolding. The old saying about being nice to people on the way up so that they’d be nice to you when you were on your way back down was perfectly true, but it was a defeatist’s saying, a loser’s truism. Better to keep going up for ever, never to rest, never to relax, never to have to descend. The thought of what might happen to you at the hands of those you’d already offended, exploited and wronged on the way up — those that still lived — was just another incentive for the serious player never even to think about easing off the pace, let alone starting to fall back. The dedicated competitor would keep presenting himself with new challenges to take on and conquer, he would seek out new levels to ascend to, he would always look for new horizons to head towards.

Treat life like the game it was. This might be the truth behind the Truth, the religion Luseferous had been raised within as an obedient member of the Mercatoria: that nothing you did or seemed to do really mattered, because it was all — or might be all — a game, a simulation. It was all, in the end, just pretend. Even this Starveling cult he was titular head of was just something he’d made up because it sounded good. A variation of the Truth with added self-denial every now and again, the better to contemplate the gullibility of people. People would swallow anything, just anything at all. Apparently some people found this dismaying. He thought it was a gift, the most wonderful opportunity to take advantage of the weak-minded.

So you seemed cruel. So people died and suffered and grew up hating you. So what? There was at least a chance that none of it was real.

And if it was all real, well, then life was struggle. It always had been and it always would be. You recognised this and lived, or fell for the lie that progress and society had made struggle unnecessary, and just existed, were exploited, became prey, mere fodder.

He wondered to what extent even the supposedly feral and lawless Beyonders understood this basic truth. They let women rise to the pinnacle of their military command structure; that didn’t bode particularly well. And the marshal didn’t seem to have realised that when he’d said he’d heard her request and would pay it all due heed, it meant nothing.

“Well, thank you, Archimandrite,” she said.

Still, he smiled. “You will stay? We shall have a banquet in your honour. We have had so little to celebrate out here, between the stars.”

“An honour indeed, Archimandrite.” The marshal gave that little head nod again.

And we shall try to pick each other’s brains over dinner, he thought. My, what highbrow fun. Give me a planet to plunder any day.

* * *

—  Do you have any idea where we are? the colonel signalled, using a spot-laser. They reckoned this was their most secure form of comms.

— Zone Zero, the equatorial, Fassin sent. — Somewhere ahead of the latest big storm, about ten or twenty kilo-klicks behind the Ear Festoon. I’m checking the latest update they loaded before the drop.

They were floating in a slow eddy around a gentle ammonia upwell the diameter of a small planet, about two hundred klicks down from the cloud tops. The temperature outside was rela-tively balmy by human standards. There were levels, places in almost all gas-giants where a human could, in theory, exist exposed to the elements without any protective clothing at all. Of course they would probably need to be prone and lying in a tub of shock-gel or something similar because weighing six times what their skeleton was used to coping with would make standing up or moving around problematic, their lungs would have to be full of gillfluid or the like, to let them breathe within a mix of gases which included oxygen only as a trace element, and also to let their ribs and chest muscles work under the pressure of that gravitational vice, plus they wouldn’t want to be exposed to a charged-particle shower, but all the same: by gas-giant great-outdoors standards, this was about as good as it humanly got.

Colonel Hatherence found it a bit hot, but then as an oerileithe she would be more at home closer to the cloud tops. She had already loudly pronounced her esuit undamaged and capable of protecting her anywhere from space-vacuum down to Nasqueron’s ten-kilo-klick level, where the pressure would be a million times what it was here and the temperature somewhat more than half what it was on the surface of Ulubis star. Fassin chose not to join in a mine’s-better-than-yours competition; his own gascraft was also space-capable in an emergency but untested at those depths.

He’d tried contacting Apsile in the drop ship but had come up with static. The passive positioning grid cast by the equatorial satellites was functioning but both scale-degraded and patchy, indicating there were some satellites gone or not working.

Knowing where you were in Nasqueron or any gas-giant was important, but still less than half the story. There was a solid rocky core to the planet, a spherical mass of about ten Earth-sized planets buried under seventy thousand vertical kilometres of hydrogen, helium and ice, and there were purists who would call the transition region between that stony kernel and the high-temperature, high-pressure water ice above it the planet’s surface. But you had to be a real nit-picker even to pretend to take that definition seriously. Beyond the water ice — technically ice because it was effectively clamped solid by the colossal pressure, but at over twenty thousand degrees, confusingly hot for the human image of what ice was supposed to be like — came over forty thousand vertical kilometres of metallic hydrogen, then a deep transition layer to the ten-kilo-klick layer of molecular hydrogen which, if you were of an especially imaginative turn of mind, you might term a sea.

Above that, in the relatively thin — at a mere few thousand kilometres — but still vastly complicated layers reaching up towards space, were the regions where the Dwellers lived, in the contra-rotating belts and zones of rapidly spinning gases which — dotted with storms great and small, spattered with eddies, embellished with festoons, bars, rods, streaks, veils, columns, clumps, hollows, whirls, vortices, plume-heads, shear fronts and subduction flurries — girdled the planet. Where the Dwellers lived, where everything happened, there was no solid surface, and no features at all which lasted more than a few thousand years save for the bands of gas forever charging past each other, great spinning wheels of atmosphere whirling like the barely meshed cogs in some demented gearbox a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres across.

The convention was that the equatorial satellites followed the averaged-out progress of the broad equatorial zone, establishing a sort of stationary parameter-set from which everything else could be worked out relatively. But it was still confusing. Nothing was fixed. The zones and belts were relatively stable, but they shot past each other at combined speeds of what humans were used to thinking of as the speed of sound, and the margins between them changed all the time, torn by furiously curling eddies writhing this way and that, or thrown out, compressed and disturbed by giant storms like the Great Red Spot of the Solar System’s Jupiter, riding between a zone travelling one way and a belt going the other like a vast squashed whirlpool caught in some mad clash of violently opposed currents, developing, raging and slowly dissipating over the centuries that humanity had been able to watch it. In a gas-giant, everything either evolved, revolved or just plain came and went, and the whole human mindset of surfaces, territory, land, sea and air was thrown into confusion.

Add the effects of a vastly powerful magnetic field, swathes of intense radiation and the sheer scale of the environment -you could drop the whole of a planet the size of Earth or Sepekte into a decent-sized gas-giant storm — and the human brain was left with a lot to cope with.

And all this before one took into account the — to be generous — playful attitude which the Dwellers themselves so often exhibited to general planetary orientation and the help, or otherwise, conventionally seen as being fit and proper to be extended to directionally challenged alien visitors.

· I thought we’d be in the midst of them, the colonel sent.

· Dwellers? Fassin asked, studying the complex schematic of who and what might be where at the moment.

· Yes, I imagined we would find ourselves in one of their cities.

They both looked around at the vast haze of slowly swirling gas, extending — depending on which frequency or sense one chose to experience it in — a few metres or a few hundred kilometres away on every side. It felt very still, even though they were part of the equatorial zone and so being spun around the planet at over a hundred metres a second, while swirling slowly around the upwelling and rising gradually with it too.

Fassin felt himself smiling in his wrapping of shock-gel.

— Well, there’s a lot of Dwellers, but it’s a big planet.

It seemed odd to be explaining this to a creature whose kind had evolved in planets like this and who surely ought to be familiar with the scale of a gas-giant, but then oerileithe, in Fassin’s admittedly limited experience of them, often did display a kind of half-resentful awe towards Dwellers, entirely consistent with a belief that the instant you dropped beneath the cloud tops you’d find yourself surrounded by massed ranks of magisterial Dwellers and their astoundingly awesome structures (a misapprehension it was hard to imagine any Dweller even considering correcting). The oerileithe were an ancient people by human standards and by those of the vast majority of species in the developed galaxy, but — with a civilisation going back about eight hundred thousand years — they were mere mayflies by Dweller standards.

A thought occurred to Fassin. — You ever been in a Dweller planet before, colonel?

— Indeed not. A privilege denied until now. Hatherence made a show of looking about. — Not unlike home, really.

Another thought occurred. — You did receive clearance? Didn’t you, colonel?

· Clearance, Seer Taak?

· To come down. To enter Nasq.

— Ah, the colonel sent. — Not as such, I do confess. It was thought that I would be remote delving with you and your colleagues, from the Shared Facility on the Third Fury moon. Braam Ganscerel himself took the time to assure me of this personally. No objection was raised regarding such a presence. I believe that permission was in the process of being sought for me to accompany you physically into the atmosphere if that became necessary — as indeed it now has — however, the last that I heard in that regard indicated that the relevant clearances had yet to materialise. Why? Do you envisage there being a problem?

Oh, shit.

· The Dwellers, Fassin told her, — can be… pernickety about that sort of thing. Pernickety, he thought. They were liable to declare the colonel an honorary child, give her a half-hour start and set off to hunt her. — They take their privacy quite seri-ously. Unauthorised entries are severely discouraged.

· Well, I’m aware of that.

· You are? Good.

· I shall throw myself upon their mercy.

· Right. I see.

You are either quite brave and possessed of a decent sense of humour, Fassin thought, or you really should have done more homework.

· So, Seer Fassin Taak, in which direction ought we to proceed?

· Should be a CloudTunnel about four hundred klicks… that way, Fassin sent, turning the gascraft to point more or less south and slightly down. — Unless it’s moved, obviously.

· Shall we? the colonel said, drifting in that direction.

· Going to ping one of our sats, let them know we’re alive,

Fassin told her.

· This is wise?

Was it wise? Fassin wondered. There had been some sort of attack on the Seer infrastructure around Nasqueron, but that didn’t mean the whole near-planet environment had been taken over. On the other hand…

· How fast can that esuit go? he asked the colonel.

· At this density, about four hundred metres per second.

About half that, on sustained cruise.

Fassin’s arrowcraft could just about keep pace with that. Disappointing. He was still hoping to give the colonel the slip at some point. It looked like he wasn’t going to be able to just outrun her.

— Ping sent, he told Hatherence. — Let’s go.

They went, quickly. They’d got about a hundred metres away when a flash of violet light ripped the cloud apart behind them and a stark, short-lived beam-cluster splayed through the volume of gas they’d been floating within a few seconds earlier. Further beams radiated out from the initial target point, pulsing through the atmosphere in slowly spreading semi-random stabs. One flicked into existence about fifty metres from them, booming and crackling. All the rest were much further away and after a minute or so they ceased altogether.

· Somebody would seem to be ill-disposed towards you, Seer Taak, the colonel sent as they flew through the gas.

· So it would appear.

The flash and EMP came a couple of minutes after that. A low, rumbling concussion caught up with them some time later.

· Was that a nuke? Fassin sent. His instruments seemed to leave no other interpretation, but he still found it hard to believe.

· I am unaware of any phenomenon able to mimic one so convincingly.

· Fucking hell.

· I float corrected. Somebody would seem to be extremely ill-disposed towards you, Seer Taak.

· The Dwellers are not going to be happy, he told Hatherence. — Only they’re allowed to let off nukes in the atmosphere, he explained. — And it isn’t even fireworks season.

They found the CloudTunnel about where Fassin had thought it ought to be, only a hundred kilometres out laterally and two kilometres further down: bang on by Nasqueron standards. The CloudTunnel was a bundle of a dozen or so carbon-carbon tubes like some vast, barely braided cable-cluster floating in the midst of an unending cloudscape of gently billowing yellow, orange and ochre. The CloudTunnel’s two main tubes were about sixty metres in diameter, the smallest — basically comms and telemetry wave guides — less than half a metre. The whole cluster had looked thread-thin when they’d first caught sight of it, tens of kilometres away, but up close it looked like a hawser fit to tether a moon. A great, deep rushing sound rumbled from inside the two main pipes.

· What now? the colonel sent.

· We see if my vicarious kudos credit is still good.

Fassin used one of the arrowcraft’s manipulators to prod one of the wave guides, working the filaments through the tube’s protective sheath without breaking it. A hair-thin wire extended into the matrix of light filling the narrow tube. Information streamed from the far end of the wire, into the gascraft’s biomind, its transitional systems and then into Fassin’s head, forming a coded chaos of babbling sound, wildly scintillating visuals and other confused sensory experiences. The interruption in the light streams had already been noticed and allowed for. A pulse of information aimed right at the filament sent an identity request and inquired whether assistance was required, otherwise stop interfering with a public information highway.

— A human, Fassin Taak, privileged to be Slow Seer at the court of the Nasqueron Dwellers, he sent. — I’d like some assis-tance in the shape of transport at the given location, bound for Hauskip City.

He was told to wait.

“Fassin Taak, Out-Bander, Stranger, Alien, Seer, Human! And… what’s this?”

“This is Colonel Hatherence of the Mercatorial Military-Religious Order the Shrievalty Ocula, an oerileithe.”

“Good day, Dweller Y’sul,” Hatherence said. They had switched to using ordinary sound-speech.

“A little dweller! How fascinating! Not a child, then?”

Y’sul, a sizeable mid-adult a good nine metres or so in diameter, rolled through the gas and, extending one long spindle-arm, clunked a fist-bunch (bink-bink-bink!) on the esuit of the Colonel.

“Hellooo in there!” Y’sul said.

Hatherence’s discus of esuit leaned to one side under the rain of not-so-gentle blows. “Pleased to meet you,” she replied tersely.

“Not a child,” Fassin confirmed.

They were in a giant bowl-like room, roofed with slate-diamond micrometres thin, in a Thickeneers’ Club in Hauskip City.

Hauskip lay within the equatorial zone of Nasqueron, one of the hundred thousand or so major conurbations in that particular atmospheric band. Seen from the right angle in a sympa-thetic light, it looked a lot like the internal workings of an ancient mechanical clock, multiplied and magnified several thousand times. From far enough away, or just seen in a schematic, it resembled millions of toothed-looking wheels caught up in amongst each other, with larger sets of wheels interconnecting with them through hubs and spines and spindles, themselves linking up with still greater sets of wheels. The whole mighty, slowly gyrating and spinning assemblage, easily a couple of hundred kilometres in diameter, floated within a thick soup of gas a hundred kilometres beneath the cloud tops.

The city was the hub for several CloudTunnel lines. Once an empty car had made its way to the access hatch nearest to where Fassin and Hatherence pitched up alongside the CloudTunnel, it had taken two changes of line, riding in the same car, for Fassin and the colonel to get there through the network of partially evacuated, high-speed transit tubes. The whole journey had taken one of Nasqueron’s short day-night cycles. They had each slept for most of the time, though just before Fassin had dozed off, the colonel had said, “We go on. You agree, major? We continue our mission. Until we are ordered to cease.”

“Iagree,” he said. “We go on.”

The TunnelCar had docked, sphinctered its way through a TunnelBud wall in Hauskip’s Central Station and sped through the gelatinous atmosphere straight to the equatorial Eighth Progression Thickeneers’ Club, where Y’sul, Fassin’s long-time guide-mentor-guard had been attending a party to celebrate the Completion and Expulsion Ceremony of one of the club’s members.

Dwellers started out looking like anorexic manta rays — this was in their brief, occasionally hunted childhood phase — then grew, fattened, split most of the way down the middle (adolescence, kind of), shifted from a horizontal to a vertical axis and ended up, as adults, basically, resembling something like a pair of large, webbed, fringed cartwheels connected by a short, thick axle with particularly bulbous outer hubs onto each of which had been fastened a giant spider crab.

Part of the transition from recent- to mid-adulthood involved a period called Thickening, when the slim and flimsy discs of youth became the stout and sturdy wheels of later life, and it was customary for Dwellers to join a club of their approximate contemporaries while this was taking place. There was no specific reason for Dwellers to band together at this point in their lives, they just in general enjoyed joining clubs, sodalities, orders, leagues, parties, societies, associations, fellowships, fraternities, groups, guilds, unions, fractionals, dispensationals and recreationalities, while always, of course, leaving open the possibility of taking part in ad hoc non-ceremonial serendipitous one-time gatherings as well. The social calendar was crowded.

Y’sul had invited them to this private book-crystal-lined library room in his Thickeneers’ Club rather than to his home so that, as he explained, if they were too boring or in too great a hurry, he could get back without an over-great delay to his chums taking part in the ceremonial dinner and spree in the banqueting hall below.

“So, Fassin, good to see you!” Y’sul said. “Why have you brought this little dweller with you? Is she food?”

“No, of course not. She is a colleague.”

“Of course! Though there are no oerileithe Seers.”

“She is not a Seer.”

“Then not a colleague?”

“She has been sent to escort me, by the Mercatorial Military-Religious Order the Shrievalty Ocula.”

“I see.” Y’sul, dressed in his best smart-but-casual finery, all brightly coloured fringes and lacily ornate ruffs, rocked back, rotating slightly, then came forward again. “No, I don’t! What am I saying? What is this ‘Ocula’?”

“Well…”

It took a while to tell. After about a quarter of an hour — this all, thankfully, in real-time, with no slow-down factor — Fassin thought he’d pretty much briefed Y’sul as well and as completely as he could without giving too much away. The colonel had contributed now and again, not that Y’sul seemed to have taken any notice of her.

Y’sul was about fifteen thousand years old, a full-adult who was perhaps another one or two millennia away from becoming a traav, the first stage of Prime-hood. At nine metres vertical diameter (not including his semi-formal dinner clothes, whose impressive body ruff added another metre), he was about as large as a Dweller ever got. His double disc was nearly five metres across, the modestly clothed central axle barely visible as a separate entity, more of an unexpected thinning between the two great wheels. Dwellers shrank very slightly as they aged after mid-adulthood and slowly lost both hub and fringe limbs until, by the time they were in their billions, they were often nearly limb-disabled.

Even then they could still get about, as a rule. Their motive force came from a system of vanes extending from the inner and outer surfaces of their two main discs. These extended to beat — sometimes twisting to add extra impetus or to steer -and lay flat on the backstroke, so that a moving Dweller seemed to roll through the atmosphere. This was called roting. Very old Dwellers often lost the use of — or just lost — the vanes on the outside of their discs, but usually retained those on the inside so that no matter how decrepit they might get, they could still wheel themselves around.

“It boils down,” Y’sul said at the end, “to the fact that you are looking for the choal Valseir, to resume subject-specific studies in a library within his control.”

“Pretty much,” Fassin agreed.

“I see.”

“Y’sul, you have always been a great help to me. Can you help me in this?”

“Problem,” Y’sul said.

“Problem?” Fassin asked.

“Valseir is dead and his library has been consigned to the depths, or split up, possibly at random, amongst his peers, allies, families, co-specialists, enemies or passers-by. Probably all of the above.”

“Dead?” Fassin said. He let horror show on the signalling carapace of the gascraft; a quite specific whorl pattern which indicated being intellectually and emotionally appalled at the demise of a Dweller friend\acquaintance not least because they had died in the course of pursuing a line of inquiry that one was oneself deeply fascinated by. “But he was only a choal! He was billions of years from dying!”

Valseir had been about a million and a half years old and on the brink of passing from the Cuspian level to that of Sage. Choal was the last phase of being a Cuspian. The average age of progressing from Cuspian-choal to Sage-child was over two million years but Valseir had been judged by his elders and allegedly betters as being ready even at such a modest count of time. He was, or had been, a one-and-a-half-million-year-old prodigy. He had also, last time Fassin had seen him, seemed strong, vigorous and full of life. Agreed, he spent most of his life with his rotary snout stuck in a library and didn’t get out much, but still Fassin could not believe he was dead. The Dwellers didn’t even have any diseases he could have died of. How could he be dead?

“Yachting accident, if I recall,” Y’sul said. “Do I?” Fassin sensed the Dweller radioing an inforequest to the patch-walls of the library room. “Yes, I do! Yes, a yachting accident. His StormJammer got caught in a particularly vicious eddy and it came apart on him. Skewered with a main beam or a yard arm or something. On a brighter note, they salvaged most of the yacht before it descended to the Depths. He was a very keen sailor. Terribly competitive.” .

“When?” Fassin asked. “I heard nothing.”

“Not long ago,” Y’sul said. “Couple of centuries at the most.”

“There was nothing on the news nets.”

“Really? Ah! Wait.” (Another radioed inforequest.) “Yes. I understand he left instructions that in the event of his death it was to be regarded as a private matter.” Y’sul flexed his hub-mounted spindle-arms on either side. All of them. Right out. “Quite understand! Done the same myself.”

“Is there any record of what happened to his library?” Fassin asked.

Y’sul rocked back again, a pair of giant conical wheels rotating slowly away, then pitching forward once more. He hung in mid-gas and said, “D’you know what?”

“What?”

“No, there isn’t! Is that not strange?”

“We… I would really like to look into this matter further, Y’sul. Can you help us in this?”

“I most certainly… ah, talking about news nets, there is something about an unauthorised fusion explosion not far from the point you accessed the CloudTunnel from. Anything to do with you?”

Oh, shit, Fassin thought, again. “Yes. It would appear that somebody is trying to kill me. Or possibly the colonel here.” He waved at Hatherence’s esuit, still floating next to him. She had been silent for some time. Fassin was not certain this was a good sign.

“I see,” Y’sul said. “And talking about the good colonel, I am struggling to discover her authorisation. For being here at all, I mean.”

“Well,” Fassin said, “we were forced to take refuge in Nasqueron, some time before we imagined it would be necessary, due to unprovoked hostile action. The colonel’s permissions were being sought some time before we left but had not yet come through when we had to make our emergency entry. The colonel is, technically, here without explicit permission, and therefore throws herself upon your mercy as a shipwreckee, a wartime asylumee and a fellow gas-giant dweller in need of shelter.” Fassin turned and looked at the colonel, who shifted about her vertical axis to return his gascraft-directed gaze. “She claims sanctuary,” he finished.

“Provisionally given, of course,” Y’sul said. “Though the precise meaning of ‘unprovoked’ might be challenged in a wider context, and the exact definition of ‘shipwreckee’, equally, could well be open to dispute if one wished to be picky. That aside, though, do I understand there is some sort of dispute in progress, out amongst you people?”

“You understand correctly,” Fassin told the Dweller.

“Oh, not another one of your wars, please!” Y’sul protested, with a rolling-back of his whole body which was actually relatively easy for a human to interpret, correctly, as an equivalent of rolling one’s eyes. (Though, to be fair, there was quite a lot of Dweller gestures with this translation.)

“Well, pretty much, yes,” Fassin told him.

“Your passion for doing each other harm never ceases to amaze, delight and horrify!”

“I’m told there is to be a Formal War between Zone 2 and Belt C,” Fassin said.

“I too am told that!” Y’sul said brightly. “Do you really think it will happen? I’m not optimistic, frankly. Some appallingly good negotiators have been drafted in, I understand… Ah. Your hull carapace, doing the job of standing in, feebly, for the body you so sadly lack, bears marks upon it which I take to mean you were being sarcastic earlier.”

“Never mind, Y’sul.”

“Right then, shan’t. Now then: Valseir. There is a point of congruency”

“There is?”

“Yes!”

“With what? Between what and what?”

“His demise and this war we’ve been promised!”

“Really?”

“Yes! His old study — it is in the current zone of disputation, I believe.”

“But if it’s already been broken up—” Fassin began.

“Oh, there are bound to be back-ups, and I’m not even sure the old fellow has been finally put to rest.”

“After two hundred years?”

“Come now, Fassin, there were matters of probate.”

“And it’s in the war zone?”

“Very likely, yes! Isn’t it exciting? I think we ought to go there immediately!” Y’sul waved all his limbs at once. “Let’s form an expedition! We shall go together.” He looked at Hatherence. “You can even bring your little friend.”

— I have been considering whether to attempt to communicate with your Shared Facility, via your satellites or directly, the colonel told him.

· I wouldn’t, Fassin sent. — But if you decide you must, tell me before you try. I want to be well out of the volume.

· You think the same sort of attack directed against us following your “ping’ might be directed against us here?

· Probably not here, in a Dweller city. But then, why risk it? We don’t know that whoever’s been shooting at us quite understands what they’d be letting themselves in for, so they might just waste us and have to deal with the consequences later.

We won’t be around to jeer.

— We need to find out what is going on, Major Taak, Hatherence informed him.

— I know, and I’m going to send a request for information up to a sat from a remote site as soon as I’ve checked out what’s been going on via the local nets.

The colonel floated over to look at the enormous though ancient and highly directional flat screen which Fassin was using in his attempt to find out what had been happening. They were in Y’sul’s home, a ramshackle wheel-house in a whole vast district of equally shabby-looking wheel-houses hanging on skinny spindles underneath the city’s median level like a frozen image of an entire junkyard’s worth of exploded gearboxes.

Y’sul had escorted them back from his club in a state of some excitement. Then he’d left them alone, taken his servant Sholish and gone off in search of a decent tailor — his usual tailor had most inconveniently taken it into his mind to change trades and become a Dreadnought rating; probably trying to get in on the ground floor of this upcoming war.

— What have you found? the colonel asked, watching the flat screen fill with an image of the Third Fury moon. — Hmm. The moon appears almost undamaged.

— This is an old recording, Fassin explained. — I’m trying to find an updated one.

— Any mention of the hostilities?

— Not very much, Fassin told her, using a manipulator to work the massive, stiff controls of the old screen. — There’s been a mention on a minority radio news service, but that’s it.

— It is regarded as news, though? This is encouraging, I think?

— Well, don’t get too excited, Fassin sent. — We are talking about a station some amateurs run for the few people like themselves who are actually interested in things happening in the rest of the system; maybe a few thousand Dwellers out of a planetary population of five or ten billion.

· The number of Dwellers in Nasqueron is really that uncer-tain?

· Oh, I’ve seen estimates as low as two billion, as high as two hundred, even three.

· I encountered this degree of uncertainty in my research, Hatherence said as Fassin switched manually between channels, data sets and image-trails. — I recall thinking it must be a mistake. How can one be two base-ten orders of magnitude out? Can’t one just ask the Dwellers? Don’t they know themselves how many they are?

· You can certainly ask, Fassin agreed. He put some humour into his signal. — An old tutor of mine used to say of questions like this that the answers will prove far more illuminating regarding Dweller psychology than they will concerning their actual subject.

· They lie to you or they don’t know themselves?

· That is a good question too.

· They must have an idea, the Colonel protested. — A society has to know how many people it contains, otherwise how would it plan infrastructure and so on?

Fassin felt himself smiling. — That’s how it would work in pretty much any other society, he agreed.

· There are those who would assert that Dwellers are not in fact civilised, the colonel said thoughtfully, — that they could scarcely be said to possess a society in any single planet, and on a galactic scale cannot be said to constitute a civilisation at all. They exist rather in a state of highly developed barbarism.

· I’m familiar with the arguments, Fassin told her.

· Would you agree?

· No. This is a society. We are in a city. And even just in the one planet, this is a civilisation. I know the definitions will have changed over the years and you might take a different view from me, but in the history of my planet we’d refer to a civilisation based around a single river system or on a small island.

· I forget how small-scale one has to think when dealing with planets with solid-surface living-environments, the colonel said, apparently without meaning to insult. — But even so, the defi-nition of a civilisation has to move on when one ascends to the galactic stage, and the Dwellers, taken as a whole, might seem deficient.

· I think it comes down to one’s own definition of the terms, Fassin said. — Hold on; this looks promising.

He swung back from a mosaic of sub-screens to a single moving image. Third Fury again, though this time looking hazier, less defined, and shot from some distance away. The shallow domes of the Shared Facility were obvious if not clear, down near one tipped edge of the little moonlet. A flash on the surface away to one side, and a semi-spherical cloud of debris, spreading. A glowing crater left where the flash had come from.

· This looks like yesterday, Hatherence said.

· Does, doesn’t it? Fassin agreed. — Looks like it was taken from high up on Belt A or the south of Zone 2. Just some amateur pointing a camera. Fassin found how to spin the stored recording back and then forward, then discovered how to zoom in. — And that’s us.

They watched a cerise spot appear on a glittering blister near the edge of the Shared Facility, and could just make out the grainily defined debris of the hangar dome blowing outward in front of a sudden haze of quickly dissipating mist. A tiny dark grey dot rose from the shattered dome and crawled away: the drop ship, making its desperate dive for the planet.

Fassin spun the recording forward. The moon’s position altered quickly, flying away across the dark sky as Third Fury continued on its orbit and whoever was recording the images was whirled away in the opposite direction by the twenty-thousand-kilometre-wide jet stream beneath them. — Definitely Band A, Fassin said.

A brilliant white flash washed out the whole screen. It faded, and a crater kilometres across was left. Debris spread everywhere like a flower’s seed-head, just ready to shed, caught in a sudden hurricane. The interior of the crater was white, yellow, orange, red. The debris continued to spread. It looked like most of it would stay in more or less the same orbit as Third Fury itself.

They both watched in silence. The moon had changed shape. It wobbled, seemed to partially collapse in on itself, slowly, plastically resuming a spherical form after losing so much of its earlier mass. Yellow cloud tops came up in a near-flat line to meet it and the small glowing globe spun under the horizon.

Fassin let the recording play out and start to loop. He stopped it. The screen froze on the recording’s first image of Third Fury, almost overhead, just after the first impact.

· That did not look like a survivable event, the colonel sent.

Her sent voice sounded quiet.

· I think you’re right.

· I am very sorry. How many people would have been in the Shared Facility base?

· A couple of hundred.

· I saw no sign of your Master Technician’s craft, or of the attacks on us once we quit the drop ship.

Fassin compared the recording’s time code with the gascraft’s own event list. — Those happened after what we saw here, he told the colonel. — Over the horizon from where this recording was taken, anyway.

— So much for back-up or reinforcements. The colonel turned towards him. — We still go on, though, yes?

— Yes.

· So, now what, Fassin Taak?

· We need to talk to some people.

“So you want to communicate with your own kind?” Y’sul asked. “Via a relay at a remote site,” Fassin said.

“Why haven’t you done so already?”

“I wanted to get your permission.”

“You don’t need my permission. You just find a remote dish and send away. I suspect any vicarious effect on my kudos level will be too small to measure.”

They were in an antechamber of the city’s Administrator. The antechamber was a sizeable room furnished with wall hangings made from ancient CloudHugger hides, all yellow-red and whorled. A few sported the holes where the creatures had been punctured. One curved section of wall was a giant window, looking out over the vast floating scape of wheels that was Hauskip. Evening was starting to descend and lights were coming on throughout the city. Y’sul floated over to the window and caused it to hinge down by the unsubtle tactic of bumping into it reasonably hard. He then floated out over the impromptu bow of balcony so produced, muttering something about liking the view and maybe moving his own house up here. A breeze blew in, ruffling the old CloudHugger hides as though their long-dead occupants were still somehow fleeing from their hunters.

Colonel Hatherence leaned over towards Fassin. — This kudos thing, then, she sent. — It is really how they calculate their worth?

· I’m afraid so.

· So it’s the truth! I thought it was a joke.

· Distinguishing between the two is not a Dweller strong point.

Y’sul wandered back, failing to shut the window. His vanes made a quiet burring noise as he roted through the gas towards them. “Give me the message,” he said. “I’ll forward it.”

“Via an out-of-the-way transceiver?” Fassin asked.

“Of course!”

“Well, just send to Sept Bantrabal, letting them know I’m all right and asking whether they’re okay at their end. I imagine they already know what happened to the Third Fury moon. You might ask them whether anything has been heard of Master Technician Apsile and the drop ship which escaped the moon’s assault, and what happened to the ships supposed to be protecting Third Fury.”

“Ahem,” the colonel said.

They both looked at her. “Is this wise?” she asked.

“You mean should I pretend to be dead?” Fassin said.

“Yes.”

“That did occur to me. But there are people I’d like to know I’m alive.” He thought of that glimpse of a flash which might have been something hitting ’glantine while Third Fury was being bombarded. “And I’d like to know my friends and family are all right.”

“Of course,” the colonel said. “However, I wonder if it might be more sensible for me to communicate with my superiors first. We might ask Dweller Y’sul here to let me use this remote relay. Once a more secure link had been established, perhaps via one of the warships, which I assume are still somewhere around the planet, a message might be sent to your Sept to let them know you are well. None of which need take long.”

While Hatherence had been speaking, Y’sul had floated right up to her, seemingly intent on peering through the front plate of her esuit, which was in fact completely opaque, and indeed armoured. Eventually he was within a centimetre of her, towering above the oerileithe. The colonel did not retreat. One of Y’sul’s rim limbs tapped — more delicately this time — on the colonel’s esuit casing.

“Would you mind not doing that, sir?” she said frostily.

“Why are you still inside that thing, little dweller?” Y’sul asked.

“Because I am evolved for higher, colder levels with a different gas-mix and pressure gradient, Dweller Y’sul.”

“I see.” Y’sul drew back. “And you have a very strange accent and way with grammar. I swear this human speaks better than you do. What were you saying again?”

“I was asking you kindly to refrain from making physical contact with my esuit.”

“No, before that.” .

“I was suggesting I make contact with my superiors.”

“Military superiors?”

“Yes.”

Y’sul turned to Fassin. “That sounds more interesting than your plan, Fassin.”

“Y’sul, two hundred of my people died yesterday. If not more. I’d like—”

“Yes yes yes, but—”

“I might have to signal ’glantine direct, if no satellites are left,” Hatherence was saying, as a tall door swung up in one wall and a Dweller in ceremonial clothes poked its rim out.

“I’ll see you now,” said the City Administrator.

The Administrator’s office was huge, the size of a small stadium. It was ringed with holo-screen carrels. Fassin counted a hundred or so of the study stations, though only a few were occupied by Dwellers, mostly fairly young. There were no windows but the ceiling was diamond leaf, with most of the sections slid round to leave the place open to the rapidly darkening sky. Floatlamps bobbed, casting a soft yellow light over them as they followed the Administrator to her sunken audience area in the centre of the giant room.

“You are pregnant!” Y’sul exclaimed. “How delightful!”

“So people keep telling me,” the Administrator said sourly. Dwellers were, for want of a better term, male for over ninety-nine per cent of their lives, only changing to the female form to become pregnant and give birth. Becoming female and giving birth was regarded as a social duty; the fact that the obligation was more honoured than not made it unique in Dweller mores. It contributed mightily to one’s kudos tally and anyway had a sort of sentimental attraction for all but the most determinedly misanthropic members of the species (statistically, about forty-three per cent). Still, it was undeniably a burden, and very few Dwellers went through the experience without complaining mightily about it.

“I myself have thought of becoming female, oh, several times!” Y’sul said.

“Well, it’s overrated,” the City Administrator told him. “And particularly burdensome when one had an invitation to the forthcoming war that one is now apparently morally obliged to turn down. Please; take a dent.”

They floated to a series of hollows in the audience area and rested gently within them.

“Why, I too hope to be going to the war!” Y’sul said brightly. “Well, somewhere very near it, at least. I have only just now returned from my tailor’s after being measured for the most lately fashionable conflict attire.”

“Oh, really?” the Administrator said. “Who’s your tailor? Mine just left for the war.”

“Not Fuerliote?” Y’sul exclaimed.

“The same!”

“He was mine also!”

“Just the best.”

“Absolutely.”

“No, I had to go to Deystelmin.”

“Is he any good?”

“Weeeelll.” Y’sul waggled his whole double-discus. “One lives in hope. Good mirror-side manner, as it were, but will it translate into a flattering cut? That’s the question one has to ask oneself.”

“I know,” agreed the Administrator. “And off to become a junior officer on a Dreadnought!”

“Not even that! A rating!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Very lowly, for someone so distinguished!”

“I know, but a smart move. Getting in as a rating before the recruitment window even properly opens makes sense. The smoking-uniform effect.”

“Ah! Of course!”

Fassin tried making a throat-clearing noise in the midst of all this, but to no effect.

· The smoking-uniform effect? The colonel light-whispered to him.

· Dead men’s shoes, Fassin explained. — They only promote from within once hostilities have begun. If he’s lucky this tailor’s Dreadnought will suffer heavy damage and lose a few officers and he’ll end up an officer after all. If he’s really lucky he could rise to admiral.

Hatherence thought about this. — Would a tailor, however distinguished, necessarily make a good admiral?

— Probably no worse than the one he’d be replacing.

The problem was that to the Dwellers all professions were in effect hobbies, all posts and positions sinecures. This tailor that Y’sul and the City Administrator were babbling on about would have had no real need to be a tailor, he was just somebody who’d found he possessed an aptitude for the pastime (or, more likely, for the gossiping and fussing generally associated with it). He would take on clients to increase his kudos, the level of which would increase proportionally the more powerful were the people he tailored for, so that somebody in a position of civil power would constitute a favoured client, even if that position of power had come about through a lottery, some arcanely complicated rota system or plain old coercive voting — jobs like that of City Administrator were subject to all those regimes and more, depending on the band or zone concerned, or just which city was involved. The City Administrator, in return, would be able to drop casually into just the right conversations the fact she had such a well-known, high-kudos tailor. Obviously Y’sul had had sufficient kudos of his own to be able to engage the services of this alpha-outfitter too. People further down the pecking order would have employed less well-connected tailors, or just got their clothes from Common, which was Dweller for, in this particular case, off-the-peg, and in general just meant mass-produced, kudos-free, available-as-a-matter-of-right-just-because-you’re-a-Dweller… well, pretty much anything, up to and including spaceships.

Though having seen round a few Dweller spaceships, Fassin thought the stack-’em-high-and-give-them-away-free approach had its limitations.

“Indeed,” Y’sul was saying. “My own bid for JO status has been languishing for centuries and wasn’t even mentioned this time round. Entering as a rating seems demeaning, but it could pay off big if there are casualties.”

“Of course, of course,” the Administrator said, then fastened her gaze on the colonel. “What’s this?”

“An oerileithe, a little dweller,” Y’sul said, with what sounded like pride.

“Gracious! Not a child?”

“Or food. I asked.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the colonel said with as much dignity as she could muster. An oerileithe, it appeared, attracted even less respect amongst Dwellers than Fassin — and, he suspected, the colonel herself — had expected. The oerileithe had evolved relatively recently, quite independently of the vast, unutterably ancient mainstream of galactic Dwellerdom and as such were seen by their more venerable co-gas-giant-inhabitants as something between an annoying collective loose end and a bunch of impudent, planet-usurping interlopers.

“And this must be the Slow Seer.” The Administrator looked briefly at Fassin’s gascraft before returning her gaze to Y’sul. “Do we need to talk slowly for it?”

“No, Administrator,” Fassin said before Y’sul could reply. “Iam running on your timescale at the moment.”

“How fortunate!” She flicked to one side and stabbed at a screen remote, her frontal radius edge lit up by the holo’s glow.

“Hmm. I see. So all the mayhem of the last day or two is your fault, then?”

“Has there been much mayhem, ma’am?”

“Well, the partial destruction of a close-orbit moon would fit most people’s definition of mayhem,” the Administrator said pleasantly. “An attractive feature in the sky whenever one ventured towards the cloud tops. Been there millions of years, slagged within a few per cent of breaking up completely, a ring of debris scattered round its orbit, that orbit itself changed significantly, causing everything else up there to have to shuffle round to accommodate the alteration, a small bombardment of debris across three bands, some chunks narrowly missing several items of infrastructure with more than sentimental value and others setting off automatic planetary-defence laser batteries, a cascade of satellite destruction that has yet to be put entirely right. Oh, and an unauthorised fusion explosion. Middle of nowhere, granted, but still. None of this, happily, within my jurisdiction, but trouble does appear to be rather following you around, human Taak, and here you are in my city.” The Administrator rolled fractionally towards Fassin’s gascraft. “Thinking of staying long?”

“Well—” Fassin began.

“The human is under my protection, Administrator!” Y’sul interrupted. “I vouch for it entirely and will continue to accept all kudos consequences regarding its actions. I shall take all steps necessary to safeguard it from whatever hostile forces may wish it ill. May I count on your support for the expedition the human insists on making into the war zone?”

“Given,” the Administrator said.

“How splendid! We can be ready to leave within a couple of days. Especially if the tailor Deystelmin is persuaded to prioritise my combat-clothing order.”

“I’ll have a word.”

“Too kind! I swear I shall never nominate you for a coercive vote again!”

“My gratitude knows no bounds.”

If Dwellers could grit their teeth, Fassin thought, the Administrator’s words would have been spoken through them. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said.

“Yes, human Taak?”

“Have you any word on events elsewhere in the system?”

“As I say, the various rings and moons are shifting fractionally in their orbits to accommodate—”

“I think he means the stellar system, not that of Nasqueron,” Colonel Hatherence said.

The two Dwellers turned to look at her. Dwellers had sensing bands all the way round their outer rims, plus eye bubbles low on their outer hubs. They were not known as the best glarers in the galaxy but they were always willing to give it their best shot. To a Dweller, their own planet was pretty much everything. Most gas-giants had many more moons than the average stellar system possessed planets, and most radiated a lot more energy than they received from the star they orbited, their heat-transfer systems, weather and ecology arising largely from processes internal to the planet itself, not dependent on sunlight. Their inhabitants had to pay close attention to the skies, basically to watch out for incoming, but even that consideration led to an obviously gas-giant-centred way of thinking. The local star and the rest of its planetary system was of relatively little interest to the average Dweller.

“That is not quite what I meant,” Fassin told them quickly. “The moon ’glantine, for example; has it been harmed?”

“Not to my knowledge,” the Administrator said, with another stern look at Hatherence.

“And the military ships that were in orbit around Third Fury?” the colonel asked.

(- Shh! Fassin signalled Hatherence.

— No! she sent back.)

“What ships?” the Administrator said, apparently mystified.

“How about the planet Sepekte?” Fassin said.

“I have no idea,” the Administrator told him. She fixed her gaze on Fassin. “Is this why you wished to see me? To ask after the welfare of moons and distant planets?”

“No, ma’am. The reason that I wanted to see you is that I am worried that there may be a threat to Nasqueron.”

“You are?” blurted Y’sul.

“Really?” the Administrator said with a sigh.

Even Hatherence was turned to look at him.

“There is a war beginning amongst the Quick, ma’am,” Fassin told the Administrator. “It is going to come to Ulubis and it is not impossible that some of the forces taking part may wish to involve Nasqueron and its Dwellers in that war in some way.”

The Administrator rolled fractionally back and sucked her outer trim-frill in, the Dweller equivalent of a frown.

(- Major? the colonel sent. — You said nothing of this. What do you base this on? Is there something you’re not telling me?

— A hunch. Just trying to get their attention. And I should point out that it’s considered impolite to signal-whisper like this.)

The Administrator continued to look at Fassin for a moment, then turned to Y’sul. Ts this human normally mad?”

Y’sul made a sucking sound. “Down to definitions.”

“Nasqueron might be vulnerable to a further bombardment,” Fassin persisted. “Even to some sort of raid.”

“Ha!” Y’sul laughed.

“We are not defenceless, human Taak!” the Administrator said loudly.

No, but your spaceships are leaky antiques and your planetary defences are set up for dumb rocks, Fassin thought wearily. You talk a good defence, but if the Epiphany 5 invaders decide to attack, or the Mercatoria decides I’m dead and they plump for a more obvious way to get hold of whatever might be in Valseir’s library, you won’t be able to do much to stop them. Going on what I’ve seen, a single Navarchy Military destroyer could lay waste to your whole planet, over time.

“Of course not,” he agreed. “But I would ask you to pass this information on to the relevant authorities. You will be still better defended if you are prepared.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” the Administrator told him levelly.

Oh shit, Fassin thought. You’re going to do fuck all. You aren’t going to bother telling anybody.

Y’sul was looking up. “What’s that?” he asked.

Fassin experienced a moment of horror. He looked up too. A stubby vaned cylinder a couple of metres high was hovering vertically above them in the darkness outside the ceiling’s still-open diamond petals. It was pointing something long and dark at them.

The Administrator groaned. “Oh no,” she said. “That is the press.”

“Sholish! My good cuirass, you witless rind-nibbling waste of gas!”

Y’sul threw a piece of armour across the room at his servant.

The camo-painted carbon plate spun through the gas, changing colours rapidly as it tried to adapt, narrowly missed several other Dwellers — the large room was crowded and people had to duck, bob or dodge — just avoided Sholish and embedded itself in a FloatTree panel, producing a distinct thunk. Before it had much of a chance to blend in, Sholish tugged it out of the wall and disappeared into a side chamber, muttering.

“Excuse me,” Colonel Hatherence said sharply to a Dweller who’d just bumped into her in the general shuffling that had spread through the room to give the thrown piece of armour a clear trajectory.

“Excused!” the Dweller said, then continued his conversation with another of Y’sul’s relations.

Y’sul was getting ready to quit Hauskip and leave for the war along with his charges, Fassin and the oerileithe. His new combat clothing had arrived just that morning (kudos-enhancingly quickly!) along with various gifts from friends and family, most of whom, it seemed, had thought it best to show up in person to present their mostly useless or positively dangerous gifts and offer vast amounts of generally contradictory but extremely loudly proffered advice.

Y’sul, flattered and excited to be the centre of so much attention, had invited them all into his dressing room for snacks and whatever while he tried on all his new clothing, checked that his antique, inherited familial armour still more or less fitted and played with all the new bits and pieces he’d been given. Fassin counted over thirty Dwellers in the chamber, which was one of the larger spaces in the wheel-shaped house. There was a saying to the effect that one Dweller constituted an argument-in-waiting, two a conspiracy and three a riot. Quite what a gathering of thirty-plus was supposed to represent he wasn’t sure, but it would assuredly have nothing to do with silence or subtlety. The noise rang off the curved walls. The clothing competed for loudness. Expressive patterns spread across exposed carapace skin like flip-books of geometric artwork. Magnetic chatter swirled, infrasound bounced confusion from one wall to another and a heady mix of pheromones bathed the place in frantic currents of Dweller hilarity.

— Are there other guides-cum-guards we might employ beside this one? Hatherence asked, pressing up to the wall beneath where Fassin floated as another Dweller bearing gifts arrived and pushed his way through the throng towards Y’sul.

— Not really, Fassin told her. — Y’sul suffered a significant kudos-loss within the Guard-mentors Guild taking on an alien outworlder, back when he agreed to be Uncle Slovius’s mentor. He got that back eventually but it was a brave thing to do. Few of them will accept that kind of loss. Starting from scratch to find somebody new would take years, even if Y’sul did agree.

Something small, round, pink and gooey bumped into the top of the colonel’s esuit, and stuck. She batted it away. — What are all these things? she said, exasperated.

— Just hospitality, Fassin sent, with a resigned expression.

Floating, drifting round the room were bobfruits, flossballs, chandelier-gumbushes and wobbling breezetrays loaded with sweetmeats, mood-balloons, narcopastes and party-suppositories. The guests helped themselves, eating, ingesting, snorting, rubbing and inserting away as appropriate. The noise seemed to be swelling by the minute, as was the collision rate — always a sure indicator that Dwellers were getting out of it (lots of loud bumps, hasty cries of “Excuse me!’, sudden, alarming tiltings, and bursts of the sort of especially raucous laughter which invariably accompanied the realisation by a Dweller that one of its companions had lost control of their buoyancy).

· Oh dear, Fassin said. — I do believe this is turning into a party.

· Are these people intoxicated? Hatherence asked, sounding genuinely shocked.

Fassin looked at her, letting his incredulity show. — Colonel, he told her, — they are rarely anything else.

There was a bang and a yelp from somewhere near where Y’sul floated. A bobfruit exploded in mid-gas and fell limply to the floor. People nearby wiped foamy pieces of fruit off their clothes.

“Oops!” Y’sul said, amidst widespread laughter.

· He can’t be the only guide! the colonel protested. — What about other Seers? They must have guides too.

· They do, but it’s a one-to-one thing, an exclusive relationship. Abandoning your Guard-mentor would be a terrible insult. They’d lose all kudos.

· Major Taak, we cannot afford to be sentimental here! If there is even a possibility that we might find a better, less idiotic guide, we ought at least to start looking.

— The Guard-mentors are a Guild, colonel. They run a closed shop. If you dumped one of them, none of the rest would touch you. You’d certainly then find some clown who’d offer to act as a guide, mentor, guard, whatever — in fact they’d probably have to form a queue — but they’d be very young and stupid, or very old and, ah, eccentric, and they’d assuredly get you into far more trouble than they were ever likely to get you out of. The Guard-mentors Guild would harass them from the start, for one thing, and the vast majority of other Dwellers wouldn’t talk to you at all. Librarians, archive-keepers, antiquarians, exo-specialists — all the people we most need to talk to, in other words — in particular would not even give you the time of day.

They made room for Y’sul’s servant, Sholish, returning from the side chamber with a two-piece, highly polished, mirror-finished cuirass. Sholish was an adolescent, only a few hundred years old, barely three-quarters grown and skinny. Personal servants, always at least two generational stages younger than their masters, were fairly common in Dweller society, especially where the senior Dweller was bothering to pursue a hobby-cum-profession which actually involved a degree of study and\or training, when the servant had a fighting chance of picking up the basics of the given trade. The better masters regarded their servants more as apprentices than servants and the occasional especially aberrant ones treated their underlings almost as equals.

Y’sul had yet to fall prey to such sentimentality.

“And about time, you custard-brained phlegm-wart!” Y’sul yelled, snatching the cuirass from Sholish’s grasp. “Did you have to forge and weave the armour yourself? Or did you start gazing at your own reflection and lose all track?”

Sholish mumbled, retreated.

— I refuse to accept that we are as powerless as you imply, major, the colonel told Fassin.

He turned to look at the oerileithe. — We are here very much on sufferance, colonel. The Dwellers can go off entire species of Seers, for no accountable reason. Nobody’s ever worked out a pattern to this. You just suddenly find that you and your kind aren’t welcome any more. It doesn’t usually happen while they’re still getting to know a new-to-civilisation species, but even that’s no guarantee. They certainly get fed up with individuals — I’ve seen it happen — and that’s equally random. Every time I come down here I have to accept that no matter how friendly and helpful everybody might have been during my last visit — (the colonel gave a sceptical laugh) — they might have nothing more to do with me this time or ever again. In fact, they might tell me I’ve got a day to get out or become the object of a hunt. And a Seer faces that prospect every single time they delve, either remotely or directly. We just have to get used to it. They don’t even need to have met you; there are records of Seers-to-be who’ve spent decades getting trained up, who’ve been part of respected Seer Septs going back millennia who’ve been about to go on their very first delve and been told not to bother and to stay away for ever. It’s a minor miracle they’ve accepted you the way they have. And don’t forget the only reason you’re not constantly being challenged as an interloper is because Y’sul is on record as vouching for you.

· You are saying we are stuck with this buffoon.

· We are. I know it’s hard to believe, but he’s one of the better ones.

· Core help us. Why waste time? I shall apply for my posthu-mous decoration immediately.

The Volunteer Guild of Guard-mentors existed to look after Dwellers visiting from other bands of the same planet, or, very rarely, from another gas-giant, usually one within the same stellar system. Dwellers — almost always alone — did make journeys from one stellar system to another, but it didn’t happen often and it usually meant that the individual concerned had been thrown out of their own home gas-giant for some particularly heinous crime or unforgivable character defect.

The Dwellers had pretty much stopped making deep space trips en masse after the Second Diasporian Age, when the galaxy had been half the age it was now. It was generally held that seven billion years’ lack of practice probably accounted for the sheer awfulness of Dweller spaceship design and building standards, though Fassin wasn’t convinced that cause and effect hadn’t been confused here.

They were due to leave for the war zone the following day. The interval since the frustrating audience with the City Administrator had been spent fending off Dweller journalists and their news remotes and trying to find out what they could about events in the wider system. Eventually they’d had to compromise and trade. One journalist got a very guarded but exclusive interview from Fassin (very guarded indeed — Colonel Hatherence kept coughing loudly whenever they approached any subject remotely to do with their mission) in return for news of the outside.

The Third Fury moon had been devastated and all on or in it had perished. There was no news of a drop ship surviving, though equally there was no news of any wreckage from such a ship being found. However, of course, if it had just dropped into the Depths… Many satellites had been destroyed or damaged. Those belonging to the Quick (this meant the Mercatoria) appeared to be either missing or out of action. Some warships belonging to the current local Quick species had spent an amount of time investigating the rubble of the moon Third Fury. The moon ’glantine appeared much as it always had. Stellar-system ship traffic appeared light, as it had for some days now, but not anomalous. A signal had been sent on the behalf of Oculan Colonel Hatherence, on the authority of Guard-mentor Y’sul of Hauskip, to the moon ’glantine. No reply had yet been received. Nothing untoward had happened to the transmitting station responsible following the transmission.

According to the journalist, this was all stuff they could have found out themselves, eventually. The trick was knowing where to look. The journalist seemed to feel miffed that they’d got the better end of the deal, too, because everything he’d told them was at least ninety per cent true, specifically to avoid upsetting them. He knew aliens could be funny that way.

“What, exactly, did your friend say?”

“He said they wanted him to… ‘to gas-line a whole bunch of stuff for…’ I’m pretty certain those were his exact words. Then he seemed to realise he was saying too much, giving too much away, and he changed the subject. The… hesitation, that sudden change of subject made the earlier form of words all the more important. He realised he was speaking to somebody who spent a lot of his life in Nasqueron, who might not feel the same way he would about the implications of what he was talking about.”

“This was spoken in…?”

“Humanised G-Clear, very close to this. Meanings are pretty much identical, just altered pronunciation for the human voice.”

“No Anglish words involved?”

“None.”

“So, he said ‘gas-lined’ not ‘streamlined’ or ‘air-lined’?”

“One wouldn’t say ‘air-lined’ as far as I know. The normal form of words would be ‘streamlined’. He chose ‘gas-lined’ without thinking because it was more technically correct, because it has a narrower meaning. In this context it means altering a vacuum-capable craft so that it can also operate in an atmosphere like Nasqueron’s.”

“Which you take to mean that an invasion or large-scale destructive raid upon us is imminent?”

“I think some sort of raid is a distinct possibility.”

“This seems a thin thread to hang such a weighty fear upon.”

“I know. But please understand, the guy’s company builds and refits three-quarters of the system’s war craft. The phrase ‘gas-lined’ is quite specific and that sudden change of tack when he realised he was talking to somebody who might be sentimentally or emotionally attached to Nasqueron and sympathetic towards Dwellers is significant. I know this man, I’ve known him since I was a child. I know how his mind works.”

“Attempting to invade a gas-giant would, nevertheless, be a momentous action. In seven thousand years, the Mercatoria has done no such thing.”

“The situation is desperate for them locally. They are under threat of invasion within the year. A standard year, not one of yours. Help is at least one more standard year away beyond that. In fact, the invasion may already be beginning. The attacks on Third Fury and the Mercatoria’s other assets around Nasq. could be part of it.”

“And attempting to invade us helps them how?”

“They think there may be something here which will make a difference. Some information. That’s why I’m here, to look for it. But if they thought I was dead or not likely to succeed, the Mercatoria might intervene directly. Plus the invaders the Mercatoria is worried about might well think the same way with even less cause to hesitate. I get the impression the future continuance of Dweller Studies is kind of low on their set of priorities.”

“Fassin, what sort of information could possibly make such a course of action seem sensible?”

“Important information.”

“More specifically?”

“Very important information.”

“You are not willing to tell me.”

“Willing or able. Best you don’t know.”

“So you tell me.”

“If I thought the specifics would help convince you, I’d let you know,” Fassin lied.

He was talking to a Dweller called Setstyin. Setstyin liked to call himself an influence pedlar, which was a humble term for somebody with contacts extending as high as his went. Dweller society was remarkably flat in terms of social hierarchy — flat as the surface of a neutron star compared to the sheer verti-cality of the Mercatoria’s baroque monstrosity — but to the extent that there was a top and bottom of society, the suhrl Setstyin was in touch with both.

He was a society host and a part-time social worker, a hospital visitor and a friend to the great and good as far as either could be said to exist in Dweller terms; a sociable, clubbable creature intensely and genuinely interested in other people, more so even than in kudos (this made him very unusual, even strange, almost threatening). He was, in human terms, somewhere between a total geek and very cool. His geekiness was that bizarre failure to care about the one thing that everybody agreed really mattered: kudos, while his coolness came from the same source, because not caring about kudos — not obsessing about it, not chasing it down wherever it might be found, not constantly measuring one’s own coolness against that of one’s peers — was in itself kind of cool. As long as there was not the faintest shadow of a suspicion he was playing some weird back-game, deliberately pursuing kudos by pretending not to, so long as his lack of interest in it was seen as being the unaffected carelessness of a kind of wise naif, he was kudos-rich, though in a curiously unenviable way.

(It had been Slovius who had first explained to Fassin how kudos worked. Fassin had thought it was a bit like money. Slovius had explained that even money wasn’t like money used to be, but anyway kudos was sometimes almost an opposite. The harder you’d worked for your kudos, the less it was worth.) Setstyin was also one of the most sensible, level-minded Dwellers Fassin had ever encountered. And he treated a request by a mere human to wake up, speed up and converse over the phone with a degree of respect and seriousness that few other Dwellers would have.

Fassin had told Hatherence he needed time to let his human brain and body sleep, and his arrowcraft self-repair and recharge itself. He’d retreated to the long spoke room he’d been allocated in Y’sul’s house. This was a dark and dusty gallery littered with piles of discarded clothes, lined with ancient wardrobes and floored with out-of-favour paintings and crumpled wall hangings. There was a double-dent Dweller bed in there too and a treefoam-lined cubby by one wall, so it kind of constituted a bedroom, not that Fassin or his gascraft really needed such a thing.

Fassin had secured the door, used the little arrowcraft’s sonic senses to locate a removable ceiling panel and exited through the double skin roof into a breezy and relatively dark night.

Like all Dweller cities, Hauskip was situated in a historically calm patch within its atmospheric volume, but cities still had weather. They experienced pressure differentials, squalls, fog, rain, snow, crosswinds, upwellings, down draughts, lateral force and spin, all depending on the state of the gas stream around them. Moderately buffeted, half-hidden by the shreds of thicker gas scudding across the lamplit night, Fassin had made his way up and out across the sheen of rooftops.

Sky traffic had been relatively light — most travel would be within the spindles and spokes linking the city’s main components — but there had been a few Dwellers roting about in the distance, and enough small craft — packet-delivery machines, mostly — for Fassin to hope he was going unremarked.

Distant lightning had flickered deep below.

Fassin had come to a dangling wave-guide cable a few centimetres thick, followed it up to a deserted public plaza like a vast, empty bowl circled with dim, attenuated lights, and found a public screen booth.

Setstyin was also in the equatorial band, though on the other side of the planet. Fassin might therefore have hoped to find him awake at such a time, but Setstyin had been sleeping off the effects of an especially good party he’d hosted the night before. Dwellers could go for tens of their days without sleep but when they did sleep they tended to do so on a prodigious scale. Fassin had begged and pleaded with Setstyin’s servant to have him woken and even then it had taken a while. Setstyin looked and sounded groggy, but it appeared that his mind was fully awake inside there somewhere.

“And you would like me to do what?” Setstyin asked. He scratched at his gill fringe with one spindle arm. He was wearing a light sleep collar round his mid-hub, which was regarded as a polite minimum when addressing someone other than a close friend or family member over the phone. Dwellers were hardly self-conscious about showing their inner-hub mouth parts and pleasure organs, but there was a degree of decorum in such matters, especially when confronted with an alien. “What shall I say, Fassin, and to whom?”

A gust of wind made the arrowcraft’s vanes purr to hold it in place as Fassin looked into the camerascreen. “Convince whoever you can, preferably as high as you can reach, preferably discreetly, that there really is a threat. Give them time to decide what they’re going to do if there is a raid. It may be best just to let it happen. What you don’t want to do is have an unthinking hostile reaction that leads to some maniac Quick nuking a city or two to try to teach you a lesson.”

Setstyin looked confused. “How would that benefit anybody?”

“Please, just trust me — it’s the sort of thing Quick species do.”

“You want me to talk to politicians and military people, then, yes?”

“Yes.” Politicians and military people in Dweller society were as much amateurs and dilettantes as gifted tailors or devout party-throwers like Setstyin — possibly a little less dedicated -but you had, Fassin reflected, to work with what you were presented with.

Setstyin looked thoughtful. “They’re not going to go with an invasion.”

This was true, Fassin supposed. In the full sense of the word an invasion was impossible. The Ulubis forces were hopelessly inadequate for the task of occupying a volume as great as Nasqueron or any other gas-giant, even if it had been inhabited by a congenitally peaceful, naturally subservient and easily cowed species rather than, well, Dwellers. Attempting to control the place with Dwellers around would be like peeing into a star. The danger was that, in carrying out a raid to secure a given volume for long enough to hunt down the information they were looking for, the Mercatoria would cause the Dwellers to react as though they were undergoing a full-scale invasion. It seemed to be part of Dweller psychology that if something was worth reacting to, it was even more worth overreacting to, and Fassin dreaded to think what that might imply for all sides.

“Stress an extended raid and temporary site occupation with aggressive patrols that might be mistaken for an invasion.”

“Whereabouts?” Setstyin asked. “Or are you really going to tell me you have no idea?”

“I understand we’re going to be looking in or very near the new Formal War zone.”

Setstyin let his hub arms droop down at his side. This was something like a human rolling their eyes. “Well, of course, where else?”

“I don’t suppose there’s the slightest possibility that the war might be cancelled or postponed?”

“There is always a chance, but it certainly won’t have anything to do with a mere party animal like myself having a word in even the highest-placed ear. Think: there might be the possibility of genuine hostile action against us, an act of alien aggression within the winds of Nasqueron itself and the suggestion is we call off a Formal War? More likely we’ll start a few more to show how jolly fierce we are and get some practice in.”

“Just thought I’d ask.”

“When do you set off for the war zone?”

“Tomorrow morning, Hauskip local time.”

“There you are. In plenty of time for the war’s opening ceremony”

“I may have other things on my mind.”

“Hmm. You realise that me having a word on high may well result in you being tracked, watched by interested parties?”

“Whereas that would never happen normally? But yes, I realise that.”

“Well, I wish you well, Fassin Taak.”

“Thanks.”

Setstyin peered at the camerascreen, looking at Fassin’s surroundings. “Y’sul out of kudos with the phone operators?”

“I have an additional Guard-mentor in the shape of an oerileithe Mercatoria military colonel. She might not understand my concern. I sneaked out to make the call.”

“Very cloak, very dagger. Good luck with your quest, Fassin. Do keep in touch.”

* * *

“If you’re watching this, Sal, then I’m dead. Obviously I don’t know what the circumstances of that death may have been. Like to think I died bravely and honourably in combat. Kind of don’t think you’ll be watching this because my clogs were popped peacefully in my sleep because I don’t mean for that to happen, at least not until something’s happened that involves you. Dying peacefully… actually, hopefully, that would mean you’re already dead.

“The thing that involves you sort of involves Fass, too, though not in the same way. Involves you and me and Fass and Ilen. Poor dead Ilen. Ilen Deste, Sal. You remember her? Maybe you don’t. It’s been so long, for all of us, for all these strange different reasons that end up being just the same. You with your treatments, Fass with his slowtime, me all Einsteined out with too much time near light speed. Time hasn’t ever caught up with any of us, has it, Sal?

“But I’m thinking you probably do remember Ilen and what happened to her, because it was all so traumatic for us, wasn’t it? You don’t forget anything about something that dramatic and horrible, not really. How can you? You have nightmares about it, it sneaks up on you even in the day sometimes, too. Do you find that? I get that. Sometimes it’s something really obvious, like seeing something on screen of somebody hanging by their fingertips over a drop, especially if it’s a woman. Of course in the screen they usually get rescued. Not always, but usually. But then other times what happened just… ambushed me. I’ll be doing something completely normal, with no… cues, no… stimulus that you can see any logical reason would trigger the memories, and suddenly I’m there, I’m back again, back in that big old motherfucker of a ship, with you and Fass and Ilen.

“Do you get that? I get it still, even after all these years. You’d have thought it would have stopped happening by now, wouldn’t you? Hell, even without all those stolen years near c, you’d have thought it should have, you know, withered, fallen away? Look at me; sixty-one years old, body-time, they tell me. Fitter than ever, still bedding guys a third my age, and — do I look sixty? Hope not. But I should have got over the whole thing by now, don’t you think? Time a great healer and all that. Just hasn’t happened.

“So, do you get anything similar? Is this ringing any bells at all? Really, I’d like to know. Maybe we’ll find out, one day. Maybe I’ll have got to ask this and you’ll never get to see this but we’ll have found out together. Maybe somebody else will get to see this. It isn’t really meant for anybody else, but, well, this is a high-risk occupation, and who knows what’ll happen after this is made?

“Anyway, point is: I know what happened, and I intend to kill you, Sal. Or, I did. As I say, if it is you who’s watching this, I’m dead and you’re still alive. But I want you to know it isn’t going to end there. Got serious intentions of pursuing you from beyond the grave, Sal, old son. Won’t be easy, realise that, but I’ve spent my entire career getting myself into a position of power. Making myself so powerful within the Navy that I can click my fingers and battleships power up, set course and ship out. Building networks, making friends, finding allies, taking lovers, taking exams, running risks, all so that I’ll have the power one day to challenge a man who, oh, must nearly own the system by now. The portal collapse nearly threw me — put my plans back a long way — but I reckon you’ll still be alive and loving life when I finally do get home, or when what’s planned to happen in the event of my death starts happening.

“Can’t tell you too much, obviously. No reason to give you any sort of warning at all. And all the advantages are on your side already, aren’t they? Well, maybe apart from surprise. You surprised now? If you’re listening to this, watching this? Wondering what’s going to happen?? Well, wonder away. Wonder away, Sal, and don’t stop wondering, don’t stop being frightened, because being frightened might keep you alive a bit longer. Not too long. Definitely not too long, but long enough.

“I suppose that’s enough now, don’t you think? Definitely the longest speech either of us ever delivered even while we were together, way back when, wouldn’t you say? Maybe almost more than we ever said to each other put together. Well, almost.

“Let me explain, in case you still haven’t got it: I saw the marks, Sal. I saw the three red lines on your neck, before you put your jacket collar up. Remember that? Remember pretending to shiver and saying, ‘C-collar,’ or whatever it was? Remember? Just one of those little false notes that you don’t notice at the time because of all the fear and adrenalin, that doesn’t start to nag at you until long afterwards. Kept that collar up afterwards, too, didn’t you? Kept the jacket on like some sort of comfort blanket until you could get to a bathroom and a first-aid kit, didn’t you? I remember. And when I was reaching down to Ilen, I saw her fingernails. With the blood under them. Saw them very distinctly. Fass didn’t; still has no idea, even yet. But I saw them. I wasn’t entirely sure about the marks on your neck, but then I checked. Remember that last farewell fuck, a couple of weeks later? Just checking. They were very faint by then, of course, but they were there all right.

“You always wanted her, didn’t you, Sal? Always so desired the beautiful Ilen. Did you think because she went into the ship with you she was saying yes? Did you? Did she, then changed her mind? Doesn’t really matter, I suppose. I saw what I saw.

“You know what’s funny, too? I was there, even if you weren’t. Ilen and I. Just the once, but that’s something else I’ll never forget, either. Oh, you’d have loved to have been there for that, wouldn’t you? Bet you would. I slept with Fass, too, afterwards, just to complete the set. Much better than you, by the way.”

The uniformed figure sat forward, right up to the camera, staring into it, voice going quiet and low.

“Iwas coming to get you, Sal. If you’re watching this then I didn’t make it, not personally, but even from beyond the grave, I’m still fucking coming to get you.”

The image froze, then faded. A hand, shaking only slightly, reached out and turned the viewer off.

FOUR:

EVENTS DURING WARTIME

It was a truism that there was not just one galaxy, there were many. Every variety of widely spread sentient life — plus a few creat categories which were arguably non-sentient though still capable of interstellar travel — and sometimes even every individual species-type tended to have one galaxy to itself. The Faring — a trans-category that covered all such beings able and willing to venture beyond their own immediate first-habitats -were like the citizens of a vast, fully three-dimensional but mostly empty city with multitudinous and varied travel systems. The majority of people were content to walk, and made their slow progress by way of an infinitude of quiet, effectively separate deserted streets, quiet parks, vacant lots, remains of wasteland and an entire unmapped network of paths, pavements, alleys, steps, ladders, wynds and snickets. They almost never encountered anybody en route, and when they got to where they were going, it would be somewhere very similar to the place they had departed from, whether that place had been a star’s photosphere, a brown dwarf’s surface, a gas-giant’s atmosphere, a comet cloud or a region of interstellar space. Such species were generally called the Slow.

The Quick were different. Mostly originating from rocky planets of one sort or another, they lived at a higher speed and could never be content forever plodding from place to place. That they had been forced to do so until a viable wormhole network had been established was regarded as quite bad enough. Wormhole access portals were the pinch-points of the worm-hole system — the city’s underground stations — where people of varying species-types were forced to meet and to some extent mingle, though given the tiny amount of time one spent near a portal or within a wormhole, even this seemingly profound tying-together made very little difference to the ultimate unconnectedness of the many different life-strands, and both before they gathered and after they dispersed, the users of the system still tended to congregate at places specific to their own comfort criteria, usually quite different from those of all the others.

Many people regarded the Cincturia as the equivalent of animals: birds, dogs, cats, rats and bacteria. They too lived in the city, but were not responsible for it or entirely answerable to it, and were often to a greater or lesser degree inimical to its smooth running.

Accounting for the Rest — the non-baryonic Penumbrae, the 13-D Dimensionates and the flux-dwelling Quantarchs — was a little like discovering that the ground, the fabric of the city’s buildings and their foundations plus the air itself were each home to another sort of life altogether.

The Mercatoria — largely but not entirely made up the galaxy’s current crop of oxygen breathers — inhabited its own galaxy, then, as did all the other categories of life, and all these different galaxies existed alongside every other one, each interpenetrating the rest, surrounded by and surrounding the others, yet hardly affecting or being affected by them, except, sometimes, through the inestimably precious and all too easily destroyed wormhole network.

Us? Oh, we were like ghosts in the cabling.

* * *

Slave-children were crawling along the giant blades of one of the Dreadnought’s main propellers, packing welding gear, back-sacks of carbon weave and heavy glue-throwers. The pulsing drone of the vessel’s engines and main propulsion thrummed through the wrap-cloak of brown, billowing mist, filling the slipstreamed gas and the structure of the huge ship with buzzing, building, rising and fading harmonics like a vast unending symphony of industrial sound.

Fassin and the colonel watched from an open gantry overlooking the ring of giant engines as the two teams of Dweller infants crawled along the massive blades to the warped and flapping blade ends.

The starboard-most propeller had been hit by a section of DewCloud root. The root had fallen out of the clouds above, probably from a dying DewCloud floating and decomposing tens of kilometres above. DewClouds were enormous, foamy plants anything up to ten kilometres across and five or six times that in height. Like all gas-giant flora, they were mostly gas -a Dweller in a hurry could probably rip right through the canopy of one, hardly noticing they were in the midst of a plant, not an ordinary cloud. To a human they looked like some monstrous cross between an elongated mushroom and a jellyfish the size of a thunder cloud. Part of an Ubiquitous clade, found wherever Dwellers were, they harvested water condensation out of Dwellerine gas-giant atmospheres, using their dangling, thick and relatively solid roots to exploit the temperature difference between the various atmospheric layers.

When they approached the ends of their lives they floated up to the cold cloud tops and the higher haze layers, and bits broke off. The Dreadnought had prop guards to stop floating\falling\ rising stuff interfering with its main propulsion units, but the section of root had slipped in between the guard and the propeller itself, wreaking brief havoc with the thirty-metre-long vanes before being chewed up and thrown out. Now the child-slaves had to climb out along the blades, from the hubs to the tips, to make repairs. Shaped like slim deltas with thin, delicate-looking tentacles which had to both clamp them on to the still-revolving blades and hold the various repair materials, the infants were making heavy weather of it. Dweller officers in motor skiffs rode nearby, bellowing orders, threats and imprecations at the young.

“They could just stop the fucking propeller,” the colonel shouted to Fassin. The open gantry they were holding on to was four-fifths, of the way back from the bulbous nose of the giant ship, an ellipsoid a little over two kilometres in length and four hundred across the beam. The Dreadnought’s twenty-four giant engine-sets protruded from near its rear in a monumental collar of pylons, wires, tubular prop guards and near-spherical engine pods. The wind howled round Hatherence’s esuit and Fassin’s little arrowcraft.

“Slow them down too much, apparently!” Fassin yelled back.

The Dreadnought’s captain had cut the starboard-most engine-set to quarter-power to give the slave-children a better chance of completing their repairs without too many casualties. The ship’s giant rudders, mounted on the octiform tailplane assembly just aft of the engines, were appropriately deployed to compensate for the resulting skewed distribution of thrust.

Fassin glimpsed an escort cruiser through a short-lived break in the clouds a few kilometres away. Other Dreadnoughts and their escorting screens of minor craft were spread out around them in a front a hundred kilometres across and thirty deep. A slave-child near one of the vane tips lost its grip and whirled off the end with a distant shriek, crashing into the inner edge of the outer prop guard. Its scream cut off and the limp body was caught in the combined prop wash and sent whirling back, narrowly avoiding a further collision with the tail assembly. It disappeared behind a giant vertical fin. When it came back into sight it was already starting to spiral slowly down into the enveloping cloud haze. None of the skiff-riding Dwellers spared it a second glance. The dozens of remaining slave-children continued to inch their way along the giant blades.

Fassin looked at the colonel. “Woops,” he said.

They were hitching a ride to the war zone.

A TunnelCar had taken them from Y’sul’s house — well, two TunnelCars, a second proving necessary to carry all Y’sul’s baggage and extra clothing, plus Sholish — to the Central Station. From there they joined a long-distance train of ninety or so cars making its way towards the border of Zone Zero — the equatorial zone — and Band A, twenty thousand kilometres away. Y’sul spent a large part of the journey complaining about his hangover.

“You claim to have been around in your present form for ten billion years and you still haven’t developed a decent hangover cure?” Hatherence had asked, incredulous.

They’d been floating in a restaurant car, waiting for the galley to figure out the exact chemical composition of oerileithe food.

Y’sul, his voice muffled, issuing from within a translucent coverall that was the Dweller equivalent of dark glasses, had replied, “Suffering is regarded as part of the process, as is the mentioning of it. As is, one might add, the sympathy one receives from one’s companions.”

The colonel had looked sceptical. “I thought you felt no pain?”

“Mere physical pain, no. Ours is the psychic pain of realising that the world is not really as splendid as it seemed the evening before, and that one may have made something of a fool of oneself. And so on. I wouldn’t expect a little dweller to understand.”

They’d detrained at Nuersotse, a sphere city riding mid-altitude in the boiling ragged fringes of the equatorial Belt’s northern limits. Nuersotse was barely thirty kilometres in diameter, relatively dense by Dweller city standards and built for strength and manoeuvrability. High-speed transport craft left in convoys every hour or so, as one of the Band Border Wheels swung near.

They’d crossed on the Nuersotsian-Guephuthen Band Border Wheel One, a colossal, articulated structure two thousand kilometres across held rotating on the border of two atmospheric gas-giant bands, protruding a kilo-klick into each, its whole enormous mass spun by the contra-rotating gas-streams on either side. Band Border Wheels were the largest moving structures most gas-giant planets possessed, if one discounted the globe-girdling CloudTunnel networks. These only moved in the trivial sense of being whisked round the globe at a few hundred klicks an hour like everything else within a planetary band. To a Dweller that was stationary.

Band Border Wheels really spun, transferring transport and materials from one band to another with minimal turbulence and in relative safety, with the added bonus that they produced prodigious amounts of electricity from their spindle drive-shafts. These protruded from the upper and lower hubs, vast hemispheres whose lower rims were pocked with microwave dishes hundreds of metres across, geared up to tear round at blurring, mind-numbing speeds and beaming their power to an outer collecting ring of equally enormous stationary dishes which then pumped the energy into docked bulk accumulator carriers.

The Wheel and the city had been caught in the outer edges of a small boundary-riding storm when they’d arrived, though both were being moved out of the way as quickly as they could be. Everything, from the planet itself to Fassin’s teeth, had seemed to vibrate around them as the turbulence-hardened transfer ship hurried them empodded from the CloudTunnel station to the Wheel, engines labouring, wind screaming, ammonia hail pelting, lightning flashing and magnetic fields making various parts of Y’sul’s baggage and accoutrements buzz and fizz and spark.

Hurled round in the giant centrifuge of the Wheel, stuck against its inner perimeter, the time that they’d spent inside had seemed almost calm by comparison, even allowing for the wild, wavelike bucking as they’d crossed the zone\belt border shear-face itself.

The storm had been affecting Guephuthe more severely than Nuersotse. The outer equatorial ring of the city was spinning hard, parts of its peripheral suburbs and less well-maintained districts coming apart and peeling away in a welter of thrown-out shrapnel. Their transfer had to buck and weave to dodge the wreckage, then take them straight to a TunnelCar marshalling yard beyond the city proper, a splay of cable filaments waving slowly in the gale like a vast anemone.

Another multi-kiloklick CloudTunnel journey through the vastness of Belt A, the Northern Tropical, another Wheel transfer — calmer this time — into Zone 2, and finally, crossing the mid-line of the Zone, they’d started to encounter more military traffic than civilian, the cars and trains packed with people, supplies and materiel all heading for the war.

At Tolimundarni, on the fringe of the war zone itself, they’d been thrown off the train by military police who weren’t falling for Y’sul’s pre-emptively outrage-fuelled arguments regarding the summit-like priority and blatant extreme officiality of an expedition — nay, a quest! — he was undertaking with these -yes, these, two — famous, well-connected, honoured alien guests of immeasurably high intrinsic pan-systemic cross-species reputation, concerning a matter of the utmost import the exact details of which he was sadly not at liberty to divulge even to such patently important and obviously discreet members of the armed forces as themselves, but who would, nevertheless, he was sure, entirely understand the significance of their mission and thus their clear right to be accorded unhindered passage due to simple good taste and a fine appreciation of natural justice and would in no way be swayed by the fact that their cooperation would be repaid in levels of subsequent kudos almost beyond crediting…

They’d floated in the TunnelBud, watching the train of cars pulling out. Sholish had darted around the echoing space trying to round up all the floating and fallen pieces of just-ejected luggage.

Fassin and Hatherence had looked, glowering, at Y’sul.

He’d finished dusting himself down and straightening his clothing, then done a double take at their aggregated gaze and announced, defensively, “I have a cousin!”

The cousin was an engineering officer on the Dreadnought Stormshear, a thirty-turreter with the BeltRotationeers’ 487th “Rolling Thunder’ Fleet. Bindiche, the cousin, bore a longstanding familial grudge against Y’sul and so naturally had been only too happy to accept a great deal of kudos from an inwardly mortified, outwardly brave-facing, hail-cuz-bygones-now Y’sul by doing him the enormous, surely never-to-be-forgotten favour of vouching for him and his alien companions to his captain and so securing passage into the war zone, though even that only happened after a quick suborb flight in a nominally freight-only moonshell pulsed from High Tolimundarni to Lopscotte (again covered by cousin Bindiche and his endlessly handy military connections, said vile spawn of a hated uncle amassing anguished Y’sul-donated kudos like the Stormshear’s mighty capacitors accumulated charge), scudding over the cloud tops, briefly in space (but no windows, not even any screen to see it), listening to Y’sul complain about the uncannily hangover-resembling after-effects of the fierce acceleration in the magnetic-pulse tube and the fact that he’d had to leave behind most of his baggage, including all the war-zone presents his friends had given him and the bulk of the new combat attire he’d ordered.

The slipstream howled and screamed around the Seer and the colonel. They watched the slave-children attempt their repairs. Clustered around the ends of the giant propeller blades, Fassin thought the Dweller young looked like a group of especially dogged flies clinging to a ceiling-mounted cooling fan.

Dweller children had a generally feral and entirely unloved existence. It was very hard for humans not to feel that adult Dwellers were little better than serial, congenital abusers,- and that Dweller children ought to be rescued from the relative brutality of their existence.

Even as Fassin watched, another infant was thrown from one of the giant blades, voice a high and anguished shriek. This latest unfortunate missed the prop guards but hit a high-tension stay cable and was almost cut in half. A Dweller in a skiff dipped back into the slipstream, wrestling with his craft, to draw level with the tiny, broken body. He stripped it of its welding kit and let the body go. It disappeared into the mist, falling like a torn leaf.

Dwellers cheerfully admitted that they didn’t care for their children. They didn’t particularly care for becoming female and getting pregnant, frankly, doing this only because it was expected, drew kudos and meant one had in some sense fulfilled a duty. The idea of having to do even more, of having to look after the brats afterwards as well was just laughable. They, after all, had had to endure being thrown out of the house and left to wander wild when they were young, they’d taken their chances with the organised hunts, the gangs of adolescents and lone-hunter specialists, so why shouldn’t the next generation? The little fuckers might live for billions of years. What was a mere century of weeding out?

The slave-children being used to carry out the repairs to the Stormshear’s damaged propeller would be regarded by most Dwellers as extremely lucky. They might be imprisoned and forced to carry out unpleasant and\or dangerous jobs but at least they were relatively safe, unhunted and properly fed.

Fassin looked out at them, wondering how many would survive to become adults. Would any of these skinny, trembling delta-shapes end up, billions of years from now, as utterly ancient, immensely respected Sages? The odd thing was, of course, that if you somehow knew for certain that they would, they wouldn’t believe you. Dweller children absolutely, to an infant, refused to believe even for a moment, even as a working assumption, even just for the sake of argument, that they would ever, ever, ever grow up to become one of these huge, fierce, horrible double-disc creatures who hunted them and killed them and captured them to do all the awful jobs on their big ships.

· Seer Taak?”

· Yes, colonel?

So they were back to close-communicating, using polarised light to keep their conversation as private as possible. The colonel had suggested coming up here. Fassin had wondered if it was for some private chat. He supposed ordinary talk might have been problematic, given the screech of the slipstream around the gantry and the thunderous clamour sounding from the choir of engines just behind.

· I have meant to ask for some time.

· What?

· This thing we are supposed to be looking for. Without mentioning the specifics, even like this, using whisper-signalling…

· Get on with it, colonel. Ma’am, he added.

· Do you believe what you told us, at that briefing on Third Fury? Hatherence asked. — The one with just yourself, Ganscerel, Yurnvic and myself present: could all that you told us there possibly be true?

The Long Crossing, the fabled “hole between galaxies, the List itself. — Does it matter? he asked.

— What we believe always matters.

Fassin smiled. — Let me ask you something. May I?

· On the condition that we return to my question, very well.

· Do you believe in the “Truth’?

· So capitalised?

· So in quotation marks.

· Well, of course!

The Truth was the presumptuous name of the religion, the faith that lay behind the Shrievalty, the Cessoria, in a sense behind the Mercatoria itself. It arose from the belief that what appeared to be real life must in fact — according to some piously invoked statistical certitudes — be a simulation being run within some prodigious computational substrate in a greater and more encompassing reality beyond. This was a thought that had, in some form, crossed the minds of most people and all civilisations. (With the interesting exception of the Dwellers, or so they claimed. Which some parties held was another argument against them being a civilisation in the first place.) However, everybody — well, virtually everybody, obviously — quickly or eventually came round to the idea that a difference that made no difference wasn’t a difference to be much bothered about, and one might as well get on with (what appeared to be) life.

The Truth went a stage further, holding that this was a difference that could be made to make a difference. What was necessary was for people truly to believe in their hearts, in their souls, in their minds, that they really were in a vast simulation. They had to reflect upon this, to keep it at the forefront of their thoughts at all times and they had to gather together on occasion, with all due ceremony and solemnity, to express this belief. And they must evangelise, they must convert everybody they possibly could to this view, because — and this was the whole point — once a sufficient proportion of the people within the simulation came to acknowledge that it was a simulation, the value of the simulation to those who had set it up would disappear and the whole thing would collapse.

If they were all part of some vast experiment, then the fact that those on whom the experiment was being conducted had guessed the truth would mean that its value would be lost. If they were some plaything, then again, that they had guessed this meant they ought to be acknowledged, even — perhaps -rewarded. If they were being tested in some way, then this was the test being passed, this was a positive result, again possibly deserving a reward. If they had been undergoing punishment for some transgression in the greater world, then this ought to constitute cause for rehabilitation.

It was not possible to know what proportion of the simulated population would be required to bring things to a halt (it might be fifty per cent, it might be rather smaller or much greater), but as long as the numbers of the enlightened kept increasing, the universe would be constantly coming closer to this epiphany, and the revelation could come at any point.

The Truth claimed with some degree of justification to be the ultimate religion, the final faith, the last of all churches. It was the one which encompassed all others, contextualised all others, could account for and embrace all others. They could all ultimately be dismissed as mere emergent phenomena of the simulation itself. The Truth could too, in a sense, but unlike them it still had more to say once this common denominator had been taken out of the equation.

It could also claim a degree of universality that the others could not. All other major religions were either specific to their originating species, could be traced back to a single species — often a single subset of that species — or were consciously developed amalgams, syntheses, of a group of sufficiently similar religions of disparate origin.

The Truth, claiming no miracles (or at least no miracles of proof) and being the work of no individual, all-important prophet (it had arisen, naturally, many times within a multiplicity of different civilisations) was the first real post-scientific, pan-civil-isational religion — or at least it was the first that had not been simply imposed on reluctant subjects by a conquering hegemony. The Truth could even claim to be not a religion at all, where such a claim might endear it to those not naturally religious by nature. It could be seen more as a philosophy, even as a scientific postulate backed up by unshakeably firm statistical likelihood.

The Mercatoria had simply adopted this belief system, properly codified it and made it effectively the state religion of the latest Age.

· You do not believe, Fassin? The colonel put sadness into her signal.

· I appreciate the intellectual force of the argument.

· But it is not held in your mind at all times?

· No. Sorry.

· Be not sorry. We all find it difficult on occasion. We shall,

perhaps, talk further on the matter.

· I was afraid we might.

· To return to my question, then.

· Do I believe all that stuff?

· Correct.

Fassin looked around at the ship beneath them and the great assemblage of roaring engines, whirling blades and supporting structures. The Long Crossing: thirty million years between galaxies.

· The idea that anything built by Dwellers could make a journey of that length does place the credulity under a degree of tension, he admitted.

· The assertion that the outward journey was made so much more rapidly seems no less to belong to the realm of fantasy.

Ah yes, the great and almost certainly mythical intergalactic “hole.

· I would not argue with you, colonel. Though I would say it’s perfectly possible that these are all nonsense, but the specific object we’re looking for still exists.

· It keeps unlikely company.

· Again, I wouldn’t choose to dispute the matter. We are left with the fact that you are a colonel, I am some sort of honorary major and orders are orders.

· How assiduously one attempts to follow one’s orders might be affected by the extent to which one believes they are capable of being carried out successfully.

· There I would completely agree with you. What are you getting at?

· Just calibrating, major.

· Seeing how committed I am? Would I sacrifice my life for our… object of desire?

· Something like that.

· I suspect we’re both sceptics, colonel. Me more than you, I suppose. We also believe in doing our duty. You more than me, perhaps. Satisfied?

· Content.

· Me too.

· I received a communication from the Ocula this morning.

· Really?

And were you always going to tell me, or could I have been even more mission-sceptical during that last exchange, and been told nothing? Or has your “calibration’ meant I’m not going to get told everything now?

— Yes. Our orders remain as they were. There were several more attacks on the system in general at the time of the assault on the Third Fury moon. Further, less intense attacks have continued. The communications satellite system around Nasqueron is being repaired as a matter of urgency. In the meantime a Navarchy fleet is being stationed above the planet, to take the place of the satellites, to provide security and main force back-up for you and me, and to pick us up at the end of our mission, or in an emergency.

Fassin took a moment to think.

· Any word from my Sept, Sept Bantrabal?

· None. There was confirmation that all those on or in Third Fury were killed. I am sorry to report that Master Technician Hervil Apsile is also believed to be dead. There has been no sign of or communication with the drop ship. I have been asked by the Ocula to pass on their commiserations to you regarding all those deceased Seers and supporting staff, to which of course I add my own.

— Thank you.

The colonel might have executed a sort of rolling bow, or it might just have been the effects of the swirling, buffeting slipstream tearing around them.

The slave-children had suffered no further casualties. Their repairs appeared to be working. Even where they had not completed their renovations, the damaged blades were vibrating less, making the rest of the job easier.

— How many ships were they sending to Nasqueron, to do all these things? That one small ship and two puck-sized satel-lites could do?

— This was not mentioned.

Fassin said nothing.

There were some potentially unfortunate consequences implicit in a profound belief in the Truth. One was that there was a possibility that when the simulation ended, all the people being simulated would cease to exist entirely. The sim might be turned off and everybody within the substrate running it would die. There might be no promotion, no release, no return to a bigger and better and finer outside: there might just be the ultimate mass extinction.

Also, back in the (apparently) real world, there was an argument that the Truth implied approval of its own extinctions, that it tacitly encouraged mass murder and genocide. Logically, if one way of upping the proportion of those who truly believed was to evangelise, convince and convert, another was to decrease the numbers of those who steadfastly refused to accept the Truth at all — if necessary by killing them. The tipping point into revelation and deliverance for all might come not at the moment when a sceptic became a believer but at the point that an un-reformable heathen breathed their last.

The Stormshear plunged into a great dark wall of thicker cloud, dimming the view. Lights started to come on, shining from the supporting structure and the Dweller skiffs. Soon they could see little, and the mad, overwhelming cacophony of the slipstream and the droning engines made sonosense near impossible. A methane hail rattled around them in the gathering gloom.

· Time to go in, perhaps, the colonel said.

· Amen.

* * *

The next day brought target practice, as the Stormshear’s weapons and crew were brought up to some form of war-readiness. Y’sul, Hatherence and Fassin were allowed to watch from inside an observation dome right at the front of the ship, a temporary structure protruding from the Dreadnought’s armoured nose like a little bubble of diamond. They shared the place with a few dozen interested civilians, mostly administrators of the various cities where the Stormshear had been paying courtesy calls during the last long period of peace. Uniformed pet-children floated amongst the VIPs, carrying trays of food and drugs.

Ahead, through a ten-kilometre gap in the clouds, they could see an object like a small bright blue ship, a target being towed by another Dreadnought a hundred or more klicks still further ahead.

The Stormshear shuddered mightily and an instant later there came a great blast of noise. Tracks like dozens of vapour trails appeared in the sky beneath and above them, great combs of thin, plaited gas racing in front of them headed by the barely glimpsed dark dots of the shells converging on the target. Screens set into each dent-seat — where working — showed a magnified view of the blue target; it shook as its hollow structure was punctured by the shells, holes appearing briefly on its hull before sealing up again.

A desultory cheer went up from a few of the generally bored-looking Dwellers present. It was drowned out by the clicking of maniple fingers demanding service from the pet-children waiters.

“I never asked,” Hatherence said, leaning close to Y’sul as he snorted up the coils of purple from a fuming stoke-pipe. “What is the war actually about?”

Y’sul turned jerkily and gave the impression of trying to get his outer sensory regions to focus on the colonel. “About?” he said, looking confused. The exhausted stoke-stick attached to the pipe went out with a loud “pop’. “Well, it’s about when two, ah, opposing groups of, ah people, ah, that is to say, Dwellers, in this case, obviously, decide to, umm, fight. Fight! Yes, usually over some issue, and… and they use weapons of war to do so, until one side or other — did I say there are usually just two sides? That’s kind of the conventional number, I believe. Sort of a quorum, you might say. Though—”

“I wasn’t looking for the definition of a war, Y’sul.”

“No? Good. I thought you probably had such things of your own. Most people seem to.”

“I meant, what is the point at issue? What is the cause of the war?”

“The cause?” Y’sul asked, looking surprised. He roted as far back in his dent-seat as he could while the ship shuddered again and another salvo, from each side of the vessel this time, lanced forwards to the distant target. “Well,” he said, distracted by the dancing dots of the shells dragging their gas trails after them. “Well, I’m sure there is one…’ He started mumbling. Hatherence seemed to realise she’d already got as much sense out of Y’sul as she was going to while he was sucking on the stoke-pipe, and settled back in her seat with a sigh.

· Dweller Formal Wars are like duels fought on a huge scale, Fassin told her. The colonel turned fractionally towards him. — Normally about some aesthetic dispute. They’re often the final stage of a planet-planning dispute.

· Planet-planning?

· A common one is where there’s some dispute concerning the number of belts and zones a planet ought to have. Then, the Odds and the Evens are the two sides, usually.

· Planet-planning? the colonel repeated, as though she hadn’t picked up right the first time. — I did not think gas-giants were, well, planned.

· The Dwellers claim they can alter the number of bands a planet has, over a sufficiently great amount of time. They’ve never been reliably observed doing this but that doesn’t stop them claiming to be able to do it. Anyway, it’s not the doing of the thing that matters, it’s the principle. What sort of world do we want to live in? That’s the question.

· Even or Odd?

— Exactly. A Formal War is just the working-out.

Another salvo. The ship really shook this time, and a number of the slave-children yelped at the ragged boom resulting. Combs of gas trails leapt from all sides, a cone defining a tunnel of braided sky in front of them.

· Wars are also fought over disagreements such as which GasClipper ought to be allowed to fly a certain pennant colour during a race.

· A war for this? Hatherence sounded genuinely horrified. — Have these people never heard of committees?

— Oh, they have committees and meetings and dispute proce-dures. They have lots of those. But getting Dwellers to stick with a decision that’s gone against them, even after they’ve sworn on their life beforehand that they’ll abide by it, is not the easiest thing to do, in this or any other world. So disagree-ments tend to rumble on. Formal Wars are just the Dweller equivalent of a Supreme Court, a tribunal of last resort. Also, you have to understand that they don’t really have standing armed forces as such. Between wars, the Dreadnoughts and other military bits and pieces are cared for by enthusiasts, by clubs. Even when a Formal War is declared, all that happens is that the clubs get bigger as ordinary people sign up. The clubs sound and feel like what you or I might understand as proper military authorities but they’ve no legal standing.

The colonel shook as though just confronted with something of ultimate grisliness. — How perverse.

· For them, it seems to work.

· The verb “work’, Hatherence sent, — like so many other common terms, seems to be required to take on additional mean-ings when one talks of Dwellers. How do they decide who’s won one of these bizarre conflicts?

· Occasionally a straight dead-count, or the number of Dreadnoughts destroyed or crippled. More usually there’ll be an elegance threshold pre-agreed.

· An elegance threshold?

· Hatherence, Fassin said, turning to her, — did you do any research into Dweller life? All that time in -

· I believe I encountered a mention of this concept but dismissed it at the time as fanciful. It genuinely counts in such matters?

· It genuinely counts.

· And they can’t agree a workable disputes procedure for what ship flies which colourings without resorting to war, but they can happily agree on that resulting war being decided on a concept as fuzzy as elegance?

— Oh, that’s never disputed. They have an algorithm for it.

Another terrific judder rang the Stormshear like a dull bell. The thin, uncoiling tracks combed the sky ahead of them.

· An algorithm? the colonel said.

· Elegance is an algorithm.

The screens showed the blue target quaking under the impact of a handful of shells. Hatherence glanced at Y’sul, who was trying to blow purple smoke rings and pierce them with a rim arm.

· And it’s all run by clubs, she said. — Of enthusiasts.

— Yes.

· Clubs?

· Big clubs, Hatherence.

· So is all this why their war technology is so awful? She asked.

· Is it?

· Fassin, Hatherence said, sounding amused now. — These people claim to have been around since the week after reionisation and building these Dreadnought things for most of that time, yet that target is less than a dozen klicks ahead, each salvo is thirty-six shells—

· Thirty-three. One of the turrets is out of action.

· Regardless. They are only hitting that effectively unmoving target with every second or third round. That is simply pathetic.

· There are rules, formulae.

· Insisting on ludicrously inefficient gunnery?

· In a sense. No guided shells, all guns and aiming systems to be based on ancient patterns, no jet engines for the Dreadnoughts, no rocket engines for the missiles, no particle or beam weapons at all.

· Like duels fought with ancient pistols.

· You’re getting the idea.

· And this is meant to keep them all in martial trim in case they are invaded by outside hostiles?

· Well, yes, Fassin agreed. — That does begin to look like a slightly hollow claim when you actually see the technology, doesn’t it? Of course, they claim they’ve got star-busting hyper-weapons hidden about the place somewhere, just in case, and the skills are somehow transferable, but…

· Nobody’s ever seen them.

· Something like that.

The Stormshear unleashed its mighty anti-ship missiles, loosing what was probably meant to be a twelve-strong broadside. The eleven tiny, slim projectiles came screaming from all sides of the great vessel — the slave-children yelped again and some dropped their trays — and hurtled out towards the distant blue target drone on smoky, twisting plumes of jet exhaust like deranged darts. Two of the missiles drifted too close to one another; each appeared to identify the other as its intended target and so both swung wildly at their opposite number, missed, twisted round in a sweeping double braid, flew straight at each other and this time met and exploded in a modest double fireball. Some Dwellers in the observation lounge — distracted, perhaps sarcastic — cheered.

A third missile seemed to take the nearby explosion as a sign that it ought to perform an upward loop and head straight back at the Stormshear. “Oh-oh,” Y’sul said.

The oncoming missile settled into a flat, steady course, becoming a small but rapidly enlarging dot, aimed straight at the nose of the Dreadnought.

“They do have destructs, don’t they?” Hatherence said, glancing at Fassin.

Some Dwellers started looking at each other, then made a dash for the access tube to the Stormshear’s armoured nose, creating a jam around the door. Slave-children, also trying to escape, either got through ahead of the rush or were thrown roughly out of the way, yelping.

The dot in the sky was getting bigger.

“They can just order it to blow up, can’t they?” the colonel said, roting backwards. A high, whining noise seemed to be coming from somewhere inside the colonel’s esuit. The yelling, cursing knot of Dwellers round the exit didn’t seem to be shifting. The Stormshear was starting to turn, hopelessly slowly.

“In theory they can destruct it,” Fassin said uneasily, watching the still unshifting melee around the exit. “And they do have close-range intercept guns.” Another frantic slave-child was ejected upwards from the scrum by the door, screaming until it slapped into the ceiling and dropped lifeless to the slowly tilting deck.

The missile had real shape now, no longer a large dot. Stubby wings and a tailplane were visible. The Stormshear continued to turn with excruciating slowness. The missile plunged in towards them on a trail of sooty exhaust. Hatherence rose from her dent-seat but moved closer to the diamond-sheath nose of the observation blister, not further away.

— Stay back, major, she sent. Then a terrific tearing, ripping noise sounded from above and behind them, a net of finger-fine trails filled the gas ahead of the ship’s nose and the missile first started to disintegrate and then blew up. The interceptor machine gun somewhere behind continued firing, scoring multiple hits on the larger pieces of smoking, glowing missile wreckage as they tumbled on towards the Stormshear, so that when the resulting shrapnel hit and punctured the observation blister it caused relatively little damage, and only minor wounds.

The Dreadnought took them as far as Munueyn, a Ruined City fallen amongst the dark, thick gases of the lower atmosphere where slow coils of turbulence roiled past like the heavy, lascivious licks of an almighty planetary tongue, a place all spires and spindles, near-deserted, long unfashionable, a one-time Storm-Centre now too far from anything to be of much interest to anybody, a place that might have garnered kudos for itself had it been near a war zone, but could hope for almost none at all because it was within one. A wing-frigate took them from the Dreadnought and deposited them in the gigantic echoing hall of what had once been the city’s bustling StationPort, where they were greeted like returning heroes, like gods, by the local hirers and fliers. They found a guest house for negative kudos. They were, in effect, being paid to stay there.

“Sir!” Sholish said, rising from the mass of petitioners in the small courtyard below. “A hostelier of impeccable repute with excellent familial connections in the matter of wartime travel warrants beseeches you to consider his proposal to put at your disposal a veritable fleet of a half-half-dozen finely arrayed craft, all in the very best of condition and working order and ready to depart within less than an hour of their arrival.”

“Which will be when, precisely, banelet of my already too-long life?”

“A day, sire. Two, at the most. He assures.”

“Unacceptable! Utterly and profoundly so!” Y’sul proclaimed, frilling the very idea away with a shudder. He was nestled within a dent on a flower-decked terrace outside and above the Taverna Bucolica, close enough to the city’s central plaza to smell the mayor’s desperation. He dragged deep of a proffered pharma cylinder and with the exhalation breathed, “Next!”

Fassin and the colonel, floating nearby, exchanged looks. Hatherence floated closer.

· We could just take off, you and I.

· All by ourselves?

· We are both self-sufficient, we are both capable of making good time.

· You reckon?

The colonel made it obvious that she was looking his arrow-craft over. — I think so.

I think you called up the specs on this thing before we left Third Fury and know damn well so, he thought.

He sent, — So we go haring off into the clouds together, just we two.

— Yes.

· There is a problem.

· Indeed.

· In fact, there are two problems. The first one is that there’s a war on, and we’ll look like a pair of warheads.

· Warheads? But we shan’t even be transonic!

· There are rules in Formal War regarding the speed that warheads can travel at. We’ll look like warheads.

· Hmm. If we went a little slower?

· Slow warheads.

· Slower still?

· Cruise mines. And before you ask, any slower than that and we’ll look like ordinary monolayer float mines.

Hatherence bobbed up and down, a sigh. — You mentioned a second problem.

· Without Y’sul it’s unlikely that anybody will talk to us.

· With him it is unlikely that anybody else will get a word in.

· Nevertheless.

They needed their own transport. More to the point, they needed transport that would be allowed to pass unchallenged in the war zone. Whatever remained of Valseir’s old dwelling lay far enough off the CloudTunnel network to make roting or floating their way there too long-winded. Y’sul had agreed to fix things — with his equatorial, big-city connections, escorting exotic aliens, he was bound to positively exude kudos towards all those who might help him — but then had got caught up in the whole process just due to the numbers of people who wanted to be the ones who helped him, and so became unable, seemingly, to make up his mind. Just as it seemed likely he was about to settle on one outrageously generous offer, another would appear over the horizon, even more enticing, necessitating a further reappraisal.

Finally, after two days, Hatherence could take no more and hired her own ship, on terms slightly better than the ones just rejected by Y’sul.

In their suite at the Taverna, Y’sul protested. “Iam doing the negotiating!” he bellowed.

“Yes,” the colonel agreed. “Rather too much of it.”

A compromise was arrived at. The colonel confessed to their hirer that she was legally unable to commit to a firm contract and Y’sul then remade it on the exact same terms while the appalled shipmaster was still drawing breath to protest. That day, the day the war officially got under way, ceremonially beginning with an opening gala and Formal Duel in Pihirumime, half the world away. A day later they sailed — taking the next downward eddy that also swirled in the right horizontal direction — aboard the Poaflias, a hundred-metre twin-hull screw-burster of unknown but probably enormous age. It boasted a crew of just five apart from its captain and was rotund and slow, but was — for some reason lost in the mists of Dweller military logic — still registered as an uncommitted privateer scout ship and so cleared to make her way within the war zone and, one might hope, liable to pass any consequent challenge save one conducted by opening fire prior to negotiations.

Their captain was Slyne, an enthusiastic youngster barely arrived at Adulthood, still very much a Recent and behaving more like a Youth. He’d inherited the Poaflias on the death of his father. The Dwellers clove to the idea of Collective Inheritance, so that, when one of them died, any private property they could fairly claim to have accumulated went fifty per cent to whoever they wanted it to go to and fifty per cent to whatever jurisdiction they lived within. This was why only one hull of the twin-hulled Poaflias was fully owned by Slyne. The city of Munueyn owned the other half and was renting it to him, accumulating kudos. The less Slyne could actually do with the ship, the more control he would lose, until ultimately the city could reasonably claim it was all theirs; then, if he wanted to stay aboard, he’d more or less have to do whatever the city asked him to do with the ship. This expedition, however, conducted under his own auspices, ought to go a long way towards securing his ownership rights over the whole vessel.

“This is why we are confined to the single hull?” Hatherence asked the captain. They were on the foredeck, a slightly ramshackle sprouting of fibres and sheet protruding over the craft’s battered-looking nose. Y’sul had spotted a harpoon gun on the foredeck and challenged his companions to a coarse shoot the next time they traversed a promising volume. Apparently where they were now, just two days out of Munueyn, constituted just such a happy hunting ground — however, nobody had seen anything worth harpooning so far.

“That’s right!” Slyne bobbed eagerly over the deck. “Less I use the other hull, less I owe the city!” Captain Slyne was hanging on to some rigging, floating above everybody else to get a good view and act as lookout and target spotter. They were making a decent speed through the dim crimson gases. The slipstream would have blown Slyne aft if he hadn’t been holding on. A decent speed in this case meant less than a quarter of the velocity of the Dreadnought Stormshear on cruise, but the gas down here was thicker and the slipstream’s force was all the greater.

“There’s something!” Slyne yelled, pointing up and to starboard.

They all looked.

“No! Wrong,” Slyne said cheerfully. “Beg pardon.” Slyne was taking his captain’s role seriously, accoutred with lots of mostly useless ancient naval paraphernalia like spyglasses, an altimeter, a museum-piece radio, a scratched-looking hail visor, a shining antique holster-cannon and a radiation compass. His clothing and half-armour looked very new but based on designs that were very old. He had a couple of pet foetuses tethered to each of his Hub girdles.

The foetuses were Dweller young who hadn’t even been allowed to progress to the stage of being children. The usual reason they existed was because a Dweller-turned-female of particular impatience had decided she couldn’t be bothered going to full term, and had aborted. The results made good pets. Dwellers could survive on their own almost from conception, they just didn’t progress intellectually and had nobody to protect them while they were completely helpless.

Slyne’s quadruplets — it would have been impolite to inquire whether they were actually his own — looked like little bloated manta rays, pale and trailing almost useless tentacles, forever bumping into their master or each other and getting themselves tangled in their tethers. The effect, for a human, was inevitably slightly grisly, though Fassin had the added, depressing feeling that the foetuses were the equivalent of a parrot in ancient Earth terms.

“There’s something this time!” Slyne shouted, pointing down to starboard. A small, black object was rising from the deep red depths of gas a couple of hundred metres away.

“Ihave it!” Y’sul yelled, bump-kicking the gun platform on its counterweights. It swung up above the deck to an elevation that let him depress the harpoon gun sufficiently.

“A tchoufer seed!” Sholish exclaimed. “It’s a tchoufer tree seed, sir!”

“Wait a moment, Y’sul,” Fassin said, rising from the deck. “Just let me go and check.” He gunned the little gascraft away from the Poaflias, curving out and down towards the still slowly rising black sphere.

“Keep out of the way!” Y’sul bellowed to the human. Fassin had taken a curved course deliberately, having witnessed Y’sul’s marksmanship before.

“Just hold, will you?” he shouted back.

Y’sul gave a shake and sighted the gun on the black sphere, maniples grasping the trigger.

Slyne craned forward in the rigging. Two of the foetuses wrapped themselves round a stay, entangling him. He looked up, tutted, and brought his spyglass up to a receptor-dense portion of his sensory frill, scanning the rising black orb. “Ah, actually—” he began.

Hatherence bobbed up suddenly. “Y’sul! Stop!”

“Ha-ha!” Y’sul said, twisting the trigger and firing the harpoon. The mounting shook, the gun leapt and banged, the harpoon’s own twin rocket motors sprang out and erupted as soon as it was a safe distance away and the thin black line attached to the main body came whipping and whistling out of a locker just beneath the gun mounting. The harpoon rasped through the gas towards where the black object would be in a few seconds’ time. “Hmm,” Y’sul said, sounding slightly surprised. “One of my better—”

“It’s a mine!” Slyne screamed.

Sholish just screamed.

— Fassin, get away from that thing! Hatherence sent.

The little gascraft instantly started to turn and speed up, rotors blurring in the air.

“Eh? What?” Y’sul said.

Slyne drew his holster-cannon and aimed at the harpoon. He got one shot off before the gun jammed.

“Could that be nuclear?” the colonel shouted. A high, keening noise sounded from the colonel’s esuit.

“Definitely!” Slyne spluttered. He shook his gun and cursed, then slapped at his radio. “Engines! Full astern!” He shook the gun again, desperately. “Fucking scrits!”

Hatherence moved quickly to one side.

Y’sul looked out at the harpoon, dropping smoothly right on course for the black ball, then at the gun mounting. “Sholish!” he barked. “Grab that line!”

Sholish leapt for the thrumming dark curtain of cord being jerked from the locker under the gun, caught hold of it and was instantly whipped towards the gunwales, smashing through stanchions and snapping to a stop, tangled in the hawser, before the slipstream brought him thudding back into the deck behind them. Free of the encumbering line, the harpoon just picked up speed, still heading for the mine. Hatherence got clear of the Poaflias. Fassin’s arrowcraft was still turning, still picking up speed, still even closer to the mine than the ship was.

“Oh, fu—” Y’sul said.

A crimson flash seemed to wash out the gas all around them.

Dead, Fassin had time to think.

For an instant, a tight fan of searing pink-white lines joined Colonel Hatherence’s esuit and the full length of the harpoon, which vanished in a blast of heat and light. A visible shock-sphere pulsed out from the detonation, rocking the mine…

… Which seemed to stop and think for a moment, before continuing to ascend smoothly on its way. The shock wave shook them and the ship. Fassin felt it too. He slowed and turned back.

The Poaflias was scrubbing off speed following Slyne’s last order. The slipstream was lessening but still sufficiently strong to clunk Sholish’s battered carapace off the deck as he floated tangled in the dark mass of wire.

Y’sul looked. “Sholish?” he said in a small voice.

“The species of the Faring are more divided by their sense of time than anything else. We Dwellers, being who and what we are, naturally encompass as much of the spectrum of chronosense as we are able, covering most of it. I exclude the machine-Quick.” A hesitation. “You still abhor those, I take it?”

“Yes, we most certainly do!” the colonel exclaimed.

“Positively persecuted,” Fassin said.

“Hmm. They are different again, of course. But even within the limits of the naturally evolved, the manifold rates at which time is appreciated are, some would argue, collectively the single most telling distinction that might be made between species and species-types.”

The speaker was an ancient Sage called Jundriance. Dweller seniority nomenclature stretched to twenty-nine separate categories, starting with child and ending, no less than two billion years later (usually much more) at Child. In between came the short-lived Adolescent and Youth stages, the rather longer Adult stage with its three sub-divisions, then Prime, with four subdivisions, Cuspian with three and then, if the Dweller had survived to that age (one and a quarter million years, minimum) and was judged fit by his peers, Sagehood, which then repeated all the subdivisions of the Adulthood, Prime and Cuspian stages. So, technically, Jundriance was a Sage-prime-chice. He was forty-three million years old, had shrunk to only six metres in diameter — while his carapace had darkened and taken on the hazy patina of Dweller middle age — had already lost most of his limbs and he was in charge of what was left of the house and associated libraries of the presumed deceased Cuspian-choal Valseir.

The view from the house was motionless and unchanging at normal time, a hazy vista of deep brown and purple veils of gas within a great placid vertical cylinder of darkness that was the final echo of the great storm that the house had once swung about like a tiny planet around a great, cold sun. In appearance the house-library complex itself was a collection of thirty-two spheres, each seventy metres or so in diameter, many girdled by equatorial balconies, so that the construction looked like some improbably bunched gathering of ringed planets. The bubble house hung, very slowly sinking, in that great calm of thick gas, deep down in the dark, hot depths only a few tens of kilometres above the region where the atmosphere began to behave more like a liquid than a gas.

“This is his house, then, yes?” the colonel had asked when they’d first seen it from the foredeck of the Poaflias.

Fassin had looked around, using sonosense and magnetic to search for the section of the derelict CloudTunnel that the house had once been anchored to, but couldn’t find it anywhere nearby. He’d already checked the Poaflias’s charts. The stretch of CloudTunnel no longer showed up on the local holo maps, implying that it had either drifted much further away — which was unlikely — or had fallen into the depths.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, looks like it.”

They’d had to turn the Poaflias around and return to Munueyn. Sholish, badly injured, had been taken to hospital. The surgeons had given him an even chance of surviving. He’d heal best left in a drug coma for the next few hundred days. There was nothing more they could do.

Y’sul could have taken on any number of Youths and Adolescents eager to take his crippled servant’s place, but he’d turned them all down — a decision he’d regretted just a day or so later once they’d set out again, when he’d realised he had nobody to shout at.

They’d avoided challenges, other ships and mines of all sorts, finally making the journey in ten days. The Sage Jundriance was attended by a couple of burly Prime servants, Nuern and Livilido, each dressed in fussily ornate and ill-fitting academic robes. They were sufficiently senior to have servants of their own; a half-dozen highly reticent Adults who looked like identical sextuplets. They were big on scurrying but almost autistically shy.

The senior of the two elder servants, Nuern — a mouean to Livilido’s one-rank-more-junior suhrl — had welcomed them, allocated rooms and informed them that his master was engaged in the task of cataloguing the remaining works in the libraries — as Y’sul had warned, a significant proportion of the contents had been given away since Valseir’s accident. Probably only the remoteness of the house had prevented more scholars showing up to pick over the remains. Jundriance was, however, in slow-time, so if they wanted to speak to him they would have to slow to his thought-pace. Fassin and the colonel had agreed. Y’sul had announced he was having none of this and took the Poaflias on a cruise to explore the local volume and see what there might be to hunt.

“Your duty should be to wait for us,” the colonel had informed him.

“Duty?” Y’sul had said, as though hearing the word for the first time.

They had a half-day or so, at least, while Jundriance was informed by a message on his read-screen that he had visitors. If he would see them immediately, they could go in before dark. Otherwise it could be some long time…

“Colonel,” Fassin had said, “we will have to go into slowdown for some time. Y’sul might be as well amusing himself nearby -’ Fassin had turned to look at Y’sul to emphasise the word “- as mooching about this place for who knows how long.”

· He’ll get into trouble.

· Probably. So, better trouble close to home, or trouble further away?

Hatherence had made a rumbling noise and had told Y’sul, “There is a war on.”

“I’ve checked the nets!” Y’sul had protested. “It’s kilo-klicks away!”

“Really?” Nuern had said, perking. “Has it started? The master doesn’t allow connections in the house. We hear nothing.”

“Began a dozen days ago,” Y’sul had told the servant. “We’ve been in the thick of it already. Barely avoided a smart mine on the way here. My servant got himself injured, may die.”

“A smart mine? Near here?”

“You are right to be concerned, my friend,” Y’sul had said solemnly. “The presence of such ordnance hereabouts is another — the real — reason why I’ll take my ship on patrol around you.”

“And your servant, injured. How terrible.”

“I know. War is. Other than that, elsewhere in the hostilities, barely a spineful of deaths so far. Couple of Dreadnoughts crippled on each side. Far too early to tell who’s winning. I’ll keep a fringe cocked, let you know what’s happening.”

“Thank you.”

“Not at all.”

· You’re right, Hatherence had signal-whispered to Fassin as this exchange was taking place. — Let’s just let him go.

· You can signal the ship from your esuit while still in slowdown?

— Yes.

— Okay.

“You will stay nearby?” Fassin had asked Y’sul. “You won’t let the Poaflias venture too far out?”

“Of course! I swear! And I shall ask our two fine fellows here to extend you every courtesy on my behalf!”

They were to be seen at once. Nuern had shown them into one of the outer library pods. The library had a roof of diamond leaf looking directly upwards into the vermilion-dark sky. Jundriance was settled into a dent-desk near the centre of the near-spherical room, facing a read-screen. Around him, the walls were lined with shelves, some so widely spaced that they might have doubled as bunk space for humans, others so small that a child’s finger might have struggled to fit. Mostly these held books, of some sort. Spindle-secured carousels tensioned between the walls and between the floor and a network of struts above held hundreds of other types of storage devices and systems: swave crystals, holoshard, picospool and a dozen more obscure.

They’d joined Jundriance at his desk, floating through the thick atmosphere to his side. Nuern had swung dent-seats into place and they’d both clamped onto one, Hatherence positioning herself with Fassin between her and the Sage. Jundriance, of course, gave no sign of having noticed them.

They’d slowed. It had been much easier for Fassin than for Hatherence. He’d been doing this for centuries; she’d been trained in the technique but had never attempted it for real. The experience would be a jerky, shaky journey for her, at least until they smoothed out at the Sage’s pace.

The day darkened quickly, then the night seemed to last less than an hour. Fassin concentrated on his own smooth slowdown, but was aware of the colonel seeming to wriggle and shift in her dent-seat. The Sage Jundriance appeared to stir. By the next quick morning, something actually changed on his reading screen; another page. That day passed quickly, then the next night went quicker still. The process continued until they were down to a factor of about one-in-sixty-four, which was what they had been told Jundriance had come up to meet them at -he’d been even slower until their arrival.

They were about halfway there when a signal-whisper had pinged into the little gascraft. — You receiving this all right, major?

· Yes. Why?

· I just interrogated the screen reader. It was working in realtime until the Poaflias arrived.

· You sure?

· Perfectly.

· Interesting.

Finally they were there, synchronised to the same life-pace as the Sage. The short days became a slow, slow flicker above them, the orange-purple sky beyond the diamond leaf alternately lightening and dimming. Even at this pace, the great tall veils of gas seemed to hang above them in the sky, unmoving. Fassin had experienced the feeling he always got when he first went into slowdown during a delve, the disquieting sensation that he was a lost soul, the feeling of being in a strange sort of prison, trapped in time inside while life went on at a quicker pace outside, above, beyond.

Jundriance had turned off his read-screen and greeted them. Fassin had asked about Valseir but somehow they’d got onto the subject of life-pace itself.

“One feels sorry for the Quick, I suppose,” the Sage said. “They seem ill-suited to the universe, in a way. The distances between the stars, the time it takes to travel from one to another… Even more so, of course, if one is thinking of travelling between galaxies.”

A hole in the conversation. “Of course.” Fassin said, to fill it. Are you fishing for something, old one? he thought.

“The machines. They were much worse, of course. How unbearable, to live so quickly.”

“Well, they mostly don’t live at all now, Sage,” Fassin told him.

“That is as well, perhaps.”

“Sage, can you tell us any more about Valseir’s death?”

“I was not there. I know no more than you.”

“You were… quite close to him?” Fassin asked.

“Close? No. No, I would not say so. We had corresponded on matters of textual verification and provenance, and debated at a remove on various questions of scholarship and interpretation, though not regularly. We never met. I would not say that that constituted closeness, would you?”

“I suppose not. I just wondered what drew you here, that’s all.”

“Oh, the chance to look through his library. To take what I might for myself. That is what drew me. His servants took some material before they left, others — mostly scholars or those who chose to call themselves such — came and took what they wanted, but there is still much here, and while the most obvious treasures are gone, much of value may remain. It would be derelict to ignore.”

“I see. And what of Valseir’s libraries? I understand you are continuing to catalogue them?”

A pause. “Continuing. Yes.” The old, dark-carapaced Sage seemed to stare at the dark read-screen. “Hmm,” he said. He turned fractionally to look at Fassin. “Let me see. Your use of the word ‘continuing’ there.”

“I understood that Valseir had been cataloguing his libraries Wasn’t he?”

“He was always so secretive. Was he not?”

· I’m getting light-comms leakage here, Hatherence sent.

· Tell me if there’s a burst after this:

“And dilatory. Hapuerele always said that Valseir was more likely to win the All-Storms Yachting Cup than ever finish cataloguing his libraries.”

Another pause. “Quite so, quite so. Hapuerele, yes.”

· Leakage. Hapuerele does not exist?

· Exists, but he had to ask elsewhere just there. Shouldn’t have.

“I would like to take a look round some of the libraries myself. I hope you don’t mind. I shan’t disturb you.”

“Ah. I see. Well, if you think you can be discreet. Are you seeking anything in particular, Mr Taak?”

“Yes. And you?”

“Only enlightenment. And what would it be that you are looking for, if I may ask?”

“Exactly the same.”

The old dweller was silent for a while. In real-time, most of an hour passed. “I may have something for you,” he said eventually. “Would you care to slow down a little more? No doubt this, our present pace, seems surpassing slow to you; however, I find it something of a strain.”

“Of course,” Fassin told Jundriance.

· I’ll have to leave you here, major.

· Lucky you. I’ll try to keep this short.

· Good luck, Hatherence sent.

“However, I shall leave you at this point, sir,” the colonel said to the Sage.

“Pleasant to have met you, Reverend Colonel,” Jundriance told her. “Now then,” he said to Fassin. “Let me see. Half this pace, I think, Seer Taak, would suit me better. A quarter would suit me better still.”

“Shall we try half, then, initially?”

He was back in just three days. Hatherence was inspecting the contents of another library when he found her. The room was almost perfectly spherical, with no windows, just a circle of dim light shining from the ceiling’s centre and further luminescence provided by bio strips inlaid on each shelf, glowing ghostly green. Further stacks of shelves like enormous inward-pointing vanes made the place feel oddly organic, as though these were ribs, and they were inside some vast creature. The colonel was floating near one set of close-stacked shelves near the library’s centre, strips of green light ribbing her esuit.

“So soon, major?” Hatherence said, replacing a slim holocrystal on a shelf half full of them. At the same time as she spoke, she sent: — Our friend had nothing of interest?

“Sage Jundriance gave me so much to think about that I decided I’d better come back to normal speed to think it over,” Fassin replied, then signalled, — The old bastard gave me fuck all; basically he’s trying to stall us.

“Well, I have been studying while you were conversing.”

“Anything of interest?” he asked, floating over towards her.

— There are signs that many more Dwellers were staying here until not long ago. Perhaps only a few days long ago. “The house system seems to think there ought to be a catalogue of cata-logues somewhere. In fact that there ought to be multiple copies of it lying around.”

“A catalogue of catalogues?” Fassin said. — Other Dwellers?

“The first catalogue that Valseir compiled, listing the catalogues of individual works he would then draw up.” — Perhaps as many as ten or twelve. Also, I get the impression Livilido and Nuern are more, or at least other, than they appear.

“One catalogue for everything would be too simple?” Fassin asked, then sent, — I didn’t think they seemed like ordinary servants either. So where are all these multiple copies?

— I suspect they have been removed. They would be the key to beginning a methodical search, the colonel replied, then said, “I gather it seemed to him the logical way to proceed. Certainly there is no shortage of material, even yet, when much of it has been removed. One catalogue would, I suppose, be cumbersome.” The Colonel paused. “Of course, a single giant database with freely dimensioned subdivisions, partially overlapping categories and subcategories, a hierarchically scalable cross-reference hyperstructure and inbuilt, semi-smart user-learning routines would be even more to the point and far more useful.”

Fassin looked at her. “He’d probably have got round to one of those after he’d done what he considered the proper cataloguing — getting everything down in some non-volatile form that can be read without intervening machinery.”

“Our Dweller friends do seem to be remarkably purist about such things.”

“When you live as long as they do, future-proofing becomes an obsession.”

“Perhaps that is their curse. The Quick must endure the frustration of living in a universe with what seems like an annoyingly slow speed limit and the Slow must suffer the frenetic pace of change around them, resulting in a sort of exaggerated entropy.”

Fassin had been floating slowly closer to Hatherence. He tipped to make it clear that he was looking at her as he came to a stop a couple of metres from her. The glowing biostrips on the shelves painted soft lime stripes across the little gascraft. “You all right in there, colonel?” he asked. “I realise it’s very hot and pressured down here.” — Colonel, do you think we are wasting our time here?

“I am fine. Yourself?” — Very hard to say. There is so much still here, so much to be looked at.

“Also fine. Feeling very rested.” — That’s my point. We could be made to waste a lot of time here, looking for something that has already been removed.

“I understand slow-time will have that effect.” — That is a thought. I had the odd impression, from dust marks and so on, understand, that many of the shelves have recently been filled, or refilled. And many of the works seem to make no sense given what I’ve understood of Valseir’s subjects of study. Seemed most strange. Though, if all this is a sort of slow-trap for you and me, then that begins to make sense. But what else can we do? Where else is there to go?

“I’ll have to talk to the Sage again,” Fassin said. “There are many things I’d like to ask him.” — Whereas in fact I’ll do everything I can to avoid talking to the old bore again. We have to get word out to any legitimate scholars who did take works from here, see if any of them have the catalogues, or anything else. There are two dozen separate libraries here; even if they’re only half-full we could be searching them for decades.

“He is a most interesting and wise character.” — Many tens of millions of works, and if most are unsorted, all are. I’ll signal to the Poaflias, have them put out word to the relevant scholars. Who might be trying to put obstacles in our way so?

“Indeed he is.” — I don’t know.

“Well, I think I shall continue to search the shelves for a while. Will you join me?” — Will you?

“Why not?”

They drifted to different but nearby stacks, snicked holocrystal books out of their motion-proof shelves, and read.

“His study?” Nuern asked. A fringe flick indicated a glance at Livilido. They were afloat at table. The two Primes had invited Fassin and Hatherence to a semi-formal dinner in the house’s ovaloid dining room, a great, dim, echoing space strung vertically with enormous sets of carbon ropes, all splayed, separated into smaller and smaller cords and fibres and threads and filaments and then each thin strand minutely and multiply knotted. It was like being inside some colossal, frayed net.

Jundriance was still deep in slow-time and would not be joining them. Special food had been prepared that was suitable for the colonel. She ingested it via a sort of gaslock on the side of her esuit. Fassin, contained and sustained within the arrow-craft, was really only here to watch.

“Yes,” he said. “Where do you think it might be?”

“I thought that Library One was his study,” Nuern said, selecting a helping of something glowing dull blue from the central carousel, and then spinning the serving dish slowly towards his dining companions.

“Me too,” Livilido said. He looked at Fassin. “Why, was there another one? Has a bit dropped off the place?”

Fassin had taken a look round all the library spheres. Library One had always been Valseir’s formal study, where he received fellow scholars and other people, but it hadn’t been his real study, his den, his private space. Very few people were allowed in there. Fassin had felt flattered in the extreme to be invited to enter the nestlike nook that Valseir had made for himself inside the stretch of disused CloudTunnel tube which the rest of the house had been anchored to the last time Fassin had been here, centuries earlier. Library One still looked as it always had, minus a few thousand book-crystals and a big cylindrical low-temperature storage device in which Valseir had kept paper and plastic books. It certainly didn’t look as though the room had become Valseir’s proper study in the interim. And now it appeared as though these people didn’t even know he’d had a more private den in the first place.

“I thought he had another study,” Fassin said. “Didn’t he keep a house in… what city was it? Guldrenk?”

“Ah! Of course,” Nuern said. “That would be it.”

· Colonel, these guys know nothing.

· I had been coming to the same conclusion.

Library Twenty-One (Cincturia\Clouders\Miscellania) had a conceit, a Dweller equivalent of a door made from a bookcase. Valseir had shown it to Fassin after the human had stayed with him for an extended period after their first meeting. It led, inward at first, towards the centre of the cluster of library spheres, through a short passage to a gap between two more of the outer spheres, then into the open gas. The joke — a hidden door, a secret passage — was that the various Cincturia were the outsiders of the galactic community, and the particular bookcase hiding the secret passage was categorised “Escapees’.

After their meal, Fassin gave the impression of shutting himself away in the library for some late-night shelf-scanning. Instead he screened up the house’s system statements and looked back to just after the time of Valseir’s yachting accident and alleged death. He did something unusual, something barely legal by Mercatorial standards and usually pointless on Nasqueron; he speeded up, letting the gascraft’s legal-max computers and his own subtly altered nervous system rev to their combined data-processing limit. It still took nearly half an hour, but he found what he was looking for: the point, a dozen days after Valseir’s accident, when the house recorded a rerouting of power and ventilation plumbing. Its altimeter had registered a wobble, too — a brief blip upwards, then the start of the long, slow descent that was continuing even now.

Then Fassin had to work out where the CloudTunnel segment might be now. It would be beyond the start of the shear zone, past where the whole atmospheric band moved as a single vast mass, down into the semi-liquid Depths. These moved much more slowly than the gas above, the transition levels great turbidly elastic seas being dragged along as though reluctantly after the jet-stream whirl of atmosphere above.

It was all dead reckoning. By the Dweller way of judging such things, the atmosphere was static and the Depths — not to mention the remainder of Ulubis system, the stars and indeed the rest of the universe — moved. With only notionally fixed reference points, finding anything in the Depths was notoriously difficult. After two hundred years the section of CloudTunnel could be anywhere; it might have sunk beyond feasible reach, been broken up or even drifted to the Zone edge and been pulled into another Belt entirely, either north or south. The only thing working in Fassin’s favour was that the length of tube he was looking for was relatively large. Completely losing something forty-plus metres in diameter and eighty klicks long wasn’t that easy, even in Nasqueron. Still, he was relying on the CloudTunnel retaining the usual profile of buoyancy-decay.

The likely volume — though identified with a worrying degree of fuzziness — was about five thousand kilcks away, though coming closer all the time, having been all the way round the planet many times. In a dozen hours it would be almost right underneath the house again. He calculated. It was doable. He pinged a note to the screen on the library’s door saying that he didn’t want to be disturbed.

Fassin let himself out through the hidden door about an hour after he’d entered the library. He let the little gascraft grow, pushing trim-spaces out to create internal vacuums and a larger, near-spherical outer shape so that he fell gently at first, causing as little turbulence as possible beneath the house. Then gradually he heavied, slowly shrinking the arrowhead to its dart-slim minimum, diving unpowered into the dark depths and through the rough boundary of the near-static cylinder of depleted gas that was all that remained of the ancient storm.

He powered up twenty klicks deeper and levelled out, then rose quickly when he was thirty lateral kilometres clear, zooming up through the gradually cooling, slowly thinning gas above until he was through the haze layers and out amongst the cloud tops. Fassin increased to maximum speed, configuring the arrowhead for as stealthy a profile as it could support. The gascraft had never been designed for such shenanigans, but it had been gradually altered over the years by him and Hervil Apsile until — while no match for a genuine military machine -it made less of a fuss moving across the face of the planet than almost anything within the gas-giant’s atmosphere (always discounting the usual preposterous Dweller claims of invisible ships, inertialess drives and zero-point subspacials).

The little craft moved beneath the thin yellow sky, and the stars above seemed to slow down then go into reverse as Fassin flew faster than the combined speed of the planet revolving and the band beneath him jet-streaming in the same direction.

After less than an hour of flight, seeing nothing in the heavens above or in the skies beneath that would have led anyone to think there was life anywhere else in all the universe, he slowed and dropped, a shaftless arrowhead heading straight for the heart of the planet. He let the increasing density slow him further, feeling the resulting friction-heat leak through the gascraft’s hull and into his flesh.

Through the upper shear boundary — only hazily defined, kilometres thick, prone to vast slow waves and unpredictable swells and sudden troughs — he entered the shear zone itself, starting to circle through the crushing fluidity of jelly-thick atmosphere. If the section of CloudTunnel was still in the volume, this was where it ought to be, fallen amongst the depths, making its slow way down to an equilibrium of weight and buoyancy within the gradually thickening press of hydrogen gas turning to liquid.

There was always a chance that it had gone the other way, lifting towards the cloud tops, but that would be unusual. Disused CloudTunnel, ribbed with vacuum tubes, tended to gain gas and therefore additional weight through osmosis over the millennia. When Fassin had been here two hundred years earlier, Valseir was already having to add buoyancy to the Tunnel to keep it from sinking too fast and dragging the whole house and library complex with it. Anyway, if the derelict section had risen it ought to have stayed within the same atmospheric band and so shown up somewhere on the charts of the Poaflias, and it hadn’t.

He went on spiralling, keeping slow, sonosensing only gently so that there would be less chance of anybody who might be listening nearby overhearing him. (Could the colonel have followed him without him being aware of her? Probably. But why would she? Still, he had the feeling he ought to be as discreet as he could.) Light wasn’t much use. CloudTunnel wall would appear almost transparent down here. Probes for magnetic and radiation vestiges were of even less utility, and there would be no scent trace either.

After two hours, near the limit of the time that he thought he could reasonably spend away from the house, and some time after he’d decided the hell with discretion and ramped his active sensors up to maximum, Fassin found one end of the CloudTunnel, looming out of the gel-thick mist like a vast dark mouth. He took the little gascraft into the forty-metre-wide maw, turning up his sonosense now that the signals would be shielded by the walls of the CloudTunnel section itself. He increased his speed, too, barrelling along the great slowly curving tube like the ghost of some Dweller long gone.

The study shell was still there, a hollow sphere almost filling the CloudTunnel tube near the mid-point of its eighty-kilometre length, but it had been ransacked, stripped bare. Whatever secrets it might have held had long since been taken or trashed.

Fassin turned some lights on to check round the place, finding nothing intact, nothing beyond empty shelves and ragged lengths of carbon board, diamond dust like frosted ice and frayed fibres, waving in the turbulence of his passing.

He formed a tiny cavity with his sonosense and watched it collapse instantly, snapped to nothing by the grinding weight of the column of gas above it. A fine place to feel crushed, he thought, then went back the way he’d come and ascended slowly to the house and Library Twenty-One again.

The colonel was there. She looked startled when he appeared from behind the hidden door, even though he’d told her earlier what he intended to do.